The rest of this post is sort of a compilation of a lot of the self work I've been doing this semester and it's personal and also irrelevant to most people, but I wanted to be able to put into words for my family what has been going on for me all semester and why they've been peppered with questions nonstop since September. Feel free to keep reading, but I don't expect most people to get all the way to the end :)
So, we're in a few classes right now that have really delved into our families of origin (the family we grew up in) so we can relate to our clients better. The first project was about facing our adolescence and understanding the parts of us that haven't healed yet from the pain (because any way you put it, adolescence is painful--from school, to work, to home, to extracurriculars, to social lives, etc.). I thought I would go into this project and it would be a breeze. "No problem", I thought, "I had a pretty happy childhood/adolescence!" I didn't expect to start writing my paper and feel emotionally transported back to the stress of high school and navigating the social dynamics there, and I definitely didn't expect to feel so sad about realizing, once again, that I'd struggled with bouts of minor depression when I was younger and that none of us really knew what it was at the time.
So that first project brought up some pretty strong emotions for me, but the hardest part wasn't the painful emotions themselves--it was my questioning them. Was this really how I felt when I was younger? Am I imposing my adult self onto my child self right now? How do my parents see how this all went down? Siblings? etc. It was kind of like a knife to the heart to realize that I didn't even trust my own experience of things, and I didn't know why it felt like a knife at the time--I just knew it did. Needless to say, that presentation was severely interrupted by tears upon tears and I think my professor just gave me a pity grade because you couldn't really understand what I was saying at all when I was presenting, haha. There were just a lot of powerful, raw emotions I had never addressed before that were coming out before I was ready for them.
So I sort of put this project out of sight out of mind when it was over because I didn't really want to think about it again, but I did go back to therapy to start working through it all with someone. (This was important because I can't really help my adolescent clients if I'm too scared to go near my adolescent self emotionally.) But then in another class shortly thereafter I had another family of origin presentation to do! This one was more from the lens of gender and ethnicity in my family.
I already knew I didn't trust my perception of things from my project before, so this time, I sent an email out to all my siblings and my parents and asked them the questions I had to answer for my presentation--How were women treated in your family? How aware was your family of privilege? Did you experience any oppression due to gender or ethnicity? etc. I was pleasantly surprised by the responses of my family and also intrigued by the fact that everyone had a slightly different experience of things. I think I obviously expected this, cognitively, but somehow I still felt like my perception was the "wrong one" and reading everybody else's would clear it up for me.
Only my two oldest siblings and my parents responded because I think my other sisters didn't really want to engage long enough to come up with well-thought out answers (I don't blame them). But I was surprised to see that my experience was most similar to my brother's and then not completely different from everyone else's, but there were subtle differences, and certain things that stood out to each person that the others didn't even mention. My mom wanted to read everyone's responses at the end and I was nervous to let her because everyone had written knowing that I was the only person who was going to see them. But they all said I could share them so we all read each others'. When my mom was surprised by some of the things we'd said about emotions being handled at a pretty cognitive level, she explained to me that with 6 kids (5 girls) it was a necessity to keep things even-keeled--especially when she was pregnant for most of that time.
Her comment really caused a break through for me. Not because I needed to understand why emotions were handled the way they were--I was kind of already past the point of curiosity on this front--but because when she said that, I realized my immediate reaction was to get defensive and invalidate her experience. I hadn't ever understood before that to feel like my experience mattered, I needed to invalidate everyone else's. I mean, I had understood this last year after some feedback I'd gotten from friends and supervisors and I had put it into practice obviously a lot with my clients and with my friends and things, but I had never applied it fully to my family because I hadn't even realized it was happening in that realm of my life. I think I've been fighting so hard to prove that my experience matters in my family that I've been shutting everyone else's out.
It was a really liberating moment to realize that before I can validate my own experience I have to validate other people's. It helped me 1) recognize maybe why I'd had such a hard time accepting my emotions surrounding my adolescence, and 2) actually listen to what my mom was telling me about her experience because I was listening to understand, rather than to retort. It's mostly liberating I think because now I don't feel like I have anything to prove to anyone. I can live my life how I want to live it and I can think and feel what I want. It's okay if someone else has a completely different experience. That's because everyone is different and sensitive to different things. They don't have to be right or wrong, and neither do I.
^^Reading that last sentence it sounds so obvious and simple, but I can't figure out how to convey the import of that realization for me. Life affects everyone differently. It doesn't mean someone is right or wrong. This was huge.
Just in case anyone but my family actually did make it to the end, I just want to clarify that nothing really bad ever happened to me in my childhood or family. I had a ridiculously blessed and privileged life with little to no trauma and amazingly committed and talented parents, as well as connected and engaged siblings. Which is why I'm able to focus on such seemingly tiny things like validating my own experience--I don't have trauma I'm trying to work through simultaneously. And for that I am incredibly grateful. So please don't walk away from this thinking there was some huge thing wrong with me or my family. It was just day to day stuff I'm talking about here and just differing experiences of it.