A few months ago, my sister sent me a journal so I can practice some narrative therapy. Narrative therapy helps an individual become an expert in their own life through telling the stories they have carried around. Putting the stories of your life into writing gives meaning to your experiences and influences how you see yourself and the world around you. When my sons were younger, I used my blog as a form of narrative therapy to help me rearrange my negative perceptions about their struggles and create a better path forward for all of us. More recently, I’ve used blogging to tell stories from my childhood as a way to validate those experiences and increase my own voice and messaging around those pivotal events that shaped who I am. Through these exercises, I’ve begun to understand myself more fully. I am more aware of why I am the way I am and more capable of making adjustments in areas where I’m not fond of the trajectory I’ve taken. The process is helping me have greater self-compassion because I understand that my fears, coping mechanisms, and judgments didn’t originate in a vacuum. These behaviors arose to protect me. Now that I understand why they existed in the first place, I can begin to jettison habits that once protected me but no longer serve me .
One thing my sister and I have challenged each other to do is start some reconstruction. We are creating lists that outline what we like so we can recreate ourselves fully as the people we actually are and not the people we were told we were. We are rewriting our stories. That may sound odd or even disingenuous but, when you have spent your life in a pattern of reaction borne out of the fallacy that you are not an expert on your own self, you need to start with the basics to reclaim your identity.
Today my sister threw a gauntlet down. She sent me a photograph of a page where she has started listing things she knows she likes. To keep things equitable, I too started a list. My criteria? Things that make me happy or give me a sense of hope and possibility. Here’s what I have so far:
a sunny day in the mountains
medium roast espresso
puzzles and word games
all types of travel, including long road trips
smelling lily of the valley and lilacs
long, hot showers
deep conversations about faith, life, death, philosophy, space, current events, politics, or anything that avoids the pointless drivel of small talk
skiing, camping, hiking, cycling, kayaking, snorkeling, being active out in nature and not in a gym
documentaries and foreign films
anything with the flavor of passion fruit
the color of a green apple
lectures presented by experts in their field
Coca Cola and Bugles
the Buffalo Bills
Wes Anderson films
I will keep adding to this list in my journal as items come to mind. In the meantime, I know that being bold enough to enumerate here these items is the first step reclaiming my story. I know who I am. I know what I like. No one knows me better than I do. And I’m finished letting others dictate to me who I am.
It can be difficult to know when you are ready to step away from therapy, either for the short or long term. Some days therapy is incredibly useful, and others you may walk out feeling like it was a waste of money. After my session today, though, I am fairly certain I know when I will be ready to call it good for a while:
When I can get through a session without thinking to myself, even for one quick second, “Eeesh…do you hear yourself? Blah…blah…blah. Who cares? Get over it and shut up.”
When I can walk out the door as the session is ending without thanking my therapist and apologizing to her for making her listen to me ramble on for an hour.
I did both of these things today, and it troubles me that I am still struggling to be compassionate to myself for being human and having emotions and thoughts I need to work through and I’m still not believing I’m worth the trouble I put my therapist through, despite the reality that I am paying her to listen and guide me to a better place.
The good news is that I am no longer in the dark about these things. I know the areas where I have room for growth, and I’m not afraid to explore them and move forward despite understanding the speed bumps ahead. This proves that I have become more mindful, so there’s that.
Mondays can be rough no matter what. It’s hard to get going again after a weekend. My Mondays are even more sketchy because I have therapy sessions on Monday mornings. Depending on the type of session, I can find myself mentally exhausted before noon on a day when I typically have a ton to do. So, my Monday looked like this today, Dropped Thing 2 at school at 7:45. Drove the 20 miles home. Did a training session with the puppy. Showered. Drove 22 miles back to the city for therapy and did some tough, emotionally draining work there for an hour. Ran to the liquor store for beverages for a party we’re hosting on Thursday. Stopped by the bank. Drove to two stores to knock off some holiday shopping. Made it home by 2. Ate a little lunch, wrapped a couple gifts, and did some laundry. Left at 3 to pick up some items at a store before collecting Thing 2 at 4:15. I arrived home at 5, just in time to let the dog out and greet hubby who picked up takeout for dinner. The rest of my night has been a blur because I am spent, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I could have fallen asleep at the dinner table, but I powered through.
