I realize this post is a little different from the content I usually post, but I think it’s important to talk about.
When I was a child, my parents fought a lot leading up to their divorce. Because I was praised for being “obedient” and “well-mannered,” I learned to minimize my personal needs to receive affection, love, and care amidst the chaos. In an effort to stop the fighting and have my needs met, I tried to be helpful and good. Oftentimes, I did extra chores and negotiated between my parents. It felt like doing so would somehow keep our family together.
From a young age, I abandoned my role as a child to become a therapist with the goal of repairing their crumbling marriage. I listened to my parents problems and tried to brainstorm solutions. Instead of exploring the world, having fun, and building relationships with others my age, I took on the responsibility of making my mother and father happy.
During the divorce, which dragged on for years over financial disputes, my mother’s depression and anxiety worsened. She clung to me tightly for support and could be viciously overprotective. This was a stark contrast to my father who, when I was eight, completely disappeared from life for several years. As a result, I struggled with strong feelings of abandonment. I frequently wondered why I wasn’t good enough. I had tried so hard to be the perfect daughter, and he still left. I didn’t want to lose my mother or anyone else, too. This fear drove me to sacrifice my happiness and sense of self to avoid future rejection. At the same time, I watched my mother ignore her own needs to raise me while caring for both my disabled aunt and aging grandparents. I loved both of my parents deeply, but I felt unable to fully express myself or understand their behavior.
In adolescence and young adulthood, the dynamic of my childhood carried over into my other relationships. I was clingy with my friends and often did things I felt uncomfortable with to avoid social rejection. I was a classic people-pleaser who detested conflict and struggled to say the word “no.” When professors assigned group projects in university, I somehow ended up with the heaviest workload. I felt obligated to help family members and friends even when I was exhausted and drained of energy. In romantic relationships, I attracted people who wanted to use me for my kindness and caring nature. People often dumped their problems on me but never offered me the same support in return. I was a pushover, and I didn’t know how to change because I lacked boundaries.
Boundaries are the limits we set with others that determine how we expect to be treated. If someone crosses a line we have drawn, they are doing something we deem unacceptable. When I was young, I never learned how to properly set my boundaries or uphold them because my parents did not know how to do this themselves. This caused me to repeat behaviors that ultimately left me feeling powerless.
Now, as an adult, I’m working to change old behavior patterns by becoming more attuned to my inner feelings. This has been no easy task, but I am getting better at declining invitations and requests when I need to recharge, removing toxic people from my life, and expressing myself honestly. I’ve realized that I am valuable as a person, and my worth comes from within, not from others and how they perceive me. Conflict is still terrifying, but I recognize now it is a healthy and normal part of all relationships. If I continue to pretend everything is fine when someone I love hurts me, I will only grow to resent them and further lose my sense of self.
I understand I can’t change my childhood, and I accept my parents as flawed human beings trying to recover from their past traumas, but I refuse to stay stuck in this unhealthy cycle.
Here are some things that have helped me so far:
- Spending alone time with myself.
- Listening to my body’s needs.
- Prioritizing self-care.
- Learning my limits.
- Identifying my feelings and writing them down in my journal.
- Speaking with a licensed therapist.
- Watching YouTube videos about codependency, mental health, and boundaries.
- Speaking my boundaries out loud in front of the mirror. (e.g “I am not comfortable talking about this right now. Can we have this discussion later?”
- Reading self-improvement books and listening to empowering podcasts.
- Spending time with people who have strong boundaries and learning from them.
I’ve also been incredibly lucky to find a partner who communicates openly and encourages me to do the same. I’m grateful for my amazing friends and family members who are supportive of me. Since starting this journey, I’ve built a better relationship with my dad and myself. This has not been an easy road, and I still have a long way to go, but I hope that by sharing my experience even just one person will feel inspired to become the happiest, most authentic version of themself possible.