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I recall my Mother holding my hand as a young child and leading me through the doors of a homeless shelter during the holidays where she introduced me to a family composed of a mom and her two children.
It was the first time I had ever encountered an individual who was homeless. The sight of their torn clothes, dirty faces, and thin bodies evoked a feeling of fear and helplessness.
As I entered their unit clutching freshly wrapped toys to my chest, my mother gave me a little push forward, encouraging me to hand over the gifts. As I did, the children’s mother began crying and the children, upon tearing open their gifts, immediately began chanting in excitement.
At her core, that was who my mother was—loving, giving, and selfless.
Over the years of my young life, my mom would commit loving acts repeatedly, simply because she could. My mom was also hilarious (inappropriate-jokes-in-public-until-you-cried funny), smart, obnoxiously stubborn, outgoing, a lover of singing, writing, and the hardest working person I have ever met.
Unfortunately, in addition to her loving nature, she could also be cold and cruel.
When we grow up in consistent chaos and uncertainty, we have no inner context with which to relate or organize what is happening. Therefore what happens to us must be our fault. My seven-year-old brain could not rationalize or comprehend that my mom’s actions and behaviors stemmed from her own history of trauma, and that none of it had to do with me. To my developing mind and growing psyche, my mother’s love was conditional and contingent on my siblings’ and my actions or responses.
So I learned to become what my mother wanted and needed.
I learned to constantly adjust who I was to earn her love, no matter what that meant.
I learned to ignore my needs, sacrifice my boundaries, and leave the pursuit of emotional growth for my mother’s love.
When I was 16 my mother had a stroke, which left her completely paralyzed. She spent the remainder of her life in a nursing home, confined to a bed.
After her stroke, though there was a brief period of relief in which I was free of the immediate emotional pain, I quickly came to experience incapacitating anxiety and depression.
If I was not constantly transforming myself to be who someone else wanted me to be, who the hell was I?
My mom’s absence left me a fragile shell of a person filled with uncertainty, low-self-esteem, immense shame, depression, poor protective boundaries, and no sense of self-identify or awareness of personal needs.
I entered therapy.
One of the hardest parts of my therapeutic journey was reconciling both the painful things I felt in response to how my mother’s behaviors and actions had affected me, and with the immense love I had for her.
As a result, I struggled with placing boundaries for many years, telling myself it was okay for people to hurt me if they also expressed their love for me occasionally. As you can imagine, this led to a pattern of toxic relationships. But the familiarity was somehow comforting and easier for me to hold onto.
Through the help of a therapist and people who genuinely love me, I eventually began to pick up the pieces of my fragmented self when I was 22. To this day, there are still pieces of myself I continue to find and pick up as I go through my own journey.
Through the journey of picking up the pieces, I have learned some valuable lessons I want to share:
1. What you heal in yourself, you heal in the generations that come after you.
To take a step away from generational trauma and decide on another path is f*cking courageous. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and insight to break away from who you were molded to be. When you heal yourself, you not only heal your family line and those you come into contact with, but you find the inner parts of you that were buried underneath years of rubble. The authenticity of who you are will come with time if you are willing to dig deep.
2. You do not have to settle for anything.
You are a warrior and you get to decide when to pick up the pieces and what to do with them. This is particularly hard for a lot of people because once you have been raised with a certain set of self-beliefs and ideologies, it can be hard to break free of them. People pleasing can be a big part of experiencing emotional trauma.
Find ways to self-validate through activities that create empowerment within you. Seek people who make you feel good about yourself. You will feel like a fraud at first; an impostor. But the more you go against your internal nature to conform to other people’s unhealthy expectations and find your authenticity, the happier you will be.
3. Love should never be conditional.
There will be people who will make you feel like love is conditional or as if you are not worth their time. Some may make you feel that you don’t deserve better. But they are wrong. The parts of you that have been broken or damaged give you insights and strengths that many people spend their entire lives working to obtain. Love should nurture you and challenge you to grow, but it should never give you conditions you have to measure up to in order to feel loved.
4. You have a right to whatever you feel, and one gets to tell you otherwise.
During one of my sessions, I was talking about a feeling I had, then immediately retracted it saying, “I shouldn’t say that, it’s not okay.” My therapist reminded me that there was “no such thing as a bad or wrong feeling.” Sure, how we choose to express our feelings is subject to consequences, but you never have to apologize for the thoughts or feelings you experience. They are uniquely and beautifully formed from a lifetime of experiences, good and bad. They are you.
5. It is okay to love the people who hurt you, but do not let them rinse and repeat.
For many years, I struggled to acknowledge that my mother’s actions when growing up had not been okay. The protective part of my brain wanted to hold onto the parts of her that loved me. My child brain frequently took over and repeatedly asked, how could someone who loved me behave in such ways—the ways which caused me to feel like I needed to sacrifice myself to please her.
It took many years to come to a point where I could identify that despite loving my mother, her actions were painful and as an adult, I would never allow that sort of behavior from anyone else. We all make mistakes and inevitably hurt one another, but when we love someone, we strive to improve ourselves to be an unconditionally loving witness to that person’s journey. Love does not require you to sacrifice parts of your inner world to improve someone else’s life.
6. It is okay and necessary to put yourself first.
As a perpetual people pleaser, it was challenging to learn how to say no when I was exhausted. But once I was brave enough to test out the word “no,” I noticed people did not automatically resent me, walk away from me, or hate me. Those who did, had issues of their own to work through and it was never about me.
Take time to take care of yourself and set boundaries often. Start small, start low, speak often. Maybe you say, “No thanks,” or, “Not today.” Start somewhere and reclaim your power. Eventually you will find that saying no becomes easier and easier the more you do it.
As I continue to walk through my own recovery journey, I have learned how strong, smart, brave, and resilient I am. I have a lifetime of complicated experiences (as do we all, in one way or another) that have come together to form the imperfect, but incredible person I am. No matter what you have lived through or experienced, I want you to know you are loved, you are uniquely wonderful, and you are worth it. Don’t give up on yourself.