As little girls, many of us felt the terror of “no one at the wheel” of our families.

For a variety of reasons we may have gotten the message that the adults were “checked out” to some degree and as children we were on our own. Our nervous systems responded with fight, flight or freeze, laying down early blueprints in how we cope with stress and change. We may have coped by creating a mask that says “everything is fine” when it really wasn’t. This mask is a survival mechanism that functions to keep the pain of our childhood aloneness out of our awareness so that we can continue to develop into adults. The masks look can look very different, manifesting as the rebel, the good girl, the loner, the clown, among others. But they all serve the same function: to block out childhood pain.

A common mask is the mask of the “good girl,” the one who is focused on pleasing others, getting approval, over-functioning in relationships and performing emotional labor for those in their families. For these little girls, external approval means survival. Their basic sense of safety is linked to being liked. This sets them up for low self-esteem, poor boundaries and deep sense of shame. In dysfunctional families, “good girls” are praised for being invisible, staying quiet and for their willingness to tolerate poor treatment. They are often rejected or abandoned when they say no and their desire for autonomy is shamed.

For women who grew up with the pattern of the “good girl” there is a sense of being used, a sense of having to perform and an underlying sense of emptiness. Like a small adult, the good girl believes something like, “One day Mommy/Daddy will be full and then they will give me what I need.” The problem is that that day never comes. These women grow up to be adults who experience high levels of stress and hypervigilance when faced with everyday situations like disappointing someone, receiving complements, setting boundaries and taking care of themselves.

We are taught that survival involves performing for the patriarchal male

Many “good girls” or “parentified daughters” watched their mothers condone toxic male behavior, whether through embodying it in themselves or seeing them tolerate it in the men in our families, or both. We learned to internalize damaging beliefs like, “I could lose their approval if I don’t give myself away” or, “To be like-able, I have to devalue myself.” We watched our mothers having to depend on crumbs of approval from ignorant males. We watched other older women tolerate ineptitude and abuse in silence. We endured as our mothers invaded us or withdrew from us out of their own deprivation.

As women recovering from being parentified daughters, it’s important to see our unconscious complicity in being used and fiercely claim our self-sovereignty

For years I confused “love” with reward for self-betrayal. I was adored not for who I was, but for the lies I protected and the comfortable illusions I perpetuated in the family. I thought I was being a grateful daughter, an empathic listener, a compassionate sister but in reality I was playing a toxic role that caused immense suffering and was predicated on my willingness to be invisible. At a certain point, when I declared I wanted to step out of the role of functioning as the “buffer” in the family, buffering family members from themselves and each other, I was quickly dropped. “You’re not my daughter” was spoken. It was shocking to see how the family system had been propped up precisely by my willingness to be used by each of them and when I refused to be used, I was disposed of. The underlying message was, “Our approval of you is contingent on how much you protect us from our own pain,” meaning don’t be a real person with real needs; get back into your role of our emotional “cleaning lady.”

In dysfunctional systems (like dysfunctional families) you’re not valued for who you are but for the function you perform. 

There’s no true payoff for “holding the wheel” for others and this must be grieved. People who demand you give away your power for approval seldom become capable of seeing how much you sacrificed for them. What keeps us in this cycle? Our need to be needed, our need to be liked and our need for absence of conflict.

“Like a colonized land I was plundered, sucked dry, extracted from, separated from my own fertile depths, hollowed out, ravaged. I let them take what they wanted, hoping one day they would be full. Then I will get what I need. That day never came. I had to get away and re-claim my depths as my very own, never to be stolen again.” 

The longing to be loved for the Real Self…

The “used child” within us longs to be loved not only when she is wearing the mask of the “good girl” demonstrating patriarchal values (productive, perfect, conforming to expectations, making others look good, sacrificing, depleting, suppressing, etc.). The used child longs to be loved when she disappoints you, when she is grumpy, when she is inconvenient, when she is messy, when she is confused, when she produces nothing, when she is inconsistent, when she is empty-handed, when she changes her mind, etc. The real question is how willing are we to love OURSELVES in these moments? The degree to which we can love ourselves for our REAL selves, the more we can demand that of others as well.

It’s important for us to ask ourselves the question: “What systems are supported by my willingness to be used?” 

In a patriarchal society that devalues women, we are seen as objects that perform functions rather than as complex human beings. Being treated as objects, roles and functions is insidious, affecting how we see ourselves, the world and our place in it. Especially to the degree that we observed our mothers and fathers perpetuating patriarchal values. Male privilege protects men from the true knowledge of how their choices harm others. It insulates them from the impacts of their unconsciousness on other people and the planet.

As women we are most exploited when we are compensating for wounded white males as a strategy of self-preservation. 

For centuries access to white males has been a survival strategy, a scarce resource that ensured status and comfort for women in the absence of other opportunities for women. Now the survival of the planet demands that we stand on “firm inner ground” and set fierce boundaries with toxic masculinity whenever we see it, in ourselves, in others, and in the communities we are a part of.

“Strict Daddy” and the illusion of the benevolent patriarch

It’s time for us to see through the illusion of the benevolent patriarch, the archetype of the “strict daddy” who will protect us and keep us safe. This is a kind of fantasy of the wounded inner child who is tired of being used and longs for rescue. This illusion of rescue isn’t a true haven of safety for the adult, it is a form of hiding; hiding from the responsibility to face the reality of our pain and our responsibility to the planet. It is an illusion of a shortcut through the treacherous path of self-actualization that asks us to wrestle with the truth of whatever pain we endured as children. Our task is to conjure a loving inner parent within ourselves to claim the inner child from the frozen trauma of our past. This is a form of taking our power back.

