As a child I was not allowed to say “no” to an adult. Any adult. My child’s mind extrapolated that to authority figures in general so by the time I became an adult myself, authority figures were people to be feared, to obey, or to find ways to get around, to do what I wanted without getting caught.
This is a dangerous thing to teach a child, that s/he cannot say “no” and must accept whatever is handed off to them by adults. I was not allowed to have my own taste in clothes, to choose my own hairstyle or shoes. When I said I disliked someone or something, I was corrected: “Of course you like your cousin Sherry,” or “You know you like buttermilk…” Because I was fortunate enough to spend a year with my father and his wife, who were considerably more permissive when it came to such things as personal tastes and likes and dislikes, by age 16 I had developed a sense of style and taste of my own (which was, in hindsight, considerably more mature and sophisticated than my mother’s). At my father’s house I began the transition from child to adult, got into the individuation stage of development, then went back to my mother’s where it was abruptly halted. Oh, she didn’t regress me back to little-girl dresses and hairy legs, but further individuation was halted on the spot.
Emotionally, I remained the child who expected to get approval or permission for everything, even to take a shower (because the bathroom would be inaccessible to others while I was in there). I could not eat a snack without permission, could not take a phone call without consent, leave the property without approval. If I had opinions that differed from hers, I had to keep them to myself and not even let them show in my expression: no eye rolling or pursed lips or heavy sighs. These were offenses against her dignity that warranted a smart slap across the face in retaliation.
And so my self-image remained that of a child, a repressed and stultified child who was not permitted to have an independent thought or belief or opinion. If my mother said I was bad, I was bad, regardless of my intent or my feelings or my logic. If my mother said I was lazy, I saw myself as lazy and either tried to change her opinion by frenziedly doing things to repudiate the lazy label or despondently live down to it. If I talked, I talked too much; if I didn’t talk, I was hiding something: there was no happy medium in anything. Ever.
By the time I was out on my own this was entrenched in me. I was what other people believed me to be. If a man found me sexy, I felt sexy. If a man found me repulsive, I felt repulsive. If my co-workers thought I was bossy, then I felt guilty for being bossy and backed off, only to be told by the boss I wasn’t carrying my weight, for which I felt more guilt as well. I was a mirror of what other people saw or believed or thought about me. The only thing I had that was truly mine was my sense of style and taste, developed during that one precious year with my father and step-mother. Add to that the fact that I grew up in the 50s and early 60s when girls could not take auto shop, get into Ivy League schools like Yale or Harvard…or even West Point…women could not get credit on their own and college scholarships for girls were so rare as to be unheard of, I became an adult woman who was a chameleon…whoever or whatever the authority figures around me thought I should be.
This included the adults in my family. Even though I was out of the house and living on my own, I was still viewed as the black sheep, the trouble maker, the incorrigible. At first I complied and behaved as expected, going from bad to worse to downright unresurrectable. Drugs, alcohol, men, jail, bikers, druggies, marginal living—even homelessness, crashing on friends’ couches or family rooms, sleeping on floors…wherever I could find a place out of the open to sleep.
Eventually I opened my eyes and realized that I didn’t have to be what they created me to be. I woke up one morning and decided I wouldn’t be that any more. I refused to accept the labels they put on me. I had long ago acknowledged my victimhood but I had never done anything about it. I was angry…enraged, actually…but I had never used that rage to fuel a revival of my Self, to create the impetus needed to overcome not only their ugly labels but the damage I had done to myself over a decade of being who they said I was.
It was not an easy transition and I had many relapses along the way. I married a man who, on the surface, was patient, loving and kind, only to find out shortly after the wedding he was my abusive, narcissistic mother with a penis. But I, still in the throes of the values and internalized messages of my childhood, believed the issues in the marriage were my fault…I was taught that anything wrong was my fault…and that it was therefore up to me to change things—including him—to make it work. It took more than a decade, but I crashed and burned. He got worse…so did I…until the day I was ready to use the Smith & Wesson revolver I had secretly purchased and had hidden under my bed. On myself. I had failed suicide attempts but the third time was going to be the charm that liberated me from the hole of despair that filled my entire being.
One of those last minute epiphanies saved me and I went into therapy. This time the changes I made were accompanied with insights, insights that changed what I believed, how I thought, what I saw when I looked in the mirror. My therapist just pointed out to me things I had not seen before, refused to let me sink back into denial, held my hand while I climbed out of the pit of despondency in which I had lived most of my life.
But I was the one who made the changes, who discovered that the power to make those changes had been within me all along. I had fallen for the blandishments of my abusers who convinced me that I didn’t have it, that the power over my life belonged to them and any power I felt was wrong and had to be subordinated to theirs. They lied: it was their job to help me learn to harness that power and use it to make a successful and happy life. Instead they usurped it and used it to make me feel powerless and themselves powerful and superior.
You have that power within you as well. We all do. We can piss it away in rebellious behaviour, we can drown it in substance abuse and self-pity, we can shun it through learned helplessness, but it is still there, waiting for us to lay both hands on it and put it to good use, making ourselves strong and independent, making ourselves successful human beings.
But nobody can do it for you. It is your journey and only you can walk it. If you depend on others to make you feel loved, to feel accepted, to feel “good enough,” you have given them your power. You have to take it back and from some people you will have to wrest it away from them because the only power they feel is the power they have over you. To take it away will make them feel powerless, adrift: only by wielding your power over you, by turning you into a puppet whose feelings and emotions they control, can they feel powerful. There is nothing in the rules of life that says you must sacrifice your power and your life so that someone else can have two…hers and yours. Look within yourself for rescue because the face of your greatest champion is the face that looks back at you from the mirror.
Nobody will love you or take care of you better than you love and take care of yourself. You are your own hero.