Fail Your Way to Success

I heard a quote by Tom Watson today which, paraphrased, said that the formula for success is to double your rate of failure.

By that measure, I think I should be wildly successful by now. I recently came through the greatest failure of my life – my marriage. I married an abusive man and stayed with him, partly because I failed to wrap my mind around how truly evil he was, but also because I believed that it was better for my children to have a father, even if I was unhappy in the marriage. In the end, it turned out he was not only abusing me, but our children as well and it would have been much better for me to leave much earlier – possibly as soon as I was pregnant with my last children (only because, if I had left any earlier, they wouldn’t have been born).

I failed by marrying him.

I failed by staying with him.

I failed by not seeing clearly what was truly happening and the harm he was doing not only to me but also to our children.

I failed by giving up my career, which I loved, at my husband’s insistence and agreeing to try to make money from home, while birthing, nursing, raising, and homeschooling 5 children single-handedly, with nothing but obstruction and discouragement from him.

I failed in all my attempts to make money from home which, now that I have clearer hindsight, I realize my husband was actively undermining.

I failed by not taking care of myself adequately and allowing my health to degenerate dangerously.

I failed by allowing myself to be almost completely isolated and trapped within our crumbling home by my husband’s insistence that we were too poor to afford gas for the car, house maintenance, or even food, clothes, or medical care for me and our children.

I failed even during the divorce by accepting a ridiculously disastrous settlement. After years of my ex-husband dragging the divorce proceedure out, his refusing to get or keep a job, his refusing to negotiate honorably with me in any way, and after he made it clear he would rather destroy me than to reach any settlement, no matter how beneficial to him, I allowed him to destroy me, just to end the hell.

Then I failed by putting myself in the power of my abusive brother, who promised to help me during my absolute destitution and illness, following my divorce, in exchange for my taking the disastrous settlement, including over $80,000.00 of high interest debt I had no knowledge was even being needlessly created by my husband in my name, so that my brother could buy our house at a bargain. As soon as my brother had the house, he reneged on his verbal agreements and became openly abusive not only to me, but also to my children. I should have seen that coming. I should have known better.

After that, I failed to find anyone to hire me for anything I could physically do, which admittedly, at that point, was not much.

I gave into the fears instilled by my new doctors, who were insisting I was on the brink of death. I took their useless medications which caused, among other devastating side-effects, deep depression and so much thick mental confusion that I could barely function at all. In that state I alienated my older children, who blamed me for the divorce and for my failure to immediately succeed without any emotional or fiscal support at all from anyone. The only thing I did right was finally ditching the doctor’s medications, essentially accepting my death sentence from them, in order to have some quality of life in my last days.

If failure is the key to success, I should be wildly successful right now.

Here’s the thing…perhaps I am. I am still struggling on all levels in the eyes of the outside world, but I am feeling healthier and happier than I have in decades – since shortly after my marriage. I feel as if my health is improving, almost daily. I am back to doing what I love – writing and preparing my books for publication. I am slowly making new friends, people I value greatly, who are kind, good, loving, supportive, positive, and also striving to help others as well as themselves. I am proud to discover I have as much to offer them as they are offering me. I am slowly building a better relationship with my younger children, even though the older ones, who no longer live with me, continue to reject me, ignorant of the changes I am experiencing. I have a vision of a wonderful, future full of love and prosperity, building a community that uplifts everyone involved, and filling the world with delight and joy. By sinking to a point where I had no one in my life who showed any care about me at all, except God, I am learning that I can trust God. I am, thereby, gaining greater courage and faith.

Each day, in every aspect of my life, I’m improving. Even when it feels like baby steps, it is progress. Just the fact that I am now celebrating hope where, for a while, there was only despair, fills my life with joy. The seed of greatness is growing deep inside me. It hasn’t sprouted so others can see it yet, but I can feel it rising toward the light. I know I’m going to be fine and, as I rise, I’ll lift everyone around me as well.

