Last summer I wrote a letter to my father. I wrote the letter as part of an assignment for a relationship retreat that I was going to, and I didn’t take it very seriously at first. I didn’t think I’d have much to say to a man I’d never really met and to a man whose face I hadn’t seen since I was a baby.
Of course, as soon as I sat down to write, I couldn’t stop. Page after page after page came pouring out of me. I finally shared with him how I felt and who I had become over the past 30 years. However, while I was growing up, I never really identified as a fatherless daughter. I thought it was weird to say he abandoned me when he left long before I could form any real tangible memory of him. I hated to dwell on the fact that he hadn’t been there because I felt like that he might somehow negate how much my incredible mother had been. I didn’t want to admit that I might have daddy issues because I thought you couldn’t remember this space a person took up in your life.
Is it possible for them to leave a hole? Can you miss someone you never knew? I didn’t use to think my dad played any significant role in my life, and I didn’t want to believe that his absence had any effect on how I turned out.
From the moment every single one of us came into this world, we’ve been trying to make sense of it and figure out where we fit in. Every experience, every interaction, even every offhanded comment that gets directed our way gets cataloged, categorized, and cultivated into these stories that dictate who we think we are and how we think we should show up in the world.
So whether I liked it or not, my dad did play a significant role in my life because I used his absence to author the stories I told myself about myself and how I should show up in the world.
Around my 12th birthday, my mom bought me one of those dolls designed to look like me. She had smooth white skin, dark almond-shaped eyes. I got to pick out her clothes, her accessories, and even a little toy pet too. What I love most about my new doll was the books. She came with a set of six books with pre-assigned themes like the school book where your doll learns a lesson or the holiday book and where she encounters some surprise. The best part about these books is that they were blank inside.
I got to write her stories, and I loved writing these stories. I ignored the pre-assigned themes, though. I didn’t write about my dolls’ birthday or holidays with her family. No! I wrote about kissing boys, traveling the world, and having a pony as a pet. I let my imagination run wild with fun adventure and arguably a little bit of adolescent scandal. At 12, I just knew that I loved making up stories using my imagination, which was part of it. As an adult, I can see that it was bigger than that.
These stories and all of my made-up stories were an escape from issues I didn’t know how to process or articulate. They were an escape from more profound stories I had been telling myself my whole life and then carried with me long into adulthood. Stories like you’re only as worthy as you are successful. So get good grades, make a lot of money, have the perfect marriage, and make it all look natural too. Or if men are attracted to you physically or mentally, but ideally both, then are you engaging and valuable as a woman?
Perhaps my most pervasive story of all. If they knew you, they’d leave you. So try to be perfect and make sure nobody finds out that you’re not. I can see more clearly now what I couldn’t see at 12. I was trying to fill the hole my father left with the stories that explained why he was gone. I told myself that I was hard to love because wouldn’t he have stayed if it were easy?
It was a year ago, as I sat writing that letter to my father, that I finally started to see some of the stories I had been telling myself and realized the patterns they had created in my life. A lack of honesty and authenticity in my personality is a consistent hum of anxiety for my past mistakes. All of the ones I knew I would inevitably make in the future.
At that moment, I also realized that I could control the narrative. I’d already been telling myself these stories for over 30 years. So clearly, I had the power in the capacity to say to myself some new ones. I could write my stories, not just those of an 18-inch plastic doll designed to look like me. As it turns out, I’m not the first person to figure this out.
Psychologists call it cognitive framing, which means that we use our past experiences to create a story in our minds that we can reference in the future. That story or the cognitive frame affects our choices, our values, our behavior, and how we respond to every new experience that comes after it. Put our stories to shape our lives, but we can change them. I think it’s about time we did.
So while you can’t go back and change the actual events and experiences that you’ve been through, you can change the story you’ve told yourself about them, about yourself, and about who you will be, and how your life will unfold from here on out. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been telling myself some new stories. Stories like it’s safe to be myself. I’m allowed to make mistakes. I am worthy of love exactly as I am.
In that letter that I wrote to my dad a year ago, I doubt he’ll ever read it, but it was for me to give voice to and give back the stories that we’re never really mine to keep. The stories that he gave me by leaving.
Now I know how to change those stories that are true for me and encouraged me. As a woman taking more significant risks helped me cultivate honest, authentic, and connected relationships and empowered me to share my story with you.