It was my wedding day. The ceremony was nice and emotional but, as soon as we arrived at the reception, I knew something was off. I was sitting next to my new husband when my mom walked up to me, flowers in hand …dressed up as a clown. She had organized a play and, at this instant, she became the center of attention on my wedding. She wanted to do “something special for me”. In her mind, it was fun and innocent. In mine, it was yet another event highjacked by her desire to have all eyes on her. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last. She showed up to most of my birthday celebrations, and every family event, with a poem to read, a story to tell, a song to sing. Were these things a special gift she had designed just for us? No matter her intent, it always ended up feeling like it was very much to benefit her.
As I grew up, I never really understood why I was so deeply affected by her. I’d tell myself that all teens are annoyed by their mothers to try and move past it. My friends would laugh, telling me how funny she was. And, at times I felt grateful. It was sometimes nice to have a mom who was not typical or boring. She was creative and artsy. She designed clothes and furniture, organized dances for our community and loved acting as a playwright, creating her own productions any time she had the chance.
I felt that I could talk to her about anything. But in the back of my mind, I always knew that what I confided in her may eventually be used against. One one hand, she could be amazing, giving me the advice and encouragement I needed so much in my teenage years. On her bad days, she would use my biggest fears and insecurities to crush me. So much depended on her mood that day. A success could be celebrated or disregarded altogether. My perceived failure could be used as an opportunity for her to destroy my hopes and dreams.
It was never a straight forward criticism. That would had been too obvious. It was a low-level dismissive statement, nice enough to sound like she was concerned for me and hurtful enough to still impact my self-esteem years later. It was her taking me to the doctor as a teenager to find out if I would stop growing soon because I was “too tall.” And her constant observations that I had put on weight. It was her questioning my intellect when I failed the Medical School entrance exam at the age of 18, two years ahead of anyone. And the way she minimized my professional accomplishments and success for years. It was her questioning what I had done wrong to make my husband cheat on me and suggesting that my new-found happiness and stronger sense of self after divorce was all an act. There has never been a time when my mom has said she was proud of me or that I did something right without a “but” at the end of the sentence. s far as she is concerned, I succeeded because of luck and failed because I was bad.
I tried many times to defend myself. It always ended up in a fight, a dismissive statement, her questioning my love for her and me feeling guilty for what I just said. When hurt, she could retreat into her bubble and stop talking to me for days at a time. Boy, she could hold a grudge! It was so hard for me to see her sad. As a kid, I couldn’t understand what I did wrong, and as an adult I felt it was my fault and I was the bad one. She had her own terrible story, her reason to feel rejected or unloved. My mom was given up at birth because her father didn’t want to raise another girl. Of course, this childhood trauma had its consequences. She was highly emotional, volatile, self-centered and needed constant reassurance from others that she was lovable. After working with many clients who had a mom, a dad or a spouse who displayed narcissistic tendencies, I discovered that most of the narcissists have their own childhood trauma, their own quest for love. Is it reason enough to become hurtful to others? I don’t think so.
Narcissists can display a terribly perverse behavior, even becoming violent to prove they are right. Ive seen the terrible consequences of that in some of my clients, but not every narcissist is created equal. Most are actually charming and nice, until they turn into a monster whose only mission is to make you feel small and undeserving.
I never was the victim of physical abuse or extreme neglect and I’m so grateful for that. Nevertheless, I knew my mom could sting at any given moment. She was nice more often than not and now that she is older, I’m often surprised by her genuine caring about my well-being, my opinion or simply wanting to know what is going on in my life. But I’m still on guard. I felt dismissed, neglected and emotionally bullied so many times.
My mother tells me on the phone how much she misses me, but last time I went to visit her in France and went to kiss her, she looked away and started doing something else. When she finally acknowledged my presence, it was to tell me I looked terrible, which made sense after just alighting from a fourteen-hour plane flight. Last month, during a phone conversation, I shared I was in a new relationship with a great man. She sounded genuinely happy for me… until she asked me what could have attracted him to me. In her own words, “it is not as though you are the prettiest thing in town.” Should it matter to a 50-year-old woman coming from an 85-year-old mom? Of course, not. Still, the little girl in me cringes each time.
Over the years, I got over most of the pain and the hurt, but it was not always easy. Successes always included a part of doubt and possibilities were always a little bit scary. Until I realized why this feeling of never being enough stopped me way too many times. I was a shy kid and even though today most people see me as powerful and inspirational, there is always this little voice saying I might not be that good.
I learned a lot. I faced my fears and became a public speaker. This in itself was such a huge challenge. My mom was always the one on the stage and the last thing I wanted was to become her. But I realized I had a message to share and I decided that in order to make a difference, I had to take the risk. I have written two books and spoken in front of both large and small audiences. Little by little, I am feeling more comfortable having my voice heard. Today, even though I sometimes have my doubts, I am more confident, and I allow myself to be fully visible.
So many men and women tone down their brilliance for fear of getting hurt or dismissed. You might be one of them. Let me tell you what I learned over the years and how you too can realize how fabulous you are.
1. There is nothing wrong with you and there never was.
You are perfect. Every single one of you. There is only one you. Tall, short, skinny, overweight, straight, gay, black, yellow or green with polka dots, who cares? There is only one YOU and every day you’re making a difference on this planet just by being here.
This fear of being “imperfect” can often be traced back to childhood. My client Diane was a successful, badass firefighter who believed no one could love her. Why? Because her mom made sure to tell her she never was wanted. She was an accident. It became essential for her to fall back in love with the little girl she was and realize her mom was the one who was wrong. She was no accident, she was a miracle to make this world a better place.
