There’s a signed, sealed, stamped letter sitting in my desk drawer and it’s been there for a week or so. Prior to that, it sat in my car for a few weeks. Something in me just wouldn’t allow myself to put it in the mailbox. It’s not that the letter was bad; it might have been the best letter I’ve written to my mom, full of compassion and love and “I” statements. The thing is, I wasn’t sure I could emotionally deal with the response I’d get.
Although I’d written a rational, heartfelt, loving letter, I know it would fall on deaf ears. More accurately, it would be read by someone who can’t think rationally and clearly, someone who will read it only to find how she can manipulate and distort what was said. “Whatever you say can and will be held against you” is a great phrase to remember when dealing with a borderline or narcissistic person. It’s even more true when the words are written. So, I chose not to send the letter.
At first, I felt guilty. I had trouble resisting the irrational thought that it’s my job to fix my mom — if I don’t keep trying, who will? She’d already exhausted her support system years and years ago. I also felt irritated — why can’t my feelings and experience ever be validated by her? Why can’t I even have a “normal” fight with a parent?
After those feelings subsided over months, I came to a different feeling. I started feeling proud of myself for choosing to avoid the aftermath of a letter and what it would do to me. (Most likely, I would receive a long, stream-of-consciousness style reply with a lot of foul language, guilt trips, threats, and distortions that would upend me in some way). I also began to feel compassion for my mom, but in a detached, healthy way. I thought to myself, If I were mentally ill in the way that my mom is, would this rational letter from my daughter help? I always want to think that this type of thing will help, but so far it never has. Something in my mom refuses to look at herself and how she affects her relationships. Maybe it would just be too painful for her to hear critical words from her only child. I can relate to that; I take my children’s comments to heart, deeply.
I gave myself a break. I decided I’m not unloving for giving up on fixing my mom. I’m not unloving for choosing to take care of my own mental health and get on with my own daily tasks. The fight that never ends is not helping either of us, nor are the occasional bursts of enmeshment (even if they briefly feel good to both of us). I can choose to “send love” through prayers and loving energy. I can respond when I feel loving and able to do so, and I can choose to respect my own boundaries and limitations even if my mom does not. How can I really love her if I can’t love myself?
The truth is, sometimes I feel crazy like my mom… sometimes, I just want people to forgive and forget. Even if it’s on a broader scale with someone who is borderline, is it really that different? Is it apathetic to let things go, or just loving? For me, it remains to be seen. For now, I’ve felt the most inner peace when I engage less. Yes, my heart yearns for more. I’d love to have a mom to run to, and I know she’d love to run to me. But, knowing the bounds of our capacities, and the damage that has been done, sometimes it seems most loving to leave the letters in the drawer.
I didn’t know why, at the time, it was so comforting to see clothes strewn about in imperfect piles in her suitcase. I think it was her tolerance for messiness combined with her love and attunement that brought a sense of peace and safety to my soul. I was not a messy kid. I spent inordinate amounts of time organizing toys, making sure each item was in its place, and scanning rooms to be certain everything was “just so.” To be honest, as a kid, this was comforting. As I grew older, though, the number of obsessions I accumulated became a little overwhelming. I tried to perfect my handwriting, my diet, my weight, the cleaning routine, the exercise routine, etc. There were always more things to make more rules about.
Desperately searching for order, I made plans. If only I could make a perfect plan for each day – and follow it – I could guarantee some sort of success. I asked a lot of questions about the things I cared about. I thought that if I really understood things, I could prevent failure. I became great at math. Ballet was attractive to me because ballet has structure & rules. I remember thinking at times that ballet wasn’t clear enough for me… when I asked an alignment question, my teachers didn’t always have a good answer. I remember finding this disturbing! I wanted certainty, clarity, and a clear goal to pursue. Looking back, I realize I had little tolerance for ambiguity and nuance; I just wanted to do it right. Sometimes, I asked questions like a five year old who’s trying hard to understand a new concept. I often missed the point — that beauty involves imperfection, that everything is not black or white or the same way all of the time.
