(This blog is part of an ongoing series in which I share intimate details about my life in order to inspire and educate my readers about trauma, healing and spirituality and what it has to do with helping this troubled and beautiful world heal into peace. Please excuse any repetition; I must write each piece assuming my reader may not have read the others.)
When your natural, authentic personality and talents are not seen and nourished by those who are your parents or caregivers, a trauma wound can be created in which your self-perception and confidence are undermined. You may also find yourself struggling to fully manifest your beauty and gifts in the world. Nor does this have to come solely from parental figures. A church, school, teacher, or mentor of any kind can do such damage, as well. As a result of this invisibility, you may end up not seeing yourself accurately or being dogged by a lack of self-confidence.
You see yourself through a glass darkly.
Were you told explicitly or implicitly that you must conform to the norms of behavior and self-expression in your family and/or community to the exclusion of your precious, inborn individuality? Or were you even criticized and shut down when you were acting naturally—even happily? Were you told that your interests and talents were not valid or real? Or that it would not be realistic to nurture them? That you would not be able to financially survive? Did a parent even feel competitive with you and thus always put you down in order to maintain their own wobbly self-image? Or did you have someone in authority tell you that your intuitive and creative gifts were bad, wrong or evil? Or were you simply benignly ignored and even invisible?
Any one of these can lead you to doubting yourself. It can lead to a lifelong undermining through habits of thought and feelings of the fullest expression of your greatest, biggest, most shining version of yourself.
This was my experience, although it was not so black and white. My mother was actually often complimentary of me. At times, she touted my intelligence and talent. But those compliments were filtered through a conscious and unconscious agenda driven by her own childhood wound of invisibility and low self-esteem. She was fierce in her desire that I be professionally accomplished and successful—that I not “give in” to the usual roles of wife and mother, as she felt she had to. But her view of what this meant was very narrow: I should be a lawyer or work in international affairs or some such arena (no, becoming a doctor was not on her agenda).
My mother also expected me to be a mirror image of her—a common problem with individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In fact, for her, I was merely a foil for her to stand in her grandiose self-narrative—a defense created to cover over her deep insecurity. Her unacknowledged faults were projected onto me. Her anger at herself was directed at me. Her unhealed wounds were acted out in myriad ways towards me.
Alongside this, my mother was extremely controlling of my self-expression through high school: I could only wear my hair and dress the way she wanted—indeed, in a very masculinized way and certainly not in alignment with current fashion trends (no skirts or dresses, pierced ears or all-too-feminine long locks). This arose out of a very distorted rebellion in her against what she perceived as our society’s devaluation of women. Very true. But in her zealousness on every front, she quashed my individuality and left me feeling awkward and wierd around my peers.
On top of this, she concluded that I “lived in an ivory tower” (I was a very imaginative and dreamy child who loved to read). That I could not make a living by being an actress (which I wanted to do after attending a children’s theatre school and doing drama in high school). And, ultimately, that I lacked compassion and built walls around me (of course, I did—her constant invasions of my sovereignty verbally, physically and energetically led me to be very guarded around here—and more and more so as I grew older). And even when I did excel at something, she always put it down as not good enough.
It was true that I had the intellect and a facility with learning languages, coupled with an interest in other cultures. However, in my sad mother’s zealousness to see me within a particular framework of success and professionalism—really, a result of her own sense of loss of her agency to be out in the world as she knew she was capable of—many of my other equally as important and strong talents were ignored. My gifts of empathy, kindness, compassion, intuition, humanity, and healing remained unseen. Her distorted view of me grew worse after my parents’ divorce when I was 18 years old. As she became more and more fearful and desperate, more and more angry at the world, and more and more lonely and isolated, I became her favorite whipping girl—a process that only ended when I turned 40 years old and she died at the age of 69.
Up until then, it was as if my very core sense of self and identity was constantly under siege even as I tried to placate and please my mother in an effort to earn her love. Because of all this, I did not who I was separate from her projections. I saw myself through a glass darkly—a kind of brain fog and a scrambling of thinking and feeling from the mind down to the body. I lacked self-confidence and had a very unreal, distorted image of myself. I also became very hard on myself. I was simply a mirror of her shadow.
Even in my teens and early 20s, though, I had a strong survival instinct. It was as if I stood before a very tall mountain with a wide, wide base blocking my way forward. Yet, when I looked up to the top of the mountain, I saw freedom. I saw light. I was not going to be deterred by any obstacle. I have always had great determination and an ability to hold a higher vision for myself and others.
Does this story resonate with you? The ways in which you were wounded may look or feel the same as my experience. Or maybe it is different in its context and contours.
We live in a world where so many suffer a loss of self. It is such a common experience even as society around us also calls us to forget ourselves and to hide our light.
Yet, even as I have climbed the mountain out of the deep darkness in a shrouded valley of self-invisibility, so can you. I offer you 5 guiding principles:
First, your very life, your unique individuality and authenticity is enough. It is why you are here. Even as you breathe, you have purpose. That purpose is first and foremost, love. Existence, experience. Your luminosity and beauty.
Second, recognize that no matter how subtle, any insecurity or low self-concept is likely an afterimage of a wound. It is not you and never was.
Third, you can find your way back to your authentic self. It is right there—like a shining light on the top of that mountain through that glass darkly. Lock your gaze onto that and keep following it, just as Frodo and Sam did as they marched through the wasted lands of Sauron’s might and as they fought the call of the Ring to give into madness and evil (I love The Lord of the Rings!). To forget themselves. You can do what they did.
Fourth, that which calls to your heart to be and do is exactly where you need to be putting your energy. You have the gifts, the talent and the energy. Let nothing deter you. Let no one else’s expectations or projections get in your way. Trust what you love.
Lastly, love yourself first and love yourself last. There is your refuge from other’s projections and stories about you. There is where you will find your center—and your courage to shine.