I was forty before I could finally ask my mother about her constant criticism of me growing up. We were alone together, in the car, driving out of town. I had her undivided attention.
“Help me to understand, something,” I prefaced the conversation. “When I was young, you always told me no one would ever love me. What was that about?”
“I didn’t say it to be mean,” she explained and I believed her. My mother was not typically a malicious person. “It’s just that you were so different from your sisters, and I was afraid for you. I thought I was helping you by preparing you for the inevitable.”
“But why, Mom? What was it about me that you thought was unloveable?”
“You were just so smart, and independent minded……” she trailed off. “I guess I thought that men don’t like smart women.”
“Do you understand that I heard what you said to mean that I was impossible to love?”
“Oh my God, that is not what I intended at all! Of course you are loveable. You are compassionate and kind, and you deserve to be loved. I thought I was preparing you, that’s all. You were just so different, and I thought I had to protect you. I never meant for you to think you weren’t loveable.”
She paused in reflection.
“When the school came to us and told us they had done some testing and wanted to send you to a special school for the gifted, I was scared. I didn’t know how to handle it. Your father was all for it, but all I could think about was how would you fit in, and who would ever love you. I guess I thought I was helping. You were an enigma to me.”
Mother’s criticism of me was born out of fear and ignorance; my acceptance of her harsh words was a reflection of my need for her approval.
I understood. Within the context of my mother’s upbringing and beliefs, I did not fit the mold. She was merely expressing fear related to her own limitations. Unfortunately, for the first forty years of my life, I lived out my mother’s legacy, choosing partners who were incapable of loving me.
My mother was not the only one to be critical of my intellectual abilities. “Everyone hated you,” a drunken cousin once confessed to me, then added, “but I don’t know why – you’re so nice.” Classmates called me Browner, implying that I only got good grades because I ‘kissed up’ to the teachers. Even close friends have commented that I’m not really that smart.
By listening to the criticism, I began to devalue myself. Driven by a need to be accepted, I started to act dumb. Better to deny self than to be criticized, right?
Embracing criticism and taking it to heart is ultimately a sin against the self. We are each uniquely created, and destined, and it is only through accepting our differences, and nurturing them, that we can truly be fulfilled.
Rejecting criticism is the first step to living authentically, and the only hope for living purposefully and to full potential.
Armed with this new understanding, I will stop apologizing for who I am. I will let go of the need for praise from others, and recognize that their criticism is more about their process than mine, and let it be. I will celebrate who I am by committing to my own process, and focusing on my goals and gifts.
I will finally start living.