When Nothing Is Ever Good Enough for the Narcissistic, Borderline Mother: My Journey to Self-Compassion

My mom told me once that my first sentence was “It’ll be okay, Mommy.”  That might be the last time I ever said the “right” thing to my mom.   Her mom had died the year I was born, and once I began to speak I started my lifelong journey of trying to comfort her.  Since I can remember, I’ve been a go-to person for my mom in a time of crisis: she complains & rants for as long as I can stand it while I rack my brain wondering what I could say that might help and not set her off.  Unless my response to her sounds exactly like, “you are right; they are wrong” it has always been an impossible feat.  The difficulty for me arises because I really do care about my mom and want to help her.  I don’t want to tell her she is right if she is clearly wrong & clearly pushing away every single person that cares about her.  Still, my mom is the help-rejecting complainer type.  She says she is tormented and living in misery, but all solutions offered are deemed impossible, ridiculous, & lacking compassion or a true understanding.  It is truly a no-win situation.  The conversation never ends well.  She almost never feels comforted and I always feel drained.  Today, I spend most of the day texting with her, semi-ignoring my own kids, only to eventually hear her disapproval.  Sigh… 

I’ve recently realized that my constant feeling of never being good enough began in a relational context, due to the simple fact that my mom has leaned on me as a confidante/therapist/parental figure for most of my life, and yet I’ve never satisfactorily fulfilled these roles.  I can’t.  Her previous therapists haven’t been able to, either.  Although I can’t fulfill these roles, and don’t particularly want to, they are the roles I am  assigned whenever I resume a relationship with her.  Her crises & needs become paramount; her plight unavoidable.  It is a constant effort for me to resist the desire to try to help.  (The truth is she doesn’t really want help.)

For the longest time, I did not understand my own inability to forgive myself.  I didn’t connect it directly to my relationship with my mom.  However, just yesterday, I found myself full of regret for mistakes of the past when a coach asked me how long I’ve been unable to be gentle with myself when I make a mistake.  Did I ever learn how to comfort and forgive myself when I messed up?  The question brought me to tears.  I have never learned how.  I know that other people shake it off, learn from it, and keep going, but I don’t know how they do it.  I feel so much regret and incrimination when I make a mistake.  I always have.  When I was a little kid, I would try to make everything perfect in my surroundings.  I would re-write my school notebooks — the whole year’s worth — if my handwriting didn’t look nice enough or if I liked another person’s style better.  I had no idea how to accept a mistake, a blunder, a less-than-ideal version.  That’s why I could never accept my physical flaws.  That’s why I would always beat myself up, starve myself, and hate my mistakes.  I really didn’t know another way to be.  

And now I know why.  Even today, as a mother myself, I am sitting at my computer well past my bedtime wondering how I managed to fail again during a text conversation with my own mom.  In truth, I do know why.  I failed because it was impossible.  I failed because I’m the only one left.  I didn’t really fail, actually.  I stuck it out and tried to help.  I lovingly responded and didn’t lie to her, which felt to me like it would enable too much rage and entitlement.  I deeply cared.  

It wasn’t enough.  It will never be enough.  How can you save a parent from their own private hell?  You can’t.  I have put myself through so much because of my learned hatred towards myself, but today I am determined to choose otherwise.  I am choosing to forgive.  My mom thinks I failed her today, and maybe I did.  But I tried, and I am going to have compassion on myself for lovingly engaging.  I can choose to forgive myself for ALL of the ways I hurt myself when the cumulative stress of a lifetime of guilt and shame became too much for me to bear.  

The legacy left by an unhappy parent leaves wounds that run deep.  I know how much different my life could have been if I’d learned how to forgive myself for minor mistakes (like saying the “wrong” thing to a parent).  The truth is, it took me a long time to learn how to have self-compassion and I am just beginning this process.  If I’d learned these lessons sooner, I’d have experienced more joy and freedom and I’m confident I’d have less regrets.  Still, my life is not over and I want to believe that true freedom is in my future. I feel empowered to teach my children how to forgive themselves and have fair expectations of themselves.  I feel resolved that I will never expect them to fulfill roles that aren’t theirs.    

Have you experienced a lack of self-compassion and forgiveness in your life?  Can you attribute this to the attitudes your PD parent had towards you?  How has the cumulative effect of these unforgiving frameworks affected you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Please private message me or respond if you can relate 🙂  

Sins of the Mother: Recognizing Unhealthy Patterns

I made up with my mom a little while ago. She says we “got back together.” And that’s what it feels like. Everything is fine – actually, it’s pretty good – at least for now. It feels like a huge weight has been lifted. I want to tell her everything she’s missed over the last year plus. I want to tell her what I’m going through now, of the ways I’ve been reflecting on my life and wishing I’d done certain things differently. As difficult it is to have a borderline mother, it is equally as confusing. When things are good, she feels like my confidante, a best friend… and she is motherly. The anger is gone and the other emotions she expresses feel similar to my own. We share feelings of regret, sadness over missed opportunities and fear/confusion about what will come in the afterlife.

