Freaked Out By “Shoulds” – A client’s letter to her mother

I realize that I was always trying to be who you wanted me to be …

This letter was written by a client as a ‘therapy’ homework assignment and I thought it was incredibly powerful. She gave me permission to reproduce it as long as I waited at least a year and omitted her name. I have done both. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen through the years that could have written the same letter addressed to either a mother or father.  Read through and see my thoughts at the end…

Dear Mama,

I’ve been asked to write a letter to you that expresses my feelings about growing up as your daughter. I’ve thought long and hard about what I want to say to you because I don’t want to hurt your feelings. In fact, I’ve always wanted to just love you. I’ve wanted you to love me and I think you did. In your own way. I have had a hard time understanding that you love me because I don’t believe that you ever accepted me. There were so. many. shoulds. I can’t get rid of them.

I know, you say that you do accept me except that you kept telling me all the things I “should” do. You told me I ‘should’ go to church, that I ‘should’ date Kevin, that I ‘should study harder, and that I ‘should’ go back to school. I tried to tell you that those things didn’t matter to me but you didn’t listen. You told me I ‘should watch what I eat” that I ‘should’ wear my hair short, and that I ‘shouldn’t’ wear short shorts. If I had done those things, I would have been a mini version of YOU – not me. Those things weren’t ‘me’. More than that, you told me I ‘should’ have kids before I got much older and when I did you went so far as to tell us how we ‘should’ parent them. Jesus mom… why ‘should’ I??

Today, I am freaked out by all the ‘shoulds’ that I’ve never achieved. I feel like a failure. I didn’t do what you thought I ‘should’ and somehow I decided that since I wasn’t doing those things that you wouldn’t (couldn’t?) love me. I am not all the things I ‘should’ be mama and I know you are disappointed. Here’s the thing I am confused about.

Why couldn’t you just love ME. The person I am. Why do I have to be like you in order to be considered good or OK? Why do I have to like what you like? Why can’t you just be OK with the person that I am? I’m not a crack addict or a mass murderer. I’m a pretty good person but I feel like it will never be ‘good enough’.

Frankly mama, I didn’t ask to be here. You did that. And because you chose to bring me into this world, I would assume that you might just be happy with who I am but that’s not what I thought for most of the time that I was growing up.

Yes, you came to my basketball games. Yes, you bought me a prom dress. Yes, you sent me to college. I probably didn’t appreciate any of those things at the time as much as I could have. However, I never felt like I could really talk to you. I was always waiting for the next criticism to come. “Don’t eat that”, “you need to lose five pounds”, “Don’t drink, or have sex, or curse”, “go to class”, “clean your car”, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I’m in therapy now mama and I am trying to discover who I am. I realize that I was always trying to be who you wanted me to be and I never figured out what felt right to me. I am almost forty and I am just now doing that. I am not blaming you per se as the therapist tells me you probably did the best you knew how to do. I hope to accept that someday.

In the meantime, I want you to know that I am throwing all those shoulds out the window and I am asking you right here, right now to ACCEPT ME AS I AM. I think that is your role as my mother. Just love me and all the things that might be different from you. We don’t have to agree, we just need to respect that we are two different people and accept those discrepancies, not judge them.

I want you in my life IF you are willing to just take me as I am. I, in turn, will take you as you are. No blame. Just compassion and acceptance. That’s it.

As children, we make the general assumption that our parents love us – or at least we have the unconscious and simply human expectation that they do/will. We tend to develop an understanding of love’s expression via the environment, television, social cues, etc… if a father beats his child stating it is ‘because’ he loves him/her – the child develops an understanding that physical abuse is a form of ‘love’ until he/she is taught otherwise.

If a parent is ‘absent’ – for whatever reason – there is generally an assumption on the child’s part that love is also absent. Children have difficulty sometimes separating ‘fact’ from ‘perception’ – actually even adults are challenged with that from time to time and yet we may expect that our children ‘know better’ (well, of course I love you).

Parents can listen more and preach less.

Parents can accept more and judge less.

Parents can teach more and dominate less.

Parents can trust more and fix less.

Parents can guide more and dictate less.

