I decided to continue on with my reading of Beverly Engel’s Healing Your Emotional Self”. It’s painful to read. It brings back many bad memories. During and after my reading it, I feel uncomfortable, highly anxious, and often experience moments of “spacing out”. But with all of this pain and discomfort, I feel compelled to read it. It’s as if I am unveiling myself for the first time, deeply understanding the W’s of my beliefs about myself and the world around me. Chapter 2 allowed me to deeply uncover why I feel and think the way I do in relation to the different types of negative parental mirrors, the messages sent by each mirror, and the effects each of these mirrors has on children.
Engel begins the chapter by listing the following 7 parental mirrors:
- The “I Am Unlovable” Mirror
- The “I Am Worthless” Mirror
- The “I Am Nothing without My Parent” Mirror
- The “I Am Powerless” Mirror
- The “I Am Never Good Enough” Mirror
- The “I Am Bad/Unacceptable” Mirror
- The “I Don’t Matter” Mirror
I felt a chill just reading the names of the mirrors. As Engel defined each mirror, I was taken aback by how accurately each mirror described the ways my mother treated me and talked to me and disciplined me. The details and descriptions and patients’ experiences she included were all too real. I was transported back in time and witnessed my adolescence like scenes from a movie; I remembered even the smallest of details, the smells, the way objects looked and felt, the significance of the day, the emotions and thoughts that ran through my body. I could hear my mother’s words, see the expressions on her face, feel the pain I experienced during that exact moment. In my current body, I experienced the same shame and sadness and frustration all over again. My heart raced, and my stomach jumped. I took unusually deep breaths. I stared at the wall and ceiling and sat perfectly still. I could feel my mind turning and processing the words I’d just read, the memories I’d conjured up.
I realized, with part disbelief and part justice, that I wasn’t exposed to just one or even two mirrors as a child. Of the 7 mirrors described, I believe, with certainty, that my mother reflected on me 7 of the 7 mirrors and close to 100% of the negative messages attached to each. Seven negative mirrors, all with damaging messages and painful effects felt decades later. While everything I read was painfully heart-opening, I came across pieces of Engel’s descriptions of each mirror which really stuck out to me and opened up the scabs of many long-forgotten wounds.
The “I Am Unlovable” Mirror by the Neglectful or Inadequate Parent
If my mother was mad or upset or experiencing any kind of negative emotion, she would lash out and then banish herself to her room or me to my room. It was somehow “us kids” or being “fed up” with some part of life that caused her emotions.
It was always her time, her clock, her weather gauge, her emotions and needs and wants and frustrations that shaped the day. Every day depended on all of the above, and there was no telling what each day would bring; sometimes there was no telling what each hour would bring. If she did do something for me or with me, it almost always ended up with “after all the time/money/effort I spent to make you happy”. Happiness felt selfish and was too hard to come by anyways, so I stopped trying.
- “And when his parents’ affection is taken away whenever he does something they disapprove of, he comes to believe that his lovability is contingent upon his actions and deeds” (pg. 31).
- “…could not sustain an ongoing relationship…impossible to trust people and couldn’t believe anyone could really care about her…managed to find a way to push people away–either by being overly critical of them or by being too aloof” (pg.32).
- “…the parent may be so overwhelmed with her own unmet needs or problems that she cannot focus on her children. The inadequate, immature parent often communicates to her children that she needs them to encourage and protect her, or to take care of her and boost her ego” (pg. 32).
- “I was just a responsibility to her–a burden really–someone she was supposed to take care of, someone she was supposed to love. She knew how to do motherly things, like cooking and making sure my clothes were clean, but she never cared about my feelings or my emotional needs” (pg. 32)
- “A child who is physically or emotionally neglected will tend to be either extremely needy or extremely defensive. He or she may either exhibit clinging behavior and dependency or be unable to emotionally bond with others” (pg. 34).
The “I Am Worthless” Mirror by the Abandoning or Rejecting Parent
My mother rarely seemed present. When her mood and energy were good, I fed on that, soaked it up and enjoyed it to my core. I felt loved. But inevitably, there was a change. The good was gone, the blame was on me, and I was left to make sense of the pieces. I felt like an idiot for taking her bait, for letting her build me up only to knock me down.
If she was mad at something I did, she would give me the silent treatment while acting completely normal with my other siblings. I remember walking with shame to the dinner table on many occasions, not knowing if I should say “thank you” or “dinner is good” or just sit with my head down in silence while I ate. Sometimes she threatened to send me to live with my dad or grandparents or told me to “try it on your own if you think things are so bad.” She even looked into boarding schools because she didn’t know what to do with me.
