Among the many unintentional downsides to the popularity of positive thinking—yes, the “we got lemons so let’s make lemonade!” approach—in addition to the thousands of memes, placards, and tea cozies foisted onto the world is the propensity for some people to put on cheerleading gear and reach for their pom-poms when someone confides about the hardships of her childhood experiences.
This is especially tough because it takes courage for an unloved child to let her guard down enough to confide in someone. The myths of motherhood—that all mothers are loving, that women love their children because of “instinct”—make it hard to find a receptive audience to begin with. Then, too, there is the daughter’s longing to be just like everyone else which reinforces her staying silent and keeping her story to herself. Finally, of course, there is the fear of being rejected once again, just as she was in childhood, if she dares to tell the truth. What if no one believes her? What if the person in whom she confides thinks less of her as a result?
All of these factors exacerbate the unloved child’s feeling of being alone in the world, the only girl on the planet whose mother doesn’t love her—a feeling which shapes her almost as much as the lack of maternal love, support, and attunement.
Because I write about my childhood experiences, I’ve been bombarded with all sorts of unwelcome commentary myself. I’ve been called a narcissist, a coward (because I wrote Mean Mothers after my mother died and she didn’t have the opportunity to rebut my story), and all of the five comments listed below. In my case, the commentary becomes inspirational and reminds me why I write but that’s not true for everyone, of course.
So, in case you’re wondering, here are five things not to say to someone who’s telling the story of her childhood.
1,You turned out fine.
The implication here is that outer-world achievements—let’s say you make a decent enough living or you live in a nice house or take long vacations—are proof that your mother did a fine job and that you should quit squawking. Of course, many unloved children are actually high-achievers in spite of their upbringing; what’s unseen by the outside world, though, is the extent to which insecurity, anxiety or feelings of inadequacy absolutely co-exist with a closet full of shoes and a nice car in the garage. Not to mention difficulty maintaining close relationships or being happy in the day to day. Saying something like this isn’t positive or uplifting but just as marginalizing as anything that was said in the person’s childhood home.
2.You were fed and clothed and had a roof over your head.
This comment pares down the obligations of a parent to a legal definition and completely ignores the fact that human beings need more than food and shelter to survive and thrive. As it happens, an infant fed and sheltered without touch and connection will not only fail to develop but may die, as researchers discovered as they investigated why orphanages had a 30-40% mortality rate. Children need touch, love, attunement, and support to develop into the best possible versions of themselves and that’s exactly what an unloving home doesn’t provide. And the food, clothing, roof formula defines an oprhanage.
This comment isn’t just psychologically ignorant but it’s also mean-spirited. Please keep that in mind and skip telling the person that “people have It worse.” Okay?
3.At least she didn’t beat you.
Two things are going on here: first, there’s the positive thinking habit of finding a silver lining in every experience which, as it turns out, isn’t very good for anyone. As it happens, humans tend to be overly optimistic to begin with (yes, it’s called the optimism bias) and, additionally, this kind of thinking stops you from thinking about and confronting the ways in which you were hurt. Second, science knows that verbal abuse is, in some ways, actually more potent than the physical kind, and our cultural insistence that verbal aggression is, well, “just words” has absolutely no basis in fact. As it happens, the neural pathways for physical and emotional pain are the same. Additionally, studies show that verbal abuse changes not only the neural connections in a child’s developing brain but its very shape. So ixnay on the how great it was that someone wasn’t hit. Listen, would you?
4. It doesn’t sound that bad.
Again, if this is an effort to make the person telling the story feel better, it will not work. Marginalizing someone’s experience in this way isn’t empathic and, moreover, suggests that she is either exaggerating or somehow “too sensitive.” These are hot buttons for many unloved daughters because that’s exactly what they were told during childhood by their mothers and other family members. It’s very common for mothers to justify their treatment of daughters and their verbal abuse by denying that it was harsh or unfair and shifting the blame onto the daughters themselves. Seen in another light, this comment comes close to being abusive at worst and highly insensitive at best.
5. Challenges make you stronger.
Here we are in the land of memes and tea cozies, home to lemons and lemonade, and various forms of untruth that dominate the positive thinking landscape. While it’s true that some challenges do make you stronger, a difficult childhood can inculcate some strengths of character but most usually at the cost of others. While surviving a childhood with a combative, dismissive, controlling or emotionally abusive mother may make you seem tough and capable, the emotional cost of armoring yourself in this way is extremely high. Once again, what you see on the surface isn’t what, in fact, goes on below the surface.
If someone confides in you about her childhood, please just listen. Suspend judgment and hear her out. And you don’t need to say anything that you think might make her feel “better.” There’s no silver lining in this particular cloud
Photograph by Andrew Branch. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
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