“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.” Thich Nhat Hanh

I grew up in a family dominated by alcoholism, narcissism, illness and dysfunction. There were four of us, my mother, my father, my older brother and myself.

From a young age, I had a lot of responsibility. I was a parentified child, caring for my older brother who was epileptic and also caring for my parents whose main focus of concentration was on themselves.

Growing up I was filled with confusion, dissatisfaction, and suppressed anger.

As a child, I did not know other children were busy playing and being cared for. For me it was all about caring for others. I was left alone while my father worked, my mother shopped, and my brother was taken where he needed to be.

As a result of these dynamics, I grew up trying to please my distracted parents. I wanted nothing more than to win their approval and affection.

Expectations of me from my parents were many and grew in number as I did in age, until, as an adolescent I became rebellious as a response to a domineering father and a controlling mother.

My parents tried to enforce who were my friends, the young men I dated, my thoughts and my behavior. As a result, I married a man they disapproved of, who, (un)surprisingly was very much like them – narcissistic, unable to show love and affection and cut off from his feelings.

As I went out into the world, worked, married, became a mom, talked with others, read a few books and practiced Buddhism, I realized that my upbringing was filled with dysfunction and there were reasons that I had issues with trust, felt “different”, turned myself inside-out to win approval, had anxiety and suffered with depression. And as I worked with all of this in meditation and keeping a dream journal I realized I had lots of anger – even rage.

People work with anger in different ways. My way was to repress it. As I worked with my dreams, I realized I felt rage at the man I married and later I realized I also felt rage towards my parents. It was safer, when I was younger, to repress the rage as a way of “holding onto” my husband and my parents. Repressing anger, however, is not such a healthy thing to do – it takes a toll on the body, the mind and the spirit.

Marshall Rosenberg teaches nonviolent communication, and writes “You can feel it when it hits you. Your face flushes and your vision narrows. Your heartbeat increases as judgmental thoughts flood your mind. Your anger has been triggered, and you’re about to say or do something that will likely make it worse.  You have an alternative. The nonviolent communication process teaches that anger serves a specific, life-enriching purpose. It tells you that you’re disconnected from what you value…”

Rosenberg’s quote on anger helped me to realize that anger serves an important purpose. The quote helped me to understand my reactivity.   And, understanding my reactivity and that my parents were suffering, allowed me to transform the anger to compassion.

I realized that no matter how much I gave to my parents, it would never be enough. No matter how many times I flew across the country to visit, or stayed for weeks to help them recuperate from surgery, or help them move to an assisted living situation, they would always let me know that it wasn’t good enough.  This caused me suffering, and they suffered as well.  They suffered by being unable to accept the love and care I offered them.  They suffered by wanting more than is reasonable to expect.

As I started saying “no” to unreasonable parental expectations and abuse I felt a huge sense of loss. Because I understand unconditional love, the love I have for my children, I realized that I never had unconditional love as a child.

Finally I realized that the anger I felt was telling me that I valued kindness, fairness, respect, and unconditional love. I finally realized that I value myself as a human being worthy of respect, love, kindness and concern.

Along with the loss comes relief, clarity, positivity and strength. Realizing that I no longer need to put myself in situations of abuse has helped the anger subside and compassion arise.

I have found Thich Nhat Hanh’s quotation “when another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over” to be true and when I keep it in mind I can let go of anger and embrace compassion.

 

 

32 Comments. Leave new

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Sandra Stahlman
February 1, 2012 1:34 pm

Thank you, Nancy, for sharing your childhood experiences online like this. It is a beautifully written blog – very helpful to me.

peace,
sandy :)
http://sandra.stahlman.com

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Thank you, Sandy, for writing – I am happy to know what I have shared is helpful to you. May all blessings be yours.

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Yes, very beautifully written! Thank you so much for sharing! I have carried around a lot of anger for very similar reasons and have found much insight and relief through Buddhist wisdom and my mindfulness and lovingkindness practices (far more so than years and years of therapy).

May those families and individuals who still suffer be peaceful and at ease…may they be filled with lovingkindness for themselves and others.

Namaste,
Janet

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Thank you Janet!
I applaud your blessings to families and individuals to find peace and ease.
Namaste,
Saddhamala

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Wow! This really touched me. I am new to Buddhism and meditation. I am hoping that I can enrich my practice in the coming year. Thank you for sharing this.

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Hello Libby,
I also hope your practice will be enriched.
May all blessings be yours,
Saddhamala

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WOW, thanks Saddhamala….I think you wrote this just for me today.
Namaste

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Yes, just for you, Debbi ;) Namaste

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“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.” – Beyond Meds
February 2, 2012 6:53 am

[…] lovely story of growing up with a lot of pain and learning from it as an adult. This is written by Saddhamala (Nancy Nicolazzo) and is from WildMind. I’ve excerpted the beginning so that you might go a read the rest. “When another person […]

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Brenda Marroy
February 2, 2012 9:50 am

Thanks for such an enlightening story. I identified with the childhood stuff. Recently, I began to realize that no matter how much I did for my mother, it was never enough. Seeing this gave me the courage to back away and spend more energy on taking care of myself. I love my mother, but I’ve come to know that she is trapped in her own suffering and doesn’t know it. I feel lighter since I’ve made the decision to continue to love her as I always have, but to no longer try and win her approval.

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Thank you for writing, Brenda. I appreciate your response and agree that we can love our parents, understand their suffering, take care of ourselves and stop trying to win their approval. Well said!

