Navigating Identity After Estrangement

A lot of what I have been processing in therapy over the last year and a half is my identity. Specifically, my identity without my family. If I don’t have them around to tell me who I’m supposed to be (and remind me of that over and over again) how do I know who I am? It has been challenging to pull apart what is genuinely “me” (“us”?) and what was built in by my parents.

I was talking about the way my parents molded their children to be a certain way. Some of that was based on who we were, naturally. They sorta expanded on what was already there, but made it even bigger (for their own benefit, not ours). I explained that they basically used our inherent characteristics to both build us up and then tear us back down again.

My older sister was valued for her academic performance. She was always the quiet “book smart” kid. She sailed through school and got into a top college. Once she actually went to college she did very poorly, much to everyone’s surprise. My parents’ response was to call her stupid and lazy and withdraw all support (financial and otherwise). She never recovered from that. Losing her identity as the “bright academic” destroyed her. Last time we discussed it, she mostly blamed me because that is around the time I initially went inpatient for suicidal ideation and eating disorder treatment. I missed her high school graduation because I was in a hospital. And all the attention I got for “being psycho” essentially stole her thunder.

I know she might think that’s true, but when she talks about it, she sounds exactly like my Mother. I told the therapist that I always wonder if my Mother didn’t plant that idea in her head – that I am the reason my sister’s life completely fell apart in college. The therapist sighed and rolled her eyes a bit. I gave her a questionable look and said,

“What? What’s wrong?”

“No it’s just…I’m so frustrated with your Mother.”

I chuckled a bit, but I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to. I wanted to just stay in that moment for a second. A lot of therapists have felt frustrated with my parents (among other things). Rather than just explicitly sharing that with me, however, they emote it all over the room. Since they’re nor explaining their emotions, I am left to make sense of them and (of course) I always assume it’s about me doing something wrong. It was glorious to have this woman just tell me that she was frustrated because my Mother is an actual horrible person.

Then I talked a little about how my brother was the star athlete and when he (rather predictably) sustained a shoulder injury in his senior year, his whole life came crashing down just as quickly as my older sister’s did when she flunked her classes. My parents didn’t have much use for a kid they couldn’t build trophy shelves for anymore.

As for me, I was their golden child. I had it all. I was intelligent, beautiful, talented, outgoing, and artistic. I excelled at every activity they put me in. Although my sister was the “smart” child, I was the one who was invited to join the educational program for “exceptional” children. My brother was the athlete, but I had my own trophies from dance and vocal competitions to match his swimming and baseball statues. Unlike either of my siblings, I was also artistic. So I had ribbons from art competitions and my parents littered the house with my various drawings, sculptures, and paintings. And although we were all fairly attractive, I was extraordinarily beautiful.

I was the perfect child until I wasn’t. Then I was the volatile, depressed teenager who was cutting up her arms and refusing to eat. So they tossed me in a psychiatric cage and threw away the fucking key. I told the therapist,

“I was everything to them. I was always their favorite. My siblings hated me for it. Here I was: smart, beautiful, talented. Everything they wanted. They praised me for it constantly. They were always bragging about me to everyone. But then…when I wasn’t those things…when I became ugly, fat, and crazy, I wasn’t gratifying enough to deserve even basic attention. When they couldn’t parade me around anymore, they forgot I existed. I was nothing to them. I was utterly disposable”

“Well that’s awful. But it’s not true. You are none of those things.”

I reacted very viscerally and only made this strange, strangled sound. It felt intensely uncomfortable to hear her say that. I couldn’t even speak. I just made fists and punched them into the seat cushion. I felt dizzy. Eventually she asked if I was okay.

“It is just really hard to hear something like that from you.”

“Ah. Well…more for us to work on then.”

Indeed.

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26 thoughts on “Navigating Identity After Estrangement

  1. Rachel says:

    It continues to amaze me how we can become such golden orbs of goodness from such terrible people? Being given nothing to work with, we build ourselves anyways, into the people we are. I choose to believe that is because we are inherently worthwhile, deeply so. I know you don’t believe it, and I don’t really either. but it is true.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. jaklumen says:

    Interestingly, what you describe between your older sister and you sounds a lot like myself and the first of my three younger sisters. Yeah, I actually mean that I identify with your older sister.

    Thankfully, my parents didn’t withdraw support so suddenly like that. No, what seemed to be the sticking point in a lot of ways was my maternal grandmother. I got to take the place of an uncle that didn’t make it past his 2nd birthday– i.e., I wasn’t really the grandson. I was the replacement son. And since she of course taught my mother all the busybody gossiping and emotional manipulation– mixed messages ga-LORE. And of course my sisters deeply resented that golden boy status.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anxious Mom says:

    Ugh, gotta love those parents who see everything “good” you do as an extension of themselves. My dad was like that. He’d berate me for my intelligence at home (“book smarts don’t count for anything in the real world”) while bragging about my GPA and scholarship offers to everyone else, saying I obviously got my smarts from him. Same with my brother, at home he was an awful athlete who’d never be good enough, but to others “he placed 2nd in the upperstate finals, chip off the ol’ block!” Our good traits were negatives at home because we outdid him, but he used them to make himself look good to others. Oh and where does Little Man get his genius IQ from? His grandpa, of course (rolls eyes).

