Things said can't be unsaid
June 25, 2012 2:18 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with the horribly cruel things people have said to you throughout your life?

Things like: my grandparents nicknaming me "dumbshit" for an entire winter vacation when I was 12. A boy I had a puppy love relationship with when I was 13 suddenly breaking up with me because, "you're not hot enough and you have zits." My father berating me around the same time for slouching, because it made me look "disgusting, with your gut hanging out and your saggy tits." (I started wearing a bra for the first time after that.) A coworker at my first job when I was 17, upon meeting my mother, telling me "wow, you look just like your mom, except she's beautiful." My husband telling me, in all seriousness, "I'm smarter than you in every way." (He acted like it too. I divorced him.) This is just a small sampling, unfortunately.

While these things don't sting like they once did, of course they stick with me. Logically I know I'm at least reasonably attractive and somewhat intelligent. Still, I do believe that my opinions of my own looks and intelligence - and my ability to trust other people - has probably been incredibly damaged by these things. I wish I could just forget this crap, but in many instances the bad memories have stayed with me far longer than the good in these relationships, even if there was/is more good than bad overall.

I know I'm not the only one that has experienced this kind of treatment. Do most people just forget when this kind of stuff is said to them? Brush it off? Use it for self-improvement? If you've been on the receiving end, how the hell do you cope, get beyond and stop believing this shit?

If you're the kind of person who would be this brutal to someone you know/care about, why? And do people who are this brutally honest expect and appreciate the same in return?

(Counseling is scheduled to begin Thursday, by the way, for this and many other things.)
posted by thrasher to Human Relations (66 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Well, my father once said to me, "I love you, but I would love you more if you weren't fat." So yeah, people say horrible things. It took lots of therapy but I realized that I have choices in my life, I can choose to dwell on the terrible things people have said, or to try and be objective about all of it and use my own observations and self knowledge to determine the truth.

For me, it is easier to hear and remember the rotten stuff. I have to really work at hearing and remembering the good things. But it is worth working on. I think at 52, I have a pretty clear idea of my strengths and weaknesses, my good points and bad.

You have to realize that people's own insecurities, issues, neurosis, inform what they say. Yeah, my Dad said something really awful to me (several somethings) but overall, he was good man who loved me and wanted the best for me--he was just really terrible at trying to motivate me to lose weight. But he wanted me to lose weight because he loved me and wanted the best for me. So, I choose to remember that about him.

So, I hope, as you work with your therapist, that you will be able to examine these statements, and then set them aside as you build your own picture of yourself. As you do that, the sting goes away.

Now, when a little kid looks up at me and says, "You're really big!" I laugh and say, "Yes I am, and you are small, and your Mommy is medium--isn't it cool how people come in all different sizes?" Usually they say, "Yep." and toddle off--and I feel good, and their Mom or Dad stops looking like they want to fall through the floor...
posted by agatha_magatha at 2:32 PM on June 25, 2012 [24 favorites]

And do people who are this brutally honest expect and appreciate the same in return?

The things you describe aren't "brutal honesty," although many people use phrases like "just being honest" or "telling it like it is" as a justification to be really mean to others. Keeping that in mind may help.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:33 PM on June 25, 2012 [45 favorites]

These comments aren't brutal honesty but outright just mean things to say. Brutally honest comments are designed to at least give the recipient some road map to correcting a situation. Calling someone a 'dumbshit' is not brutal honesty, it's plain cruelty.

When I was younger, I would have tended to internalize the comment and assume that it was said because it was true - no matter how awful it was. For example, my dad went to great lengths to remind me of how selfish I was as a kid. It wasn't until recently that I figured out that a) I really wasn't selfish, or at least any more than your average 5 year old and b) he must have had some terrible shit going on to be so hyper critical of a kid to point this out so often. In other words, I was a good person then and I'm a good person now.

If I were to be on the receiving end of one of these comments now, I'd just feel sorry for the person who is so unhappy that they have to say nasty things to other people, especially people they love. In response, I would probably say, "Thanks for sharing your opinion. I'm going to talk to someone else now." In other words, you do not take it as a legitimate opinion of who you are. The only person who can give you that is YOU.

Therapy will really help you to build the self-esteem and sense of self-worth that is necessary to deflect these kinds of things. Unfortunately, it cannot fix other people from being mean.
posted by Leezie at 2:33 PM on June 25, 2012 [15 favorites]

Sometimes people you love can be cruel. It's not because they love you; it's, at best, in spite of them loving you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:42 PM on June 25, 2012 [11 favorites]

I think we all have that kind of list of meanness, sadly.

When I was growing up someone pointed out to me that a person we were watching be hurtful must have really been hurting inside. I was taught that someone like that is in pain and does not know what to do with the pain so they hurt others. Much of the time they have no idea how to properly act and how to love others, so they lash out. Not everyone knows better- not everyone was taught how to be kind.

My own list still hurts sometimes, but the lessons I have learned about the pain of others, how to nurture myself, and how to be kind for the sake of it, trump the silly list.
posted by maya at 2:44 PM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: And do people who are this brutally honest expect and appreciate the same in return?

Ahahahaha. People who make these kinds of remarks often go apoplectic if you so much as say that *their* remarks hurt *you.* They might even go so far as to cry and tell you how mean and cruel you are to say so.

If you've been on the receiving end, how the hell do you cope, get beyond and stop believing this shit?

I had to listen to all kinds of nasty and hurtful remarks about me in my childhood. Here's what helped:

-Getting far far away from the nasty comment makers.
-Erring on the side of cutting off a new friendship or relationship if the person started to make weird put-downs about me.
-Doing the same if the person seemed to have a need to make weird or nasty put-downs about others, even if it's not directed at me.
-Maintaining relationships with people who do not get any enjoyment out of hurting others or touting their superiority over others.
-Remembering that when people make gratuitously nasty remarks, it doesn't say anything about you - the only person it says anything about is them. It's like - you know how a rooster crows when he sees the sun rise? The crow means "Hello, I'm a rooster, and I see the sun coming up!" Well, a vicious person makes vicious comments when they see an opportunity to cause pain to another person. So when they make their comments, it's just their crow saying, "Hello, I'm a vicious person, and I think I see a chance to hurt someone!"
posted by cairdeas at 2:44 PM on June 25, 2012 [62 favorites]

Yeah, none of that is brutal honesty. That's utter tactlessness at best, and not one of those comments deserve anything but a slap in the face. (Yeah, yeah, I know, violence bad...) Seriously, all of that says much less about you than it does about the person saying it. I don't really care how you look or how smart you are--because, again, none of that was about you, but about them.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 2:45 PM on June 25, 2012

The only thing you can do is understand the people that are saying these sorts of cruel things to you are often struggling to connect with others, and may never successfully achieve communion with others.

You don't have to pity them, but just understand that they are likely living lives that are, if not tormented, certainly painful.

That said, the key is to avoid getting hurt by these people. I suppose your therapist or counselor can help.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:45 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Determine to avoid this kind of behavior in the future. Dunno if the fam is still like this, but if they are, explain that comments about your physical appearance and intelligence are no-go. First time they ignore this line, go away from them and stay away until you feel that you have effectively made your point. Same with any 'friend' who say this shit. W/r/t co-worker, you could try something like a look of stone-cold disgust to saying "inappropriate!", a la the HR lady in Archer.

Realize that this bullshit, which really sounds like a) Family figures saying horrible things which in turn trained you to tolerate b) Other people saying horrible things, is now ended.

Realize that what you've gone through can be a gift to the extent that you most likely have empathetic qualities that surpass most. You know who, in general, kicks ass? People who have taken a lot of shit and come out the other side.
posted by IwishIwasFordMaddoxFord at 2:49 PM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

If somebody calls you "dumbshit" you say "Stop that! Don't ever, ever call me names!" If they are just doing it out of bad habit and don't really mean anything by it (hey anything's possible) that'll shut them up.

