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5 Life Lessons I Learned from (and in spite of) my Mother

During my brief tenure working at Victoria’s Secret, one of the concepts they drilled into us was the idea that people usually won’t remember what you say to them, but they will remember how you made them feel. I’ve found this to be something of a universal truth and try to apply it in most walks of my life. It only recently occurred to me that it’s also true when it comes to my relationship with my mother. Coming up on five years after her death and ten years after she last spoke with me, I really don’t remember much of what she specifically said. I sure do remember how she made me feel, though.

Hint: I have absolutely zero warm fuzzies about my childhood.

I try not to dwell too much on the tragedy of the whole thing—as much as one can whose entire life was shaped by the maternal flavor of dysfunction. I know that fixating on the past does absolutely nothing to help me be a happy, well-adjusted person. I also know that ignoring the past is equally unhelpful. So I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of my runtime trying to understand the past, to understand my mother, and to apply that knowledge towards a net positive effect on the world and people around me.

Being a first-hand witness to her perpetual misery and lashing out at the world, including those closest to her, for most of my life did impart some valuable lessons upon me. And, though I am skeptical she was self-aware enough to have intended I learn these things, I do sincerely credit her in part for much the wisdom I now wield.

Highschool Graduation June 2004 - Hal and Mom

My Mother and Me at my High School Graduation (2004)

For better or worse, it’s what she gave me, and it shaped me into the person I am. It seems only fitting that I should share it on Mother’s Day.

1. THINGS WILL NEVER MAKE YOU HAPPY

I think most people have an intellectual understanding of this idea. Heck, I bet my mother did, too. Even so, there’s this insidious cultural programming we’re all swimming in that assures us how much happier we will feel when we acquire this thing or that thing, chalk up one accomplishment or another, or achieve some new, impressive status.

Watching Mom chase different things for years and never, ever be happier for them transcended any intellectual understanding I might have had. Rather than an abstract ideal on how to live, it is an intrinsic fact of reality to me. Things don’t make us happy.

Occasionally someone in my life will tell me that I should get this thing or that thing—a newer car, a house, a social position, or whatever. I don’t know what to do besides sort of shrug them off. The fact is, I am perfectly content getting by with what I need to get by. I really am not just saying that. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I don’t have some goals in my life. I do. It’s just, there isn’t anything that I feel like I need, or that I should have. I don’t look at much at all and feel any desire to possess it. It’s a very freeing way to live and think.

I thank my mother for that.

2. HOLDING GRUDGES LEADS TO LONELINESS

One thing I did after Mom sent me her Dear John (you read that right; I didn’t break up with her. It was the other way around) was reach out to as many others she’d messily cut out of her life as I could. I did this because I was befuddled by her behavior and the things she was accusing me of. I suppose you could say I was just trying to make sense of the whole thing.

The list was very long. It included pretty much everyone in her family, everyone in my father’s family, my father, and former friends I remembered her having in my childhood. What I found was this common thread: most did not even remember or understand the things over which Mom had been so offended, she not only cut them out of her life, but then spent years recounting the ways in which they had done her wrong and were thus awful human beings.

Moreover, I discovered that most whom I had for the majority of my life been told were supposed to be horrible, evil, individuals, were in fact lovely, loving, and loved people. This was a sharp contrast to my mother, whom at this point in her life, did not have any friends I could recall. It was a sort of empirical evidence that was difficult to ignore or even twist logic around.

When I think back to my latest memories of my mother, I remember of a very lonely person, who was, in her most honest moments, angry and frustrated by her inability to connect with others on truly meaningful levels. In fact, it seems to me that she almost went looking for reasons to regard others as enemies as some kind of coping mechanism, and clung to grudges as a way to justify the behavior.

My Mother 2004

My Mother at Home (2004)

I have a lot of sympathy for her without excusing her behavior. I also learned from her struggle and the resulting fallouts that grudges mean infinitely more to the person holding them than anyone else, including whomever the grudge is against. I learned that harboring and harping on grudges, over time, will shut out everyone and make a person very lonely.

As a result, I endeavor in my life to not hold grudges. In fact, I work very hard to not be angry at anyone. If someone upsets me to the point that I am actually angry or hurt, I try to address it with them directly and appropriately and try to come to a resolution that absolves or lessens the anger or hurt. Likewise, if I suspect I have angered or hurt someone else, I try to address it directly, and, if not resolve whatever has made them angry, at least let them know that I care about how they feel. Because of this, I have more very real, meaningful friendships and relationships in my adulthood than I could have imagined in my youth. I am not lonely.

I thank my mother for that.