Exercise: Write a love letter to your inner child reminding her how amazing she is.
2. You are enough.
You are not too much. You are not too little. When you succeed there is no “but” at the end of the sentence. When you fail, it doesn’t make you a failure. You are a human being. A work in progress. Your ups and your downs have value.
Michaela was always the first one to criticize herself. If she had a success, it was never enough. “I didn’t do as well last month.” “It was easy.” “I still have so much to do” etc… It came from having a mother who would reject her over and over again. Later in life, Michaela married an abusive man who made sure to tell her how lucky she was to have found him.
In order to recover from these two toxic relationships, she had to recognize her own value and celebrate her successes.
Exercise: List everything you have achieved so far and celebrate every single achievement.
3. You don’t have to compare yourself to others.
Many narcissistic parents will not put you down directly instead they will play you off against your siblings. You are good but look at your brother/sister who is better than you. Unfortunately, after many years of this treatment one of the siblings will feel entitled and will probably become a bully, while the other one will feel less and less worthy.
Sandra was always compared to her sister. Her sister was the princess, the beautiful one, the one who could sing. Years later Sandra had trouble expressing herself without stuttering and had cut any connection to her sister. Her sister was entitled and frankly unpleasant. Sandra became shy and more and more introverted. It took her over 60 years to accept that she was brilliant, smart and actually beautiful.
Reflection: How would be your life if you knew you were lovable?
4. It’s okay to be you.
When you are put down for being who you are, you may decide it’s safer to become someone different.
My mom was an artist. She liked to be on stage, write and paint. I became a scientist. I was good at it but more importantly, it was the one thing I could do without competing with her. By the time I realized my gift was not being in front of a book or scientific journal but in connecting with others, I was in my late forties. I tried so long to not become my mom and to not compete with her that I forgot who I was. Still I have to admit that in some ways, I’m just like her. I am an artist: a sculptor. I write books and articles, she wrote poems and plays. Like her I love to be on stage. My goal is totally different though. Of course, I enjoy compliments and applause but more importantly I do it to make a difference and inspire others.
You have a mission. You are meant to make a difference on this planet. The way you will contribute to the world is yours, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
Reflection: What is your personal gift to the world?
5. You have the right to speak up and be visible.
How many of you heard statements like: “Kids are meant to be seen not heard,” “Don’t show off,” “Don’t be too much,” “Don’t be needy”, “Stop talking all the time”, “Who do think you are?” etc. How many of you grew up in families where it was safer to disappear?
I recently saw this brilliant cartoon of a parent talking to his kid: “Honey when you grow up, I want you to be assertive, independent and strong willed. But while you’re a kid, I want you to be passive, pliable and obedient.” Are you this kid? If so, it is your time to shine! It might feel safer to stay in hiding but the world will be missing out on someone amazing: YOU. Take a chance and get out of your comfort zone. Maybe not in a crazy way. Maybe just 10% today. Or maybe go all the way. What do you have to lose?
Many of my clients have a vision. Oscar wants to be successful and make a difference by becoming a speaker and a leader in his industry. As a kid, he grew up with a bipolar dad and a depressed mom. As an adult, he tolerated being mistreated by others because he wanted to be accepted. Today, he has had enough. During our last hypnosis session, he got to talk to his future self: elegant, successful and inspiring. Now he is taking the steps to become that man. One step at a time.
Reflection: What can you do today that would take you closer to being who are meant to become?
6. You are brilliant, and the right people will see it.
You can try to bend forward, backward or sideways but some people will never be able to see your brilliance. Not because of you, but because of them.
Ines tried so many times to escape her depression and get rid of her chronic anxiety. Unfortunately, she was bullied at school and physically abused at home. By the time she became an adult she didn’t dare open her mouth anymore. She was extremely shy, suffered from an eating disorder and chronic pain. Still, she knew that once she found her way out, she wanted to help other victims of abuse. In her case, the only possible way to heal implied cutting off her violent mother and reconnecting with herself miles away from her family. Her siblings couldn’t understand her choice and criticized her, but she didn’t quit. Little by little she reconnected with who she was: a brilliant, positive, powerful young woman. Today, she is happily married, has two amazing kids and helps victim of trauma. She is even starting to write her first book. She finally feels strong enough to share her message of hope, and the right people will connect with what she has to say.
Exercise: Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself three things you appreciate about yourself. It might be hard at first, but it will get easier over time.
7. It’s your time to shine! And it can be safe too.
Are you hiding in plain sight? Are you present in the world and at the same time totally invisible, or at least not showing your true self? It makes so much sense. As human beings our number one priority is to survive.
For Sandy, life was a never a safe place. Her mom was a perverse narcissist, and later on, her husband was an abusive alcoholic. Sandy was a sensitive old soul with magical healing powers. Of course, consciously she wanted to be herself, but she didn’t feel safe. She spent many years hiding in a job she hated. She avoided relationships with men for fear they would hurt her. On the outside she was this bubbly, happy blond executive. On the inside, she was a wounded being who came to me with pain in most of her body. It takes some time to heal these kinds of wounds. It takes energy and courage to try again and again. It’s about letting go of the pain and about creating new possibilities, one step at a time. For Sandy, it started by reconnecting with her inner-child and falling back in love with herself. The next step was to let go of a toxic relationship. And the next, is to find a job where she can express herself fully. She will find it.
Exercise: Abracadabra! Let the magic happen. In one year, you can achieve your dreams. What are you dreaming about? How will being visible help you? What is the first step you can take today that will get you closer to your dreams?