Anybody who calls you names for an extended period of time gets shunned. No arguing, just hellbanning. If you're a kid, or otherwise forced to have these people in your life, you may have to wait for an opportunity before doing this, which sucks.

If a boy, during his exit interview, insults your appearance, you retort dryly "how *nice* of you to say so" and from then on, you set your phasers to shun. No arguing, just hellbanning.

If your father makes inappropriate remarks about your body, you remove yourself from his company at every opportunity. You ask about self-improvement, well, generally, if I was in fact slouching, my response would be to train myself to have better posture. If you deal with the same person for any length of time, you can actually watch them run out of things to complain about and they start ranting about stuff that is obviously contrived and ludicrous, even if you have the lowest self-esteem on earth. That kind of thing tends to put all the previous criticisms into perspective, plus, you'll have really great posture.

If your coworker compares you unfavourably to your mom, you say, "it's funny, you know, you really remind me of my mother an awful lot especially in your left-side profile. My mother's incredibly poised and socially gracious, and I really admire the brave way you plug away at overcoming your, well, problems and I'm sure she would say the same."

I was kidding about that last one. That would be mean. It never helps to answer evil with evil. You could just say "Bless your heart." Also, get a Miss Manners book to learn the exact details of what is polite and what is rude so that you never have to waste time questioning how you or others should actually have behaved in a given situation. It's empowering to know that your grasp of the social niceties is totally solid. Unlike some people's.

If your husband tells you, in all seriousness, that he's smarter than you in every way, you say "I certainly don't feel supported when I hear that kind of talk." If he persists, you serve him with divorce papers and say "IQ test this," which in fact you did, so, that's progress.

These people aren't being brutally honest, they're just being brutal. There's usually a grain of truth, but not more than a grain. When someone insults you like that, they are committing a bad and destructive act right out in the open. With time, you'll be able to fully understand that all the evil they are trying to throw in your direction just comes right back to them like a boomerang. And yet they think it makes them look good! As the Bible puts it, "their glory is their shame".

I think some people deal with it by vomiting their verbal aggression on the next person they see, and others deal with it by enduring a lifetime of shame and a basic conviction that they are ugly, stupid, and undesirable. I unfortunately think that's the reality for many, many people. But you don't have to live the unexamined life. You aren't going to stick this way.

In my experience the basic conviction that I'm ugly, stupid, and undesirable never *completely* goes away because it's such a preconscious, raw emotion. What does help is having corrective experiences, for example, thinking I was stupid was cured by a) being around people who didn't call me stupid all the time and b) having a job doing really smart things at the Institute of Extreme Smartness. So if someone tried to call me stupid now, for example, I don't think I'd really believe them? However, the hostility they were trying to communicate really would hit home and I would probably feel quite bad about it for anything from a few minutes to a few months, depending on the relationship I thought I had with them. Insults like that are never really about the content, they're about imparting hostility, and as social beings we experience that as really threatening to our well-being.

This kind of basic shame is dealt with by Pema Chodron in "Things Fall Apart". Of course still have counselling and still learn to parse the individual stuff and of course convince yourself on every conscious level that these shitty people aren't worthy of being anywhere near you, because they're not. But you can still expect to feel sad that so many people are shitty; still, a lot of us aren't - I'm not, for example. I don't think that ever really goes away, but you can live with it. And the basic feeling of shame, that never really goes away from *any* person on the planet. Even amoral, conscienceless people like some people with NPD or other personality disorders, are looked upon by a lot of professionals as having minds constructed to protect themselves against unbearable basic shame - so even the most apparently shameless among us are haunted by it even if they don't consciously recognize that. (Not sure about people like psychopaths though, maybe they actually can't feel shame on any level; dunno, but I digress.) It's part of the human condition. But you can learn to accept it as such.
posted by tel3path at 2:50 PM on June 25, 2012 [11 favorites]

Best answer: You don't need to forgive them. Yet. You need to get angry at them. Once you feel your feelings - your real feelings, not the feelings you think you should have - you can process them and put them permanently to bed.

This isn't brutal honesty; these were weak people brutalizing someone they viewed as weaker than themselves. Lots and lots of people do this kind of thing because they feel shame, inferiority, self-loathing, you name it. This is par for the course in adolescence. Unfortunately, some people carry this sort of garbage behavior into adulthood. Because your nature is likely naturally mild and/or passive, the people in your life who verbally abused you this way felt (consciously or unconsciously) that they could temporarily boost their self-esteem by taking a huge crap on you.

My own father said these sorts of things to me because he hated himself. Because I grew up used to being talked to like I had no worth, I comported myself for many years as if that were so. So, what happened? I attracted relationships that mimicked a dynamic I knew well and understood. I attracted abusers and leeches and weasels and people with a lot of repressed rage. Once I got completely pissed off at these people in therapy and worked through my own very real rage at all of that, I discovered a whole raft of positive feelings about myself that I had never been able to fully tap into. I bloomed very late but I bloomed, and you're capable of the same.

You should also know that people who brutalize others typically pick on the characteristics in those people that they loathe in themselves. So, somebody who calls you fat probably has a pathological fear of being fat, or loathing of their own fat. Somebody who calls you stupid probably feels insecure deep down about their intelligence. A co-worker who blithely, stupidly says in essence that your mother is pretty and you are not probably feels like they themselves aren't that good looking, and putting you down gives them a momentary ego boost at your expense. Or they're a clueless, sexist twit. Either way, they're the one with the problem, not you. And, unfortunately for all of us, there are loads of stupid, hateful, ignorant people out there who lack all self-awareness and who feel entitled to judge others by their appearance, their intelligence level, their status or class. The only thing to do about these fools is to laugh at them or pity them, or both, and be on your merry way. But before you can feel genuine pity for any of these types of people, you have to repair your own self-esteem and feel the real feelings you have about being treated so shabbily.

Some day, you'll call people on this behavior when it happens and they will tread more carefully around you. You'll also begin to naturally repel people who can't get the best of you this way and they'll move on to people whom they can. You'll attract people who don't hate themselves, have self-respect, and who respect others, because you will learn how to respect yourself. You're brave to start therapy and I have confidence you'll learn that you're capable of sticking up for yourself and sending that message to the rest of the world loud and clear. Best of luck.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 2:52 PM on June 25, 2012 [31 favorites]

Best answer: I think it's important to remember that having shitty parents/grandparents doesn't make YOU a bad or broken person. If it wasn't your weight or your breasts, they would have picked out something else. If you were a model-perfect genius they would have lied and said you were ugly or stupid just because they, not you, they were broken and incapable of being the parent or grandparent you deserved.

Not all parents love their kids, and not all parents love the kids they are given. That is a reflection on the parents, not the kids. Ditto grandparents. Say to yourself, "I was an innocent child who deserved to be loved. It was their fault and their wrongdoing what happened to me."

And there are some cultures that encourage perfectly loving parents and relatives not to praise a child too much lest he or she get "a swelled head." The idea is to pick at the kid and point out her faults to keep her humble and encourage her to try harder. Could your family belong to one of those?

What helps so much is to give up on having loving parents. Realize that this whole "parents wear their hearts outside their body" and "no-one knows what love is until they have their kids and OMG LOVE!" is just not applicable to all parents. The fact that your parents' and grandparents' hearts stayed inside their bodies, so to speak, is not a reflection on you. You drew a shitty lot. More people have bad parents than good ones.