Most parents do the best they can – based on what they know – in that moment. We really can’t expect much more than that but… when we learn more we need to make it a point to do better instead of assuming that it’s too late or that we are too old to make big changes.

The mother of the client who wrote this letter eventually came to a few sessions with my client where they discussed this letter and learned to accept and honor one another’s differences. Today, the client and the mother have a loving relationship based on compassion, tolerance, and clear expectations. It is working.

Too bad it took almost 40 years.

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A Letter To Myself Series – Age 10

How many times must we fall before we learn to or decide to change direction? What are the right words to persuade us to change course?

“For in every adult there dwells the child that was, and in every child there lies the adult that will be.” ~ John Connolly

What would happen if you found a letter from your older self? Or your younger self? Like in the movie Back to the Future when Marty wrote to Doc that he was going to get shot so Doc wore a flack jacket (bullet proof vest) to the parking lot where the van of guys with machine guns came screeching through…

Would you listen? We don’t seem to take the advice of our older relatives or friends. Seemingly, each of us needs to learn firsthand – even when something is painful. I know it to be a source of frustration as a mom… watching my children head right into something I know has a high probability of turning out poorly. I only know that from years of experience – personally as well as my large collection of observations … they want to try it their own way. Presumably, due to the tweeks they may have made, it will turn out differently for them. (um..hm) Right.

My kids aren’t any different than any other person. I continue to see this fascinating phenomena in my clients too. It’s sometimes even more interesting when we are learning something that we already learned but think may be different THIS time. I do it too…. How often have I cut myself with a freshly sharpened knife? How many times do I have to shrink a favorite sweater before I learn to pay more attention when I am switching laundry?  How many times must we fall before we learn to or decide to change direction? What are the right words to persuade us to change course? Why are we so stubborn? Is there anyone void of this trait?

I’m beginning a series of letters to my younger self… for personal reflection but also for anyone there – in those years who might want to benefit from a little perspective or as inspiration for you to write your own!

A Letter to My 10-year-old Self

Hey there kiddo,

Wow. You have a great life right now – pretty much perfect don’t you think? Your baby brother is great and don’t sweat it… you’ll be friends forever. Your sister needs you. Be nice. Include her more. These two people will know you longer than anyone else and you will have amazing history together.

Those friends you have are the best! You are making memories that you will have for the rest of your life and that playing you are doing…. It’s so important! It’s great that you are outside so much and using your imagination – kids in the future don’t do that as much. So many of the things that you are doing are things that help you later on. You may want to back off on those marathon Monopoly games though… it eventually spoils your tolerance for the game.

Hey… don’t worry about being poor – it won’t matter when you grow up and the things you don’t have now aren’t all that important. You may want to hold on to that transistor radio; technology changes so fast that it becomes an antique relic more quickly than you can imagine. The fact that you are running around and inventing fun is training you for your future. You are going to use those attributes!

You know that song you learned at girl scout camp? The one about the three bears? You will teach it to your own children and it will become an important part of their childhood… Pay attention to as many of those things as you can. You don’t even know how much you are learning right now; how many of these things you will look back on.

Everyone tells you to be a kid… listen to them! You have so. much. life. in front of you – you have time – go ahead… go play and don’t worry about adults or problems. Try not to compare your body to other girls, your weight doesn’t matter…  people will love you and like you just because you are you, I promise.

Your mom and dad are having a hard time and life may get pretty tough for you in a little while but know this: they are doing the best they can. They are still growing up too and need to learn a lot of lessons. Remember that they both love you and want the best for you but may not know how to show it all the time.

Use your diary more. It’s great that you write down a few things but you will want to remember so much more. Those milestones you’ve already recorded… you’ll read them over and over – committing them to memory. That first kiss story – you’ll tell it over and over again – and laugh. Even though you think NJ is the best boy in the world… there are a lot more. 

The one thing that I want you to know more than anything else is that everything is going to be OK.  Learn to trust…

Love you girl!

What would you say to YOUR 10-year-old self?

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Sand Castles

We become slaves to positive response and most importantly, we fail to learn how to COPE with the idea that it is impossible to please all people – all the time.

