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Beaten down and brainwashed by my alcoholic grandmother–and how entrepreneurship transformed me

Dinner with Gram

Not my real grandmotherI’m going to tell a very personal and painful story about something that’s influenced me for many years, and that I still sometimes struggle with.

It’s not about finding your niche, finding clients, or finding your ideal hourly rate. It’s about finding out what holds you back, working through past wrongs, recognizing your irrational thoughts and false beliefs, and getting past them to achieve the kind of things you’re truly capable of.

I’m not telling this to get sympathy or pity. Chances are that some of you have gone through far worse than me.

The point is that we all wrestle with our past, and there are parts of our past that stick with us into the present and limit what we believe we can achieve. Once we recognize that those thoughts and beliefs don’t reflect reality, we can start building a more realistic picture of ourselves and start taking action to achieve our goals and dreams.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to empower you and help you create amazing changes your life.

I’ve heard it said that no one gets out of childhood unscathed. I hope that’s not true, but at least for me, it was accurate.

Here goes

My parents got divorced when I was about 13, after my mom left and went to live with her mom–my grandmother; my older brother and I stayed with my dad, who got sole custody. This was back in the early 1980’s, but even these days, it’s pretty unusual for a mother to leave their kids. The divorce was bitter and drawn-out. My brother and I visited my mom once every weekend or so at my grandmother’s house.

At the time, I didn’t realize that my grandmother was an alcoholic. Up until then, I knew she drank, but never saw anything extreme or unusual. That changed after my mom left. Looking back, it seems like my grandmother took out her anger on my dad through my brother and me–mostly me, since my brother withdrew, and became sullen, angry, and unresponsive toward everyone.

The abuse starts…

Within a pretty short time, a pattern emerged where my grandmother, mother, brother, and I would sit at the dining room table eating dinner, while my grandmother questioned my brother and me about my dad and, later, my stepmom–essentially interrogating and browbeating us as if we were spies that needed to give up information. (Apparently, that kind of thing isn’t unusual when a divorce gets ugly). Whatever information we gave led to an angry tirade from my grandmother about how horrible my dad and stepmom were, with lots of cursing and name-calling.

If I tried to defend them, I got shouted down, belittled, and called stupid and naïve.

It’s hard to stick to what you think is true when someone older–and supposedly wiser–shouts at you and tells you what they’re saying are facts, that you’ve got it all wrong and are just an ignorant kid.

And all the while, my mother literally sat across from me at the dining room table and allowed it to happen, staring at her plate, saying nothing.

And I start believing those negative characterizations

This happened virtually every time I visited my mother and grandmother, for several years. I started believing the things my grandmother said and how she characterized me. Being a vulnerable adolescent who was still forming my self-concept made it easy to internalize those beliefs–after all, not even my mother came to my defense, so I unconsciously believed those negative labels must have been true.

As the years went by, the emotional abuse got worse, and turned mainly onto me, where my grandmother would launch into tirade against me, calling me lazy, irresponsible, selfish, and ungrateful, telling me that I didn’t know anything and that what she was telling me where the facts. And even though I argued against it, a part of me believed that I really WAS lazy, irresponsible, and selfish–after all, that pretty much describes most adolescents: self-concerned, irresponsible, and, for me, at least, not too interested in doing things my grandmother asked me to do (not surprisingly).

So, it was virtually impossible to deny everything my grandmother said, given that there was a the grain of truth behind it.

I endured a steady dose of this abuse for years, well into college–throughout some of the most formative years of my life. Our family didn’t talk much about feelings. We never went to counseling during or after the divorce, and I never told my dad or anyone else about the abuse; oddly, I didn’t think of it as abuse–it was just who my grandmother was.

During those years, I internalized those negative thoughts, and came to believe I really was stupid, lazy, irresponsible, selfish, and all the rest of the crap my crazy, alcoholic grandmother heaped on me.

Those negative–and erroneous–thoughts and beliefs dogged me for years.

Fast forward

A few years before I started my consulting business, I’d been reading about entrepreneurship, how to start a business, and exploring different business ideas. But I kept thinking that I didn’t have what it took to create a business, much less be successful at it. I had a persistent belief that starting a business was something that “other” people did–people who were hard-driving go-getters, not someone like me, who was “lazy and irresponsible.” I didn’t see myself as someone who could organize and run a successful business.

Because of that, I floundered around for years thinking of and reading about and researching business ideas, strategies, and the details of how to run a business–but never taking action.

I start the transformation–and stumble

A couple months before I finally started my consulting business, I took a course that walked students through the administrative nuts-and-bolts of how to start a business. I talked to a CPA friend who gave me some great advice about what kind of legal entity to choose. I met with a bookkeeper friend-of-a-friend who laid out all the various federal and state business tax filings and timelines for each. At that point, I saw exactly what I needed to do to start a business and be legit with all the government paperwork and filings; it became concrete.

Right around that same time, I had lined up a new job and had planned to quit my old job–just as soon as I was vested in the pension at my old job. Days after I was vested in the pension plan, I quit my old job, started the new job, and within a couple weeks, had filed my incorporation paperwork.

But guess what? I STILL doubted that I could succeed. I made a few half-hearted marketing calls to former clients, who were all very nice and encouraging–but which didn’t pan out into any consulting work. I was discouraged–fairly easily, I’ll admit. Looking back, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: I believed I wouldn’t succeed, so I consciously or unconsciously did things that would make me fail–like not making more prospecting calls or pursuing other marketing channels or testing my ideas.

