Below is a picture of Robin, at the age of five, dressed in her dad's work clothes, in an early effort at trying to be someone else. Someone, that is, who might be more lovable.
I once was in an abusive relationship that necessitated a court order requiring the abuser to keep his distance from me. It also landed me in therapy, something that turned out to be the healthiest thing I've ever done for myself.
"Did you have abuse in your family?" asked the therapist. "Did your father hit your mother, for example?"
"Oh no," said I. "My father would never hit my mother."
And then, through my reading and therapy, I learned that even worse than physical abuse for a person's self esteem, is verbal abuse. People who have grown up on a diet of verbal abuse often seek out abusive people to reinforce their low opinions of themselves.
Thus it is that I can tell you about a family I know, so beautiful from the outside. Such a nice house, in such a nice neighborhood of such an exclusive town. Such a handsome father, with a degree from a fine school. Such a beautiful mother who spends hours in front of a mirror fixing her hair and makeup to look just so before she goes to church to pray.
"Your father just doesn't have any talent with people," says the wife of 64 years to one of their children. "You know he's had good jobs but he's never been able to keep them." His last job lasted 27 years and when he retired he discovered his investing had been so successful his income was higher as a retired person than it was as a working executive. Yet he always felt like a failure.
"I'd be nothing without your mother," he says.
Two kind, dutiful daughters, neither with any self confidence. "I think it is so nice your sister is doing some substitute teaching," said the mother one day. "It is so good for her self confidence." Then in front of a group of dinner guests she criticized the meal the daughter had lovingly cooked to ease the workload on the 87 year old mother. "This pork, unfortunately, needed to be cooked at least two hours longer," said the mother. The sister slumped in her chair. "I never do a good job of cooking when I'm here," she said.
The other daughter appears to have spent her life jumping up and down at the back of a large crowd yelling "I'm here! Notice me! Please tell me you love me! I'm trying to be good enough! I'm trying to be better than good enough!!!" Once, long ago, when she had written an article that was published in a prestigious national magazine her mother said to her with some disdain: "Will it be here, in our edition?" When the love of the daughter's life left her, in what she now knows was a self-fulfilling prophecy, the mother said: "He was certainly a luxury you could ill afford." This child, successful on paper, thinks she is unlovable, a nothing, a failure, unable to do even one thing right. Except, of course, spend money, which she does in an effort to make herself beautiful enough to be worthy. "You live such a wasteful, lavish lifestyle," says the mother.
Words have power. In some families they are used to fix a positive seal on the heart of a child that will last a lifetime. "I love you. You are such a good child. You are such a good person." When words are used for evil they sear like a hot brand. "What's wrong with you? Only a baby cries over a thing like that. You always waste your money. You never mind me." Children live up or down to the words placed before them.
I'm reminded of a friend who was beloved by her parents. She had no sisters nor brothers and she and her parents created a tight bond. To spare her trouble in caring for them, they sold their house when they were in their 80s and moved into a continuing care community. First, she lost her father. Within just a few months, she lost her mother. She was devastated. But when she went to the summer home she had inherited from them she opened a drawer one day and found a note: "Never in all your life did you give me one single minute of unhappiness. You were such a joy to me. All my love, Mom."
Such powerful words they were, they even bridged the abyss between life and death.