The trauma of perfection: from denial to healing, part 3 of 6

My dad

Now that I’ve finally admitted my dad’s emotional abuse, I need to continue to unpack these issues. How did his abuse affect me? What did it do to me? What lies was he communicating to me—spoken and unspoken?

What does unpacking a trauma or loss entail? What do we need to do to unpack old issues and heal old wounds?

How to Unpack a Trauma or Loss
1. Look honestly at what happened.
2. Identify the lies/propaganda involved.
3. Acknowledge the impact, including what was stolen.
4. Express your feelings then and now.
5. Replace the lies with truth.
6. Choose to end the negative impact.
7. Close the suitcase (i.e., the trauma/loss).
8. Walk forward in healing and peace.
9. Share your story with someone you trust.
10. Thank God for helping you on this journey.

The truth
For the first 30-something years of my life, I felt unlovable. The truth is that my parents were unloving. They were love-less.

A life without thankfulness
My dad used to say that “You should be thankful…” garbage. That’s why I included You Should Be Thankful Drive as one of the streets in Trauma Town. Brandon’s dad used to say that all the time too. He’d still be saying it if we were listening to him, but we’ve decided No Sociopaths Allowed works better.

In his masterpiece The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist Scott Peck addresses this common berating from unloving parents: “You should be thankful/grateful for….” Start reading this paragraph at the highlighted phrase and continue to the end of the paragraph. It’s very enlightening.

The Happy Formula
What my dad should have been saying was “I’m so thankful….” But I never heard him say that because he wasn’t. Do you remember “The Thankfulness Song” from “Madame Blueberry”—that fun Veggie Tales show? My dad wasn’t thankful, so he wasn’t happy. He had The Happy Formula backwards. I addressed that sad reality in this post.

If my dad had loved me, he would have expressed his gratitude for getting to be my dad, for getting to have me as his daughter, for getting to share life together, for getting to know me. But he wasn’t thankful for me. He didn’t spend time getting to know me. He wasn’t thankful for the privilege of getting to be a father and having been blessed with three healthy, bright daughters. He wasn’t thankful at all.

He was accomplished. He was a Navy pilot, flight instructor, intelligence guru and Mr. Way-High-Up in Washington, DC. When he was younger, he used to climb mountains. When he wasn’t at work, he was busy trying to make himself praise-worthy, note-worthy, attention-worthy, love-worthy. He painted well, he sang well, he wrote well, he grew beautiful roses, he did excellent wood-working, he took beautiful photographs.

Escaping and performing
He created beautiful things, but he ignored his three daughters much of the time. And he didn’t love us. He acted like he loved himself. But now, I wonder if that wasn’t all an act by a lonely, clueless wonder—a man who was an expert at so many things—everything except life. He escaped from the people who were entrusted to his care into his many hobbies and attempts to make himself significant. He missed the love and joy that were waiting for him every day.

We waited. And we waited. And we waited. But he never came. He never came home. Don’t get me wrong. He was there physically, but his heart was never there. No joy. No love. No peace. Always performing. Always trying to be better than everyone else. Who was he trying to out-do, anyway? I don’t understand it.

The contest
When I was in second grade, there was an art contest at school. My dad painted this really pretty painting—a landscape that included a deer. He made me take it to school and pretend that I had painted it. Obviously, it was okay to cheat and lie as long as you were a winner—as long as you were admired. I was totally embarrassed. I didn’t win (praise God). The teachers knew I didn’t paint it. Neither of my parents ever apologized for that or for anything else. They pretended they were always right, all evidence to the contrary.

The résumé
After he retired from the military, we moved and he went to a seminary to get a master’s degree in Religious Education. He went to work for our church. That looks good on a résumé. But he was still the same dad at home. He learned more about God, but it didn’t change how he treated us. He never told me that God loves me. He never talked about God, Jesus or spiritual things. He just kept on reciting the memorized prayer at dinner every night. Good grief.

Step 2: Identify the lies/propaganda involved.
I’ve looked at what happened in my relationship with my dad. Now it’s time to identify the lies and propaganda involved—both spoken and unspoken.

