As little girls, many of us felt the terror of "no one at the wheel" of our families.
For a variety of reasons we may have gotten the message that the adults were "checked out" to some degree and as children we were on our own. Our nervous systems responded with fight, flight or freeze, laying down early blueprints in how we cope with stress and change. We may have coped by creating a mask that says "everything is fine" when it really wasn't. This mask is a survival mechanism that functions to keep the pain of our childhood aloneness out of our awareness so that we can continue to develop into adults. The masks look can look very different, manifesting as the rebel, the good girl, the loner, the clown, among others. But they all serve the same function: to block out childhood pain.
A common mask is the mask of the "good girl," the one who is focused on pleasing others, getting approval, over-functioning in relationships and performing emotional labor for those in their families. For these little girls, external approval means survival. Their basic sense of safety is linked to being liked. This sets them up for low self-esteem, poor boundaries and deep sense of shame. In dysfunctional families, "good girls" are praised for being invisible, staying quiet and for their willingness to tolerate poor treatment. They are often rejected or abandoned when they say no and their desire for autonomy is shamed.
For women who grew up with the pattern of the "good girl" there is a sense of being used, a sense of having to perform and an underlying sense of emptiness. Like a small adult, the good girl believes something like "One day Mommy / Daddy will be full and then they will give me what I need." The problem is that that day never comes. These women grow up to be adults who experience high levels of stress and hypervigilance when faced with everyday situations like disappointing someone, receiving complements, setting boundaries and taking care of themselves.
We are taught that survival involves performing for the patriarchal male
Many "good girls" or "parentified daughters" watched their mothers condone toxic male behavior, whether through embodying it in themselves or seeing them tolerate it in the men in our families, or both. We learned to internalize damaging beliefs like "I could lose their approval if I don't give myself away" or "To be like-able, I have to devalue myself." We watched our mothers having to depend on crumbs of approval from ignorant males. We watched other older women tolerate ineptitide and abuse in silence. We endured as our mothers invaded us or withdrew from us out of their own deprivation.
As women recovering from being parentified daughters, it's important to see our unconscious complicity in being used and fiercely claim our self-sovereignty
For years I confused "love" with reward for self-betrayal. I was adored not for who I was, but for the lies I protected and the comfortable illusions I perpetuated in the family. I thought I was being a grateful daughter, an empathic listener, a compassionate sister but in reality I was playing a toxic role that caused immense suffering and was predicated on my willingness to be invisible. At a certain point, when I declared I wanted to step out of the role of functioning as the "buffer" in the family, buffering family members from themselves and each other, I was quickly dropped. "You're not my daughter" was spoken. It was shocking to see how the family system had been propped up precisely by my willingness to be used by each of them and when I refused to be used, I was disposed of. The underlying message was "Our approval of you is contingent on how much you protect us from our own pain," meaning don't be a real person with real needs; get back into your role of our emotional "cleaning lady."
In dysfunctional systems (like dysfunctional families) you're not valued for who you are but for the function you perform.
There's no true payoff for "holding the wheel" for others and this must be grieved. People who demand you give away your power for approval seldom become capable of seeing how much you sacrificed for them. What keeps us in this cycle? Our need to be needed, our need to be liked and our need for absence of conflict.
"Like a colonized land I was plundered, sucked dry, extracted from, separated from my own fertile depths, hollowed out, ravaged. I let them take what they wanted, hoping one day they would be full. Then I will get what I need. That day never came. I had to get away and re-claim my depths as my very own, never to be stolen again."
The longing to be loved for the Real Self...
The "used child" within us longs to be loved not only when she is wearing the mask of the "good girl" demonstrating patriarchal values (productive, perfect, conforming to expectations, making others look good, sacrificing, depleting, suppressing, etc.). The used child longs to be loved when she disappoints you, when she is grumpy, when she is inconvenient, when she is messy, when she is confused, when she produces nothing, when she is inconsistent, when she is empty-handed, when she changes her mind, etc. The real question is how willing are we to love OURSELVES in these moments? The degree to which we can love ourselves for our REAL selves, the more we can demand that of others as well.
It's important for us to ask ourselves the question: "What systems are supported by my willingness to be used?"
In a patriarchal society that devalues women, we are seen as objects that perform functions rather than as complex human beings. Being treated as objects, roles and functions is insidious, affecting how we see ourselves, the world and our place in it. Especially to the degree that we observed our mothers and fathers perpetuating patriarchal values. Male privilege protects men from the true knowledge of how their choices harm others. It insulates them from the impacts of their unconsciousness on other people and the planet.
As women we are most exploited when we are compensating for wounded white males as a strategy of self-preservation.
For centuries access to white males has been a survival strategy, a scarce resource that ensured status and comfort for women in the absence of other opportunities for women. Now the survival of the planet demands that we stand on "firm inner ground" and set fierce boundaries with toxic masculinity whenever we see it, in ourselves, in others, and in the communities we are a part of.
"Strict Daddy" and the illusion of the benevolent patriarch
It's time for us to see through the illusion of the benevolent patriarch, the archetype of the "strict daddy" who will protect us and keep us safe. This is a kind of fantasy of the wounded inner child who is tired of being used and longs for rescue. This illusion of rescue isn't a true haven of safety for the adult, it is a form of hiding; hiding from the responsibility to face the reality of our pain and our responsibilty to the planet. It is an illusion of a shortcut through the treacherous path of self-actualization that asks us to wrestle with the truth of whatever pain we endured as children. Our task is to conjure a loving inner parent within ourselves to claim the inner child from the frozen trauma of our past. This is a form of taking our power back.
Refuse to be used: Boundaries and Backlash
Often when setting firm boundaries in patriarchal families or organizations, there is backlash. I recall in my own situation, my boundaries being viewed as a personal attack, as an over-reaction, as pathological, because to my family members, the level of empowerment I was demonstrating was so foreign to them, as to be laughable. This is often the case because many people have been so plundered themselves, so disposed of, so breft of any sense of self-belonging that it threatens the foundations of their fragile identity. In short, saying a clear "No" can shake the thin veneer over their own pain which feels unbearable and must be deflected at all costs. Don't take the backlash personally. Stand strong.
You are not obligated to cater to people who refuse to take responsibility for their inner lives.
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