How to overcome childhood traumas & troubles: new possibilities for a new year

betty ming liu Inspiration, Relationships 34 Comments

Happy Lunar New Year! Here’s an old photo from the holidays. I remember when Mom took it. We were in a Chinese restaurant. She kept telling me to smile but I refused. How could I, when the fabric of my China Doll was so uncomfortably scratchy? Besides, everyone was watching our little drama — and I just HATED being on display.

Yet here I am, decades later, publicly airing my personal stuff on this blog. While the process is therapeutic, it’s still not enough; hence the weekly visits to blather at the shrink’s. The whole process has my 15-year-old daughter shaking her head.

“You’ve been a grown-up for 30 YEARS and you’re still in therapy talking about your parents!” she said the other day. “It’s not even like they’re here to annoy you anymore. You’re 54 and they’re both dead!”

Ha. You think it’s that easy to get rid of the old folks? Their insanely narrow-minded judgements, the harsh words, the spankings — those scars from their tough love are still very much a part of me.

In recent weeks, there’s been much public discussion about the pros and cons of bad parenting, especially the version advocated by certain Chinese and Asian immigrant parents. We don’t need to rehash that crap here. Instead, what interests me is the new terrain ahead……

Anguished reader comments keep arriving on this blog. Who knew there could be so much emotion invested in our childhood traumas? Or that there was such a need to vent? (Or that so many Asian Americans are in therapy?)

The New Year might be a good time to put the past in perspective. Having these comments from people I’ve never met has suddenly given us the potential for community. I long to hear more. Most commenters only shared their troubles without explaining how they overcame their situations. How did you actually escape with your lives?

My need to flee arose very early. I had a childhood that threw me off-balance. If I look worried in this photo, it was with good reason.

My issues began the minute I could hold a crayon. I did this deed with my left hand. It was an innocent gesture that sent my father on a mission to break me of unacceptable, unlucky behavior.

The message was clear: I just couldn’t do anything right. He yelled whenever he caught me writing with my left hand. The hounding continued until one of my elementary school teachers told him to stop. After that, he settled for making sure that I was a proper righty in my use of scissors, chopsticks and forks.

This was a minor skirmish in our on-going war. As a child and teenager, my struggle to escape was self-destructive. I would flunk classes and eat junk food until my face exploded with pimples.

Thankfully, I discovered therapy in my 30s. At last, a constructive path. There have been some hard choices, like getting divorced. But along the way, I’ve gotten happy too. I’m even recovering my handedness.

Two summers ago, I started oil painting classes and consciously chose to hold the brush in my left hand. These days, I struggle to eat as a lefty too.

I’ve also been on a campaign to explore body movement. In recent years, I’ve fulfilled two dreams by learning to play the drums and dance salsa. Did you know that a drum set is the only Western instrument that requires its player to simultaneously use all four limbs (two arms, two legs), with each extremity doing something different? Salsa is like that too — constant movement with no right- or left-handed dominance.

That’s just one of my stories. I have more. I’ll bet you have a bunch too. Would love to hear how you triumphed over your childhood in matters large and small. This isn’t an Asian thing; our conversation is for everyone. After all, abusing children is an equal opportunity activity among parents.

I’d like to offer this blog post as a safe space to vent. Putting your experiences out there can be very freeing. It is also helpful for the rest of us to hear your story. Let’s see where this goes. We have each other. You are not alone.     :-)

Update on Feb. 8, 10:31 p.m.: I’m really glad you’re all starting to use this page to chat about your lives. Even though I keep wanting to jump in, I’m determined to stay out of the comments section; don’t want to interrupt your flow. But I did want to share an insight I had yesterday at my shrink’s because it completes this post for me…

There were only a few minutes left to the session. I was reflecting on how fulfilled I feel these days. Then my therapist referred to this post (yes, he reads my blog!).  He wanted to know how I feel about my parents now. That’s when I realized that I’m okay with them. Truly. We loved each other! Yes, they were weird and abusive. But I’ve gone on with my life.

