I believed for a long time that family would never let me down, that they would always be there for me, and that they would always do the right thing. I grew up with siblings a lot older than myself and I believed they would always protect me. I honestly believed that anyone older than me would do the right thing. I’m not 100% sure when I learned to think like that, but I know I did.
Some parts of this are challenging to tell because I’m not sure how to articulate it, but I never learned to build up my defenses. No matter what my family did, no matter what they did to chip away my trust, I always dove fully in and trusted them again. Meanwhile any little mistake from people around me and I cut them out like a wart that overstayed it’s welcome. I don’t know, maybe it was a guilt reflex. My parents and siblings took care of me so I felt they were allowed to treat me how they wanted to, even if it hurt me. I always believed I was the accident of the family and that it was some huge sacrifice to bring me into the family.
I tolerated lying, mental abuse, being forced to grow up way too soon, becoming a therapist for my parents, being ostracized from my siblings, and bearing the burden of proving myself because of our age differences. It takes a huge toll on your self-esteem when the people you want love and respect from see you as someone weaker than they are and prey on that. It’s so hard to acknowledge the hurt that it brings but to also understand that they were just of a certain age where that behavior is natural—it wasn’t necessarily anything personal. It’s a fight between logic and what you feel.
It wasn’t until very recently that I understood that no matter who they are to you, family or not, there are things you can put your foot down with even if it makes them uncomfortable. Familial relation or “hierarchy” doesn’t matter: you’re allowed to say who has access to you. It also wasn’t until very recently that I understood how messed up some of the things I went through really were and that, family or not, sometimes cutting people out is necessary.
I have a complicated relationship with my mother as well. She had a traumatic childhood and she has a lot of unresolved emotions about it. As a result she hates being told what to do (but doesn’t know what she wants to do when she isn’t told what to do) and she will tell you what you want to hear and then do what she wants to do. She takes care of my son and he has dietary restrictions that, when I tried to enforce, she would tell me she would stick with it, but then I would find out she gave him things he’s not supposed to have—because they can hurt him. She told me once that it wasn’t a lie if I found out about it.
There are some things we have to learn to accept in people around us. some things they just won’t change. We can choose to set a hard boundary and cut those people out of our lives or we can learn to tolerate the behavior, or accept it. In spite of all the things my family did, I love them. There are things I can forgive because I know they didn’t know any better. For the things that are a hard boundary, it can be a challenge to enforce them, especially when you’ve never had to do that before.
I often ask myself if it’s possible to have a close relationship with people who have broken your trust. Clearly it is on some level because these people are still in my life and I still speak with them, I still share with them, and I still love them. But I am always guarded around them. I always measure how much to say and what they need to know and, at the same time, I am learning what is appropriate to open up about. I used to vomit everything about my life to people as soon as I met them and I have learned to guard that a bit more. It wasn’t appropriate and I got hurt more often than not. So I try my best and I continue on and I have learned to integrate those lessons from my family as a way to protect myself. No matter how much we hurt, we still have a capacity to feel love and that is the gift.