Re your puppy love: You've probably heard about the "Making the bus monitor cry" video that went viral. The perpetrators were, guess what, kids about that age. Thirteen year olds have many hormones and little empathy. I think most people could tell a story about being cruelly dumped or made fun of by one's "puppy love" just because of the ages involved. Again, not your fault. Thirteen-year-olds can be really mean just because they're clueless and immature.

What you can do NOW is: one, realize that you are not broken, or different, or have a scarlet letter on your forehead because of what you have gone through. Here is where I think a support group such as Adult Children of Alcoholics, or Codependents Anonymous, or group therapy, might come in handy. Hearing similar testimonies from people just like you is incredibly liberating. You realize that you are not the only one, and that there is no shame and no blame.

Second - and a twelve-step group or therapy is great for this as well - you can change how people treat you starting now, in the present. "That is not acceptable behavior" is a great phrase to learn. "Do not say X to me." "What you call 'gentle teasing' is hurtful to me, and if you continue, I am going to leave." One of the wonderful things about being an adult is that you are not forced to be in someone's company. Remember: You can leave.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:53 PM on June 25, 2012 [11 favorites]

People see other people through filters. Everything anyone thinks about you is based lightly on fact, more on the imaginary person they construct around you based on their preconceptions, prejudices, hopes and fears. The more issues a person has, the more trouble they have seeing the reality of people, and the further from reality this construct is. Also, people often have what I think of as NPC problems - they expect everyone to be like the the non-player characters in computer games, there only to look or act in a way useful to them. This kind of person is particularly bad at seeing the reality of people, and gets angry very easily when a real person doesn't act like an accommodating NPC.

When someone says something horrible about you, it isn't about you - it's about this construct they see sitting on top of the real you. The meaner they are, the less capable they are of seeing you, the actual you. Pity them, because they live in a dark, sad place. When they say cruel things, see those words as a sticky note being placed on this ridiculous construct of yourself. See it standing beside you or over you, vaguely like you but ridiculously exaggerated and downright wrong. That note, those words, they're not on you. They're not about you. Walk away and leave the construct and their ridiculous words with the people who have thrown away their chance to see you.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 2:56 PM on June 25, 2012 [17 favorites]

TryTheTilpia is spot on: "This isn't brutal honesty; these were weak people brutalizing someone they viewed as weaker than themselves." And so does Rosie M. Banks: "I think it's important to remember that having shitty parents/grandparents doesn't make YOU a bad or broken person."

For me, counseling helped tremendously with dealing with this kind of stuff. My mother is mentally ill and while she saved her best insults for my sister (she called her a "whore" when she was a teenager, which my sister still struggles with), she hurled quite a few at me, as well. I also vividly remember a "friend" messaging me on my sixteenth party - while I was waiting for people to show up to my party (they never did) - and telling me that I was fat, ugly, and would be a virgin forever.

As far as having a crappy family, as Rosie said, you just need to remember that they are not you and you are not them. For a long time I carried around the trauma I experienced as a kid as the first and most defining thing about myself. I came to realize that that isn't me - it's what happened to me.

After five years of therapy, these things still cross my mind, but they have no real bearing on how I think or feel about myself. They're merely things that were once said to me.
posted by anotheraccount at 2:57 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, my mantra for brushing off mean stuff people say to me is "Monkeys fling poo; it's what they do." Because like all of our fellow primates, sometimes we lose our cool and fling poo.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:58 PM on June 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

Not sure if I can help with coping, as those are really horrible things to say to anyone. I guess what I would suggest is to make a list of really wonderful things people have said to you to help balance out the negativity.
posted by cnc at 3:09 PM on June 25, 2012

I'm sure I heard terrible things, but I don't recall. I purposely try not to pick my scabs--I'm at least 30 years away from high school, and I just don't dwell on that stuff. I think there's a lot of rehearsing grievances in talk therapy.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:17 PM on June 25, 2012

Best answer: In your specific case, what I would do is get pissed as hell.

What it seems like you're doing is that you're still internalizing the things that these people have said as "normal" or "justified." And that unease you feel is a conflict between your brain -- which is saying "oh, they're just being honest" and your gut and emotions, which are telling you "what the fuck this is TOTAL BULLSHIT". And I have the feeling that somehow you feel like you should be able to suck it up and deal with it, or that there's something wrong with you for being too sensitive, right?

One of the first steps to getting better is finally accepting that no, you're NOT being too sensitive, and the fact that this is still nagging at you is NOT your fault -- it is THEIRS, because they said AWFUL things, and you haven't let yourself be mad about it. Be mad. Be mad that they said such awful, mean, unfair things about you.

Because when you get mad about it, that underscores for your own self that you do NOT deserve to be treated that way and you will NOT put up with it.

In time the anger will fade and you'll be able to deal with future mean comments appropriately -- but first you have to believe that you deserve respect. And part of coming to believe you deserve respect involves getting angry over not having received respect in your past from people you trusted.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:17 PM on June 25, 2012 [17 favorites]

It is unfortunate that adults sometimes forget that they are to nurture a child, not criticize her for being a child. Those grandparents should have their mouths washed out with soap.
posted by Cranberry at 3:18 PM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's been said here already, but my take on it is that people who say such things are lashing out because of their own pain. They're not being honest, they're trying to give themselves a temporary boost by knocking you down. As someone who was verbally abused throughout my childhood, I've come to see that the abuser only said such things out of her own sense of helplessness and fear. It's more a reflection of the damage inside a person who'd say such things than any judgement upon you.

Part of what has helped me is detaching from the abuser and having very little contact with her. Also, as I got older, I just stopped caring about her opinion and came to see her attempts to tear me down as the sad and pathetic childish actions they were.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 3:25 PM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Revisiting past conversations can be an anxiety response. When they occur, try to "replay" the conversation as you would have liked it to go, rather than how it did. This will inject some closure where there wasn't any previously, and the anxiety around that situation will fade. This will also give you confidence for handling these bad conversations as they happen.
posted by joshu at 3:34 PM on June 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

I had a major breakthrough related to this kind of thing recently. Maybe you can relate to some of this...

My mom said (and still says) all kinds of terrible stuff to me. Stuff most people would be horrified that a mother would say to her daughter. I grew up basically thinking there was something fundamentally wrong with me and it took me until I was about 26 (I'm 28 now) to realize that she says the stuff she does because of HER and not me. I finally realized that my mom basically takes out all her frustrations and anger at herself on me.

Most of it is probably because my mom is unhappy with her life and wishes she had done many things differently - I get the brunt of her unhappiness because one of the issues was that I was an accident and my mom ended up getting stuck as a stay at home mom when she didn't want to be one, but she could have worked to change her life and she didn't. Parents had a nonexistent relationship but they stayed married for some reason, so she didn't have support from my dad or anything, but that's not my fault; I didn't ask to be born. It took me 26 years to figure that out.

Anyway, now that I've figured it out I still have a relationship with my mom, but I went out of my way to move to a different state and have distanced myself and do not have to take her crap anymore. There is nothing I can do for her either because she won't help herself.

I've had a lot of trouble throughout my life with relationships with other people because of how this affected my view of everything but I feel like now that I am more clear about what was going on I am in a better position to navigate relationships with people like friends, significant others, etc.

Also nthing that the comments you endured were not "brutally honest" - they are attacks. Nothing more.
posted by fromageball at 3:39 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

In my teens, I wrote my emotionally absent dad a letter that said, "I wish I knew you better. What are your most treasured childhood memories? What do you like most about me? What do you like least about me?" etc. He came to me with letter in hand, sniffling a bit with emotion, and laid his hand gently on my shoulder. My letter had really reached him! He gave me several answers which unfortunately included the following: "What I like most about you is your piano playing, and what I like least about you is your acne."

It hurt. But I also remember in that moment looking at him and thinking to myself, "Whoa. I thought the answer to that question would be like 'There's a few too many times when you'd rather watch TV than help out around the house.' I am more mature than my father. My father's doing his best at this moment to be a good father and he's still a superficial asshole."

