The Allure of the Cult: A Facade of Safety

“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.

Calling It What It Is: Mental Illness

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.

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!

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?

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?

Staging a Life: It’s Okay to Shine

I’ve never been very good at staging things.  I forget to give myself an advantage, or really “own” an opportunity.  Tonight I was trying to get a cute photo of my son and daughter holding their baby dolls (a rare occurrence).  My daughter didn’t like some of the toys in the area or how they looked in the photo, so she took her arms and pushed all of them off the area in one swoop.  I wish I had those ideas sometimes, to go “big” and just move the crap that’s getting me down out of the way.  She did that and then posed her heart out.  

Sometimes part of me feels it a little contrived, unfair, or dishonest to crop out the “bad” part of life.  But I think a deeper part of me is just waiting for permission — permission to shine, permission to live fully, permission to feel happy or proud.  When I take photos, I often wish someone would tell me how to pose, because I feel embarrassed to pose with confidence.  

Marianne Williamson has a popular quote: 

“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.”

This quote has always resonated with me.  I think I have always been afraid of my mother’s disapproval, or her jealousy, and so a part of me has been too afraid to shine and give it my all.  I’ve had moments where I’ve gotten past the fear, but more often than not I give in to it.  I shrink among others, unless I know that someone wants me to succeed.  

I secretly tell myself that I can have good things once I crawl on broken glass to get there.  (Once, I literally crawled on glass after breaking a candle and feeling so ashamed that I fell to the floor to clean it up.)  I do this in many metaphorical ways though, too: I share the most negative details about myself as soon as possible, making interactions awkward; I don’t take shortcuts and often do things in the hardest way possible, with the fewest resources, because I “should”; I ask for advice from people I know will criticize instead of those who will support or help, etc.  

The contrast of how I approach life compared to others has been revealed to me recently by some of my new acquaintances.  Many of them are wealthy, beautiful, and confident.  They don’t air their dirty laundry or admit many of their flaws.  In some ways, their lives felt too “staged” to me, but I also respect their ability to shine in a shameless way.  The other day, I felt like I needed to shrink around them.  But why?  I’m glad I’m finally able to ask myself that question.  There is room for all of us to shine and build one another up.  This applies to how I relate to my mom, too.  My potential happiness does not block hers.  I’m not doing her any good by shrinking or drowning in self-hatred or by making my life harder than it needs to be. Even if she wants me to, it’s not doing either of us any good.

I’ve read that narcissistic mothers can view their daughters as a competition (i.e. Daughter 2.0).  I believe this has been true for me, and wanting my mother’s love has made me ashamed of my successes and afraid of joy.  I don’t want to take joy from her, or have it if she doesn’t.  I want her to want good things for me.  As I mature, I realize it’s actually my duty to take my life and run with it… I don’t need her permission.  I can stage the environment to look good when appropriate.  I can make the best of a situation.  I can shine.  It’s okay to create a life I love.  

This in itself is frightening when you aren’t used to it… but what growth comes from staying comfortable?

How about you? Have you felt yourself shrinking in order to gain another’s approval? How has this worked out?