It’s a sad truth that you might not even be aware that you’re reacting to abusive behavior in unhealthy ways, especially if you grew up around abusive people. As children, we assume that what goes on at our house happens at everyone’s house and even when we discover that it doesn’t, it may take us a long while to recognize that what is happening is not okay. This piece is excerpted and adapted from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Yes, you may be holding yourself back
So many daughters are afraid to take a stand because, more than anything, they want to belong and fit into their family of origin; most importantly, they remain hopeful that, somehow, they can get their mothers to love them. Sometimes, that means just denying what’s being said or done, and then locking in the denial by telling yourself “that it’s really not so bad.” Daughters also rationalize their treatment by telling themselves “It’s just how Mom is.” Even worse, because they simply can’t face the fact of how unloving, punitive, or even cruel their mothers are, they resort to blaming themselves: “She wouldn’t yell at me if I didn’t disappoint her,” “She’s hard on me because she wants me to make her proud,” “I wish I were just better than I am.”
Take a look at these behaviors that unintentionally fuel the continuation of abuse and see which ones are part of your personal repertoire. The time has come to cull them from your unconscious scripts.
- Accepting that you’re “too sensitive”
You’ve heard these words all of your life and whenever someone says something hurtful, you end up taking responsibility for being hurt and 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. Stop right now.
On the other hand, if you tend to be overreactive, practice the STOP, LOOK, LISTEN technique so that you can get a handle on what you’re bringing to the party. That means that when you feel yourself reacting, you STOP, and take a moment to assess the situation. If necessary, absent yourself. Then you LOOK to see whether or not you have taken the remark out of context or whether your reaction is on point. Finally, you LISTEN to whether you are really hearing the intention behind the words or whether you are reacting to old triggers.
This doesn’t mean that you should believe it’s “your fault,” but you should work on finding balance. Context matters, and as you become more confident about identifying those moments when you actually are being “too sensitive,” it will be much easier to identify the people who are using those words to manipulate and control you.
- You still don’t defend yourself when you’re falsely blamed or put down
If you were scapegoated or the daughter of a hypercritical mother, duck and cover may have been your first line of defense during childhood and you may be very sensitive to any kind of criticism at all. But that needs to stop if you’re going to move forward because you need to be able to tell the difference between criticism that’s used as a weapon and critical commentary that is meant to be helpful. Paying attention to a person’s language and tone can help you distinguish one kind of criticism from the other.
Criticism that intends to marginalize you is highly personal, often expressed in sentences that begin with “You always” or “You never,” which are then followed by a laundry list of your flaws. The criticism is never limited to something specific but spins out into generalized statements about your character such as “You always forget to do what you’ve been asked to do because you’re selfish and unmotivated by nature.”
On the other hand, criticism that is meant to be constructive is specific, offered as a suggestion, and is usually part of a dialogue: “I think there were ways you might have handled that blowup with him differently such as explaining why it’s so frustrating” or “It would be better if you didn’t get defensive because that leads to escalating the tension.”
- You still 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 relationships and a sure sign of trouble: demand/withdraw. The unloved daughter tends 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; stonewalling is never an appropriate response.
If someone’s response to an issue you’ve raised is silence, pretending you are invisible, mockery, or contempt—expressed in physical gestures—you are being abused. Period and end of story.
- You still question 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. 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.
It is key to your healing that you stop normalizing or excusing abusive behavior. From anyone. At any time. You hear?
Photograph by Christiana Rivers. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Copyright © Peg Streep, 2017, 2020. All rights reserved.