Sacrificing The Self: Well-Intentioned Parenting and the Wounding of Adult Children

My Dear Readers,

     Many of us are taught from birth that our parents have our best interests at heart.  However, there may be times when our parents voice comments, statements or opinions that, although well intended, are actually harmful and can result in psychological wounds.    

     When such acts occur, there is the tendency for the adult child to walk away scarred and withdrawn.  As much as we have mastered “honoring” our fathers and mothers, there is a heavy cost that both parents and adult children suffer when we focus on the well-meaning intent and ignore the emotional devastation that results as the outcome. 

     Below is such a story.

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Dear Visible Man,

I am a 35-year old African-American woman who is originally from Memphis, TN.  I have been in Seattle for about 9 years, and I’ve had a very successful career– I have my bachelor’s degree in computer science, and an MBA from a well-known school in the South. I’ve worked at multiple prestigious companies, I am a certified and known expert in my field, I’m now running my own business, and I’ve just moved into a lovely new home that really feels like my sanctuary.

The only thing that I do struggle with is my weight. My doctors say that I’m healthy, and I am athletic, playing many different sports. I will never be a slender girl– I’m just not built that way–but I would still like to slim down some.

Recently, I had a phone conversation with my mother, who I’m very close to.  I confided in her that I was having some trouble getting the motivation to work out as hard as I have in the past, and after playfully chiding me about getting back on my routine, she says:

“Yeah, if you don’t lose that weight, you’ll probably never get a man.”

I replied, not taking her seriously: “Bah, whatever, if he doesn’t like me because of my weight, then he wasn’t meant for me anyway. I’ll be okay.”

She then says, bringing up my past boyfriends from YEARS back:

 

“Well, that’s why Robbie and Kelly didn’t want you, and I’m sure you’re bigger now than you were back then.”

It felt like I’d been slapped in the face and punched in the gut at the same time.  I think I sputtered something about how I was big when I was in both of those relationships, and when she reiterated how I just HAD to be bigger now, I told her that I wanted to change the subject.  We did, and struggled through a separate conversation before I made some kind of excuse to get off the phone.

If this wasn’t my mother, I would have cursed her most disgracefully and cut her off completely, like I do with others who offend or otherwise injure me.  I have very advanced defense mechanisms, developed over years in the corporate world.  But, because she’s my mom, I can’t bring myself to be disrespectful to her or to tell her that she’s hurt me because she will think I’m too sensitive.

So, I’ve been avoiding her.  I called my sister and told her about it, and she said yeah, that she heard when my mom said it, and when she hung up the phone, my sister took her to task for it.  She then sent me a funny YouTube video that she knew would cheer me up.

I still don’t want to talk to my mom, because I still feel really vulnerable and I don’t want to get blasted again. I’m not even sure she notices that I’m avoiding her. I’ve meditated and prayed on this, hoping that I won’t still hurt about it, but she basically preyed on my two biggest insecurities at the same time– things she KNEW would hurt me— and I’m not able to “let it go,” as you say in so many of your writings.  I mean, does she really think that I have nothing else to offer besides a slim body? After everything I’ve accomplished?

I’m not sure what to do.  I miss our relationship, even though this only happened 2 weeks ago, and I don’t want this to become a bigger issue, but every time I talk to her now, I’m really stiff and stilted and I don’t want to share what’s really in my heart because I’m afraid of what she’ll say to me.

I’ve written a book here.  Any observations you have will be helpful… thanks. 🙂

Walking Wounded, Seattle, WA

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Dear Walking Wounded,

There is a lot of suffering to digest here.  In my younger days, I remember a television show called Kids Say The Darndest Things hosted by Bill Cosby (1998-2000).  In this show, kids would be showcased making comments that were either funny or at least to be taken lightly.  In essence, the kids, given their age and level of emotional immaturity, were given a “free pass.”

I can imagine those reading this posting may be saying one or more of the following:

  • For Pete’s sake, she’s your mother!
  • You‘re too sensitive, grow a thicker skin!
  • Lighten up!  She didn’t mean anything by it.
  • Come on now!  Really?!  Are you being for real?

All of that is “code” for what is being subconsciously and unconsciously taught by society these days: “Man (or woman) up.” You are being exhorted to be strong enough to take it.  Do not, I repeat, DO NOT fall for the trap of once again allowing the psychological self to be sacrificed out of your concern regarding being viewed in a negative way by others or concerned about hurting your mother’s feelings.

Concern about another’s person’s feelings?  How about placing the needs or wants of another and prioritizing over those of yourself? Maintain a tough skin and keep going?  “Sticks and stones will hurt my bones but name calling will never harm me.”