The CoVid-19 pandemic has led me to reflect on my life in an even more comprehensive way than usual. I wrote a long letter to my younger self, inspired by a class I’m taking. In doing that, I recognized some patterns I hadn’t noticed in the same way before. They were things I hadn’t really wanted to notice, I guess. Who wants to confront the ways they were at fault in shaping courses of events gone wrong?

I had formerly thought of myself as one who turned away from the negative traits my parents possessed, but what I’m realizing is that I’ve unconsciously acquired many of my mother’s sins (and probably some of my father’s, too). I’ve repeated some of her destructive patterns, just in my own personalized way.

I’ve inherited a pattern of darkness and negativity: when something would go wrong in my life, I’d turn towards a vortex of self-hating darkness instead of focusing on solving the problem at hand. When I got injured, I worked harder despite the pain of my body’s warning signal. I pounded on my foot until it shattered, and then smoked cigarettes in despair when it did. I then focused on my flaws and found other things to feel ashamed about. I repeated this type of pattern, with different variables, throughout my life. Negative event + self-hate = things getting worse. The healthy pattern I wish I’d inherited is one of gentleness and care. I wish I’d engaged in eating health food, breathing deeply, consulting expert doctors immediately, and cultivating friendships during times of distress; I do this now.

I’ve internalized a pattern in which I vacillate between feelings of entitlement and self-hatred, though it can be embarrassing to recognize this. I knew about the self- loathing, but to realize that I’ve sometimes acted entitled made me cringe. Aren’t borderlines and narcissists the ones who act entitled? Yes and no; it’s not only them. I learned from my mom to expect things I didn’t necessarily deserve. I remember complaining to her once that I wasn’t listed as the rank I thought I should be at my workplace (in my first year there!). Since I was doing more than the lowest level employee, I wanted the credit. My mom encouraged me to demand a new title. (Eek!) I didn’t ask for more money (I didn’t care about that), but I believed that it was so important that my rank be formally corrected. I mostly desired this switch in rank because I was hoping to get a better job the next year and wanted my resume to look as good as possible. I was young and naive about workplace tax arrangements and the fact that your “listed rank” really doesn’t mean or matter much, especially when you are just beginning. I wish my mom had instilled a sense of humility in me rather than a sense of entitlement. (This particular instance was complicated by my history of past injustices. At this place of work, as a child, I had been taken advantage of by a senior employee. Part of my feelings of entitlement came from the fact that things had gone unrecognized in the past.)

I can think of a few other times when I’ve almost felt owed things — parts, recognition, or understanding. Also, at times I’ve felt ungrateful or only temporarily grateful when I could have been on cloud nine. On the flip side, I have gone into spirals of self-hatred, thinking I am the absolute worst when I really just wasn’t at the top. I’d assume certain mistakes or flaws made me completely unacceptable. This is the danger of a lack of humility and gratitude. When you fail yourself or find yourself failing, the fall is much harder.

The times in my life when I’ve felt truly grateful and in awe have also been my most cherished moments. It wasn’t all about me, and I got to be a part of something great. I want to find this space again… this space where I am able to see the wonder. Humility and grace just feel better, all around.

Part of what is difficult about having a borderline mother is that you become confused about general social expectations. Persons with BPD/NPD don’t like to play by the rules, so it’s easy to become confused about what the rules actually are and which ones you yourself should follow. My mom would sometimes provoke me if I was too polite or not combative enough with her (saying things like, “why are you so meek?”). I internalized a belief that being polite was expected but can also be annoying. It became very confusing. I remember feeling this struggle when navigating workplace dynamics. Should I play by all of the rules, or is that annoying? Sometimes (now) I read the little memes on “success” websites and feel like I finally understand some of what I wasn’t taught as a child.

My mom’s impulsivity under (real or perceived) pressure was a pattern I also inherited. I think she acted most impulsively when she felt trapped or full of emotional torment, which is what I learned to do as well. For many years, not understanding her impulsivity, I let my mother choose things for me. I guess that is what children often do; they let their parents lead the way. Sometimes, when things didn’t go well (e.g. my mom took me to an incompetent surgeon and didn’t listen to the warning not to), I’d wonder how she hadn’t known better. Why hadn’t she heeded warnings? Then I grew up, looked back at my own impulsivity and wondered the same thing. I think that when you are cut off from a sense of peace & inner-knowing, it’s very easy for wheels to spin off track before you realize it’s happening. Taking space from my mom to heal my own mind and heart has helped me to learn how to center and ground myself. (Note: It can be extremely difficult to effectively distance oneself from an enmeshed/co-dependent relationship with a parent, but it is sometimes necessary for growth.)

After talking with my mom yesterday, it became clear to me that the patterns didn’t start with her. In the Bible, there is a verse about generational sin. Although it is referring to fathers, I believe the sins (iniquities) of the mother can also be passed down.

