You may not think about it—your father may be absent, you may have never met him even—but every one of us is here because of a father. As a therapist, I find that the role of a father in our lives is often underestimated. I always hear about people blaming their mom for their different challenges, but a father plays a very important role in a child’s life even if it’s not physically there for whatever reason. I’m asking you to read this blog with an open mind and reflect upon your own experiences as a child. What role do you think your father played in your life? How does it affect how you love others and how you function in your everyday life?
Father’s Day brings up a lot of different thoughts and emotions for me as it might for some of you. I hope that no matter what thoughts come up when you think about Father’s Day, you manage to find some joy and happiness during this time. When I think about my father, Jacob, I am filled with mixed feelings of laughter, sadness, anger, and resentment. Some feelings of joy also accompany my thoughts, but most of my feelings of him are not so great. After working with my therapists and processing so much of what I experienced as a child and allowing myself to be vulnerable and cry, I realized that it is also because of my father that I was able to get to where I am today and learn that change is possible and there is hope even if you are now hurting and suffering. If we do the right work on ourselves and invest in our mental health we can feel so much better and more empowered and become a better version of who we are.
Here are 10 lessons I learned from my toxic relationship with my father:
1. I don’t have to please everyone else. I can think of myself first.
When I hear the word “Dad, I think of “daddy’s little girl” and about my wonderful husband who is the most exceptional father to my three girls. I was my dad’s favorite girl and did everything that was in my power to please him. For example, he used to get very angry and curse and scream if he came home and the apartment was dirty so I worked very hard from a young age to keep the house clean and avoid that extreme reaction in him. Money was very tight for us, but my father used to take me shopping every once in a while and made me feel so special. My other siblings didn’t get the same privileges that I had so that made me feel extra special.
What I learned as a child and carried into my adult life was that I have to please other people so I can get what I need. We don’t always think about it as parents, but we create “pleasers.” It’s something I try to think about with my own kids before getting angry. What am I teaching them with my harsh reaction?
2. Love can be shown in different ways.
I was loved by my father because I was a good girl and did what he asked without questioning his motives. When I left home at age 12, I remember celebrating my birthday on my own with a group of strange kids and strange adults. I got a letter from my dad and opened it with so much excitement thinking, “He does remember me!” I opened the letter and it started with… “My dear Limor happy birthday to you… you are now ___old…” There was no mention of my age as if he didn’t remember how old I was. It was signed “love, dad.”
I remember feeling crushed and lots of shame. I never shared that terrible moment with anyone until of course I was in therapy, but what I thought was that he forgot how old I was and that to me translated into lack of love. I now know that despite my father's shortcomings he did the best he could and he does actually love me in his unique limited way.
3. It’s important to have compassion for myself and compassion toward others.
My father always put himself first. He was impulsive, aggressive, and was rarely able to think about anyone else besides himself. I remember asking him one day if he had any remorse for verbally and physically abusing my mom and all of us in different ways and his answer was, “I never hurt any of you… these are all made up stories that your mom implanted in your head…” My father never got help for his psychological traumatic experiences and he never got the skills and tools that he needed to become a better version of himself. His family was forced to leave Iran in 1950 since his father was dying from lung cancer when he was only 9 years old, and together with his five young siblings, they traveled to Israel. As soon as his family got to Israel his father died and his mother was left in a new country to raise six young children. There is clearly so much more to this story but I will make it short and say that my father was forced to break the law in order to survive. He served in the Israeli army and suffered seriously traumatic experiences and dealt with PTSD for years. His mother died when he was only 20, his brother died from a drug overdose, and the list goes on and on!
One of the ultimate goals of being in therapy is developing compassion toward ourselves. After years of crying and blaming myself for having gone through horrible experiences, I have learned to think of the little girl in me with so much love and compassion. My father never taught me this and because of that I suffered a great deal of traumatic experiences that led me to work on myself, which eventually paved the way to me learning how to love myself and be compassionate towards myself. I am thankful for my father for that.
4. How to be strong and resilient.
When i think about my father and his family I often wonder how he was actually able to do what he did and even maintain the lifestyle he had. The interesting thing about my father was that he was actually a very smart man who was fascinated by books that are related to psychology. I don’t think my father ever learned to read properly in school and I am certain that he has undiagnosed learning disabilities and clearly ADHD, but when I was young I remember his fascination with the human mind. He would show me various books that he appreciated. I am certain that if my father got the help and support that he needed, he would have been a very successful man. The interesting thing for me was that I primarily loved to read non-fiction books, about biology and psychology in particular, since a very young age, but I was always embarrassed about it and was ashamed that I was “odd” in my book selection. Part of what drove me was not wanting to be uneducated like my own parents. This thread of hope kept me motivated and helped me achieve the various degrees I have earned as well as have a passion and appreciation for learning, which has empowered me my whole life.
