I had a conversation the other day with a woman who described a series of events in her life, assigned blame, and qualified it with, “…and I was already a broken person.”
Broken is bullshit, and I’ll tell you why.
We Are Not Our Story
We are not what happened to us. When I look back at any singular event in my life — being adopted, the death of someone close to me, being molested as a child or raped as a teenager, my infidelity, my divorce — the events themselves or the stories I told myself about those events at the time are not stories I want to energize. I’m not minimizing my experiences (or anyone else’s), but I would so much rather explore the trauma, heal and integrate it, and choose who I want to be and create the life I want based on the lesson of the experience, not the pain.
As I’ve worked through some pretty big stuff, I’d rather share my experience with appropriate, intentional vulnerability as a way to mindfully build bridges and create connection. Me taking the first step holds intimate space for someone else’s experience, and when someone chooses to step into that space with me? Those connections are my very favorite thing.
I’ve maybe been accused of being an over-sharer (and by maybe, I mean I definitely have). There isn’t a choice I’ve made or an experience I’ve had that I feel I need to hide, and that is downright baffling to some folks for whom fear and shame feel so comfortable. For me, fear and shame are only useful as dashboard indicators — little signals that I should look deeper in a certain place.
Blame is also useless to me. In fact, I feel pretty strongly that blaming someone else perpetuates the idea that I’m a victim, like handing them power that is rightfully mine over a given situation. I’d much rather take responsibility where I can for my own experiences as a defiant act of subversion over fear and shame, and I want that freedom and autonomy for everyone. I appreciate the utility of responsibility; it’s so much more empowering.
When I was a little girl, I struggled with abandonment issues and feeling wanted. Though I was adopted by loving parents, I wondered what was so “wrong with me” that my biological parents had put me up for adoption as an infant. I grew to define love by praise and approval and was a chronic over-achiever in order to feel worthy of love.
The truth is that my biological mother was an underage foster kid. Had I not been adopted at birth, I would have also been a ward of the state. My father was a recent high school graduate and was on his way to boot camp. My mother suffered with untreated mental illness, developed a drug addiction and some subsequent health issues that stemmed from her substance abuse. My father retired from a twenty year military career and went back to school to be a marine biologist. He now works for NOAA.
My adoptive father is old school. He was not raised in a warm or affectionate household. He was second fiddle to an older brother who broke a lot of rules and got a lot of attention for his behavior. My dad grew to emulate his father’s work ethic and believed a man’s sole responsibility to his family is a financial one. He didn’t have a male role model that was open or emotive, and as a result he didn’t tell me he was proud of me or that he loved me and the rare demonstration of affection felt forced. I continued to achieve in order to catch his eye. I believed if I did more-better-faster or was smarter or prettier, that he would love me the way I wanted to be loved.
The truth is that Dad just isn’t equipped for that. He did the best he could at what he knew how to do, and reveals his love for me when he reminds me to check my tire pressure or calls me to tell me when to avoid the roads because of an accident or an imminent storm.
As an adult, despite knowing that I need affection and conversation in order to feel loved, I married not one but two men who were not affectionate or particularly forthcoming or talkative. My most recent ex-husband was also super critical, which only triggered my instinct to achieve and conform to earn his love and approval. It’s not what I needed or wanted, but it felt familiar. Familiarity felt comfortable, and it was only self-awareness cultivated through reflection and feedback over time that allowed me to see the pattern I was weaving and to start to tug at those threads.
I could blame Dad for his upbringing, for not hugging me enough or for not praising eighteen years worth of straight-A’s. I could blame him for not telling me I was pretty or that I was a superstar after any dance recital in thirteen years. What good would it do me? He did what he did; he knew what he knew how to do. I love my Dad. I choose to love him for who he is, not blame him for not being who I wanted him to be.
I could blame my birth parents for my longing to be wanted. As an adult, it evolved into wanting to feel desired by my partner. The reality is that affinity and affection are just things I want. Abraham Maslow defines belonging as the third most basic human need, right after psychological and safety needs.
Picture this: a teensy, boisterous, smarty pants me. A little kitten with an auburn bob and often too-long bangs dusting deep, curious, chocolate brown eyes. An adorable, whip smart darling and teensy tigress.
While I grappled with feeling abandoned by my birth father and craving a certain kind of love from my adoptive father, I always felt cherished and precious to Uncle Chet.
I remember sitting on his lap while he played guitar. I remember him leaning forward against my back and the vibration of his chest as he sang in a tenory voice, “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” I remember his 1985 beard tickling my cheek as he moved and occasionally nuzzled me.
I remember that snowy Thanksgiving at Aunt Dawn’s and Uncle David’s that smelled like turkey gravy and cinnamon apples and woodsmoke. I remember writhing and giggling on the berber carpet, in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room next to the woodburning stove, as Uncle Chet grinned and tickled me.
Every year, as I savor those aromas, the little girl in me aches for one more day of feeling that loved.
Fast forward a few months, and I remember my mother’s siblings all descending on our house, arriving together to tell her the news. …the way she shrieked in agony as she clutched me against her. I had dreams that he was just hiding, that he was okay and was coming back especially for me. I recall my mother’s sad expression as she tried to convince me of my dreaming and explain the permanence of death to a little grieving princess.
I spent the subsequent thirty years chasing how I felt with and about Uncle Chet…the certainty in my bones that I was cherished and loved unconditionally. While I was running my finger over the scar on my heart and creating an emotional callus, I was energizing the loss of this story which had me looking for love externally.
Here’s the thing about that…
Unconditional love is a thing we can give to other people, if we are experiencing it from within. …Can’t pour from an empty vessel and all. Embracing the aggregate of my experiences, feeling gratitude for the lessons, choosing honesty and vulnerability as I nurture my relationship with myself and others — that’s the thread that stitched me back together when I felt broken. It wasn’t about dwelling in pity, and it wasn’t about crafting a fictional narrative to hide the truth of my experiences, either.
I believe that for everything we do there is a price we pay and a benefit we get.
For me, reliving my loss was license to stay victim to the pain. It permitted me to judge men and find fault with every man who didn’t “make me feel” as special as Uncle Chet did, including my fathers. It allowed me to be less than committed to relationships with men I didn’t think were worthy of me in the first place and was my scapegoat for being a lousy partner. Making my fathers wrong for how they did or didn’t love me enabled me to seek a sense of value and worthiness of love externally. It kept me searching.
The price I paid is that I remained an approval whore well into adulthood. I let it be the reason I had poor boundaries at work and in relationships. I let other people’s merit assessment of me define me. I wasted energy on trying to be pretty or smart or accomplished enough, instead of resting in the contentment that my enough-ness is inherent and using all of that leftover energy for something fun or productive. Focusing on the ways I had grown up feeling abandoned or unloved had me energizing that in relationships I was unable to grow or sustain. Again, it kept me searching, and that is reeeeeeal draining.
We’re always trading on our experiences, and we choose the currency.
For me, “broken people” put too high a value on their trade-in. If something is only worth what we’re willing to pay for it, the price — the cost of being broken — is too high.