Growing up, my world was chaotic, dependent mostly on my mom’s moods. Black would turn white and life was whatever color my mom wanted it to be. I know that my desire for order came out of a desire to protect myself from the unpredictable nature of a narcissist. As I became an adult, I tried to make rules about the interactions I’d have with my mom. I read many books, and even wrote notecards for myself to reference before a phone call. I went through phases of walking on eggshells and phases of “just being myself.” Nothing prevented disaster. No amount of order and planning can ensure peace when another person wants chaos (or, as they might say, a “real” conversation).
I still struggle with desiring order and perfection. In many ways, I think that’s a good thing. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is a favorite book of mine. Clean, tidy spaces do spark joy for me. Sometimes, though, a messy suitcase does as well. There is a sweetness that comes from having structure and then allowing the structure to bend a little, a schedule in which things can sometimes shift around, and a tolerance for messiness that allows space for creativity.
When I watch my daughter play, I smile because she thinks outside the box. Animals from one set move into another scene… flowers from outside become headbands for horses. I’m slowing coming around. My desire for order is morphing into a desire for serendipity, creativity, and positivity. I know I’ll never be able to make fail-safe rules for getting along with my mom, and that’s okay. I don’t need them. I’ve learned that I can morph into a new way of being. I can allow her mess to exist and keep my own sense of calm.
Some things I’m trying to remember:
moment-to-moment self-care really matters, especially in the moments that are hard, when self-harm feels attractive (this is good not only for oneself — it also models to the borderline how to live in a healthy, non-destructive way). For example, getting a glass of water, remembering to eat meals, going to bed when exhausted/tapped out — all of that is okay to do, even if there is conflict.
the borderline person craves conflict. it’s probably not “what you said” exactly that set the person off. say less/say more… it doesn’t make too much of a difference. be kind, but don’t stress.
it’s okay to want to be around people who treat you well. go back to these people whenever possible, and become that person to yourself!
The other day I was playing with my daughter, which happens less often than I’d like, but life gets so busy! We were playing with horses and unicorns. I was cast as the little foal and decided that I would like to be a unicorn, when my daughter informed me that I can’t be a unicorn – but I can play with them. True to my natural interpersonal style, I proceeded (as the baby horse) to flatter the unicorn and say that I wished I could be a unicorn, too! My daughter promptly corrected me, saying, “No! Don’t say that! The unicorns want you to like yourself!” That was a truth bomb that I needed to hear, said in the loving voice of my daughter. I’ve been pondering this idea for a little while now, and I have some ideas of why I might naturally begin relationships in a self-desparaging way.
Growing up with a borderline mother, I witnessed bouts of “confidence” that were a bit frightening and off-putting. My mom was often not truly confident in her abilities or judgement, so she would over-compensate with bravado. (Bravado: a bold manner meant to intimidate) I didn’t like this quality but always felt like I must follow her lead and obey/flatter/agree with her when she was in this type of mood. Her showcase of faux confidence confused me – confidence was sort of ugly when displayed this way. I decided I didn’t like that type of confidence. Who needed to be confident, anyway? It was overrated, I thought. I will stick with being insecure and just keep trying to “prove” myself.
This thought pattern of mine, in which I disliked confidence and preferred to put myself down, sometimes worked well for me. I was non-threatening. Sometimes sweet people wanted to help me because they could tell I wasn’t really sure of myself. I became the perpetual student, waiting for others to show me the way and to tell me I was doing things “right.” This, i’m sure, became a drag for the people around me.
A true belief in oneself – when combined with a fairly realistic appraisal of gifts and a humble acknowledgement of weaknesses – is a very attractive trait. I began to meet people who possessed this trait and for a long while I sort of hated these people. How did they get to have true confidence? Where did they learn this? Why weren’t they putting themselves down all of the time? Why weren’t they asking everyone else’s opinions? Why were they so free?? Honestly, I found it kind of annoying. Who do they think they are, waltzing around life with confidence?
