The Inner Wisdom journaling tool comes from the Journal to the Self course created by Kathleen Adams. You can use the three questions I pose here as sentence starters to activating your own inner wisdom. As Adams reminds us, “Your answers are within. They are as close as your fingertips.”
Dear Inner Wisdom,
Question 1: What do I now need to know about leaving home?
Answer 1: Starting at the age of 37, I made concerted efforts to leave home. I am now 44 and, despite some false starts, have been successful at leaving both my family of origin and, not surprisingly in hindsight, my first marriage. Both were toxic, dysfunctional, and predicated on co-dependency. For example, It was considered a moral obligation to try to be named in the will (One of the mantras I remember hearing a lot was “You know, you’ll be left out of the will if . . .”). Moreover, one elder relative once told me that if she tried to call me 3 times, and I didn’t call back, she wouldn’t ever try again. Both values—following fixed rules to gain a financial inheritance (i.e., wearing a certain Irish wool sweater on Christmas; bringing lilies on Easter; showing up at all marriages and funerals) and not crossing an elder in the family who didn’t have the patience to see you live your independent life—kept me anchored to the family bubble. It was a culture of loyalty at all costs.
And, no longer feeling guilt or like I need to defend this family that I left, because I am happy with my choice, what does leaving home have to teach me now?
David Celani in Leaving Home: The Art of Separating from Your Difficult Family (2005) writes, “There are no ‘family police’ to come and arrest us if we decide to separate and move on in life. The only police we have to fear are our defenses against seeing how bad life in the family has been” (128).
Now my defenses are down, I have learned that I lacked the support during my childhood that I needed, and I am not afraid to admit it or feel the need to frame my childhood with: But my parents were doing the best they could. Of course they were, and I know their behavior towards me wasn’t intentionally harmful (most of the time). I also know they didn’t have the capacity to meet my needs. Fine. Sounds simple.
But, as part of my own desire to sustain healing, I need to remind myself that the upbringing was destructive to me. I received inconsistent feedback, resulting in confusion about my self, thus lacking confidence in how I perceived and judged myself. This is considered an emotional delay. I was also emotionally neglected. I felt invisible or unimportant or only important as I could help my family or parents. I subsumed my authenticity in order to receive 1-2 attachment needs, such as safety and protection and sometimes soothing comfort. But I did not consistently experience a sense of expressed delight from my parents, attunement, or a sense of support in becoming the best version of myself. I was also physically and emotionally abused, which now, seems like the lesser of the deficiencies.
Leaving home has taught me that:
- only I am going to acknowledge the truth about how bad my life was in this family
- only I know that I don’t have to defend my parents as good to be validated
- only I can practice this birthright called expression
- I will probably be the only one who celebrates this act of so-called defiance, the act of leaving home (excepting those who are now part of my new family who are happy for me);
- celebrating is better than getting revenge or trying to reform who can never accept my authenticity
Question 2: How can I now learn from my former split self?
Answer 2: Celani reminds those who leave home about their underdeveloped identities:
“Often, healthy solutions are out of the reach of adults who were not reared in loving families, because these families were not supportive enough to allow their children to develop new and healthy identities. Rather, these young adults are left with a vast inner emptiness inhabited by the two opposite and unstable wounded and hopeful selves [known as splitting or our defensive selves] (instead of a complex personality structure), and their relationships with others are marred by both the splitting and moral defense [defending parents as good]” (90).
Maybe this is what is called the stilted self. I was called this once by a very near and dear surrogate mother. At the time being termed stilted was very painful to hear, but I now see it as a seed that my surrogate mother was planting in me. It was a seed of an idea that I had to face. Would I look away from what she saw in me? Or would I approach it, love it, move towards the fearsome paralysis of my own freezing default I learned as a girl in order to survive?
I’m a lucky one because I was able to move towards this split self and try to understand her. I saw that I wouldn’t always embody the story of the wounded daughter. I would for a time, but not forever. I wouldn’t always carry a toxic optimism in my friendships and romantic relationships because I thought this was the only way others would accept me (as I learned to behave in my family). I did for a time, but not any more.
I now know that I don’t have to anchor myself in the illusion that my upbringing was okay or to cling onto some hope that my family will someday have the capacity to meet my needs. And that is because I have left the family.
I no longer need to be split—a simplistic shell of a self. I know that sometimes I embody and experience 10 different emotions in any one moment, and I can name them: steady, vulnerable, curious, annoyed, regulated, debased, controlled, sad, trustworthy, admired, creative, excited, anticipatory.
I thank my split suffering self for existing so that I can now feel the immense joy of a mature emotional life! I am in my forties and am so grateful that I am finally truly alive.
Question 3: What is my revised personal meaning of hope?
Answer 3: When I listen to others talk about hope, I am jealous. I imagine them having secure attachments throughout childhood and genuinely believing that “tomorrow will be better than today,” as my partner shared with me when I asked him what hope meant to him. He also said that faith is the belief that some higher power will help make tomorrow better. So, he’s got hope and faith! Because I associate hope with my split self, I feel sort of cheated out of this healthy worldview—that things are always getting better. Like love always expanding. Like I love you more today than I loved you yesterday. Maybe I can differentiate between the split self hope, which is really a tool to control one’s offspring into providing unlimited support and service to the parents, and authentic hope, a tool that encourages offspring to continue to add to their “sense of self” (Celani 31) so that it is stronger today than it was yesterday. This tool encourages authenticity, experimentation, leaving home because it is predicated on “an abundance of memories of affection and feelings of success” in the emotionally supported child (31). I have reason to experience this authentic hope as I continue to parent myself and co-regulate and heal in beautiful ways with my blaze of fire, my son, Remi.
The healthy today that I co-create with my son, my mothers, my new friends, my New Mexico family, my partner, my allies in community, will take care of tomorrow. That is the hope I have. By living in this beautiful moment, my faith shows up.
That is an inheritance for which I will gladly open my arms.