Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Confessions of a (Mostly) Reformed Yeller Part 2 of 7

Part 2: We need to understand where we've come from, and what the behaviour is truly about.

We Need To Understand Where We've Come From
his step, I think, can be very misunderstood. I believe there is a time in everyone's parenting life when we have to really look closely at how we were parented. We reject some of the practices and ideals with which we were raised; we accept and choose to implement some of the practices and ideals with which we were raised. Reading this makes it sound so objective and straightforward, but this step is often fraught with much heartache and grieving and release.

The point of looking backwards is not to cast and assign blame, neither is it to get mired in the past. At least one person I know is very reluctant to examine the past, feeling like it is a waste of time, that the present is all that matters. But I firmly believe, with all of my being that if we do not understand our past we can never be truly free from it and actually move to living in the present. If we leave wounds and scars festering and unhealed, we drag them into everything we do in the present.
If we don't go back to make sense of our past, and understand how it has affected us, we can never move forward. We will always be bound by it and remain unable to enact lasting changes in our lives.

For me, this part of this step took a long, long time. After we moved to Georgia, we were so broke I often didn't have gas money to do anything more than go to the grocery store each week. For the first time in my life, I was forced to stay put. I had no friends. I spent a lot of time alone. It was so, so, so hard for me. In retrospect it was also very critical for me to have that forced isolation and lack of distraction. In this desert experience I began to really reflect on my past, beginning to understand how I had ended up where I was.

To say this was easy would be a complete and utter lie. It crushed me. It was additionally difficult to begin to understand some of the parts of my upbringing which I saw were very hurtful, while at the same time watching myself repeat some of those same patterns. That dissonance of a growing awareness of how much it has wounded me, but in turn creating the same kind of environment for my children really broke me.

During this time I realised that I always felt like I had to hustle for love. I believed that if I did, said, and performed all the right ways then people might love me. But in cruel irony, if I did start to feel loved by them I would shut it down, fearful that I would eventually no longer perform as I was supposed to and they'd realise how unlovable I was. Rather than risk the hurt of rejection, I would just flee.

I also realised how much my childhood involved walking on eggshells. There was a lack of clearly defined boundaries in all areas of our life. Something which might be okay one day, would meet with punishment the next day. Everything was dependent upon the emotional state of the adults. During this time of reflection, I came to understand how living like this was a constant source of stress and fear. I also realised that this is exactly what is was like for my children living in my home.

Over the next several years I would learn a lot. I really struggled to research and understand dysfunctional relationships. I read and read and researched and read. I needed to dissect it all so that I could make sense of it and understand just how it all was related to the behaviour I was having here in the present.

We Need To Understand What The Behaviour Is Truly About

This part of this second step is the whole purpose for delving into our past in the first place. I also think that it is a very, very scary part of the process, because we have to tap into feelings which are dark and deep. It is not just enough to stop after looking back at how we grew up and the major events which shaped who we are, if we want to enact change and rid our lives of a behaviour we don't want. We have to understand the why of the behaviour, so that we can begin to address the root cause. All behaviours, even negative ones, serve a purpose in our lives. In this case, if we can figure out what purpose yelling serves, what it does for us-then we can begin to make different choices to meet the same ends.

I think often people fail to enact lasting change in their lives because they skip this step. They simply try to change the symptoms. While that can work and be effective for the short term, in times of high stress or difficulty they end up falling back into old behaviour patterns. This is most definitely true for me over many years in regards to being a Yeller. I honestly believe that this step was one of the crucial ones I was skipping over, which kept me mired in the place where I knew without a doubt what kind of mom I did NOT want to be, but unable to consistently be the kind of mom I DID want to be.

I remember specifically a real breakthrough moment for me. I was sitting on the floor in the kitchen ranting and raving about the house being a disaster and reorganizing the tupperware which had been strewn about, and cleaning six other things at the same time in a frenzy. And this lightbulb went on in my head: "You feel like things are out of control, you feel powerless and so you are being the Whirling Screaming Dervish of Clean to impose control and a feeling of power."

And with that came a flood of new understanding. Not having a sense of control or power was one of the predominant characteristics of my life. As a child, there was the eggshell environment, as well as having things like chores re-done by someone else because they weren't done well enough, not just my bedroom needing to be clean, but even the drawers inside my desk, there was no sense of privacy. We moved when I was 11 and that was a huge blow, whhich left me feeling completely powerless over my life.

