About three years ago, I decided I’d had enough.
My father, an otherwise good hearted and decent man, had the particularly annoying habit of projecting his own self-doubt on to me. As in, I couldn’t do anything right. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how much care I took in performing one task or another, there was always a flaw to be pointed out. There was always an excess here or a deficiency there.
My sister experienced the same treatment, but both of us agreed that I had it worse. We came to cynically joke about it, referring to it as the “pathological vote of no confidence”.
And, as I mentioned, one day I’d had enough. I was in my late 30s and still had not yet earned his Seal of Approval. Not that my life depended on it, but it sure would have been nice.
And then, one day, while visiting my parents in the boondocks, the four of us–my parents, my partner, and I–found ourselves sitting on the back deck. We’d been enjoying a day away from the bustling city life, listening to the birds and watching the cows bathe and drink from the pond close by.
Then my partner had to go get something out of our truck, and my mom had to go check on the dinner in progress in the oven…
…which left my dad and me, sitting out there by ourselves.
I said nothing, having learned long ago that it was safer to remain silent. Because every word spoken was a chance to miscommunicate and misunderstand. Every sentence was potential breeding grounds for all-out war. Neither of us wanted it that way, but that’s the way it was. My mom had said that it was because we were too much alike and we grated on each other; I called bullshit at the time, but begrudgingly came to see her point, even if I didn’t particularly like it.
Sitting there that afternoon, I could see the wheels turning in my father’s head; he was very clearly mentally mulling something over, clearly at odds with himself, conflicted internally.
A few moments seemed like an eternity, but eventually one side of his inner debate won.
He took both my hands in both of his, and spoke. And by “spoke”, I mean that the dam started to falter, trickling at first, and then the floodgates opened.
He broke down and cried, apologizing over and over again, for how he had been so tough on me as a child. He had been terrified by various demons that surrounded him at the time, and of course, behind every person who appears controlling on the surface is a person who is themselves frightened inside. With so much uncertainty around them and so little power to be felt about their own situation, they often irrationally zero in on what they feel they can control, which is usually their partners and/or children.
I was the child that found myself unwantedly in the crosshairs.
He said I had never deserved that kind of treatment. He explained what was going on at the time–not to make excuses, but so that I could reach peace through understanding. With tears in his eyes, he pleaded with me, “I hope that eventually, you can forgive me.”
I was already ahead of him. Done.
And instantly, or at least, over the course of the next few…minutes? Hours? everything had washed away. The pain began to lift, the wounds began to heal.
I never thought I would hear those words and when I did, they were music to me.
We cried together that day, in healing, relief, and liberation. The shackles that seemed to bind us to our tumultuous past had been broken.
I realized that my father had done a tremendous amount of work on the inside, and that I, too, needed to release him from the previous impressions I had of him. He now saw me as the adult I had become, not the inept child I had been in his eyes before. And reciprocally, it was now my job to see him as the man he’d become, not the overbearing authoritarian I had perceived him as before.
I realized that nobody is obligated to be the person they were yesterday. That includes me; it also applies to my dad.
Transformation is often difficult, and at times, painful. It takes an enormous amount of strength. The people doing the changing deserve a lot of credit and recognition. The people around them should do some changing, too; they need to adjust their perception of the person going through the transformation. In other words, since my dad was no longer the same person as he had been, it wouldn’t have been accurate or even fair to continue to treat him as though he were. I had to do some changing within myself to adapt to his new transformation. It’s only fair.
Since I realized that I’m on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum last year, I have come to understand why it took me a little longer to process this change and reciprocate with adaptations of my own than I would have liked. Although my different processing ability delayed my progress in doing this for a while, it didn’t absolve me of my responsibility to do so. I did, however, need to remember to be patient and gentle with myself during the process. That’s only fair, too.
So, a few years back, before I had my Asperger’s/autism spectrum epiphany, I got to work. I started shedding–at least, that was my word for it.
“Shedding” has a positive connotation for me. It denotes the cleansing and clearing out of unwanted baggage, undesirable debris, clutter that wastes precious space, whether the space is physical or mental, or even emotional.
I started shedding past pain. Shedding resentment. Shedding past impressions. Erasing old tapes and taping over them with happier, lighter thoughts and phrases. Shedding parts of myself that only gathered dust in psychological closets. Shedding old reflexive responses and knee jerk reactions. Instead of butting heads, I learned to take a deep breath and ask non-inflammatory, truth-seeking questions. I learned to adjust and alter my perspective. I learned to build bridges. I learned to seek to understand.
The process of shedding is labor intensive, but it’s worth it. For a while (the first year, for me), it was a “fake it till you make it” type of situation. One day, it finally clicked! Only to be forgotten the next day, the enlightenment achieved temporarily lost again. I needed to remind myself, constantly, and daily, that “it’s not that way anymore.”
It’s Not That Way Anymore.
Shedding is indeed a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. It requires consistent, sustained effort.
The conversation with my father certainly helped expedite this process, but it’s not required. One’s healing does not, and should not, depend exclusively on being accepted or vindicated by another. Nobody needs anybody else’s blessing or approval. It helps to have that approval from the other person–I won’t say that it doesn’t–but each person is complete, whole, and valid on their own. And that completeness, wholeness, and validity is not at the mercy of someone else.
Shedding is completely within our own power. It’s an internal action, a one-player game.
We are under no obligation to be the people we were yesterday. And we’re under no obligation to be the same people tomorrow.
The liberation is ours. Shedding is actually the second step; the first is forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what the other person did was OK. It doesn’t mean that you’re condoning their actions or words, or that you’re accepting or internalizing what they did or said. Their actions and words are theirs; they don’t have to be ours unless we allow them to be. We have the power to say no.
That can be challenging or downright difficult for those of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, because we often feel socially awkward, and our main goal has historically been to be included and accepted. I think that’s what fuels part of the tendency to internalize criticism and be profoundly affected by it. I wish I could give a step-by-step instruction manual for how to alleviate that issue, but I don’t have those answers.
The best advice I can give is to say, do your best, since that’s all anyone can ask. That’s what’s possible. One major source of depression lies in holding ourselves (or others) to expectations beyond our (or their) capabilities. So, realism is important, and part of being realistic, I believe, is to be gentle with ourselves and others when we or they are doing the best we/they can.
Doing our best also means continuing to nudge ourselves forward, taking baby steps outside part of our comfort zone every day that we’re able to. That doesn’t mean pressuring ourselves to “get out more” and use up all of our spoons, steam, and energy, of course. The intended context here is the forgiveness and compassion.
“Forgiveness” simply means that we’re not going to let the other person’s words and actions affect us and continue to write our story, for no one else has that right. Forgiveness means breaking the hurtful and detrimental tie that was established when we allowed those words and actions to affect us. It’s saying, “I’m not going to hang onto this anymore. It’s not mine; it never was.”
Forgiveness isn’t about letting them off the hook; it’s about setting yourself free.
Only after forgiveness is complete can one move on to shedding, at least in theory. In reality, the two processes blur, overlap, and segue. That’s perfectly fine.
The important part is that we do it, for our own good. For our own wellbeing. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. 🙂