In my sophomore year of high school my mom and step-dad had to relocate to the metro DC area so that mom could obtain some specialized medical care for an at-risk pregnancy. She spent three months on bed rest before my (half) twin sisters were born. In an effort not to have us change schools AGAIN – we, my brother and I (sister Allysen was living with dad in California) went to stay with our grandmother until the school year was finished. It entailed come unique transportation arrangements since she did not live in the district we attended. They made arrangements for me to be picked up at an intersection of a state highway that a teacher drove for her commute. It was rural Pennsylvania and the term intersection is loose. There were a couple of roads there actually, the state Highway, a county road leading into a town of a few hundred, and a dirt road that was predominately farm access. It was the dirt road that I travelled to meet this teacher.

Occasionally, my grandmother was unable to pick me up in the afternoons and I was relegated to walking the 3.5 miles home. No, really…. It’s true. And no….. it wasn’t uphill both ways and yes…. I had shoes. I actually loved those walks when the weather was good. I recall singing Karen Carpenter songs and making up poems. One of them won a poetry contest at school. I still remember it.

As the autumn leaves turn to red

Lay your sleepy soul upon the bed

Close your eyes and go to sleep

Listen to the Willows weep

Nestle down all snug and warm

If you chill reach out your arm

Let me hold you extra tight

Before we kiss and say goodnight.

I’ve never forgotten the words to that poem and no, I don’t recall any special significance from it. I was probably missing my mother. I’ve had people say that it reminds them of death….. In future years if ever an English professor somewhere decides that there is some amazing underpinning of sorrow here and decides what it must mean, please know it is beyond my conscious understanding.

The other memory that stands out from one of those long walks is the profound understanding that I was “too young to feel this old”. I was fifteen and had assumed primary responsibility for my 6 year old brother. In all of the moves, the one consistent element is that he and I were together. Our sister often chose to live with the opposite parent and it was only a year or two out of our entire childhood that we all shared the same home. Along the way people would say “take care of your brother” or “you are such a big girl” and “it’s nice to count on you”. I became that girl – the one whom everyone depended upon. The idea that I may fail or let someone down became unacceptable to me. I began to thrive on people’s reliance on me. I became Miss Responsible while I lost my childhood.  That day I realized I was “too young” I didn’t know why or how it had happened exactly that I “felt too old” – I just knew I did and I didn’t believe that my thoughts about it would be taken seriously or accepted. I knew I needed to be dependable.

Perhaps on some crazy deep plane I was somehow in touch with the idea that my youth was escaping, my innocence waning, my adolescence disappearing and that is the source of the poem. Perhaps there was some subliminal pain that was unable to rise to the surface except metaphorically in that collection of rhyming words. Is that where art comes from? Should I have paid closer attention? Should someone have noticed? Nope, adults in my life were on auto pilot, coping with their own stuff – looking across the valley and choosing not to see the garbage there.

By the age of 15 I had learned and deeply engrained into my psyche the need to please – to be dependable and responsible – to take care of others. I had demonstrated so greatly that I could meet the needs of other people that *I think* people assumed I knew how to meet my own. I’m not sure I was aware that I had personal needs. How does a young person become aware of their needs if someone isn’t guiding them and teaching them about emotional and physical needs and about healthy methods of self care?

Some might argue (in fact, I often have a mental debate/war ensuing in my own mind) that learning dependability and responsibility are admirable attributes and actually, they are. However, there are UNHEALTHY behaviors that arise when we forget to set limits, to listen to our own needs, and fail to use our voice in fear that someone will feel disappointment. We learn to keep secrets where truth would meet displeasure. We develop perfectionist personas and fears of failure. We become slaves to positive response and most importantly, we fail to learn how to COPE with the idea that it is impossible to please all people – all the time.

That was me by the age of 18. I had become a complete and total people pleaser without skills to manage negative responses in a healthy manner and so it began, like a drippy sand castle…. one situation after another, the fears of disappointment and the inability to handle failure. Mental messages that slowly accumulated into a distorted perception of self.  There was my ‘inside’ self and the identity that I portrayed to the world. I had allowed a constant state of disconnect to exist in my mind between the person I felt like on the inside and the person I allowed the world to see. When people looked at me, they saw a confident, strong, smart, motivated, determined, and fearless young woman.  That was my outside – the part that people were proud of; teachers, parents, friends, siblings, employers, neighbors. I was a ‘good girl’. And, while those qualities are definitely there, the 12 year old girl who missed her mom and wanted to ride bikes and play hide and seek ‘til dark also existed and she was at war with me. She wanted to come out and be taken care of. She needed love and compassion. She wanted to cry in the lap of someone who didn’t judge. She needed to learn how to disappoint without risking total approval.

