The soul cannot forgive until it
is restored to wholeness and health.
In the absence of love - how can one forgive?

With an abundance of love, starting with one's self,
forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity.
-Nancy Richards

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Learning to Mother Myself

Learning to self-parent has been critical for me to gain a sense of safety in the world. The more I comfort my inner-child, the more whole and empowered I feel. The topic of self-parenting has come up a great deal lately with survivors I'm in contact with so, I decided to post a portion of a chapter from Heal and Forgive II: The Journey from Abuse and Estrangement to Reconciliation:


Learning to Mother Myself

Bitter are the tears of a child: Sweeten them.
Deep are the thoughts of a child: Quiet them.
Sharp is the grief of a child: Take it from him.

Soft is the heart of a child: Do not harden it.
~ Pamela Glenconner

Here in the Pacific Northwest, one of my neighbors has a palm tree showcased in the front yard of their home. The tree is small in stature with drooping pale yellow-green palms. It appears out of place among the many tall and thriving evergreens native to the region. Often, when I drive by this little tree during hostile winter conditions, I wonder how it survives, blanketed in snow and ice. The palm knows nothing of dry soil or the warm climate of its native land. It doesn’t know what it’s missing – that there are more favorable conditions available in which to flourish. Like my neighbor’s tree, I was unaware of the many loving conditions the human psyche requires in order to thrive.

The child in me sometimes still longed for a mommy. In the absence of proper nurturing, it is difficult for a daughter to separate herself from her mother. I remained tied to my mother; needing the love and approval of the one person I was designed to pattern my life after. I needed a mom to say, “I love you and I have faith in you.” I needed a mother to carry within me as a separate individual. I realized that mother had to be me.

I often read in books, and heard in therapy and from many individuals about the need to learn to “self parent.” It was one thing to learn to parent my own children, it was quite another to learn to parent me. "How do I do that?" I asked repeatedly.

Nobody could give me a good answer. Finally, someone said to me, "There is no good answer, because the key to what you lacked from your mother as a child is locked within you; there is no universal template that fits for everyone."

Until successfully learning to self-parent, I remained bitter about the concept of internalizing my own mother. Becoming my own mother seemed like a poor substitute for someone cheated out of the real thing.

Like other motherless daughters, I longed for a mother to replace the love I missed. I thought only motherless people had to internalize a mother. I didn’t realize that all adult children have an internal parent. Having an internal parent is what constitutes adulthood.

No parent can do a perfect job; therefore, every individual needs to learn to parent certain aspects of themselves. The difference for me was, whereas most people have much of their internal parent placed within them by the loving actions of their own parent, I needed to internalize a parent largely on my own.

It is difficult to identify exactly what one missed from a parent. How does one know what they have never experienced? A confusing aspect to self-parenting for me was that many of the qualities my mother deprived me of I gave to my own children without understanding I needed them as well. Many emotional “basics” did not seem obvious – like receiving physical comfort. Although my children were the recipients of my hugs, I didn’t realize that because the child-me hadn’t received physical comfort, my inner child hadn’t internalized physical safety.

Hearing about a study made on prisoners who were never touched during incarceration unless they were touched violently made me realize that for the bulk of my childhood, this was also true for me. The little girl in me only knew violent touch! I needed to learn how to comfort myself.

Long into adulthood, recalling stories of family violence evoked powerful tremors in me. The muscles in my limbs quivered uncontrollably and no amount of effort could suppress the flood of shaking. I remembered the first time in childhood my body shivered like a frightened animal, while anticipating the beating about to come my way. I should have had a parent to run to for a safe place to fall - for comfort and for protection. After each beating, I dealt with my injuries in isolation and on my own – without any soothing. I wasn’t taught, nor did I learn to self-soothe. My “body memory” re-enacted these tremors any time I summoned recollections in my young life when I was at the mercy of those who tormented me.

As an adult, whenever my limbs shook uncontrollably, I began the ritual of wrapping my arms around myself and rocking in a rocking chair, providing myself with the physical comfort that I never experienced as a child.

The temptation was certainly present to have someone help comfort me; however, I knew that would defeat the purpose of this exercise. Ultimately, the “power” of a mother’s love – the mother I was learning to internalize for myself– ended my shaking.

On many such occasions I visualized in my mind’s eye the child me – the hurting, frightened, alone, and damaged me. These occasions caused feelings of sadness and compassion for the little girl of long ago – feelings that although deeply mournful, were also compassionate, reassuring, and healing. I’d speak to the “child me” who longed for love and protection. “Talk to me, sweetie. I am here.”

This brought me to emotional self-soothing. When a child is terrified, their pain can easily spin out of control. A caring parent teaches the child to modulate their pain by comforting them with love and assurance. In the safety of loving arms, a child learns to reign in their emotions. Through example, this mechanism becomes internalized in the child and they eventually learn to soothe themselves. Emotional self-soothing is another quality I lacked as a child and needed to learn to internalize for myself.

I also needed to internalize self-compassion. My mother taught me to place the needs of others first, rather than to have compassion for myself. I learned as a child that my pain was no big deal and that I should be considerate of other people’s pain, but not of my own. While it is important to be considerate of others, consideration should not come at the expense of our own well-being.