Tom Watson’s quote, no doubt, meant that one succeeds by being willing to dare to fail, since only in audaciously trying to go beyond our limits, which demands failure at first as we grow and learn, can we eventually succeed. Failure is always a stepping stone to success. Therefore, the quicker and the more you fail, the sooner you succeed.

The fact is that I did learn a lot from all my failures. I learned that I am such an inherently good, kind person that I could not conceive of evil, even while I was living with it. It is said that people cannot see the qualities in others that they lack in themselves. My ex-husband could not see love or kindness anywhere in the world, and I could not see his contempt and cruelty. I learned that I am a great wife – throwing myself wholeheartedly into marriage, with complete commitment. It was wrong to blind myself to my husband’s true nature, but I did so, believing his constant lies, in order to stay fully loving and supportive of my husband. The marriage could never have endured if I had known the truth about him. Meanwhile, under the false illusion of dire poverty he inflicted on us, I proved willing to sacrifice my own hopes, dreams, and even basic needs, for his and for my children when necessary. Of course, I know now that it was never truly necessary, and I understand that a real man of even basic quality would never have allowed my sacrifices, especially when he made none of his own. I should have realized how blatantly inequitable our conditions were. Hopefully, going forward, I will be wiser. As it was, however, I had the opportunity to prove, beyond doubt, that I have, hidden in the depths of my soul, the stuff of heroes. I lived with passion, courage, unremitting love, determination, and a cheerfulness and positivity even in the worst of situations (briefly masked by the side-effects of medications). I had the ability to find or create happiness and good in even the worst situations, to see the good in even the worst of people, and to keep striving to intensify that good for everyone around me. I was married to a man who not only failed to appreciate these qualities, but sought to destroy them, yet these qualities only grew stronger over time. Even during the effects of befuddling and depressing medications, I refused to give up. When/If I am ever matched with a good man, who will support the good in me rather than work to destroy it, and accept the boundless love and support that I have proved I’m willing to give, what glory might we achieve together? I don’t think anything wonderful would be impossible for us. I also now realize that I am capable of being wonderful on my own.

God has given me a gorgeous world, full of a multitude of beauties crowding every minute. God has given me the power to make my own dreams come true, and to help others realize their’s. God has shown me endless possibilities for ways I can turn my life to bringing out and brightening the best of God’s creation. I have only to choose which way I prefer. God has been very kind to me, including by putting me through all I have endured, because I did endure it. I strengthened. I grew. I learned. I gained deeper understanding of the heartaches of others, therefore becoming better able to ease and help them, and maybe even to help heal them. Common wisdom likes to say “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” My marriage could have killed me. In a very real way, it almost did. It was like a forest fire that leaves a scene of utter desolation in its wake, but which fertilizes and clears the ground, setting the stage for amazing new growth.

My past has made me stronger, I think, not so much in making me capable of enduring more, but it showing me how much I could endure, how well I can heal from that, and even more importantly, how I can turn all my suffering to good, in a way to benefit others as well as myself. I still regret that my children were all so badly hurt – so much more than they yet realize – but if I can turn my experiences to good, then they can turn theirs to good as well. We all have that choice, and what we choose makes all the difference. All their lives I have told them, over and over, that attitude is everything. I endeavored to prove it by finding ways to keep happy and cheerful under crushing poverty, even while starving, with a failing body that could not afford medical help. Now is my chance, however, to prove the power of positive attitude properly. Hopefully my children will see and understand, so that they can choose their own health, happiness, love and prosperity for their own lives.

Thank you God for all your endless blessings!

Beginnings and Endings and How They Matter

“Count no many happy until the end is known.”

The sage and Athenian lawgiver, Solon, according to Herodotus. Also sometimes ascribed to Socrates, the philosopher, or Sophocles from his play “Oedipus Rex.”

All interesting stories thrive on conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no story worth telling.

I have noticed that all lives are full of conflict. Even when talking with people who, from the outside, seem to enjoy ideal existences, they describe real struggles, heartbreaking losses, crises of faith or doubt in themselves, betrayals, failures, or the pain of having to give up or compromise on their hopes and dreams. I have yet to meet any adult who hasn’t endured a lot of personal suffering, even amid all the beauty and joy in this world.

