I’m sitting alone at the table in our small dining room in Trumbull, CT. My mother is in the kitchen and my stepfather is standing in the doorway watching me. On my plate is a pile of cold lima beans congealed with margarine.
I had ruined our dinner because I refused to eat them. They had coaxed me and threatened me and laughed at me rolled their eyes at me and told me there were starving children in Africa who would be grateful to have my lima beans. Finally, they lost their patience. Frustrated, my mother got up to do the dishes.
“You will sit there until you eat them,” my stepfather said. “And if you don’t eat them, you’ll have them for breakfast.”
With tears running down my face, I took a fork full put it in my mouth, chewed a couple of times, tried to swallow, and gagged the mess back up onto my plate.
“Now you’ll have to eat THAT for breakfast!” my stepfather said between clenched teeth.
I was seven. And in that moment I was broken. I was also sad, terrified, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was angry.
It was a white-hot impotent anger that I stuffed down, denied, and hurt myself with for 40+ years afterward.
Because anger wasn’t safe. Saying “no” to my mother and stepfather wasn’t safe. Having personal boundaries wasn’t safe.
“…the inability to say ‘No’ — the inability to set personal boundaries — is one of the most common, insidious causes of human suffering.” ~ from Kids Who ‘Talk Back’ Become More Successful Adults
My experience – and the experience of many women – is this: it’s scary and painful to advocate for ourselves, to speak our truth, to stand up for what we believe in, be true to ourselves because – based on our experience as children – we fear we won’t be loved, accepted, taken care of, or validated.
Even though we’re now grown women, in the deep recesses of our brains, there’s a voice that tells us we’re unsafe if we say “no” or “talk back.”
Back then there were no studies indicating that a child who says “no” and talks back is bound to be more successful (especially a girl).
In fact, I’m betting “the experts” believed strict, unquestioning obedience (especially for girls) was the way to get ahead.
I have no doubt that my mother believes she was protecting me, based on what she had learned and experienced herself. The exhortations of past generations to not rock the boat, to not be too big for your britches, to tone it down…all of it was to protect us.
Because it wasn’t safe for a girl or woman to be angry and defiant. Angry, defiant women were burnt at the stake, drowned, stoned, institutionalized.
There’s a video making the rounds of Tony Robbins silencing a woman at one of his mega-seminars. In the clip, he suggests that the only reason women are angry in regards to the #metoo movement is because they want to feel significant. He argued that women’s anger is keeping them in the victim role.
According to Lauren Fritsch, a life coach who studied at Robbins-Madanes Training, when someone is victimized, whether physically or emotionally, there are several ways they might handle it: fight/flight, negotiate, or dissociate. Once you’ve been victimized, those triggers become default patterns.
In a video on Facebook she called Tony Robbins out and explained: “One way we survive when we are faced with abuse is to silence ourselves. It keeps us safe and alive. We’d rather be silent and take the abuse. Silence has been the overarching dominate paradigm for responding to abuse. When we stay silent in the face of abuse, we stuff it. And when it finally become safe, appropriate, and culturally acceptable to actually express what happened and talk about it, that’s when it finally becomes safe and critical to survival to become angry. Anger is a normal response to abuse. To say that the #metoo movement is playing the victim is diminishing and wrong. In the past, we needed silence just to survive. Now it’s safe to share our experiences and now it’s safe for us to feel the anger we weren’t able (or allowed) to feel because if we had expressed it in an unsafe time or place we might not have survived.”
This is why embracing ALL of our emotions, especially the ones we deem “negative” is so important. It is safe for me to feel, express, and discharge the anger in a healthy way (I share some of those ways in Chapter 9 of my book).
Here’s what I know now: you don’t have to be quiet about what you experienced (in order to protect your mother) and nor are you doing anything wrong by talking about it, especially if you can take responsibility – as an adult – for the way you feel about it. And especially when you’re no longer making your stories mean something bad about yourself or your mother.
This isn’t a resigned “she was doing the best she could” statement. It’s not about minimizing our experiences.
It’s about our resilience. It’s about acknowledging our wholeness and the complexity of being human, our mothers’ wholeness and our mothers’ complexity.
“It’s possible for parents to look honestly at the stresses their children may have absorbed when they were younger without at the same time blaming themselves for it. Compassion, for their children and for themselves, is the key.” ~ Dr. Gabor Maté
If our mothers choose not to acknowledge, feel, take responsibility for, and safely express their uncomfortable emotions – if they choose not to have compassion for themselves – that doesn’t mean we can’t.