Reflecting on my own generational trauma and how it impacted my self-worth
I was listening to a podcast this morning as I emptied the dishwasher… or maybe it was a story on Instagram… oh wait, it was a song… Demi Lovato – ‘I love me’. (I’m leaving that meandering sentence in to show my random train of thought!) So, in her song, Demi sings, ‘Flippin’ through all of these magazines, Tellin’ me who I’m supposed to be…’ and it made me think about this very early self care rule I made. Mid-twenties, I actually made a decision for myself, pre-therapy, that did me good (this surprises me as most of the things I did back then were fairly self-destructive). Actually, it possibly started (definitely intensified) when I had my daughter and became obsessed with creating a world around her that would only ever empower her rather than strip her of her natural worth.
Let’s go back to the start… as a child I was surrounded by women who were obsessed with looks and body image. The first thing they would say about someone was a judgement on what they looked like. They would be super critical of other women (especially their appearance) and they were always hyper critical of themselves. These women were my mother, her few friends, her sisters, her mother. They taught me that in order to feel a sense of belonging with them I must pick apart other women and I must hate myself. I can now see as an adult that my dad also is very focused on appearances, diet, weight management… being judgey of people. I was surrounded by it all my life.
My mother has always been obsessed with low level tv shows… she loves soaps where everyone is miserable and going from one chaotic disaster to the next, cheating on each other and drinking too much… talent shows where people are pulled apart by critical judges… programmes that tell you how to dress or what your house should look like. I don’t know what else to call them other than low level tv shows. They are low effort. They aren’t documentaries, they aren’t films, they aren’t juicy 6 part dramas, they’re not mysteries… they don’t get you thinking, they don’t expand your mind, they demand nothing from you. You don’t have to engage your analytical mind when watching this low level stuff. It fills your head with mindless entertainment. It’s a bit like junk food. If you’re an adult and you choose to watch this stuff, great… that’s your choice. I have been known to watch a few myself. However, there are certain things I will now never watch. For example I put myself on a Hollyoaks ban about ten years ago when I realised it was becoming addictive and wasn’t making me very happy. I wont watch things like love island or Big Brother (is that even still on..?)
My mother had about 5 soaps she watched every evening and therefore we all were subjected to these soaps. I would sit with an anxious ball of nerves in my stomach as I was subjected to families screaming and shouting at each other, bludgeoning each other with irons, mindlessly drinking too much alcohol, having sex, cheating on each other, burning down houses. It was a horrible focal point in the centre of our lives. Something I will never subject my kids (or myself) to ever.
I want to say here that I don’t want anyone reading this to feel a judgement from me. There’s nothing wrong with watching stuff on tv to zone out or get an easy laugh or feel validated for the shitty things that happen in life. I get it! I struggle to do it myself because of my history with these kinds of tv shows but I do get it. But the thing is, if you’re an adult you have a more experienced understanding of life and the fact that this stuff on tv isn’t real. You can be one step back from what’s going on. As a kid, I was in the thick of this. I knew these people’s names, they were as much my family as the people sitting in the livingroom watching it with me. It was toxic.
Then there’s the other stuff she’d watch (and make us watch). Fashion programmes informing us that if you had wide hips you shouldn’t wear vertical stripes, if you are large breasted never wear a round neck, always v-neck… if you have short legs don’t wear ¾ length trousers and never wear strappy sandals with a strap around the ankle.. it’ll make you look like you have cankles. If you are short and overweight don’t wear a top that stops at your waist because it will cut you in half. Wear longer tunic style tops to skim your thighs and cover your bum. Wear a polo-neck to hide double chins. Wear large patterns if you’re overweight, small detailed patterns if you’re thin… always wear magic underwear that holds your stomach in and accentuates your breasts and… FUCKOFFFFFFF!!!!!! Fuck off!!! I feel the emotions rising in me as I write all this out. I feel like I could write another 10’000 words on all of the shitty restrictive fucked up rules I learned as a child stating what I should wear to make my body less offensive to others. FUCK OFF! My mother lapped this stuff up! I CAN NOT STAND IT. It’s so fucking oppressive and small minded. People should wear whatever the fuck they want to wear. I want to go back in time 25 years and scream in her face, ‘turn that fucking tv off and have a unique thought! For the love of humanity push against this bullshit!’ It didn’t end there though. There were home design tv-shows she obsessed over that told us our house was kinda shit and so she would redecorate something EVERY.FUCKING.WEEKEND… diet programmes that proclaimed we were whatever we ate! BULL SHIT! She put me on a fucking shakes diet in my early teens (not that it matters but I wasn’t even overweight!).
