I may have been ten or eleven years old, the first time my mother called me ‘selfish’. I was unaware she was being critical, her facial expression did not tip me off; she had the gift of sarcasm.
‘Selfish’ was hurled at me throughout my childhood and my teenage years. Although I learned the meaning of the word, I underestimated its power; the negative impact of such reproach was significant . The hurtful accusation made me feel like there was something wrong and inappropriate with me. It was easy to internalize the criticism; after all, she was my mother, she knew best.
She repeated often that God hated selfishness, and if I did not want God to punish me, I needed to be selfless. “God loves sacrifice, meekness is a virtue” she used to say. What the Hell!! I did not know what any of it meant, well, except for the punishment part. I sensed I was an awful little human being. By age thirteen, I was certain my mother hated me.
I began rebelling against her authoritarian parenting. She attempted to control me by harassing, criticizing and finding faults in all aspects of my life. I couldn’t do anything right. I never knew what would set her off, so I did my best to avoid her. I felt unwanted, wrong. A mistake. I was confused, sad, hurt, and angry. My ability to regulate my emotions was shot, I became a mess. I fantasized about disappearing; constantly on guard, I did not feel safe in my own home.
Her inability to control my father and me drove her mad. She accepted a contract in a war zone, blaming us for her decision. She said we were going to kill her, for that reason, she chose to relocate to a war zone! (It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?) I was stunned by the news. She’s not serious. It must be another threat. I hoped.
My only offense was that I did not let her manipulate me, she wanted a submissive daughter. Unfortunately (for her) I was a strong-willed, curious and assertive child. She resented my individuality.
We just could not get along. I tried.
Ill- prepared to deal with the amount of grief I experienced when she left; I turned to alcohol to ease my pain. The feeling of guilt and shame were insurmountable. My life fraught with turmoil and sadness, I finally conceded: maybe she was right all along, I must be selfish.
I promised myself that I would become selfless; the agreement led to self-rejection, self-doubt, then, eventually, self-hatred. I judged myself mercilessly, trapped in a never ending cycle of self- punishment.
I tried excessively hard to be perceived as good.
I became obsessed with pleasing others. I suppressed my wants and needs; Oh! How noble of me! I elevated people, valued their opinions, and internalized all critiques (most of them were insensitive jerks). I forgave unjustifiable offenses without thought; surely, I must have done something that warranted their awful treatment. I felt responsible for loved one’s mood swings, prioritizing everyone’s well-being, I could no longer make a decision that benefited me. My self- esteem damaged, I hankered for love and acceptance (obviously, conditional! But I did not give a shit!)
I erased the word ‘no’ from my language, smiled when I wanted to scream and carried on with being an agreeable, self-effacing and easily exploitable idiot, until I didn’t.
The general sense of wonderfulness I wished to attain had become elusive; instead I grew more anxious, resentful. I began to question the validity of what mother promoted as ‘the only way of life.’ What if it was all bullshit?
Five years ago, I started therapy, determined to learn new and healthy ways. It has been a struggle.
I forgive my mother (it’s an ongoing process). She has not changed….I have.
I was certain self-denial had caused irreparable damages, but here I am, toying with the idea of self-care. Hey, it’s a start!