This is going to sound awful, but the day my mother died I felt nothing but relief. It was finally over: A half-century of living under the shadow of an alcoholic, histrionic narcissist who was never able to conquer her own demons. I was finally free. Or so I thought. I will preface this article by stating that today, after doing over a year of intense Shadow work, I can honestly say I have nothing but love and gratitude for my mom. And a lot more understanding of her history and the generational family dynamics that shaped our relationship. One story I grew up hearing was how, when my grandmother found out she was pregnant with my mom (child #7, 10 years after her last child’s birth), she got drunk and repeatedly jumped off the back steps in an attempt to induce a miscarriage. This was one of those “funny family stories” that was frequently told at get-togethers with the aunts and uncles. Or how my mom was sent to live with her two adult sisters in succession, as my grandma abdicated her parental role and effectively rejected her youngest child.
Understanding the Shadow
Obviously, I could fill pages with the backstory, but let’s get to it: Just what is the Shadow and why do I need to work on it?
“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”Carl Jung, Aion (1951)
Discovering My Shadows
For nearly 60 years I had an Inner Critic who was brutally judgmental of me. Every perceived misstep, every social interaction, every relationship issue unleashed a scathing inner dialog which outlined my worthlessness. This Inner Critic was my mother’s voice. Now, I know that my mother loved me deeply. But I also know that her own life did not give her the tools she needed to love a child in a healthy way. One would think that once this toxic person was permanently removed from my life, everything would sort itself out. But it didn’t, at least not immediately. For nearly 10 years, I let her live rent-free in my head, still shaping my perception of who I was from beyond the grave. Then about 2 years ago I began a Spiritual Awakening. It was at this time I realized that unless I dealt with all the dysfunctional programming I had absorbed, I would never know true satisfaction and joy. It was time to face the Shadow.
As I began delving into my relationship with my mother, I began to see her as more than just a pathetic alcoholic who needed me to give her a sense of worth. As I picked at the façade of our relationship, I discovered what I perceived as a darker, more sinister underbelly: She deliberately undermined my confidence in myself. She discounted my feelings to the point that I simply shut them off. She lied. She manipulated. She triangulated my sister and I, effectively destroying any chance of a loving sibling bond. All my childhood memories were suddenly being viewed through a new, disturbing lens. What was once seen as an extremely close mother-daughter relationship was now understood to be emotional enmeshment. I was always so proud of the fact that I could accomplish difficult tasks without ever thinking of asking for help. I was a star pupil, always striving for perfection. Anything less than a 4.0 GPA would throw me into a tailspin. Slowly I began to understand that many of the stoic traits that I was so proud of were actually a trauma response to Childhood Emotional Neglect. Dr. Jonice Webb coined the term, and you can learn more about it here.These new realizations plunged me into what can only be described as an existential crisis. I began asking some big, seemingly unanswerable questions: Who AM I really? What is reality? Was everything a lie? How can one know Truth? I felt adrift, unsure whether my perception of every single thing and relationship in my life was accurate or skewed.
Here Comes The Blame Game
After realizing that everything I believed about myself and my relationship with my mom was not what I had thought, I got pissed. I mean, REALLY pissed. That Woman was the cause of all my unhappiness, all my poor life choices, my devastating social anxiety and my unending feelings of worthlessness. I allowed myself to wallow in this pit of self-pity for several weeks. It took a while to wrap my head around the myriad ways I had been wronged. It may sound counter-productive, but this period of blaming my mom was quite helpful to my healing process. For the first time, it took the onus of my deficiencies off of me. Hey, I was a victim here! I was a small baby, unable to see what was happening to me or to do anything about it. Eventually, I tired of this newfound victim mentality, Suddenly I had a novel thought: OK, so I have a new understanding of my childhood and why I am the way I am. Now what? Am I going to stay in this place? I knew I wanted much, much more for myself. And at that point I decided to try to heal this deep Mother Wound and get on with the rest of my life.
Blessings Via YouTube
I began looking for more information on Childhood Emotional Neglect online. Eventually my search led me to a lovely woman on YouTube: Lisa A. Romano. I binge-listened for weeks on the hour-long drive to and from work. So often I would be moved to tears or would suddenly yell “YES! EXACTLY!” to no one in particular. Lisa taught me so much about the complex relationship I had with my mom. But instead of heaping blame on the abuser, Lisa’s greatest gift is her ability to help people understand (and overcome!) the roots of their pain and dysfunction. Her comforting and loving words were like a balm to my soul. She became my stand-in mother, giving me the emotional support I had never had, and the strength to continue on my difficult healing journey. Another great discovery for me was the audiobook, “The Body Keeps The Score” by Bessel A. van der Kolk.