Refuse to be used: Boundaries and Backlash

Often when setting firm boundaries in patriarchal families or organizations, there is backlash. I recall in my own situation, my boundaries being viewed as a personal attack, as an over-reaction, as pathological, because to my family members, the level of empowerment I was demonstrating was so foreign to them, as to be laughable. This is often the case because many people have been so plundered themselves, so disposed of, so bereft of any sense of self-belonging that it threatens the foundations of their fragile identity. In short, saying a clear “No” can shake the thin veneer over their own pain which feels unbearable and must be deflected at all costs. Don’t take the backlash personally. Stand strong.

You are not obligated to cater to people who refuse to take responsibility for their inner lives. 

  • You are not their dumping ground
  • You are not their projection screen
  • You are not their “emotional housekeeper”
  • You are not their mother
  • You are not their counselor or healer
  • You are not their doll or plaything
  • You are not their whore or their goddess

You decide who gets access to you.  

You decide what is right for you and what is not right for you. You make your choices and decisions. You don’t owe anyone an explanation.

Anger is an essential part of transformation. Allow yourself to feel angry for the times you have been used and when others have felt entitled to you in some way. Allow that anger to inform new choices that reflect a high degree of self-respect and self-love. A powerful exercise is to journal on all the ways that you’ve been used; in past relationships, in jobs, in organizations, etc. Reflecting on this can help you establish a firmer sense of your own worth and a commitment to refuse to be used.

Women Leaders: Those who benefit from your self-doubt do not have your best interests at heart

The recent U.S. presidential election was a disturbing microcosm of these elements playing out on the global stage. It appears that our deep distrust of Hillary Clinton, a seasoned female leader, was stronger than our distaste for blatant bigot, Mr. Trump, who claimed he would kick out the bad guys in Washington but is filling his cabinet with them now. Hillary was picked apart, dissected, and humiliated while Mr. Trump’s misogyny and racism was largely given a pass. We have to look at the ways that this outcome reflects any internalized misogyny that we may carry and how it plays out in other areas of our lives.

Is there a belief that if we offer ourselves up one more time to “Strict Daddy” that he can save us? Is our refusal to accept Hillary a demand that she return to a willingness to be used? The good news is that so many feelings have come to the surface for us to work with and transform. Whatever we feel about the election is fertile ground for self-exploration with great potential for insight and healing. The most important thing is that we remain activated and not tune out to what is happening both within ourselves and in the world.

Many are left with that familiar sense of “no one at the wheel,” of our country and our world. The stakes are higher than ever. May this wake up call help us dive deep into our own histories to where this narrative originally began and accurately mourn the original wound. With this narrative now re-activated it is ripe for a new possibility, a new solution.

Dismantling the patriarchy involves healing the Mother Wound

The most insidious forms of patriarchy are passed down unconsciously through our mothers, in the ways that we learned to subjugate ourselves in order to survive. The deeper wound inside the Mother Wound is a wound of disconnection with life itself as experienced through the traumatic aloneness we faced as children. The place of healing is often the last place we want to go, the dark abyss that is actually not a place of “stuckness” at all, but a fertile void that replenishes, liberates and strengthens us. Mourning how we were emotionally abandoned (to whatever degree) as children, frees us up to access our inner gifts and emerge into our true greatness. I believe the awareness, insights and empowerment we need now are in this fertile void within each of us.

The ultimate “other” is the traumatized child within each of us

It’s time to mourn the original wound that drives our susceptibility to distrust ourselves in the face of blatant deception and hate. Coming to greater consciousness always involves some degree of pain as we are stretched beyond our previous notions into new horizons. May we be brave in embracing the pain that is the outer shell of our liberating newfound awareness. And in doing so may society experience a positive, unifying era unlike anything we’ve ever imagined.

The critical role of white women in dismantling patriarchy

For those of us who are white women, we hold a special responsibility to do this inner work; for the gains that we make in society are closely followed by gains for other minorities and people of color. We must use our privilege and visibility to boldly and aggressively root out the self-deceptions and limiting beliefs that we internalized through the bonds with our mothers, those bone-deep limiting beliefs that were forged in our vulnerable need for safety as children.

As white women, the degree to which we avoid dealing with our pain is the degree that we actually place a very real burden on people of color and the planet itself. May we not hide from this fact but humbly embrace it and do the work.

It’s time to claim ownership of ourselves

As women of all nations, faiths and cultures, we must fiercely claim our place and our space wherever we find ourselves in whatever ways we can. The opportunities to take our power back are all around us. When we take these empowerment opportunities, we model this for others as well. May we rise up to these opportunities and dive deep into our own fertile depths, transforming ourselves and the world as we do.

Questions for reflection: 

  • What relationships function smoothly precisely because you don’t assert your worth too loudly?
  • Do you hold a belief that allowing yourself to be used is somehow altruistic, i.e., playing the role of good ______ (friend, sister, daughter, partner)?
  • In what relationships are you praised for downplaying your worth and value?
  • In what situations do you observe toxic masculinity in your daily life? in yourself? in others?
  • Where are you enabling toxic patriarchy out of a sense of self-preservation?
  • In what situations or relationships do you experience inner distrust of yourself?
  • In what situations do you not feel safe to express your true needs and feelings?
  • When faced with being used or giving your power away, ask yourself, what is the most empowering response I can bring to this situation? What is a new choice I can make right now?
  • In what situations do you feel ready to declare some non-negotiables? What are you no longer willing to tolerate–out of a sense of self-worth and self-respect?
  • When witnessing a situation of another woman being used or devalued, what is an appropriate way that you can support her and stand by her?

Art credits: “So Much Love Within” by Manami Lingerfelt