My father’s death on Yom Kippur (November 2, 2014), and the years leading up to it, launched me into a journey of self-awareness. It’s the journey I’ve been seeking all of my life. It’s the journey of validation of the soul, of becoming aware of my physical and personal boundaries.
Until these times, everything I’ve done has been for the purpose of seeking validation from others. Which others? Others, just others. Friends, employers, patients, staff, partners, spouses, my child…
My father gave me lots of validation. He was careful to pay attention to what I was doing and give me praise, really specifically as in, “The way you make use of line and space in this drawing is stupendous,” or, “This is an absolutely scrumptious omelette! You’ve really outdone yourself, Laurie!”
His critiques could hurt, though. He was always honest, but never brutal; and yet, since I hung on his every word, a negative critique either on my work or on something I had done in life stung, and I would go and cry privately. I knew that he was right….except when he was defending my mother’s rages.
“She isn’t feeling well, you know.”
“She has her period. She’s always a bit testy when she has her period. You just have to cut her a wide berth.”
When he did that, I felt betrayed, abandoned, and so, so alone.
It confused me terribly when he started scolding me for standing up to her. For one thing, she began to scream and call me names right in front of him. When I told her that what she was doing was abusive, they both screamed back at me that it was their right to abuse me because they were my parents.
Stunned, I said, “Are you telling me that because you are my parents, that gives you the right to do or say anything you want to me?”
“That’s right!” they both shouted, in unison.
Over the next few months it became clear to me that he was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, in which the captive, in an effort to save himself, comes to idolize the captor. Dad’s illness caused him to become increasingly dependent on Mom for his physical care; his self-preservation became dependent on siding with her, flattering her, doing what she wanted when she wanted it…and being her whipping-boy.
He had always been able to deflect her tantrums by simply leaving and going to his studio to work, coming back late at night, giving her a chance to get over her “mad” and simmer down into petulance.
On rare occasions, if she goaded him sufficiently, he would blow up and yell at her, reducing her to tears. She would run to their room, throw herself on the bed and sob. He would go to his studio and work, and the next day he would bring a peace offering, a bouquet of wildflowers, dinner out, chocolates. And then back to status quo.
I confused validation with appeasement. I overturned every rock looking for something that would bring lasting acceptance from my mother. Praise would have been wonderful, but simple acceptance would have been enough. Gifts, vacations, floral arrangements, expensive meals out, elaborate meals made at home…all of these garnered momentary praise, but felt to me exactly the same as the Mother’s Day cards I made for her, the valentines, all the childish surprises I made for her, in hopes that this time she would really love me…
Look at all the things I’ve done. I won’t list them, but just know that I have accomplished many things in my life that should have been just for me, or because they were fulfilling dreams…but at the bottom of it all, I was seeking validation from my mother. “My daughter, the doctor….”
I wasn’t just seeking approval. Approval is very important, but it’s temporary and tied to the deed that provoked it.
Validation is a much deeper thing. Validation is approval on the level of the soul. The Inner Approval.
According to Jewish law, parents are partners with God in Creation. God utilizes the special blend of the parents’ souls and bodies (the body being a temporary dwelling for the soul) to create a new person. It is for this reason that we are commanded to “Honor your father and your mother.”
But what happens if the parents are legitimately abusive? Are we commanded to honor them? Can honor be legislated? If so, what form would that honor take?
When I first became Jewishly religious, I went into a panic about this. It didn’t help that my mother loudly and offensively mocked my new clothes, the fact that I had chosen to cover my hair, the fact that I prayed three times a day and kept Shabbat according to Jewish Law.
On one of my trips to Israel, prior to moving there permanently, I ran to the most famous Orthodox Jewish bookstore in Jerusalem and asked if there was a book on honoring parents. There was: “Sefer Kibud Avot.” The Book of Honoring Parents. It was in Hebrew. I had just barely learned to laboriously read a little Scriptural Hebrew. Somehow, the words of this book flew off the pages into my mind. I swear it was a moment of Divine Inspiration.
The book said that if parents were abusive, the child still had to honor them.
But in that case, asked the book, what does “honoring them” mean?
It gave a number of examples of exceptional people whose parents abused them terribly, yet they continued to take the abuse.
For instance, one of the Rabbis who lived during the time of Jesus was sitting teaching a group of his students, when his mother came into the room and spat in his face. He did not remark upon the incident, but continued teaching, and she went away.
There are many lessons in this story. I have thought about this a lot.
But getting back to what Sefer Kibud Avot had to say about this incident: Rabbi Ploni (“Ploni” is a Talmudic term for “Whoever”) was a saint. We are mostly not saints. If a saint could be expected to behave like that, how are we non-saints suppose to act?
The book then defined what the term “Kibud Avot (honoring your parents)” means in the case of abusive parents:
1) Make sure they have a roof over their heads
2) Clothes to cover their nakedness and for warmth
3) Food sufficient for their nutritional needs.
In other words, according to Jewish Law we are only responsible for their basic physical needs.
The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that we are not to purposely harm ourselves. We are not to do anything that puts us in harm’s way. According to Sefer Kibud Avot, this includes abusive parents. We are not to expose ourselves to abuse from any source, and that includes from parents. We are to distance ourselves from evil. Willingly exposing ourselves to evil is like doing evil ourselves.
That revelation came down to me in 2005. There is actual discussion of the issue in Jewish books of law! I was not the only one who had to deal with this problem of how to honorably take care of one’s abusive parents, without feeding the continual abuse! Validation that I am not “imagining things,” as my mother likes to say. (The term for this type of invalidation of another’s lived experience is gaslighting. You can find much more on the topic of gaslighting on the blog The Invisible Scar.)
I have wrestled with this since my father became ill and I left Israel in 2011 to be with him in his final years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds, breaths. I found ways of dealing with my mother’s insanity on my own terms, yet it tore me apart to watch her mocking and belittling and publicly shaming him.
I’ve had a lot of help during these years.
Giving credit where credit is due, I have a wonderful advisor in the form of my therapist, with whom I have worked on and off since 2000. She has saved my life many times.
I have also learned an enormous amount and garnered tremendous validation from the site The Invisible Scar. The site is about surviving emotional abuse, with a focus on Adult Survivors of Narcissists (ACoN). If anyone here feels that they have suffered at the hands of a narcissistic parent or caregiver, I highly recommend that they visit The Invisible Scar.
The Invisible Scar is run by a Christian organization, although it maintains religious neutrality. However, I highly recommend the Christian ministry site that is its source. Here you will find an extensive questionnaire that will result in your knowing whether or not you have been pillaged by a narcissist in your life. I found myself going down their list going, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, nope, uh-huh….my life has been parasitized by my narcissistic mother, enabled by my passive father. Jeez.
If you are a Christian, or are interested in the Christian perspective on what to do if you discover that you are being abused by a parent or significant other, I cannot imagine a better place to find diagnostic tools, validation, and advice, backed up by Scripture that applies universally to any ethical system or religion. I am clearly not a Christian, but I know wisdom when I encounter it, and this is down-to-earth, straight-to-the-core, cut-to-the-chase wisdom.
Here’s a gift from The Invisible Scar that showed up in my inbox a couple of days ago: two professors from the University of Georgia have asked The Invisible Scar to help recruit volunteers to take a survey on the parental communication skills of Adult Children of a Narcissist. If you’re like me, you might be anxious (in my case, obsessed) about not repeating history–in other words, not passing on the terrible heritage of the emotional abuse that you suffered at the whims of the Narcissist in your life. If you’d like to participate in the survey, go here. It only takes a few minutes.
You might find it validating!