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Burdened in Birmingham

  • Posted on October 4, 2015 at 2:38 pm
Dear Christine,
My mother just passed a few months ago and it’s sent me into a period of reflecting and basically wondering how to overcome all the crazy notions she put into my head.  Here are a few:
  • Animals are all dirty and if you touch them you’ll get rabies and die!
  • Only my brothers can have seconds at dinner, the girls have to diet…always!
  • Don’t trust anyone unless it’s a family member.  People will poison your drink if you’re not looking.
  • Sex is not fun and only for reproduction and BTW your lady parts are dirty.
  • God knows what you’re thinking and will punish you for bad thoughts.
So there are a few of her crazy rules that I know are crazy but to some degree still affect me and still pop into my head even though I’ve done my best to be an animal loving atheist.  Knowing these things are ridiculous and fully believing have been a conflict for me all my life.  Can I shed the burden once and for all?  I like to think that if I had had kids, I would have broken the chain.  
Thanks, Burdened in Birmingham
Dear Burdened,

I extend my condolences to you on your mother’s passing. Relationships between mothers and daughters are complicated. Moms fill us with all sorts of “rules.”  Some of them are appropriate and useful for a lifetime:  “Stop, drop and roll.”  “Look both ways before you cross the street.”  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Others turn out to be not so useful and some are just misguided.  For example, science hypothesizes that growing up with animals and touching them helps strengthen a child’s immune system, teaching it to respond to actual threats.  To0 clean an environment may lead to allergies and autoimmune disorders problems.

Some of her rules might have fit the culture and times that formed her values.  But you, a unique individual, experience them as outdated.  Your mom’s rules are internalized into parts of yourself, such as your child self, or your teen self, reflecting the age when you learned these rules.  We have contradictory parts of ourselves, the good, the bad, the ugly, the wise, the confused, the scared, the courageous.  You can become aware of whichever part appears in the moment, quoting anachronistic rules.  Next, forgive that part and have compassion on each of the parts as they appear.  Once you notice them then you consciously decide whether or not those rules have any validity.  Perhaps they have a little, many have none.

It doesn’t make sense that boys get seconds at dinner but girls must diet!  Being healthy might be a better rule.   Some rules live on through the centuries and many cultures.  One of my dad’s rules was “everything in moderation, including moderation.”  The quote is from Oscar Wilde, but the original “nothing in excess (meden agan) is from Chilo c 650 – 550 BCE, in ancient Greece.

Families of origin create a part of us that can be called our inner critic.  If you listen to the voice and pattern of your inner critic, it might be your mom’s voice.  That critic may have learned to become brutal and relentless to get you through your mom’s expectations in your childhood.  She controlled you, but once you are an independent adult, particularly  since she died, there is no reason to rebel.  You have the space and the freedom to follow your inner direction, your moral compass that you have developed throughout your life.

Will you ever be completely free of your mom’s intrusive rules?  Maybe not, but with awareness, compassion and a sense of humor, you can tone these rules down.  Rules give you a black and white, right or wrong answer.  But the world is complicated and nuanced and many simple rules just don’t apply.  The nuances and shades of all the colors of the rainbow fill in the space between black and white.  Right and wrong can be debatable, and the shades of gray, purple, green and yellow illuminate exceptions and addenda to those simple rules mom taught.  Go, live a colorful life of awareness, being present to the moment, and choose your actions and reactions based on who you are now and the wisdom you have gained.

Christine Cantrell, PhD