Steve and I were discussing tonight that the work weeks in the United States are insane. No one needs to be working 40+ hours per week. Wouldn’t we be a much better, healthier, happier, more relaxed, less bitter and homicidal nation if we worked 32 hour weeks and had a day off mid-week instead of just having two days on a weekend? I mean, I know it’s better now than it was back in the mid-1800s when people had to cut lumber to build their own homes and then dig their own wells and grow all their own food. I get it. We’re pretty cushy with our air fryer ovens and indoor plumbing and all, but it’s all what you’re used to. Our lives go at six million miles an hour these days, and it is taxing. It’s no wonder we live for Fridays and want to run away on Mondays. We are inundated with information and news and bombarded with ads and requests for our attention. And, in the midst of all of this, we try to maintain relationships and households. It’s no wonder pioneer folks had their kids working by age 6. They couldn’t do it all without help either.
I think my corgi puppy, Loki, summed Mondays up best when I tried to capture his photo this morning:
The best part about being where I am in my therapy journey is that many of the hardest moments of discovery and realization are behind me. I’ve faced that I was emotionally abused by people who I thought were looking out for me but who never were. I’ve digested the fact that I spent my entire life thus far trying to measure up to expectations that had nothing to do with me. I’ve mourned the loss of what might have been if the actors in this play were different. I’ve also grieved the loss of opportunities I was incapable of accepting in my past because of who I was at the time. I’ve accepted that it is unlikely that my relationships with these people will ever be anything other than what they have been or what they are now. I understand that many of the choices I made in my past were made to keep me safe rather than move me forward. I acknowledge that while I can’t go back and make anything different, the pressure of the sadness, isolation, and rejection I experienced hardened me into something stronger, more resilient, and better than I might have been otherwise. All of this is to say that I’ve done the work. And, while I’m sure I will continue to peel other layers from time to time, I think I finally have a pretty good handle on what triggers me and why it does, along with how I can do better for myself going forward. Progress!
My sister and I have been talking about this a lot. When you grow up being told who you are rather than being allowed to explore and follow your heart and interests, it’s a bit like arriving at adulthood wearing someone else’s cast-off, ill-fitting, moth-ball-scented coat. It’s as if you came into the world naked and instead of getting to choose your clothing, you got handed this ratty old coat and because it was all you were allowed to have you used it to cover your nakedness and protect you from the elements. Now, though, with so much work behind us, we understand that this coat is not ours. It was never meant to be. And even though we’ve been wearing it for years, we didn’t realize until recently that it never suited us and we didn’t like it in the least. It simply was what was, something we were forced to wear when we didn’t know any better and weren’t better equipped to advocate for ourselves.
Now, though, now we get to start over. We’ve arrived at the fun part. We’ve ditched the coats, throwing off the mantle of what we were supposed to be according to someone else, and we’re standing here asking ourselves what we would like to wear in its place. It’s both exciting and stressful. Like a puppy let loose in PetsMart, we’re overwhelmed by the options. There are so many aisles to explore, so many shiny things to distract us as we try to figure out what most appeals to us. The only thing I know for sure that I want is to be a better mother to myself. I want to give myself love and acceptance and to feel comfortable in my skin. I want to feel safe and unconditionally loved just as I am right now. And after I get comfortable with that reality, then I will start figuring out who I am, what I want, what I like, and what I am willing to put up with.
The other day after therapy, I was driving home and the word “limitless” popped into my head. Limitless. I started to think, for just a moment, that maybe this is where I am at. If you remove the obstacles that have kept you boxed and trapped and there’s nothing holding you back, maybe, just maybe you are limitless. I’m going to need to sit with this because this is big.
Mondays are my therapy day. On Mondays when I do some EMDR, I spend most of the rest of the day exhausted, filled with thoughts, and emotionally raw. Today was that kind of Monday. So, while I am still processing some of what I worked on in therapy today and plan on writing more about that soon, for now my brain needs a little break.