I lost respect for most of my dad's opinions after that. Same thing with others who've voiced hurtful remarks, whether cruel or merely tactless and thoughtless. I say fuck 'em all, they like living like that they can swim around in their Asshole Pool judging each other and saying shitty things to each other to their hearts' content.

I remove myself from their company as much as possible (yep, after I moved out I cut Dad off too, because that one remark was just one tiny part of a larger pattern of shitty behaviour and words). And I surrounded myself with people who say supportive things instead. I practiced believing THEIR opinions about me, not the assholes'.

Minimizing time with the people who destroy our self-esteem is vital. (Speaking of which, congrats on your divorce!) Equally vital to healing is maximizing time with people who are reliably careful and thoughtful with our feelings.

You may find the book Toxic Parents helpful. The author talks a lot about how toxic families often give us guilt trips for daring to try to remove ourselves from their web of shit.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 3:42 PM on June 25, 2012 [12 favorites]

Sometimes it helps a lot to just sit down quietly and try to fully re-experience a whole episode of this kind. One must try to really get in touch with one's genuine authentic anger and hurt feelings and feeling of oh-it's-so-unjust just like it felt back then.
This is not a fun technique, it hurts a lot, but your grown-up mind helps you to deal with all this better than back then, and so you'll perhaps manage to heal a little bit every time.
posted by Namlit at 3:53 PM on June 25, 2012

Here's something that I can say with 100% certainty about all of your examples: in every instance, the person speaking was not telling you anything at all about you. He (they seem to be mostly hes) was telling you something about himself. And that something was, "I am an asshole, and I'm not worth a second more of your time." And that's it. That's literally the only takeaway.

It sounds like your family, in particular, is really toxic. Are these people still in your life? If they are, you might want to think really carefully about whether or not they should be.

Oh, yeah, and that "I'm just being honest" thing is a total dodge, and pretty much always bullshit. That's why I told this guy who was worried that he might be an asshole to take a look at whether or not he was being "honest guy."
posted by Ragged Richard at 3:55 PM on June 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

This is totally based on my personal experiences and not on any kind of research or therapy or anything, but: I think parents and grandparents saying this stuff to you is in a different category than that boy you liked saying you had zits. And I'm not sure if the "they do this to hide the pain inside" is applicable to parents and grandparents, or that saying awful things necessarily makes them toxic people who you have to get away from forever. I think some adults fail to see their children as human beings and say anything to them because they can. Not that this is a good thing, and it's still something you have to recover from, but I don't think it always reflects how they see you as an adult. Of course, if your parents are still around and you still have this relationship with them, then screw them.
posted by chickenmagazine at 3:59 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and another thing to remember is this. You know, sometimes the things that these people say seem "objectively" true when they're about you. You know, comments about your appearance or your abilities or things like that. I think one thing that can really help is to hear other people talk about nasty things that were said to them. Because it's so easy to see how ridiculous a lot of these things are when they're said about someone else. You know, I'm getting to the age now where I'm starting to become colleagues with people who have had a HUGE amount of professional success. And in a few cases we have become friends and talked about some of these things. And it's just stunning, when there's this highly competent woman, with a huge amount of responsibility and the compensation to match, who seems perfectly together in every way and almost like a superior human. And she tells you about these horrible things that were said to her in the past that are OBVIOUSLY not true at all, but they are still in the back of her mind.

Man, if I were to ever start a Tumblr, I would want to start one about that, similar to the Project Unbreakable Tumblr. Images of people displaying the things that verbal abusers had said to them. I think it would be a series of constant shocks that "THAT was said to THAT???!! person?"
posted by cairdeas at 4:02 PM on June 25, 2012 [11 favorites]

you just need to remember that they are not you and you are not them. For a long time I carried around the trauma I experienced as a kid as the first and most defining thing about myself. I came to realize that that isn't me - it's what happened to me.

I had mostly neglectful and at times verbally abusive parents and this is helpful to me too. My dad had a sort of flat affect and would say hurtful things just because he didn't really get that they were hurtful. My mom was just mean. I have a bunch of different coping strategies depending on what I'm trying to achieve but the most important part of all of it is THIS STOPS WITH ME. Which means not just that I try very hard to not ever say anything hurtful to other people (I slip sometimes and snap at my boyfriend and always apologize and clarify that it was my bad, not his) but I also try to just not carry bad people around in my head with me. Not my folks, not childhood bullies, not the mean lady from the coffee shop, no one.

I have a sister who I am very close with and we have a little ritual where when we hang out we spend a small amount of time dishing on my mom--the bad or mean things she's said lately, the bad or mean things she's said in the past--and then we move on and close that door for the rest of the time we spend together. We don't live with her in our heads. We identify her behavior as not okay and then move on. I realized at some point I was making people feel uncomfortable sometimes while talking to them about the truly awful things my parents had said to me and in some way I was perpetuating the badness of those episodes, not helping myself heal. I have close friends who I can, when appropriate, talk about how I'm trying to work through this or that thing (and congrats on your for going to counseling, that's a smart choice and it should help) but the rest of the time I don't let past miseries colonize my mind. Sometimes it's like actively not thinking about an elephant; when I am blue it's easy to wallow in bad things and sort of nurture the hurt, but that not only doesn't help me get better (though there's a soothing aspect to it) but I feel that it's prolonging the pain.

No one in my adult life thinks I am stupid or nasty or selfish or ugly or slutty. And if someone said something like that to me it would be so clearly and obviously out of left field and inappropriate. This I know because I am an adult. This is hard to know or understand when you are a child. I can control my reactions to people. My parents, for whatever reason, couldn't even control their reactions to a child. What a shame. That misery stops with me.
posted by jessamyn at 4:05 PM on June 25, 2012 [24 favorites]

Best answer: I went through similar stuff.

As soon as I became an adult (mentally) my gut started demanding that I have zero tolerance to this kind of behavior, but I was scared that it was normal and I was too sensitive. But my gut won and I began to RUN away from people who say things like this to me or others.

It will surprise you to know that I have met loads of good friends (including my husband) who do not feel the need to be that mean to anyone, so in case you feel that "brutally honest" is how grown ups behave, it's not. There are loving people out there who know when it's their place to give you criticism, and even then, they will do it with kindness and respect.
posted by Tarumba at 4:08 PM on June 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

Thirding TryTheTilapia. My grandmother has always, and continues to treat me this way, though she's not as bad as she used to be. Therapy has helped me see that this is abusive behavior, and it is not ok. It is not ok, and it's really really terrible that people like us have had to go through it. We should always be ever aware of abusers and manipulators in our lives, because we are more likely than others to fall into a cycle of abuse because it's what we are used to. It's happened to me several times over, but luckily I came through the other side very empowered - I eventually stood up to an abuser in my life.

Not saying this will ever happen, but be aware that abuse can span generations - often the abused can become the abusers. After realizing this I noticed a subtle way in which I was acting manipulative and, yes, abusive toward a weaker-willed friend of mine. It made me feel powerful in the moment when for so long I felt powerless, and I didn't realize that it was also making me feel shitty, terrible, guilty, because deep down I knew what I was doing was wrong. Take careful stock of your current relationships - do you perpetuate the cycle? Recognizing, and trying to eliminate my own abusive behaviors has helped me heal.