3. REMOVING YOURSELF FROM TOXIC SITUATIONS IS HEALTHY

Sometimes addressing anger or hurt directly and appropriately with someone does not lead to a productive resolution. It has been my experience that, in these situations, the other party is projecting frustration with themself and their own insecurities onto others. This is intensely destructive behavior and placating them to make them feel better in the short term usually just means the behavior will continue.

There was a time when I would placate a person like this for the sake of not wanting to hurt their feelings. This is called enabling. The fact is, it does not help them in the long term, it does not help you in the long term, and it certainly does not help any other people in that person’s life, because that person is likely projecting onto them too.

Plus, here’s the thing about not wanting to hurt their feelings: they are already hurt. They started out hurt before you did anything. The absolute worst anyone, including you, can do to an individual who is projecting their personal frustration and insecurity onto others is pick the scab off a festering infection. And the net effect on that is . . . basically nothing.

The best thing you can do is this:

  • Tell them you think they’re projecting and how their behavior makes you feel.
  • Remove yourself from the situation.
  • Keep the door open only on the condition they get help.

It can be very difficult, because often taking this step signifies some kind of ending. It feels like a failure and a loss, either of an existing relationship or one that might have been. And that’s tough. But it is worth it, because maintaining toxic relationships forces you to ignore your own needs, warps your perceptions of reality, fosters stress, and prevents you from being happy. Rejecting this status quo is about doing what’s best for you, not about holding some kind of grudge, or having any kind of effect on another person.

It was only after I was no longer placating my mother that I could begin to pay attention to my needs, actually trust my own perceptions, treat my anxiety, and learn to be happy. The perspective and strength I gained from losing my relationship with Mom—probably the most intense, influential, and codependent relationship of my life—has helped me take the difficult steps to remove myself from other toxic situations, which really does help keep me healthy.

I thank my mother for that.

4. INTROSPECTION IS KEY TO HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS

It is easy to fall into the trap of projecting your frustrations and insecurities with yourself onto others, which can poison all kinds of relationships: family, friendship, workplace, romantic, etc. The only sure way I’ve found to avoid this happening is to maintain an awareness of what makes me tick.

Are you introspective? Let’s see. Think about the last time you felt angry. Why did you feel angry? If your answer is because someone else did something, or because something was a certain way, then you are not being introspective.

Every time I experience any kind of emotion, I try to ask myself why I feel that way—and the answer cannot be, “because [so-and-so] did [a thing]”. Someone else doing something or something being a certain way does not cause my feelings. My feelings are caused by how I react to those things, and I react certain ways to certain things for certain reasons. So do you. So does everyone. Understanding that whole chain of cause and effect is part of knowing oneself. That’s being introspective.

Often you will find that the root reason you are feeling a certain way has little to do with the event that actually triggered the feeling. Can you see where I’m going with this? It’s two-fold. First, self-awareness on this level prevents you from unleashing negative emotions on another person who does not deserve them, which is good for everyone. Second, it allows you to understand and thus clearly communicate the things that make you feel angry, sad, afraid, threatened, frustrated, happy, appreciated, and loved to those who you are close to, which is good for you because it helps ensure your needs are met.

Witnessing years of my mother’s incongruous reactions to things got me thinking critically about introspection at a relatively early age. First, it was to find out whether I was justified in feeling the feelings I did (she would have had me believe I was not). Then, it was to identify and cope with the triggers I’d developed after so many years of living in a very dysfunctional environment. Finally, as I’m approaching 30 years old, I have started to regard this level of practiced introspection as an asset and an advantage. I don’t hesitate to credit it for the vitality of the sustained relationships in my life.

I have to partially thank my mother for that.

5. THERE IS REAL POWER IN POSITIVE THINKING

Hey, don’t roll your eyes at me. I promise I’m not being trite. There is a reason I am thanking my mother in this blog post. There is a reason I am highlighting the positive outcomes of what was, frankly, a profoundly miserable ordeal for which I find myself mourning on more or less a daily basis.

I could focus on all the ways I was hurt, damaged. And I was.
I could focus on how I was held back. And I was.
I could focus on everything I never had and will never have.

But where does that get me?

I was told once as a teenager that I was a very negative person. Given what my life was like, I’m not surprised by that at all in retrospect. But I made a decision at some point that I would find the silver linings in every situation—even my deepest, darkest. I feel like I have. And, do you know what? It feels really good.

It prepares me to deal with other challenges and disappointments in the best possible way. It makes me more confident and more resilient. I almost never feel powerless anymore, just because I shifted my way of thinking. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, you know?

Thanks, Mom.

Baby Hal and Mom 1986

Baby Me and my Mother (1986)

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