Exodus 34:6-7 states: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed [himself], ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’”

I don’t believe the verse needs to be read literally, like a curse, but as an explanation of how we are often greatly affected by the failures of our parents, our grandparents, and even our great-grandparents. My mother’s father greatly failed his family when he abandoned them; I still feel the effects of his actions when I experience my mom’s borderline rage or adopt her maladaptive coping strategies.

We each learn from our parents. I don’t doubt that they do the best they can. I’m sure my children will be able to attribute their negative traits onto me, also, one day. Still, I believe that understanding the patterning can be the first step in getting out of the cycles. Although I couldn’t see and name negative conditioning as a child or young adult, it is clear to me now. I think this understanding has allowed me the freedom to make meaning from my mistakes. I can own the battle wounds, the revelations, and the newfound resiliency. I can take on new dreams. I can grow beyond the patterns of my parents.

Richard Rohr, in the foreword of The Sacred Enneagram writes, “One knows oneself only at the price of one’s innocence.” I love the simplicity and truth of that statement. I am no longer innocent or naive, but so much more self-aware.

Have you noticed any unhelpful patterns in your own life which remind you of one of your parents? (If you have trouble recognizing patterns in your life, try writing a letter to your younger self!)
Have you noticed any positive patterns or tendencies of yours? What internal space have you been in during your very best moments?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Alone but Unaware: Moving Past Survival Mode and into Conscious Choice

It was all wrong. The day started out all wrong. I was scheduled to perform a notoriously difficult solo, one that I had obsessively over-practiced so that I could nail the challenging steps. Lack of practice wasn’t the problem. Dress rehearsal went really well, in spite of the fact that I had recently torn a ligament in my ankle when my partner dropped me at the wrong time. Physically, I still felt almost ready. My director gave me uncommon praise after the dress rehearsal.

I had decided to invite my dad to the show. I hadn’t invited him to my wedding, and since we had mended things a little bit since then I thought I’d invite him to my last performance weekend. It felt generous of me given the context of our relationship. I bought him a plane ticket and he showed up at my house with a Marlboro duffel bag and a rented tux. He had trouble sleeping because of all of his health problems, and I had trouble sleeping that night as well. In the morning, we went to my husband’s favorite Mexican restaurant for breakfast. I don’t like Mexican food for breakfast, especially before a show, but I was going along with everyone else’s ideas. It was all wrong

I had gotten my hair colored, but for some reason it turned orange instead of blonde and nothing they could do would make it right. I was destined at that moment in time to have the wrong color hair, a very hurt ankle, severe body dysmorphia about another issue, and both of my dysfunctional parents either in town or on their way. It was the last weekend I would dance on stage, and I had unintentionally created an impossible environment for myself.

My first performance that weekend — the one my dad attended, overdressed in his rented tux and looking wildly out of place with the crowd — was a total disaster. I hopped through my turns, and since they were the main thing I’d worked on, I felt like a total failure. I wanted to crawl under a rock. The second show was better. I survived and did a fairly good job. My mom was at that second show. My husband told me later on that she had “shark eyes” prior to it starting. I’m not sure why she had them, but I knew what he meant. There are times when my mom’s heart seems to exit from her body (it could be a form of dissociation) and she stares blankly, angrily and coldly ahead. I am not sure what she was feeling that day – out of place? Offended? Jealous? Maybe she was upset that I was leaving the dance world. I wish she’d talked to me, comforted me, & seen where I was in life, but she was really not okay herself.

To be fair, a LOT of things could have gone wrong that day regardless of my comfort level with my parents, or my current level of mental health. Performers have bad shows, hair colorists get colors wrong, and injuries happen all the time. But the rest of it… the fact that it sealed the deal on my career, and the fact that I left at a low point of desperation, could have been different.
After the show, I left the theatre as a dancer for the last time. We went to my mother-in-law’s for a buffet style lunch and I remember feeling so alone. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, so I smiled, but the ending of my career felt so deeply sad. The stress of my parents being there (but unable to be supportive in the way I needed) complicated things more than I’d anticipated. I was alone but unaware. I felt cut off from myself, my true feelings, and the world. I hid this from everyone.

It’s a sad reality when parents just can’t fulfill the roles you need from them. Even well-intentioned parents can be out of touch with their children emotionally. This often results in a longing that cannot be filled, a longing that’s hard to verbalize. I wanted so badly to be loved & mentored… by my parents, by my boss. I felt like I was missing something that many others seemed to have. In many ways, I filled this longing in my relationship with my husband.

A decade later, I see this last day at the theatre and this period of my life a little differently. I am proud of the effort I made to include both of my parents, even though it was stressful. I would change many things if I could do it again, but my intentions at the time were good. I was in survival mode that weekend, and I survived. That counts for something. The inglorious, shame-filled moments are not always what we wish for, but they teach us lessons that we can pass on.