It was when I had kids that I was able to let some of this negativity go. I wanted my kids to believe in themselves. I wanted them to be honest – to not be braggarts, but to own their gifts and talents and joys. I wanted them to enjoy their lives and themselves. Apparently, this feeling was somewhat mutual. My daughter was telling me that it’s okay to be confident. It won’t scare other people away. There was a time when the opportunities I had in life intimidated my mom, or made her feel jealous. This made it hard for me to feel deserving of the good things I had. Who was I to have them, let alone also be confident? It took a lot of reprogramming for me to begin to feel differently about this. Confidence is not everything, and yet it is in fact okay to be confident. It allows others to shine their light, too. I’ve always loved this quote by Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
My daughter, in her play, was letting me know that it’s okay… it’s okay to enjoy being the person I am. We can enjoy our own lives, whether we are cast as the horse or the unicorn. We don’t need to cower to those we think are superior or more powerful. And if we are faced with someone who seems to fear our success or joy or light, we need to acknowledge this (to ourselves).
These days I catch myself when I want to put myself down and ask, “Who will this serve?” When I am in a position of power (such as while teaching or coaching), is it helpful to model insecurity? Of course I know it’s not. It is freeing for others when I embrace what I have to offer, and offer it freely without explanation or apology.
Can you relate to this phenomenon? Have you struggled with confidence? How will you let your own light shine now? How have you been dimming it over the years?
They say once you trust your own decisions, that others’ opinions won’t matter. They say you need to tune in to your intuition, and then you’ll know. I’ve found both of these things to be true, but sometimes it’s really hard to tell what you like. Sometimes, you’ll change your mind, and sometimes, you’ll really just make a mistake. What then??
I remember sitting on the kitchen floor of a new apartment with my mom. She was freaking out. She hated the new apartment that her friend had found for her. We’d just moved in from out of state and my mom had rented the place site-unseen. I don’t remember how bad it was or wasn’t. My mom has good taste, so it probably wasn’t the best. I’m glad she found a new, better place for us. However, what I remember so poignantly about that night was the distress it caused her and how unsafe I felt because of it. I remember hoping I wouldn’t act that way as an adult – that I wouldn’t feel so torn up over seemingly small things (or so they seemed to me at the time). My mom ended the relationship with the friend who found her the apartment. There were just too many bad feelings.
Although I’d like to say I never have my own freak out moments when something goes wrong, it’s not true. I feel things more strongly than I’d like to at times, and things can seem unbearable when they don’t turn out the way I expected or hoped. However, I’ve learned a few things along the way that have helped me enormously:
WHEN FEELING REGRETFUL
1.) Evaluate the problem separately from the emotions and think through options/solutions fully 2.) Don’t judge the emotions that come up: validate them and accept them 3.) Preserve relationships whenever possible
1.) Evaluate the problem separately from the emotions and think through options/solutions fully 2.) Don’t judge the emotions that come up: validate them and accept them 3.) Preserve relationships whenever possible
Things can seem so much worse, and so unsolvable, when we are wrapped up in an emotional moment. Oftentimes they are more solvable than we think. I like to write down the possible options for “fixing” a problem, even when it feels weighty or horrific. I am often surprised by how many solutions there are! I might have to be very patient, or save/spend money, but thinking that things might be able to change someday brings a lot of relief.
I usually judge myself so harshly when I make a decision I don’t like. I wonder why I asked so many peoples’ opinions, or why I didn’t ask enough people what they thought, why I didn’t meditate more, and why I didn’t research more. Sometimes, though, all the thinking and stressing in the world won’t ensure a “perfect” decision. I’m not omnipotent. I’m starting to accept that I make mistakes and I won’t always like the things I choose. It’s okay! I’m trying to look at my life as an art project: sometimes we need to erase or paint over a part we don’t like. It’s just part of the process.
I’ve learned that I don’t have to “act crazy” or beat myself up in order to change my circumstances. I can have strong emotions about a situation and calmly express what I want to do about it. I don’t need to blame other people for not protecting me from a mistake, either.