Things that were helpful in therapy:
- This is totally unique to my case, but my therapist has seen my grandmother on a weekly basis for the entire 25 years that I have been alive. During our first session, within the first five minutes, he said, "I know how your grandmother has treated you, and it is not ok". Having an outsider acknowledge the shittiness of her actions allowed me to feel vindicated. Again, totally unique to my situation. Not sure that you would be able to find similar solace.
- My therapist getting me to ponder the question of why my grandmother was acting that way toward me. In my particular case there were multiple answers, but most important was realizing that in her own twisted way, she was trying to shield me from the teasing and bullying she was a victim of when she was a child by pointing out my flaws in hopes that she could change me. She just got the delivery completely and totally fucking wrong, and acted like a bully toward me. This made me feel sorrow, and a bit of compassion toward her...I'm working on forgiveness.
- My therapist totally and fully acknowledging that what I experienced was straight up abuse.
- My therapist asking me why I never stood up for myself (I just wanted to be liked and accepted, so I sat and took the abuse), and giving me permission to stand up for myself.

My grandmother is nearing the end of her life and I visit her every Wednesday. I still struggle like crazy with self esteem/self worth issues. Somehow, visiting and showing her compassion in her weakened state when by all rights I should disown her, has given me a little bit of power in a way that's hard for me to describe. I come out feeling like the bigger person in the whole fucked up situation, and that's important to me.

Obviously, my situation is completely unique, and ymmv; this is how I have coped, and have begun to heal. Hopefully you can glean something useful.

I'm so sorry you have to struggle with this.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 4:12 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have so much to say about this, and please feel free to memail me. I've been the recipient of this kind of crap from a lot of people, starting when I was very young, and mostly within my own family. It still hurts, and I am still upset about it.

But here's what has worked for me so far:

- DON'T have anything to do with these people again. Anyone who puts you down or says mean, nasty crap is out of your life or has vastly scaled down access to the awesomeness that is you. Your life is important; your time is important. These people don't get to be a part of it. In other words, fuck them.

- I think forgiveness is overrated. Unless the person apologizes and shows remorse, whatever response you have is about making your own life better, not theirs. So... do whatever works for you to get over it. You don't owe them a damn thing.

- Gaining perspective has helped me: imagining what it would be like to see, for example, grandparents calling their grandchild a dumbshit. To an adult, this looks like mean old people abusing a young girl, not a young girl who is, in fact, a dumbshit.

- Hang around with people who love you, support you, and say nice things to you. It's hard to calibrate if you're used to this kind of abuse, but trend in that direction.

- No effort I ever expended to deal with people like this was rewarded commensurately. In other words, put your effort into doing amazing things in the world, things you are legitimately proud of. Not to prove them wrong, but just to make them and their stupid comments irrelevant to your life and behavior.

- There are a lot of us who are just like you. We look fairly normal, have great jobs and lives and blah blah, but we were treated badly by others as and bear the scars. We all have something and we feel your pain. You aren't alone in this, even though you felt that way at the time.

One image that has really affected me was the idea that there are millions of people crying in their rooms, alone, right now, thinking that their suffering is theirs alone. They are all crying to themselves over something horrible that has been done to them, and they don't know that they are not alone and that their pain is not their fault. Think about that. Millions of people. The unnecessary suffering is staggering. It's not your fault.

Feel free to write any time.
posted by 3491again at 4:15 PM on June 25, 2012 [18 favorites]

I guess I'm going to provide a completely different perspective. It may sound harsh initially, but with a fuller explanation, I hope my point will be clear.

It is not about you. The world does not revolve around you. It is natural to think otherwise, because after all, we experience the world always from one perspective - your own. We are all the biggest stars of our own movies. But it is a mistake. Getting past that, I think was one of the most important parts of growing up, for me.

Here's how it applies to you: when somebody says something about you, you naturally take the meaning as applicable to you. And then you analyze, worry, beanplate and endlessly investigate: is it true, how can it be, oh what does that say about me, etc., etc., etc. And that's a HUGE mistake, because really, what you are hearing is an opinion of some individual, and there's a giant context to that.

I'll give you some examples. As a kid, I moved around a lot - think different countries - and so went to different schools and had to keep reintroducing myself to new groups of people. As a result, I've seen it all, as far as the process of acceptance of an outsider into the "in group". And when I was younger, quite a few things threw me, until I understood the context. There was that time when a girl kept attacking me verbally, viciously and constantly. I couldn't understand it, and tried to analyze what I had done wrong, this and that. Then on a field trip, she maneuvered herself to hang out with me, and we made out. She was just looking for a way to establish contact, and didn't know how. Think of the negative things kids do for attention. Gee, once I got to know her, she was the sweetest toward me. It taught me a valuable lesson. Don't take what people say at face value. There are endless reasons why people say things. Sometimes it means the very opposite. And that's why I say: it's not about you. You can't analyze - as I did - what her attacks said about me, because IT IS NOT ABOUT ME. It was about her, all along. Once you allow your world to expand, you realize that it's really about the world out there - it is so much greater and larger than you are.

And this of course carries over into so many other things. People who do things because of how they think it will impact the world, while the reality is that they severely misjudge their position. We imagine that people are thinking about us - when in reality they're hardly aware of our existence and have their own problems and their own reality to deal with. It's a huge mistake to imagine that some random thing you do is scrutinized for hours by others they way you scrutinize your own. Nobody gives a shit. People may say things to you and forget them ten seconds later. People say things because of WHO THEY ARE. It says nothing about you - if you want to treat it as a data point, you're welcome, but just to assess - do they have a point, or is it rubbish?

I tell you the secret to being completely immune to "shit people say" - have a strong sense of self. Know who you are. So when somebody says something like "you're X", you instantly know they're wrong. Or you can dispassionately give it a moment's thought - hey, maybe they have a point, let me incorporate that to better myself. Why? Because you're the fucking king, and you get to decide what goes and whose remarks you admit to your inner chamber.

It also helps to be somewhat ornery (sorry!). This comes with age. You just become tired of stupid shit, because you've seen so much of it. So when I witness someone behaving in a shitty way, I just grow ornery, because it's tiresome. Usually, the pricks slink away - I've called out homophobes and bigots in social situations and they fold very quickly, because part of how they are able to operate is when nobody in a social group opposes them. I hate bullies, and I always make a point of calling them out - and guess what, mostly they're cowards. When you toughen up, you are also less of a target, because these cowards don't usually attack someone they see as stronger. When you see them for what they are, they have no power. I'll give a bit of a un-PC example. Have you ever been insulted by a drunk or bum when you refused to give them change? Well, did you take their curses seriously? Nope, it's just annoying. But the thing is, that you somehow give someone in a suit more power - but objectively they deserve no more than the drunk bum does. Who gives a flying fuck what they say? Yeah, ornery.

Buckle up. Don't keep analyzing and keeping lists of random hurtful shit people say. It's not about you. There's a huge wonderful amazing world out there - and spending so much time locked inside of yourself endlessly looking over your wounded soul is a tremendous waste of time and a giant miscalculation. You need to change your entire perspective. Here's how I'd put it:

Look OUTSIDE of yourself not INSIDE. You'll be a great deal happier that way, I believe. Because it's a beautiful world, and we're lucky to be alive - it's a miracle. Don't let some dope steal away your time on this earth.
posted by VikingSword at 4:26 PM on June 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh, and let me favorite both of cairdeas' posts so hard. I have had the same experience with very successful, prominent people who have been shat upon repeatedly in their past.
posted by 3491again at 4:28 PM on June 25, 2012

that kind of shit is totally useless for self-improvement, because it's abuse, not constructive criticism. personally, i think the worst thing you can do in these situations is to try and look at them philosophically, and to try and distance yourself from the emotional impact by telling yourself that these statements had nothing to do with you, that they were just symptoms of emotional problems these people had, etc. basically what that amounts to is your making excuses for their behavior, which is a gigantic self-headfuck. why did they do it? FUCK why they did it.

the only thing that matters is that it's not ok for people to say or do mean things to you, under any circumstances. sticking up for yourself (as you did in divorcing your husband) is the best thing you can do going forward.
posted by facetious at 4:30 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

It might be helpful to explore EMDR.