Replacing my Inner Critic
I believe the month or so I spent countering my Inner Critic produced the greatest amount of healing in this entire process. Once I became aware of how damaging it was, I decided to stop it in its tracks every time it reared its ugly head. I was absolutely flabbergasted at how vicious and unforgiving and impatient this voice was. Spill a cup of water? Fucking useless asshole! Look at this shit! It was exhausting, but every single time it spoke up, I purposed to consciously give love and understanding to myself instead, essentially “re-mothering” myself. So as soon as The Voice would start, I would respond with, “Everybody drops cups on occasion. It’s not a big deal. Human beings make mistakes. Dropping a cup has nothing to do with my worth as a person.” Over and over and over. Then one afternoon I bobbled a piece of paper and it fell to the floor. And I chuckled as I picked it up. And then I started crying. Because that little chuckle was THE FIRST TIME that my Inner Critic ceased to lambaste me for a small mistake. It was at that moment that I absolutely knew I was on the path to healing and becoming the person I was always meant to be. I continued to work on silencing my Inner Critic.
I soon realized that every single task I performed in my life was done with a sense of urgency. I never knew what it was like to do something without hurrying. One day I was washing dishes and I realized that my shoulders were tensed up around my ears, my stomach was in a huge knot, and I was urging myself to “hurry, hurry, hurry.” Not that I had any other pressing matters to attend at that moment. It was simply my go-to pace.Light bulb! I was holding my mother’s constant impatience in my own body. I decided at that moment to stop rushing. A few deep breaths, a conscious relaxation of the knotted muscles, and a reminder that there is no need to hurry was the beginning of my ability to release the emotional trauma I had been holding in my body for decades. I even stopped playing games on my phone which required a race against the clock, as they would often trigger me into a nervous mess.Soon, things that would have previously induced anxiety and stress became almost a meditation for me. For example, preparing a meal with a little glass of wine and some beautiful music is a fun, creative process that brings me a great sense of calm and satisfaction now.
‘Months later, while I was at work I suddenly realized that my lifelong anxiety-induced stomach tension was completely gone! These amazing physical changes have taught me to pay close attention to my body. When my neck starts to hurt, or I feel that familiar knot in my stomach, I am able to pinpoint what is causing it and take steps to alleviate it before it takes hold.
How I Knew I Was (Mostly) Healed
I harbor no illusions that I have completely and fully dealt with every issue I’ve ever had. It is simply an implausible expectation. But I am totally fine with that. If I have to revisit something down the line, I know for certain that I now possess the tools to pick that scab and start the healing process. Around six months ago, I noticed I was listening to my YouTube trauma healing videos less and less. I simply didn’t need them anymore and it felt like rehashing old news. Then one day I looked at my adult son and said, “That’s it. I’m done with this. I am ready to look forward now. I want to know what’s next.” Since then I have experienced the most incredible Spiritual growth, peace, and satisfaction imaginable. I even like myself now. Hell, I LOVE myself! I sincerely hope my story has been of benefit to someone. Everyone’s healing journey is different, and I would love to hear yours! Feel free to comment below.
Never knew any of this. Love you.
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Love you too, cuz. Hope you are managing ok right now.
Wow! I don’t know how I missed this blog. Well that was extremely informative. It’s amazing how we grew up in the same house and I had no idea. We had such different experiences. Funny thing is we had (according to mom) predetermined outcomes to our lives that she chose for us. You were going to be a famous writer and I was going to meet a rich man and live in a nice house and be pretty and smile and attentive to his needs. Now you’re a writer and I’m…..lol.
I had no idea the pressure that was put on you. I can take a step back and see it now. You were her (Karasek). Anything less than perfect would be a disappointment. I on the other hand was a (Thomas). I could do what I wanted and it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was how I looked. Everything in the world revolved around my looks including my self worth. Just smile and look pretty and you will grow up and marry a boy who will take care of you. You don’t have to learn, be listened to, respected, just smile. Funny thing on how needed that affirmation from men all your life to feel self worth can kind of mess you up lol. I guess she didn’t think that once you reach your 40’s and your looks start to decline you start to feel you have absolutely nothing. You are good at nothing.
My happiest day was the day she died. I felt the weight of the world off my shoulders. For over 10 years she brought misery to my family. I didn’t bring baggage to my family, she brought it herself.
I’m glad you found a way to heal. I too have found a way. I found Christ who has helped me find the way to forgive. I used to carry such anger and blame and now I just try to remember the good times and I slowly stop blaming. I’m sorry for all you went through and I was oblivious to it. I was so mad for you suggesting she move to Florida but now I know it was for your own survival. I’m so proud of the person you have become. You are amazing and I’m proud that you are my sister.
Thanks for this beautiful note. I am so happy that you have found/are finding healing through your faith. You do, however, need to work on giving yourself more credit. You are beautiful inside and out, kind, and an incredible mother. I am proud of you also. We may be going about it differently, but we are both breaking these generational curses of dysfunction, and our kids and grandkids are the beneficiaries of our hard work.
Love you, sis!