Recently, during my home renovation project, I made a decision and didn’t like the way it turned out. I had gone back and forth about the detail, and thought I made the right call. I went against some expert advice and did what I thought I liked better. I had polled a lot of people and they agreed with me. I felt semi-confident in my choice. Then, when I saw the result, I regretted it. It was a beast to change, but it was possible and I decided to go ahead and change it. Some people may judge me for that, and think I’m crazy or spoiled or ungrateful, and that’s okay. In this case, I can rest in the idea that because I trust my own opinion, other peoples’ opinions matter less.
It’s a funny road, learning to know and trust oneself. At times it feels like I take one step forward and two steps back. I feel thankful for those along the way who accept my process without judging me for it, because they know that these small decisions are about more than home design or anything else … they are bigger steps on the ladder of personal growth. There was a time when I had a lot of difficulty ordering a sandwich or buying a shirt. It took a lot of baby steps and trial and error to feel like a person who generally knows who I am and what I like. Little by little, I come farther along. I’m finally learning to forgive myself for the bigger mistakes and blunders, too.
Can you relate to post-decision regret and panic? Please share your thoughts!
I don’t think we realize sometimes the ways in which we cut ourselves down and then believe that this cut-down version is who we truly are.
The other day I did something I often do: I read an autobiography of someone successful that I admire. In this particular book, the author writes about a failure she experienced in her life. It was relatable to me so I was very aware of my emotions while reading her story. I was somewhat expecting this “awful failure” to be not really that awful… but it was! She really failed in a particular moment in time. It was visible. It was embarrassing. Other people knew it was bad. As I read the story and related to her embarrassment, I also found myself thinking something new — that this is not “who she was”; this had just been a bad night!
In my life, I’ve often let my embarrassing moments and bad nights shape my core beliefs about myself. I am not a good dancer because of that one bad performance. I am not worthy to be here because I got hurt. I am not beautiful because of that flaw. I’ve believed these things long after the pain of the particular experience is over. In fact, even a decade after I stopped dancing, I would often bring up my “bad performance” in conversation, and feel as if that experience was the true me and my true reality as a dancer and performer. It wasn’t. That was just a bad day and a tough show.
I don’t look at others and judge them for their worst moments.
…Or do I? I know there have been times when I’ve looked at my mom and have believed that her true self is the part that comes out in a borderline rage. But that’s not true; it’s her worst self that comes out at that time. Her illness takes over at that point.
We are not the sum of our bad moments. We are so much more. What if we started focusing, with ourselves and others, on our best qualities and moments?
As Taylor Swift says at the end of “Daylight,”
“I want to be defined by the things that I love — not the things I hate, not the things I’m afraid of, not the things that haunt me in the middle of the night … I just think that… we are what we love.”
We are not our worst moment or our worst decision.
How about you? Have you defined yourself by your worst moment? Can you let that go now, and define yourself by something else?
“It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be interesting,” he said with little affect. I’m not really sure if his comment was born out of indifference or concern. I think it was meant as a slight insult that was also meant to be instructional. I have always been one to get stuck in the minutia and miss the big picture, forgetting the forest for the trees. For me, the details are everything.
I think that as a child, this trait helped me survive. I could control the neatness of my handwriting, the cleanliness of my play room, the amount of food I ingested. I could do this even if my mom was losing her mind or screaming at the sales clerk. If I kept my head down and focused on my own details, I was relatively safe. I grew to love the sense of control this gave me as well as the possibility of achieving excellence. Maybe I could find a perfect “method” for everything!
Perfectionism served me really well up to a point. I worked hard and excelled at school and almost everything I tried. I did as people told me to do and I put the highest standards on myself, too. I worked hard. The struggle came when working hard didn’t “work.” My body would break down and I was often faced with my own hard limits. Worse than my body breaking down was seeing others, who weren’t as rigid or hard on themselves, freely and joyfully take up space in life. I started to realize that other people had healthier ways of achieving their goals. There were other, more enjoyable, ways to succeed. There was a different way to be.