One thing has recently become clear to me in this journey I am on. When you’ve spent your life kowtowing to other’s wishes, plans, and ideas for and about your life, it takes a lot of effort to step away from those people and bring your subservience to an end. I thought for many years that I could extricate myself slowly and deliberately from relationships with those who were holding me back without affecting other people in my life. It was a ridiculous thing to ask of myself, but boundaries can be difficult to negotiate. If you are trying to extract yourself slowly, you are likely doing this because you are looking out for someone else. You don’t want to hurt anyone. You don’t want to ruffle feathers. You don’t want to cause trouble for someone else. But what is the cost to you when you are acting against your best interest to make situations easier for someone else? Sometimes you need to choose the nuclear option and immediately disengage without worrying about the fallout because that is the fastest way to get yourself safe. Besides, once you decide to be free, you want your freedom to begin now and not eventually. The hardest part for me about walking away from people who don’t and can’t have my best interests at heart was the feeling that I had to explain myself to others by answering their questions. Why wasn’t I speaking to my parents? Were things really all that bad? And then, one day, it hit me. I don’t owe anyone an explanation about the steps I take to protect myself. I am on a break from my relationships with my parents while I get my head in order, and that is all there is to say about that.
Freedom from negative relationships and abusive cycles is not a luxury. It’s not a frivolous thing that you should put off because you don’t want to trouble anyone or make anyone uncomfortable. Taking steps to secure your mental peace and physical well-being matters in the short and long term. And if that means you have to block contacts and upset a few people, that is the price of taking back your life and your power. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it or talk you into doing the “right” thing (which is only the right thing for them). Look out for yourself. The people who care about you will understand. The ones who act troubled or inconvenienced by your choice have done you a favor by identifying themselves. Don’t give them another minute of residency in your brain.
Life is short. If you’re lucky enough to be able to discern what is holding you back, jettison it. And then walk on.
(Editor’s note: I’ve decided to do a little blog work on memories. I am hoping to tell one story from a past memory each week. This post begins that practice.)
When I was a young girl, my middle sister and I shared a full-size bed in one bedroom. At night, my mom would read us a Little Golden Book. One book that sticks in my mind more than any other was called Good Little, Bad Little Girl. The story was about one little girl who sometimes was well-behaved and other times was not, just like most humans. The “good” little girl was depicted as being neat, clean, calm, and polite, the very ideal of femininity. The “bad” little girl was messy, disheveled, emotional, stubborn, and rude, everything a little girl was not meant to be. As I look back at the book now, I find it appallingly sexist. At the time, however, that is not at all how I understood the story.
The good little girl in the story looked a lot like the sister I shared that bedroom with. She had lovely, smooth, straight, blonde hair that was easy to comb through and was held neatly in barrettes. She was sweet with her baby doll toys, compliant with parents’ wishes, and not any trouble at all. The bad little girl in the story reminded me of myself. She was depicted with unruly hair, sticking her tongue out, pulling the good girl’s hair, and acting like a tomboy. She was not at all what she was “supposed” to be. The parallels between the good and bad girls in the story and my sister and I were uncanny in my young mind. This story was about us.
When my mother read that story to us, I was probably 5 or 6. I didn’t realize the tale was about one girl. I thought it really was about two girls, one good and one bad. At the end of the book, though, the narrator says (spoiler alert): “If you would be happy, if you would be wise, open your ears and open your eyes. Make the bad little girl grow smaller and smaller. Make the good little girl grow taller and taller.” My understanding of that passage at the time was that I, with my less than perfect hair, behavior, and demeanor, was so bad that perhaps I should simply disappear. I had no idea that the girl in the story was one young female child who simply had good days and bad days and was alternately sweet and ornery. I didn’t understand that the book was meant to be a cautionary (if outdated and sexist) tale for young girls about how to best behave. Because my sister looked and acted like the girl in the book, because my mother often held up my sister to me as an example of a good girl (look at how nicely she holds her baby doll), I understood that I simply was the “bad” girl. I realize that my mother was just reading a story book, but we never had any qualifying conversations about the meaning of the book. There was no objective talk to break down the notion that most of us are basically good people with bad days and that, if we strive to be the best versions of ourselves, our bad behaviors may dissipate with time. Without that conversation, my creative mind was left to run wild. And run wild it did. I did not like that book, but it came to be the one I most identified with. It has stuck with me for 48 years.
