“You are one decision away from a completely different life.” ~Mel Robbins
At twenty-six years old, I lost my dad to suicide. I was heartbroken and so angry.
My dad was not the best. Ever since I was little, he would criticize everything I did. I was never good enough for him, and I was a place he discharged his anger through emotional insults.
It never stopped, and I was always on high alert around him. Right until the moment he took his life.
He could also be loving, kind, funny, and warm, but my nervous system could never relax around him. He was a Jekyll and Hyde. I never knew what behavior would set him off.
Then all of a sudden, he was gone.
I was angry because he had caused me a lot of pain growing up, and now he had left me.
I was angry that I loved this man so much and felt such deep pain without him. It made no sense to me. Surely my life should be better now that his constant abuse was over.
But it was just the beginning of my emotional breakdown. Children love their parents unconditionally, no matter how we are treated. But if our parents project their pain on to us, we end up not loving ourselves.
Now that the abuse had stopped, it was time to deal with all the emotional wounds he’d inflicted over the years.
But I resisted this and got stuck. I struggled in romantic relationships, unconsciously dating versions of my dad.
I was full of self-hate. He may have died, but his criticism was very much alive in my head! And I was the one now persecuting myself for everything.
I may have loved him, but I had no love for myself, as he had taught me that I wasn’t worth that.
I felt powerless and in so much pain. I numbed this pain with the tools he had given me—wine, TV, food, and caretaking others. I had the busiest diary so I would never have to feel.
I had no idea how to stop feeling so awful and like I was doomed for life because of this childhood trauma I had suffered. I was in denial that I had even experienced childhood trauma.
The man who had caused me the pain had gone, so why did I feel the same, if not worse?
I would lie in bed at night with this huge ache, longing to be loved by someone but looking for it in all the wrong places.
I felt trapped in my emotions and like there was no way out.
I sit in my front room now, over fifteen years later, in a life I didn’t think was possible, in a home that feels safe and peaceful. No longer abusing myself. Doing a job that I love and married to the most amazing man.
I feel like life is a gift and there is no dream I cannot make a reality. That pain that kept me awake at night is no longer there but replaced with love for myself, and even for my dad.
If I could go back in time, I would tell myself these nine things to get me moving forward to the life I’ve since created. If you also grew up with an abusive parent, my list may help you too.
1. It was not your fault.
We put our parents on a pedestal as children because we have no choice. We need them to survive. When my dad persecuted me for not being quiet enough or not pleasing him, I translated that as “I am not good enough” and that everything was my fault.
We often take all the blame when our parents mistreat us. But what were their stories? How did they grow up? Did someone teach them how to balance their emotions?
I see now that my dad was struggling. He was grieving the loss of his parents and a difficult childhood. He was not given any tools to manage his emotions. He was shown how to lash out and project them. He was shown how to drink to numb them out.
He would come home from a job he felt he had to do, feeling tired and stressed, and blame others to help himself calm down.
Realizing this helped me let myself off the hook. It has also helped me forgive him, which has brought me peace. I started to understand him and his traumas. He was repeating a pattern of survival that his parents had taught him.
This is generational trauma, and it wasn’t his fault. But it was his responsibility to keep his children safe, which he didn’t fulfill because he had no idea he was traumatizing them!
2. Reparent the wounded child within.
The versions of me that still hurt and felt this ache to be loved still lived within me, many years later. The seven-year-old who was shouted at for being too loud, the thirteen-year-old who didn’t study enough, and the twenty-five-year-old that wasn’t there for my dad. All these parts of me had unmet needs and were in pain.
We can’t change the past, but we can go back in time in our imagination and be the parent we needed.
I have imagined taking baby-me out of the house where I was born to live with adult me. Telling my parents to get some therapy and sort themselves out before they can have the baby back.
I’ve imagined holding her and telling her how special she is. Over time, this helped that deeper pain to heal.
3. Work on self-love.
I was always seeking love and validation outside of myself.
I was never taught or shown that self-love and self-care are necessities. You have to be able to fill up your own cup in order to love others.
I would tell my younger self to take a step back from pleasing others and finding a man. I would tell her to focus on giving herself the love she longed for.
For example, speaking to myself with love and kindness, having quality alone time, buying myself gifts—these were all things I longed for from a man, but I needed to start doing them for myself.