Life, for all of us, seems to be a series of ups and downs, with our overall happiness depending mostly on where we focus our minds and the attitude with which we handle our personal challenges, rather than on what happens to us. We’re all riding the waves of fate, enjoying highs followed, I think inevitably, by lows, which will soon pass again into new highs. For all of us, during our lives, I believe periods of hardship and suffering are unavoidable, but it is also during these periods where we learn the most and build our greatest strengths. It makes me imagine God as an author, writing stories with each of us taking a turn as the main character, growing through conflicts.

I have come to believe the difference between what people identify as a happy life and a tragic life is similar to the difference between a story with a happy-ending (aka a “comedy”) and a tragedy. The difference isn’t the story itself, but only when you choose to end it.

For instance, if Cinderella’s story had ended when her father died and her step-mother enslaved her, it would have been a tragedy. If it had ended years after she married the prince with, perhaps, the loss of a child that stressed her marriage, or the loss of her husband, or a revolution that resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy with all the nobles having to flee for their lives or else get slaughtered, or any of the other multi-billions of challenges that can occur in life, it would probably have been a tragedy (although, if you go a few years further, with her creating a new and possibly better life, maybe not). Instead, the story ends at what may have been the happiest point in Cinderella’s life, even though she, presumably, has many decades yet to live. Only because the story ended at that high point, her story counts as a comedy.

I’m reminding myself of this now because, at this point in my life, my story seems like an unmitigated tragedy. I had a miserable childhood in an abusive family, where both parents – very honest people – told me directly that they didn’t love or like me and considered me worthless and doomed to lifelong failure. I went from that into a deeply abusive marriage where my husband was far worse and far more cruel and destructive than any in my family of origin. His abuse was not only toward me, but also toward our children. I blame myself now for not realizing how much intentional harm my husband was inflicting on all of us throughout our marriage. My trust in him, failing to see his constant lies, and my love for the man he was pretending to be, failing to note the contradictions between what he said and how he acted, caused me to blind myself to all the evidence that he was truly, intentionally, destructive of those whom he should have loved. He succeeded in leaving us, particularly me, destitute and broken, physically and emotionally. He succeeded in turning our children against each other and against me. He also undermined every value I tried to teach and model for my children. He and his parents taught the children to have nothing but contempt for their very involved, devoted, and loving mother, to act with cruelty, in general, to accept as truth things they should have known with certainty, from their own experiences, were lies, and to scoff at the thought that true kindness and real love do, or even SHOULD, exist. I hold kindness as the highest virtue. Only my younger daughters, however, seem to regularly act with kindness toward anyone, and even they will not identify kindness as a virtue, when asked. In fact, my middle daughter is quick to call it stupid.

I was struggling, and failing, to manage the divorce while on prescribed medications to treat life-threatening, long-neglected health issues. These drugs were causing thick mental and physical incapacity, deep depression and a variety of other horrific side-effects. Then my only brother surprised me by offering to help me.

My brother had been physically and emotionally abusive to me throughout our childhood, fully supported and even encouraged in this by our mother, who is now deceased. With no one else in the world to whom I could turn, I foolishly convinced myself that my brother’s offer to help with my divorce meant that he wanted to make amends and build a healthy relationship with me now that we are both adults and I am in need. Instead, he used the trust I gave him to craft a settlement disastrous for me and my children, forcing us to be entirely financially dependent on him, in exchange for him being able to buy my house at the price he wanted. Then, using the lie that my children and I were “too disgusting for anyone to ever want to help” which he yelled at us, over and over, for over an hour, allowing no response, my brother reneged on his promises and left us destitute, in complete ruin, with no where else to go and no one else who could help us. I realized he had never intended to help us at all – he had just been buying a whole family of punching bags because, as he explained to me in an email, later, he enjoyed abusing us – so much so, in fact, that he thought there must be something wrong with us for failing to enjoy being abused.

