As a child, she thought her mother didn't hug her enough. But the star of Grey's Anatomy found out later that her mother's arms were busy shielding her daughter from pain.
I was an only child for 16 years. I didn't realize it at the time, but that experience definitely turned me into a people pleaser. I always tried to do what was expected of me, and I constantly sought reassurance from the adults around me that I was doing a good job. Nothing hurt my heart more than thinking I had come up short, and I carried that with me into adulthood.
This was especially true when it came to my mother. I wanted to know that she was proud of me, but I thought that could only be shown with hugs or the actual words, "I am proud of you." My mom's not the touchy-feely type. She's very practical, very independent; physical displays of affection aren't really her thing. As a result, I spent a lot of time worried that she was disappointed in me or mad at me, and I thought she didn't care.
Then, when I was about 19, my mother got divorced for the second time. The marriage hadn't been a good one, but it wasn't until after it was over that my mom revealed just how troubled it had been. Suddenly, it hit me: All the times I'd thought she was being standoffish and distant, she was actually protecting me from her troubles. When I thought she didn't call enough or wasn't proud of my accomplishments, maybe it wasn't about me at all—she had her own stuff going on, and she was actually taking care of me the best way she knew how by not burdening me with it.
I wanted a good relationship with my mother, and I realized I had a choice: Either I could spend all my time angry that she didn't give me the hugs I thought I needed, or I could understand that she hugs differently. It's not a spread-open-the-arms, "come here" hug. She hugs by sheltering me from her worries. She hugs by giving me respect. That's how she says, "I admire the woman you are."
I had to turn my thinking around and begin to appreciate her for who she was—an independent woman and brand-new single mother of a 2-year-old (my baby brother) who did everything under the sun to make sure I had whatever I needed when I was growing up—instead of being angry at her for who she wasn't.
I'm fortunate enough to have learned not to waste time getting frustrated with my kids, or co-workers, or friends and family for not doing everything I wish they would. If someone doesn't respond to me the way I want them to, I understand that it doesn't have anything to do with me. If I want to know how I'm doing at work, I don't wait for a pat on the back; I ask the people who will give me a clear, objective opinion. When I need a real, arms-wrapped-around-me hug, I go to someone who does that. I stopped getting disappointed by my expectations from non-huggers.
There's too much anxiety and self-doubt in concentrating on what somebody didn't do. It's much healthier for me to just appreciate what the people in my life can offer. And that's something I can hold on to.
—as told to Rachel Bertsche
From the March 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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