The new year brings with it new challenges, new chapters and new beginnings. But before we look ahead I think it’s important to look back, to make sure that we’ve taken care of all of our childhood baggage. This is important, because if you refuse to do this work, these unresolved issues will continue to manifest in your life, and you will have a never ending battle, trying to manage symptoms, rather than eliminating the problem at its source.
Many people eat, drink, or do drugs to counteract the painful feelings from childhood neglect, or abuse, these are clearly inappropriate coping mechanisms – bandages, that only mask the problem. When you’ve been brought up to feel not good enough, you really do feel a void. You feel incomplete and you believe that if you could only figure out what it is that’s missing and become perfect, then everything would be ok.
The truth is nothing is missing – the problem isn’t with what you are not, or what you’re lacking, it’s with your mind set, and what you were taught to believe – that’s where something is missing and what’s missing is the truth.
If you think that this isn’t relevant, ask yourself, ‘What kind of people put up with being abused by their partners?’ The answer is, typically those who have self-worth issues. How does one get self-worth issues? – Childhood abuse or neglect. If you want to develop self-worth, then you have to do the work. Intellectually understanding something is sometimes not enough to convince your emotional self to change the way you think.
I read a great book over the holidays called Toxic Parents, by Dr. Susan Forward. If this is something you are struggling with I recommend Forward’s book. It is one of the better ones on this topic. She talks about getting to a place of self-definition, which she defines as, feeling free to have your own thoughts, beliefs and opinions, completely independently from anyone else’s.
So often, when we come from abusive homes, we fail to see the abuse for what it was. To a child, our parents are Godlike – they provide and they protect us and when they fail to do either one, then children have an uncanny way of making that all their fault (Daddy beat me, because I’ m bad, or mommy humiliated me, because I’m worthless). Denial runs rampant in toxic households and the status quo is retained, when everyone agrees to live by their parents version of reality.
When you start to develop self-definition, you begin to realize that your childhood wasn’t normal, that all children have a right to not just food and shelter, but to be emotionally nourished, respected and treated in a manner that fosters growth, independence and self-esteem. Parents don’t have the right to physically harm, belittle, shame or disrespect their children.
When parents plant the seeds of love, respect, trust, and independence, children grow up to be adults, who can focus on their passions and ideals unencumbered by self-doubt, but when parents plant the seeds of incompetency, fear, obligation and shame, you spend much of your adult life battling these demons, instead of focusing on pursuits that make life worthwhile.
Toxic parents don’t give their children the tools they need to be their best and trying to figure this stuff out, as an adult, is very difficult.
The Three P’s
One aspect Forward talks about is, Perfectionism, Procrastination and Paralysis. When you’ve been taught that you can’t do anything right and you’re not good enough, you get caught in the perfectionism trap, where you believe that anything you do must be perfect. Since that’s impossible, you put it off and put if off and then it becomes so daunting and overwhelming, you feel like you can’t move. This strikes a chord with me, because I always believed that I had to be perfect and what always ended up happening was, nothing would ever get done, because I was so afraid of being judged as lacking, or I’d put if off till later, when I was perfect. I spent a lot of my life on the sidelines, waiting for perfect to show up. It never did.
Responding vs Reacting
Forward tell us that one of the ways you know you’ve reached Self-Definition is when you’ve learned to respond rather than react.
When you are reactive, you are dependent on the approval of others. You feel good about yourself, only when no one disagrees, criticizes or disapproves of you. This is an easy behavior to spot in yourself , when I was reactive I would need to have back-up whenever there was conflict. I’d have to discuss the situation with others and have them on my side. I didn’t trust myself enough to have faith in my own convictions, only when others agreed with me did I feel secure.
When you are being responsive you are thinking, as well as feeling. You are aware of your feelings, but you don’t let them drive you to act impulsively. It allows you to maintain a sense of self-worth, despite whatever anyone else thinks or feels. I remember an event two years ago at work when a co-worker was very upset with me, for something I felt was insignificant. But their outrage was so extensive, that I doubted myself, I felt lower than the lowest. I wanted to cry and I only felt better when people were on my side. Now a couple years later I, not too recently, had a run in with the same co-worker. This time their behavior rolled right off my back and I didn’t concern myself with it. I don’t attach my emotions to other people’s behavior and I trust myself now, so no one is able to knock me off balance, or out of my place of well-being. Many try, but they don’t succeed anymore.
I find a lot of times unhealthy people love to stir up trouble and drama and unhealthy people react emotionally to it. As I’ve grown and become healthier, I no longer feed it any energy. I’m above that kind of nonsense now and when I spot it in others I recognize that that person is unhealthy and I don’t engage. Forward calls this being non-defensive and she’s right. When people try to suck you in and you know you haven’t done anything worth all the attention they are bringing, there is nothing to be defensive about. When you react you are being defensive. When you don’t react you remain balanced and retain your personal power.
Forward believes that when you’ve gotten to the place of self-definition comfortably, then you need to prepare to confront your abusers. This is something that a lot of abused children are terrified of doing. The purpose of this, is to put the responsibility precisely where it belongs – with your parents and to understand that you were just a child and didn’t deserve what happened to you. A question she often asks her patients is, “Would you treat your own child like that?” And not surprisingly, most if not all of them said, “No” – they would not. This isn’t about blame, but it is about accountability and responsibility and making your abusers aware of how hurtful and inappropriate their behavior was. It also opens the door for a potentially healthy dialogue, as well as an opportunity for you, to take control of your personal power and set boundaries.
This confrontation isn’t about the abuser and getting them to admit what they’ve done and getting an apology, because chances are, that won’t happen. It is all about you and your healing, she cautions that you shouldn’t be surprised if your abusers deny there was ever any abuse. They might blame you,( you were such a difficult child). They might say, ‘we did the best that we could’ – which doesn’t even remotely make it ok. You may not get the reaction that you want, but what you have done, is made the separation, you’ve come back to reality and you’ve made a decision that the abuse stops here. Remember what you don’t pass back, you pass on.
To be free of your past, means that you aren’t going to let the wake steer your boat anymore. Your past will no longer affect your future. Once you’ve reconciled your past, you can begin to be present and fully participate in the now, without being encumbered by your demons. When you have healed, you no longer feel broken, or that something is missing and you stop replaying old scripts and patterns in your adult relationships.
This is the beginning of a new year and it’s time to shed your old skin and embrace the truth about our past, so we can grow and have a future that’s worth celebrating.
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