Understanding that the loving acceptance we so desperately seek from others can come only from our very own selves.
The loving acceptance you so deeply hunger for…
Can never reach you until you've learned to give that gift
to your self. Practice holding your self as dear as you
would hold anyone else whom you truly cherished!
Like many of the women who came of age between the Depression and World War II, my mother spent much of her adult life feeling thwarted and embittered. Much had been made in high school of her considerable intellectual capabilities. Still, she'd been forced by her father to give up a college bound track for a business track in which she'd learn skills to help support her family during the Depression. She'd had a brief (and from her diary, seemingly exciting) career as a legal secretary. Yet, once she married, she was expected, according to the custom of the time, to quit and be solely supported by her husband.
During the war, she sent me to live with her parents when my father went into the Navy. She went back to work as a legal secretary and kept our apartment. For a heady year, she got to live alone and have a career that she enjoyed. She was part of a whole generation of women who had been strongly encouraged (in the spirit of patriotism and Rosie-the-Riveter) to move out beyond their traditional roles into the workforce to help the war effort. But, once the war ended she, like all of her peers, was expected to happily resume being a stay-at-home wife and mother.
She was miserably unhappy and frustrated. Over the years she became increasingly more depressed. She passed to me, albeit less than consciously, the mantle that had been taken from her. I was charged with the task of doing and becoming what she had been stopped from: making my way academically and into a professional career.
From my earliest days at school I was a dedicated super-achiever. In primary grades, I usually brought home report cards filled with the equivalent of A's. In the later grades, when marks were in numbers, mine always ranged in the mid to hi 90's.
As I continued through the grade levels, I added numerous extra-curricular activities. I wrote poems and stories for which I won small prizes. In high school, I was active in the productions of and also president of the Drama Society. I was president of the Speakers Bureau, Co-editor-in-chief of our school newspaper and a cheerleader for the Honor Society. I was part of an All-City Chorus and an All-City Actors Group, both of which involved traveling weekly to rehearse and to perform regularly on educational radio and TV stations. I graduated from high school with a New York State Regents Scholarship, as a Senior Celebrity – The Girl Who Did Most and as a Merit Scholarship semi-finalist.
I (wrongly, as it turned out) believed that by doing all this, I would make her happy. If she were happy, I thought, she would finally be pleased with and loving toward me. Despite the considerable accomplishments that I brought home to her, my mother was never any happier or more loving with me.
In fact, her responses, when she paid any attention at all, were cold and critical. I didn't then grasp that my achievements rather than fulfilling her vicariously (as I had hoped) were actually stirring jealousy and resentment in her because I was getting to do what she hadn't been allowed to. It was a terrible catch-22.
My own joy and excitement with what I was doing and bringing to her paled in the face of her dismissive responses. I would feel confused and despairing. Each time, I would head back out to do more or to do differently. I was forever searching for the key that would unlock her and win for me her love and acceptance.
Gradually, I internalized her scornful raised eyebrow look and icy voice. My inner critic, the Hatchet Lady, was born. The Hatchet Lady denigrated the things that I did or created even before my mother had the opportunity to do so. The Hatchet Lady ridiculed any delight in my self, any excitement with what I was doing. As far as she was concerned, whatever I did was never right or never enough.
The lavishing of love, attention, recognition from my dad, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, my teachers – all this was as ashes to me. No amount of acknowledgment, no prizes, no honors carried any weight against this now internalized negative view of my self. Everything positive from the outside triggered the old Groucho Marx "why would I want to belong to any club that would have me as a member?" feeling. By its valuing of me, the source was automatically devalued.
Nevertheless, I never stopped searching for the illusive, magical achievement that might finally render me acceptable and worthy of love both from my mother and from the Hatchet Lady inside of me. (Pirouettes tells the story of this continued searching.)
When my mother died just three months after my 30th birthday, I felt no grief, no sense of loss. Instead, I felt a surge of relief and release. I felt set free from the weight of an impossible lifelong burden. She was no longer there to be unlocked. Now I had only the Hatchet Lady inside me with which to contend.
My mother's death opened the space for me to realize that no amount of more doing and no amount of further external acknowledgment could ever make me feel good about my self. That it was, in the end an inside job, one I had to do for my self. I finally understood that I had to find some different way to live with my self, some way to feed my aching hunger by my self.
Over the next couple of years, something within me kept nudging me along the path to leaving a whole way of life that now felt completely wrong for me. I had a persistent sense that if I didn't get to where it was green and still, to somewhere where I could be just with my self, I would literally die.
For years as either a friend or a therapist, I had encouraged others to give themselves permission to just be: to accept and love themselves however they were. Yet, entrenched in my doing-proving-achieving life, I could find no such permission for my self. When, two years after my mother's death, I left both the East Coast and that way of life, I started on the path toward embracing and loving all of me.
I stopped trying to be worthy, or trying to be any particular way at all and began to discover how I actually was. I came to be more and more in the middle of my own experiences: exploring and enjoying rather than always evaluating and monitoring. I began to care about my many-sided self with at least some of the tenderness I had, until then, brought only to my caring about others. I found a therapist who, for a while, could be for me what I had been for others: someone to help me to find permission to finally give that unconditional loving to my self.
Healing the wounds from (and in) the Hatchet Lady has taken many more years and an expanding commitment to embrace all my unfinished imperfectness. But, feeding the starveling inside of me began when I stopped looking outside of my self for her nourishment. (The Little Ones Story chronicles this part of the journey.)
Until we can begin to treat our selves lovingly, any loving from the outside can't reach past our automatic invalidation of it. No one can love us into loving our selves. Their love can support the seed of our self-loving, like bringing coffee and donuts to the barricade. The starveling inside of us (on the other side of the barricade) needs us to feed her. She needs us to believe that she deserves our own loving care. She needs us to believe what's so: that she deserves that love just because she's alive and she breathes.
Often we begin this process by acting on faith, as if we believe these things are true. We act as-if because we've never had such truths modeled for us by those who parented or took care of us. It is a slow, often scary road. But, it is the way home.
Travel gently as you begin to give your self the love you've been hungering for.