  • Where do all these wonderful concepts come from?
  • And whom do they benefit?

The answer to both questions is simple: the larger group. To restate whom the larger group the “larger group” consists of :

  • The integration and dependency of three sub units working in collaboration.
  • These three sub units are society (at large), community (church, school, and other defined institutions) and family (loosely defined).

The most important piece, which impacts the sub units separately and as a whole, is YOU, the individual member, who in some way or function belongs to each one of the sub units as well as the larger group.  The bottom line is that YOU receive openly communicated messages that it is okay for people known as parents (family) to say negative, uncomfortable or downright nasty things to you under the guise of love, concern and caring feelings towards you. But is it really okay?

You stated:

“If this wasn’t my mother, I would have cursed her most disgracefully and cut her off completely, like I do with others who offend or otherwise injure me.”

 

So, it’s okay for your mother to make disparaging comments about your weight and yet you would not tolerate such behavior from another? Okay, case closed.  So let’s move on.

  1. It’s not working… You can’t move on.  Why? You’re devastated.  You’re emotionally blocked.  As you clearly stated, “I’m not able to let it go.”  So you want to let it go, but you simply can’t do it.  So now you are confused and you don’t know what to do.

The psychological self is talking to you.  Yes, intellectually, your training from the larger group is telling you to move on.  But, the psychological self is telling you…No!

The question is: ARE YOU LISTENING?  The psychological self may be telling you, “I am hurting. I am wounded by my mother’s words.”  Questions arising from within the psychological self may include the following:

  • Are you going to advocate for me?
  • Are you going to bring balance to me?
  • Are you going to transform my state of confusion to one of calmness?

From your writings, it is clear that your mother loves you.  Your mother, in her behavior, continues to combine the roles of mother and parent.  In doing so, there is a clear failure to acknowledge you as an adult member, separate from the family unit.  You are, for all intents and purposes in her eyes, a child– her child—and although her words and behaviors are not intended to harm you, they may come from her living in fear as a parent.   She fears that she will one day die and you still will not have found a loving man to take care of you.

This fear-based behavior is and has been repeated in countless families throughout the world.  It is the clearly the struggle of the parent to let go of the role of parent and transforming to the role of Mother, a support and confidant to the adult, no longer a parent.

The following model is designed to assist parents who are seeking to make the transformation from living IN fear to Living WITH Fear.  In order to do this, we must have the following:

  •  BELIEF– demonstration (through behavior, not words) of the acknowledgement that the individual, although still my child, is an “adult.”
  • FAITH– the desire to accept that despite any fears related to the current situation, that the mother and/or father is secure in knowing that the “adult” will be successful following their death(s)
  •  TRUST-the willingness to accept the decision(s) as to how the “adult” has chosen to live one’s life i.e. “walk one’s journey.”

BFT is a model to assist parents seeking to disengage from the role of parenting (supervising, managing, and directing) the lives of their children who are now adults.  However, let’s return to the REAL issue in this situation, the fact that your psychological self is currently in a state of confusion.

Begin the process of “letting go” of the teachings of the larger group as it relates to acceptance of actions and behaviors of family members simply because of role differences. As you are listening to the psychological self, begin the work of embracing the psychological self.  Assume responsibility for the following roles:

  •  ADVOCACY– Engage in a discussion with your mother.  Openly talk about the emotional wounding.  Create reasonable boundaries and expectations within the mother and adult daughter relationship.
  • BALANCE-Work to reinforce your self-concept and self-esteem.  Review and reframe the journey of your life.  Believe in the journey.  See the journey.  Walk the journey.  Stop seeking acceptance from others.  Look within and gain self-acceptance.
  • CALMNESS-Understand that the comfort zone, otherwise known as the “peace you are seeking” lies within you.  Stop looking to others to grant you empowerment.  Empowerment must come from within.

 

Concluding Words

Why do sheep stay in their groups and not walk alone? It is within the context of the larger group that they find safety, shelter and security.  At the same time, they submit to the will of the group. They do not move alone because they live in fear.  Such lives are set.  They have found their comfort zone.  This is what they know.

The eagle, on the other hand, may travel in pairs or alone.  She/he is an individualist, seeking to soar to greater heights, despite whatever barriers or obstacles lie before them.  They are majestic and unstoppable.  They live with fear.

Stop being concerned with how others may perceive you.  Continue to walk your journey.  Focus on crossing the finish line in whatever race you engage in.  It really does not matter when you cross or whether others believe (or not) in your ability.  What is essential is that you believe…in self.  Be an advocate for the self, find balance and achieve calmness.

Stay with the sheep or soar with the eagles.  In fear or with fear.  You choose……

 

The Visible Man

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