I learned that people sometimes need an advocate or a guide. Sometimes we are in survival mode, about to make mistakes, and we need someone around who really knows us, who can see us clearly when we can’t see ourselves — someone to ask questions and dig deeper.

Who is your person? What if that person has been your mother most of your life, but she’s unavailable, emotionally unstable, and/or in the habit of giving very unwise advice? You might find yourself quite alone, relying on your own unwise ideas. You might misinterpret reality, with nobody to check you. You might assume that others will shame you and give you bad advice (and they might, so it’s important to find the right people).

At this point in my life I’m trying to find my way towards forgiveness and compassion — for my myself, and the things I didn’t know when I was younger, and for my parents, who didn’t know how to be healthy examples or mentors. They were in survival mode, too, absorbed in their own pain. I realize now that a lot of us are missing the guidance of healthy parents. Although it feels protective, not allowing others to know what is really going on can keep you cut off from help. Hiding from yourself and hiding your pain from others gives those people who do care – and those who are healthy – no way to access you, and no way to help. People can’t always read between the lines.

Maya Angelou wrote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Sometimes we blame ourselves for things we couldn’t control and just didn’t know how to handle at the time. But if we really didn’t know better… if we really didn’t have the resources and tools to do better… then maybe we couldn’t have made better choices at those junctures. Maybe we didn’t know there was another door we could open. Be gentle with yourself, and do better when you’re able.

Please respond in the comments if you can relate to this experience/lesson.

The Thrown Away Journals

I still remember getting my first journal. It was a gift from an aunt of mine, I think, and it had a little lock and key. There was something so exciting and special about having a secret place to write down some of my own thoughts. I remember finding a spot for it in my dresser drawer.

The night after I wrote my first entry, as my mom was putting me to bed, I found out she had opened my journal and read it. She was livid that I had written something bad about her and asked me why I hadn’t written about the good things she’d done for me that day. (Instead of writing about her reading me a story, I wrote about her yelling at me.)

I learned through this that I should not complain about my mother. I learned that my own thoughts were not welcome, and that I should be careful what I say, or write.

A couple of years later, when I as about 9 years old, I remember writing a Mother’s Day card to my mom. In it, I wrote, “Thanks for putting up with me.” Again, she was livid. Why would I say that, she wondered? I remember her fuming at me for writing it in the card and I remember running up the stairs, feeling ashamed, embarrassed, and confused.

These are such minor offenses, really, for a mother. I mean, of course she didn’t want me to complain about her in my first journal entry or write something guilt-provoking in a Mother’s Day card. What she was unable to see in both of those scenarios is that she was hurting me. Even as a little girl, I needed to process my mom’s anger in my locked diary. It was significant enough to me that it was the first thing I wanted to write about, instead of something about ponies, my friends or my dreams.

I started to hide my journals. I would hide them safely, take them with me where I went, and then throw them in trash cans or dumpsters when I was done with them. All evidence of my thoughts – erased. Once, I threw away my journal in a trash can which tipped over — and a neighbor found it and returned it to me!!! After marriage, I started to burn my journals in outdoor fires. I found it cathartic, healing… to know that my thoughts were truly private.

In these current times of CoVid-19, when everything is uncertain, I have wondered what would happen if I died. What traces would I leave that I wish maybe I had erased? Why am I writing things I wouldn’t really want to reveal, anyway? It is different now, now that I am older.

I’ve come to the conclusion that life, and love, are messy. I can hide the mess, if it makes me more comfortable, or let it be known. I’ve come to appreciate the natural falling out that occurs when I stop trying to control others’ views of me, and especially when I stop trying to control my own.

My self-hatred has sometimes led me to trash things I would now cherish: a cover shot on a ballet school’s brochure (I thought I looked fat/ugly), romantic letters from my first love. These were things I dismissed at the time, thinking they were either not good enough or outdated. Now I look back and see: this was my life. This was part of the beautiful portion I got to experience. What if I had considered it good enough at the time… flawed and unfinished, but still beautiful. Is that how the most successful or happy people approach their experiences? Who knows. It is how I plan to approach things moving forward.

I’m not sure yet if I will keep my journals or burn them like I used to. I am sure that the fear and shame that keeps us hiding from others also keeps us locked away from our potential – our chance to do all we can and enjoy all we can with our one, precious life.

What is your perspective on journaling? Do you fear that someone may read what you write? What would you say to yourself, the journaling one, if you could?

Lies, Revised

Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if the negative things you believed about yourself were erased, proved false, or fixed? What different choices would you make?

For the longest time, I lived in a version of the same story. I acted out familiar patterns as I became the lost girl waiting for someone to teach/fix me. I was unconsciously looking for someone to show me how to be. Having had parents who were limited in their ability to guide me, I came to others with a perpetually open heart, hoping to be loved and mentored. This left me so vulnerable.