My Dad’s Spoken Lies and Propaganda
You should be thankful for….
♦ If you want something done right, do it yourself.
♦ Bells make A’s.
♦ If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.
♦ Because I said so.

My Dad’s Unspoken Lies and Propaganda
♦ I’m important because I’m smart. You should be impressed.
♦ Being accomplished and smart are the only things that matter.
♦ Your performance must be perfect so it will reflect well on me.
♦ Don’t embarrass me.
♦ Do not complain or express any emotion. I don’t like those things.
Don’t ask me questions. Figure it out for yourself.

My feelings
What did these lies and propaganda do to me as a child? They made me afraid, confused and angry. I was afraid because I couldn’t ask anyone for help. I was confused because I was surrounded by lies. Both of these realities—fear and confusion—made me very vulnerable. I was angry because the expectations for perfection were impossible to meet, so I felt like a failure.

He never asked me how I felt. Emotions were not allowed. I hated him. I hated what he did to me.

I was sad most of all—sad because my parents didn’t love me.

Society’s lies
In just a moment, you’ll be reading a saying that’s in quotation marks. Make sure you say it in a really high, sassy voice so it has the right flair. People like to prance around saying about their parents: “They did the best they could.” Most of the time, that is a big, fat, honkin‘ lie. The truth of life is that precious few people love enough to somewhat-frequently do their best—to truly seek God’s highest. Most people do what comes easily or naturally for them. In my dad’s case, he performed for praise and adoration. That’s what came easily and naturally for him. And because his focus was on himself, he was a sorry excuse for a father.

Another favorite saying is… (remember to put on your sassy voice): “That’s just the way their generation was.” Excuse me? A whole generation unable to show love? A whole generation unable to say “I’m sorry”? I’m not buying that either. My parents didn’t teach me any of that, but I know how to love and say “I’m sorry.” So where did I get it from? Osmosis? From a book? From a TV show? From my friends? No. I learned those things because I wanted to learn them. I learned those things because being just like my parents wasn’t good enough for me. I learned those things because a life without love wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted more than superficial politeness. I searched for truth and I found it, with God’s help. My parents could have chosen to search for truth, but they chose not to. Doing what they were already doing—living with the status quo—was easier.

Long story short
To me, the sentence that summarizes my dad the best is this one:

He escaped from the people
who were entrusted to his care
into his many hobbies and attempts
to make himself significant.

Yep. That was him. All form, no substance. As long as I look good, as long as people are impressed by me, it doesn’t matter who I really am. I live to impress.

What a sad life. What a waste.

The art of balancing
Peaceful Readers, I don’t want you to go to bed tonight thinking That Frankie Ann is so ungrateful! Doesn’t she have anything positive to say about her dad? Yes, I do. I really do. Later in this series, as part of The Season of Grieving, we’ll think about and we’ll process The Art of Balancing. In other words, we can admit these truths: I had a loss or trauma to grieve and I did the work of grieving. Part of The Long Good-bye requires me to look honestly at the whole picture, not just the traumas and difficulties I needed to deal with. What positive impacts were there—directly or indirectly? How did this person impact my life in a very Big Picture kind of way? That is The Art of Balancing, where grieving is concerned. It feels better—it feels right—to say good-bye honestly, to both the good and the bad aspects of that person and that relationship—or non-relationship, as the case may be.

I expressed my anger, hurt and disappointment in my anger letter. Later, you’ll read my gratitude letter to my dad. I haven’t written it yet. I’m looking forward to that one. I’m smiling as I think about writing it and what it may include. I’ll probably surprise myself.

Coming next: Next time on Choosing Peace, we’ll come full circle as we replace my dad’s lies and propaganda with truth. I think you’ll like that part. I sure do.

Healing through truth and music
Peaceful Readers, I’ve found great healing in my life through the beauty and truth of God’s word and through music. I hope the truths and songs that I share at the end of each post will bless you too.

Truth from The Word: Galatians 1:10

Song for Healing: “Love Is Here” by Tenth Avenue North

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