I’ve reflected throughout the years on the idea of perfection. Although I was unable to truly understand his words of wisdom at the time, I am starting to agree that it (life, love, art) really doesn’t need to be perfect. What is “perfect,” anyway? I am learning to aim for excellence and beauty while releasing the idea that any of it will every be perfect – not the feeling, the process, the result, or the aesthetic. And that’s okay. Life is still worth living and art is still worth creating. It’s all more enjoyable when the expectation of perfection is off the table.
Focusing on creating some sort of ideal life or utopia and the obsessive focus on perfectionism does not deliver. It’s also not very interesting. I know what he means now. How can one create a beautiful life while relatively paralyzed by the pursuit of perfection? What meaningful things are missed along the way?
I used to think that the idea of “learning to love what you have” or “choosing to love” or even “accepting” was another form of settling, and maybe at times it is. Alternatively, maybe it’s the way we learn how to truly love, through accepting the inevitable imperfections and embracing the interesting, imperfect reality of it all.
How do you cope with perfectionism? Send me your tips! 🙂
“You’re going to RUIN your life,” she tells me, and I know she has a point. If not ruined, I will at least miss the joy. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this phrase, especially because with every possible failure or worry of failure I tell myself the same thing: I could ruin this. I could mess it all up. And what then? What does the worst-case scenario really amount to?
Feeling like you ruined things is a horrible experience. As a child, I was bullied in the 4th grade and I ended up trying to cut off my teeth with nail clippers. After a few days of trying this technique, my mom found me, disciplined me, and told me I was going to ruin my teeth. The problem was, I felt I already had – the damage was somewhat faint but irreparable. The cracks and dentin shone through. Later in life, I tried to repair this issue with veneers but did not see a competent doctor. The repair was much more noticeable than the initial issue. “Take 2” of the repair ended up even worse. My colleague noticed both times and criticized me, and I was completely humiliated, in public. I couldn’t hide, I didn’t know how to fix the problem, and so I decided to leave my job and pull myself together. I was too ashamed to speak of what was going on. I was too ashamed to continue showing up.
If I had it to do again, I would have shown up even while shamed. I would have been honest with my boss before quitting my career. To most, it may have been only vaguely noticeable. To some, maybe not at all. To me, it was disastrous. But what if I had stayed present while trying to look for a solution? What if I had admitted my mistakes and my embarrassment? I would have still felt humiliated but at least it would have been more honest.
I think sometimes about what led me to this level of shame and concealment. Maybe everyone does this sort of thing, especially when the humiliation is physical. I’m not sure. I think it might be the result of taking personal the shame of others. As a young girl, when I was taken advantage of by a superior, my superior kept his job while I wasted away as a student with an eating disorder. When my stepdad abused me and denied it, I used this same tactic. I shrunk in shame, but I learned to show up in life somehow. Over time, I guess I grew a little weary and my shame became too heavy.
“Vanity is blasted but it’s rarely fair… I can smell the Prozac in your pretty hair.”
These days, I question it all. What if we all just showed up shamed? What if, in the midst of humiliation, fear, and dread, we just move through life anyway, with honesty? Can the world handle this? I was once photographed by a photographer when I had no money to pay for headshots of my own. The old man offered to pick me up, and because his studio was far away, he said I could spend the night. As a young naive teen with few resources, I agreed to this. When I realized I was in a compromised position, taking naked photos in a foreign place, I felt afraid. I locked the bedroom door that night and held my ground. I later asked that the photos not be published, ever. He critiqued my teenage pimples.
People will go to lengths to shame you and put their shame onto you. Lorde, in her song “A World Alone,” writes, “They all wanna get rough get away with it” and that really rings true. People want to get away with hurting and shaming and then blaming it all on you. What if we all resisted?
“They all wanna get rough get away with it”
In some ways, I know I’ve ruined aspects of my life. I have let my shame, my perfectionism, my fear, and my failures, drive me away from the things I most love. As I slowly make my way back into the world, I’m revisiting the idea of showing up with honesty, even when feeling ashamed.
