Editor’s Note: This article was written with permission from the author’s mother, for the purpose of helping others . . .
I felt like I was born into enemy territory. I was convinced that you have a daughter to have a slave.
All I wanted was out, out of her way, out of my house, away from the constant barrage of criticism and orders and demands. Since I was too young and too afraid to run away, the only place I could be away from her was in my room. I sat and drew and wrote in my journal, and often cried. My room was the only room in the house where I felt safe. But it wasn’t long before even my room was no longer a safe haven.
I couldn’t understand what I had done wrongI couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. All I had done was be born, born a female with thick curly hair who apparently did not make a splash for cuteness. “You were supposed to be Gary,” I heard several times while growing up. But I wasn’t Gary. I came out a girl, not a boy.
From the first moment I can remember, there was little that was right about me. My hair was too wild, and my nose was too big. Everything about me needed fixing, including my personality.
Something was wrong. I knew something was deeply wrong.
By the end of my sixteenth year, I managed to get out of my house. I graduated early from high school and went away to university. Being 200 miles away and not living subject to constant criticism, I was finally finding joy in life and building my self-confidence. Still, my mother’s attitude did not change, and I was burdened with anger and resentment towards her. I was deeply wounded, and had an incessant fear of intimacy and abandonment. All I wanted was to be loved, but I found myself subconsciously sabotaging relationships, feeling undeserving of long-lasting love. I knew that I needed to resolve my relationship with my mother in order to move on.
In time, and with years of work, I was able to transform our relationship from Mommie Dearest (the Joan Crawford story) to Dear Mom, from hatred to love. After making a short humorous film called My Nose about my mother’s campaign to get me to have a nose job, I learned I was not alone. People would come over to me after the screening and tell me three things: 1. I love your nose; don’t touch it. 2. I don’t like your mother. How can you? 3. Let me tell you my story. I would listen to them carefully and, interestingly, would find myself in a position to help others.
All I wanted was to be loved, but I found myself subconsciously sabotaging relationshipsHow did I do it? How did I learn to accept, and even love, my critical parent?
I identified seven steps, what I call the “Seven Healing Tools,” which enabled me to deal with a difficult person. I apply these tools to my mother, and to any and all difficult people I come in contact with.
Where is her negativity coming from? What happened to her in her childhood?
I was able to uncover family secrets, including attempted suicides and financial hardships that my mother suffered as a child. By doing so, I had a better appreciation of why she did some of the things she did.
Lessen the pain of being around someone who is abusive to you by physically removing yourself from his or her location.
I went off to college, creating a distance between myself and the barrage of criticism.
Create a Support System
A support system consisting of friends, family and/or coworkers is invaluable. You can’t choose your family, but you can certainly choose your friends.
I surrounded myself with positive and supportive people. In college, I gravitated towards many like-minded people. I was an art student, and was praised by my teachers and colleagues for my talent and my appearance. They loved my long, thick curly hair. I followed my passions, developed hobbies, joined various groups, went on a spiritual quest, and found a rabbi with whom I connected and joined his congregation. I also found a close friend who became my life coach. I rescued a little dog, who went on to become my canine best friend, therapy dog and healer. We even made a movie together.
Forgiving does not mean forgetting. It means unburdening yourself of dead emotional weightForgiving does not mean forgetting. It means unburdening yourself of dead emotional weight. “When you forgive, you love. And when you love, G‑d’s light shines upon you.” (Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild)
After learning about my mother’s childhood tragedies and the burdens she had to bear, I realized that she was doing the best she could. Expecting her to love and nurture me unconditionally at that time was like asking Stevie Wonder to drive a racecar. She was incapable. She was a wounded child. As soon as I changed my expectations of her, I was able to forgive her.
Do not wait for the individual to acknowledge or apologize for what they did to you before you forgive them. In many cases like my own, they won’t do either, and they will deny ever doing anything wrong. Remember, they are a wounded child and are unaware of their own actions.
Change Your Behavior
Armed with understanding, physically removed from the source of conflict and having forgiven the individual for his or her offenses, you are now well positioned to begin to change your behavior—to begin reacting to the world in newer, healthier ways.
In my case, now that I had forgiven my mother and viewed her as a wounded child, I was able to change my responses to her disparaging remarks and actions. If your child said to you, “Mommy, I don’t love you,” you wouldn’t cringe and feel hurt; you would laugh it off. That is what I started doing with my mother. Every time she would say something insulting, instead of getting hurt, angry and defensive, I let it bounce off of me, always remembering the source. Many times, I made light of it. By doing this, I reduced her ability to press my buttons, and in essence rendered her powerless. And I was able to give her the love you would give a child who has hurt him- or herself.
Let It Out
I viewed her as a wounded childThere is no value in keeping it in, tamping down your feelings. You are not alone. Many people have suffered greatly.
In my case, I found confidants, the right people to share with. I was selective about the people with whom I chose to share. I found people who are positive, sympathetic and empathetic, and who in some cases could even offer insight. I shared my pain; I shared secrets, because keeping them in and holding onto them can often make us feel ashamed and like a victim. I learned to live life with openness and honesty.
Spin a Negative into a Positive; Be Creative
This is your life. This is your story. We all have incredible material. No one can steal your story. Use it. My life has been the inspiration for my creative work, whether it’s writing, visual art or film. They always say, “Write what you know best.” You will not only entertain others, but also often help them. And there is no greater satisfaction than giving to others.
As my life progressed along with my career, I, like all of us, have been and continue to be faced with difficult people. I have always managed to apply the tools I developed to deal with my mother to situations with others.
Judaism teaches us the concept that every descent is for the sake of an ascent. Difficult people present us with an opportunity to grow. I live life with gratitude. If it weren’t for my emotionally challenging childhood, I probably would not have learned what I know today, or be in a position to help guide others. I wake up every day and thank the Creator for giving me all that I have. I thank Him for showing me that when I am faced with an obstacle, it is no accident, and there is a lesson for me to learn from it.