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Yesterday I called, then texted, my father.
Reaching out to my dad sounds like an ordinary thing to do, especially around the holidays, but it has been nearly four years since we last spoke.
There is a long, complicated history between my father and me. Not all bad nor all good. I tended to react emotionally to our interactions, which was, at times, boorish and inconsiderate or felt even downright mean.
After four years of no contact, I feel stable enough, supported enough, safe enough to reach out again and now—no response.
My adult brain tells me that I am okay.
My adult brain tells me that less than 24 hours for someone to respond is not unreasonable. My adult brain reminds me that I am 41 years old, that I am strong, warm, and kind. My adult brain reminds me that I have a great relationship with my mother and am mending things with my younger brothers.
My adult brain reminds me that I raised a beautiful, intelligent, and compassionate young woman who, herself, is raising an incredible daughter.
My adult brain reminds me that my significant other is a warm and empathetic person, a good dad himself, and that he has my back. We are building something that feels healthy and solid with each other.
My adult brain is not in charge right now. It is to the degree that at two in the morning I am capable of reasoning with myself. However, it is my inner child who feels far more deeply hurt than I had expected possible, at this point, by my father’s lack of response.
I have been working with my inner child for years—my inner 4-year old, my inner 14-year old, my inner 21-year-old, and many other ages that have left imprints on my developing psyche. I know how to hold and tend to this disappointment.
In her new book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown writes about how we need language to articulate our emotions. If we cannot name a feeling, we are less likely going to be able to navigate it. She also talks about how we need maps so we know where we are, where we came from, and where we are going.
I have a damn decent internal map. I am aware of my inner terrain, emotionally and developmentally. I can name these feelings and I am intimately familiar with their point of origin.
It’s not anger but sadness, mixed with some melancholy, resignation, and a touch of feeling sorry for myself. There is also part of me saying, “See, this is what happens when you let your guard down.” That part has been an active player in my psyche for longer than I can remember. She is my friend and longtime protector. She has a hard time letting go.
Currently, I’m visiting with my significant other and his family. The whole experience has been delightful, in spite of a small COVID-19 scare. Regardless, early in the visit, I caught myself tensing as if in expectation of something. It then occurred to me, I’m not used to other people emotionally regulating themselves. I have a deeply ingrained habit of waiting for the other shoe to drop and there’s a long history of that little sucker hitting me upside the head when it did.
When we have been trained for battle, it’s odd making friends with peace.
I was trained for battle from an early age. I was frequently on alert around both of my parents because my young, sensitive system was hyperaware of their lack of emotional and neurological regulation. It’s only in the last couple of years, and more specifically, in the last few months, that I have learned a language to describe what I felt as a child.
To put it in the most simplistic of terms: as a child, I was afraid.
In my youth, I developed some rather OCD-like tendencies—my attempt at asserting some control in what felt like an out of control world. I was anxious. I had a nervous, emotional stomach. As I got older, my need to projectile vomit out my own nervousness became a solid, resolved knot in my solar plexus. It moved down and settled there like an anchor and it took years for me to acknowledge it for what it was.
There are many dialects to emotional language and one of them is bullying. When a person is bullied or witnesses bullying, it’s not uncommon for them to internalize that tone of communication and either become a bully themselves or incorporate bullying into their own inner dialogue.
As an adult, I’ve struggled with guilt and shame, a residual combination left over from past criticisms. Though I can feel those self-critical claws currently searching for purchase, I am not going to give them anything to shred.
In the last couple of years, I have become aware of patterns of codependency birthed from deep fear of abandonment and rejection. I’ve learned to soothe those fears by being present for myself, attending to my needs, and by building structures, personally and professionally, that support my passions and values.
I used to give my energy away. I didn’t value it. I didn’t know, short of screaming or throwing punches, how to protect myself. I often felt guilty for saying no and in many situations I too often and too easily acquiesced.
In the last few years, I have begun a practice of radical accountability. No, I am not at fault for what happens (or happened to me) but I am fully responsible for what I do going forward.
Accountability is powerful. It means we hold ourselves (and others) to the consequences of actions. No, we cannot force another person to take accountability for their behavior, but we can let them know the impact that it has, and then take the actions necessary for ourselves to feel that we are safe and in integrity with our own standards.
Practicing accountability requires honesty, bravery, boundaries, and vulnerability.
My own practice of accountability was what led me to cutting off contact with my dad four years ago. I was so emotionally wrapped up in how I felt that—despite what I consciously knew about his capacity for relating—I simply could not heal and maintain contact. I needed space to redefine myself outside of our bond (or lack of it).
I crave connection and in being true to my nature I, once again, reached out and I’m glad I did.
I feel that I will, once again, be the one who cradles my hurt, tenderness, and disappointment. But maybe that is what being an adult is—that and knowing we get to choose who we share ourselves with.
We get to follow where our hearts are led.