Merging my inside and my outside happened, but not until a storm blew in and washed wave after wave over the well fortified castle.

 

 

 

Like Lava

Nurturing those old wounds takes work. They are a constant in my psyche. It’s as if they run on a current of hot lava…

In these first couple of posts I am describing my childhood. In psychodynamic theory, it is in childhood – the experiences and relationships there – that form our personalities. While I don’t buy into the totality of that premise, clearly some of those things teach us about the world in which we live. They shape our understanding of what to expect and how to respond. I have shared information about the relationships I experienced with mom, dad and both step-parents. I briefly talked about the idyllic environment that encompassed the small town we lived in. I’m confident in stating that that strong foundation benefited me in numerous ways; shaping much of the woman that I am today.

However, there were *some* less-than-wonderful moments in those years. Ironically, many of them are the ones that are stand out memories for me. I recall going to the Fireman’s carnival and not having enough money to buy an ‘all night’ ride pass. My family struggled more than others financially. I recall the day our car was repossessed. I can still visualize it going down the street – being driven by a young man I had never seen before. My mom was embarrassed and attempted to distract us but I was just old enough to understand it meant we didn’t have enough money. I had to turn in supplemental forms so that I could get lunch ‘aid’. For the longest time all I wanted to do was pack my lunch in a brown paper bag like so many other kids.  I hated standing in that lunch line. It was in the basement with really short ceilings and pipes running along the corridor that sweat and dripped on us as we were corralled through the cafeteria. I felt like an Ogre standing in the lunch line because I was so much taller than other kids; I grew tall early and fast.

I was mortified in the 3rd grade as I wet myself while doing a homework problem at the chalkboard. I was wearing a blue leather skirt that was a favorite and when I got paddled for not making it to the bathroom, it stung that much more through the leather. Yes – paddled. In those days it hung on a hook right behind the teacher and it was used frequently. Yes – I pee’d my pants at 8 years old.  As I recall, I couldn’t do the math problem and had asked to use the girl’s room but was told to do the problem first. I was petrified of failure. I tried. I failed both with the math problem and making it to the bathroom.  Consequently, I was shammed and publicly punished.  Thankfully, that kind of behavior is now illegal.

In 4th grade we had to line up and get our statistical data recorded by the nurse. It was also a type of cattle call. We were herded into the hallway in lines of boys and girls. We would move first to someone who collected our cards where a parent had carefully printed our names and addresses, names of parents and siblings. We were required to be measured for height first so shoes had to be off. I recall having holes in my socks. We moved quickly in fear of reprimand to the scale where someone would weigh us and yell the number across the hall to another person who recorded the information. That year I crossed the threshold of 100 lbs. Yes, when the average 9 year old girl was around 70 lbs, I tipped the scale over three digits and they announced it to the entire student body or at least those in the hallway. I’m quite sure by the end of the day, everyone knew. By 8th grade people would simply tell me that if I lost weight, I’d be pretty. I learned I couldn’t be pretty the way I was.

As if that wasn’t enough, I had inherited my father’s jaw structure. My upper pallet was extremely narrow forcing my teeth forward across my lower jaw bone; commonly referred to as bucked teeth. They were the subject of ridicule from peers throughout my childhood.  In our 5th grade classroom the social studies workbooks were typically stacked on a cabinet against the wall and distributed by a student whenever that subject was about to be taught. Our names were on the front and one child was responsible for moving throughout the room handing them out.  Typically, the name would be read and a meeting would occur where the transfer took place. One by one they went out. Suzi, Katy, Tommy, John, and then…. Someone had scribbled out my name and written “Buck-tooth” … my name couldn’t be read through the scribble and so the question was delivered loudly and hung in the room for an eternity…. “Who’s buck-tooth?”  The room got quiet and one by one, student’s eyes moved in my direction and the room broke out in mocking laughter.  I wanted to die. I wanted to room to swallow me up and hide me. In that moment, I hated that my parents were poor. I hated that I was different. I hated that I was there in that room. It was in that moment that I learned how cruel the world could be; that parts of me were unacceptable and could be the brunt of agonizing laughter.

