A few weeks ago, during a lengthy middle-of-the-night text conversation with Mama about growing up in a family of dysfunctional narcissists, she told me this:
“I had been taught not to feel anything growing up. I didn’t feel love towards June, just resentment and irritation. I did not want her affection and pulled away from her.
The reason I did not know how to deal with you being so emotional as a child is because I did not realize that you had not yet been taught to feel nothing.
You were not too emotional. You reacted normally towards the abuse you dealt with. It just felt like too much to me because I felt nothing at all.”
Talk about something I am so thankful to hear but wish I had been told years ago.
I have been reading Dr. Karyl McBride’s book, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” It is a guide to help daughters of narcissistic mothers heal. It has been incredibly eye-opening for me.
I’ve known for years that my relationship with Mama has affected every other relationship in my life. It led me to befriend women who, in some way, guided, nurtured, and encouraged me the way Mama was incapable of. It often made me codependent in these friendships.
Like with Mama, I thought if I dropped everything and diminished myself for and with these women, I would finally be validated, affirmed, and loved.
Also like with her, I bared my soul with these women and opened myself up to such deeply toxic and unbalanced, unequal treatment where my vulnerability was used against me and I was told I was crazy, ridiculous, angry, or horrible when I would not agree to their terms or whenever I spoke up against them.
One of these friendships lasted from age 19 to 33. She was even my maid of honor because I’d “promised” it to her in college.
I learned all that mattered was what I can do, not who I am. I was to always be ready, willing, and available even when they were not and could not be for me.
I am still absorbing Mama’s words. She even apologized and said she was in no way rationalizing how badly she treated me.
I am fortunate and thankful that she has found the ability to do this, as Dr. McBride shared stories of mothers so self-absorbed and narcissistic, they’d never admit mistreating their daughters. Many see it as their daughters mistreating and neglecting them.
As I absorb her words “You weren’t too emotional, you were a normal person reacting normally,” I feel a tiny shift inside of me.
I am not meant to stifle my emotions, no one is. My emotions are how I know I am still alive even when those emotions are so overwhelming, I sometimes wish I wasn’t.
In college, when Mama was married to Tim and I was only criticized and made fun of when with her, I found myself sobbing during sad movies but unable to cry out my own pain.
I did not feel empathy towards my pain. I felt responsible for it, like it was my fault Mama was embarrassed to have a fat daughter who couldn’t get a boyfriend.
I added to the insults and criticism but then rebelled against myself and people in my family by binge eating, sleeping constantly, and sabotaging my health, happiness, and goals. It was my giant “fuck you” to myself and everyone around me.
I only felt anger and shame, the only feelings allowed in my family growing up, and did everything I could to numb them both as they constantly roared in my ears and reminded me how much a failure I was.
I began journaling online in 2001 and continued until shortly after John and I started dating in late 2011. I wrote out, often in immense detail, what was going on with my family, friendships, and job.
When shit went down, I immediately wrote about it and was as honest as I could possibly be, not only in what the other person said or did but also my role in the event.
I needed to clear my head but also needed perspective, needed to see what I needed to do or be better at.
What I also hoped for was perspective from others. LiveJournal was my therapy couch and I needed an audience of therapists to weigh in.
I, as often I often do in life, wanted and desperately needed validation.
And I often got it. I was not coddled, but the friends I made (one who later became my sister in law) gave me introspective, insightful, and honest feedback.
Some told me when I should’ve reacted in a better way, but many told me, “You are not what they say you are. You are not too much. You are not a burden. You do not deserve to be treated like shit. You are a human being who deserves to be loved and treated with kindness.”
In my 20s, journaling my life and making the friends I did who took the time to read my words saved me. I still did not quite embody their validation of me as a person, but reading their words was a bright spotlight in a deep tunnel of extreme darkness.
I learned a term for the kind of person I am recently: empath. One of the characteristics of an empath is a person who easily absorbs the emotions of others.
I have been a goddamn sponge of others’ emotions my entire life.
As a child, the sponge was soaked with anger, shame, resentment, envy, and bitterness. And in absorbing these emotions, I embodied them. I became them until I was so burdened by them, I went numb.
I didn’t begin really considering my own emotions until I moved to Atlanta in November 2009. It was then that I decided it was time to begin the process of feeling and healing.
But even as I cried, raged, and rage-cried through this, I still caught myself putting others’ feelings and desires first. I still blamed myself when I was called ridiculous and crazy when I spoke up in friendships and my relationship with Mama.
My husband John is very introverted and not very outwardly emotional. He works his feelings and issues out in his head and doesn’t always decide to share any of this with me.
He says he is an open book to any questions I may have, but asking those questions often feels akin to pulling teeth.
As an empath, I am always reading people and trying to understand them and see things from their perspective. It helps me gauge how to react to and connect with them.
Even after six years together, John is almost impossible for me to read. And what happens when I can’t read him and he can’t or won’t tell me anything is I either find myself “fishing” – criticizing or making fun of myself to get compliments from him – or I shut down and believe those critical voices in my head that tell me he thinks of me the way the most critical voices in my head tell me I am.
When we did a short premarital course before we got married, one part was about what we were afraid our partner thought of us. Totally unexpected, I found myself sobbing so hard I could barely get the words out that my fear was he thinks of me as too much, too emotional, and a burden, everything I’d been told I was by my family my whole life. That because I am loud and talkative and outwardly emotional where he is quiet and more private with his emotions, I was not who he initially fell in love with or wanted to be with.
He, instead, told me the time for feeling like all of these things was over because I was everything he had prayed for his whole life and I was not too much, too emotional, or a burden to him.
But still, even with permission from him and others to be exactly who I am, I stifle my emotions.
It’s still easier to make dumb jokes, say sorry when I have nothing to be sorry for, say it’s okay when it’s not, say nothing when I should speak up for myself, and/or keep my feelings to myself.
Sometimes, it’s better. In my nearly 35 years of being this emotional person, I’ve made the mistake of letting my emotions cloud my judgment. They’ve made me impulsive, critical, harmful, hurtful, and self-sabotaging.
As I absorb what Mama said and begin to believe it – yes, it actually took her validation for me to finally really let those truths about me to fully kick in – I am learning how to say how I feel without being angry that the other person doesn’t understand it or react how I wish they would. I am still nowhere near good at doing this.
I also still tiptoe around others when I feel tension with them and am afraid I will say or do the wrong thing and be yelled at or criticized.
I still hold grudges, anger, and hurt for far too long and still hold in emotions until anger takes over and I explode. I am not proud of this.
It took nearly a year of crippling anxiety two years ago for me to finally allow myself to empathize with my own pain.
I also began allowing John to see me in the midst of the anxiety and stopped trying to be some sort of emotional She-Hulk badass where I act like I don’t need him to be there for me. I do. I very much do even when he isn’t sure how to react or does not have what he feels are the “right,” most genuine words to help me.
Our marriage counselor talked to me a lot about self-soothing and validating my emotions instead of being dismissive or critical of them or waiting for someone else to validate them. Journaling helped me dump them; self-soothing helps me look at them dead-on and empathize with them.
It is so incredibly freeing to finally be told that there was and is nothing wrong with me being an emotional person by the one person who started my beliefs of being too much, too much, and a burden. It is who I am as a human being.
Now I have to unlearn all the years of shutting myself and my feelings out to be who I believed I needed to be to be adequate and loved and find balance between what I feel and how I react to it.
And it was just in writing all of this that I realized the one person I’ve forever tried to understand but have never bothered to empathize with: myself.
And trust me, marriage is a fucking mirror and this realization reflects so much how I not only treat myself but how I also treat John.