My dad made me feel worthless

We all fought with my dad and now we have anger issues and self-esteem issues

Published January 11, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

I get the occasional "gentle reminder" to get the gender right.

Usually I am pretty sure about gender from the name on the writer's email signature. So when I use gendered language in the response, usually I've made an educated guess based on the letter writer's name. If it's Richard I make the guess that it's a male. If Mary, I guess it's female. Call me traditional, that's how I roll. And when I say "name" I mean the first name. When I say "gender" I mean the two main ones currently in use, male and female. When I say "is" I mean it in a sort of general way. That damn verb "is." I may just stop using that verb. So narrow! So restrictive! Making so many assumptions, like, for instance, that something can "be." How do we know something can "be" something? Sheesh. When will they stop putting us and all our thoughts in these narrow boxes?

But anyway just wanted to say that best as I can tell from the first name on the email address the following letter comes from a person of the female gender.

That is all. Except yes, I understand that we are in a rapidly changing environment genderwise. Let's just let the changes happen as they happen. We don't have to be proving ourselves to each other how sensitive we are to cultural shifts constantly. If you are busy felling trees or making advertisements or fighting a war or creating new kinds of facial makeup and don't have the time or inclination to follow every small shift in gender politics I think that's probably healthy.

But maybe it's a youth thing too. Like following the pop charts and who's in and out. It's a sharply transitory collection of fast-moving data.

I try to be sensitive to individuals and their complexities. But I like my old, well-used tools, words like "husband" and "wife," with all their old, cartoonish associations, like "castle" and "horse."

Forgive me my crankiness. I got woken up too many times during the night by the old dog making his nervous, coughing complaints. Plus this warm, dry weather we've having in California in January is just spooky and a little creepy and scary. It's got us all a little on edge.

So could I please just for heaven's sake just get on to the letter now?

OK. I could.

Dear Cary,

I feel so frustrated. I'm naturally an introvert, so it's hard for me to make friends and I feel like I have no one to talk to and no one to hang around with.

My entire life I've hated my dad. He's cruel, treats me like a possession or a pet that he reluctantly finances but doesn't really care about, and for a long time, when I was younger, we had physical fights as well. My older brother got the worst of that and my younger brother got some of it as well, and as a result, we're all messed up and can't hold our tempers. We all can't stand losing or being "wrong" because our entire lives we've been taught we're less than my dad, we don't know anything, and that we're always wrong. We were physically weaker so we always lost. Now this puts a strain on my relationship with my siblings because none of us can back down.

My mom and I are best friends but she lets everything go by. She's always said we should give in and she'll talk sense to my dad later, but stupid pride has always kept me from being able to do that. Something inside of me just won't give in when he's yelling at me like I'm worthless. She never gives a firm ruling in anything, even when my siblings and I would have arguments, and always wants to "compromise" to avoid confrontation. I understand where she's coming from, as her dad is exactly like mine and she married young into the cycle. She's lived in that environment her entire life and now she just wants to pretend it doesn't exist.

I'm 21 years old and a senior in college, so I get a break by living on campus during the week and only coming home to work and attend church on the weekends. But during holidays and the summer it's really hard for me to be in close proximity with the rest of my family. Especially now that my best friend, who is Mormon, has gone on a year and a half mission where the only contact she is allowed to have is through written letters, I've been feeling even more isolated. I don't belong anywhere. Nothing I ever do is worth it. Nothing is ever good enough and I feel frustrated and helpless. I know I should just man up and move out, but the thought of supporting myself completely while finishing my degree seems so impossible that I tell myself I'd rather live at home and suffer than move out. It's weak and pathetic, I know, but I won't move out.

I just don't know what to do anymore. I worry I'll be alone forever because I'm scared to trust anyone for fear they'll be just like my father and grandfather. I'm tired of being controlled. I'm depressed. I feel like my life has no purpose, like it means nothing.

Lost and confused,

Always Last

Dear Always Last,

So here are some things. So you are going to have a lot of strong feelings from this for a long time and they are going to be with you and so you are going to need to get used to them and not fight them or fear them because they are just feelings and feelings are not facts, even though that is a cliche and even though feelings feel a lot like facts. In fact feelings sometimes feel more like facts than facts do. But the facts are different, and college is actually a great place to begin sorting all that out. The facts are that you have a certain kind of father and a certain kind of relationship that results in certain kinds of feelings. And because the feelings are your feelings you naturally treat them as important. And that's fine. That's good. They are important. But they are not the only thing there is.

The idea as you grow into adulthood is to get big enough inside for all your feelings. Take a deep breath. Expand. Expand to take in all your feelings. You can hold them all. Maybe sit and meditate for a while and let all your feelings be. You can't act on all of them all at once. You can't do anything about them a lot of the time. So your task is to learn to walk around with them, letting them be there, asking them what they mean, asking them what they're telling you to do, making friends with them.

Some of these feelings are telling you important things, like that it was wrong for your dad to treat you that way, and like you are not the person your dad treated you as, and like it is unfortunate in the extreme that you had to go through that with him. But these feelings will also tell you things that are just not true, like that nothing you ever do is worth it, or nothing is ever good enough. Those things are just not true. They might feel true but they're not empirically true, and what you are in college for is to get comfortable with the empirical, because it will save your life. The empirical is outside you. It is bigger than you. Empirically speaking, much of what you go on to do will absolutely be worth it, and much of what you do will absolutely be good enough. For instance, your writing to me was worth it and good enough. It was definitely good enough. Your just walking around today is good enough. Your just being kind to your friends and family and getting through the day is good enough.

There is a lot about your life that is worth it and good enough. So some of what your dad left you with is all these helpless feelings and untrue statements. So your task as you get to be 22 and 23 will be to sort out the phenomenologically true statements about your feelings, like, I feel angry toward my dad and I feel hopeless and sad, from the empirically untrue statements like nothing I do will ever be good enough and I am a failure and I am unloved.

You are loved. You are good enough. You just had a dad who didn't treat you right. It's not your fault. It's his fault. Your job for the next few years is to routinely work toward overcoming the bad and stupid ideas he left you with. "I'm not good enough" is a bad and stupid idea and it needs to be replaced with empirically sensible ideas such as "I can do the things I set out to do" and "Good enough for what?" by the way.


You have a whole life to live. Your feelings are going to be there and sometimes they are going to be uncomfortable and you are going to want to punch people and that is fine. That is nothing to be afraid of. Eventually things are going to make more sense and you are going to sort things out. So think of it this way. When you were 8 you had feelings and you had to learn to sort them out and you did. You did well. You got through being 8. It wasn't easy. Eight never is. Eight is tough. It's a lot of work moving on to 9 but you did it. And then 10. You did 10. No easy one either. Imagine. All those years you got through already. So now you're 21 and you're going to get through this one as well. And you are going to be angry at times and it's scary but you are going to get through it.

And you are going to learn to identify the various feelings you have from growing up with your dad and learn to know what they are and where they come from and make decisions anyway and live your life anyway. Like this trust thing you have. You are going to see this distrust come up and you are going to know what it is and even though you know that your dad is only one man in the universe and every man is not your dad this trust thing is going to come up. So when it comes up you are going to learn to say to yourself and possibly to the man in question, you know, after growing up with my dad and all, I have this trust thing, just so you know.

So that is my letter to you this morning, on this strange and irritability-producing young morning.

Oh, and another thing: It goes by really fast, so pay attention to the good moments. Have as many good moments as you can. You'll enjoy remembering them later.

By Cary Tennis

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