Now I’m facing the new year without the means to survive or provide for my children, without the means to get training or hire mentors to help me figure out how to market my skills, without the means to afford to pay my bills or to buy toilet paper, gas for the car, and other basic necessities not covered by food stamps/SNAP. We’re insecure in our home, my brother’s house now, from which we may be evicted at any time, with no where else in this world we can go. There is no subsidized housing available here and nightly shelters are usually overflowing. I have been desperate enough for income to fall for scam “help wanted” ads, since, with my damaged self-esteem, continuing health challenges, and huge work gap from when I was a stay-at-home and homeschooling mother, I have found no one willing to hire me for anything I can physically do. I have yet to find any way to make enough money to survive, much less to restart my publishing business, which had been very promising and winning awards before my husband crushed it in the divorce. My nearest friend is many states away and dealing with a series of personal tragedies which I have no way to ease. My next nearest friend is on the other side of the country and also dealing with severe difficulties on all levels and almost as financially destitute as we are. With the need for car repairs and difficulty affording gas, I am, effectively, imprisoned in my brother’s house. I am isolated, without access to anyone in the world who loves me or cares whether I live or die, much less anyone who will advise or help me in any meaningful way.

On top of all this, on my own, I went off the drugs the doctors were insisting were necessary to save my life, because the drugs were incapacitating me and doing far more harm than good. Without them, apparently, I can drop dead at any moment or, worse, suffer a stroke. It is a terrifying thought, but I cannot live on the drugs they were prescribing that, anyway, weren’t helping the condition for which they were prescribed. So I’m facing my imminent death with the knowledge that, should it come soon, I will die without ever having been loved by anyone, except a few, dear friends whom I now too rarely see and who have needs I cannot meet. I will die without having accomplished anything I had hoped and striven so hard to do all my life, including being a good enough parent to keep my children healthy, safe, kind and loving, and to help them become productive, prosperous adults who feel truly and deeply loved and valued. I am too destitute to afford the burial I would like, or even any burial at all, so I have no idea what will happen to my corpse whenever it might be discovered. I will probably be lucky if my corpse ends up stripped of ID and dumped in some trash bin somewhere in the middle of the night. Judging from the way my kids act toward me – especially my oldest daughter who has now completely shunned me for no comprehensible reason, and who has moved without telling us where she went, why, or with whom, I won’t be at all missed. From what my loved ones indicate, many of them may actually feel happy that I’m gone.

If my story ends here, it is a tragedy.

If I can survive and push through this period, however, then I have the comfort of knowing that there is now nowhere to go but up. I will either die soon, as the doctors insist, or I will heal and get better. I cannot be less loved, less encouraged, or less cared about than I am now. I cannot be poorer than I am now, having nothing but debts and facing homelessness. If I keep striving, and only if I keep striving, I may find my way to climb out of this pit and create a happier life in the future than anything I have ever yet experienced throughout the entirety of my existence so far. (It is a low bar, so should be eminently doable.) With constant effort I may even end up surrounded by good friends who can be a better “family” to me than the toxic people with whom I have been and am now currently isolated.

If only I can save myself now, then maybe I can find a way to save others too – especially my children who, at this point, cannot even recognize how badly in need of saving they are. The people filling my life up til now have always insisted that I was worthless, but with all I am learning during this period of awakening and growth, I may become of real value to others, especially those trapped in or escaping similarly abusive situations. My story, which at this moment seems like a tragedy, can turn into a comedy. In fact, if I were to write a feel-good fiction with a happy ending, this is the kind of dark place where I would likely start that story, to give the ultimate, impossible-seeming triumph at the end, that much more impact.

In fiction, if happy endings come from happy beginnings, it is best to start the story at the point where that original happiness is lost, if not already a distant memory. Only with tragedies do you start with the main character happy and celebrating his good fortune, so he has something to lose, some high place from which to fall. Since I have never had that good fortune and high position, but only darkness, by the rules of literature, my story must be destined to be a comedy.

So here I am, on New Year’s Eve, on the brink of 2022, starting my story in the perfect way for a happy ending.

Why and How I Became My Own Worst Abuser (and how I plan to change that)

I’m writing this, my own experience, because I believe many others may have experienced similar things and had a similar response, although perhaps for different reasons. I understand that there is nothing in this that is flattering to me, but if it might be helpful even to only one other person, then it is worth publishing.

