My Identity ~ Defined by Others


belief system one layer at a time

Continuing from my last post which was about the root cause of avoiding feelings and the way that I came to accept that other peoples moods etc. were of MY making and therefore my responsibility to fix. Another thing I realized is that when I believe I have been the cause of something, even something good, it becomes part of how I let others define me and being defined by others was part of how I lost my identity in the first place.

I have written lots of stuff in this blog about how I came to believe that my actions and even my presence caused all sorts of consequences in my own life. For example; since I caused my mother’s bad mood, I got disciplined. If believed that if I had behaved differently then maybe she would not be angry in the first place. If I believed her headache was my fault then I would try not to cause her to get one. If I was better behaved, I would not be in trouble, I would not get punished, I would not get hit with a belt. I defined myself as not good enough and not worthy of love and even worse than that, I believed that I deserved to be defined that way. I believed it was the truth about me. The only thing I could do was try harder so that I would be loved, accepted and good enough. There are many events that contribute to the overall belief we have about our worthiness and about who we are and the following is a very simplified example of just one thing I adopted from others about my value.

In my childhood home, everyone loved my cooking and I pretty much took over cooking the evening meal from the age of 12 or 13 after my parents divorced. My brothers loved my baking, so I baked often. My mother appreciated the help and she loved that when she got home from work, the meals were taken care of. I saw myself as a good cook and a great baker and since cooking and baking were a major source of approval and encouragement I loved to do it. (Well I loved the approval and encouragement anyway.)

There was a drawback though. If I wanted to be a regular teenager and stay after school to watch the boy’s basketball game, my mother got upset. I got disapproval when I didn’t cook. Disapproval felt like rejection and I didn’t like that at all. My mother was a struggling single parent now, and she made me feel guilty if I didn’t want to help her with the cooking. I felt very sorry for her and felt it was duty to help in this way. Remember that I had already been taught everything was my fault; therefore I avoided doing things that resulted in others being disappointed in me. I learned a false definition of love, and a false definition of what made me valuable.

After all the conditioning about cooking from childhood I married a man who loves to eat. When I became a wife and mother I believed that I made my family happy (with me) when I cooked their favourite foods, and I also believed that they are unhappy (with me) when I don’t cook at all so eventually I accepted that my purpose and value was in cooking for them, just as I had accepted that my purpose and value in my family of origin was the same. I defined myself as a good cook, and therefore my purpose was to cook for my family.

One of the consequences of this is that my family also saw this as my purpose and value because by my actions I taught them that it was. This time my positive actions were taught with a negative result. They showed appreciation when I cooked and they showed disappointment when I didn’t. I taught my children what became part of a false definition of love just like it was taught to me.

When disapproval has been a huge part of life, approval is addictive, and I became known for my cooking. I was praised and encouraged for my efforts in the kitchen. My extended family (my in laws) also quickly jumped to reinforce my value as a cook and I found soon myself silently overwhelmed with cooking gourmet meals for 12 or more per night all summer long and carrying them out to the hay field toting two or three toddlers with me. I also found myself doing more than my fair share of the special occasion meals. It was nothing for me to spend 3 hours making supper on any given night.

As these patterns continue on, one false belief is added to another and eventually I believe that I am a terrible wife and mother if or when I don’t cook!  It is possible to take any example like this and see how you have been defined by something you do and how you come to accept that as a definition of who you are. It turned out that I had learned to be who other people wanted me to be instead of who I really am. When I pursued my process of recovery and took a look at my real purpose and passion, cooking came up. Once I realized how rooted it was in my definition of who I am, I wasn’t so sure anymore that I even liked it. I am good at it, yes. But I have been used for it, I have been defined by it, and I had been abused by it too. I had developed a reputation for cooking and it became something that I was acknowledged for. I was pressured to “use my gift”. I still cook, but rarely do I cook for 3 hours straight anymore.

