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?  :-)

Comments 34

  1. Pingback: How to live the life you want

  2. Hi Betty,

    Thank you for your post – I am new to the blog, and am grateful for your honesty about some tough issues. I am also 21, a university student, and even as I type this I feel worry that word of this might somehow get back to my parents. I love them very much, but we have had a tumultuous relationship. They fought a lot as I was growing up, and several times I was caught in the middle, suspected of taking one side over another. Then, when it came time for university, I experienced a lot of pressure from them to study a major that I really did not wish to study, and for the two years that I spent in the program I felt a lot of guilt at not being able to change myself to enjoy what I was studying – I had been holding onto the idea that I should be able to master myself wholly (but learned through that experience that there are some parts of the self that cannot be molded, and remembering Shakespeare’s words “To thine own self be true” was what saved me). Fortunately I was able to transfer to a different major, and now feel much more emotionally whole – I am no longer at war with myself, and by getting work experience in my chosen field last year, I have been able to earn some respect from my parents in showing them that I can be successful in this new path that I’ve chosen.

    As I prepare to visit them this Christmas, I am also feeling some trepidation. On one hand, they have shaped who I am: after watching them fight year after year, I’ve learned to be more patient and to take things in life with more forebearance. After arguing with them countless times about what sort of career I would like to devote myself to, I’ve been able to clarify my own values and hold fast to them. I have been described as kind and thoughtful by my friends and teachers and I think it is because of the hardships that I have gone through with my parents that have made me so, and given me whatever depth of character I possess. What I hope for the future now is that they will accept me for who I am – that my temperament and interests are different from what they may have wished for in a child – and that I can also accept them back without the feelings of fear and resentment that I used to, and still do, feel.

    I apologize for the rambly nature of my reply. I am very grateful that you’ve opened up this conversation, and given me a voice. In truth, I had been worrying about this for some time now, and even after writing this comment, I feel much better.

    Thank you so much.

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      anon, i’m so glad you stopped by to comment here. rambly is good! and now you have the experience of pouring your heart out in a place where it will be read and valued. and i totally relate to your fear that somehow your parents will discover your comment here. hey, my parents are dead and i still find myself worrying about what they would think of the things that i do. they trained us well to be responsive to them, didn’t they? haha….

      on that note, i am sending good wishes your way for the christmas holiday. holding on to yourself means you’ll have to be really strong! and they might not ever give you the support that you need. or it might take a long time for them to come around. but be true to yourself!

      btw, are you familiar with “asian american dreams?” it’s a book by my dear friend helen zia. in addition to her great reporting on the history of the asia-am community, she writes about her own upbringing. there’s a story she mentions when she goes on the lecture circuit. of course, today she’s known as a journalist, asian american activist and gay activist. but when she was a high school senior, she secretly applied to princeton university.

      the school accepted her, gave her a scholarship — and she should have instantly been on her way to being one of the first class of women to attend princeton. but one problem: the school needed her father to sign the papers. this led to a huge fight. her dad, who was highly educated in china, told her she had to stay home until she got married and couldn’t go away to college!

      the audience always laughs at this one because up until just recently, gays couldn’t marry at all. if she listened to her dad, she would have lost her life. but instead, she yelled back at him for the first time ever — and he backed off. he signed the papers. helen says that until that moment, she never knew that she could talk back at him.

      so — i’m excited about this next step in your journey. whatever happens, you’re going into it with your eyes and heart wide open!

  3. OMG, I remember when my father tried to make one of my relatives use her right hand when she was left handed. It wasn’t even his own daughter or grandchild. I had to tell the bastard off. Sometimes I wish I has been born gay and brought home a bloke just to piss him off (but I like girls too much).

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  4. As for the daughter comments. She is both right and wrong I guess. I know I should try to move on but as this stage, childhood issues still linger. It’s difficult to erase. I try not to mention it during conversations with people unless the topic comes up. People get bored and annoyed of one when the same topic in conversation turns up over and over again. You become a pot hole on the road and everyone avoids you. They say bad luck is contagious and it’s damn true. If you keep on thinking of it, it consumes you and u turn into your worst enemy.

    The air of disapproval will always be around when you are chronically exposed to it all your life. When ever I find myself angry, my mind seems to wander back to my father screaming and yelling. Only now after trying to self moderate myself have I started to learn to cope with it. I’m trying to lock my anger away in a safe knowing it is always there but not let it out but it’s hard. Mindfulness helps, keeping the mind here and now and focusing on the present. But there is more to it than that.