This method seemed to work in my relationship with my mom when I was a child. I stayed confused and open to her input and control as she told me what to do. She did not encourage autonomy or independent thought, and so I feared expressing those things. This greatly affected my ability to cultivate my own inner strength. As I gained autonomy & a sense of agency, my relationship with my mom has suffered. However, my sense of self has improved and I’m able to see how the toxicity of the environments I grew up in and then later chose for myself have shaped me.

The other night, I had an encounter with two men who essentially broke my spirit a decade ago. I think they knew what they were doing at the time. But on this particular night, my old boss spoke to me and said things that had I believed back then would have changed the course of my life. The interaction shook me: what i had believed about myself was not necessarily how others saw me. Or maybe I’ve just changed and he could tell. Either way, the interaction was profound and left me wondering.

What if we are believing lies?! What if a person is awful to you because you are a reminder of someone from their past, or of themself? What if their narcissism leads them to vacillate between love/hate regularly? What if it actually has little to do with you? What if everyone else is not superior? What if it was all a game?

I think it’s time we rethink the negative things people have said to us, as well as the negative shame spiral it sends us down. Let’s dismantle our feelings of unworthiness and find a way to climb out of the pit and reclaim our power. We are not solely our bodies, our reputations, our successes or our past mistakes. We are not the sum of what others think of us.

In the future, I won’t let another person break my spirit. I know what i’ve been through and I know how far I’ve come. I don’t need to beg someone else to fix me or mentor me or approve of me so that I can finally be okay. Some people never will approve. Or they will, ten years later.

From the Outside In

Maybe it’s the result of a typical midlife crisis, but I suddenly became tired of the way things have been. A friend pointed out to me that you can’t make a life from the outside in; it must be from the inside out. For so many years I didn’t realize that I was building my life from the outside in, trying to get the outer parts lined up before my soul was really ready.

I looked for acceptance from others without learning to accept myself. I got engaged after six weeks, without giving myself space to consider if we needed to move so quickly or just enjoy dating. When I abruptly ended my career, I went straight onto another path without processing the loss. I wanted to have all my ducks in a row without really learning or processing the lessons as they presented themselves, without really feeling them. I wanted to create a life from the outside in, thinking that if i could succeed in one or multiple ways I’d be content, or at least finished with the struggle. I just wanted to get there already. This impatience makes sense to me now, but in hindsight I wish I had taken some time to let the moments be for a while.

Growing up, my life was unsteady. Major outer situations shifted with my mom’s moods. Her moods erupted unpredictably. For some reason, I convinced myself that other people were nothing like my mother — that everywhere else, things made perfect sense and everyone was rational. This wasn’t true, of course, but it’s what I wanted to believe for a while.

And so… I sought out appearances and rational clarity and sometimes missed the truth of what was underneath — the things your intuition will tell you even if the logic doesn’t compute. I believed a lot of facades, including my own at times. If I thought I “should” feel a certain way or do a certain thing, then I would want to. This is a way I hid from myself.

Now, I am tired of living my life from the outside in. I want the truth of what is inside me to flow out. When difficult truths present themselves, I want to be honest about them. I want to feel comfortable in my skin AND comfortable with my thoughts and emotions. I want to pause the construction of things when something inside me is questioning or uncomfortable. Safety hasn’t come in the times when I frantically construct the path. It comes when I listen to what is inside and trust the truth to direct my path, however slowly or jaggedly it leads me. I want to embrace the roadblocks and see what they can teach me.

As I reflect on how I used to approach my life, I wonder how exactly to work with the pieces I’ve acquired. I can’t go back to the past and slow down, and it is more complicated to transform a life than to construct one from the beginning. Changing dynamics that have existed for a while is challenging. What if I am a very different version of myself? What if those I love don’t like it? The truth is that I would rather be honest.

Living bravely and honestly seems to be the only way I CAN live these days. Since partially disconnecting with my mom (which has taken all of my bravery) I have no energy for fronting anymore. If I am willing to make a stand with her, even though it breaks my heart, why would I hold onto other dynamics that aren’t working for me? I find that as I get stronger, all of my relationships are changing a little. I’m okay with that. I welcome the changes and find them exciting.

Can you relate to trying to create a life from the outside in? Have you made choices before getting in touch with your true reasons, or have you rushed things because you were looking for something you thought others — but not you — possessed?

I can now see that I craved the stability I saw in others. It was something I didn’t know how to create on my own. Now I know that another’s stability cannot become mine. I can observe it, learn from it, and benefit from it, but I cannot absorb it. I have to find my own. Part of that stability comes from looking within and knowing who I really am, apart from what others think of me.

A trusted friend advised me recently to slow down, even now. Slow down: don’t respond so quickly. Slow down: listen to what people are really saying. Slow down: give people space when they aren’t ready to show up in a healthy way. Slow down, and give myself space to process. Slow down, and let things be. This feels like the antidote to frantically trying to line things up, and I welcome the shift.