She didn’t seem to take interest in the things I was doing. As a child, I would show her something I made at school. I was either ignored or shoed away, or received a small “neat” while she continued on with what she was doing. She didn’t encourage or guide me. Good grades or bad grades, I was still the same rotten child. In 8th grade, I told her I prayed before a math quiz and I got a perfect score; she replied with “give me a break”, when she knew (did she know?) my faith was becoming a large part of my life.
In 9th grade, I began running and joined the cross country team. She was put out by the early morning practices and having to leave home to come pick me up later in the evenings. When I told her the first track meet was approaching, she told me she couldn’t go because another sibling might have an activity on that date. One day, it was nearing the end of practice and I saw her car parked right by the school track. I gave the last 10 minutes or so all I had. I pushed myself and was excited that she was finally watching me at work. When I got in the car, I asked if she saw me running. She told me, “No. I wasn’t paying attention.”
- “…parents abandon their children emotionally by being emotionally unavailable, by punishing their children with silence or rejection” (pg. 36).
- “Some parents routinely abandon their children as a form of discipline, such as when a parent gives a child the “silent treatment” when he disapproves of what the child is doing. Rejecting parents use their power and importance to their children to control them” (pg. 38).
- “Children who are routinely abandoned or rejected, whether intentionally or not, tend to suffer from extreme insecurity and feelings of worthlessness. This insecurity and fear often continues into adulthood, resulting in insecure adults who are clingy with their adult partners or who are afraid to be alone” (pg. 39).
- “Abandonment creates insecurity, self-obsession, and the tendency to turn anger against oneself and to idealize others” (pg. 39).
- “Adults who have been abandoned as children tend to lack the confidence to reach their true potential. They also have difficulty delaying gratification, and their low self-worth causes them to go for the quick fix” (pg. 39).
The “I Am Nothing without My Parent” Mirror by the Smothering, Possessive, or Intrusive Parent
My mother confided in me about what I now know were very inappropriate topics for a child to hear. The physical and mental/emotional abuse she and her sister experienced, her relationship with my father when they were married, the marriages and problems of her friends and family members — these were the conversations I had with my mother as a child through my later teenage years. I learned early on that the world was a scary place to live in and people will hurt you. I don’t remember experiencing that childhood innocence where the world was a wonderful and exciting place to live. I was burdened with adult problems as a child.
I didn’t feel like my mother was smothering in the sense of being overprotective, but I did feel smothered with her emotions and moods that she put on me. I always felt like I was a bad person and I had done something wrong. I didn’t know what I wanted or needed, I just knew I didn’t want mom mad or upset with me. A few times I tried telling her how I felt, which ended in her yelling insults followed by the silent treatment, and me being worse off than before. As an adult, I let things go. I don’t say what I feel at the moment. It builds and builds and ends in a yelling match – this has happened with coworkers, friends, boyfriends, and even bosses. If it is never confronted, it stews inside of me until something else happens and I end that particular relationship or I act in passive-aggressive ways.
- “…smothers his or her children with overprotection, guilt, rules, and demands” (pg. 40).
- “His parents’ negative views of life became a self-fulfilling prophecy…” (pg. 41).
- “Smothering parents often have difficulty seeing their children as separate human beings with their own needs and feelings. They often assume they know what their child needs and insist they know what their child is thinking” (pg. 42).
- “This need to possess can continue throughout childhood, causing the parent to feel jealous of anything and everyone that threatens to take him away. For example, the parent may discourage her child from making friends by always finding fault with each of his playmates” (pg. 44).
- “…she expects her child to act like an adult friend who will talk to her about adult issues and feelings. She may also emotionally “dump” on her child by talking about her problems to the child. This can include complaining to the child about the other parent” (pg. 45).
- “When parents transmit a lack of confidence in their children’s ability to get along in the world, or constantly warn them of how people are untrustworthy, they often create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the child grows up overwhelmed with insecurity or expecting people to disappoint, hurt, or take advantage of them” (pg. 46).
- “Because their parents’ needs cancel their own, adult children of smothering or possessive parents are often unable to discover what their own needs are, and many grow up to passively accept even unacceptable behavior instead of asserting themselves” (pg. 47).
The “I Am Powerless” Mirror by the Overly Controlling, Tyrannical Parent
Every day was different. Some days, I could do what I wanted. I was funny and witty and responsible. By the next morning, the house atmosphere had changed. I was too loud, too selfish, too messy, too picky. I had to follow strict guidelines for the day. As an adult, I am overly concerned and biased with facial expressions and tone of voice and word choice. I analyze all of those things, looking for clues as to what the person is “really thinking” and “really feeling” at that moment.
- “The tyrannical parent has a cruel and inflexible style of parenting. They are often passing on the same behavior to their children and ventilating the anger they could not express to their own parents” (pg. 48).