Then there were all the magazines she would buy. Home magazines that told you how to make a small room look big, a newbuild have character, a dark room seem lighter, a cold room look warmer… magazines that told us what to wear, how to use make up to erase every unique quality on our faces… here’s how to cover your freckles, here’s how to make your eyes look bigger, here are the perfect hair styles for your shape face… WHY ARE WE CONSTANTLY TRYING TO BE THE SAME? White-washing our differences. I feel like a lot of people who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s will relate to this. It was so damaging.
So, from a very early age I learned that there was a very specific set of rules to live your life by. A specific way to behave and present myself so that I wouldn’t be completely rejected by my ‘tribe’. These wounded, small minded women who were living life blinkered, never daring to think outside the small life view they were being offered. I needed them to keep me in their circle. I needed it for survival. But deep in my core I was opposed to everything they spouted. And in the tentative moments of testing as a teen when I couldn’t take it anymore and would fight back, I was massively rejected, criticised, ridiculed, screamed and shouted at… it was very clear to me that disagreeing or looking for a different way to be was not acceptable. When I read descriptions of narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders, I see my mother. I know she is insecure, hates herself, has a very shaky sense of who she is, needs constant external validation, has a childhood shrouded in trauma… carries the trauma of her parents who both fought in the second world war and had their own unseen trauma wounds. But she chose to stay blind. I know some people may feel that she did the best she could and perhaps all I need to do is heal some more and then I’ll be able to see that too, ut right now this is where I’m at… she was selfish… she chose to stay stuck. She chose to pour her trauma into me. She chose to spend hours and hours and hours of my youth telling me all the ways her parents fucked her up while never EVER considering how she was fucking me up. She didn’t ever truly see me. I was an extension of her, something that could be of use to her. And when I chose to stop being of use to her, all hell would unfurl.
Anyway, I digress… in my late teens and early twenties when I was attempting to navigate the world of adulthood living with my now husband, my life was a mix of her shit and my shit. I bought 3 or 4 magazines a week – let it pollute me, I watched hours of tv every day, I let her use me as her unpaid therapist on the phone endlessly… but also there were splinters of my uniqueness that attempted to break off and grow shoots and bloom… I listened to music that I liked without having her judge me, I went to uni, studied child psychology and worked towards an honours degree in education. I read self help books and watched films about the law of attraction and documentaries about game changers through history. I spent time journaling and hoping for change, with one leg still tethered to the ball and chain of my past. Then I had my daughter and I was plunged into this black sea of post partum depression and anxiety, held face down in the murky waters until I couldn’t stand it anymore and I took myself to therapy. Though we couldn’t afford it, we couldn’t afford for me not to!
Bit by bit the shitty things that clung to me from my childhood have slowly fallen away. I no longer watch any soaps, ever. It’s a rule in our house – we just never put them on. We also don’t watch critical judges rip apart peoples dreams on talent shows (when the kids are in the room)… on the odd occasion we may watch them but we’re not avid followers of anything. We never EVER watch anything on tv that tells us we have to look or behave in a way that will make us more liked by others. I never buy fashion/beauty magazines. I don’t let anything in the house that threatens to destroy my kids sense of self. My mum had no boundaries, she encouraged me to have no boundaries as well… it encouraged me to kick back, build a wall and have a rock solid, impenetrable boundary that kept everyone out. I’m learning how to be more flexible, slowly.
As I’m writing this I’m thinking so may thoughts so quickly…
– my grandmas generation had magazines and books (and society) telling her all the ways to be a good little wife and keep her husband happy
– my mums generation had magazines and society telling her how to be beautiful and attract a mate
– they both received the message that they had their uses to men but that men were more important than women… oh and that differences should be feared.
There were so many shit things being told to women over the years and although I still believe that doesn’t excuse them from the fact that they let it impact them and so many didn’t try to make a change, it is making me think, my mum and her mum were possibly the norm. It was unusual to have a woman stick her head above the parapet and say, ‘I refuse to conform’. I’m angry and sad that my mother didn’t have the inner strength and determination to give me a life that cradled me in nurturing acceptance and fostered self-love but instead perpetuated the shit she and generations before her had to endure. Oh what I may have become, had I been gifted what I needed. But it ends here. IT FUCKING ENDS HERE! For my children and my inner child/ren.