Hiraeth and Holiday Blues

hiraeth: a longing for a home to which you can not return, which maybe never was

My mom had a way of making moments both memorable and unrepeatable. She loved traditions, or at least the idea of them, but her instability and volatility made traditions difficult to keep. I have strange memories of holidays growing up. The good moments were so fun, exciting, and happy but many of them were filled with strife.

My mom’s energy was always the type that filled up the entire room. When she celebrated life, it was generally a little over the top (histrionic). This was often fun. She’d blast the music from a musical and sing all of the parts. I remember singing Godspell (I know all of the parts, too) and having a lot of fun with my mom. On a good day, my mom would happily sing Frank Sinatra and dance around, and at Christmastime she’d get excited about decorating. I distinctly remember finding this strange as a child. I always had trouble mirroring her excitement levels. Looking back, I can see that I was walking on eggshells as a little girl. It didn’t feel safe to get excited about happy things, knowing that a fight could erupt at any moment. These days, I barely ever see my mom at the holidays because our unresolvable fights usually occur before a plan can even be made. Instead, I worry because she is likely alone and I wonder how she is coping. Is she suicidal? What can/should I do? Would anything work?

I find myself longing for the home I almost had, the one that is there if I string all of the positive memories of my mom together and erase the parts that wouldn’t let those moments last.

I find myself somewhat relieved that I am not exposing my children to the confusing drama that almost always exists when my mom is around, and yet I wonder why she can’t choose to be different. On the first Christmas I spent with my husband (pre-kids), my mom complained about the song his younger sister was playing on the piano, saying it would make anyone “want to jump off a bridge.” She later cursed at my husband — in front of his mother — after being offended during a game of Scrabble. I feel bad for my mom because I’m sure she was struggling in these moments. Who would act that way otherwise? I am pretty sure she was upset that his sister was getting the attention (since my mom also loves to sing and play piano) and she was also uncomfortable with the traditional family and their holiday celebration. I think that when she feels insecure, she must make a scene to feel alive — and in power — again. I wish she could choose to pick out some fun music to play instead of starting a needless fight.

When I hear certain holiday songs that remind me of my mom, it is hard not to cry — even though the person who once sang those songs in joyful moments has been gone from me for a while. Her anger has become so much stronger than the love and joy she shares.

I know my mom has felt lost much of her life. I’m sure if she were to be honest, she would feel a longing for the home life (and mother) she needed but couldn’t really have because of circumstances and depression. Sometimes it seems that many of us are really just trying to find the home we couldn’t ever hold onto — the soft, safe place to land where we know we are loved and where we learn how to know and love ourselves, too. As I try to create this place for my children, I feel my own longing for the home I cannot grasp … the sense of home that comes from feeling deeply loved by your parents.

My mom loved to tell me that I could always come home, but it wasn’t quite true. There was a big catch — I could have no boundaries or autonomy. This does not feel like a safe home to me.

I am trying now to focus on creating my own safe place, my own new home, and on letting go of nostalgia. If I’m honest, this can sometime lead to feeling resentment towards others’ happy traditions. (No- I don’t want to see your mother’s tree or bake cookies with your grandma…) I realize this is immature and I think it is largely coming from a place of guilt. But, I didn’t cry in front of the kids while decorating the tree this year or sneak away to cry in the bathroom. So that is progress. I’m counting it as a win, and holding out hope that things will one day be better. The holidays are a good time to remember and believe in miracles, even as sadness lingers in the shadows.

How about you? Do you struggle with holidays because of your relationship with an estranged parent? What does home feel like to you? Please comment or message – i’d love to hear your story!

Loved or Hated?

Sometimes I wonder if the question most of us are asking much of the time is whether or not we are loved or hated. As I reflect on my past, sometimes it’s hard to know. If a person cannot love in a true, honest way, is it love at all? Maybe it’s more important to ask the question of whether or not I love or have loved.

When I was in high school, I performed in a theatre production in which our director gave all of us a specific desire to act out. My part was “I want someone to fall madly in love with me.” At the time, I was shocked she didn’t give me the “I want to be a ballerina” role — that was what I’d expected, as I was a “bunhead” and clearly obsessed with ballet. She was right, though, back then. I loved ballet but on a deeper level I just wanted to be loved. I craved safety and belonging, passion and love.

Growing up, there were times I felt pretty important to my mom. But, because of her tendency to “split” (view people as all good or all bad) my status with her was shaky. I can remember some of the times I did feel loved so vividly: the times she would squeeze my hand while bringing me to work with her, the times we’d laugh as we cleaned out our closet and got rid of things we couldn’t believe we’d ever bought/kept. But then there were other times, times when she would fly into a rage because I didn’t clean the coffee pot (when I was too young to know there was a coffee pot that needed to be cleaned). There were times she resented me for things other people had done to me — times I was seen as a threat instead of a daughter. I believed my mom loved me, but her words and actions did not often reflect deep care and concern for me and my well-being.

