I never expected that one day I would be asked to give talks about forgiveness. Forgiveness was the farthest thing from my mind. How could I ever forgive someone who hurt me so much, someone who was supposed to love and adore me? After all, I was her child. By the time I was twelve, I made a pack with myself that I would never let anyone hurt me the way she did. I lived a life protecting my heart, keeping connections at a distance and sabotaging intimate relationships if they got too close. And where did I end up? Middle aged and single.
On the outside, I looked good. Had a successful career in a glamorous field and was acknowledged with prestigious awards along the way. My face, my projects, my stories were featured on the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and others. As I aged, I managed to keep my weight down, my figure looking not too far from college days and my face less wrinkled than many of my contemporaries.
I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, “Why are you not married?” or said “The man that gets you is a lucky person.”
Underneath this glossy package, I was seething with anger towards my mother. My accomplishments didn’t matter. From head to toe there wasn’t anything right about me. My hair was too frizzy, my butt too fat and my nose too big.
Growing up and well into adulthood in my mother’s eyes, I just couldn’t do anything right. And my brothers couldn’t do anything wrong.
Little did I know, the obstacles I faced in my childhood would end up being the biggest opportunity of my life. By facing those challenges, I figured out the secret to finding forgiveness and the power and freedom that gives you.
Growing up in my house was like growing up in enemy territory and you’re the only one who was captured. From the moment I was born, mom took ownership. She was at the helm controlling how I looked, spoke and behaved. Not always successfully as she wrote in a letter to me in college, “You are my product and you are destroying it.”
When my nose started growing so did her relentless campaign to get me to have a nose job. No, I never had a nose job.
My brothers were mom’s bouncers. The one closest to my age did not want me around as you can imagine he had been the youngest. And he let me know it on a regular basis – destroying my dolls and then trying to do the same with me. And my eldest brother did as he was told.
When mom wanted me out of her way, she had my brothers put me on top of the refrigerator where I could not get down.
There is one evening mom refers to today proudly as the night she pulled a Mommie Dearest on me. Remember the movie about how Joan Crawford was so abusive to her daughter Christina?
I was a teenager and out with my friends. I came home a bit later than she expected. When we pulled up to my house, my mother was standing on the street with a glass of water in one hand and the dog’s leash in the other hand. With my friends watching from the car and the head lights shining on us my mother threw the water in my face, and told me to walk the dog, she didn’t care if I got raped if I wasn’t already. That was just the beginning.
Never knowing what I would do that would trigger her rage on me, I lived in fear of my mother, in fear of her punishments, often humiliation.
The fear led me to being sick and I had headaches and dizzy spells. As soon I left home I never had headaches again.
When I hit middle age, I finally gave in to mom and agreed to visit plastic surgeons for consultations about my nose as long as I could have a camera crew with me. What resulted was a funny short film about mom’s relentless campaign to get me to have a nose job.
After the Q&A, people stood on line to compliment my nose, and then tell me their story. It wasn’t always about their nose. It was about criticisms they endured from their mother.
I saw how many people were hurting and knew I was not alone.
It didn’t matter if I was attaining success in my career, traveling the world, making friends internationally – underneath it all I was fuming and holding onto victimhood.
I had given my power away. I was still reacting to mom’s insults and criticism. And often would give it right back to her, having learned how to have a sharp tongue and knowing how to leave a lasting scar. I was not proud of my behavior and it was not making me happy.
I was emotionally and mentally trapped hanging onto the anger.
I knew I would have to change how I thought about my mother in order to heal myself.
I knew if I was going to find peace and happiness I would have to forgive her. I just didn’t know how.
Mom was now well into her 80s. I asked her if she would be willing to go on a journey with me to resolve our relationship in front of the cameras and she agreed. I knew I had a golden opportunity. In her mature years without the responsibility of taking care of children, my mom’s humor came out and she was not only willing but also happy to show herself to the world.
The result was my award winning feature documentary LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER! It’s been released widely. Unforeseen, this deeply personal film has been transforming lives all over. Due to the humbling response, I have launched workshops and talks teaching forgiveness called NO MORE DRAMA WITH MAMA.
So how did I do it? How did I forgive my mother? There are three main steps.
The first step is to UNDERSTAND.
I knew I had to first understand my mother and to do so I would have to dig into her past. With cameras rolling, I started my investigation and learned about her pain, her father’s suicide attempts, the untimely death of her baby sister, and the financial hardships. And the childhood she never really had.
A big light bulb moment came when I played a psychological board game. I threw the dice and it landed. The facilitator asked to me to imagine my mother as a little girl. At that point, I knew about her childhood and saw a wounded little girl. Then she said imagine yourself as a little girl. I knew my pain and that I was a wounded little girl. Then she said now you both come together. Wow! She was no longer my mother. We were both wounded little girls.
The second step is REFRAME.
By learning about my mother’s pain, I was able to understand her and instead of seeing her as an abusive mother, I now reframed how I looked at her and saw her as a wounded child. And by doing that I changed my expectations of her.
The third step is FORGIVE.
When she said something critical, it bounced off of me, as I knew she was a little girl in pain herself. By reframing how I looked at my mother, I was able to actually feel compassion for her and forgive her. I rendered her abuse powerless over me. And as a result her insults were less often until they faded away. Why? Because they had no effect on me. I laughed them off or ignored them and at times gave her love in return.
What makes us so upset is when we have unfulfilled expectations. When your three year-old daughter looks up at you and says, Mommy or Daddy, I don’t love you anymore. What do you do? You bend down and pick her up and give her love because you know that is really what she is asking for. So when you mother tells you that you are fat, you will amount to nothing, imagine she is a child crying for love and respond accordingly.
I forgave my mother. I didn’t say I forgot. You never forget.
“If you don’t forgive and you hang on to the anger and resentment, it hurts you and affects all aspects of your life – your relationships and health.”
– Gayle Kirschenbaum
While I was making LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER! I reread my childhood diaries and relived the trauma. I ended up getting an autoimmune disease. It came out through my skin, and I developed a bad case of psoriasis on my hands that they were bleeding and I needed to wear vinyl gloves it was so painful. After trying various medical treatments and not getting lasting results I turned inside and realized I got myself sick due to the emotional stress and I will heal myself. I did so by changing my thoughts and getting rid of the anger and forgiving my mother and feeling love.
The biggest gift you can give yourself is the ability to forgive.
Forgiveness is emotional freedom. It unleashes the perpetrator from holding the noose around our neck, which we have allowed.
Once I learned the secret to forgiveness I was able to apply these steps to other people and used this method to also forgive my brothers. I know now when I am faced with a difficult person and situation how I can turn it around.
As I look at others who are acting unkindly, I reflect on myself and know when I am unkind to others, it is coming from fear, insecurity and anger. When we are feeling loved we are not reacting nasty to others.
With that said, by showing kindness, compassion and love to someone you can actually transform them.
Our BRAIN is the most powerful organ in our body. It is our thoughts that control our emotions and actions.
By changing my thoughts I was able to reframe how I saw my mother and forgive her.
Mom has become my closet friend. Today she is in her 90s. We have been traveling the world together for the last 10 years. We speak to each other daily by choice because we love to share and communicate.
To recap the three simple steps:
Think about your own life. Who hurt you so badly that you have not been able to forgive them? Remember you have the power to make the choice whether to forgive or not. We all have a story. Be the hero of your story not the victim.
To watch Gayle’s TED Talk, visit: No More Drama With Mama