I can speculate but never truly understand why my parents disliked me. As a child I believed there must have been something inherently wrong with me. The core of their cruelty obviously had nothing to do with how I acted or what I said since, apparently, the hatred of me had started before I was born, when I had yet to do anything or say anything at all. I reasoned, therefore, that a fundamental part of my being had to be so bad that even my own parents couldn’t love me, which had to mean that no one could love me, so I determined to find out what was wrong with me and to fix it. (Note: I failed to realize that there were other reasons for my parents’ feelings toward me that had nothing at all to do with me.)

I was given the clues for what was wrong with me in statements like “you’re weird,” “no one can ever love you,” or “you’re worthless.” The problem was that none of those statements identified a particular fault that I could change. How was I weird? Why was I unlovable? What could I do to become worthy of affection, respect, or even just tolerance?

With so little direction from others about what I could do to improve myself and make myself acceptable, I was forced to discover that necessary information on my own. I got used to the patterns of my family’s criticisms of me, which were generally constant. I watched closely and learned to anticipate how the condemnation of me would go each time. I didn’t learn enough to ever prevent it, but as it was starting, I could see where it was aiming, so I would rush to criticize myself first, before others could.

There were three benefits that I believed would come from me criticizing myself sooner and worse than my loved ones would do:

1. I had noticed, while very young, that when others tried to hurt me physically, their blows hurt far more than if I hit or otherwise hurt myself somehow. I tended to believe that this was because, when I hurt myself, almost always by accident though I took a dare at least once, my attention was split between the sensation of receiving the blow and the sensation of delivering it, rendering both less intense than either would be were it the only sensation I felt at the time. I suspected this might apply to emotional blows as well, so I rushed to beat myself up (figuratively) for any and all identified misdeeds, hoping that when I was doing it to myself, my family would back down, leaving it to me, and spare me the greater pain of them doing it to me. Most often my family did not back down, but sometimes it seemed they did – enough to keep me trying.

2. My family obviously felt it was necessary to punish me rigorously for any and all faults in me, including those they couldn’t even identify and those about which I was certain they were mistaken since, although I agreed that I was deeply flawed, there were still some criticisms of me that simply didn’t make sense. I reasoned that if I took over the punisher role, berating myself badly enough that they would no longer feel the need to punish me themselves, that would leave them free from what I assumed had to be a hated necessity for them, for which they might be coming to hate me even more. I could not imagine how anyone could ever want to hurt another person but, apparently, I was so horrible that even my younger brother felt it necessary to join in the slam-fests and rages against me in order to correct me. I tried to convince myself that this cruelty was done with the best intentions toward me, though it never helped me. I tried begging them all to help me improve myself instead of just pointing out how much I needed improvement, but it seemed this was the best they could do. I hoped that, with my loved ones freed from being forced to punish me by me taking over that role, they might even have a chance to find and praise something good in me. I was desperately hoping that there would be something good in me they could find, because I couldn’t find anything good in myself.

3. I was eager to avoid the punishments for being such a bad person by no longer being a bad person. I wanted to try to correct every fault as quickly as I could – ideally before anyone else noticed them. I did also try to be good, which is much more than simply not being bad, but it quickly became obvious that there was nothing I could ever do that was good enough to compensate for my inherent wrongness, so finding and fixing my faults as quickly as possible, ideally before they were noticed by anyone else, seemed my best chance to avoid the constant criticisms from my loved ones. This required me to be always alert for any possible flaw in myself, no matter how slight. My goal was to catch my every fault the instant it first appeared inside me, before it became public knowledge. I became fixated on my flaws and lived in expectation of more emerging in every moment.

Sadly, none of my reasons to rush to be my own worst critic worked as I had hoped. I’m sure now that it failed to lessen the constant criticism of me by others. It certainly did nothing to earn me praise, much less the love I needed. Also, in the short-run, it didn’t spare me any pain when I savaged myself. In the long-run, I’m pretty sure it hurt me far more. Worse, no matter how fixated I became on rooting out all my faults, I not only failed to become flawless overall, but I seemed to fail to cure even a single fault. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I thought I had improved, no one else ever noticed any improvement in me at all.

