My childhood was spent in what looked like a happy, all-American household.
I was one of eight children, with a dutiful housewife for a mother, and a father who was a janitor at my school and a member of both the Knights of Columbus and the American Legion. Quietly hidden in the shadowy corners of our lives, however, things weren’t so perfect or lovely. My father – so active in the community – was verbally and physically abusive at home, terrorizing us every single day.
It was impossible to feel safe or at ease.
We never knew what sort of assault might be coming, or when; we constantly considered our words and actions deliberately and delicately, moving through our days with a grace deeply rooted in fear. Even after growing up, taking back my life, and moving across the country, I wore my victim story like a badge. Everything I ever shared about my childhood carried a subtext, an unspoken message that said, “I am so screwed up because of my father.”
I defined myself through my father’s abuse.
Some time ago, I was having lunch in Los Angeles with my friend Paul, going over all the horrible things that had happened to me in my life. Suddenly he interrupted me and asked, “Laura, how long are you going to tell that story, and be a victim of that story?”
I was shocked.
I had expected a more sympathetic reaction. I needed my prized victimhood to be heard, and while I was anticipating the usual comfort and coddling, here he was scolding me and making me want to run out of the restaurant in tears. I stumbled through responses like “You don’t understand, Paul! This man – my father – tried to ruin my life!” and “You don’t know what hell I’ve been through!” and “You just don’t understand!”
His stance was unwavering.
Gently he said, “I understand. I do. I just want to know how long you’re going to tell the story.” And fortunately, once I moved past my initial reaction, I was able to concede that he had a point. It was in that moment that I realized I’d been going through my whole life thinking I was earning purple hearts for having the worst childhood story.
The truth was that it was actually holding me back from healing.
I had this twisted core belief that my story made me friends by generating pity and sympathy. But the truth was that, by defining myself only by my pain, I was actually pushing people away. My suffering was leading me nowhere.
Initially, I felt like this conversation made for the worst day of my life.
It hurt to have a friend call me out and deny me my story, to have him invalidate such a definitive part of who I believed myself to be. It felt callous and uncaring. But then I realized that what he was actually doing was reminding me that the past is in the past and that I can write a new story. The worst day quickly turned into the best day as my eyes were opened to this reality: when you accept responsibility for your circumstances, you claim the power to change them.
While we outwardly blame a person or situation, inwardly we are beating ourselves up for being a part of that relationship or experience. Whether you berate yourself for ever getting involved in the first place, or merely ask yourself why you hadn’t done things differently, you are still internalizing that blame. You are giving yourself the message that you are not to be trusted.
When we choose not to forgive, we remain stuck, unchanging and unmoving.
It’s as if we’re chaining ourselves to our past and to the people who harmed us, which prevents us from moving forward and out of old patterns. It’s like tying one end of a rope around your waist and the other end around a tree. The rope represents the situation that you won’t forgive, and the tree represents the other person. No matter how many times you tell the tree to apologize – even if it does say it’s sorry – you are still connected by the rope. If you try to walk away, you can only go so far before it stops you.
Are you going to stay there and yell at the tree?
Are you going to stand at rope’s length from the tree, facing away and pretending it isn’t there? Are you going to circle the tree, looking for a way out? Or will you realize that the way out is already in your own hands, let go of the resentment, and untie yourself?
It isn’t easy, but it is absolutely possible.
It’s taken time and practice and patience, but over the years I have untied myself from many trees, including my father. That doesn’t mean I’ve run away; I’ve simply removed the ropes of resentment in order to create healthier new relationships with these people. This singular action has led me to a sense of sacredness around my life that I would not have otherwise achieved.
Start untying yourself from your trees, one by one.
The resulting freedom will allow you to venture back into your life more open, adventurous, and happy. You will feel the difference – a weight will be lifted from your shoulders, your heart, your spirit… You will finally be able to truly live in the present, and look forward to the future. Every day is an opportunity to start again. Every moment is an opportunity to start again.
If you’re suffering, I ask you – Where can this lead you?
If you have a story like mine, littered with dark and dirty defining experiences, I ask you –
What is the opportunity here?
And if you don’t know who you are without your memories of pain and struggle, I ask you –
What can you learn from this?
Your answers are your way out.
Reclaim your power.
Acknowledge your resentments. Then let them go. Your life is your own to live, and what defines you is not your past. What defines you is how you choose to live your life, right here, right now, in this very moment. Stop allowing your past to hold you back. Use it to propel you forward. You’re ready. Right now.
What do you think? I welcome your comments and questions below…and…
Laura Fenamore, Body Image Expert, Coach and acclaimed Author is on a mission to help women around the world end the constant battle with their bodies and start adoring who they see in the mirror. Her approach walks students and readers through the heartfelt journey to self-love at any size or age by unlocking the secrets to a lifetime of emotional, physical and spiritual health. After overcoming a lifelong battle with addiction, obesity, and eating disorders, Laura released 100 pounds – keeping it off for more than 28 years. She chronicles this journey to self-love and health in her widely acclaimed book, Skinny, Fat, Perfect: Love Who You See in the Mirror. Learn more about Laura’s programs, or invite her to speak by visiting SkinnyFatPertect.com.
Image courtesy of Kalen Emsley.