So the revelation is that I’m resolved with my folks.  And in the process, they’ve become my muses. After all, they’ve given me tons of material to write about. Isn’t that ironic?  :-)

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Comments 34

  1. bigWOWO

    The good news is that if your daughter is questioning why you need therapy, even in jest, chances are that she herself does not need therapy. This means you succeeded in putting your child before reputation and money and other things some parents chase, and hopefully this means you’ll have a beautiful relationship going forward. Congratulations for that, Betty!

  2. M. Skye Holly

    I really like what bigWOWO said earlier about your daughter’s question as well as what you have brought to her life for her to think that way…kudos for doing something right. Your invitation on that blog is quite freeing. I think I have things to air out here, too, and I like that your blog gives me that space. Plus, it’s free.
    In thinking about what I’ve done, learned or overcome, though, I kind of feel at a loss for words. I feel that I run in circles on some things. I have questions about a father who is deceased that I can not speak to and things to say to a mother who is living but very likely will not listen. I can proudly talk about things I have moved on about regarding relationships, health and social issues. But I guess maybe that might be next week’s blog.
    I was hoping I’d have more to say, but maybe I don’t just yet. I will say that I learned something on last week’s blog from you, Betty, that I could love and honor my parents and still admit (without shame or fear) that they weren’t all that. It doesn’t mean I want to slander them in any way, just be truthful.
    I know that I pray about things and that is a way to cope and not let the issues consume me. That did wonders for my health and I trust it will be a start with the parental stuff.
    Other than that, I feel a little bit stumped about what I can offer to your readers. Maybe after putting into practice what I read last week, I will have a better handle. Maybe later on I may just write to vent a little. But I think this week I will just have to sit back and let you and the readers reach out to me. I hope that is okay with everyone.

    1. Post
      Author
      betty

      thanks, jgregg! i like looking at childhood photos too. looking at them really gets me thinking about my past in a tangible way. i don’t think i could write about this stuff without them. they help me to see me!

      and hey, everyone — i just found a cool feature on my wordpress blog! if you already described your life in an earlier comment somewhere else on this blog and want to build on that material, i can fetch that earlier comment and link it here as reference. helps readers keep track of you. i can even insert the link into your new post. just let me know that you want me to add it.

      so here’s skye’s earlier comment about her parents, where she explains how she feels about them: http://bettymingliu.com/2011/01/forget-amy-chua-bigger-fish-to-stir-fry-4-ways-ive-been-conned-by-confucius/#comment-910

  3. Post
    Author
    betty

    thanks for the vote of confidence regarding my daughter, big WOWO. i do hope that she’s happy. fingers crossed on that. but i actually wouldn’t mind if she did therapy someday. it’s a wonderful experience and a privilege.

    and skye, you don’t have to work that hard to “think of something” to write about. everything you mentioned is a point of victory. but come back here any time, if you want to reflect some more.

    since i teach blogging, i’ve seen first-hand the magic that happens when people write about themselves online or in any other public way. the power of having your words read, of having them out in the world, is tremendously validating.

    so this welcoming space is just out there now, floating….

  4. JGregg

    Outstanding, Betty. I love seeing family photos from one’s childhood. Yours are adorable and classic. That you’re so committed to being real with yourself (and us, your readers and your friends and I’m assuming family are also reading this) and understanding your beginnings to find that center and the perfect tension when rearing your own family is very admirable indeed.

    Another great post.

  5. Mimi Chen

    Hilarious post Betty! I know my problem has been trying to live up to internal expectations culturally cultivated by the rents. That, and the odd feeling if you are not a success you are a failure. I think for me I’ve had to retrain my brain into self-soothing pathways. Meditation helps (dang, I try not to sound so new-agey) but clinically speaking, studies show that not only does meditation lower your blood pressure but it also creates new neural pathways in the brain.

  6. Anonymous

    Dear Madame Betty,

    First of all, excuse my funny English, I’m actually a French speaking 21 yo kid.