The only result from this disastrous experiment of mine was that I formed the habit of seeking out everything wrong with me, without ever crediting anything good in me. It was the exact thing my loved ones did to me, except, with access to my unspoken thoughts and hidden feelings, I succeeded in doing it even more thoroughly than they ever had. Over time I became blind to any possibility of good in myself, no matter how hard I continued to try (becoming a perfectionist) because no matter what accomplishments or awards I achieved, it was never enough and would never be enough. On the other hand, failing to win awards or accomplish goals was certain to be used as proof by my loved ones that I was worthless, and I came to believe in my heart that this was true. I became my worst critic, beating myself emotionally, even for things others wouldn’t notice, with more savagery than even the worst of my loved ones could have inflicted upon me.

I clung to the hope that my self-berating would, eventually, improve me enough to make me lovable. By adulthood, however, I finally realized that the world takes you at your own self-evaluation, and my self-evaluation was the lowest it could possibly be, which meant I was creating the hatred and contempt of others toward me by hating myself, even though I never intentionally did anything unkind or harmful to others. Perhaps, worst of all, was the fact that this inner critic – so much harsher than all my loved ones put together – was inescapable. My parents have since died. My husband divorced me and shuns me. I opt to stay away from his crazy, cruel mother now, and I’m struggling to create distance from my brother – yet all their abuse, through all the many years of our relationships, are still active and strong in me, echoing through my thoughts, especially whenever I try to interview for a job or sell one of my skills to a new client, or start a new venture, or do anything at all to find a way to survive. Their voices merge together inside my head demanding I stop trying because I’m such an obvious failure that I’ll never succeed. “No one could ever want to hire me or even help me. No one is ever going to want to be around me, much less love me. I would do better to just give up and die…” except I won’t give up. Stubborn me.

What I am determined to do, instead, is call out those voices for the liars they are. I know better than to try to ignore them. My father did that, and I watched as his similar insecurities took him over and ruled him, turning him cruel to innocent, little me, almost without him realizing the deep damage he was inflicting. It seemed to me that he had so much pain he couldn’t endure it, so he used me as his scapegoat, hurting me to relieve his own pain without consciously realizing how horrible he was being. When I finally told him, in adulthood, what he had done to me and how deeply he had hurt me, he wept. In his heart my father was not a cruel man, only a deeply damaged one, but his heart never had a voice because his fears and insecurities took over and drowned everything else out.

I will not allow the same thing to happen to me. I don’t dare let these echoes of unjust condemnations slip through my guard to control me from my unconscious. They want to keep doing drive-by damage, but I’ll stop them by confronting them. I have to face them calmly and deal with them directly, dispelling them over and over, every time they pop up, until their energy is exhausted. I have to counter my bad habit of seeing only my flaws by forming a new habit of seeking out positive qualities in myself, no matter how slight, that I can place, as often as necessary, in the stead of the self-cruelty and the cruelty from others that has been my norm until now.

It isn’t easy changing habits. It requires effort and concentration at almost every moment. This is a matter of survival, however, so I cannot give up. I will succeed because I have to. I still have too many abusive people in my life, rushing to tear me down, and I have no one at all in my day-to-day who cares about me or encourages me. That is probably the most difficult hurdle to overcome. Just the fact of my isolation from anyone, except those who intentionally try to hurt me, becomes the worst weapon against me. My own mind, as well as my remaining abusers, use it as constant proof that I shouldn’t survive. I shouldn’t even try to improve. I should just give up because no one in my world cares about me anyway, which is proof that I have no value at all. However, while writing my own obituary for my past self, (published as part of my Halloween 2021 blog and discussed more fully in my blog “Power of an Obituary”) I realized, to my shock, that I was worthy of love. I always have been. Not only that, but I was amazed to discover that I have qualities that are needed in this world and that are, according to my loved ones, so extremely rare as to be essentially non-existent – especially kindness and compassion for others. I disagree with my loved ones that these qualities are stupid and useless. Rather, I hope I can find a way to accomplish great good through these qualities. I choose to believe that I have the ability within me to make this world a better place. Even if no one else ever gives me credit for any good I do, even if I am never loved by anyone, I will not stop until I have done all that I can to prove my worth to myself and to please myself by bringing value and help to others.