I’ve discussed this Little Golden Book book in therapy because it is one of the earliest memories I have about how I internalized the notion that I was not a good, acceptable person deserving of love exactly the way I am. There are many stories about myself that I accepted over the years without stopping to question their veracity. I will continue to work on growing my self-esteem through self-compassion until I can put this book (and other stories I was sold about myself) behind me as false narratives that were never true and that I no longer need to carry.
While I am, in nearly all cases, against banning or destroying books, maybe someday I will get my hands on a copy of this book. Then I will burn it for the symbolic and therapeutic relief it will provide. Don’t worry, though. I will leave The Poky Puppy, The Little Red Hen, Scruffy the Tugboat, and Tootle in tact.
I had therapy this morning. Yes. I start my week with a therapy session. It lets me recount my weekend and then try to approach the week with better self-awareness. Unfortunately, sometimes it is also exhausting and makes Monday a little more difficult. Today was one of those days.
We did an EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) session. During EMDR, we target a traumatic memory that continues to cause me anxiety decades after it occurred. I focus on that memory while watching light travel across a bar from left to right and back again repeatedly. I start by thinking about the negative memory and with each passing, short session of eye movement, my brain travels through the emotions of the memory guiding me to experience it again in a different way. I often cycle through sadness and anger before my brain at last hits on the reality behind the memory, diffusing it for me. It sounds hokey, but its ability to allow me to reconstruct my thoughts about myself and my difficult past are no joke.
Today we did some work to reduce my anxiety around other people’s expectations. I am a people pleaser. Not because I particularly care about pleasing people but because I was raised to believe that no one would or could tolerate me unless I behaved according to their expectations and wishes. This learned behavior, attempting to ensure others are happy even while I am making myself anxious and miserable, is debilitating. I am constantly watching other people’s expressions and actions, wondering what negative thing I did to cause them and then panicking about how to fix them so the person will accept me again. If a friend asks me to meet her for coffee to talk, my initial reaction is to wonder what I have done wrong rather than to consider she might just want to talk about something in her life and not some slight I have concocted. I end nearly every therapy session by apologizing to my therapist for rambling on and thanking her for listening to me. It’s absolute madness how my mind catastrophizes how other people view me. This type of anxiety is one thing I continue to work on.
At any rate, today I came up with a strategy that might assist me. I understand that I am not solely responsible for someone else’s discomfort or disappointment. Some of it is not a me problem at all. So I have decided that when I begin to feel that anxiety rising, when I start to feel the urge to bend myself into a pretzel to make someone else comfortable rather than letting them sit with their discomfort and placing myself as a priority, I need to put on my imaginary Wonder Woman golden wrist wraps, cross my arms in front of my chest, and deflect their expectations. I am not responsible for making everyone else happy at the expense of my own schedule, personal wishes, or sanity. I am allowed to expect others to be mature enough to handle their disappointment, frustration, confusion, sadness, or whatever. It’s okay for me to cross my arms and send their energy back to them to deal with on their own. It’s not selfish. It’s adulting. And I can also use the wrist wraps to stop myself from spiraling out of control when a friend says they need to speak to me over coffee. I can block the crazy talk in my head and recognize it as part of an old thought pattern that no longer serves me.
I know I am not the only woman who suffers from this affliction. Women are often conditioned from an early age to be pliable, amiable, and selfless. If we weren’t, why would the world constantly be telling us to smile more often? I would like to see more women, including myself, take a different approach, a healthier one. I would like to see us putting ourselves first more often, deflecting the expectations of others in favor of more self-serving pursuits. So, friends, let’s see if we can pull on our wrist wraps and protect ourselves, and each other, a bit better. We deserve the peace that derives from choosing our own way rather than caving to what is expected of us by others. I’d say we should act more like men, but the truth is we can do better. We can act like the wonder women we are and were always meant to be.
I’ve been in and out of therapy for forever. Okay. Seven years, but it feels like forever. And I’ve been mostly in therapy during those seven years except for a few months when I thought I didn’t need it any longer and turned out to be wrong. Today during my weekly session, I proclaimed once again that I am tired of this process of working to get my head right. I want to be finished. Like yesterday. I declared that I would like to be well-adjusted now, please. My therapist, being the gentle, thoughtful, patient woman she is, reminded me that maybe what I need to focus on again is self-compassion. Recovering from emotional abuse is a process, and I will likely be going through that process for the rest of my life. That is to be expected, and it is okay.
