Letter from a Client to Her Mother
This is the first time I’ve used blog space for anything other than my own writing. I was so moved by a letter a client wrote (but did not send) to her mother that I want to share it in the hope that it will help you as much to read it as it helped my client to write it. It’s a powerful declaration of selfhood based on a great deal of introspection and hard work. When you’re done reading, try writing your own letter (without sending it) to someone who has hurt you or with whom you’ve never shared your authentic feelings. It works!
In many ways your parenting has been inadequate. I know you did the best you could and that you have many strengths, too, but this letter is about the irrational and harmful things I have learned from you about myself, my feelings, other people, life, and the world. I intend to do everything I can to “unlearn” many of the damaging messages you have taught me and replace them with logical, rational positive thinking that includes lots and lots of self love.
You taught me:
that my feelings are intolerable - by saying things like "I can't stand this!" or trying to fix, change, and control my feelings and other people's feelings
that I cannot tolerate/manage the regular difficulties that life brings by constantly protecting me and trying to do everything for me
that anger is shameful
that anger is unmanageable and explosive and very dangerous
that I must protect people from my feelings - my feelings hurt people and hurting others is the WORST thing I can do
that people will abandon me if I'm not happy all the time
that people will abandon me if I take care of myself
that if someone abandons me, I can't tolerate the "excruciating" feelings
that I cannot soothe myself
not to trust my instincts
that there is always a more perfect way to do things and I should search and search for the perfect way, thereby changing my mind often
that I am selfish
that I am lazy
that being selfish and lazy are TERRIBLE
that I am inadequate
that I will never be/do/have enough
that I must be productive all the time in order to be good enough (you did this by modeling, not by encouraging - rather, you encouraged me to do nothing while you did everything)
that other people's feelings and needs are much more important that my own
that I cannot control my eating
that I should hate my body like you do
that my body is shameful
that worrying makes things better
to think catastrophically about life's challenges.
None of these things are true! You have taught me a long list of lies. Below is a list of all that I know is true.
I can tolerate my difficult feelings. I can feel angry and vulnerable and scared and still be okay.
I can take care of myself. I am a competent woman. Life is mostly easy.
Anger is a healthy feeling - it's a signal that tells me when someone has hurt me or crossed a boundary.
I can manage my anger and express it appropriately. I can tolerate other people being angry at me.
Anger is not dangerous.
My feelings don't hurt people. I can express myself appropriately and others are responsible for their reactions to my feelings. My feelings are helpful and expressing them appropriately bring me closer to those I love.
People who love me will be there for me when I'm unhappy. It's okay to have lots of different feelings - to be real with those I am closest to. I'll be accepted and loved no matter what I feel.
The people I want to be close to will respect and love me for taking good care of myself.
If someone does decide to no longer be in a relationship with me, I can handle it. I'll be okay.
I know lots of great ways to self soothe and I self soothe when I have strong feelings.
I listen to and honor my instincts, as I know that they are important messengers.
There is no perfect way to do things. No matter what I choose, I'll be okay. I can tolerate the ambiguity of not knowing how something will turn out. It's okay to make an imperfect decision.
Certain amounts of selfishness and laziness are very healthy, and I need more of both.
I am a competent woman. I am and I do more than enough.
I was never defective or flawed. I have always been good enough.
I have everything I need.
I am a productive woman and I do enough
I need downtime every day. I need to play and have fun and enjoy myself in addition to working hard.
Other people's feelings and needs are important, but not any more important than mine. I have to take care of me and be my own best friend.
I make healthy food choices when I listen to my body and take care of myself emotionally.
My body is a great body, and it's healthy and I'm satisfied with it. I do not need to change my body.
I have nothing to be ashamed of. My body is beautiful.
Worrying is another way for me to escape from my feelings. Worrying doesn't make things better and I don't have to do it. I can self-soothe.
I can get through anything and be okay.
I'm working very hard on making the previous list of beliefs what I automatically believe about myself. I don't yet believe all of these things all the time, but I learn quickly and I know that soon I'll have replaced all of your unhealthy messages with these loving, positive, true ones.
The ways I will protect myself from further harm from you is the following:
I will remind myself of all of the lies that you taught me and refuse to believe them any longer.
I will continue to tell myself the truth.
I will tell you the truth, even though it's scary.
I will tell you how I really feel.
I will say no to you more often (I often say yes to protect your feelings).
I will no longer “people please” you. I will allow you to take care of yourself and set your own limits. I will stop asking "Are you sure?"
I will not engage in long, indecisive conversations about figuring out the “perfect” way to do things or go somewhere.
When we talk about family members, I will tell you the truth about how I really feel and what I really think. I will not “soothe” your worry, nor will I escalate it - I will simply speak my truth. I will encourage you to get help dealing with your worries.
To deal with my terror of disappointing or hurting you, or the fear of you not loving me anymore, I will self soothe. I will breathe deeply and remind myself that I can handle anything that comes my way. I will remind myself that you are my mother and that you will never stop loving me. I will remind myself that your way of coping is all that you know - it's no reflection of who I am. You could never give me what you never got. I will remind myself that I do not want to pass on this dysfunction to my children, and the only way not to pass it on is to change it - change the way I interact with you.