I also wrote a fantastic obituary for my future self, setting lofty goals (published in my Halloween 2021 blog). Even if it is never more than a fantasy, even if no one on earth cares about me when I die, and all my loved ones who survive me line up to spit on my grave and rage at my corpse, I am determined, by that time, to be so proud of myself for trying my hardest and doing my best and succeeding at making something, however insignificant, better in this world, that no one else’s hatred of me will be able to matter to me. Even if they piss on my grave, my hope is that they will only be watering the flowers growing there. If it proves that they are right that I am worth nothing more than shit, at least I can do some good as fertilizer. So, plant my corpse with seeds, because I intend to keep growing beauty in this world.

The Power of an Obituary

I recently wrote two obituaries, which I published for Halloween (see my Halloween 2021 blog).  One was for the person I used to be, and the other for the person I hope to become. The latter was just goal setting, which is important, but the former proved to be a truly revealing and helpful exercise.

Obituaries focus on the positive aspects of a person’s life. One tries not to speak ill of the dead. Writing it for “J,” my former self, as if she were a stranger, set me on a journey that helped me reconnect to the person I had been before decades of mental, physical, fiscal and emotional abuse ground me down and convinced me that I was ugly, unlovable, useless, and unworthy of anything good in life, including basic, human kindness and minimal consideration. It also revealed to me a shocking truth that may, perhaps, be obvious to some, but that I had not realized before now. More importantly, I think what I learned could be useful to others.

I started the exercise doubting that I could find anything nice to say about J. I didn’t hate her. It was much worse than that. I pitied her. I had come to believe all the things my parents, my brother, and especially my husband and his parents, and even some of my own children had ever expressed about how useless, unlovable, unwanted, doomed to failure J was and had always been. I knew she had sincerely meant well, been truly, deeply loving, faithful, honest, hard-working and determined, and had always given her best to everyone around her, but obviously her best had proved worthless, just as everyone she had ever loved had said it was. How could I possibly find enough good in such a pitiful failure of a person to write an obituary for her?

I applied to life-long, though now distant friends, including some with whom I had reconnected since the divorce, asking what they remembered about me during the active years of our friendships. To my surprise they described a person completely different than the awful one my loved ones had convinced me I was. When I asked one person to comment on my worst faults, which I could easily list, I was shocked that she didn’t recognize many of those faults as applying to me. She reminded me of events we had shared together where I had naturally behaved in ways that refuted what I had just described, establishing my consistent patterns of behavior as, in some ways, exactly opposite to what I had come to believe about myself.

One of the faults my husband and children had berated me for so often it had practically become a mantra in our family was that I was “tactless.” One friend provided examples of when she felt I had been the opposite, including from earlier in that very conversation. Another friend agreed that this criticism was probably valid, pointing out that I was a “truth-teller” and adding that the truth would always be badly received by those who didn’t want it, no matter how kindly or diplomatically it was stated. With that one phrase she turned what had always been my most frustrating fault – one that I had striven with all my might to correct and had failed – into a virtue. It also made me consider (especially in light of more recent evidence) that perhaps my “tactlessness” had never been how I said things, but rather was the response of my loved ones toward me daring to speak at all. Certainly my husband and his parents had always hated me for that and many of the others had told me, since the divorce, when I started sharing more of my personal experiences and observations with others outside the family, that I should just shut up and tell no one anything at all about myself, ever. I hadn’t realized it then, but I wonder, now, if it is because they were aware of how truly abusive their behavior toward me was. I was, at that point, still believing their cruelty toward me was normal behavior and deserved by me. As I am starting to reconnect with others outside my family after the divorce, however (as in this exercise, for instance), I am learning that the way I had been treated was NOT normal, nor could it be considered acceptable under any circumstances. My husband, my brother, and others almost certainly realized that fact, even though I still didn’t. Now I wonder if convincing me that I was offensive to others whenever I tried to say anything at all was a tactic to keep me silent about their abuse so they would not appear as bad as they knew they deserved to for the way they were treating me. It, at least, gives me something to consider.

