Earlier this year, my friend Denise Mills asked me if I’d write something for her blog about feeling ‘unworthy’. The topic is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about, having felt ‘unworthy’ for much of my life. I sent Denise a piece I wrote towards the end of last year in response to the prompt, ‘A sound from childhood’.
I thought editing might take away from its rawness and emotion, so how it’s presented is pretty much how it came out.
Sounds from the past. The sound of children’s skin being slapped. The sound of raised voices—my mother’s, my father’s. The sound of children screaming and pleading, ‘Don’t. Please stop.’
Anger and violence. The feeling of living on an edge, a sharp edge, knowing that one misstep would cut. The feeling of being on alert, antennae ever ready, watching, listening, feeling for a change in the atmosphere, the mood of the house.
Being cautious, tip toeing, not knowing if you were allowed to do something because one day it would be acceptable and the next day not. One day you would be in the light, the next day in the shade. One false move and you would be cast out, the back turned, a frown. Small, seemingly minor postures or facial expressions that only you knew what they meant. Trying your hardest to do the right thing, but failing, often.
Learning that you’re not good, not a good child. Feeling ashamed of yourself. Feeling different, an outcast. Lesser than the others whose mothers loved them. Wishing, wishing for that. Wishing you’d been born different to how you were, because if you’d been born good, better, you’d please your motherand she wouldn’t have to punish you.
These feelings that stay with you, permeating your life every day. Feelings of inadequacy and badness, guilt and shame. They cast a shadow over every day, every action, every decision you make. Insidiously. You don’t even realise you’re doing it. You think what you believe is a fact: you’re bad. Why would you not think that? You’ve been told it since the day you were born. You’re bad. You should be ashamed of yourself.
You believe it and you hate yourself. You don’t think you’re good enough to deserve anything, certainly not a good life, certainly not anything you want, or need. Certainly not love. Even though you want it. And when you ask for something and don’t get it, you try to accept it because you don’t deserve it.
But sometimes, sometimes, these unmet needs get too much, and you start to cry, screaming out for what you want, what you need, and what you’re not getting. Yet you’re still denied, and you try to accept and be humble and take your place on the bottom rung of the ladder.
But deep within, you’re angry. Because it’s not fair. It’s not fair that you didn’t have a choice. That you were born bad. It’s not your fault.
And even deeper than that, is an even angrier side of you, because it’s the side that knows you’re good. That you’re not bad. You just haven’t been given a chance. Or you haven’t been noticed. All those good things you do—the way you looked after your brother when he was lonely at school. The way you gave up lollies in Lent and gave all your money to Project Compassion. The way you worked hard at school and were never a problem for your teachers.
There’s a feeling of injustice. That these things go unnoticed and only the bad, only the bad becomes the storyline for your life.
You grow up not knowing that this story you’ve been told is a lie. You believe it—you believe you’re a second-rate human being, that you’re not good, not acceptable, not up to scratch and you take your place at the back of the queue. And you believe that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never make it to the top.
You’re jealous of all those girls who can have the confidence of knowing they’re good, and you hover on the sidelines, watching them from the dimness, wanting their lives to be yours, wishing so hard you could swap places.
You have children, and you pray, you pray that they’re not going to be like you. That they will be born good, like their father. And you watch them as they grow, hoping, hoping they’ll be nothing like you. You see their goodness and their beauty, everything about them is perfect, and you sigh with relief that they’re nothing like you.
You then see them do the things you did—tell a lie, steal a chocolate—and you see that they’re still good. They’re not bad. And you could never hit their fragile bodies.
You start to see the story you’ve been spun is a lie—and you want to believe you were a normal kid, who did normal things, and you were fed a story. But you can’t quite believe it. Because that’s just making excuses for yourself. No, no. You’re different. You’re not the same as everyone else.
It takes a few more decades for it to slowly, slowly seep in and for you to realise the extent of the lie you’ve been told. And it flips your world 180º, the change is so big you can’t accept it as true. It can’t be true, this big lie you’ve been told that you were bad.
It takes writing about it, and years of therapy and when you’re nearly fifty you finally believe that what you’ve been told was a lie. And that the anger you have inside is from that lie. That your anger is justified. Because you weren’t born bad. You were a normal child, a good child, and you deserved to be treated like a normal child.
What’s more, as an adult you deserve your needs to be met, too, just as much as everybody else. There comes a point where you can walk into a room and smile at the people in it, and genuinely mean it. You don’t feel like a lesser human being anymore. You’re equal and good and deserving, just like everybody else.
Incredibly raw and provoking piece. Sensational writing.
Thank you for that feedback. Sometimes raw is good! 🙂
Beautifully written, heart wrenching sadness in sensuous detail Louise. Your full time hypervigilant state must have been exhausting on all levels. Hopefully therapeutic to write and know you’re more than enough. Always. XX
Yes, it was exhausting and it was horrible. I still find it hard to fathom how a mother could treat her kids the way my mother treated us, and justify it to herself. But she justified it by putting it all back on us, saying it was our fault. No wonder we had such low self-esteem.
Thank you for reading and commenting. 🙂
This is such a moving piece: raw and devastating. It was painful to read about your mistreatment and I felt utter abhorrence for the perpetrator. What comes through though is power of your resilience and intelligence. Deep down, you had that sneaking suspicion that you were not the issue- a hunch that no doubt has revealed itself as a truth demonstrated by all you have done with your life; all that you are. Thank you for having the courage to share this.
I wasn’t sure about sharing this, partly because it’s so unedited! But as always happens when I share something deeply personal, it resonates with others. Thank you for your lovely comment. x
Louise… that’s so raw and all the more powerful for it. I’m glad you know it was lie. I’m giving you a massive virtual hug right now. You’re awesome.
Thank you! Feeling your hug and feeling loved. 🙂
Louise, reading of your experience has helped me to realise why I too battle with feelings of inadequacy. Writing my memoir is helping, as I understand that my mother was constantly in pain and dealing with a sick husband as well as a couple of difficult babies must have been exhausting for her. Forgiveness is easier when you put yourself in your mother’s place.
I’m glad reading this piece helped, and I agree that telling your childhood story is helpful, too. I don’t know that we need to reach a point of forgiveness, though. I think it’s more about understanding why our mothers did what they did, and, most importantly, understanding that it wasn’t our (ie, the child’s) fault.
My mother had a violent and abusive childhood and repeated what was done to her when she had her own family. I understand intergenerational child abuse and how difficult it is to break the cycle. But I don’t forgive my mother, nor do I think I should. My mother is still alive and denies what she did. Moreover, her abuse is ongoing. (See https://louisejallan.com/2018/04/23/an-announcement-about-my-mother/.) If she was apologising, genuinely contrite and asking for forgiveness, then, yes, of course I’d forgive her. But she’s not doing any of that, and I still have to protect myself from her.
I think understanding the reasons for someone’s actions is enough. When they’ve abused you and are continuing to do so, I don’t think you have to forgive them. 🙂