It’s a sad truth reflected by the title of Dorothy Nolte’s popular inspirational poem that “Children Learn What They Live.” Daughters (and sons, for that matter) who grow up in households in which harsh criticism is meted out on the daily, ridicule and shaming are part of the routine, or belittling and blame-shifting are constants in the family dynamic adapt as they need to in order to get along and survive. They accept the circumstances of their childhood world as normal and wrongly suppose that children everywhere are treated in the same ways. Additionally, they internalize what’s being said to them in the form of self-criticism and absorb how they’re being treated as an accurate reflection of their inner selves. These are behaviors which happen outside of conscious awareness, and are the default template for how the adult acts and reacts.
This emotional legacy accompanies them out of their childhood homes and into adult life, and makes them effectively blind to certain kinds of behavior and treatment that a well-loved child—who has a strong sense of self and who understands and needs healthy boundaries—spots with ease and acts on with immediacy. Toxic behavior doesn’t have a place in her life. That’s not the case for insecurely attached, unloved child who may not be able to either identify behavior as abusive because she’s used to it or to understand how she’s playing a role by accepting and normalizing it.
If the following behaviors are typical of your way of dealing with or deflecting abusive behavior, it’s time to take stock and become aware of how your actions are contributing to your unhappiness and keeping you stuck in relationships you actually need to leave.
- You accept that you’re “too sensitive”
You’ve heard these words all of your life and there’s no reason you can come up with to doubt them. Whenever someone says something hurtful, you end up taking responsibility for being hurt and that way, your pain becomes your problem, not the person’s who wounded you. Similarly, an intimate tells you that you’re “too serious” or that you “can’t take a joke” after he or she has said something that absolutely withers you, and you accept that statement as accurate.
Is this you? Do you tend to blame yourself for the hurts other people inflict?
- You don’t defend yourself when you’re harshly criticized
In some families, one child gets scapegoated and made to feel as though she’s to blame for anything that goes wrong. That could be the broken vase, the clogged sink, the dog’s peeing in the house, the family’s late start in the morning or anything else. In others, the hypercritical mother makes the child feel as though she’s incapable of doing anything right; she may be told that she’s lazy, stupid, clumsy or unlovable. These children grow up to be adults who fold their tents and go silent when someone attacks them with sentences that begin with “You always” or “You never” and includes a list of their shortcomings and failures every time something goes wrong or there’s a disagreement or argument. (This is what marital expert John Gottman calls kitchensinking when a single criticism spirals out into a litany which includes everything but the kitchen sink.) Unfortunately, your habit of not defending yourself makes you an easy mark for a manipulator and keeps you marginalized and miserable.
Is this you?
- You rationalize when you’re stonewalled
Children who are ignored or made to feel invisible in childhood often have trouble recognizing what psychologists know to be the most toxic pattern in relationship and a sure sign of trouble, Demand/Withdraw. This interaction begins with one person making a request of a partner to talk a problem through which is answered by silence or the refusal to talk or literal physical withdrawal. Escalation is built into this pattern since the demanding person is likely to get frustrated and amp up the volume of the request which then results in the partner withdrawing even more. (John Gottman identifies this as one of the four behaviors likely to doom a marriage.) The unloved daughter is likely to tolerate stonewalling precisely because it’s so familiar to her and to rationalize her partner’s behavior by thinking that he’s simply too stressed to talk things through, to blame herself for choosing the wrong time or tone to initiate a discussion, or to castigate herself for making a demand in the first place. This kind of tolerance just adds to an already unhealthy dynamic.
Is this you, keeping the carousel spinning?
- You keep the peace at any cost
Living with a combative or hypercritical mother taught you that you should lie low so as to drawn as little attention to yourself as possible and, in times of strife, to do whatever you could to appease her or anyone else who threatened you. That’s still true in your day-to-day because to do whatever you can to avoid conflict. Unfortunately, this means that you’re unwittingly allowing people who thrive on control or manipulation to stay in charge. Appeasement only fuels toxic behavior.
Is this you? Is fear driving the car that’s you?
- You don’t trust your perceptions
Children who are mocked, marginalized, or gaslighted in their families of origin don’t just suffer from low self-esteem; they’re also quick to retreat when challenged because they’re deeply insecure about whether their perceptions are valid and to be trusted. Second-guessing themselves is the default behavior, especially if they’ve experienced gaslighting and were told repeatedly that what they thought happened didn’t. Gaslighting can make a child deeply fearful as I was, especially of being “crazy” or damaged in some profound way. This again cedes all power to the narcissist or manipulator who needs to control you.
If these are your typical behaviors, you need to look closely at how they’re affecting you and keeping you stuck and unhappy in a toxic place.
Photograph by John Canelis. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com