This week, for me, it looks like admitting I’m unsure about one of my home renovation choices weeks before it’s supposed to be installed. It’s embarrassing and might make a few people angry, but I value honesty and transparency. Even if I’m feeling ashamed, I can show up with honesty anyway.
How about you? What small or large things in life make you feel ashamed? Can you show up anyway? Do you sometimes choose to give up what you love, or hide in the shadows, instead? Please DM me with your thoughts.
There’s a version of my life that I created as a teen. It’s not the life I have now, but it’s the life I imagined I’d have. It involves so many of the things that actually happened in my life but without the trials, the missteps, & the failures. I LOVE this version of my life, and the person I get to be in this fantasy story. I am the person I wanted to be. I’m proud of my accomplishments and the attitude I had while achieving them. I learn lessons when it’s not too late to apply them in order to get where I’m going.
Some would say that nobody gets the exact life they envision as a teen (if they envisioned one at all), or the one they see in Disney princess movies or rom-coms. Instagram would tell us otherwise, but I’m starting to believe that maybe everyone has a story, an unfulfilled dream, a hidden sorrow. Maybe we really are “in this together” in some ways, as the CoVid slogan goes. Or maybe only a chosen few get the storybook life.
The other day I read this quote by Francis Chan: “Our greatest fear should not be of failure… but of succeeding in life in things that really don’t matter.” It really struck me. My greatest fear has been failure. I’ve spent a lot of time bemoaning things that did not go according to my plans, and things that could have gone much better in my ideal world. As I learn and grow, I feel like my ideas of how much better things could have gone has expanded. Thoughts of “why didn’t I think of that!” and “why didn’t I try that approach” have crowded my mind. And yet… maybe these things I’ve wanted, and these failures I speak of, have mostly been ego-driven to begin with. The truth is, for as many “better versions” of my life I can conjure up, I can also think of many worse versions. When I choose to look at it from a soul perspective rather than an ego perspective, I think i’ve actually come a long way. Do I wish I had learned faster? Of course. But, what if it’s not too late? What if there is still a chance to succeed in the things that do really matter?
I’ve also been wondering: what happens to those who get every single thing they want, or at least all of the ego-driven desires? Are they truly happier? If I’d gotten everything I ever wanted and looked exactly how I wanted, would I be humble and thankful or self-righteous and haughty? I am sure it could go either way, and I’d like to think I’d just be happy, giving and joyous – but who knows? Maybe our hurts and unfulfilled desires are exactly what we need to serve our unique purpose in the world.
I love this verse:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
It took me a lot of failure and pain to learn that self-hatred is not the way to self-actualization, and that a “please fix me” attitude does not allow for clear self-expression and flow. And now, after grieving bygone moments and missed opportunities, I realize there is still time. There is still time to incorporate the lessons life’s taught me. There is time to express in a different medium. There is time to love my family and friends, and time to help others.
For a while, I was stuck with questions of “why?” Why didn’t I know better? Why wasn’t I more confident? Why did I make such naive mistakes? I’ve been working on accepting that I just didn’t know better in certain areas, and, as Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Letting go of what wasn’t meant to be and accepting that not everyone is able or fortunate to achieve exactly what they hope for has been enormously helpful to me. We cannot completely create our own reality. God often has different plans for us than we have for ourselves, and we are working within the constructs we’ve been given.
Have you grieved the way that the dreams of your youth didn’t work out as you expected? How can you succeed, now, in the things that truly matter to you?
“I love you and I want to marry you,” he said, 6 weeks into our relationship. I was shocked. “My pastor [and his protégé] said we need to get married or break up.”
Sometimes I wonder how I bought into the idea of getting engaged and married so quickly. It never seemed quite right. Still, I had felt guilty about tempting a born-again Christian man, who’d ignored me for a week after we’d slept together so that he could take some time to think things through. When he came back with this proposal, explaining how his pastor worried “what it would do to me” if he just broke up with me, it seemed like marriage was the right idea. My boyfriend listened to his pastor and did what he wanted; I followed along, excited by the romance of it all and the fact that I was falling in love.
