My mother’s life was full of pain, unhappiness, and suffering. She was tired most of the time, so she slept most of her life away. When she was awake,
- She would be angry about something that someone did to her.
- She would be envious about something that someone else had.
- She would be depressed about her current state of affairs.
- She would be fearful about something she was about to lose.
- She would be afraid of failing in some task.
And so the endless list goes on.
One big takeaway from growing up as her child is that I never ever wanted to be like her. Over time, this developed into a gigantic fear and in a twist of great irony, all my striving to run away from my mother made me be more and more like her.
Because I feared being like my mother, I developed a fear for tiredness, a fear of rejection, a fear of loss, a fear of failing, and more. I didn’t realize it at the time but my fear of her and what I saw as her “weaknesses” was exactly the thing that was making me into a copy of her. Fear and anger kept me away from truly understanding my mother, so I never understood myself.
After losing my two beloved dogs and falling into a very dark hole, I realized that the best way to deal with fear is to face her, and so I did. For the first time, I started looking at my mother more deeply.
My mother was full of fear. She herself had a difficult childhood having lost her mother at a very young age. Whatever mothering she got, she got from her eldest sister. She had many siblings and from what I could see, her father was mostly absent, being busy with his business. Based on family gatherings, I did not detect much real love (unconditional love) in their midst. There was a lot of gossiping and comparisons of relative success. One was admired based on career success and wealth.
For a long time I blamed my mother for screwing me up. When I was young I tried everything to gain my mother’s love. I bought her presents on Mother’s Day with whatever little money I had. I strived to be a perfect A-student in school and won many prizes. I tried to follow all her rules and not incur her wrath. But whatever I did was never enough.
My presents were dismissed with disdain. She was never interested in my scholastic achievements and never attended any of my prize giving ceremonies. When I did not achieve perfection, she would make sure to point out how her friends’ children did better. Her rules kept changing so there was no way to follow them or to avoid her rage. I developed anxiety issues even then and suffered a lot of digestive distress. In the end, I just tried to stay away from her as much as possible. Many children see being sent to their rooms as a punishment; for me, my room was my sanctuary.
When I was around 9 years old my parents got divorced, and that made my mother even worse. Both my parents had terrible tempers and there were many scary, shouting arguments throughout my childhood. These arguments intensified during the divorce period and for a while, conditions were very grim. Eventually, things settled down some and my mother redirected her attention to getting revenge by manipulating my brother and I to torment my stepbrother.
My mother was no Saint and she acted quite cruelly at times, especially towards my stepbrother who was very young and totally innocent. However, her actions were not deliberately malicious, rather she was driven by her own demons of fear. Everyone was trying to trick her, didn’t love her enough, and would likely reject her, so she rejected them first. She feared failing so she didn’t try anything, preferring to blame her circumstance on Luck, Fate, and the people around her. She was too afraid to examine her own self and her own life so she just kept giving in to her fears, making bad decisions, and ended up not living at all.
Nobody would consciously choose this path – alone, trapped by fear, and full of suffering. However, changing directions is very difficult, especially after a lifetime of running. I know this because I too have been running from fear and suffering all my life. I also ended up trapped by fear and full of suffering, but luckily for me, I have a very supportive spouse and I just had two experiences of deep unconditional love. Even with all this, it took me many months before I uncovered the true source of my suffering, which is fear – fear of fear (i.e. the symptoms of fear) and fear of suffering.
Fear and Suffering
My mother caused me a lot of emotional pain and trauma. I always took this very personally and blamed her for much of my unhappiness and anxiety. However, she inherited much of her pain and trauma from her own parents and so on, generation after generation of inherited suffering. None of them knew how to properly tend to their own fears and pain, so how could they teach their children any differently?
My mother rejected me over and over again because she repeatedly rejected herself. She projected her own fears onto me, so she criticized and belittled me as she was criticizing and belittling herself. Emotions are contagious so she was like a black cloud of doom, leaking negative energy to everyone around her. Eventually, she ended up abandoned and alone, with only her suffering to keep her company.
For a very long time I made my mother into the archvillain of my story. Even thinking and writing about her now brings up a deep fear within me. I fear her rages, I fear being around her, I fear being hurt by her again, and most of all, I fear being like her. If I did not blame my mother for my deep anxieties then who should I blame? Surely my child self was not responsible.
It is only after experiencing my own dark night of the soul that I finally realized that no one is to blame for our fear and suffering. Fear and suffering are an intrinsic part of life. We are all wired to love and from love comes fear. If we love someone or something, then the fear of loss naturally arises. Chronic anxiety arises when we keep running away from our fears and in so doing, they combine, grow, and take over our lives. My mother may have intensified my anxieties and helped them grow more quickly, but the patterns of fear, conflict, and suffering were there all along. Those patterns are part of being human and they are in all of us.
As such, at a basic level, fear and suffering are not personal. My mother acted badly because she was driven by her fears and maladaptive coping mechanisms to do so. Much of what she did had very little to do with me and much more to do with her own pain. In fact, she was suffering so much she did not have the time or energy for anyone or anything else, other than the thought of escaping from her own suffering. Unfortunately, she did not know how. All the things she did made things worse for herself and everyone around her. They were the same things I did at the worst of my chronic anxiety, the same coping mechanisms shared by us all to protect our fragile egos.
We take rejection so personally, when most of the time it is due to the suffering of the person dishing it out.
Forgiving My Mother
Many grief books and self-help gurus advise forgiveness. Forgiveness of self and others can help to ease our grief and emotional pain. I was so sick of my chronic anxiety and suffering that I tried really hard to forgive my mother, but I was never able to authentically do so.
I was never able to forgive my mother because I never truly understood her. There was too much fear and pain in the way. Now I see that forgiveness is only possible after we start working through our own fears and pain. Once I started doing that, life-long grudges, bitterness, and resentments started to weaken and fade away. Forgiveness cannot come from a place of fear, as a means of trying to escape suffering. Forgiveness only comes from a place of love, a love that develops from deep understanding.
Behind acts of hate, cruelty, and anger, is often a wellspring of suffering. Those who suffer spread their suffering not because they want to do evil but because they are compelled by their own demons of fear. Fear keeps us from knowing and lack of knowing keeps us from understanding and positive change. In this way we become stuck in our cycle of suffering and self-destructive behaviors. All of us go through this.
My mother had the same fears that many of us have. She feared being unloved, alone, and abandoned. She feared failing. She feared suffering. Like almost everyone else, she was never taught to tend to her anxieties so she repressed them, or projected her fears and blamed others. She was too afraid to learn and too afraid to change. She never helped me because she was too afraid to help herself.
For me, my mother embodied the soul of suffering. I feared her profoundly because I feared suffering profoundly. I escaped to the opposite side of the world so that I could be as far away from her as possible. But however hard I tried, I could not escape suffering because it is an intrinsic part of life. Trying to run away from suffering only made it larger and stronger.
I never really knew my mother. She passed away before I embarked on my journey of pain and self-awareness. When I was young I remember my mother singing “The Cherry Tree Carol” and ABBA’s “I Have a Dream”. I would have liked to know the woman who believed in those songs.