5. Establishing relationships takes time and is extremely important, but not all relationships can survive.
Since I tried to please my father from a young age, this behavior translated into other relationships and I learned that I had to please others in order to be cared for and be loved. My first long-term relationship with a man started when I was 15 years old and it was with someone who told me that he was 37 but actually was 47. It’s interesting that the first man that I thought I fell in love with was exactly like my father. Relationships obviously require lots of work, but over the years with the help of my therapists and other exceptional people in my life, I was able to work through various relationships and clean the toxic relationships from my life, which pave the way for other healthier relationships. The most important relationship that I’ve worked on is the relationship with myself—a relationship that is built on self love, appreciation, and authenticity.
6. The significance of letting go and spontaneity.
Parenting is a serious thing that requires tremendous responsibility: A parent’s role is to love and care for their children in an unconditional way. Since my father was an impulsive, spontaneous person and first cared for himself, he didn’t always watch us when we were young and we were put in dangerous situations more than once. I remember being so scared as a child and I now know how important responsibility and consistency are as a parent. I never knew what to expect from my father—one day he was fun and happy and the next day he would turn into an aggressive scary monster. This of course was very scary and confusing for a little girl. While I never want to be like that as a parent, I’ve had to learn that there are times when I can let go a little and there is room for spontaneity in life that isn’t all irresponsible.
7. Think before I speak and act.
Well, I have to admit that for many years, I struggled with impulsivity and doing things that weren’t always well thought out. There’s no doubt that studying psychology and working with other people helping them to navigate through their own challenges helped me. I now try hard to think before I speak or do something, especially when I know it could have lasting effects.
8. Emotional and physical abuse isn’t effective and creates long term psychological damage.
My father was verbally and physically abusive towards most of my family, and he created lots of stress and psychological damage. My dad taught me that words carry lots of power and they can build or destroy someone else. I know that I must be very thoughtful before I use offensive/hurtful language because of how powerful it can really be.
9. The importance of setting limits and expressing my thoughts and feelings.
I always loved listening and was fascinated by other people. My father made sure to tell me about all of his suffering, and I was basically his therapist since I was a very young child. Now that I have three girls, I can’t imagine telling them so many horrible stories that no child should carry around with them. As a therapist specializing in eating disorders, it is obvious to me why I restricted and starved myself almost to death at age 14. I was so full of so many things that there was no room for anything else. Clearly there are other causes for my eating disorders, but this is obviously one of them. This experience and other experiences with my dad taught me to be aware of when I am feeling uncomfortable and to set limits with others. More importantly, I realized after many years of pleasing other people and holding my thoughts and feelings inside, that it is not healthy and that putting myself first and expressing myself is extremely important.
10. The importance of honesty and respect for the rules.
To my father, following rules and regulations or any instructions was optional and not obligatory. One example was in the way he drove recklessly, which left me with a fear of driving. He also didn’t like the idea of paying taxes and got into a lot of trouble because of it and actually spent time in jail on more than one occasion. He did lots of other shocking things, but this is a blog for Father’s Day and I want to keep it more positive, so all I’m going to say is that from these experiences I’ve learned the importance of respecting the law and following guidelines to the best of my ability.
In the end, a lot of these lessons can also be summed up as “radical acceptance.” For as long as I can remember, I wished and prayed that my father would change and when my wishes did not come to fruition, I was left with disappointment and anger. My father taught me the importance of acceptance and accepting that it is not in my power to change him or anyone else. This paved the way for me to develop better communication skills and eventually a different relationship with my father.
I hope that maybe this blog will help you reflect on your experiences with your father or anyone else in your life and think about how your relationships might have played a larger role in your life than you realize. Is there anything that you do today that is because of your father? What do you think about it and how do you feel about it? Is this something that you would want to change about yourself?
When I reflected on my experiences, I realized that in order to get to where I am today I had to go through five different steps: knowledge/awareness, acceptance, releasing the past, making meaning, and authenticity. I named the steps the KARMA Coaching Method and I use them as the guideline for my work with clients and for training other professionals. Talking to a licensed professional who can help and guide you through these steps will help you feel empowered.
Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers out there!