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?

Ugly Girl: A Child’s Response to “I Hate You; Don’t Leave Me”

It was my first boyfriend who told me he figured out what I had – body dysmorphic disorder – after taking his abnormal psych class.  He had loved me unwaveringly and I knew he told me because he cared.  He had noticed early on, the little quirks I had, and knew of my insecurities and preoccupations.  But what does this have to do with a borderline/narcissistic mother?  

Borderline mothers live in the relational dynamic described in the phrase, “I hate you; don’t leave me.”  A child’s response to this is often to hate themself.  The simplest thing to hate is often something tangible in one’s physical appearance.

I remember looking at my reflection once as a young girl – the reflection I saw in a spoon – and not hating it, but just noticing how my face would change shape in the round surface.  Sometimes I wish I could begin again there, when I had an inquisitive, untainted heart, and restart my life with the lessons I’ve now learned about body image.   

My mother herself did not have a healthy body image.  I was told that she was blacklisted from hair salons numerous times after throwing a fit when she didn’t like her hair.  I was too young to remember these particular episodes, but I know my mom was hard on herself and her appearance.  I remember once running into her when she was wet after a shower and her telling me to leave because she looked so ugly.  As the mother of a little girl, I’m conscious not to say these things to my daughter, but the thoughts are ingrained in me as well.      

I don’t remember exactly when I began to feel utterly self-conscious about my physical appearance.  I think it was about 4th grade.  That year, I transferred to a Catholic school in a wealthy district of the city although we were poor.  I rode a bus with a lot of kids from various schools, and I was bullied.  I was an easy target… I was anxious & awkward because my mom was often yelling.  She didn’t have time to teach me how to feel comfortable in new situations or anything like that — she didn’t know.  I was naturally small, the youngest in my grade (just making the cut off), and my dad had just left our family.  Her new boyfriend would be at our house when I got home from school, and he was funny and nice to me except when his temper rose out of nowhere.  My home was not a safe haven.  I did not talk about the bullying much although I know that my mom knew.

Despite being anxious, I made friends easily…maybe too easily.  I made friends and then quickly felt that I might not measure up to them.  One of the friends I admired had a beautiful bedroom, new braces, and an aunt who was into cosmetology.  She took ballet classes.  She told me all about “what is beautiful” and which parts I had and didn’t have, and which parts I could change somehow (though the “somehow” was slightly unclear).  My mom found me once, as I was trying to “make myself beautiful” through what I would now label self-harm.  She screamed at me — told me I was going to ruin my body— but I don’t remember her trying to comfort me.  

I remember expecting my mom to be proud that day: proud of my self-loathing, my disgust, my ingenuity… and especially of my intensity.  It felt like something my mom might do.  I later told my dad what had happened over my weekend stay with him, but he generally dismissed the subject matter.  I remember feeling alone & afraid.

The years grew on and my self-hatred grew stronger.  I saw other people and they didn’t have the particular flaws I had. I wanted to turn back time.  At one point, someone referred to me as the pretty girl down the street.  I was so shocked.  I didn’t believe it… there was no way that person couldn’t really see me.  They didn’t know the real me.  

I spent years feeling so ugly, trying to hide the icky parts of me.  I got into ballet.  Fairly quickly, I learned to hate new parts of me- my muscular legs, my height, my knees that I’d prefer were just a little more tapered and hyperextended.  At this time I met another new “friend,” or so I thought.  He taught me how to eat less and other tricks to becoming eating-disordered.  I was so desirous of being acceptable that I bought into the eating disorder game and his manipulations.

Even during that difficult time, I experienced moments of self-acceptance.  In high school, I was part of an arts school where my teacher always picked me to be in her plays.  She seemed to know me better than I knew myself at the time.  She would assert, “you’re like me; sometimes you feel beautiful and other times you feel really ugly.”  I think her saying that allowed the parallel feelings to occur even though i tended towards black-and-white thinking.

But, myself as an ugly girl was the prominent figure in my mind.  At one point, a friend’s sister listened to my complaints and comforted me, telling me that my perceived flaws were fixable and that there was nothing to worry much about.  This was another pivotal moment in my life –  a second game-changer.  I could fix the damage done!  All wasn’t ruined.  My mother’s words, stating that I might have ruined myself, never left my heart but I was seeing a future “out.”  I tabled that idea but held it closely.  