    I really hope you see the light about your childhood. and I’d like to congratulate your daughter to ask that question. It’s hard to get rid of those old folks, even (or especially?) when you’re a teenager living in 21st century… so I don’t even think about someone who was educated in the 80’s. I guess our parent left Vietnam in a period, and in their mind, Vietnam/China/Japan/Korea/Asia has remained the same than in the 80’s. When they say: Asian Education, I think they mean education in the 70’s, 80’s in that place. My aunt never spanked her kids, she was surprised, her sister did with my sister and me.

    At 21, age when my friends just go party leaving a sheet telling “Won’t have dinner at home, won’t come back till 5, c ya”, I spend most of my evenings at home, hardly go out, and am really uncomfortable while doing it. I’ve spent 8 years of my childhood in therapy, and 3 psychiatrists “à court de moyens” sent me to their fellow colleagues.

    Yes, Old Asian education is still traumatizing, as my boyfriend and I saw it. He’s now at 25 in total break-up with his family, which is quite sad. I have now a harmonious relationship with my parents, but it cost me lots of tears, lots of chaotic situations, frustration and it’s still not the perfect relationship. I’m still longing to leave home, for a country far enough from my family, and hope to take a master in journalism in HK next year. Far away from my native South-vietnam, and far enough from the place I’m living in right now.

    How did I deal not ending depressed (but still slightly traumatized, I don’t even dare to raise my voice when I strongly disapprove my parents), as some of the doctors foresaw? Just by dialog, some were really painful, and it’s not always the easiest thing to do. So I hope your therapy will succeed, I don’t know if you had the time to talk to your parents. My parents told me it was just not done to talk about your education to your parents at their time, but they took the dialog quite well. I think your daughter would tell me the same: “Why are you that scared when you’re over 18” and some of my friends would add “say f*** off and go out”… Some of them are surprised about my independent lifestyle being totally in contradiction with my behavior to my parents. Though I have a good relation with them now, there is something more than just respect, there is fear.

    Now reading your post, I really wonder what will be my reaction next year, when I’ll be leaving home. Will I become wild, raver, and uncontrollable, to catch up my years of being locked home, forced to work, or will I stay virtually scared of people living 9000 miles away? I wanted to ask you how you managed finding the balance.

    I wish you good luck, and courage for the coming way, and between, happy kitty new year, because in Vietnam, we’re celebrating the year of the cat!

    Take care.

  7. M. Skye Holly

    I was comforted some by reading the post by Anonymous. I related, also, to the words by Mimi about meditation and the studies that support it. I, myself, sort things out through prayer and the times I am not lazy about it, I find a way to see the situation and not let it consume me. I tr y not to change others or situations with my prayers, but get clear on myself and what I might want to change or have been scared to do so.

    I know that I am not obligated to, but I feel like I want to have something to offer to others on this blog. I learn a lot from Betty, of course, and those who post. I’ve been reading some of WOWO’s blog yesterday and it was very interesting. This time tonight, I still don’t have anything to share, but I would like to thank those who post and those who might come out with their feelings on this really delicate topic. I think of what the Anonymous writer wrote about moving away for university and what kind of life might come as a result. I think about the respect and fear that Anonymous compared. For me, growing up, it was fear, definitely. Fear of failing my family in any way. I never bothered to speak out loud that maybe they were failing me. It took me writing an essay, memoir-like, about a year ago that helped me put this in perspective. I wrote it to help me organize thoughts I never said out loud. Instead of trying to analyze my own life, I looked at my sister’s life and the things she suffered in our of family. I realized that those things occurred because she wasn’t cared for the way a child should be and that people needed to take responsibility for their actions as well as lack of action. By admitting that she was wronged, I had to tell myself the truth, that my mother had made mistakes. That adults made mistakes, big ones, and because you always had to respect them, it just seemed that you had to go along and respect whatever they did and not challenge it. This was a lot to go through because it is a complicated situation. But that later opened me up to how I felt about my own particular experience within the family. This was a weird time to see all this because I was trying to deal with coping with my father’s death. But I was coping with something that I didn’t know I would have to cope with. I didn’t know my father. I still don’t. So I didn’t think it would be that hard. But I had a talk with someone just yesterday who said that my grief is no different than someone who had the perfect relationship with a present father or someone who never met their father or someone who had a horrible relationship with their father. Grief is grief. Not knowing my father and the conflicts we had because of that reality is kind of like having someone die twice. They’ve already been dead but you knew they were alive and you have had to live as though they were dead. Then you discover that they died for real (in my case, you watch them die from Alzheimer’s, but you are on the sidelines and know that you will never get the chance to know them) and that they were not dead, actually before. But the pain of them being not present which is like death hits you a second time when they actually die. And you don’t know which death is stronger.