    Liked by 2 people

  4. CassandCo says:

    This resonates with me a lot. You articulate it well. My parents did similar things with my brother and I. We were valuable until we weren’t. When I realised that they had trained me so that they could feel like they had been “successful” parents and that I had no idea what the world was outside of that, or who I was outside of that – that’s when I realised how truly insidious it was for them to have raised me like that. As a puppet, a performer. Not a human. Not an individual with wants and needs and likes and dislikes. All I knew was that I was the value of my achievements and without them, I was nothing. I was purely my work, not a person.

    It’s so devastating when that is the sum of your developmental experience. No cohesive, innate sense of self. A personality that is a reaction to outside forces.

    I am in the process of gathering my parts and trying to figure out who I am amongst all of them. My values outside of my family. Often my psychologist tells me that lots of people don’t know “who they are” but I sense that she can’t imagine the degree to which I was a machine for my parents’ bidding. What desolation of character exists. I’m like one of those gas soldiers – just a suit filled with miasma.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andi says:

      “Puppet” is a great word for it. Julia wrote a poem by the same title to convey just how attached-to-strings our life has felt. And yes, this dehumanizing element is so pervasive and awful. I was their property. And object. A toy, really. Wishing is both peace and clarity as we navigate our own identities ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      • CassandCo says:

        I’ll have to have a read of it. Yeah, that’s how you’re treated. Something to do their bidding, achieve the goals they seem worthy. Although it makes me sad, I feel comforted that I’m not the only one to be high achieving and then to fall apart.

        It made me feel like I just wasn’t smart enough or good enough and that I couldn’t take the pressure. When really it was that I couldn’t take the abuse.

        Acknowledging how bad their treatment of me was has been both validating and painful. I am often filled with rage that they treated me so badly.

        Liked by 1 person

      • CassandCo says:

        Yeah.. there’s a lot of built up physical energy that has to have somewhere to go. As I’ve remembered things, sometimes my body reacts by shaking or tensing of muscles. I get really tense muscles from them being contracted all the time.

        Liked by 1 person

      • CassandCo says:

        You can get through it 🙂 it sounds like you’re incredibly talented and intelligent. And your body was able to recognise that you couldn’t keep suffering under your parents’ abuse. To seek out therapy and healing is courageous. And to support others and tell your story is kind.

        So it sounds like, to me, that you have everything you need to kick this thing’s butt. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • CassandCo says:

        No worries hey. The same parts of my system that comfort others also comfort me. It’s kinda nice. Like internal caretakers. The main one for me is a guy called Jack. He used to be a bit of a loose cannon – lots of physical sports and loved gaming 24/7 but now he looks after our babies and cooks and stuff. A real soft touch haha

        Liked by 1 person

      • CassandCo says:

        It’s really wonderful when your parts realise that you’re a team against the world. Jack used to get mad that he wasn’t recognised as a man and that he couldn’t have short hair. But then he found out that Kiss really likes long hair (pigtails) so he was like “I can rock a ponytail if it means the littles get to plait their hair.”

        Like, everyone is important and valuable and gets a say. I recognise that I’m an alter too (Cass, that is). I’m just fairly dominant. But it wasn’t so long ago that I didn’t know the others existed. And there are parts of me that still don’t.

        But the internal communication has made our lives so much more peaceful. Terror can be managed before it gets too out of control.

        Getting over the fear of hearing their voices was the hardest part. And suspending my belief that alters “weren’t possible in real life.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Andi says:

        Yes! I relate to this SO. MUCH. I always interject when people refer to this as “my system” because it doesn’t feel that way. It’s not mine, it’s OURS. I am an alter (as Andi) just as much as Julia or River or Anna or anyone else. I just happen to be the most commonly presenting part right now, but there were several before me. And perhaps there will even be others after me – who knows?

        And yes, adjusting to both the reality of alters and their presence was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was so terrified all the time. But now, as the internal barriers become more permeable, it’s less frightening.

        Still got a lot of work to do, but we’ve come a long way.

        Thanks for sharing this! It really helps me feel less alone ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      • CassandCo says:

        I’m really glad it makes you feel less alone. 🙂 Yeah, my therapist really thinks of me as the main and my alters as “parts that need to be oriented to the present.” When it’s not as simple as that.

        I feel proud that I’m an alter. I want to be equal with everyone else. It’s so lovely to finally not be alone. I want everyone in my system to feel that they’re important and valid and cared for. That it’s not just about me integrating my past experiences but finding a way for all of us, as survivors, to create a fulfilling life for us. Things that we all want to do.

        No more denial or secrecy or not asking why we’re doing something. Just openness and sharing and explanations.

        Liked by 1 person

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