In a way, it makes a lot of sense. For most of my life, I’ve been searching for the ideal. I’ve been looking for the right formula that would lead me to comfort, safety, beauty, and freedom. I looked for this at home as a child, where I tried to complete all of my chores perfectly, organize all of my toys, and say the right things to my mom. I looked for this at school, when I tried to perfect my handwriting and correct the teacher’s mistakes. I tried to fit myself into an ideal physical form as a dancer through dieting and image management. The pursuits I embarked on never quite worked. They never led to comfort or freedom. When I met a man who thought he knew all the answers, I was easily persuaded. I was in love and at a vulnerable turning point in my life. My borderline mom had not prepared me for healthy relationships, marriage, or a healthy form of spirituality. For a moment I thought I had found all the answers with a good man and God.
Before I knew it, I was heavily immersed in a Christian cult with a narcissistic, authoritarian pastor. It started with a philosophy class. My now-husband has always been a smooth talker. After a few sweet dates he convinced me to take a philosophy course with him at school (a community college, where the confused often congregate). At first I thought it was a strange but interesting idea. Looking back, I realize it was an indoctrination. I enjoyed it at the time; we talked about the soul, the meaning of life, and some tough questions. I appreciated my boyfriend’s desire for truth and found his principled way of looking at things comforting. It seemed very different than both the chaotic environment in which I grew up and the fickle arts world of which I was a part.
I didn’t realize that I was about to join a cult while we were taking the philosophy class. I didn’t realize this pastor would not only tell us that we must marry, but that we shouldn’t leave the state because no other church is as faithful. I didn’t realize that the church members would follow what the pastor said about pretty much anything, including sexual specifics not mentioned in the Bible. I didn’t know at the time that the philosophy class was a prerequisite to attending the church, and that others weren’t welcome. I didn’t recognize that the pastor would bear strange resemblances to my narcissistic mother, and that instead of the comfort of God I would feel manipulated, controlled and shamed. (At one point, we were discouraged to speak or write to any other Christian leaders about questions because we were told that no one in the world was as knowledgeable and correct as our pastor.) It was a spiritual disaster.
Thankfully, I was able to recognize that things did not feel right. It might be one of the first times that I was truly able to “trust my gut,” before I ever really knew what that meant. I left the church alone and with much effort, I eventually convinced my husband to leave as well. He was told I was sinning, like Eve, and that he needed to be a man and rein me in. We left with spiritual scars that are still healing. My husband lost his closest friends. I lost my illusion of a fairy tale.
There were many times during my experience in a Christian cult, and in the aftermath of that experience, that I wonder how I got there. How did I buy into it all? How was I so easily manipulated? When you have a narcissistic, borderline mother, you learn to look outside of yourself for answers, even to private questions. It was natural for me to do this. In a way, I think that at the time I liked the consistency of it all: it seemed there would always be someone around to control me, whether it was my mom, my husband, or the church.
During my young adult life, I was often impressed by my religious acquaintances and their ability to weather the storms of life. They seemed to possess a self-confidence and sense of worth that I longed for. I remember asking a colleague, “how are they so confident?” and faith was the answer he gave. I sought out faith. I was the ultimate seeker. But seekers can be gullible.
Since my time in a Christian cult, I have kept the faith… at least a little. I question everything now, maybe more than I should. I wonder if I ever should have gotten married. Can you love someone you just met? Was it love, lust, or guilt that brought us together? The journey hasn’t been easy, and in many ways it has led me back to where I started, searching for comfort and peace.
The other night, I told my husband that I’m not sure I ever really felt comfortable with him— & that I definitely didn’t feel totally comfortable right before we got married. He asked me if I ever feel truly comfortable in relationships. It was a fair question, & a good question for me to ponder. There are many times I feel comfortable with friends, but if I’m totally honest I do often feel uncomfortable in romantic relationships. The fear of enmeshment, the fear of commitment, the fear of not being good enough… it’s a lot. These aren’t fears that go away because an institution is ordained by God or even if you are with a person who is a good fit. I wonder if I was even in touch with these fears prior to marriage. Looking back, I really wish we’d had more time to know each other before marriage. I believe we could have cared for one another better and avoided some of the heartache we experienced. The pastor who rushed us wasn’t truly looking out for our best interest (in my opinion). He was looking for people who’d submit to his authority.