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Thanks for your article. The quote speaks to me.
I’m not sure I understand this bit: “Because I understand unconditional love, the love I have for my children, I realized that I never had unconditional love as a child.”
Could it be that your parents did feel unconditional love like you have that for your children, but weren’t able to express it? I can imagine that there are times when you too, don’t manage to express the love you have for your children?
I tend to believe – but I could be wrong – that we may feel unconditional love but just don’t know how to express it, and this will be reason for those we deal with to feel that they’re not good enough, that they don’t deserve love, etcetera…

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For me, it is impossible not to express my love for my children, no matter what the circumstance. Whatever they do/do not do, I love them for who they are.

My parents, on the other hand, “love” conditionally. They give gifts when people do what they want them to do. They have not celebrated birthdays when they were angry. They have abandoned their grandchildren over the decades. They tell people they will be cut out of their wills unless those people do what they want. There is no question that their “love” is conditional – it has been proven over and over again.

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Khurty Ramudu
February 2, 2012 4:43 pm

Such a fascinating article expressed so beautifully.

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Beautiful, so clear… and reminds me of this journey of grief and awareness and why meditation can be so painful as so much unprocessed energy for me often in the form of physical and emotional pain bubbles up.

Self-help, therapy, and meditation helped but trauma release modalities, energy work, and the 12 step process evolved out of that for even deeper healing.

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Closed minds create obstacles,open minds bring blessings!

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This was as if I were reading about my own childhood minus a few siblings and a lot of violence. I grew up Christian even taught Sunday school but always knew something was missing and discussed my feelings with our pastor. He encouraged me to explore other religions and ways of thinking. Buddhism was the last one I learned about and could not believe it was what I had been searching 30 years for. During my enlightenment I realized it was supposed to take me 30 years because that was my destined path. It has allowed me to forgive.

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Thank You Nancy for this posting. Your words (and subsequent comments)have touched at the core of my life’s journey at this time and I am ever so grateful knowing I am not alone in my struggle and efforts to move past dysfunctional familial experiences. Namaste

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leonie andrews
February 7, 2012 9:42 pm

Wow. To be able to be aware of the suffering of the one who causes ME suffering is a huge, transformative insight. I might still need distance or protection, but how sweet that it is in the context of understanding and not reactivity . Thank you!

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Thank you so much for writing!

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Saddhamala,
It is so appropriate for you to write about unconditional love. After all, that is what you have given me, my dear friend, for over 25 years!

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Thank you so much for sharing such a personal story with us.

I also have a difficult relationship with my parents. They are not abusive so I had great difficulty understanding how and why they could upset me so much, and why I was so desperate for their love and approval and yet so angry with them. I have gradually realised the main problem is that their love is far from unconditional – upset them and you suffer the consequences!

However, this knowledge didn’t help me to change how I feel or respond to them, in fact it has just made me more angry especially now that I have a son of my own. But I think your article has been very timely for me. If I can truly understand and know that their actions cause them to suffer, perhaps I will feel more compassion and less anger. And if I can recognise that I also value kindness, love of the unconditional variety and respect, I hope that I will also have the strength to say no to them from a position of lovingkindness rather than aggression.

Many thanks again for this very helpful article.

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Dear Lucy,

Knowledge does not always help us to change our feelings, especially when we are so disappointed and hurt and saddened by the fact that we are not loved unconditionally.

Understanding and compassion come in time and as a result of kindness toward ourselves (along with the ability to say “no”).

I wish you peace and ease and much love in your life.

Thank you for writing.

Saddhamala

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Letting Go of Pain from the Past with Compassion | Autism and Empathy
May 21, 2012 12:01 am

[…] other day, I ran across this this article about dysfunctional families.  It took me aback a little bit.  I’ve held the words in my […]

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Thank you for sharing your beautiful, well written life story. Your openness and honesty are very appreciated by me and I am sure by others who have been through similar situations with their families and spouses. Sorry that you have had to endure so much, although you have learned so much because of what you have endured. Your compassion and kindness is always present. Thank you.
Lisa

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Letting Go of Pain from the Past with Compassion | Autism and Empathy
June 6, 2014 4:27 pm

[…] other day, I ran across this this article about dysfunctional families.  It took me aback a little bit.  I’ve held the words in my […]

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Thank you for sharing such inspiring stories. I have a similar situation with you and have been struggling with my emotions for years since I become adult. As I realised my parents conditional love only when I grow up. It’s have been difficult to me as my culture and society always emphasize on parents are so great and noble no matter what (though I don’t deny there are parents who love unconditionally to they’re kids). It makes me feel worse than I already feel. Your stories are helpful to me in releasing my emotions and pain. At least I have some ideas what I can do about it. Thank you!

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This is ridiculous. Suffering people don’t make other people suffer — if they did, you would go out and torture the world. Weak people make others suffer. Weakness is the greatest sin in the world.

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I’m afraid I can’t make any sense of this comment at all, Donna.

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Thank you for your article. It has been very helpful in understanding my values.

In my case, I have a narcissistic mother in law who has caused a lot of damage. We have tried distancing ourselves but it’s very hard for me to heal because she calls every weekend on the spot. My husband has suggested not answering her calls which we have tried but then she calls countless times and calls my family constantly. Eventually, I feel compassion for her and then the weekly calls continue which leads me to a cycle of anger and compassion.

What do you do when the person who causes harm refuses to back away?

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Thank you for writing. It is almost my story but mine is more painful. i admire you for the strength you have and finding peace that I wish I have now.

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Thank you for sharing. This is one of the hardest things for me. I try to be unconditionally loving and have a hard time reconciling this with abusive people in my life. I vacillate between anger and a facade of understanding. When in all honestly I am so angry. This helped me come a little closer to understanding. THANKS FOR SHARING

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