    Well, that was another rant. But the rants in my conversation are actually the subject of a writing project I’m taking on. The same way writing a personal essay helped some things in my head about one parent, my current project will put together who my father is, was, will never be and what he might someday become. I love that Betty’s Princess is so smart…she knows a lot of us should not have the issues we do. But, we do, don’t we? But what I also think comes out of her budding wisdom is that they don’t have to be our lifelong issues. It may take a long time, maybe most of your lifetime, but they can be overcome. How? Million dollar question. But sometimes that question means doing what you have to do to get there. Be willing to be a part of your process.
    I guess I am doing that by writing. I think that is God’s saving grace to me. Also, a whole lotta reading here lately.

    Coincidentally, on Christmas Day 2009, I turned to this blog after my father died. I went to my room and cried, not knowing what that meant. Then I prayed. I was left with a feeling that there was a way through this. Without sounding kooky, I felt like I was being guided, like God would let me know people have been there before. I turned on the laptop and went straight to Betty’s blog. I reaaaally thought she would understand, based on her blogs about her parents. I read them over and over that night. She understands. And I read a lot of what everyone else writes and I feel they understand, For Anonymous, I think you are gathering your bravery, too, little by little. You started just by confronting your parents. Maybe writing could be a way to confront yourself. Happy Kitty New Year to you all…

  8. Enna

    Not dealing with it at all. Am complete ostrich! How do you deal with a mother you continually shouts and criticises you in front of your children? I feel guilty if I stay away as they are now old and love having my children around but can’t help griping about me not doing enough to ensure the straight A’s. Yes, mum did spend a lot of effort and money trying to ensure that her most useless daughter did well in school to the extent that my sis complained of neglect! Well, she managed to get all the straight As by herself….Don’t believe in therapy. Spent many years of my life doing a course and even getting a masters in a field I wasn’t all that interested in to upkeep family face. No amount of therapy can bring back all the years wasted. Am only working part-time now. Hate my job!

    And the paying back the debt thing… I gave all of my first salary to my mum and continually gave her a couple of hundred every month till I stopped working full time. We just take them out for meals now and then. My siblings don’t give them a monthly allowance either. Just a couple of thousand each time year. I think they are now disappointed as my mother keeps telling me about her friends’ kids who buy their parents houses, cars, pay for their holidays etc.

    I am curious. How many Asian children still upkeep the tradition, especially if their parents are more well off then them?

  9. Lakshmi

    Betty, you’re awesome! Thanks for the invitation to safe space and to a community of people who have been through similar issues. It means a lot. I’ve always wonder where the other (in my case) Indian losers are? Are we (meaning me and my brother and sister….see, I’m the eldest and so am responsible for all of our failure…..the folks had nothing to do with that.) the only ones in the entire world??? I still (and I’m going to be 40 this year) hear constantly about how EVERYONE else’s kids are sending their parents on cruises and are buying million dollar mansions and Mercedes SUV’s, and are going to India twice a year (now that one hurts because I actually LOVE going to India from the very depth of my soul and haven’t been back in 8 years).