    Anger keeps one alive sometimes, it’s probably the wrong use of it but it seems to be the most constructive. I use it to get throught the day, keep it hidden as much as possible but keep it as a driving force to get out of the rut. It never seems to go away.

  5. Thanks very much for emailing me and for replying to my comment. After I found your blog, I decided to subscribe to it through Google Reader… I check your blog when I can, because I really admire how you lead your life. Many adults who I have met seem world-weary and resigned to the course of their life, but from your blog it seems that you are open to change and to learning at any age. I also really respect your writings about your parents… it must take a lot of courage to examine that while still feeling love for them.

    Thanks also for your recommendation of Helen Zia – I will remember it. Recently I took out a couple of books by Judy Fong Bates. She is a Canadian author, originally from Hong Kong, who writes about facets of the Chinese immigrants’ experience – the Chinese laundry kids and the families behind the Chinese “grease spoons” in every town. The relationships of the children with their parents in her books are different in that they are more concerned with children who feel conflicted about fulfilling their sense of duty to the older generation and with the desire to strike it out on their own in a new land… but while reading it, I recognized aspects of her story as things I’d also seen. In the foreword, another Chinese-Canadian author, Wayson Choi, wrote that the book was an important contribution to our understanding of human experience, and that immigrant writers should not be afraid to add their voice to broaden our knowledge of how certain lives have been lived… I guess when I read that, I felt a lot better about my past, as it is also just another way in which a life has been lived…

    Happy new year to you too!

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      anon, thanks for keeping me on your google reader! and honey, i am doing my best to make my life my own. never give up — even though i’m in my 50s, i am having a really wonderful time. thanks too for sharing about these canadian-chinese writers. they’re names are new to me. we have a lot of stories to tell. it’s important to get them out there!

  6. I met a woman when I was serving in England who was forced to write with her right hand. The result was that she was unable to write with either hand. Some people are wired differently. She finally learned to write again through learning calligraphy. I haven’t seen statistics on it but it seems that more women are left-handed than right. I also believe that is is more common for artistes to be left-handed, which would make since under the right-brain /left-brain science they have discovered. My youngest brother may be left-handed too. I don’t know. He is a professional artist so he may be. (He is the chief designer for DC shoes)
    I really never had any trouble with my parents. They are both alive and live close. Whenever i had problems in school my dad would always go to bat for me. He could look really mean when he was mad because he has a scar above his eye from playing football in baseball shoes and getting stepped on.
    There is 13 years different between my younger sister and my younger brother. My dad said that raising my brother was a lot easier than the three of us older kids. My dad said this was because they had already learned a lot and could afford to spoil him with out worrying. I guess that is one thing you should learn about raising kids or think back about your parents: CHILDREN DON’T COME WITH INSTRUCTION MANUALS.
    My younger brother got strait A’s until he got into High School. It was then that he lost interest in school. There is a reason for this which those who have children with Artisan type temperaments. The problem is that there is an under representation of both Intuitive-thinking types and Artisans in our schools and an over representation of other temperament types. Artisans are the LEAST represented in the schools. So what happens is that when kids get to High School they figure out “Hey no one in this school THINKS like I do”. this is what causes them to have troubles.
    Pygmalion Projects are doomed to failure. It is not right to try and change someones temperament. We all learn differently. Repetition and drill only works for one type of person. The fact that this group is over represented in our schools is part of the problem. Others learn better by understanding the underlying principals. Others learn by doing projects or by making a game of it. A talented (and rare) teacher is one who is able to understand each child’s learning style and help them to learn.
    Children come with their own personalities. I would have thought that Chinese people, with their belief in reincarnation, would recognize this. That is why I find Betty’s story odd. In my own religion there is a belief in the per-existence of man, so I see the notion that a child is born with a personality to be a mere extension of that idea. If not they soon develop their own personality.
    That’s my take on it.

  7. First of all, excuse my poor English…

    Thank you for bringing up this issue, & i was relieved to read comments from your readers here.

    Actually I am so thankful to my parents who bring me to the world & raised me till I can live healthily & wealthily, but they never understand me as ME , nor lavish me with love. As long as I remembered, ‘love’ is defined as obey everything according to their standards and regulations. If and only if I wanted to be care of , or be loved, I must be a ‘good’ daughter.