These petty experiences as an 8, 9 and 10 year old were sparse and seemingly isolated yet their impact superseded amazing childhood joys in ways that are difficult to understand. Today, we label much of that behavior as bullying and abusive. There is no doubt that they significantly fashioned parts of my SELF concept. It seems that no matter how supportive and loving my family and friends were, these insulting moments were defining. I learned that the world beyond home could be humiliating and emotionally unsafe.

As I write, read, and edit I can hear voices – well not really, not actual voices – but thoughts or comments in my head that say “get a grip, kids can be brats” or “seriously, you had a great childhood; get over it already”. Somehow I also learned to devalue the pain of those experiences. I learned that they should be dismissed. I hear judgment in my mind instead of compassion and empathy for that young girl who hurt. I suspect that people told me to “never mind them” or to “just ignore them” – advice that supports dismissal versus empathizing and processing the hurt. Essentially, somewhere down the line I was taught to ‘avoid’ the feelings – set them aside. In fact, I recall that my mom’s way of dealing with negativity was to box it up and set it on a shelf in a (mental) closet. I’m sure she taught me that. Now that I think of it, mom’s closet was pretty full and disorganized.

I share all of these details not to solicit pity or compassion because really, you probably can’t say or do anything that someone in my life hasn’t already tried. It’s always been up to ME to process those experiences in a positive way it’s just that I was never taught how as a child. Actually, we –as a culture- aren’t very good at teaching emotional processing (I guess that’s why I have a good job these days). We spend a lot of time telling one another (and sadly our children) to “suck it up”, “get over it”, “move on”, etc….. When what we could be telling them is that emotions are REAL and they are NORMAL and that THEY JUST ARE. We actually encourage people NOT to feel. We tell them that feelings are bad, wrong, or ridiculous instead of validating their existence and then teaching or encouraging evaluation and processing.

Nurturing those old wounds takes work. They are a constant in my psyche. It’s as if they run on a current of hot lava through my soul and occasionally erupt – sometimes violently in an explosion but more often seeping through cracks in a way that slowly burns whatever is in their path. Sometimes I feel like a gatekeeper, running from vent to vent attempting to coral or channel the flow so to limit the damage. The idea that I am vulnerable to public humiliation because of the way that I look or because of an embarrassing accident or due to how much money I have, continues to be challenging but here I am…. Staring it in the face and daring greatly.

 
Photo credit: schizoform via Foter.com / CC BY

Solid Foundation

This is how the story of my life begins; idyllic and fun. It’s the first 12 years of my life and it provided me with an unshakable foundation. Thank goodness because I ended up needing it.

I distinctly remember childhood as a pleasant time. I grew up in a small town in the Pennsylvania Mountains where everyone knew your name. Of course, it was a blessing and a curse because IF I had wanted to get into a little mischief, my parents would have been told and a punishment planned before I ever got home. Just the threat of that generally kept me in check. There were dozens of children within a two block radius and summer evenings were filled with playing hide-n-seek with all. It was one of those evenings in my 9th year when I got my first kiss as NJ and I were hiding together. It was as innocent as my mischievousness but allowed a multitude of diary entries that proclaimed a lifelong love and extreme anticipation whenever I saw him crossing the street or pushing the mower across his lawn.

I had two very close friends and the crossing guard dubbed us the three stooges early one school year. We were inseparable. If we weren’t experimenting with popcorn or playing cards, we were outdoors using our imagination or riding our bicycles down to Henry’s Drug store for ice cream. Monopoly marathon weekends were common. It was a childhood experience similar to those on television without the drama. Well, as is typical with a threesome, there were times that any combination of two were better ‘buddies’ for the week but when it was all said and done, we were three. We shared all of the distinctive adolescent ‘firsts’ and giggled about what would happen when we grew up and fell in love. We shared the death of grandparents, marriages of older siblings, and held strong when visiting cousins tried to interfere with our agenda.