I think it’s because of this incongruence that I had difficulty knowing how to distinguish whether others in my life were “for” me or “against” me. It is hard to learn how to accurately view people and assess relationships when you grow up with an unstable single parent — even harder when that parent struggles with borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. It’s our parents who are our first teachers and we learn how to be treated through our interactions with them. Consequently, my own pattern of feeling loved and then hated followed through into my adult life, and led me to be overly trusting at times and then overly withdrawn at others. It’s only recently that I’ve learned some discernment — that people must earn your trust. In my younger years I would just try and try and try, even when people proved to me that they did not like me and that my trying was in vain or when I found that they were never trustworthy to begin with.

Still, there are certain persons with whom I’ve had relationships where it truly was hard to tell if I was loved or hated … maybe they, too, had a tendency to “split” or be extremely fickle in their opinions. I was an easy target for these types of people, who could sense my desire to please and be loved. When I look back, I can see the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of these people who hurt me (I’m an empath). They wanted to be loved and adored, too. I’ve read that narcissists believe they cannot be loved, so instead they choose to be feared. This seems true in my experience. I was a target of mean bosses and manipulative co-workers, but even now I’m not sure if they truly hated me or just needed to feel powerful. The few times I’ve confronted these people, the underlying issue was that they felt slighted. My mom has often felt slighted, too, and her sense of entitlement prevents her from seeing that I must think of others and not only her. This sense of entitlement — to rule my decisions, my schedule, my opinions — coupled with not getting exactly what she thinks she deserves almost always leads to rage. It can be over the most minor detail. I’m not sure my mom truly hates me or if she’s just too angry to show love.

We all want to feel loved, and yet none of us love perfectly. The way we express or don’t express love is often flawed. Because of this, there is no perfectly safe person. In our quests to find love and admiration, we often forget to love ourselves and others. But, we can choose to love throughout this messy journey (even if we don’t know where it might lead). We can love ourselves and others through the messiness. I am working on loving myself and others better.

When I look back at what felt like my most difficult, messiest, ugliest life moments, they were often the times when there was a choice — a fork in the road that could lead to beautiful things. I didn’t always choose those things. Fear often held me back.

When my first boyfriend told me of a health concern right after we broke up…
When I was humiliated and hid from the world…
When I changed my mind about a lover…
When I left my first love (of dance)…
When my mom threw a tantrum and I decided to decide to try and reason with her, over and over again…

The loving things I could have chosen were compassion, honesty, grace, reflection, slowing down, saying nothing, asking for help, letting go of the fight.

When I can honestly assess what is happening, instead of trying to revise it to be what I want it to be as quickly as possible, things can reveal themselves more clearly. The truth isn’t always pretty, and it can be so hard to accept, but I believe that facing it can lead to better things. It is painful when someone you love cannot accept the truth (of their own disorder, of their poor behavior, of reality). I still struggle with this aspect.

Have you experienced difficulty discerning whether someone loves/hates you? Have you been on a quest for love that has left you exhausted, maybe because you are seeking love from one who is just too broken to give it? Please share your experience.

The Overshare: Learning to Protect my Heart

It happens so regularly, like the tendency to eat a little too much and then cut back, that at first it was hard to recognize this in myself: I overshare. I say just a little too much, cover just a few too many topics, get vulnerable — oftentimes more vulnerable than the person I am with. Afterwards, I feel embarrassed, exposed, and needy.

I’m not sure exactly why I do this, but I think it comes from a place of loss. When I feel the possibility of a safe person, I test the waters. Tell me now: Can I trust you? What about now? What if I tell you the worst mistake I made while parenting this week? What about the problems I’m having with my husband? What if I talk too much? Will you be vulnerable, too?

My method of testing is not the same as a borderline’s or a narcissist’s. I don’t get angry and push people away. I tend to dive in and then withdraw a little, returning (most of the time) with better boundaries and self-regulation than before. I wish that I didn’t have to go through this process though. I’d like to be a person who protects my heart rather than one who wears my heart on my sleeve. I wish I could start with self-regulation and healthy boundaries and slowly dive deeper as the relationship deepens. This would obviously be a safer way and more comfortable for all involved.

I think I learned this pattern of relating with my borderline narcissistic mother. My mom would tell me so many things (she did not have much of a filter, if any). She would often elicit deep sharing from me but then prove herself to be untrustworthy. So, it is comfortable for me to get vulnerable and then feel shame. Maybe I have trouble separating this familiar feeling from what is actually happening in real time. I’m not sure.

What I do know is that I feel more comfortable when I guard myself a little. It’s a form of self-care I’m always afraid to take and not very good at implementing. I think it would feel amazing to feel safe in my own skin, instead of feeling like I might throw myself under the bus at any time, so to speak. I truly believe in healthy vulnerability, but it needs to be with the right person and preferably at the right time. Brené Brown writes, “If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm.”

