I sat in the graduation ceremony surrounded by thousands of proud parents and friends and watched as my son marched in to receive his college diploma in civil engineering. It was a crowning achievement not only for him but for me. Not because I had anything to do with his accomplishment, but because I had survived my family of origin and lived to see this day. My eyes scanned the exit doors. My father still had not arrived. His absence was communicated loud and clear. “You’ve done something to piss me off, so I’m not coming. There will be hell to pay the next time I see you.” This is exactly what happened when we visited his house after the ceremony. In my family, the loudest voices were always the silent ones. Without even being present, my father managed to take away joy, add manipulative guilt and communicate disapproval all at the same time. I cried the entire three-hour drive home. When I look back on that occasion, instead of remembering my precious son, I am reminded of one more time my father caused deep and lasting pain.

The selfish heart is at the center of all traumatic relationship pain. Especially when we speak about the most intimate relationships we ever have—our family of origin. Where we come from. The place we learn how to understand the world and our place in it. 

At first glance, my son’s graduation story doesn’t sound so bad. There was no public confrontation. Nobody got drunk. The police were not called. It is because selfishness is so subtle that we do not call out the destructive power it wields. When selfishness becomes the pattern for the family, it consumes relationships, destroys people, and ruins life and the way we were meant to live it.  

I have agonized over the whys of my suffering. I have endlessly wondered about my abuser’s motivations and the reasons behind what they did. I have longed to change the past and make everything alright between us. And every time I tried, my father’s selfish heart demanded total and complete obedience to his will. We have a new word for this—narcissism. Google says that narcissism is excessive interest in or admiration of oneself. I don’t know a better description of a selfish heart. Always intent on fulfilling its own needs even at the expense of others. Especially the people we have the most power over—our children. 

You can’t convince a narcissist to lay down their weapons, but you can choose to lay down yours. You see, if you’re not careful, the poison of a selfish heart will infect you too. Instead of ignoring my father’s selfish behavior, my own pain took center stage and I snatched, at least in part, the joy of that day away from my son. The ultimate way to defy trauma is to stand directly in the path of a selfish heart and say: “Not only will I no longer submit to abuse, but I’m also going to stop the corrosive effect it has on my own heart.” Defy trauma, embrace joy.

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