Today is a momentous day. I see my mother at noon today for the first time in almost ten years. At least I think it’s ten years.
I have some long-time readers who will know that this is a big deal. I have many readers who aren’t familiar with this situation. To quickly recap, my mother has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and clinical depression. I have always had great compassion for her. I spent most of my life feeling responsible for her well-being to the point of parentification, and, due to her inordinate fear of abandonment and simultaneous fear of engulfment, my mother exploited my natural people pleasing disposition to an abusive degree.
I was a non-entity growing up. I was only allowed the personality, will, and opinions that she permitted me to have. I was all at once The Good Child, Bad Child, and Scapegoat*. My role changed according to her momentary whims. I have written extensively about BPD on my blog, and I fear repeating myself. I also don’t want to stigmatize the diagnosis as it’s already a charged one pregnant with assumptions and implications.
What I want to discuss is achieving a reality in which one could see a formerly close family member who was also a perpetrator of profound abuse. How is something like that possible? There is a reason BPD gets a bad rap. While the disorder can express itself in various ways, when it expresses itself through manifestations of talionic rage bystanders are in danger. Emotional dysregulation is a hallmark of BPD, and this emotional turmoil manifests in myriad ways to loved ones. Children are the most vulnerable to subsequent trauma. So, how does one move from a post-traumatic state to a confident state of mind? Or, at least, confident enough for a meet-and-greet? That is a valid question.
A few friends are not thrilled that I’m meeting with my mother. They know the stories of her past behavior. They have witnessed her fight every boundary I put up. For those of you with a close family member carrying a BPD diagnosis, you’ll be able to read between the lines here. For readers who are not familiar with anything I’m attempting to gently imply, I’d recommend watching “Mommy Dearest” if you are at all curious. Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford is spot on in terms of representing a woman with BPD, *Queen/Witch subtype. My mother is a *Queen/Witch, and my mother behaved a lot like Joan Crawford in this film.
So, what have I been doing for the past ten years then that helped me heal?
I made a career out of going to therapy. While my father was abusive in his own right, my mother’s abuse proved to be the most psychologically pervasive and damaging. She was in my head. I used to have crippling social anxiety because I could almost hear her voice in my head criticizing me largely because my mother openly ridiculed me publicly by critiquing my appearance throughout my adolescence. My hair, my face, my teeth, my body, and general appearance were all in her crosshairs, and she looked gleeful as she crushed me. It was as if she had to humiliate me in order to feel good. She was a bully. So, I spent years dealing with everything that she did including her rages which caused her to act out extreme physical violence against other people. Her public sadism is actually what I’m most anxious about today.
I practiced being assertive. This is still very difficult for me. I was not permitted to say no or have a differing opinion with either of my parents. I recall saying no to my mother only one time. She slapped me across the face so hard that my head snapped back. My father was a Green Beret and Army sniper in Vietnam. You just didn’t say no to him. Ever. I grew up very afraid of authority, but, at the same time, my natural personality is assertive and a bit contrary. I will stand up for myself and other people. So, part of the recovery process has been looking for opportunities to be assertive even if it’s only returning coffee drinks that have been made improperly–something that makes me sweat.
I stopped being friends with people who were exploitative and took advantage of my nature. What do I mean by that? People who are naturally kind are easy to exploit because we will absorb relational inequities believing that somehow our personal sacrifices will help the other person. Believe me, they won’t. We will build the bridge to get to the other person in the relationship because of an empathetic nature. It is, however, worth nothing that women have a tendency to do this more than men due to social gender biases as noted in this study– A study by the Harvard Business Review(link is external) showed that only 7 % of female MBA graduates attempted to negotiate their salary with their new employers while 57% negotiated.
“I was raised to be an educated, polite, and respectful girl. You might have been, too. I was taught to think of others and their well-being. I consciously made an effort to treat others how I wanted to be treated. In short, I was always trying to be a good girl.” (Are You a Good Girl?)
I was definitely raised like this. It wasn’t a choice. It was a necessity. For survival. There are men who were raised like this as well, and I don’t want to discount that. I have met men who struggle with something like The Dutiful Son. They, too, must be educated, polite, and respectful always thinking of others and their well-being, willing to sacrifice themselves and their interests for the benefit of their family. The “Good Girl” phenomenon isn’t isolated to women. This spans the gender gap.
