Healing from Generational Trauma: Boundaries and Empathy Can Co-Exist
I knew that my childhood wasn’t like that of the kids I grew up with and that my relationship with my mom was out of the ordinary, but it wasn’t until I grew up and had my own kids, that I truly recognized how toxic it was – and how hurt she also was.
What do we imagine a mother to be? What does she look like? What is she doing? What feelings come up when you’re thinking of her?
The only mom I knew was the one I had, and when I looked to the media as I grew up I didn’t recognize those characters as ones that I recognized.
These movies would always portray the mother-figure as one who was understanding, patient and kind, the maker of meals and the kisser of boo-boos. She would hold her children in a warm embrace when they were sad, and wipe away their tears, assuring them everything would be ok, because she was there.
These mothers, the Lorelei Gilmore and June Cleaver moms… even Elastigirl from ‘The Incredibles’, were problem solvers, held their children’s trust, were their child’s protection and their guide through difficult situations. These mothers would always do the best they could, and the children always seem to know that their mothers loved them more than anything in the entire world.
This might be the reality for some people but my reality was a lot closer to that of the 1981 film “Mommy Dearest”. If you know, you know.
Growing up with trauma at the hand of someone who was supposed to love you unconditionally and protect you and guide you and comfort you has lasting impacts.
Recognizing that my own mothers trauma is what caused her to be the mother she was, was an important step to me truly empathizing with her. Recognizing that even if that is true, I still need to protect my peace and create boundaries, was a whole other thing. And it was hard. I care so much which is why boundaries felt so mean in the first place. But boundaries were actually the kind thing. For me, and for her.
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I discuss my very personal relationship with my mother in this blog. And while the purpose of sharing to is let others know they aren’t alone and encourage them to hold boundaries WHILE extending empathy, I am aware that this is not just MY story. I do not take lightly the hurt that comes from others sharing our wrongdoings, but in the name of the greater good: I hope those who can relate are inspired to go on a healing journey themselves. The intention is to heal, not to hurt.
I am not an expert. I am not a professional. I am simply sharing my experience in hopes that it may help you. If you are in distress or struggling with your mental health, I highly recommend seeking professional support through your doctor or other health professional.Know that there is always someone with the skills and tools who can help you.
Mothering While Breaking the Cycle of Generational Trauma
When I became a mom, I quickly realized how deep of a scar the trauma of my childhood left on my adult self. I knew I needed to find a way to manage the feelings I was having about my memories and the person who was responsible for them. My mom, who I love, was still a part of my life and our relationship was still far from ideal.
I have worked SO HARD on creating a peaceful life for myself and my children full of all the things I lacked as a child. I had to teach myself how to mother and how I wanted to parent because it was not modelled to me. I have learned so many lessons throughout my journey of healing from generational trauma, and creating healthy boundaries was one of them.
Allowing empathy and love to excuse toxic behaviour
I grew up with a mother who made choices that prevented me from feeling safe, feeling confident, or feeling loved; so much so that when I once opened up as a teen about the difficulties I was experiencing, I was met with anger and an assurance that my feelings weren’t legitimate.
It made me question my sanity. It made me question my memories.
For many years I believe I had forgiven my mom for what I went through as a teen and child. I saw the pain that she had gone through too, and desperately tried to help her understand, to grow or to fix her problems. While my mom hurt me, I was conditioned to believe that her happiness and fulfilment was ultimately my responsibility. I mean, there was no one else so I had no choice, right? Wrong.
I said yes for many years, came to her rescue, agreed when I shouldn’t have, given when I shouldn’t have and ignored my own needs and desires. I have since learned that is called a co-dependant relationship.
My love for her was enabling many of her choices and behaviours that were both damaging to her and to me. It took me a long time to realize that my needs, desires and time are valuable, and that saying no was necessary for my peace. Saying no was the healthy thing to do.
My own mom’s trauma and difficult circumstances trumped my own for too long. It took me going to therapy and reading a lot of books to realize I could love her and feel for her while not bearing her load for her.
I now have tools to manage these emotions and understand what boundaries I need to have in place. One important part about creating and upholding the boundaries you’ve set with the ones you love is to remember they are personal to you and can change, become stronger, or fall away as you move through the ebbs and flows of life.
In his article on holding space for Psychology Today, John Kim, LMFT, put it quite simply: “At the end of the day, it means to not make it about you. That’s it. Holding space means to make it about someone else. Plain and simple.”
Learning to hold space for my mother, the trauma she caused and how it affected my childhood and journey through motherhood was a tremendous weight lifted off of my shoulders. I had carried that with me and held responsibility for her actions for so long. Embracing this new space felt like removing the shackles that gripped me so tightly to these experiences and putting them in a box labelled ‘mother’ and tucking them away in a place where they wouldn’t be staring at me in the face every single day.
Codependency: How Boundaries, empathy and boundaries intersect
Truly empathizing with my mother, her struggles, her traumas, and her lack of knowledge or unwillingness to change, allowed me to embrace myself and my childhood experiences in a way that I never thought possible. The way she mothered wasn’t about me, it was about her. Simply recognizing that has made it possible for me to hold that space for her, the space that wasn’t there before, and wasn’t my responsibility to take on.
Trust me when I say that I know it’s a lot easier said than done to set strong boundaries with the ones you love. But you know what it feels like? It feels something like when you squeeze all of your muscles in your body as tightly as you can – your face is all scrunchy, shoulders are up, fists are clenched and toes are curled: And then you release. Ahhhh. That sense of letting go.
This is what can happen when you learn to empathize with the person who caused you trauma and hold space, not responsibility, for them.
My hope for you is that holding space and learning to empathize while creating healthy boundaries is something you can work toward in your life as part of your healing journey.
Empathizing and holding space for my mother has been one of the most valuable lessons I have learned on my healing journey. If you’re looking for more resources outside of seeking help from a professional, you can head over to this list of book recommendations I have on healing and breaking the cycles of generational trauma.
Let me know in the comment section if you are on a healing journey and what it looks like for you to be empathetic while also holding boundaries.