I can’t emphasise enough that all this conditioning happened over a long period of time and that the cooking belief is just one of many. What sorts of things can you identify with when it comes to what you did that you were valued for? Stay tuned for a more complicated example in my next post.

With truth in mind,

Darlene Ouimet

18 response to "My Identity ~ Defined by Others"

  1. By: cinderella Posted: 29th August

    I wasn’t valued at all, for anything. violence from an emotionally and physically absent dad and silence and dirty looks from an emotionally dead mom were all.I. knew. no healthy touching not one I
    love you. there were no boundaries. having huge physical reaction now.. Lord help me remember what I need to remember to heal and be me free

  2. By: Krissy Posted: 31st October

    Darlene, for a long time I could not understand where I had been groomed for an abusive relationship. After all, my parents hardly fought and neither of them mistreated me. My father’s side of the family is full of domestic violence, not that it is recognized or talked about. But my father was not a violent man.

    Now I can see that what I thought was love from my mother was not love at all – it was abuse. She never touched me in anger but I knew she could – she was brutal to my siblings. I got a lot of attention and affection from her and thought I was loved. What it was was traumatic bonding – feeling attached to her scraps of affection and getting it by performing to her satisfaction. I knew what she was capable of and knew what to do to be her dream child. I learnt how to make others happy.

    In school I became a dream student. By young adulthood I was proficient at being a dream girlfriend. When I had children, the midwives said I was a dream patient. Then I became a dream mother and dream church volunteer. Somewhere along the way, I only knew how to make others happy and forgot who I really was. In fact, I thought it didn’t matter. After all the opening words of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life is “It isn’t about you.” And I made sure it wasn’t.

    When my social worker asked me what I wanted when I sought help for abuse, I thought to myself, she doesn’t understand – it doesn’t matter what I want. I am a Christian; I don’t do what I want. I do what is right, what the church wants me to do. I do what I think God would approve of. I arrived at a crisis of faith so familiar to abused women of the pews. A crisis secular advocates will not understand and cannot address.

    Thank you for articulating those thoughts, Darlene. Now I have to be so careful not to create dream kids. All the teaching on Christian parenting I got a hold of validated my urge to build dream kids and punish them when they didn’t obey. Unfortunately for my older ones, it is too late and I surrender them to the redeeming grace of God. But there is always hope – we are all on this journey because there is a better future.

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 31st October

      Ya, that is pretty much my story too. I tried to be “the perfect” today I call it compliant. =) I was deeply wedged into the Christian box, and forced my children into one too… well I have lots I could say, but I have written lots of it in the pages of this blog. It is never too late to model truth and freedom to our kids. I don’t try to “teach them” in words so much as I try to teach them through the way that I live my life today. Not for appearance anymore. We laugh, and we talk. Our whole family visits around the kitchen table and we often talk about the impossible perfection demanded of them when they were in the Christian School. The pressure, the motive and the guilt and shame methods the teachers used. (just like the church we went to.)
      I am really glad that you found my blog Krissy… I really enjoy reading your honest in depth comments!
      Hugs, Darlene

  3. By: Patricia - Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker Posted: 23rd June

    I was the family hero and the peacemaker. When I gave up being the one responsible for fixing everyone, my sister didn’t know how to relate to me for a few years. When she would call for help with her problems and I didn’t offer solutions (which she rarely used anyway), she didn’t know how to react and even at one point said she didn’t like the new me. As she learned to deal with her own problems and find her own solutions, our relationship eventually got better. Most of the time people don’t want or need our advice, even when they ask for it. They can even resent you for offering it.

    This week, you and Carla have both told parts of my story. I can see where I have gotten better and also where I could still work on getting better at working on certain issues that I still have. Thanks for sharing.

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 23rd June

      Thanks so much Patricia for your constant willingness to share your true thoughts, feelings and experiences both with Carla and I and the other readers!
      You bring up a few good points in this comment, one being how family often resists the “new me”.