This house is filled with body positivity, which means my husband and I accept ourselves and our children the way they are. We’re very careful about making statements about other people’s bodies at all because even a compliment says, ‘I’m judging you… you may have passed now but you could easily fail my standards.’ It said, ‘I have the authority to judge your appearance’… I don’t like that message. What I prefer is, ‘wow I love the outfit you’ve put together, the colours are so much fun.’ Or ‘you look like you’re really enjoying the beat of this song, the way you’re moving your body makes me want to dance too!’ or ‘you’re so strong the way you are running shows me how much energy you have.’ I have bought books by people (mostly amazing body positive women on social media) who endorse self-acceptance and self-love. That show amazing photographs of real bodies… a variety of different shapes, sizes, colours, genders and sexualities. I want my kids to know that self-expression is welcome in this house. Autonomy is welcome in this house. Self-love is celebrated. Non judgemental acceptance of others is the way we do things in this house. We’re not perfect but I feel like I started this whole parenting journey with the following rules – let them be who they are, nurture their unique humanness, do no harm, own your mistakes, evolve.
So back to the start of the post. There are certain ways I protect myself from further pain and distress and hopefully these boundaries also provide a safe environment for my children to grow up feeling whole and acceptable…
- I never watch stuff on tv that is designed to pick apart our humanness
- I never buy fashion/beauty/fitness magazines
- I don’t let people talk to or near me/my kids about unrealistic beauty standards, diets, body shaming
- I don’t watch or let my kids watch violent, aggressive, critical or mindless tv shows
- We don’t watch tv shows that demonize certain food groups or celebrate drastic weight loss through extreme diet or excessive exercise
I’m starting to imagine people thinking I’m super controlling and censoring too much… hellow inner critic… but my kids are only 8 and 4 so they’re still young. I also think that we can and should critically decide what exactly we want to feed our brains with. We don’t need to let it all in, we shouldn’t in fact. And children are impressionable, they believe everything they hear and see and experience. They think, ‘oh this is the way life is done around here’ and they learn to supress their intuition and conform. It’s not black and white though. I do wear make-up, my kids both love playing around with make-up and nail varnish. My daughter says she wants to be a hairdresser when she grows up… this is all fine but I watch how I’m talking about these things. I never say, ‘I need to put make up on,’ I say I like it because it’s a creative, arty way to express myself. I never verbalise judgements about my own body or anyone else’s… I actually think this has had a very positive impact on my own sense of self-worth. I won’t criticise myself in front of my kids because I want to model self-love therefore… I am actually actively being kinder to myself than I was prior to having kids. My kids know I eat more mindfully these days. The intention is to lose some weight but they don’t need to be privy to this information. It makes my toes curl when I hear women telling their kids, ‘oh I’m too fat I can’t have that chocolate…’ I tell my kids that I want the food I eat now to make my body and mind feel healthier, stronger, have more energy. They know I go to the gym. I tell them it’s because exercise makes me feel good. I love moving my body, I like the sense of achievement I feel afterwards. I am careful about how I describe things to my kids. My mother was unconscious, unfiltered, knee-jerk, unconsidered… in everything she did and said. I try very hard to not be like that. Possibly to the other extreme… Anna is in fact working with me on developing a more instinctive way of being where I don’t overthink everything. Before I even became pregnant, I read books on how to be a gentle, respectful parent. I knew I wanted to do things differently. It became an obsession, a way for my perfectionism and OCD to take a grip. It’s taking years to tease out the unnecessary bids for control from the healthy, ‘okay’ ways of being and thinking.
I remember at 6 years old trying to hide my body from the scrutinising eyes of my mother. Feeling deep shame at the thought of anyone seeing me. My daughter is 8 and openly proclaims that she loves herself. She exudes confidence and a sense that there is no shame in being different… that our differences are what make us all so beautiful. I’m starting to feel uncomfortable now at the thought that I am coming across as a know all…hello again inner critic! I don’t mean to sound as if I think I’m amazing, I am not perfect! I make mistakes. And I’m sure I will encounter moments when my kids question their worth… what I’m working through here in this post however is the idea that I believe it is our duty as adults, with the children of the world watching us, to treat them the way we needed to be treated, to teach them about good things, to instil positive qualities, to model love and acceptance. We can look back and think, ‘wow… that hurt, I wish they hadn’t fucked me up so much…’ but that’s not the end of the sentence… we must finish that sentence with, ‘…now I know what hurt me, I am going to work hard at healing that wound so that I don’t unconsciously hurt those around me.’ And it’s not just the responsibility of people with children… I believe it’s everyone’s job. We all influence the kids around us and the child within us is also deserving of healing.
These days we are surrounded by messages of body positivity, tolerance, acceptance, love. Thankfully, the smallest minorities now finally have a platform, a voice. We are duty bound to listen. To question our prejudices, to look at what our discomfort tells us about our unhealed wounds. There really is no excuse. It is our responsibility as intelligent, resourceful, capable, curious, evolving human beings. We are not here to stay stuck and repeat. We are here to change and grow and flourish and enhance.