I hope you can find some peace with this.
posted by bunderful at 4:32 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and something I started doing every day: when the negative thoughts start creeping in (and they often do at some point every day), I will grab a post it note and fill it with things I have accomplished or things I do well or like about myself. I try not to think too hard about it and will just write down what comes to mind. It takes five minutes, and when I'm finished I am usually not thinking the irrational thoughts about how much I suck anymore. I'll hang on to the post it for the rest of the day and glance at it any time I start to feel crappy or insecure again. Sometimes at the end of the list, I'll put a few minor (attainable!) goals I'd like to accomplish, along with the traits that I possess that will help me conquer that goal.

It's so easy to remember all of the bad negative energy that people project on us, that sometimes we need a little concrete reminder of all the good things about ourselves.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 4:33 PM on June 25, 2012

I agree with everyone else who has said that this is not "brutal honesty" but just plain meanness that has been directed at you. I also have more than a fair share of it in my past. My coping mechanism has been, mostly, to do what others have done and spend less time around people who are needlessly cruel and more time around people who cultivate only a feeling of loving, positive support. They exist; hopefully, you have found some of them, but if you have not, they are out there and eager to meet you.

Spend some time around kind, loving people. Pay special attention to the nice things they say about you. It's so easy for us to downplay all of the compliments people give us (we think "oh, they're just being polite") but we don't doubt the harsh, unkind words quite so much. Why? Grow your appreciation and gratitude for the good things people say to you now, and use this sort of thinking to apply to things that were said about you in the past. Why do we assume things said in cruelty are more true than things said in kindness? They're not -- both are people's subjective opinions. So I think that if I am going to believe that the mean things that were said about me reflect some truth about me, I must also believe that all of the good things that were said about me reflect some truth in me. (This is not to say that those bad things ARE true, because they're not, but it's merely to reframe how you think.) If you start giving those good things more weight -- weight you have probably not given them while ruminating on the bad -- you can use them to help regrow your self esteem.

Oh, and good for you for getting therapy. A contented person doesn't treat others with brutality. A contented person doesn't even consider it. You are doing your part to be sure this doesn't continue.
posted by houndsoflove at 4:33 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Some things that people said have stuck with me for my whole life. The comments weren't brutally honest, just hateful and mean. My mother in particular said a lot of awful things and seemed to feel the need to (verbally) kick me when I was down. I think she's intensely anxious and cannot handle most emotions, so she would respond by getting angry and lashing out at the only people who had no choice but to take it, her children. Thanks for this question because I want to get this stuff out of my head and haven't yet been able to do it - when the cruel things are repetitious and from a parent and start when you are a child, they stick around a while.

I know in the past I have said some pretty mean insults to friends and plenty of thoughtlessly negative stuff as well. That sort of thing was normalized in the environment in which I grew up. No one taught me that it was inappropriate and disrespectful. Having had so much criticism directed at me as a child and young adult, for a long time I felt so depressed/disconnected that I actually could not imagine anything I said could hurt anyone else. I figured other people would not care one way or the other what I said or thought about anything and I also didn't know how to express myself other than by being critical and negative. I had been taught that I had to just be agreeable and say nothing even if upset, until it got to be too much and then I'd shoot my mouth off and say something really awful. Or I'd get stressed and take it out on people who I knew would put up with it. I learned better, but it wasn't even all that long ago that I really consciously decided to try and stop being critical, since we do have a culture (especially on the internets) that often encourages saying/writing really mean things.

cairdeas' advice about getting away from these people and avoiding those who start with the weird put-downs is great. I've been reevaluating some friendships lately and now I usually see mean remarks as kind of sad and embarrassing for the person making them.
posted by citron at 5:51 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Ideefixe: I'm sure I heard terrible things, but I don't recall. I purposely try not to pick my scabs--I'm at least 30 years away from high school, and I just don't dwell on that stuff. I think there's a lot of rehearsing grievances in talk therapy.

That does concern me a bit. I was in counseling for a short time when I was a teenager for issues with my dad, and my mom and stepdad. While the counselor had some useful concrete action items for the situation with my dad, talking about the mom/stepdad issues just seemed to make things worse because it was all talk and no action and dwelling on it made me miserable. When I go in Thursday I intend to find out *how* this counselor actively helps patients. As in, what methods she suggests for repairing this stuff.

EmpressCallipygos: What it seems like you're doing is that you're still internalizing the things that these people have said as "normal" or "justified." And that unease you feel is a conflict between your brain -- which is saying "oh, they're just being honest" and your gut and emotions, which are telling you "what the fuck this is TOTAL BULLSHIT". And I have the feeling that somehow you feel like you should be able to suck it up and deal with it, or that there's something wrong with you for being too sensitive, right?

You hit the nail on the head on that one.

Ragged Richard: It sounds like your family, in particular, is really toxic. Are these people still in your life?

My grandfather died 4 years ago. It really is the only harsh comment he had about me, ever. He was stern but loving, if he questioned decisions I made later in life he did so respectfully. The fact that he called me a dumbshit for a couple weeks was a surprising and painful black mark in an otherwise good relationship. Similar with his wife/my step-grandmother, though I was never as close to her and we're no longer in very frequent contact. My relationship with my Dad has ebbed and flowed over the years and currently it's pretty superficial. My Mother never said anything outright cruel to me that I can recall, but her issues with alcoholism make her the most toxic of the bunch. My relationship with her is also superficial, strained and in need of assessment and perhaps repair. I worry what happens when she gets to the point where she's too old or too sick to care for herself. I feel terrible saying it, but selfishly I want no involvement whatsoever. (I'm an only child.)

To all who have said to drop these people completely: I don't have close friends or any kind of a support system, really - I live with my partner, who has his own deep set of issues, and I have my parents. Shutting any of them out completely would be creating an excessively painful hole in my life. While they all have done painful things to me, they've all also done very wonderful, loving, selfless and caring things for me too. It's like having a dog that's the perfect companion, loyal, obedient, loving... then one day he bites you. Then goes back to being loyal, obedient and loving. WTF?! It's confusing and makes me keep my guard up at all times.
posted by thrasher at 6:17 PM on June 25, 2012

I don't have close friends or any kind of a support system, really - I live with my partner, who has his own deep set of issues, and I have my parents. Shutting any of them out completely would be creating an excessively painful hole in my life.

FWIW, if you want to get the most for your time/money/effort in therapy, I'd focus your efforts on the issue above rather than whatever transpired in your past. Having this sort of lifestyle in the present would likely cause stress/suffering even for those fortunate souls who grew up in truly happy families. Be well.
posted by 5Q7 at 6:29 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was thinking about your post and something else came to mind.

A while back, one of the feminist blogs had a post about an image of an actress (sorry, I can't remember who) that attracted some trolls. She was attacked for being too fat, too unattractive, etc. She was in infact perfectly lovely and quite successful, IIRC.

Every time I think of that, I wonder who those trolls were in real life. Probably not incredibly attractive, fit, happy, successful men who totally had a shot at dating her but decided not too because she needed to lose 5 pounds.

Haters gonna hate. Trollers gonna troll. And it has nothing to do with you. (And I mean that in the sense that you were not chosen as a target because you deserved it).
posted by bunderful at 6:46 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's like having a dog that's the perfect companion, loyal, obedient, loving... then one day he bites you.

Oh that is the perfect description of one of my parents, although the biting was pretty regular. I also flirted with the idea of breaking up with them forever, and sometimes I felt I owed it to myself. But then, I talked it over with my therapist and I discovered that the best avenue for me was to

A. Completely des-internalize the insults by means of therapy and
B. Realize that this person was battling severe mental issues and never felt worthy of help, which makes me feel compassion for them.