      Isn’t it great having that willingness to honestly take a look at where we are at. I too aknowldege my changes today and also see where I can get stronger on certain issues and the best part is that on most days, I am happy with both those conclusions!
      Love Darlene

  4. By: Cyndi Posted: 21st June

    Oh. My. God. I too took over preparing dinner around the same age as you. My mother was not single but she dumped as many of her responsibilities on me as soon as she could, including dinner and taking care of my sister who is 8 years younger than I. Her rationale was that she had too much to do since she worked full time, as did my father. Unlike you, I’ve never enjoyed cooking and am not particularly good at it. I do ok but am no gourmet. I did the same as you when I got married. I programmed my husband to expect a hot meal every day when he got home from work. I still feel anxiety every single day as dinner time approaches even though I have changed this pattern in my marriage and intellectually understand that no one is going to withhold love if I don’t cook. This programming is extremely difficult to undo completely. I have never been able to explain this as well as you have in this post. Thank you!

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 21st June

      Amazing how many of us can relate to each other, isn’t it? I recognized all that anxiety in myself also, and it is a challange to change that programing, but the more we see those little lies that we accpeted about ourselves, the easier it is to undo the damage.
      Thanks for visiting today! Together we can change this for ourselves and for others.
      Love Darlene

  5. By: Paulette Posted: 20th June

    Darlene ~

    I FINALLY have met someone (you & others who posted here) like ME!!! Wow!! This spoke to me as they are things I have struggled with. Always seeking my mother’s love and approval and yeah, nothing I ever did was enough. I tried so hard to be an exemplary daughter. I wasn’t allowed to go out with friends on Saturdays as I had to clean house – my friends still remember that. My mother moved me out of her house claiming I was lazy – only to come visit me two weeks after I moved out, asking me if I’d like to move back. When I asked her why, she said “Well, now I know who was doing all the work around there.” She never noticed anything I did and yet I was working my butt off trying to show her. prove to her, that I was worthy of love.

    My mother was abusive, emotionally & verbally, and as a result has not been in my life now for 10 years. It is really tough. I struggle with food – food fills the void when I pour out all the love and get nothing back. So, all those years when I was younger, I too tried to be what she wanted me to be only to find out that that still wasn’t good enough. Its taken years, and I’m still in the process of learning who I am. And its not easy by any means.

    Unfortunately, growing up, with even doing housework and laundry every Saturday, I wasn’t even recognized or appreciated for that. I eventually learned that I was unworthy, unlovable, detestable even. I grew up learning that love was something you earn – based on a merit system of merits I could never earn.

    In these last 10 years without my mother have been, sadly, the best years. I read up on healthy parenting and being a better wife. I learned that love is really unconditional, that its something you choose to do regardless of how you feel! We can feel love – but love in action is done even if you don’t feel like it. (e.g. like being kind to someone who is clearly mean you don’t like.)

    This real love is what has got me to where I am today – but I still struggle with my own identity as a person.

    Anyway, don’t want to ramble on … but I do have to say that I am so glad to meet others who have had a parent(s) like mine. WOW! Thanks so much Darlene!

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 21st June

      Hi Paulette, welcome to Emerging From Broken,

      I wrote this great reply and it disapeared… (see it even happens to the blog owners!)
      When I realized that it wasn’t my fault, i was suddenly left with the realization that my own mother didn’t accept ME, which is really rough to comprehned. My own mother treted me like competition, my own mother was willing not to have a relationship with me unless I would behave the way she wanted me to. Most of the time today, I am able to remember that this is not really about me, but rather it is about her. It is HER lack and her shortcoming.
      Today I celebrate who I am and the freedom that I live in. I no longer live under her judgement and oppression! ya hoo.
      I am glad that you found the blog and that it resonates so deeply with you!