Is it, though? I’m having a rough time swallowing that pill. Although I intellectually understand she is right and even understand that every single person is messed up in their own special way and battling for inner peace along with me, I don’t like this answer. I function best with deadlines, and the notion that perhaps I will be more well adjusted by the time I get to the end of my life, at a time yet to be determined, is a bit too open ended for me as far as deadlines go. I am working on managing expectations because I understand that is a good way to live but, damn, that is also difficult for me. And I work every day to give myself grace as I struggle, knowing that being raised without affection, positive messaging, and unconditional love causes lifelong damage to a person’s psyche. I am defensive, dismissive, and distrusting not because I was born that way but because these were the mechanisms that protected my fragile sense of self and kept me safe. They served a purpose. And now that I understand I am safe and these reactions are no longer needed, I would like to get rid of them sooner rather than later, thank you very much. It’s just not going to happen that way.
So I have been thinking about this all day, and I realize I need to reframe this issue. If I am going to be making slow progress on this, I need to accept it and relax and settle in for the long haul. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. I’m not the hare. I’m the tortoise. In the end, it will all work out. Right now it might feel like I am losing the race, but if I keep plodding along, not taking anything for granted, I will win. Will it happen on my ideal timeline? Apparently not, because if it could happen just by my willing it out of sheer frustration, I would be there already. So a tortoise’s pace it is. I will know I have achieved my goal when I no longer need my protective shell.
A friend posted this artwork to her Instagram this morning. This art piece sums up what I am working to achieve for myself through therapy and meditation. I strive to get to a place where I am able to put space between my thoughts about reality and reality itself. The thing about being a thought-filled introvert is that I spend a lot of time in my brain. My brain, unfortunately, was wired from a young age to view pretty much anything having to do with my appearance, my personality, my choices, and my desires negatively. I am working hard to acknowledge that my thoughts can be like a funhouse mirror, distorting reality and leaving me feeling horrible about myself without sufficient evidence to back up that view. So, the idea of treating my thoughts as clouds, recognizing that they come and go and take shape and lose shape because they are fluid and not at all concrete, is genius.
Like many people, for most of my life I have let my thoughts run away with me without understanding I can control them. When a negative or fearful or self-defeating thought pops into my head, what happens to it depends on my reaction to it. Say I look into a mirror and think, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you look like hell,” I have a choice how I react to that thought. I can let that thought define me and spend the rest of my day self-conscious and sad, with that thought gaining more weight and getting heavier the more I pay attention to it, so that by the end of the day that cloud says, “Your best days are over. You should just go crawl in a hole where no one has to look at you.” I do have another option, though, which is to do some cloud busting. I can reply to that funhouse thought with a hearty “No one believes that, and neither should you,” and move on with my day unencumbered by that knee-jerk, knuckle-headed self talk.
My attitude towards my thoughts creates the difference between a quiet, sunny day with light cirrus clouds and a tumultuous, dark day punctuated by growing cumulonimbus storm clouds. So my task is to put some air space between myself and my thought clouds and to accept that my thoughts don’t always know what they are saying. Many times my thoughts are way off base. The faster I am able to acknowledge that my negative thoughts are just thoughts and not necessarily reflective of reality, the better job I can do clearing them from my head and making room for better thoughts, creative thoughts, thoughts filled with self-love.
Eventually, I hope to become a more effective cloud buster. I would love to be able to set my thought griefcase down and work on sunnier self-reflections.
“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say.” ~Maggie Kuhn
I haven’t spoken to my father in six months. This is not the first time in our relationship when silence has come to fall between us. When I was 23, we had a dispute that led to two full years cessation of contact between us over questions I had regarding a car he had previously owned but that I had purchased from him. During those two years, birthdays and holidays went by without any notes or cards or calls. Even my paternal grandmother stopped acknowledging my existence. I was exiled because I’d had the temerity to ask for advice regarding something that was now my problem. The argument we had over the car and the period of time when we were estranged came to an end only after I had gotten engaged, and my mother told me the right thing to do would be to reach out, share my news, and ask him to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. I didn’t want to do it, but I acquiesced, convinced it was the decent thing to do.