There are so many life moments where I can distinctly remember feeling worried about my hated flaws when much more significant life moments were happening (weddings, performances, parties).  I would check the mirror, seeing how visible they were in a particular light.  In reality, most people could not notice the flaws unless I pointed them out and they looked very closely.

Whenever I was treated poorly, rejected, or in pain, I thought about my future plans and how I would fix my (physical) brokenness.  I wrongly believed that someday, once I got my broken parts corrected, I would be lovable.  Maybe I could even love myself then.

I fell in love and got married (somewhat impulsively) to a man who loved me and who I loved.  However, did not think I was good enough for him.  A week after our wedding, I went through with a cosmetic procedure I had scheduled prior to our wedding. I would finally repair the damage I’d done as a child and be acceptable. I often look back on this particular decision and sigh with so much regret.  Honestly, I think I knew better but I had not learned to trust my gut yet.  Part of me was dying for someone to stop me.  I was acting impulsively at a time when I felt in love and semi-invincible.  Couldn’t I have waited?  Couldn’t I have danced in just a little bit of freedom and have allowed myself to be loved as I was?  No, I could not.  I did not trust it.  I did not trust love, and I still struggle with this. I wish I had been able to confide in my mom about my plans, but I couldn’t.  She had made a huge scene at my wedding and I did not trust her to be there for me.  I wish my husband had pushed pause on my ideas, but he was more naive than I was at the time and had no idea what the fallout would be.  I still remember calling to make the appointment for the procedure.  I’d had an awful day at rehearsal and I saw myself in a very unflattering fluorescent light in the bathroom.  I thought anything would be an improvement, even though the doctor wasn’t sure he could make it any better.  Shame can really alter one’s judgement capabilities.  

About a month after the procedure, what would have been my worst nightmare had I actually considered the pros/cons of my decision came true: I was bullied, intensely, for what I had done by a man who I’d previously rejected.  I was mortified.  I tried to stay strong.  I denied (per my mom’s advice).  In the end I couldn’t take the self-loathing I felt.  I left my career and inwardly started my next “how I’ll be okay” plan.  

My shame spiral has continued for longer than I expected.  Most people would never know there was a problem.  But I know.  I would have chosen so much differently had I known better. (I could have done something much less invasive had I done more research — my injuries & flaws were fairly minor to begin with although they screamed out to me).  

I have tried many things to change how I think about the situation: therapy, subliminal reprogramming, affirmations, EFT, ACT, prayer.  In the end, I still live with regret and I’m not sure I’ll ever be happy with my appearance.  It’s disappointing, but I’m starting to think that I can live in that space.  In some ways it is the physical representation of how I feel about the relationship with my mom.

I am still hoping for a miracle in regard to my relationship with my mom and also in regard to my appearance. I believe both miracles are possible. God has the power to heal my mom if she is open to it, and there are always new remedies for physical conditions. I’m trying to believe that there is always hope.

I felt drawn to write this post because it’s anonymous and I can share without feeling so embarrassed afterwards.  I also feel drawn to write because the more I have become honest about this struggle, the freer I have become from the shame.  

There were times I felt suicidal, an embarrassment to my husband or kids (or even friends), because of my flaws.  And yet, I know they love me.  I know they’d miss me if I were gone, and that they need me.  I believe we’re all needed somewhere, if we let ourselves be available.  

I try to talk to myself the way I would talk to my child if he/she had a similar flaw in appearance.  Would I think he/she was disgusting, unlovable, or ruined?  No, I wouldn’t.  Not at all.  Self-love is just so much harder.

A child’s response to “I hate you; don’t leave me” is to hate themself or at least parts of themself.  It is a hard cycle to break. The other day my son, who needed stitches once, told me as I was checking out his scar: ““It’s fine, mommy. A little boo-boo doesn’t mean i’m not cute!” There was something about his innocence and self-acceptance that made me smile… parenting while learning how to re-parent myself has been both challenging and rewarding.

Please comment/message me with your stories if you can relate.