How to heal from micro trauma
I had the good fortune of visiting my brother, Ryan, in Boise last weekend. I hadn’t seen him in a year. We always have a great time together. We riff together better than I do with anyone else. We never go more than a few minutes without laughing really hard.
A lot of the times that we’re cracking up are making fun of family. Specifically, how we were raised. Ryan and I had odd childhoods, but nothing that would kill a person.
On this trip to visit Ryan, I brought up how throughout my whole life, my family has labeled me a bitch. They have called me a bitch directly. But it comes in all sorts of ways: dramatic, mean, angry, a bad person. Or I need to calm down, I need to get an attitude readjustment. There’s probably a dozen more ways that my mom, dad, step dad, and brother would let me know that they thought I was a bitch.
These comments usually came out during a heated discussion or argument. It started by me expressing my opinion. And would escalate from there.
One of these moments that was significantly more lighthearted and funnier was when I was 19 years old and I told my mom I wanted to work at Trader Joe’s. She replied, “You’re not nice enough” and we both laughed. The staff at Trader Joe’s is notoriously chipper and cheery, not exactly me. But it still felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I thought to myself, “Even my mom thinks this little of me?”
Now that I’m an adult and I get to see how my friends and family members who are my age are raising their children, I know that I should’ve never heard those comments. Even if I was being a bitch. This led to a lifetime of insecurity, self-hatred, low confidence, stage fright, anxiety, depression, low self-worth. All of which manifested itself in buffet of unhealthy coping mechanisms, i.e. binge eating, binge drinking, binge spending, smoking cigarettes, unhealthy romantic relationships and sexual encounters.
We all wrestle with who we are. Hopefully it’s something we figure out in the first quarter century of our lives. But for me it has not been a simple process. While I love my family very much, and they told me how much they loved me as a kid, and even now, their comments have been engrained in my schema.
Disclaimer: I am not blaming all of my bad behavior and the bad things that have happened to me on my family. What I am saying, is that their hurtful words told me at a very young age that I was not a good person. Or good enough. From a very young age, I grew up believing, “I am not enough”. It takes a lot dig that out of my schema. It wasn’t reversed when they told me they loved me. Their words were not cancelled out by paying for private high school and college. I’ve been in therapy for almost ten years and I still struggle with this.
This work takes a lot of time, energy, and emotional stamina. But I believe it starts with forgiveness. I have to forgive my mom, step dad, dad, and brother. I believe it is easiest to forgive when we send compassion to the people who have hurt us. Sending compassion to others is a lot easier when we know why they are doing what they are doing. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why my family wanted me to know that I was a bitch.
This all started when I was roughly nine years old. And a lot of it can be contributed to a perfectly natural response to hormonal changes, but that was never talked about in my family. If I was truly a bitch, and I was hurting them, why didn’t they help me? Why did they only continue the cycle of hurt? There is no one that will become kinder after being called a bitch.
Often times, my family members instigated fights by teasing me about a certain held belief. Or how I would freak out, i.e. “Don’t talk about that, Stephanie will start yelling at us and get all crazy.” This always made a perfectly normal conversation go awry. My family loved (and still does a little) to tease me, remind me of everything I’ve done and said in the past to prove their point that I am in fact a bitch.
Also, isn’t it the responsibility of the parent to deescalate situations? Why did they always escalate it? Of course, they are only human.
But at this point, I’m fairly convinced that their responses had nothing to do with me being a bitch. I was not a bitch. I was (and am) a hormonal, opinionated, loud, funny, deep feeling, loving, articulate, smart, brave, woman.
What if my family’s insistence on making me feel bad wasn’t because I was a bitch?
What if I wasn’t a bitch at all?
What if I was just a normal young person figuring out the world and how to communicate in it?
What if I wasn’t a bitch but an opinionated woman? And a loud woman with opinions made them uncomfortable?
What if my unpopular opinions and courage to express them intimidated them – because they were insecure?
What if they called me a bitch because I wasn’t hiding myself or being small; they saw that I was being myself, unapologetically, and that scared them?
What if they hurt me because they saw I was doing something they wouldn’t let themselves do?
What if calling me a bitch never had anything to do with me at all?
I forgive my family. And the loads of other people who have given me this label. Not because I it doesn’t bother me or because I accept the label. I forgive them because I know it has nothing to do with me. People call people cruel names because they are hurting. People deny others’ emotions and experiences because they have not come to terms with their own. People hurt people’s feelings because they don’t want them to be their authentic selves – they want them to hurt and hide, like they are.
My family doesn’t make these comments much these days. But it’s still a struggle to develop a strong self-worth as a 29-year-old woman. I’m constantly shitting on myself. To start changing my thinking, I have to tell myself a different story all of the time. I need to remind myself that I am not a bitch. I am a very kind person. But I don’t live my life just to make others comfortable. I do share my thoughts, voice my opinions, and take unpopular stances. But those actions are not indicative of my personality or give me the label “bitch”. If someone wants to interpret my voice negatively and label me, that only speaks to their own life view.
But I’m optimistic for the future. And I know that I’m on the right path, because I am true to myself. I’ve never wavered on authentic Stephanie, even if I’ve doubted her, I’ve always shown up as her. She is beautiful, bright, bold, brave, and she deserves to be seen. She is capable of being loved, but only by those who love themselves too.
To Sally, Chris, Bill, and Ryan: I love you always. Thank you for your love and support.