This most recent period of estrangement began in September, but it had been brewing for years. I had asked him a multitude of times not to send me ANY political or religious email forwards, as we hold diametrically opposed views on those topics, among many others. On my birthday in May, he came by to bring me a card and, while we were standing socially distanced from one another in my front yard, he chose to celebrate my birthday by insulting me. We were discussing the necessity of masks during the pandemic, and he let me know that maybe if I watched “real news” as opposed to fake news I would know better. The remainder of that brief visit was strained. We kept our distance after that until in September he sent me another political email, one meant to instruct me once again in how wrong I am regarding my political views. I had had enough. I replied to his message, said I could only assume he had no respect for me or my repeated requests, and therefore I was blocking him from my phone and my email, and taking a break. I was proud of myself for standing my ground. I have been at peace ever since.
Yesterday morning, as usual, I got an emailed, advance photo of the mail to be arriving in the afternoon. In yesterday’s photographic evidence was an image of a long envelope addressed to me in my father’s neatly printed handwriting, all capital letters. I froze. Peace was gone. My stomach flopped nervously. My heart began to race. My mouth lost all moisture. My hands trembled. I began to perspire. My mind raced. I sat in the car for a long while trying to calm myself enough to walk into the grocery store. As I think about that envelope now, the same anxiety pulses through me. I can hazard a guess as to what is written inside, but I don’t know for certain as I could not bring myself to gather in the mail from the box yesterday. So it sits there still as I try to decide if I want to travel down that road again.
Most of my life has been a steady stream of people, beginning with my parents, telling me how to treat my parents and how to feel about their actions. For forty-plus years, their words kept me in line. They told me that I owed my parents respect and support and kindness and gratitude. They told me I was lucky because I’d had a home, food, and a couple new outfits at the beginning of each school year. It’s not like I was chained in a basement for eighteen years. I should be grateful. About seven years ago, however, I came to see things differently. I began noticing the anxiety that surfaced when my phone flashed with my parents’ numbers. I’m guessing that if you come from a family where your parents taught you through their words and actions that you were loved, respected, and cherished, you feel that same way about them and can’t imagine not having them in your life. You want to take care of them they way they took care of you. But what is your responsibility to parents when your memories of them aren’t happy and filled with love? What if thoughts of your parents bring you only PTSD? What then?
It’s only recently that I have come to understand that living your life out of duty and a sense of fairness to others in a way that compromises your own mental stability is not a healthy way to live. I don’t know what’s in that letter in the mailbox from my dad. I suppose it could contain an apology or a plea to end the discord between us. I imagine that is unlikely, though, as I have never received such a thing from either of my parents yet. My parents, god bless them, are just who they are. They believe they have done right by me, the best they could, better than they got perhaps. But my cotton-mouthed, trembling-hand anxiety belies that notion. My body’s physical response means that it understands danger and aims to protect me even if I have been unwilling to protect myself. I’m 52 now, old enough to comprehend that if the thought of speaking to someone sends you into a panic attack, you can choose not to speak to them. The dozens upon dozens of small infractions by my parents built up over the years, leaving me with a fight-or-flight mentality where they are concerned. Seven years of weekly therapy has not been able to untangle that mess. I’m better now than I used to be because at least I am able to recognize the apprehension and discomfort and to honor it. I’ve learned that I have choices. I’ve learned that it’s not right to feel dread when you think of seeing or speaking to your parents. It’s not normal. It is not a universal experience. You know who taught me that? My sons. They did not have the same childhood I did. I raised them to know they are my entire world, the sunshine in my heart. And now as young adults they look out for me the way many children look out for their aging parents. They want me to be safe and happy and to know I am loved and appreciated.
So, I may go get the mail today and set that letter aside for a day when I am stronger and know its contents cannot hurt me. Or I may let my husband read it and decide what to do with it. Or I might just run it through a shredder because everything I need to know about our situation has already been played out cyclically for decades. I’m not certain if speaking my truth here will cause members of my family to become angry with me. I’m not sure who I might alienate with this admission. I only know one thing. I need to stand my ground and put other people’s ideas about how I should treat my parents out of my field of view. They haven’t walked in my shoes. They don’t carry my scars. And maybe if I turn off the gaslight I have been carrying around since it was handed to me in my childhood I won’t be able to read that letter at all.