      Hugs, Darlene

  6. By: Jeanette Posted: 20th June

    Darlene, I’m glad we are a part of each other’s journeys as well, a true true blessing. Thank you for your friendship and your fantastic example of Thriving! 🙂

    Love and Hugs to you,

  7. By: Jeanette Posted: 20th June

    I was the peacemaker. I am still the peacemaker. I was the rock. I am still the rock. And when I abdicate these positions within any setting, be it family, or friendships, or even my work environment, not only do I feel from others as though I have brought chaos into those relationships, but I feel it myself, because it was always up to me to find the solution to every problem in everyone else’s life. But of course, I couldn’t do this for myself. And no one around me even knew I had problems that needed resolved, I kept that well hidden so as not to rock their worlds. It has been an unbearable burden. One I couldn’t manage eventually and had a breakdown. And now, everyone is scrambling trying to find someone else to bear their burdens and solve their problems. Which reinforces that feeling in me, that I am not relevant unless I’m fulfilling this role in life. But I am learning that I have to focus on my own needs, finding solutions for my own problems, and letting them find their own way. This is not easy, but I’m learning to do this. I have no choice if I want to survive. And I am hoping that eventually it will be not a matter of survival, but a way of living that is a reward in itself, to finally take care of me.

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 20th June

      You make a good point too, that when we suddenly don’t behave the way we have been trained to, everyone scrambles. In my case, everyone disapeared and as you say, confirming that if I am not going to serve the purpose they defined me for, then what good am I to them? This is NOT LOVE! I am worth more than what I can do for someone esle and today I am living in freedom in this new way of life, and I am so gald that YOU are a part of MY journey and that I have been able to expierence the joy of watching some of yours!
      Love Darlene

  8. By: Jimmy B Posted: 20th June

    The harder we try, the more of US that is lost. As I tried harder to recieve praise I was told I was needy. I could have been Super Man saving lives and stopping trains and then be told “You are only doing this for attention” The problem is we try harder and harder not knowing which day or which mood our JUDGERS are having. I was so lost not knowing who I was that I didn’t even know what I liked to do. I did things in work and play that made me look good, I thought, and never tried anything new. I had complete tunnel vision and it consumed my life. I am now looking through a different grid of living, trying new things, being a better husband and a Dad. I am not living this way for approval anymore. I am living this way to have a more fulfilling life and to be a better MAN

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 20th June

      You made a great point, “the harder we try to more of US we lose”. Love your Super Man imagary. It never was enough, I know. (for those of you who don’t know, Jim is my husband.) Your parents were also part of my problem and I was never enough for them either. You are so much better at being a husband and father today! And hey, thanks for leaving a comment on my blog on YOUR special day. Happy Fathers Day! I love you!

  9. By: SF Posted: 20th June

    Oh, approval is so addictive, isn’t it? I’m only just starting to see how much I truly live for approval. Even within the past few days, a small incident occurred that I was able to talk to my therapist about, and I was able to see how I’m just perpetuating this cycle of craving approval, even in small, daily transactions. I find it overwhelming – trying to redefine myself for who I truly am.

    I’ve been reading for a little while now, but I haven’t commented. Thank you (both) for being so candid in your experiences.

  10. By: Splinteredones Posted: 20th June

    Good example of how we are defined by our actions and the underlying need for approval. I am
    at a place lately where I am beginning to see glimpses of who I really am and why. Fixing these little things, like the high intelligence I’ve been so conditioned to hide all my life so I wouldn’t become prided and off-putting. While at the same time knocking myself out for academic approval. The twists and turns are many, aren’t they?

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 20th June

      Your intelligence story is a great example, and yes, there are a huge amount of twist and turns.. so in light of that, it is easier to understand why it takes a while to sort this all out.

      SF ~
      Welcome, so glad you decided to comment. It is very often overwhelming to realize this stuff and sort it out and then try to discover who we really are. Who doesn’t like aproval but the thing that woke me up a bit was realizing how I was taught to try harder. ! One of the things that I find still angers me is that I tried SO hard, and yet it was never enough. I found it overwhelming just writing this post, and realizing other things besided the things that I was already aware of that had defined me, and how sad that I felt for the life and the ME that I lost.

      Hugs, Darlene

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