While my husband and I were dating, we watched a film by M. Night Shayamalan called “The Village,” in which a community escapes their past by moving into the woods to create a sort of utopia apart from others. It was somewhat ironic that we watched that movie while we were also trying to escape our broken pasts by becoming members of this “elite,” cultic church. The escaping didn’t work in the movie or for us. It only created a web of issues for us to untangle.
When you are raised in an unstable environment, it is hard to obtain or maintain a general sense of emotional comfort and safety in life. For the first time, I’m looking for comfort from within. Boundaries give me comfort. Self-expression brings me comfort. My personal relationship with God gives me comfort. I don’t need to grasp for comfort from others or expect to find it there. A formula is much less useful than my own ability to check in with myself in a radically honest way. I’m starting to believe that maybe it’s possible to feel safe and comfortable, right where i am.
Have you ever found yourself in a sea of organized chaos, wondering how you got there? Have you given church leaders too much power? Please respond or message me if you have any thoughts you’d like to share.
In light & love, ~Lara
p.s. This book is extremely helpful if you worry you might be caught up in a cultic environment. It explains how cults often use specific verbiage (essentially creating a new language for the members) and the psychologically manipulative tactics used.
I remember the first time I told someone my mom was mentally ill. I was trying not to overexpose myself and didn’t want to go into detail about my life or dominate the conversation, so I simply stated that things have been difficult because my mom is mentally ill and had been going through an episode. Finally! One sentence explained it all. I didn’t need to explain the complicated scenario and back story, nor did I minimize it all by labeling her as “difficult” (as I imagine many children say about their parents). It was a freeing and illuminating moment, as I typed the words. Why hadn’t I thought of doing or saying that before?
It’s complicated. As children, it’s impossible at first to know that your parent is not typical. It takes an even longer time to recognize that certain behaviors are a symptom of mental illness, and not just a quirk. In my case, friends of mine and friends of my mother’s pointed these things out to me. I was unaware that her behavior wasn’t normal. I was used to reacting to her provocations and blaming myself for not being able to make things right. As an adult, it’s difficult to express that your parent is mentally ill when they themselves adamantly deny it (as denial is part of their coping mechanism). Most persons with personality disorders (especially NPD) do not believe they are mentally ill. In fact, they likely believe that you — and everyone else — are the real problem.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what your parent believes, or what others think they know to be true about them. It doesn’t matter what your parent tells their therapist, their friend, the family, or their colleagues. What does matter is that you recognize the true issue: your parent has a specific mental illness that has very little potential to change.
Call it what it is, and act accordingly. Some say no contact is the only way to peace… perhaps this is true. But no contact hurts when you love someone. Others recommend a myriad of ways to become a sort of Jedi-master of deflection, redirection, validation, and non-reactivity. This is more difficult to do than no-contact, and it is especially difficult for children of personality-disordered parents; we were trained to react, always. To not react is an affront to the parent, an abandoning of sorts, and it is uncomfortable as well. Not only is it uncomfortable, it is not well-received by the PD parent. For me, it is my forever challenge. I will continue to try to have a civil relationship in which I diffuse situations and decide to ignore & disengage when things get unbearable. I’ve noticed that the sooner I choose to do this, the greater likelihood I have of preventing long periods of no contact. Having the self-discipline to know my own limits helps me to re-engage without fear of being completely engulfed. (Making a limit such as one text conversation a day, and/or one phone call a week, can provide some structure within a toxic relationship.)
There is no perfect game plan, and there is no solution. There is, however, a peace that comes from truly accepting that the term “mental illness” explains a lot. Rather than promoting a stigma, owning the fact that a family member is mentally ill can lead to radically accepting them as they are.