Seeing is believing

Fortunately, I ended up getting a call from a colleague asking if I could help her with a consulting project. I jumped at the chance, did the work, and a few weeks later, got my first consulting paycheck in the mail.

Up until then, it didn’t seem real that I actually had a consulting business. Seeing that paycheck turned it into reality. I saw how my actions created tangible results. I remember getting the check in the mail, standing on the sidewalk next to the mailbox, and feeling amazed and excited. The check was for $1,306.25. Not a small amount, given that my monthly salary for my day job was around $3,500. A bunch of different thoughts swirled around inside my head:

  • “They paid me this much to do something so easy?!”
  • “Since I got this consulting job, how can I get others?”
  • “What if I got paid this much EVERY month?”

At that point–seeing my first consulting paycheck–I FINALLY believed I really could run a business and earn money consulting.

It still took another year to realize that I could grow my consulting business into my full-time endeavor; to believe that that was possible, I had to see my client list and consulting workload grow steadily over the next 12 months. But as I saw the results of my actions, it gradually became easier to see what was possible–and to truly believe it–and the negative thoughts that I’d internalized began to recede and hold less power over me.

Becoming an entrepreneur has been therapeutic

When I was an employee, I often felt undervalued, unappreciated, and underpaid. I had a “poor me” victim mindset that led me to complain a lot about my situation–but not do much to change it. That’s not surprising, given what I experienced from my grandmother.

But starting my own business and seeing my actions bring tangible rewards was what ultimately shifted my mindset and worldview. It’s been incredibly empowering, and I literally feel like a different person.

We all have irrational, erroneous beliefs that are tough to shake off–even if a part of us knows they’re false. If you’ve gone through any kind of abuse, continuing to believe the false and/or exaggerated negative things about yourself only perpetuates the abuse.

For me, the antidote was seeing the results of my actions over time. A big part of why I’m sharing my story is that I want to show you that no matter what you’ve been through or how you’ve been beaten down, you CAN succeed.

Tell me your story

Sharing this very personal story wasn’t easy. But I think it has value and shows that you can overcome the faulty beliefs and thoughts that limit and prevent you from achieving the amazing things you’re capable of.

I’d like to hear your story–the things you’ve been through, and the negative beliefs that have been limiting your from fulfilling your potential. If you’re comfortable sharing your story in the comments, that’d be great; if you’d rather respond privately, you can e-mail me. I’ll respond to every e-mail and comment, and I’ll keep your story completely confidential and private.

Let me know if you found this helpful, and if you read this far, thanks for listening.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Omana - August 28, 2012 Reply

Wow, I really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for sharing, Greg. I am sure your experience resonates with many of us, although possibly in very different ways. But what it means is that deep down, we all have our reason to feel insecure. The question I have is how can we identify things that hinder our potentials and find ways to intervene in time so that we do not end up wasting years of our lives living in self-doubt and bitterness.

    GregMiliatis - August 28, 2012 Reply

    Thanks! You’re right–we ALL have limiting thoughts and beliefs. One of the things I’ve found helpful in identifying those thoughts is to be aware of the things that make me anxious or feel bad about myself, since those feelings are typically triggered by erroneous thoughts. Once you can identify those thoughts & beliefs, you can begin to challenge them, and see that they’re really not accurate.

    It’s not easy, and can be a long process, but the alternative is staying stuck in a prison of unhealthy and limiting beliefs.

kimanzi constable - August 28, 2012 Reply

I love the honesty here Greg, I think you really connected and inspired a lot of people. I’m very impressed with everything you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

    GregMiliatis - August 28, 2012 Reply

    Thanks–and thanks for helping to inspire me!

Jake - August 30, 2012 Reply

I know what you mean. My family is fucked up in nearly every way. I was beaten up dozens times, listened similar crap from my parents who are both alcoholics most of the time I remember. It did not matter I was one of the best at school and sports, helped with work at home, it never was enough. Kind of funny to hear from people who did not finish even high school, have no hobbies and little friends. I left when I was 20 and then my life started. Now after 6 years I live in Australia (I’m from Europe), work, study Uni and all is good. The odd thing is that they behave like it never happened and we were happy, awesome family. I’m always laughing on texts from them like “do you miss us” etc :). Good luck with your business, I’m trying to end my employee career as well, will see.

    Greg Miliates - August 30, 2012 Reply

    I’m truly sorry to hear about the abuse you suffered.

    One thing you mentioned stands out: the abuse had NOTHING to do with how “good” you were, that you excelled in school, sports, or any other part of your life. I experienced the same thing; no matter how well I did or what I achieved, it didn’t matter. Growing up, it’s hard to dismiss the abusive and negative talk–or shouting, as the case may be–and instead pay attention to a more objective reality to get an accurate picture of ourselves. If you’re constantly told you’re terrible, it’s hard to believe anything else, and it can be easy to engage in self-defeating behaviors–precisely because you keep being put down no matter how good your achievements.

    Another aspect that resonates with me is the denial of abuse by those who perpetrated it. It’s shocking and can re-open old wounds. But I’ve found that distance–psychological and/or physical–helps, as does surrounding yourself with positive, caring, and genuine people who don’t bring more drama into your life.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

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