- “…will feel weakened from their encounters with their parents” (pg. 49)
- “They will doubt their abilities and may feel unbearable pressure when asked to do something, particularly when an authority figure is doing the asking. They often feel stupid, inadequate, and incompetent, and these feelings usually discourage them from trying new things or taking risks” (pg. 49).
- “…can cause a splintering of self, causing a child to disown some parts of himself and to inflate others” (pg. 49).
- “They learn to recognize subtle changes in the facial expressions and voice and body language of others as signals of anger, dissociation. When they sense danger, they attempt to protect themselves by either avoiding or placating the other person” (pg. 50).
The “I Am Never Good Enough” Mirror by the Perfectionistic Parent
I never considered my mother a perfectionist. I just saw her as not being satisfied with anything. To me, a perfectionist takes action to make things perfect in their eyes; I never saw my mother taking action. She only griped and criticized and judged the things she didn’t like about my behavior, actions, mistakes, and words.
- “Instead of receiving encouragement and support from their parents, children of perfectionistic parents tend to receive only criticism, demands, and sometimes ridicule” (pg. 51)
- “They often grow up feeling inadequate, incapable, awkward, or inept. Since they receive little praise or constructive guidance, their self-esteem is usually very low, and they have little faith in their own abilities” (pg. 51).
- “They are often overwhelmed with anxiety whenever they have to perform in any way” (pg. 51).
The “I Don’t Matter/I am Invisible” Mirror by the Self-Absorbed or Narcissistic Parent
My mother was the sun. Everything revolved around her happiness, her comfort, her wants and needs. If I wasn’t meeting her needs, she didn’t want me around. She would become enraged over minor infractions. I was sent to “sulk” in my room if I “didn’t get my way” or because she couldn’t look at me or be around me because whatever mistake I made was so awful. Sibling rivalry — I was selfish and jealous of my younger sisters. If I did something mean, I was mean. If I wanted something for myself, I was selfish. If I failed to show thankfulness, I was ungrateful and spoiled.
She badmouthed people, cut them out of her life for months, sometimes years, then called them up when she started her next home business venture. She would rant and rave about her coworkers and friends about things they said or did and why they said or did them; she knew what they were thinking, what motives they had, and how it all came back to making her feel bad.
- “Some parents are egocentric, meaning that their needs, wants, and beliefs are always more important than their children’s (or anyone else’s for that matter). These parents have little or no sense that their disregard (active or passive) for their child is teaching her that she is not worth much” (pg. 59).
- “typical narcissistic mother — chronically cold but at the same time overprotective. She invades her child’s autonomy and manipulates him to conform to her wishes. She rejects all about him that she finds objectionable, putting him in the anxiety-ridden position of losing her affection if he expresses dissatisfaction” (pg. 59).
- “Children need to know that all that they are — both good and bad, naughty and nice, smart and stupid — is acceptable to their parents” (pg. 60).
- “The narcissistic parent is most demanding and deforming of the child he identifies with most strongly” (pg. 60).
- “Those with strong narcissistic traits will exhibit the following: a tendency to feel rage with little objective cause; a readiness to treat people with cool indifference as punishment for hurtful treatment or as an indication of the fact that they have no current use for the person; a tendency toward severe feelings of inferiority, shame, and emptiness; a need to be looked at and admired; and a tendency to overidealize or devalue people based largely on a narrow focus” (pg. 61).
- “They do not recognize that their children have their own needs, feelings, desires, and perceptions. These parents believe their children should always be as happy or as miserable as they are” (pg. 61).
- “…a narcissist attempts to define his children’s reality. Any movement toward autonomy on the part of the child is greeted by the parent’s pain, resentment, and anger” (pg. 61).
- “The child’s inner self is treated as identical with his external behavior and the products he creates” (pg. 62).
- “The child cannot be objective about what he does and cannot utilize criticism effectively. It hurts too much to take in” (pg. 62).
The “I Am Bad/Unacceptable” Mirror by the Hypercritical, Shaming Parent
This is the mirror I identified with most. This mirror’s description ended with an exercise — 4 questions relating to my shaming experiences. I will share my thoughts and experiences about this mirror in a separate post.
Since beginning the book, I feel less “screwed up” as a person. I see myself more as a product of my childhood environment and circumstances. I am wounded from the outside in, not because of what is inside of me. My core is good, and I am on a journey to live from my core and not from my wounds.
I was hesitant to share these experiences, but in sharing them, in exposing them for what they are, by attaching them to steps along my healing journey, the power that these experiences have on my life is gradually diminishing. A year ago I wouldn’t even have thought to read this book, and if I did start reading it, I would have quickly put it down, “deny, deny, deny” and relieve my anxiety with self-destructive behavior. But today, as I not only read this book, as I not only study it, soak it in, and let this new truth run through me, I feel led to share my struggles with you.
I write in community, and I write with another piece of my core discovered.