Overall, my friends presented a new and very different view of me than I had ever known. For this part of the exercise, alone, it was worth the effort. Thank God for my kind, wonderful friends.

The next step, however, was to actually write the obituary. To do so, of course, I had to refer to my prior, now deceased self in third person. Just that simple grammar shift from “I” to “she”, which should have been insignificant, made a massive difference in my attitude that I had not expected.

Toward myself, I am generally harsh and probably far more critical than even the worst of my external critics has ever been, though, obviously, I was never as condescending or contemptuous. While everyone else knew that they were better than me (who in the world wasn’t?), I could not possibly be better than myself. Even so, I am quick to berate myself for every failure (of which there are too many) and every misspeak, every mistake, every accident, and every imperfection, no matter how slight. My successes and virtues are barely noted and can never be enough, but anything bad about me forces my attention as something I must examine thoroughly and remedy, causing me to fixate on my faults to such a degree that my faults seem to be everything about me with nothing good in me to compensate. It is an echo of what all my loved ones throughout my life have constantly told me about myself, except magnified. I now realize that I had internalized the external abuse and was carrying it with me wherever I went. (For a fuller discussion of this see my blog “Why and How I Became My Worst Abuser”)

Switching to third person caused me to think of my former self as someone other than myself. I was now writing about another person – one whom I could consider as a stranger. Suddenly J was no longer the person I had been raised to despise as someone deserving every cruelty and completely unworthy of any love or kindness. In third person, J became someone about whom I could be objective as I tried find something good that I could honestly say about her.

I am in the habit from childhood of trying to be encouraging and uplifting to others – to find what is good in them and to reflect it back so they could see the beauty in themselves that I see. I do this because of the profound impact it has had on me the few times in my life a stranger was kind enough to do this for me. There have been moments when it was practically life-saving. Once or twice I wondered if the stranger might have been an angel sent by God to give me the encouragement I desperately needed at that moment. It takes almost no effort to do and, knowing how important a kind word can be, it seems the least I can offer to repay the world for this kindness given to me. I rush to say honest praise while I try to avoid criticizing unless it is truly necessary. This habit, which I had never before applied to myself, suddenly kicked in when I switched to writing about my departed self in third person.

To my shock, I found that there was a lot of good in J. In fact, she was someone whom I would have really liked, even admired, and found truly worthy of love and friendship had she been anyone else besides me. All the while I was hating myself for my seemingly overwhelming faults, J was demonstrating quite a lot of outstanding qualities that I would have appreciated had she been anyone else. I had been eager to expel her from my life. Now I’m almost sorry she is gone. It made writing her obituary very easy.

So now I recognize the trap of writing and thinking in first person for a person taught from birth to hate herself. “I” becomes irrationally detestable, no matter what. I have learned that it is healthy to regularly look at oneself from a different perspective, in order to obtain a more objective and, hopefully, honest assessment of one’s self. For me this exercise of writing about myself in third person revealed the destructive tendency I had to focus on my faults to the exclusion of all else, even long after those who had seemed to demand impossible perfection from me, in order for me to hopefully become barely tolerable to them, are no longer a part of my life. From now on, when my external critics pile their condemnation on me and try to grind me down, as they continue to do regularly, I’ll set myself up as judge over Aoife and write a brief to see how much, if any, of the criticism of my loved ones is truly applicable to her. I know I won’t ever be perfect, but I’m growing increasingly sure I am not nearly as horrible as my loved ones have always insisted. I now have a tool to help me assess myself more fairly.

I share this with you, dear reader, in the hope that you might try out this exercise to see what it reveals to you about you. Of course you may not need it, but I imagine it would be useful to many different kinds of people in many different situations. If you are willing, I would love to hear what you learn.