An envelope is laid across a desk with a cup of coffee and the words 'listener's letter'.

Listener’s Letter: Episode 99


Written by In Sight

This week, Helen and Katie are joined by Casey Smith, content creator and host of the ‘It’s Not Normal‘ podcast. Casey reads her own letter, describing how she’s struggling to form her own identity after a lifetime of moulding herself to fit her father’s ideal daughter. How do you become strong and independent, when you’ve spent so long as an extension of somebody else?

We’re so grateful for Casey bravely sharing her letter with us directly on the podcast. It’s not the first time we’ve had guests record with us; in the past we’ve been joined by Harriet Shearsmith of ‘Unfollowing Mum’ and fatphobia experts Jo and Cat!

Here’s the letter in full. If you’d like to send your own question for Helen and Katie to answer, we’d love to hear your story.

This letter contains mentions of gaslighting and parentification.

Dear Katie and Helen,

I want to start off my letter by thanking you both for inviting me to be on your podcast.

I’ve never spoken to a mental health professional before. Growing up, I thought that health and trauma only applied to the physical. I didn’t understand what people meant when they said they suffered from anxiety, even though, looking back, I myself was an anxious child.

Positivity was preached in our house, in a twisted sort of way:

– Not wanting to finish a meal because I didn’t like the food that was left on my plate. Being upset when I was forced to do so, and, in turn, being shown photos of starving children to show me how much worse others had it and that I had nothing to be upset about.

– Being thrust into the middle of an argument between my parents, the matters sometimes trivial, other times too mature for my capabilities, each carrying a similar level of intensity.

– Feeling upset after observing and enduring shouting, gaslighting, threats and manipulation was furthered by the absence of resolution or apology and viewed as my inability or unwillingness to move on.

– Urged to not live in the past, I was pressured to suppress any negative emotions tied to the controversy and go on as if nothing had happened because, ‘life is too short.’

I viewed myself solely as my parent’s child, as an extension of them rather than my own person.

My dad was the narcissistic parent, my mom the enabler. My dad was self-employed and worked from home while my mom worked outside of the house. He was there to get us ready for school in the morning, made me pancakes for breakfast. I went home for lunch all throughout elementary school. He would record The Price is Right for me and we would watch it together. He picked us up from school, started and coached a softball team at my school and, in more ways than one, seemed like a kid himself and we were best friends.

Being around my dad as often as I was, I took on a lot of his likes and dislikes, opinions and beliefs as my own. The more I shared with him, the happier he seemed to be, the more special I was. It felt so good to be so loved by a parent, and he would talk to me about everything: his relationship problems with my mom, his financial struggles, his opinions of my siblings. He relied on me. I was the person he could vent to, I was the person he could count on to defend him in arguments, even if I didn’t agree with him.

This all started so young that I can’t remember ever making a conscious decision to be more like my dad. It all felt so natural, like these were truly my feelings and interests too. He didn’t influence me, we were just the same.

The first memory that comes to mind when I think of an opinion of mine differing from that of my narcissistic parent has to do with my grandma, my mom’s mom. My family had recently renovated and moved into her house with her. She and my dad had a long history and he held some ill feelings toward her.

Living under the same roof as my grandma, my interactions with her were observed and criticized. If I spent too much time in her room, spoke to her too kindly or often, I was made to feel bad and instructed otherwise. I was told that she was a bad person and questioned, ‘How could you spend time with her? How can you be nice to her knowing what she’s done to me?’

I adapted my behavior, but it didn’t feel right. My grandma was never mean to me, she never did anything hurtful to me. I was basing my actions and emotions on another person’s experience and interactions. I later realized I was doing this out of self-preservation, to avoid punishment, shame, to appease my narcissistic parent.

This wouldn’t be the only time my narcissistic parent shaped my opinion of others for me. I remember being invited to a friend’s house when I was in 7th grade. She was having some kids over to swim in her pool.

When I asked if I could go, I was told that I didn’t, ‘…want to hang out with kids like that.’ I was upset for a moment, but never thought to question my parents’ intentions.

Maybe they knew something I didn’t, I trusted them.

Looking back, they weren’t bad kids. And the tension that would surround future outings with friends of mine in high school made it clear to me that peers of mine might’ve been viewed as a threat to my narcissistic parent. Making friends on my own, I was showing signs of independence, developing my personality outside of my relationships with my immediate family.

