I acknowledge that for much of the first 40+ years of my life, I hid behind a really beautiful mask. I might have looked like I had it all together but, as I shared in another blog, I was suffering in silence and was a pretty conflicted soul. I deeply and desperately wanted to create a life that was not an extension of my unfavorably shattered childhood, but rather, embraced and reflected the blessings of the things I learned while growing up in that fairly unenviable environment.
I know that was my intention, but it has been a difficult and arduous task, given all the baggage I have carried with me as I tried to accomplish that formidable feat. As I look back, I must concede that under the weight of those bags, I made choices that were not in the best interests of my children or my husband or even myself for that matter.
Those choices seemed really reasonable at the time, but in retrospect, some of them proved to be anything but adaptive and beneficial. I can see now, as Gordon Neufeld would suggest, that I was valiantly trying to “influence the verdict”. That is, I spent much of my life twisting myself into whatever shape and/or presentation I thought was needed for people to appreciate me, accept me, and approve of me … in order to quiet my overly kindled amygdala.
I know now that this is a primal stress response called “fawning.” The sad truth is that I spent oodles of energy trying to manipulate people’s perspectives in an effort to avoid feeling rejected. And, because it worked, I had to keep doing it. It was a never ending cycle. In retrospect, I can see that all my perfecting and people-pleasing and performing and proving were simply very misguided attempts to help me feel safe.
And, as I look back on it now, I can ALSO see clearly how my father’s alcoholism was, at it’s core, a misguided attempt to numb the shame and escape the pain and heartbreaking wounds of his own very unfortunate childhood. I’m sure his choices seemed sensible to him at the time, too. But, he often scared me. He was unpredictably angry and emotionally volatile. Unfortunately, he never found his way from the ‘mad’ (that typified his energy) to the deeper truth of ‘sad’ (that was buried beneath his hardened heart) until he was about 75 years old. It was such a gift to our relationship when he did … but … it takes courage to peek down into the most fragile, fear-filled parts of our soul. It’s necessary, though, because we can never truly ‘heal’ until we can ‘feel’ the pain beneath the anger.
And, it’s very humbling to recognize that his emotional unavailability, abandonment and neglect were no more damaging to me than my perfectionism, over-protection and overindulgence were for my own three daughters. No one intends to hurt their children. We simply get so caught up in our own pain that we can’t see beyond it. If only he and I had been better able to tend to our own wounds … sooner. We would have been so much more present to the needs of our children.
It also becomes apparent, as I look back on it now, how tortured by guilt and shame my mom seemed to be. I can see that see loved herself so conditionally. And, I learned to do the same. My mom really did the best she could given all her health issues, and I really felt her love for me (when she was engaged) and/or when I had outdone myself in my perpetual efforts to earn it. The problem was that she was not healthy enough (emotionally or physically) for me to count on her to predictably reassure my lovability. And, then she spent so much time in hospital … both medical and psychiatric. When I was in foster care, I was always working to ensure they would appreciate and accept me. And since I had very little contact with my Dad after they divorced, I honestly felt very much on my own … far too often.
As Neufeld wisely theorizes, the most healthy relationships are hierarchical in nature. You have someone assuming the alpha role of ‘taking charge’ and ‘taking care of things’ … and then you have those who are being cared for … assuming the more dependent role. Usually, it is our parents who assume the alpha, care-giving role. Unfortunately, because of my mom’s ill health, I often ended up taking charge of things that often felt way to big to handle. I ended up learning how to take care of myself instead of simply being able to trust that I could lean in and someone would be there to care for me and meet my needs.
As I reflect upon it now, I can see that sometimes I still ache for something Neufeld calls “Alpha Love”. When you are in the presence of a strong alpha love, you feel safe, protected, cared for and looked after. You trust your needs will be met. And in that space of trust, you can ‘rest’ in the presence of predictable and reliable care-giving … you can quit ‘working’ for love. You don’t feel like you have to ‘earn’ enough love to ‘feel’ safe. You don’t feel like you are in charge of the well-being of the relationship. In the presence of alpha love, you can just lean in and simply rest in the certainty that even if there are bumps in the road, … you will still be safe, loved and cared for at the deepest level.
In hindsight, I can see that I parented my children by giving them what I most needed rather than what they most needed. I didn’t have anywhere to lean in as a child … so … I was very alpha with them. Probably too much so. I not only protected, but I rescued. I think I sometimes even smothered my children in my fervent efforts to keep them safe and sound. Gah.
I’m alpha by default. I take care of people … I take charge of things. I look after whatever needs to be tended to. I even get paid to be alpha. I became a counsellor/therapist because I really want to support people. The only one I haven’t taken the best care of is me. Sadly, I have unwittingly perpetuated the pattern established in my past. I have often neglected and abandoned myself in an effort to ensure that I don’t abandon others.
And sadly, although I hate to admit it out loud … I think it is fair to say that I have not historically trusted that people would take care of me. So, until I did some deep healing, I rarely expressed my needs or asked for help. And, when and if I do so now, I sometimes have trouble resting in the certainty that people won’t drop the ball. My anxious mind falls back into old patterns and gets concerned that if I lean in too far … no one will be there to catch me. Those old neural networks of insecurity don’t take much to get re-activated.
It has taken me many years to discover that working on my own issues is the most loving and caring thing I could ever do for my family. And, I have been actively committed to my own healing for the last 20+ years. And, as a result of that, I have chosen to forgive myself for dragging my own sweet cherubs through so much because of my unhealed issues. I simply couldn’t see how I was bruising them along the way any more than my parents could see what their pain was doing to me. It’s so humbling to recognize that I, too, have caused my children the kind of distress I had trouble forgiving my parents for inflicting upon me.
And, through all my own healing, I have arrived at a place where I honestly forgive my parents … and … I honestly forgive me. We were simply doing the best we could at the time. I have humbly offered my sincerest apologies to my children and have let go of all regret that it could have been different. As Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, you do better.”
I could not see how I could only truly love them when I truly loved me. And, I could only truly love myself when I could stop my chronic efforts to earn love, approval and appreciation. Because … it is only when love feels un-instigated by ourselves that we can actually let it land in our hearts. One of the most transformational lessons that I have integrated as part of my healing journey is that love is not something we should need to work for … ever. Rather, it is something to be welcomed, received and savored.
With deepest gratitude for the shifts in my vision, 🧡 Karen 🧡