My Life in Review

As T.S. Eliot once said, “Never cease from exploration; at the end of our exploring, we will arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time.” 

This particular quote resonates with me for various reasons—two in particular. First, I’ve always been a curious being, a seeker of knowledge, and an adventure lover. So, exploration, as a means of greater discovery, has always been a pivotal part of my being. And secondly, and perhaps more profoundly, this quote aptly describes my life’s journey.

The older I’ve become, the more I have realized that we cannot go forward—evolve—if we don’t know or recognize where we have been. While I’ve always attempted to understand and navigate the many challenges I’ve faced in my life, with varying degrees of success, it wasn’t until this year that I truly made a concerted and dedicated effort to honestly assess my journey in hopes of achieving the inner peace that I felt still eluded me; that inner peace that would allow me to “know the place for the first time” as I arrive at the end of my exploring. I had to look at myself objectively—from another person’s perspective, as best I could—and discovered that I am fearless. But my fearlessness was not easily attained.

Narcissistic relationships, I discovered, have been my greatest hurdle besides grief. Turning fifty this year finally forced me to reflect and reassess these relationships—how they have molded me, challenged me, and enlightened me. 

This personal project turned into a life review that uncovered a pattern of unhealthy relationships. Whether unsupportive, toxic, or simply unfulfilling, it was clear that I had set myself aside to make these relationships work or attempt to manage them, that I had learned to be what others needed me to be, losing sight of my own needs in the process; and that I compromised my safety and well-being to keep the peace.

This life review became a powerful catalyst for personal change, an opportunity for me to see and celebrate my bravery over the years and make adjustments in my life that would work to heal and promote my well-being.

Sitting at my desk in my babe cave, attempting to make sense of my past and present, I look at the sweet face of a young girl in her first-grade school picture, innocent of the changes that would alter the trajectory of her life and feel great love and empathy. Her expression is gentle, and she features a slightly shy smile.  Her shiny brown hair is cut in a classic bowl style. She has a cozy maroon sweater layered over a plaid shirt that peeks at the collar and hem. I pause. I hold her in my thoughts and my heart.

This vision of myself entering the first grade, not yet knowing grief, is empowering. It reminds me of who I was at that age—ripples of fearlessness just beginning to bubble within me. Reacquainting myself with that little girl encouraged me to return to my eleven-year-old self, to my girlhood, to where I am today, and where I want to be moving forward.

At eleven, I had an inkling of who I was, as most girls that age begin to feel. Yet, the unexpected death of my father uprooted that prepubescent grounding before it could take hold. The loss of my father was a seismic event in my life, shaking the very foundations of my world.  

As I sit at my desk, looking out the beveled glass window at the ruby-throated hummingbirds zip and zoom by, I realize that some of the actions I see are being made in the defense of their nest—nature’s own theater on the art of survival.  This vision reminds me of watching the robins in our backyard as a little girl. In my youthful mind, I thought it was playfulness. Whether these sightings illustrate play or instincts of survival, they are displays of social interaction—much like the ones humans engage in. There have been countless times I have witnessed this same buzzing behavior in my own life—besieged by a cacophony of conduct that I struggled to understand, aggressive interactions destabilizing my footing.

Someone once asked me, “Who hurt you?”  I replied: “My own expectations.”

At eleven years of age, one does not “expect” or even fathom losing a beloved parent. To be robbed of that one seemingly simple expectation was jolting.

Now, with a lens that spans 50 years—encompassing years of experiences, lessons, and growth—I fully realize that the ebbs and flows of life, and the many challenges I faced defined my character and shaped my destiny. My journey through life has been such a mosaic of moments—difficult, delightful, and everything in between—to shape the person I am today. 

As I navigated the turbulent waters of grief as a young girl, I was simultaneously confronted with the dynamics of living with a narcissistic stepfather. Then, later in life, a manipulative father-in-law.  These relationships tested my resilience and taught me profound lessons about strength, self-worth, and the true meaning of family.

I came to understand how difficult it is to navigate relationships with narcissistic figures, particularly if they hold positions of authority or influence.  

