Breaking the Cycle: Parenting After Being Raised in Hell

By Christine Cissy White 08/25/14

It is radical work to self-accept rather than self-hate.


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The only abuser left in your life,” a yoga therapist said to me once, “is you.”

When I talked about what a lazy, gruesome idiot I was another therapist would say, “Your self hears you.” She would look at me and wince at the way I was slicing and dicing myself on my own dime.

I didn’t even notice I was judging or insulting myself up until that point because I had no idea how others spoke to themselves. Quoting Swami Kripalu she would say:

My beloved child, break your heart no longer. Every time you judge yourself you break your own heart.

I was in therapy to heal from post-traumatic stress disorder from years of childhood physical and sexual abuse, chronic chaos and neglect – or what is now called developmental trauma. I was suspicious of the soft-speaking and kind-eyed therapists saying, “Give yourself some credit” or “be gentle with yourself.” Hearing their words I’d think: “you obviously grew up rich with intact family because that self-love [email protected]#t don’t fly where I come from.” Self-compassion sounded like whiny people making excuses for themselves. I had no idea how compassion for myself would help anyone or anything.

Until I became a mother. As a mother, I knew I did not want my daughter to talk to herself or anyone else the way I talked to myself. Ever. If I knew it was not how I wanted to parent, why did I talk to myself in this tone? I realized my own habits were just familiar and not ways of choice or merit. It took becoming a mother and stepping out of the role of child for me to truly challenge the way I spoke with myself. As a mother, I want my daughter to know that her face at my door, day or night, happy or sad, is welcome and that I’m accessible even if I’m tired or busy. I want her to know my words of reassurance are more than blah-blah-blah but something she feels deeply in her being and can trust.

I had no such sanctuary. My mother was 16 when she got pregnant. By the time she turned 21, she had three kids, two abusive husbands and had radiation treatment and a hysterectomy because of cervical cancer. And, she was the sole breadwinner. I am from tough, scrappy and take-care-of-business stock. But I have realized I was injured as much by the absence of secure attachment, protection and attunement as I was by the presence of violence, addiction and chaos.

To be present for my daughter and myself I have to learn to slow down and this is near impossible until I let go of the compulsive need to be busy and productive. Also, I must stop ignoring my internal experiences. I want better for my daughter. How can I make sure she feels safe and vulnerable at the same time so she can let the world in as she’s growing? Can I teach her to do something I resist doing? Can I provide for her what I won’t do for myself? I want her to be available to herself, to know how to listen to herself and respond to her body as well as to care for others. But it was something I didn’t do well.

Becoming a mother makes the work of self-compassion real. I need to keep improving my relationship with myself. I practice slowing down and speaking to myself in neutral if not loving tones. Learning to be more curious and less fearful, more accepting and less judging, more flexible and less rigid is not easy or fast. Often, I put the “welcome mat” outside my heart and invite myself to take a walk within. Sometimes I run right back out. Sometimes both my heart and the door slam shut. But I know it will open again. I sit and I wait and I practice.

Whenever I stay with myself instead of running I always feel softer and more tender, less stretched and strained and burdened. This makes me more available to myself and to my daughter. I am learning not to shame my adult self for not being “over it” yet and learning to welcome whatever arises in my heart. Nothing I do will ever change my past or change the people I love who have hurt me. I don’t need to relive or remember the abuse or abusers to feel for the young girl I once was.

To survive, as a child, I learned the opposite of mindfulness and self-compassion. My heart was a bone I buried in the yard. In a pack of hungry canines, hiding it so it wouldn’t be chewed up or stolen was wise. Dusting it off and relocating the bony heart is my recovery work after developmental trauma and neglect. The past can never be changed and I’m at peace with that. But as a mother, I know this present is the past my daughter will lean on in the future. Breaking the cycle includes the manner in which I relate to myself. It is radical work to self-accept rather than self-hate. Will I attend to myself or berate myself instead? Do I encourage or shame myself when discouraged? Can I stay in my body rather going all up in my head when I’m afraid? These are my choice points. I refuse to be cruel to or abandon my own self.

But remembering this is not easy. I forget all of the time. I shut down and eat too much or can’t sit still. Yet, I can use the lavender drops in my car while parked, stretch while at my desk or ask my daughter to watch the sky at sunset. Life offers me endless opportunities. I fail and succeed over and over. But there are countless new chances and THIS is where I have the most influence and power. Here and now in myself and home. I keep learning no matter what my age or how foolish and inept I feel. It doesn’t matter if I fumble and bumble. So what if I am not graceful? I saw a sign outside of the Unitarian Church nearby which reads: “Sign broken. Go inside.” I get that, both the seeking outside and the internal resistance to going within.

I have no idea how long it will take for me to stop recoiling from myself. But at least I can recognize when it happens. Rather than continue to war with myself and be pissed off that my default setting isn’t as cheerful as I’d like, I realize I am lucky that the knob is adjustable. I don’t live in my default setting. It’s just where I start. My daughter will learn this as well. We are adjustable. We can change. We can be different now than we were in the past. We can respond differently to ourselves and others in the future as well.

Nothing I do will likely ever have more significance than the way I mother my daughter and myself. It doesn’t matter if I fumble, bumble, feel old, foolish or inept.

This is my path. This is my practice.

I used to think self-care was self-absorption and I “worked” on myself for my daughter’s sake. Now, I know self-care is necessary for me as well and that to be a good mother I have to matter to myself.

And I do.

This blog post originally appeared on

Christine Cissy White is post-traumatically stressed and practicing break-the-cycle living, loving and parenting. She writes about trauma, abuse recovery and learning to inhabit the body not hopped up on numb. Visit her website and follow her on Facebook. Christine has been published in the Boston Globe, Literary Mama, Ms. Magazine Online and Elephant Journal.

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Christine Cissy White is post-traumatically stressed and practicing break-the-cycle living, loving and parenting. She writes about trauma, abuse recovery and learning to inhabit the body not hopped up on numb. Visit her website and follow her on Facebook. Christine has been published in the Boston Globe, Literary Mama, Ms. Magazine Online, and Elephant Journal. You can also find Christine on Linkedin and Twitter.