But that is because this person is has a major role in my life, and as you said, has also done wonderful things for me and I know they love me. The rest of mean weirdos, sayonara to them!
posted by Tarumba at 6:46 PM on June 25, 2012

Best answer: I don't have close friends or any kind of a support system, really - I live with my partner, who has his own deep set of issues, and I have my parents. Shutting any of them out completely would be creating an excessively painful hole in my life.

FWIW, if you want to get the most for your time/money/effort in therapy, I'd focus your efforts on the issue above rather than whatever transpired in your past. Having this sort of lifestyle in the present would likely cause stress/suffering even for those fortunate souls who grew up in truly happy families. Be well.

Quoted for truth. You really need to develop a support system of caring people; one of the focuses of your therapy should be how to do this. Even introverts and loners need some kind of social connection that nourishes them.

People stay stuck with toxic friends, relatives and SO's many times because they are lonely and lack good healthy people in their lives. You don't want to be so lonely and needy that it's any port in a storm.

Finally - it's OK that you want to keep your parents in your life but it's really, really OK to set boundaries with how much you will endure. You can keep them in your life but limit your interactions and/or firmly refuse to accept ill-treatment or drama. Don't let a sense of duty as an only child lead you to martyr yourself for your mom - or put up with "brutal honesty" or cutting remarks from anyone.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:47 PM on June 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

Best answer: thrasher, you might benefit greatly from learning more about codependency.

See, when I read things like this:

The fact that he called me a dumbshit for a couple weeks was a surprising and painful black mark in an otherwise good relationship.


Let's imagine something for a moment. I want you to imagine yourself going into a sixth grade classroom tomorrow, okay? You go in with a crate of interesting board games and video games and word puzzles and art supplies and just whatever you think these kids would really dig. You also bring snacks and drinks and balloons and some cool music and you set the room up like a really cool, fun party where the kids get to do whatever they want for the whole afternoon. You're just this really cool, awesome substitute teacher who dropped into the lives of these kids for the afternoon to entertain and stimulate and make them feel just awesome and relaxed, and they do and it's just a spectacularly fun, effortless afternoon for them and you.

Now, imagine that one of them spills a bottle of Coke on your lap accidentally; they're sitting close to you playing XBox or whatever and they get really excited and elbow a 2 liter of Coke off the table and into your lap. And you hop up and lean over to them and say, sternly, "LISTEN, YOU DUMBSHIT. WHAT THE HELL IS THE MATTER WITH YOU? PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU'RE DOING, YOU LITTLE DUMBSHIT. YOU SPILLED COKE ON MY PANTS. DON'T BE SUCH A DUMBSHIT, DUMBSHIT."

How do you imagine that kid would feel? Are you in the wrong in that situation? Do you think that kid has a right to be really shocked and pissed off at you? Do you imagine that that kid would easily trust you, or others like you who showed up occasionally with treats, ever again? Or does it seem understandable to you that you would act that way, because you're basically a good person and, after all, the kids behavior was sort of dumbshit behavior?

I ask because I think your acceptability meter is off and you just don't know by how much yet.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 6:55 PM on June 25, 2012 [17 favorites]

Also, yeah...don't settle down for people who aren't good for you just because you'll be alone. Sometimes alone is a fresh start.

And for some outside NONE of those scenarios you described can I even begin to imagine a context that would make those horrible comments OK. And you dad talking about your boobs at all, specially in that way is really, really not OK.

If you want tips, here is one. It may make you feel like Gollum so YMMV. Try to imagine yourself as you are now, hugging and consoling young thrasher, tell her how those things aren't true and how wrong those people were. Tell her everything she needs to hear. It works for me.

Memail or email me whenever you want to talk! And keep working hard on therapy! Best Wishes.
posted by Tarumba at 7:00 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: TryTheTilapia: Are you in the wrong in that situation?

Of course. And now I'm bawling my fucking head off. Thank you. (that's genuine.)
posted by thrasher at 7:07 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hugs, thrasher.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:13 PM on June 25, 2012

Thrasher, none of what you've described is in any way acceptable in any context whatsoever. There is no way to justify it. I've been hurt by comments that were merely thoughtless. (My father once said that the reason Dr. Tully Monster hadn't called me over Christmas break, despite the fact that we had been dating for a year, was that he'd probably met some girl on the train he liked better and had forgotten all about me by now. It turned out that he just felt awkward calling his girlfriend long distance from his grandparents' phone. Aw, geez, now I'm mad all over again. How could any father SAY that to his daughter? Never mind. When he left my mother and a marriage of 33 years for a woman he liked better, it was clear that he'd been talking about his own asshole self.)

Anyways, sorry for the digression. It's just to say that you're not alone in having people who should at the very least be polite and at the most love you unconditionally say things that no one should ever hear from anyone, and that long after you've supposedly "brushed it off" it can still open up raw and fresh.

It's not easy. Therapy will definitely help. Hearing someone completely neutral and objective and able to help you put things in perspective without minimizing their impact on you will help a lot. Filling your life with people who really love and care about you and learning to accept what they say at face value (which is hard if your inner voices are shrill, citical, and abusive) helps. Figuring out what the hell would make someone say something so moronic, untrue, and cruel and realizing that such people are NOT NORMAL helps a lot. You don't have to feel sorry for them, or compassionate. You just have to do what's right for you. Living well is the best revenge.

One possible exception: from your followup post it sounds like your grandfather's outburst was pretty out of character for him. Is it possible that he could have had a stroke or some other kind of brain trauma? I've heard of lots of other instances in which an older person comes out with shockingly, unexpectedly abusive language toward loved family members tha he/she would never have uttered in his/her right mind. If this was a possible explanation, it might lessen the hurt. You might ask other family members whom you trust if they ever observed such behavior from him or had it directed at them and what they made of it.

You're moving in the right direction. You're not alone. You'll get there.
posted by tully_monster at 8:52 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

The fact that you divorced your husband says that you are taking steps in the right direction
posted by radioamy at 9:01 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Learn to listen for a signal in your gut. The signal is "this person is emitting something poisonous that makes me feel rotten".

When you hear that signal, trust it, and put a whole lot of distance between you and the source of the poison.

All the examples you gave should have that signal screaming at you.
posted by ead at 11:37 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Read Patricia Evans' *The Verbally Abusive Relationship.* Memorize all the scripts.
2. Read Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour.
3. Make more friends so that you can gradually spend less time with people who are mean to you but you feel you can't get rid of.
posted by tel3path at 12:41 AM on June 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think it can be hard to admit that such signficant people in your life were not only mistaken, but outright abusive or mean. It can be pretty tough to realise you were living under a cloud of misinformation for so long and during such formative years. In my case, I came to that realisation slowly. It was hard, and some days it made me extremely angry. I think I was afraid of the avalanche of anger that these realisations would unleash, though in truth I have managed to find ways to cope.

I don't have all the answers as I'm still working on this process myself. But I can tell you it does get easier with time. I think your post shows you are starting to wake up to reality. The good news is - you are smarter, prettier and a better person than you were ever aware of before; your self esteem has a good chance of improving a lot from here on.

I would make a rule like "three strikes and they are out" - so whoever is verbally abusing you - tell them the first and the second time, using assertive behaviour and appropriate langauge, to stop, because of how it makes you feel. On the second instance, remind them of the first conversation and repeat your request. If they do it again, toss them out of your life and never look back. It is hard, but they have been warned, and given a chance to fix things. People who respect you will not need to be told repeatedly. To be honest they probably won't verbally abuse you in the first place. If they do mistakenly say something bad, they will change their behaviour remarkably quickly with a warning. I found it a bit confronting to realise how effective assertiveness was when used on randomly selected people, compared with my abusers.