I needed to spend time every day giving myself love and listening to my needs, not ignoring them. Do I need rest? Water? A healthy meal? To just breathe? To be in nature to calm my anxiety?
Learning to listen to my own needs and fulfill them took time. It felt unnatural. It was a new behavior I had to repeat every day, and then soon enough it became second nature.
4. Get to know your shadow.
We all have parts of us that are dysfunctional and behaviors that are not serving us.
For me, it was emotional eating, drinking wine, pursuing emotionally unavailable men, and caretaking my family. The last two made me miserable.
But I blamed the men and my family for being needy. I didn’t take responsibility for my own behavior.
I felt powerless over how others treated me. I was trapped in this victim state, and then I would numb with food and booze.
Getting to know my shadow and recognizing my toxic behaviors were the first two steps to change.
When a man didn’t treat me well, I stopped trying to prove my worth and changed my behavior to move away from the relationship.
When it hurt, I learned how to love myself instead of chasing someone else’s love.
Ask yourself: What am I doing that hurts me? Then work on a step-by-step plan to change the behavior. Baby steps are key in this process, as you can get overwhelmed by trying to do too much at once.
5. Get support.
It takes time and work to change toxic behavior and heal. I would give my younger self permission to get help when I was struggling with a change. For example, giving up toxic relationships and booze was a real challenge for me. Finding people who had already been through the transformation I was seeking was so valuable.
Sometimes this would mean listening to a podcast or reading a book, blogs like this one, or posts on social media, and other times it would be investing in working with someone who had already done the work.
When you work with someone who’s already made the change you’re seeking, they can outline the steps they took, which saves time and energy and makes you feel less alone.
6. Get in your body.
I once was a floating head and very disconnected from my body. It didn’t feel safe to feel fear, so I had to be that way to survive my life!
I would tell my younger self to slow down and notice how her body feels. That it was safe to do that now.
For example, certain relationships made my heart race out of fear. This was a sign that they weren’t good for me.
I would also tell her to find ways to bring the body back into balance by discharging the stress and fear.
For example, breathwork techniques, movement, and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) tapping all help us process our emotions rather than running away from them.
7. It’s safe to speak your truth.
I have always been incredibly loyal in relationships. Growing up with a dad who was awful meant I had few boundaries and expectations in relationships. This was the only way I could have some form of a relationship with my dad.
I would let my younger self know it is okay to step back or walk away from relationships that don’t feel good or safe, even family.
I would let her know that she can always express her truth in relationships and explain when a boundary has been crossed, but that also it’s okay to walk away. Especially in relationships that feel unsafe and abusive.
8. Celebrate all your progress.
A journey of healing and transformation takes time! It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s so important to celebrate the smallest of wins daily. For example, “I meditated every day this week,” or “I said no to an invite so I could take care of myself when I used to say yes all the time.” Change starts small and grows big.
At the beginning especially it is so important to track everything because it feels like such a mountain to climb. It will motivate you to carry on. Seeing the little changes shows your efforts are paying off.
Younger me didn’t have a family that celebrated small wins and growth. They focused on my imperfections and were highly critical. By celebrating myself, I help that little girl feel enough!
9. Set intentions and dream big.
Each month, set little goals to improve your life and keep you moving forward. This could be for your personal growth, relationships, physical health, emotional health, money, love, or work.
Make the goal super small, for example, “In January, I will not text my ex.”
You may want to set an intention to take better care of yourself. Break this down into daily tasks to repeat for the month. And if you don’t know what you need to work on, maybe your task for the month is to read a book to help you find out.
With intention you can create the life you dream of. But often we don’t know what our dreams are. Get still and explore what would bring you happiness.
I think of younger-me who looked out of her bedroom window wishing for a safe home. I think of that little girl and the life she deserves. A full, fulfilling life, just like I’d want for my own child. This has helped me to dream bigger to create a life that is not only safe but also makes me happy.
You too deserve an amazing life! Not a life stuck in patterns of surviving and playing it small, but one where you heal and thrive. Your parents treated you the way they did not because you were not enough but because they were wounded. You were always enough, and now you have the power to take daily steps to change your reality so it is not longer tainted by trauma.
I have the most incredible life now, and it has and continues to be a journey of healing. I wish I would have done these things sooner, but it’s never too late to take the first steps on a new path! There is hope, and I believe in you.