My first lesson in narcissistic behavior came early on—a battle for self-worth when my stepfather entered the picture, shortly after my father’s death. While I might have hoped this man would provide some semblance of paternal guidance, I found that his constant need for control and validation overshadowed any possibility of genuine concern or empathy. His natural default was to manipulate and belittle. And, while I felt strong enough to ignore it, his jabs still affected me. I watched his behavior erode my mother’s self-esteem, making it difficult for her not only to protect herself, but also my little sister. Though I was only fourteen, I felt the need to always be on high alert.  His emotional volatility created an unstable home environment.  His outbursts were unpredictable and further provoked if I did not follow his rules and actions.  Everyone walked on eggshells, attempting to avoid triggering his anger. He never scared me, which was the odd part.

Protecting my mom and sister was a heavy responsibility.  During those formative years, the burden of knowing that my mom chose this toxic and domineering man over the well-being of her children weighed heavy on my heart. And the need to constantly intervene—to try to shield both my mother and sister from this man’s wrath—was emotionally draining. It left me feeling isolated and alone, as I had no one to turn to for support or understanding other than my boyfriend’s family at the time.

As I grew older, my desire for independence increasingly clashed with my stepfather’s rage and need for control. Not until things finally boiled to a point where my mother could see the dangerous trajectory that was unfolding did she finally accept help to move out and leave this man when I was eighteen years old.

Fast forward a few years, I then moved away and married into a family with another narcissistic figure. It took a few years for me to realize what I was dealing with. My father-in-law’s behavior mirrored many of the traits I had already experienced with my stepfather, creating a very concerning sense of déjà vu.  Similar to my stepfather, my father-in-law often attempted to undermine me with nasty comments, constant entanglement, and criticisms. With my husband unable or unwilling to accept what was occurring, this put a strain on our marriage and family, and sent me into overdrive to protect my two young boys.

Yet again, I was sacrificing my personal needs in my quest to protect my family first. I put my needs and aspirations on the back burner.  I sacrificed much of my personal growth during these years, just being in survival and protective mode. The constant emotional stress and frustration of dealing with toxic environments took a significant toll on me. I again found myself struggling with feelings of isolation, of not being seen or heard. I wondered if I would ever know the feeling of someone taking care of me.

Like my stepfather, my father-in-law’s ongoing need for superiority strained the family. He was incapable of seeing how his behavior impacted everyone around him, many of whom enabled his behavior out of fear or some sense of obligation. Seeing this made it harder and harder for me to participate. For years, I did it with a smile, numbing myself to the situation. This stance did nothing but fuel my resentment for my father-in-law, my husband, and myself. I resented my husband’s idle acceptance. And I resented my inability to stop trying to make everyone happy.

I have never had an issue finding my voice. The problem was when I asserted myself and set boundaries, my efforts were not supported. I realized that standing up to a narcissist isn’t an easy feat. It’s safer to look away, downplay what is occurring, and hope difficult moments fizzle out. Safer until the toxicity catches up with you.

I finally realized that I could only do what was right for me. I could no longer ignore the injustices swirling around me. This has not been an easy journey, as it requires confronting deeply engrained anger towards men who lead with hubris. This exaggerated façade hides the deep fear and insecurity they have within themselves. I could no longer allow that bravado and bullying to impact my life. This decision was a crucial step in reclaiming my self-value and worth. It was the step I needed to put my mental health first finally.

This self-review of my life, as I revisited and assessed these problematic relationships, has been hard-fought and fraught with challenges. However, I am proud of myself. I stayed with it. I didn’t cower when the effort strained my resolve to fight through pain, discomfort, and disappointment. I didn’t give up when feelings of isolation reared their ugly heads.

Perhaps it is the gift of age that propelled me to explore and finally do the work that I knew was required to achieve the personal growth and self-discovery I so longed for.

Through these struggles, I have learned to stand firm in my values, listen to my inner representative, who I have named Rosie—after my strong-willed paternal grandmother—and prioritize myself before those around me, leaving me to emerge more robust and resilient.

And, perhaps most importantly, this journey of discovery has empowered me to finally extend love to that little eleven-year-old girl who felt abandoned and unloved all those years ago. 

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