Many of us have wounds that spring from our relationship with the first father figure in our lives. That might be your biological father, a mother who embodies our culture’s version of masculinity, or the ever-present patriarchy. You may have a logical understanding of how your issues are impacting your current relationships, but do you know how to heal them?
Three years after my divorce, it has come to my attention that I don’t have the first clue on how to healthfully relate to men. I learned from an early age that appearance and achievement were my primary tools for securing male attention. Thanks to the Navy, my father was gone for much of my childhood, which gave me minimal practice at steady, emotional intimacy with the first man in my life.
Anatomy of a Daddy Issue
My dad and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and his way of being in the world seemed to clash with my own. As a teenager, I used to try really hard to work things out with him. I still remember our heated conversations that would burn through his anger and give way to fierce tears. We’d be fine for a while, and then the process would repeat.
By the time I hit my early twenties, I made what at the time seemed like a revolutionary step forward. I would stop trying to change things. I would accept my dad just as he is and our relationship just as it is. That worked really well in a long-distance father-daughter existence, punctuated by week-long yearly visits and monthly phone updates.
Then I got divorced and moved home. Somehow my dad landed 20 minutes down the road from my new place. In a fury of unmet expectations about what that would mean for the frequency of our visits and involvement in each other’s lives, I decided it was time to try again. I was beat down by my continued failures in the dating world and reasoned that improving things with my dad would be the first step toward learning to relate to men in a healthy way.
This time around we never made it to the intense conversations and hot tears. After a few failed attempts at scheduling a one-on-one visit, I sat next to my dad as my boys and his ran like mad men through his living room. (Full disclosure: my dad had me when he was very young and has been blessed with two boys not much older than my own in his second marriage.) Amidst the chaos there was a break in our small talk.
“Wow, I think it’s been since DC that we’ve had a one-on-one,” he said.
I sat up in my seat. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
It had been years since my dad and I both lived in the DC area. He went on about how busy life has been, and that’s when it hit me. I misunderstood. He wasn’t referring to one-on-ones with me. He was communicating that it had been since DC that he had had a one-on-one with his wife.
That was the beginning of my next perspective shift. If it had been a year for his wife, how could I take offense at not being able to secure a spot in his crowded schedule? In that moment I realized I didn’t need to take my dad personally. It had nothing to do with me and everything to do with his own life circumstances and upbringing.
My dad loves me, sure, as in I’m his daughter and he’ll always love me. But I’m never going to go backwards and have him express his love in the way that I craved as a little girl. And now my little girl self is so buried that even if he could find a way to express his love in the way that I want as an adult, she wouldn’t be able to feel it.
The only logical next step is for me to give that love to myself. Except there’s one problem: I don’t know how to do that.
Feel it to Heal It
In one of the most impactful counseling sessions I’ve ever had, my therapist stopped me mid-sentence in recalling a painful childhood memory.
She interrupted with that classic line: “What are you feeling right now?”
I put down my verbosity and tendency toward stuffing intensity with laughter. In the silence, that persistent knot in my throat grew larger and swelled until the dam broke lose.
Logic can block us from accessing the emotions we need to feel. Our task is to reach back past all our coping mechanisms for that emotionally stunted little girl and love her into maturity and wholeness. Because if we don’t, that hurt, volatile little girl will keep driving the car.
I always wanted a little girl so I could pass on my wisdom about what it means to be a woman. I’d tell her she’s fierce and poised to birth infinite possibilities into her life. I’d tell her she’s beautiful, strong, and capable. I’d tell her I love her no matter what—no matter how she looks, what she accomplishes, or the mistakes she makes. I’d tell her mistakes are necessary steps on the path to self realization and a life worth living. I’d acknowledge her pain and confusion when I don’t have the answers to life’s impossible problems and remind her we’re in it together.
In its twisted sense of humor, life gave me boys. It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve realized I already have the gargantuan task of parenting my own little girl self into wholeness.
Drive it Home
If you’re wondering how to get past your own daddy issues, try this exercise to begin exploring and healing your little girl self.
1. Take all those logical understandings of why you still have daddy issues, and then try to recall a childhood memory that illustrates how the hurt developed over the years. Begin telling the story to your journal, a trusted friend, or therapist.
2. After a little bit of time has passed, but before you reach the end of the story, pause. Take a break from your thoughts and notice how you’re feeling. What emotions are you experiencing? What sensations are occurring in your body?
3. Remember what it felt like to be that hurt little girl, and then write a letter to her. If you were her parent or someone else who loved her, what would you tell her?