Breaking the Cycle

by Heligirl on April 30, 2010

in Daily Ramblings

I was a ball of nerves, anger and frustration. The man I was dating mentioned a former girlfriend’s name once and that she was his “first.” I discovered she was attending my school and I was obsessing over this woman – where was she, what did she look like, did she care she took his virginity, does she think of him, yadda, yadda. At the same time I knew there was no logical reason to ever have these feelings. Something was wrong with my thinking and it was making me very upset.

So I found myself in the student medical center with a psychology Ph.D. candidate. He’d just said, “we’re reaching the end of our hour” when it hit me like a ton of bricks. Suddenly I felt the emotional equivalent of a dam break and said, “I feel inferior” as I burst out crying. That was the day I started to heal. I was 19.

Everyone has their childhood horror stories and I’ve hesitated to share mine because it’s not the worst out there by any means. I always second guess myself and end up deleting my post, telling myself “no one cares about your trivial, whiney issues with your parents. We all have them.”

But now that I see how desperately I’m working to assure that my babies never have these feelings, I’m compelled to share what I’ve finally learned about my own childhood in hopes that perhaps it speaks to someone else’s experience. I hope you’ll stick with me through this.

If you do nothing else, give your children unconditional love free of criticism. That in itself is the root of everything. A lack of unconditional love paired with cutting criticism is child abuse, outright emotional child abuse that leaves a lifetime of scars.

It all starts with my mom. My mom suffered severe mental abuse from her mother throughout her entire childhood. Love was withheld, love was conditional, punishment was swift and unrelated to the “crime,” criticism was constant and self esteem was non-existent. It wasn’t until I was well into my adulthood that I was able to really understand her childhood. That was what made it possible for me to start forgiving and understanding her.

When you come out of a childhood where you’re severely emotionally abused, you can choose one of two paths, to be a victor or a victim. My mother chose the latter. When you go through life as the victim, you don’t take responsibility for your life, your actions, what’s happening to you, or where you are. It’s always someone else’s fault. This breeds resentment and hate. This was the environment where I was raised.

Mom always put people down. She made fun of how they lived, what they looked like, their size, everything. She was very, very critical, and we were no exception. I could do my very, very best at something and she always found the one thing I didn’t do right and pointed that out. My best friend from high school told me a story a couple of years ago I’d forgotten that really illustrated this for me:

“You just got your driver’s license in the mail and you were so excited,” she said. “You ripped open the envelope and showed it to her. She took one look and said “well, I guess they did the best with what they had to work with” in response to your picture. Your face just fell and I wanted to hug you and tell your mom to fuck off. I thought it was a great picture and I was proud, and jealous, that you had your license. That was what she was always doing to you, finding a way to put you down when you were feeling good.”

To add insult to injury, I was born with hip dysplasia and clubbed feet (a direct result of my mother’s own uterine birth defect). Did she house guilt for that, or was it just another excuse to feel victimized in her mind? I don’t know. I never asked. I also never blamed her. While she and my dad where there through countless surgeries and both are credited with helping me maintain some level of independence and self-dependence through all the healing, neither knew how to arm me with the self-confidence I’d need to face my peers. From about first grade when kids start to learn how to really put each other down and hurt feelings, I became the outcast – cripple, gimpy, spaz – you name it, that’s what I was called because I walked with a limp.

I had no idea how to respond. I tried so hard to make friends and fit in that it just pushed people further away. I remember thinking I just wasn’t worth anyone really loving and accepting me. All that criticism at home and school took its toll. I began to repeat it back to myself – that’s a stupid idea, no one is going to listen to you, he’ll never call, etc.

Luckily, the independence and self sufficiency my parents taught me when recovering from surgeries led me to adopt an independent and competitive attitude. I worked my ass of in school, worked hard through college, and followed my dreams to be a journalist and a helicopter pilot. I am very competitive, wanting to achieve and forever locked into an invisible competition to win approval.

Yet, none of these successes ever convinced my mom I was good enough. When I started to learn to fly, I was “chasing after helicopter pilots.” When I got my license, I was wasting my husband’s money. When I got an internship in LA to work in PR at NBC, I was chasing after movie stars. Her critical snips made me feel dirty and underhanded, like my dreams and goals had wretched ulterior motives and as such were really crap.