Expressing a desire to go over a friend’s house or out to a movie, I was becoming an individual, my interests evolving. I was becoming less available to my parents, as teenagers do. Maybe, I was even gaining a bit of outside perspective. What a dangerous thing for a narcissistic parent.

The gaslighting, blame-shifting and guilt-tripping I experienced during my high school years would be multiplied when I met my husband.

I was twenty one years old. I had never been in a serious romantic relationship before.

After being instructed in the fifth grade that boys and girls can only be friends, after telling my parents a boy that I liked coincidentally showed up to a movie I was seeing with a friend of mine and her mom, I had never even made it past a date or two with a boy. Too many hoops to jump through, too much stress, it wasn’t worth it.. until I met Brandon.

Brandon and I connected immediately. There was something so special present in our every interaction, I couldn’t ignore it and I didn’t want to. After meeting Brandon for the first time, my parents told me they liked him. Not long after, I told them we were dating and Brandon became the enemy and everything in my life became much worse.

I went from the golden child to the scapegoat. The years I spent dedicated to my parents, prioritizing my family oftentimes at my own expense seemed to disappear overnight. Months of tension, lies and invasions of privacy, numerous attempts to sabotage my relationship with Brandon came to a head one night. A line that I never thought would be crossed was crossed, and I left the next morning.

Up until that point, I was naive to it all – the control, the manipulation. I was able to justify or rationalize their words, their behavior until I wasn’t. That marked the beginning of a string of realizations about the way I was raised, the trauma I had endured and how deeply it had affected me.

Imagine the feelings of devastation and clarity that accompanied learning terms like triangulation, projection, narcissism for the first time at twenty one years old, realizing I had endured them all for so long that they were my normal.

The healing process has been a constant ebb and flow of emotion. Initially, the guilt and sadness were overwhelming. How could this be happening? My life had turned on its head and I questioned what I had done wrong, but part of me, even then, felt justified in my decisions. I didn’t want to leave, but truly believed I would be doing myself a disservice if I had stayed. I was in a safe and supportive environment now. The love wasn’t conditional and I was free to feel what I wanted to feel, do what I wanted to do. With each stressful conversation resolved and challenging situation faced, I began to realize that the world outside of what I had grown used to was far more supportive and empathetic than I ever could’ve imagined.

While the calm was, at times, unnerving, acclimating to this new world prompted me to reflect on my own behavior. I began to realize how much of the unhealthy behavior I had witnessed growing up I had carried with me.

I was displaying some of those same characteristics and, although I knew nothing else, I was determined to unlearn them all and redefine what my life would look like.

It was confusing, overwhelming, isolating even. Tracing the behavior back to its roots brought to the surface some painful memories that, having gained perspective, were even more painful now.

Sitting with that discomfort all while teaching myself to truly embody these healthy behaviors was a worthwhile challenge.

My approach to relationships of all kinds is healthier than it’s ever been, and I’m proud of the work that I’ve put in to get here. I still struggle with some personal challenges.

Perfectionism, anxiety and hypervigilance come to mind. The feelings are there, but I’ve developed a level of self-awareness that I once lacked and don’t act on these impulses nearly as often as I used to.

A few months ago, I found myself struggling with my sense of self. External factors that were out of my control were influencing how I felt about myself. I started posting short videos on social media to vent and document where I was mentally during a more challenging time in my adult life.

I received an outpouring of support almost immediately. I was completely taken back.

But, my story was resonating, and with every comment and message I received along the lines of, ‘you’ve helped me to feel less alone,’ ‘you’ve put words to this feeling I haven’t been able to describe,’ it became clear to me how many of us have been through such similar experiences and how important it is to have this conversation.

My question to both of you is, how do you lean into that independence that was frowned upon throughout your childhood? More specifically, how do you learn to exist as an autonomous individual rather than as an extension of someone else especially when you weren’t given much opportunity to exercise that independence as a child and those rare opportunities are tied to negative emotions or experiences?

Another huge thank you goes to Casey Smith. You can check out ‘It’s Not Normal‘ on most major podcast providers.

If you’d like to share any words of support or solidarity for Casey, we’d love for you to join us over in our private Facebook Group.

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