As I prepare for this weekend’s Climb Out of the Darkness, I can feel my anxiety level rising. It’s not only being the team manager for my area – I didn’t do a great job publicizing the Climb Out, so there are a total of three people, including me, registered so far. If ten people show up, I’ll be thrilled. I realized this week that my “baseline” anxiety level has climbed over the past few months, because of what I’m calling “living outside my comfort zone.” I took on two projects at about the same time – the Climb Out, and my Jamberry business. Both involve being more social than I’m totally comfy being, but the real source of this discomfort? The fact that I have the confidence in myself to sign up and follow through with these projects. This week will be the one-year anniversary of my estrangement from my father, and I am realizing that this rapid growth in my life and confidence has a lot to do with breaking the cycle of abuse I lived with him.
Over many years, my father convinced me that his moods–usually angry or depressed, but sometimes excited and productive–had been caused by his environment, which included me. When someone who is abusive convinces you not to trust your own perceptions, it’s often called gaslighting. In order to break the cycle of abuse I lived with my dad, I had to insist that my feelings, my reality, mattered as much as his did, despite his insistence that I change my behavior to help him feel better–every time. But the most important assertion I had to make, to myself and to him, was that I could not control his moods. He insisted, and I accepted, that his mental illness would be easier to bear if the people around him just made his world a more comfortable place. This was simply not my responsibility.
I am a loving, kind, empathic person, who wants to help the people around her; the notion that I willfully ignore anyone’s feelings to suit my own convenience or to avoid facing a hard truth is utterly absurd. That’s what I was doing, though, when I agreed to change my behavior in the hope that my father would be happier with me and more loving towards me.
An awesome thing that happened while I was taking back the power I had given to my father during the gaslighting process–I started to believe myself and to believe IN myself. By the time I rejected my father’s gaslighting about my responsibility for his feelings, I had also managed to surround myself with people who find the idea that I’m responsible for their feelings completely foreign and unattractive. It took an enormous amount of energy to convince myself that my dad was right, when, deep down, I knew that he was wrong. It was dark in that room, no matter how much he insisted that it was light (the bare bones of the story that inspired the term “gaslighting” involve this scenario). Insisting that we could both see perfectly well in a dark room was hard.
When I freed myself from that abusive cycle, I gradually found myself with more energy and more confidence; by the time I signed up to be the team leader for the Climb Out, I wasn’t even thinking about whether or not I could something like this. I couldn’t think of a reason not to do it! Deciding to lead a team in my Jamberry business was the same process–why NOT? I couldn’t think why not.
And that is the huge change. My brain did not immediately church out 10 reasons why I was unqualified or incapable of being a leader. My anxiety is higher than it was because I have climbed up, out of my comfort zone. It’s not comfortable up here. But my life is pretty exciting. And this confidence thing? I am enjoying that.
It is not a coincidence that I began to believe in my own power to succeed after walking away from the one person who kept telling me that I had failed. No, he didn’t tell me that I was failing in general. But no matter how hard I tried, he would always find some reason that I had failed to be good to him. That was my job, right? Because I should be a good daughter, right? And good daughters don’t hurt their dads! I don’t like the idea of my dad, hurting, and being unable to comfort him. But I no longer see any part of his pain as a consequence of my failure. I no longer ask, “When will I fail?”
Now, I ask myself, “How am I going to do this?” And I do it.