I attracted men who treated me the same. Everything that went wrong in those relationships was my fault, according to them. Other things were always more important than me. And I believed it. I wasn’t worth shit.

After I took the time to talk to my favorite aunt and learn about my mother’s childhood, talk with my childhood friends about their observations, and pay for a lot of therapy was I able to see that I did have worth and was worth loving. I had legitimately achieved my goals and I only needed to feel good about them myself. I’m not inferior after all. And my mom most likely doesn’t believe I’m a failure and annoyance. She just doesn’t know any different way to parent.

In time, I began to feel a little better about myself and that’s when my hubby came into my life. Then my two wonderful babies. My hubby keeps me honest. If he sees me acting like a victim, he calls me on it. He knows my past and he’s seen first hand (at our wedding no less) how my mom can be.

So this is where my deep passion for positive discipline came to be. I desperately want my kids to build a positive internal dialog and believe in themselves. My deepest dream is to break this wretched cycle my mom’s mom started and raise my kids to never feel the need to break their necks trying to please other people. To find pleasure and satisfaction in your own achievements without needing any outside validation would be true nirvana.

So from the heart of an emotionally abused child, I beg you to focus on assuring your love for your children is always unconditional and criticism has no place in your home. Only through positive discipline and compassionate parenting can we raise an emotionally healthy generation to care for our future. We’re so lucky to live in an age where information and support is a few clicks away. We have the ability to break these destructive cycles and plan for concrete changes in our children.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read through this. I’d really like to hear your thoughts and stories of what family cycles you’re trying to break. I encourage you to please leave a comment, and if you’re feeling really brave, write a post of your own about a change you’re making in your family from what took place in your childhood and link back to this post in the links below. I so look forward to hearing from you and thanks again!

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Raechelle April 30, 2010 at 1:12 pm

In looking back, I think I’m very fortunate. I had very loving, affectionate parents, even if they were cranky and negative.

The only beef I have with them (and have, since becoming a parent, discussed with them) was their very liberal use of the word “lazy”. When I was 13 and I slept until 10am on a Saturday, I was yelled at to get my lazy ass out of bed. Now that I’m a parent of a 12 and a 15 year old, I am witnessing their growth spurts and I see them sleep for 12 hours straight. They are not lazy. They are changing. And it is exhausting.

Even when they are truly being lazy (not putting dishes in the dishwasher, not picking up their dirty clothes), I refuse to use that word. Because I am now a 35 year old woman who cannot sit still and must be productive AT ALL TIMES for fear that if I’m not, I will be perceived as lazy. I get cranky when my husband is not as productive as I am, I wear myself out by cramming too much into the evenings and weekends, and I feel guilty every Friday when I have to sit still for two hours because of family pizza/movie night.

I’m still trying to train myself that it’s okay to *not* be productive every waking minute. The world is not going to end, and my husband will not stop loving me, if I sit on my butt and watch a movie with him instead of doing the laundry or washing the dishes. But sometimes he still needs to remind me 🙂

Heligirl May 2, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Thanks so much for the heartfelt comment on Raechelle!! You’re so very, very sweet to take the time to share your experience with me. I’m feeling so very blessed and so much better about my past with each thoughtful response from my wonderful bloggy pals.

I can totally see where you got the issue with “lazy.” I so heard that all the time too, and even started setting my alarm to wake up early so she’d stop saying that to me, only to see my grades suffer because I was so tired all the time. I’m suffering from the inability to sit still too for the same reason, and really have to hold myself back from criticizing my hubby for sitting down when there are things to do. He’s very helpful and supportive around the house. He doesn’t deserve that.

Big hats off to our wonderful hubbies for helping us overcome these things.

Brittany at Mommy Words May 1, 2010 at 5:29 am

Hi! I found you through TMC this morning and popped over. My mom was always wonderful and comforting but my dad was extrememly judgemental, and still is. Nothing is good enough and now that I am adult I realize that he did not want to let his kids be who they were meant to be. I have “turned out okay” but I am VERY indpendent and followed my own path, even going through years of estrengement from my father. My 3 siblings are still trying to figure out who they are and what role our papa will play in their life. Your message is what we try to live. POSTITIVITY. Self- Discipline. We laugh at our mistakes and move on to the the next time. We do discilpline and say no but we do not mock what our children are asking for – no matter how ridiculous the request may be.