I think that part of my tendency to overshare comes from me wanting my mom… a mom who can actually listen to the whole of me — the good, the bad, the ugly — and be there for me, for as long as I need her to be. My mom cannot do this because she is not healthy. It’s not even about me… not really. She can’t be there for me because she cannot maintain relationships. There is no room for me to lean on her because she is too angry with me about a trivial detail from last year (or a decade ago). And so, I’m learning that I need to be my own “mom” in this way. I can’t wait for her any longer, and I cannot be her mom when I still need to learn how to be my own.

Moving forward, I am going to try to listen a little more and speak a little less. Baring all of my thoughts and feelings can be cathartic, but it can also be anxiety-producing, especially when I’m uncertain of the thoughts and feelings to begin with. (I find this to be especially true in a public format such as social media.) Silence can be uncomfortable, too, but that is okay. I’m going to wait for comfortable moments instead of trying to squeeze in all the depth I can out of one conversation or interaction. There will be more time… everyone is not leaving, even if it feels like important people are gone forever.

What are your thoughts on oversharing?  Do you struggle with this from time to time?  Do you crave intense (particularly female) relationships when estranged from your mother? How did your parents teach (or neglect to teach) you how to protect your heart?  

Trusting My Gut: Learning to Listen after Years of Being Controlled

Decisions: the thorn in my side.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with decisions. When I was about ten years old I went to stay with my favorite aunt for a week and she asked me what kind of eggs I wanted for breakfast. I had no idea. I stood there, paralyzed, and told her, “whatever you want!” She did not like my response. Having grown up as my mom’s little sister, she understood my inability to choose. I was not used to being asked what I wanted. During my childhood, there were few options, few chances for me to pick A versus B and for that to be okay. Oftentimes, I was chastised for doing something wrong when I didn’t know the rule to begin with. I did not feel comfortable without rules and clear direction. I asked my mom’s approval about every.little.thing. This trickled into my larger social network as I made one, and so I was easily influenced.

At one point in my childhood, there was a specific trauma that led me to block things out. My mother did not believe me when the truth originally came out, so I retracted it. I did not trust myself, or even my reality, at that time. I fell deep into a depressed, numb state for a while but eventually I came back to life.

Then, to simplify things a little and allow myself to function, I often operated in the ideal. What is the ideal this or that? I’ll aim for it. No need to think of whether or not it suits me or if it is authentic or if I’ve really thought it through. It was a simplistic and naive philosophy but it was my survival mentality. I needed things to be right, to be okay. I needed it yesterday.

But then things didn’t quite work out as planned… I learned that operating in the ideal is often an illusion. Sometimes my decisions for “the best” backfired. I became distraught and depressed when things did not work out well. I felt like maybe I should have asked my mom; after all, she claimed she was always right. If only I’d talked with her about everything I wouldn’t have made mistakes! But that wasn’t true, either. My mom made plenty of mistakes in regard to me that she never owned, which affected me greatly. Nobody gets it right all of the time.

So what now? I need to make decisions, all of the time, and there is no formula. There is no person who can tell me exactly what to do and get it right all of the time. Even if there was, I need to make decisions for myself so that I learn how. It’s been a slow process but I feel that I’ve made a lot of headway.

I started listening to a podcast called “The Next Right Thing” by Emily P. Freeman which was much more helpful than I expected it to be. One thing she mentioned was the idea of picking something you like, and seeing how it grows. It’s such a simple idea. What if I just tried that? I think I like this thing…for some reason it “fits”… okay then. Let’s go with that and see what happens. Worst case? I’ll learn. I’ll be able to live with it even if it’s not ideal. Maybe it’ll make me laugh, or cry, or learn a great lesson. I do not have to be absolutely certain about everything.

There was a time when the advice “trust your gut” just drove me nuts. Instincts? Did I even have them? I did not have a clear gut feeling about most things. I think that because of my trauma and history of blocking, my instincts and my ability to trust them were dulled. My mother’s desire for control over me did not help, either. I did not know which sandwich I liked. I did not know if that person was safe. I did not really know how to answer your question honestly.

Now I am learning that I do have instincts, and even though I cannot always tap into them, little by little it is getting easier. I’ve learned to start small and give myself as many opportunities to make small decisions as possible, to boost my confidence. I’ve also learned to give myself time when I need it. Many decisions are not as urgent as they seem to be. Oftentimes, it really can wait. Someone else (maybe an expert) might be able to help. A few days and a little self-care can do wonders. EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique or “tapping”) has sometimes helped me to clear the anxiety around making a tough choice. I’m learning to slow down and have compassion on myself and my process. Just the other day I heard of the term “unclear felt sense,” which describes an intuitive feeling that is unclear but worthy of being explored…
I believe these senses are windows into our souls — there is value in looking in.

Have you struggled with making your own decisions? Did trauma and/or manipulation play into this struggle?