Because as an abused child my perceptions were often blatantly denied, I needed to learn to stand firmly in my own reality, without permission from anyone else.

Although I argued that it wasn’t “right” to burn my tender hands, or rub Rob’s nose in spilled milk on the floor, or to otherwise beat and betray us, everyone I knew told me that my perceptions were wrong. Therefore, I constantly sought validation, trying to develop a frame of reference from others as to what was “right” and what was “wrong.” What we learn as children follows us into adulthood. Even as an adult, those I turned to told me that there was nothing “wrong” with the way Mom, Lou and Smokey treated Brandon, nor was there anything “wrong” with the constant presence of Lou’s firearms around my own children. Consequently, I had difficulty as an adult identifying what was and was not acceptable behavior. If I felt betrayed, and the “offender” defended himself or herself, although I argued that it wasn’t “right” to betray me, deep down I questioned whether something was wrong with me and I worried that it was indeed okay to betray me. I desperately searched for validation that I had a right to the way I felt.

Un-doing a life long mechanism is very difficult to do. Needing permission to “feel” was so deeply ingrained in me, that even if I accidentally smashed my thumb with a hammer, I needed consent to accept my pain. In other words, if I was with someone who said, “Oh, it’s no big deal,” I’d either try to “power” through the pain, or I’d argue that the injury was indeed painful, focusing on the other person’s perceptions of my experience rather than my own.

My pleas for permission to feel physical and emotional pain had left me stuck in one place. Without validation, I failed to resolve my pain and move forward. It seemed impossible to believe that my experiences and perceptions were valid when faced with denied perceptions. A strong internal parent was necessary to assure my inner child that I had a right to my hurt, anger, sadness, and fear, without arguing for that right.

During therapy, I literally needed to be taught self-compassion, self-soothing, and the validity of my perceptions in the same way a young child is taught. My therapist explained how to seek out people to receive validating and empathic responses until I could internalize them for myself, even in the face of denied perceptions.

Until people taught me what it felt like to be self-compassionate, I didn’t know that a wide range of emotions existed for me. I needed to “unlearn” the way I learned to ignore my agony. Then I needed to re-learn a healthy method of expressing my sadness. It was very important for me to learn to cry for myself and to share those tears with others, which is no easy feat. Seeking empathic people required trust, and trust didn’t come easily for me.

Trust is such a basic relationship necessity that if we can’t trust a parent to love and protect us- whom can we trust? When we have been betrayed in our most basic human relationship- and that trust is never restored – how can we learn to trust ourselves enough to trust others? I learned to trust in baby steps – sitting with my emotions and letting my feelings guide me. I needed to feel the pain of misplaced trust in order to protect myself and seek out those with whom I could trust with my feelings. If we listen closely, pain is a useful resource for protecting ourselves.


One of the most difficult aspects of motherlessness is the sense of aloneness.

I keep my father’s picture next to my bed. Sometimes, before lying down at night, I look into his eyes and remember how much he loved me. I carry my father’s voice in me – the voice of the one who looked at me with adoring eyes and asked me child-like questions, the father who loved and protected me, who nurtured, hugged, and comforted me when I cried.

I thought about the love that I give my daughters and imagined myself loved in the same fashion.

I watched the way other mothers loved their children and imagined loving myself in the same way.

I thought about those in my life who do love me – my children, friends, and my partner.

I called upon my spirituality to internalize abundant love.

God provided me with healing tears to wash away my heartache. He sent people who were willing to bear witness to my pain. God blessed me with daughters of my own so that I could experience a loving mother-daughter bond.

Sometimes, in my darkest moments, I wrapped myself in a blanket and imagined God’s unconditional love surrounding me like giant hands tenderly holding me, loving me and keeping me safe.

Slowly but surely, I worked through a list of emotional deficiencies that needed filling. This was a long, frustrating, and complicated process.


Just Be Real said...

Nancy, thank you for sharing. I especially like the term, "self-compassionate." Hard to come by.

Appreciate your post.


healandforgive said...

Thanks JBR,

Yes, learning "self-compassion" is a tough one!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much!

Your blog has been a life line for me though many of my struggles in the last few months - making sense of the shock of that initial validation and the prospect of healing from the abuse and pain that had always been either minimised or denied.

Kind regards,


Anonymous said...

Just thought to add that when I said 'life line' I meant to say 'a GREAT help'. I don't think 'life line' was the right phrase to have used as it suggests I would have been in much worse position now than I feel it's to reasonable suggest.

Thanks again,


healandforgive said...

Hi Ruth,

Many people have helped me over the years and I have often described their help as a "life-line," so I knew what you meant.

I think a really great thing about survivors is our empathy for other survivors. As we learn, we always want to help others along the way.

All my best,

Anonymous said...

each post of your blog continues to resonate so deeply with whatever issues i'm currently working on. your experiences and realizations reflect my own path that i have traveled, as well as provide a comforting future example of what life is like further along this road. i thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your story. it is so healing. a wonderful resource that i will continue to recommend to others~~

healandforgive said...

Thank you MM!

I never thought it was possible to turn my negative experiences into something positive until I started sharing with other survivors.

I am so comforted whenever I hear that the sharing of my story is helpful to others.

Thanks again!