I was the kind of kid that got up on Saturday mornings and did all of the chores that I thought my mother may include on my list so that I was ready to get out and play as soon as possible. The regiment generally included dusting, making my bed, and scrubbing the bathtub – all of which were fairly tolerable. It is safe to say that I was a parent-pleaser. My subconscious but occasionally blatant goal was to hear “good job” or “we’re proud of you” as frequently as possible. I thrived on praise and was instantly heartbroken on the few occasions that my father calmly and sternly offered a consensus of “we’re disappointed”.

I desperately wanted to be a Go-Go Girl like the ones on American Bandstand and coveted a pair of white knee-high boots. Unfortunately for that inspiration, I was half a decade too young and overly conscious of my parent’s necessity for frugality. I was lucky to get a new pair of sneakers each school year. We weren’t poor exactly. For most of my early academic years, my father had a steady job with Proctor & Gamble and mom had a hair salon in the back room of our home. We didn’t take annual vacations or have elaborate holidays but really, I didn’t notice. We always had what we needed.

dancerina
1969 Ad for Dancerina. Holy Cow what a great example of gender biased advertising. Yikes!

I vaguely recall threatening to ‘run away’ if Santa didn’t bring Dancerina (a battery operated doll that did pirouettes when you pushed down on her crown). She was the only gift under the tree for me that year but again, I didn’t notice because I was tucked into a quiet corner wearing out two new double-D’s.  I sometimes experienced a whispering sense of shame for the childish and obnoxious threat but it was quickly over spoken with the knowledge that I was the recipient of that year’s most coveted girl toy. There was no such thing as a Christmas ‘list’ – we were allowed to dream of ONE item… and more often than not, we were not disappointed.

My mother gave me the gift of believing that I was her favorite child. I’m sure I was not but that debate continues in the family today and nevertheless, it allowed me to develop a confidence that parental love was unconditional and abiding. She was, in my youthful perspective, a beautiful woman and had the gift of ‘gab’. She was always involved in a craft project of some type, trying a new recipe, or volunteering for some committee. I am sure her beauty salon perpetrated the ‘gab’ factor but the end result was that I observed what it was to have a wide reaching social network.

My father was tall – Abraham Lincoln tall – standing 6 foot 9 inches and had a crazy long stride. My walks with him consisted of me at a slight run as it took three of my steps to match his one. It never mattered though; my dad was my hero. He smoked a pipe of cherry tobacco and wore Old Spice for as long as I can remember; scents that instantly provide me with a sense of longing today. Dad was a dreamer. He allowed me to dream and made sure that I knew I was capable of chasing them.

I am the oldest sibling and had to share my early childhood with a sister who inevitably crawled into bed with me at night. The most disturbing part of that was that she wore socks and every time our feet would touch, the sensation of something soft and fuzzy tricked me into believing that a critter was at the bottom of our bed. It was difficult to move through the ‘monsters under the bed’ phase when every night it felt as if they were IN the bed. On more than one occasion I recall taking a running leap into bed as to prevent whatever was under there from reaching out.

dressed-up-pat
I’m pretty sure that’s a half-slip on his head.

Our little brother was born right about the time that dolls and ‘playing house’ (do kids do that these days??) were the focus of my past time. His first friends were all of my plastic babies that kept him company in the playpen. While it was easier to dress them because they held still, I attempted to attire him with doll clothing far too often. Mom was convinced that he would grow up scarred.  I loved that kid.I couldn’t have been more proud of him than if he had been mine.

This is how the story of my life begins; idyllic and fun. It’s the first 12 years of my life and it provided me with an unshakable foundation. Thank goodness because I ended up needing it. It is the basis from which I developed optimism, hope, and ultimately – some unrealistic expectations. It supports the standards that govern my life view and helped to foster some of the perfectionism that hasn’t necessarily been a positive force for me.

I am NOT complaining, in fact I am deeply grateful for that start to life. It is however, necessary to look back and see realistically, how some of my grown up ideologies were developed. Understanding and awareness are the first step to growth.