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A Letter To My Toxic Parent

A Letter To My Toxic Parent

Dear Mother,

I’ve written, edited, deleted, and rewritten this about four times now, struggling to find the words I want to say. It’s all so complicated; finding the right words is difficult. This is what I’ve come up with:

“The thing about parenting is that it doesn’t come with a manual.”

That’s a saying we’ve all probably heard at least once or twice in our lives. Usually when it’s said, people are talking about anxiety regarding the proper ways to raise a child into a happy, functional adult with as little childhood trauma as possible. It’s meant to be a soothing statement reflecting that most parents are just trying to do what they can and hoping for the best, like I know you did.

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I know you did.

But the other thing about being a parent is sometimes the lessons we learn from our own parents is more of a guideline for how children should not be treated than a model we should follow in raising the next generation. That’s true for you, isn’t it? I know about the terrible cruelty you suffered in your own childhood- the screaming, torture, and neglect- and so I cannot hold the things that happened in my own against you; you were simply using the tools you were handed. You didn’t know they were broken.

Learning to forgive

It took a long time to get to the point of being able to talk openly about these things. Even now, I am trembling and anxious and I want to stop, but I know someone out there needs me to be their voice in this. Someone needs my help to say one simple, powerful phrase:

I forgive you.

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I want you to know that I forgive you, and I do not hate you. Now that I am an adult- now that I may potentially raise children of my own- I understand how important it is to tell you these things. I will not deny that I was angry; I was so furious it consumed me for years. But I can tell you the exact moment I realized I could not hold on to that anger any more.

It was on one of my many visits with you in the hospital. I believe it was your second time being admitted for threats of suicide, and you were sitting across the table from me in the cafeteria. I remember looking at you and realizing you were not there. Your eyes were vacant and your movements were slow and stilted; I remember realizing in that moment that you were doped up to your eyeballs just to have a moment of peace in your own mind so you could visit with your kids.

I was angry then, too. Not at you- or at least not directly. I was angry because I felt like once again you were running away from us. Now I realize what I was feeling was misplaced guilt and insecurities; throughout my entire childhood I thought if I was just good enough you could love me properly, like the families you see on the television. I was wrong- not for wanting that affection, but for thinking your inability to give it to me was because of something I did. It wasn’t until much later that I understood how deep the scars of your childhood traumas ran. By then it was because I had scars of my own.

My forgiveness came from understanding, which is key, because it would not have happened otherwise. It took many years and an earnest desire to understand why, which in all honesty was born from the desire know what I did wrong. I think that’s where you and I differ: I was able to get to this point much sooner than you.

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Learning From Experiences

I will never fault you for seeking treatment for your mental illnesses. Chronic depression is serious disorder, and I am glad you are such a fighter and survivor. I only wish you would have sought treatment sooner; then perhaps things would not have gotten so intensely toxic. If you had dealt with those nasty, vicious demons sooner, you may have never contemplated suicide, or… or tried to take my brother and I with you. Maybe I wouldn’t have spent so many days sitting outside of your bedroom hoping you would come out and offer some affection rather than disinterested tolerance or violence.

Maybe then I wouldn’t still live in fear of the day I get the call that you finally succeeded.

However, I also realize now that the way I was raised is something no child should have to endure. No, it was never as terrible as what you survived, but it still wasn’t okay. Twenty-four years, and I’m still trying to teach myself not to flinch when you are angry with me. Twenty-four years, and I’m still terrified of being forgotten and abandoned. I cope, I try to improve myself, I try to live outside of your shadow, but I still struggle some days. I suppose that’s part of the reason this is suddenly coming out so easily.

But I would be lying, mother, if I said even once that your influence on me in my childhood was all terrible. I strove to be the very best I could be so that you would be proud of me- and I know you were, because you said so. It’s just, that seemed to be one of the only things you could express toward me: pride or anger. So I would get so terribly upset with myself at even the smallest missteps, because I just had to be perfect. For you. Always for you.

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Because of that, I got top scores in all the standardized tests. I got a scholarship for that, do you remember? I swore to accept no limitations on myself because I knew I had to fly for you- the bird with clipped wings, locked in a cage far too long. I wanted and will always want you to be proud of me.

Changing the Path

If one day I become a mother to children of my own, I want to keep all of this in mind. Perhaps I’ll print this out. Maybe one day I’ll even let you read it and the other things I’ve written to express myself. I would say I wonder if you would read them, but you have never been overly concerned with my life much beyond whether I’m still on the straight and narrow. Don’t get me wrong, mother, things between us are better than they have ever been. I’m glad for it. But I know you and I cannot have the relationship I longed for all those years ago, or even now.

One day I may have your granddaughter or grandson; I want you to rest assured I will do everything in my power to give them the things you wanted for me that you simply could not facilitate. Just as you gave me a better childhood than the one you endured, I will give them better than I ever had. I’d like to think I can be the one to finally end this legacy of toxicity and trauma which began generations ago.

Or maybe I won’t have children. Maybe I’ll live a life filled with travel and experiences you never allowed yourself to dream about. I could send you a postcard from each exotic land and hope you get the message I have never been brave enough to say to your face.

I made it mama. I’m okay. You didn’t fail me. We both made it out fine.

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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