    The funny thing is I tried to run away from my parents….I spent all of my 20’s away from them, living my own life and kinda messing it up, but also really getting to explore myself (I too took salsa lessons! and did spoken word, and improv and started painting and attending dream circles and sunrise ceremonies on Alcatraz). But at the same time, I really couldn’t get away from them either. I married a guy who totally abused me and controlled me with (surprise surprise!) GUILT on a daily basis. I dropped out of grad school, partially because of burnout, but partly because I couldn’t handle the emotional tornado of my life.

    Now the funny part is, I escaped the guy, but ended up back in my parents neighborhood! Long story. This part I consider karma…..I’ve been back here in a place that I never ever though I would return to because I hated it. Not only because of being drawn back into my parents community but also because of the place and the lack of diversity, which I find utterly stifling. I struggle with it every day. But I’ve grudgingly realized that I’m here for a reason…and it is to reconcile with my parents. I still fight with my mom (who babysits for my kids for free, so I’m being the most utterly ungrateful American daughter) every time I talk to her. This is my dirty little secret. Because I’m a yoga teacher! (ha!) I try so hard to tell myself “be nice, be nice, be nice. Practice love, compassion, letting go” but I end up being this sullen, sulky teenage bitch every single f’ing time! The funny thing is that I”m really not that mad at them anymore. I kind of see them as the victims of a broader community dynamic. The community (if you can even call it that) has become the enemy now. I hate them and their prestige whoring (loved that term, Betty!). My parents have totally lost face because of their kids utter lack of material success and so my father has become a total recluse and my mother is just depressed and a little crazy. And unfortunately, that is an even bigger burden for me to bear than feeling like they don’t love me.

    Ok, sorry for the autobiography here! On another note though…my best friend in high school was Korean…valecdictorian, captain of the debate team, newspaper editor, tennis champ, piano player, my spelling bee rival, math team wiz, etc, etc. I loved her so much I even fantasized about kissing her a couple of times! We kept in touch through college (she went to Harvard, of course.) Then when I had just started grad school at Berkeley, she came and met me after spending 2 years on a fulbright in Korea…she had just deferred her Harvard Law admission for the 2nd year and was really depressed because she just didn’t want to go, but her parents were pressuring her. I tried really hard to convince her not to go and to figure out what she wants to do. But in the end, she decided to go. I was disappointed and she got really upset with me for not supporting her decision. We totally lost touch after that. I’ve tried so many times to find her since then in vain. Suddenly when I read about the suicide rate amongst Asian American women in one of the other posts, my heart dropped. Tae-Hui….find me!! I’ve always though of you as my Harold!!

  10. Fran

    Betty,
    It’s comforting to hear that I’m not alone. It’s not that I’d wish my struggles and pain on anyone, but hearing how others have coped and overcome a difficult childhood helps me continue to heal and grow. Yay for therapy! I suggest it for everyone.
    I’m Chinese American too, and grew up in an environment very similar to yours. I never talked about these issues with anyone other than my family and my therapist. It’s funny that you mentioned the left handedness thing. I’ve always believed that I should be left handed. I do many things better as a lefty, and I’ve always wondered if I was scolded as a child for using my left hand, and being the obedient person I was, I would have switched to being a righty. It would explain a lot.
    As a teenager, with all of the pressure and expectations of my parents and older siblings, I had little control over my life. I was told what I could and couldn’t wear, what I should and shouldn’t eat, and when I should eat. There was no refusing food, even if I wasn’t hungry. And, when I started getting a bit plump, I was told that I was fat. All 115 pounds of me. So, I found one area that I could control. I decided I was going to control food intake. After many years of therapy as an adult, I’m in a much better place in every aspect of my life. I’m in a terrific relationship with a wonderful man. I have healthier relationships with friends and family. I’ve learned to accept my parents for who they are, and I realize they didn’t know any other way to raise kids.
    I love your blog! Your writings are interesting, inspiring, funny, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  11. Anonymous