I also thought that this was the way of the world:
“I naively thought this was the way everybody was raised. I assumed everyone would go out of their way to treat each other well. I thought we were all living in a world where we respected each other and each other’s choices. I thought being considerate towards others would mean others would be equally considerate towards me. Turns out, I was wrong.” (Are You a Good Girl?)
I re-examined that assumption because I discovered in the past ten years that many people are not interested in personal development, bettering the world, or even being kind. There is a lot of brokenness in the world, and needs often drive behaviors far more than intention:
“…there have been plenty of people who saw my being polite as an opportunity to test my boundaries. There have been many who saw my being kind as a sign to trample all over me. Apparently, when you’re seen as a good girl, people think they can get away with anything, because they know you’ll continue to behave like a mature, respectful adult regardless of what’s thrown in your face.
Worst of all, I found myself getting sucked into the role more and more. I tried so hard to please everybody around me. I checked in with people to make sure they were OK with the life choices I was making. I said yes to things I would never dream of doing on my own. I became an obsessive perfectionist, especially when it came to how I presented myself and what I did. Best of all, I pretended to enjoy all of this and did it with a smile on my face. Sometimes I was so deep in it that I started to mistakenly believe I did. It was terrifying and exhausting, all at once.” (Are You a Good Girl?)
Does this ring true for anyone? It’s an interesting description, isn’t it? Living a life without personal boundaries. And, it’s all too easy to do that when you come from a family wherein you were not permitted to have any. I think that building a life with appropriate boundaries, starting at the identity level and moving outward like rings on a tree, is the most important thing you can do for yourself and your relationships when you come from an abusive family of origin. After that, learning how to enforce them in the context of interacting with people particularly with people who will challenge them comes next.
What does that look like? Life coach Susanna Halonen lists concrete actions to take that will go to building and reinforcing personal boundaries:
1. Ask for what you want and deserve.
Want to take on a new project at work? Ask for it. Want a raise or a bonus? Justify it to your boss. Want better treatment from your inconsiderate friend? Tell them.
2. Say no.
People will always ask for help. You probably do, too, as do I. There is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with helping. Unless you’re exhausted. Wiped. And burned-out. You can’t say yes to everything, and you can’t help everyone. You have to put yourself, your health, and your well-being first and foremost. If you don’t, there will be nothing left of you, and then you will be able to help no one.
3. Speak up.
If somebody disrespects you, don’t ignore it. If somebody is being rude, point it out to them. If somebody tries to change you, tell them you’re happy with who you are. If you don’t speak up, nobody will hear you. If you don’t put boundaries up, people will keep pushing them. Be brave, be bold, and be loud.
4. Stand your ground.
There is nothing wrong with living your life according to your values. There is nothing wrong with making the life choices that are right for you. There is nothing wrong with you. Believe that — and stand tall with it. People often try to influence your life trajectory or give clear opinions on what they think you should do, especially if you’re a good girl. Don’t let them sway you. Thank them for their input, and tell them that you have made your decision based on what you think and feel is right.
5. Treat others how you’d like to be treated.
Transforming from a good girl to a strong girl doesn’t mean you start being rude. You will continue to be polite, considerate, and respectful — but you will no longer do so at your expense. (Are You a Good Girl?)
My final thoughts on this might be that personal development is a lifelong process as is healing. Some things stick around in our minds. We do not forget them, and I’ve concluded that we should not forget certain things. It is important to remember the profundity of our past experiences so that we always know our own strength. Recovery and healing are so much harder than many people understand and yet here we stand. So, we cannot forget. You are resilient today because you were once hurt then. And that is ultimately why I can see my mother today. I withstood the worst that she was capable of, and none of it got the best of me. I’m still me. There is no power in that place anymore. That is why I remember. Your former battlegrounds and fields of defeat can become the place where you ultimately forge your greatest victories. The places where you overcome, shake the dust off your feet, and walk away.
May you forge new victories as you keep going.
- Are You a Good Girl? by Susanna Halonen
- *Understanding the Borderline Mother, Part I
- *Understanding the Borderline Mother, Part II-The All-Good Child
- *Understanding the Borderline Mother, Part III-The No-Good Child