    My hubby also trapped with the very same problem…. When we got our first & 2nd child, our parents still treat us like small kids , and at the same time we were struggling to live. As Asians, we also have to provide for our parents & siblings too.. At that time , I was so stressful and I don’t have the time to learn parenting skills, I raised my child just like how our parents raised us…….

    Recently, my life is so topsy turvy, and I am also very depressed , I don’t know what to do, and how to fix my life.

    Many thanks to you bringing up sensitive issues for Asians, at least I’m a bit relieved reading thru commments here. Most of the time I was living in guilt to feel like this, and that feeling actually adding burden to my already confused mind. Sometimes I feel like going far far away from here, away from my parents, in laws & home, so that I can truly enjoy my very own life……

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      Haira, it’s very brave of you to stop by AND leave a comment. Please, no worries about your English. What’s important is that you’re articulating how you feel. And if you’re depressed, get yourself some help, girl! Here’s the link to my post about finding a shrink:

      Keep looking. It might take a while. But there’s someone out there who can help you. In the meantime, feel free to use this post as a place to share your feelings. We’re here for you. Big hug. :)

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      Haira, your English is fine! What’s important is that you’re being brave in expressing yourself. Even if your parents didn’t give to you, now is your chance to get for yourself. Here’s the link to my post about finding a good shrink:

      It can take a while to find someone you trust and can relate to. But don’t give up. And in the meantime, this post is here for you. Come back and write as much as you want, as often as you want. There’s something powerful in articulating our feelings and putting them out there. I’m rooting for you. Big hug. :)

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      Haira, your English is just fine. What’s important is that you’re expressing yourself. Get those feelings out there! And I swear by therapy. Here’s a link to my post to finding a shrink. It might take you a while, but the effort will be worth it. Therapy has transformed my life. Maybe at some point, you and your husband could even do couples therapy. Imagine what that would do for giving you both the love you crave!

      And please feel free to stop by anytime to share your feelings here. This post is for you. Comment on this one as often as you like. And hope you’ll visit some of my other posts too. There’s a lot of material for us to explore!

  8. Betty,
    Thanks for the opportunity to share. I’ll be brief. Here I am at age 47 still healing childhood wounds. I recently wrote a letter to my mom (Dad is dead) about our family and how I felt growing up in a house filled with abuse. My hope was to start an honest conversation with her, but instead, I’m afraid I may have created an uncrossable rift. Estrangement was not my intent, but it has been three weeks since any words, and I have resigned myself to the fact that I may have unintentionally ended what little connection my mom and I had left. I have one sibling, an older brother, who due to a dual diagnosis of substance abuse and shizophrenia, can no longer talk about our shared history. But your blog is helpful. It does inspire me. Thank you.

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      Faith, thanks for stopping by. I don’t think you’re doing yourself justice by guessing at your mom’s reaction. There’s no way to know what she’s feeling. But you DO have power over your own choices. And seen in that light, you were very brave to write to your mom. That was your honest conversation. Congratulatons on speaking up. You are moving on, which means you are ready for more love in the present and future. :)

  9. A few hours ago I had a very heated conversation with my father, replete with character attacks and statements about what’s wrong with me. I began to wonder if I should cut my parents out of my life again.

    But after stumbling through your blog, I am reminded that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And since I’ve begun speaking to my parents a few years ago, we are improving – even though we stumble from time to time.

    It is also a reminder that therapy may be a long-term thing for me to get rid of their constant criticism and bashing – whether it’s directly from them or in my head.

    Thank you for helping me see both. Thank you for your blog, and thank you for YOU!

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      DanceItOut, I’m so glad you stopped by to share your story. Feel free to drop by and comment on this post — or any post — as often as you want.

      Therapy has done wonders for me. I highly recommend it. Funny….I read your comment right after having dinner with an old friend who is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. We are the same age and so happy in our lives. But once she started talking about her 88-year-old father, her whole face and attitude changed.

      She might be nearly 60, but his criticisms still cut her. Deeply. And since she’s still alive, he still tries to boss her around. I suggested that she finally get herself some therapy too! Time to find new ways and new perspectives — so that we can be truly happy.

      Thank you again for giving me a lift. :)

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