Great post – keep sharing! It makes bloggy friends so very special. And you will always find support in this interney land!

Nice to meet you!

p.s. those are some handsome little guys you have there in your camera post!

Heligirl May 2, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Thanks Brittany,

Kudos to you for your independence and putting your foot down with your dad. I tried to do that with my mom so many times but it never lasted very long. I am way too motivated by guilt.

Luckily, in the last year and a half, my mom has made a huge improvement due to both the birth of my kids and a new man in her life who recently proposed. She’s very happy now and is making a considerable effort to repair our relationship. It’s made life so much better and sure helps with the healing.

Erin May 1, 2010 at 6:02 am

I think I am too critical of myself and everyone else. I don’t say mean things, but I think it comes through more in my actions than anything else….like asking the kids to make their beds, and they do–and then i go behind them and re-do it. Which translates to them that they didn’t do it well enough. I should leave it alone.

My parents were loving and were there for me, but I was scarred in other ways. My dad came out of the closet when I was 15 and I think I have major trust issues ever since. I have a hard time letting people in. I expect people to leave without any warning. I am never sure who is hiding something from me….

I wish to be a positive role model for my daughters. I’m seeing a therapist and taking medication and hope to pull myself up out of this pit and become a better mom to them so that they don’t suffer by my hand….

Heligirl May 2, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Thanks so much Erin. And thanks for your honest sharing. My heart goes out to you my friend. I feel for you with the trust issues. My parents divorced when I was 9 and dad married soon after, letting that new wife make her family the priority, which made me feel abandoned in a way, even though dad tried to be there for us. It took a long time before I could believe a man wasn’t going to leave me.

Yes, I battle with those overly critical issues. I’m my worst critic to this day and I fight so hard not to criticize. My poor husband gets the worst of it, and bless his heart, he calls me on it. That helps so very much.

Thanks again for sharing. It means so much to have such wonderful bloggy pals we can share and support together, doesn’t it.

Jennifer @ three pugs & a baby May 1, 2010 at 8:29 pm

I just want to hug you. Thank you for sharing this deeply personal post.

A favorite in my house was “There’s always room for improvement.” Come home with a 99, why wasn’t it 100? God I hate that phrase. I am a Type A perfectionist and I am always aware of what I say to Turtle. I always wants to be uplifting and positive with him, so he never has to hear “there’s always room for improvement.”

I’m so glad you are on the path to healing and breaking that cycle.

Heligirl May 2, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Thanks so much for the sweet comment Jennifer. You’re such a sweetie. This was so really hard to write and it’s been so much better since getting the kind notes and comments. It is very comforting to know others have similar “issues” for the lack of a better word.

I heard in a self-improvement course once that the type A personality is often born from the withholding of love and criticism that suggests we’re not good enough and can’t please our parents. So we over strive the rest of our lives against that invisible and unobtainable approval.

Hugs to you my friend!

Kirsten May 2, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Wow, I’m so sorry you had to endure that! But lucky for your kids that you are so in tune with how parents can make a child feel. I totally agree that we as parents create their “internal dialogue” and it is always something I have thanked my parents for. Many of my friends don’t have the same internal voice and I am very concious of creating a postive one for my kids. We ALL make stupid mistakes in life and being able to say “wow, that sucked but I know I can do better/try again/people love me” vs “gosh, I’m so stupid, I’ll never get it right” is the CORE of a successful child!

Kate Walton May 3, 2010 at 8:15 am

Jen, just wanted to say how much I admire you–your extraordinary inner strength, your honesty, and your compassion. Your beautiful children won the Mommy lottery in a big way; truly, they could not be in more capable or more loving hands.

JennyB May 5, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Jen, I really appreciated your honest and open appeal in this post. I considered myself well loved through childhood, but my parents were very busy outside the home. I want to support my children’s development through their teens by participating in their lives.

You are a brave and passionate woman with so much to be proud of, and so much to look forward to. Thanks for our chat today. I look forward to spending more time learning from you!

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