My reaction to those things was to seek ways to impose a feeling and sense of power and control. I would lie about where I was going or where I'd been-not because what I was doing (at that point) was in any way 'bad', but just simply to impose a sense of reclaiming power over my life. I would just refuse to do homework, again just to impose a sense of control.

When I was 14, just a few weeks shy of 15, I went to a party. There, while I was intoxicated, I was raped by two men. Though it would take me almost ten years to say and understand, "I was raped the first time I had sex", this rape was like the death knell for any hope of me developing any sort of deep sense of feeling safe and in a position of control. Even the very essence of my personhood wasn't safe from someone else exerting their will and dominance over. Once again, my behaviour pattern emerged as one which was negative, but served the positive (though misplaced)purpose of imposing a feeling of power, control and safety. For the next 4 years or so I was very promiscuous. I didn't understand this then, but it was an attempt to be the one in control of sex, to be in a position of power in regards to my body--sort of an attempt to rewrite the wrong which had been done. That rape really set into motion some very destructive behaviour patterns which simultaneously helped me feel some sort of control or power, as well as would reinforce the fundamental idea that I was worthless and unlovable. I needed all relationships to serve those two fundamental aspects. If I began to feel loved, I bailed. If I began to have to relinquish some position of power, I bailed.

Sitting on the floor in the kitchen that day, it all suddenly made so,so much sense why I was yelling and what that yelling was truly about. The first three babies we had were all very high need, but all in different ways. None of them slept well. I had no control over something as fundamental as my sleeping or bathing habits. I was living in a place I didn't want to be, in a house I didn't want to be in, with a man who didn't really like me, with no money and really no way to change any of these externals. So yelling at my kids was like so many other destructive behaviours before; it served the purpose of trying to impose a sense of control, power and safety.

I truly believe now, that all habitual yelling comes precisely from these same motivations. The particulars of why an individual feels powerless, out of control and unsafe vary widely; however, I think that it all stems from these same three basic principles.

Once I understood where my yelling was coming from, I was finally in a position to actually do something about it in a permanent way, because I could now address the root causes, instead of just the incidental triggers.


  1. Oh, Shannon. This post really resonates with me. I'm not a yeller, but I also have felt that I have to "hustle for love" as you put it. Heck, my mother was pretty up-front about it. She told me frequently that people would only want me around if I needed nothing. So for me, the performance was that I was strong and self-sufficient. I guess that's why it hurts me and makes me angry when people comment about how strong they think I am.

    So anyway, keep writing. I'll keep reading!

  2. To be fair, that term is sort of borrowed from Brene Brown who writes about a "hustle for worthiness". If you haven't read her book The Gifts of Imperfection, I highly recommend it!

    Here's a link to her blog:


    And, Lisa,n great, big GIANT hugs!!!

  3. You're the second person to recommend Brene Brown to me in two weeks. I guess that's a sign!

  4. LOL! I love when that happens. It helps me get off my butt and read or watch or listen to or do whatever it is which keeps coming up in my life or discussions all around me.

    I often really need that extra push.

  5. Shannon, I appreciate your sharing. I had an unfortuante similar experience at about the same age causing the same sort of reactions from my teenage self. Your honesty and self reflection encourages me to continue to work on my own issues. I hope your day is blessed by warm smiles, loving hugs, and sleeping baby.

  6. O Shannon,thank you so much. My mother cleaned and arranged all of my things even though she gave me chores and I did them. Because I shared a room with a much older sister, I didn't even have my belongings in my own room, so I lied for a sense of power and privacy as well. And like another poster commented, I was told I needed to be strong and self-sufficient in order to be loved. And that has caused me such grief. Thank you for this. This is really helping me understand why I yell, and while I do not yell at my baby, I take it all out on my husband in front of my baby. Continuing to work on myself...Huge hugs to you. I had very close friends in high school that had similar experiences as you and it broke my heart to watch them bury their hurt and not know how to help.

  7. I see so much of my own life experience in this post. This has helped me so much. I look forward to the rest of the posts in this series!

  8. I just want to say to all of you, thank you for sharing your stories with me. Each time you share your story with me, it helps me to feel less isolated in my own struggle. It reminds me that I am not alone and that gives me courage to keep working and fighting to be who I know I want to be!

    And I wish this computer wasn't in the way so I could give each of you a big, warm hug!