    Good evening, here’s the 21y.o anonymous!
    I just wonder why there’s such a big issue being lefty. I’m lefty too, and my parents fought to correct me. As my father who suffered to be corrected, it was normal, to my mom to make me a right-handed “because lefties write badly and are clumsy”: I draw a lot, am not clumsy at all, and all my friends take my course notes, because they are “easy to read and clear”… where’s the problem? really? did Confucius write anything about this? I still wonder.

    an old vietnamese man was boasting about correcting his grandson, when I told him it was bad for the brain, his face got green and white…

    Fran is right when she says that our parents don’t know any other way to raise up children. actually, I still feel guilty to complain about them, they really did their best… yes, guilt, another feeling from asian education. And I guess I’m lucky, because though I’ve been spanked badly during my childhood, my mom was given really good thrashings… Well, it’s always in comparison. But as my dad said: never compare to the worse. I guess this works for spanking too.

    I was 8 year in children therapy. The only thing I understood is: no one’s going to save you, you have to save yourself.

    I wonder if you, adults, still have issues with self-confidence. Mine are terrible. I don’t trust myself at all. when I buy something, I always wonder if I’m going to be scolded, even if my parents behavior changed a lot, they can’t help having an opinion on everything I do, and as I grew up parents-consideration whoring, it’s quite annoying…

  12. Jane Chin

    I can’t believe it Betty, YOU TOO?

    When I was 35 my husband and I visited my parents in Taiwan and we went to visit a relative. We were all having tea and my uncle noticed that my husband is left handed. Then my mother said casually to me, “oh you were left-handed too, I had to correct you on that.”

    I almost fell off the chair.

    I had NO idea… NO memory that I was ever left handed. I thought I was right handed all my life. From then on, I filed that away as “yet another way I was hurt”. Many years later during a visit I hounded my mother about the details of my apparent “change of handedness”. She said that whenever I’d pick up a pencil with my left hand, she would smack it until I started with my right hand. But then she said, “During that time period in Taiwan, being a left handed person was seen as a defect, and you would be viewed as an outcast or having something wrong with you. I didn’t want you to suffer those consequences.”

    It made me understand a bit of where she was coming from.

    Hm… I think I’m going to expand on this memory for my book! Thanks for the inspiration, Betty!

    1. Post
      Author
      betty

      the funny thing is, a few years ago, i told my story to a high school student. his was chinese and his parents were immigrants from china. this teenager was baffled by my tale because he said that his parents would’ve loved it if he was lefty because it would show that he’s smart! apparently, the old stigmas don’t exist anymore. that was really good for me to hear.

  13. Post
    Author
    betty

    oh, and i want to add something for jane… she’s a blogger on mental health issues. we need you now more than ever, jane! check out her website: http://chinspirations.com/mhsourcepage/

    jane, i can’t wait for you to write more about this lefty business. being forced into right-handed is super-traumatic. i’ve spoken to other people who’ve been forced — you’d be surprised how many of them are NOT asian.

    a few years back, i sat down with two women, both white. both white, both forced to become righties. we had the most remarkable conversation. all three of us had the same problems with driving directions. we all felt plagued by self-doubt and a need to constantly second-guess our decisions (i wonder why…).

    and we all found ways to compensate, to get our handedness back. i got into dancing and drumming. one of the women became a champion skier (no left- or right-handedness to that sport). the other woman is a dental assistant — her job is to hand dental tools to her boss. because of where she sits relative to him while he’s working on patients, she gives him this items WITH HER LEFT HAND.

  14. Pingback: Forget Amy Chua. Bigger fish to stir-fry: 4 ways I’ve been conned by Confucius.

  15. Cornelia H. McNeal

    Some of my best lessons about past traumas/hurts/disappointments have come from my older sister, Ann, who is relentlessly brave about developing new sources of strength and self-reliance. Her motto? “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change how you feel about it.” She’s kind of the poster child in this regard ( (see more here – http://tinyurl.com/4ho3ueg ).
    Certainly that philosophy doesn’t work in every instance, but where we have choices about how to handle past pain, I find it immensely helpful.

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