Comfortably Miserable No More
How this perfectionistic security junkie broke the fear of uncertainty
My drive to repeat unhealthy patterns of toxic family behaviors is not unusual and far too common, no matter how painful or self-defeating those behaviors are. For decades, certainty provided me a sense of structure and comfort in my frenetic mind even if it made me miserable.
I learned on my healing journey that one reason why it is so difficult to change the way you think, feel, and behave is that your toxic beliefs were learned early in life and have been reinforced and strengthened over time. In reaction to my toxic parents, I lived on a familiar, well-traveled yet bitter path. I realized a few years ago, when I hit rock bottom that I could no longer “live this way.”
Our fear of uncertainty is often more powerful than the pain associated with being stuck in a bad place. Bestselling author, Dr. Susan Forward, calls this toxic behavior pattern the “repetition compulsion” and is a direct result of being addicted to “this time I will get it right”. While we may believe that the circular loop of negative thoughts are a permanent part of our personality, science has shown we can create new ways of thinking and, eventually, stop judging ourselves so harshly. I have worked hard to acquire the emotional intelligence needed to sort out what was really mine versus what had nothing to do with me.
All of my parents were battling their own demons. They were from the “children should be seen and not heard” generation and were raised in chaotic emotionally abusive homes. The only time I received attention from my parents was when I accurately anticipated their demands, met their unrealistic expectations or made them look good. This learned hypervigilance was “my job description” from infancy and thus, became habitual and this constant stress felt normal.
As I entered into young adulthood, I was a perfectionist with no purpose who was riddled with high functioning anxiety and depression. I hated silence and stillness. It was torture for me. I need to be fixing something, achieving something or solving a problem before it became a problem. I felt this heavy cloud of nothingness following me.
Wired to react with fear
Science has shown that our brains overreact when facing uncertainty because they are wired to react to it with fear. Research has shown that as the uncertainty of scenarios increase, our brains shift control over to the limbic system, the place where emotions like anxiety and fear live. This worked great when we were cavemen and encountered a woolly mammoth.
Overwhelming caution and fear ensured survival but that’s not the case today. Now, after reading the works of Pema Chödrön, I am more aware of the fear and the irrational thoughts associated with it. I now pause to reflect on those irrational thoughts that are not based in reality. I focus more logically on the information I have and now react less and also make better decisions. This involves a conscious effort to quiet my limbic system because truthfully, I don’t need the “fight-flight-or freeze response” unless a woolly mammoth starts chasing me.
If you google antonyms for the word “uncertainty”, these are some of the words that show up – trust, self-confidence, positivity, and patience. We have all heard over and over that people are creatures of habit. It doesn’t seem to matter whether those habits are good for us or bad for us; they provide comfort. Survivors of parental emotional abuse and neglect like me struggle with fears of abandonment and rejection will hold on tightly to anything (even if it is destructive) to avoid re-experiencing those painful feelings from childhood.
“Anyway, if you could predict every day for the rest of your life, what would be the point in living? Your life would become boring and dead, cloaked in predictability” – Aletheia Luna
We all like to be in control. But this desire for control can backfire when you see everything that you can’t control or don’t know as a personal failure. I demanded certainty all the time. I demanded order and resisted “perceived chaos” and ambiguity, and rigidly pursued conviction. I spent more time trying to control my outside world instead of understanding what was motivating me.
Fear of uncertainty can be traced back to childhood
Fear of Abandonment – my biological father physically abandoned me, my mother and stepfather emotionally abandoned me. Those who are afraid of abandonment always worry about “the sky falling.” Studies show this often results from the experience of a parent or other important adult figure abandoning the person emotionally or physically as a young child.
Fear of Engulfment (too close for comfort) – I was trapped in an enmeshed family. I was raised to look inside the family for satisfaction and support rather than turning to the outside world. This created intense uncontrollable fears and stunted my growth as an individual. Often those who have a fear of engulfment have relationship issues because they are afraid of being controlled or dominated.
Emotional neglect – I was lucky in that I had food, shelter and clothes. I read somewhere that if that were enough, orphanages would be the best place to grow up. Parents who are physically present yet emotionally absent, are catalysts for installing a fear of uncertainty, as they send and reinforce the message that “you are alone so don’t count on us.”
Dr. Jonice Webb, the pioneer of Childhood Emotional Neglect, describes emotional neglect like this, “Emotional Neglect is, in some ways, the opposite of mistreatment and abuse. Whereas mistreatment and abuse are parental acts, Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to act. It’s a failure to notice, attend to, or respond appropriately to a child’s feelings. Because it’s an act of omission, it’s not visible, noticeable or memorable.”
Verbal abuse – When someone is being verbally abused, the person attacking them may use a combination of both overt forms of abuse like engaging in name-calling and making threats but also more manipulative communication methods like gaslighting, interrupting, putting down and demeaning them. Prolonged silent treatment is also a form of verbal abuse. When this happens, the person is attempting to control and punish the victim by refusing to talk to the other person. My biological father was constantly erupting volcano of rage while my mother and stepfather preferred to criticize, control or completely ignore me.
It’s a journey so I keep practicing
I have become close friends with acceptance and not knowing and have learned to let go of the need to know what is next. Ease and peace have followed. I am not perfect and I do have slip-ups. It is easy to keep growing and healing because I accept my flaws and imperfections. Resistance, perfection, and rigidity are toxic traits and exhausting to live with. It is the kind of tired that sleep won’t fix. Adopting an acceptance mindset allows me to show-up with clarity and purpose with empowering levels of awareness and wisdom.
People who gracefully manage uncertainty are able to recognize what is causing it. Fulfilled, content people live in the real world and live authentically and rationally. They don’t view situations as better or worse than they actually are. Growing up with toxic stress and having to play the roles of the parent and the good girl crippled my spirit, caused me to fear uncertainty and make very poor decisions.
I now know the more I practice listening to my heart, the stronger my “intuitive muscle” become. The most important piece of wisdom I have acquired on my healing journey is discovering that when I act in complete faith and confidence while listening to my true self, everything will happen exactly when and how it is supposed to. Never too early or too late.
About the Author
Tami Atman is the founder of The Stuck Stops Here. A website, podcast and musical album devoted to healing from parental emotional abuse and neglect. She is also the author of the memoir of “The Stuck Stops Here – How I broke the cycle of generational dysfunction one AHA! moment at a time”. After years of suffering from high functioning anxiety and depression, she hit rock bottom in 2014 with debilitating suicidal thoughts, at which point she decided to “change instead of die.” Tami experienced her first AHA moment when she discovered Lisa A. Romano’s videos and was shocked to learn that her mother had narcissistic personality disorder.
She proceeded to watch about dozens of Lisa’s videos and discovered how much daughters of narcissistic mothers suffer. Hundreds of other AHA moments followed after reading the works of Dr. Karyl McBride, Peg Streep, Dr. Susan Forward and Dr. Jonice Webb. Tami dug deep into family history and realized “the cycle of shame, blame, greed, grief and rage can be traced back over 100 years and that this cycle had to end with me”. The healing journey involved grieving for the childhood she never had while mourning the loss of people who are still alive.
Her soul goal is to be the resource she needed during those very dark days and help others disentangle themselves from the familial chains of fear, obligation and guilt. Her podcast, book and lyrics are dedicated to all the wounded souls who have spent their lives seeking happiness and fulfillment outside themselves. “Inside all of my work, I hope you uncover AHA moments and rediscover your true self.”