Finally, don't worry if you get a big does of puppy love for people who treat you kindly - it has happened to me a few times as I have increasingly opened up to being treated with respect. Don't worry because the overwhelming feelings wear off with time as you adjust to that person and the level of kindness (kind of like culture shock if you've ever experienced that) , and it is good for you to learn how being treated properly feels. Oh, and it is fun!

Good luck!
posted by EatMyHat at 6:17 AM on June 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Yes, once you have it absolutely clear in your mind what you will and will not put up with, and have scripts for correcting people if they cross a line - you won't be left all alone in the world.

Well, you might have fewer people around you for a short time, but that's not a problem for long. What happens is, the mean people just sort of melt away and vanish from your environment. After a while, you're hardly even aware that mean people exist at all, because they won't come near you, and they won't try to provoke you if they do have to come near you.

If I hadn't experienced this myself I wouldn't believe it. But I actually haven't had any dealings with anyone mean or negative at all in over two years (other than telling them to go away... and they do). And all the groups I join turn out to be exclusively populated with positive people. A lot of that must be luck, but not all.
posted by tel3path at 8:19 AM on June 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I like to collect positive feedback. Write down in a little book any compliment you are paid, no matter by whom and about what.
It may seem vain but since your vanity meter is calibrated way in the other direction, see it as a corrective!

Anyway, it serves two purposes:
- You can read it to bolster your self esteem and make you feel better when someone says something mean to you
- It'll make you pay attention to the good feedback you do get (which you tend to not remember as well as the criticisms)
posted by Omnomnom at 12:37 PM on June 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Easy. I repeat to myself: "do not let them live for free in my head".

Unless those people matter to you - which they mostly shouldn't - it really, really doesn't matter.
posted by talldean at 1:48 PM on June 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was walking somewhere once when I saw a man call a child who was no more than five a 'stupid [c-word]'. If he hadn't seemed so aggressive I'd have turned round and slapped him. I felt the same reading about what your parents and grandparents said. That was not OK. It wouldn't be OK said from one adult to another, and it sure as hell wasn't coming from family to a child.
posted by mippy at 6:37 AM on June 27, 2012

The fact that he called me a dumbshit for a couple weeks was a surprising and painful black mark in an otherwise good relationship.

In that case, it's totally possible that his comments were the result of a neurological event that had nothing at all to do with your relationship with him. You should consider the possibility that, in your grandfather's case, what happened was just a crossed wire, nothing more.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:01 AM on June 27, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks all for the input. The "dumbshit" thing wasn't a fluke neurological event.

I stayed with him and my grandmother for 2 or 3 weeks over Christmas when I was 12. Early in the trip I was out in the front yard with him and got the idea to throw a snowball at him - he was playful and I fully expected it to become a good natured snowball fight. He was between me and the house, but we were several yards away from the house. When I threw the snowball he angrily said, "you do not ever throw snowballs in the direction of the house, dumbshit." I quickly apologized and his anger diffused quickly.

But then it became a joke between him and my grandmother. Throughout the rest of my stay, any time I did anything silly, wrong, childish, whatever, I got called dumbshit (the first time was the only time I recall it actually being in anger.) For example, my grandmother was showing me her jewelry box. She pulled out an antique three strand pearl necklace. Having no experience with such a thing, I took one strand and put it over my head (rather than clasping all three strands around my neck). She laughed and took it off me, saying "not like that, dumbshit!" and showed me how to put it on properly. They thought nothing of it I'm sure, it was just funny.

It hurt like hell the whole time I was there, and I remember even writing a letter to my mother about it, but I never said anything to either of them about it. I don't think I ever stayed with them for an extended period of time again, and they never called me dumbshit again either.

The surprising and confusing thing was my grandfather was REALLY big on respect, and not ever calling your spouse mean pet names, even in jest. His wife's parents came to visit, and dad regularly called mom "double-ugly." It drove my grandfather up a wall. I could never understand why that was completely inappropriate, but calling your granddaughter dumbshit was okay - it made me think they didn't actually like me very much.

Perhaps that's why it never happened again. Maybe they realized their own hypocrisy.
posted by thrasher at 9:37 AM on June 27, 2012

That... really sucks. Still, when you tell the whole story like that, I can kinda see how it would happen. It's the kind of thing my friends and I might do, although we obviously wouldn't do it to a 12-year-old. But it sounds like what happened was that your Grandfather got very angry, let something slip out, was really embarrassed about having done so, and then tried to turn the whole thing into a joke so that what he did would seem, retroactively, not so bad. "See, it's not a big deal that I called you a dumbshit. We say it all the time! It's a joke! It doesn't mean anything!" Which, don't get me wrong, is decidedly not awesome. But it also indicates that you shouldn't take it to heart because, as I said above, this has everything to do with stuff going on in their heads, and nothing at all to do with anything about you.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:35 PM on June 27, 2012

True, ragged richard -- but thrasher, you still didn't feel secure enough to tell them to knock it off, and your grandpa still should have apologized. So there is nothing wrong with your feeling hurt.

And hell, you may even come to the same conclusion ragged richard did your own self -- but you still have a lot of hurt that needs expressing, and that's clouding how you feel about things right now. A webcomic had a line that puts it well -- you have angry/hurt chemicals that you still need to metabolize. You've been stopping yourself from going ahead and being hurt becuase you've convinced yourself you shouldn't -- but it's okay to.

I actually had something like this happen - I had some girls in my grade school do some very cruel things to me, and I spent years trying to squelch my reaction because I also was thinking that there was something wrong with me for feeling that sensitive about what they did. One of the things I tried to tell myself over and over was "they were only kids, they didn't know what they were doing, so I should get over it." It wasn't until I was TWENTY that I finally realized "who am I kidding, what they did to me was still really fucked up," and I finally let myself respond with the hurt and the anger and the genuine reaction that I should have had when I was seven. And when the anger was finally all out and over with, then I once again thought "but they were only kids, they didn't know what they were doing," and that time, I was finally able to mean it. They were kids and they truly didn't know what they were doing, but I could still be angry about it and I could still express that anger. And expressing it is what helped me move past it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:44 PM on June 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just chiming back in to reassure you, thrasher, if you're still reading, that being angry and upset over being called a dumbshit repeatedly by your grandparents over the course of a two week visit is perfectly okay, rational, sane and appropriate.

What is inappropriate is for adults to call children names and then rationalize it to themselves by turning it into some sort of "game", wherein they repeatedly call the kid the same hurtful name in order to, what, remove the sting? Make it seem less important than it is? Make it seem like something you should toughen up and take? I call bullshit on all of this. You were a kid. Your grandparents should have known better. You can still love them and remember the good parts of them and be mad as hell they called you a demeaning name and didn't have the humility to apologize for it.

Saying "it's on them", clapping your hands together and walking away from hurt isn't possible until you actually experience and process your own feelings. Many don't feel entitled to do that or haven't had ample practice doing so because the adults in their lives repeatedly minimized or outright denied the validity of their feelings.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 5:41 AM on June 29, 2012

Yeah, sorry, I don't think I was clear enough that what they did was really not ok. I was trying to explain how that could have happened in a way that wasn't really about you at all, not rationalize or excuse their behavior.
posted by Ragged Richard at 6:42 AM on June 29, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all :)
posted by thrasher at 4:02 PM on June 29, 2012

Best answer: I wish I could hug everyone in this entire thread.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:17 PM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I didn't want to make a Metatalk about this, because the stuff in this thread is so personal, but people might be interested to know that Metafilter's own Merlin Mann uses this question as a jumping-off point for a really interesting discussion of honesty in the latest episode of his Back to Work podcast.

He also expresses his agreement with the consensus here: that most of the people in your examples are not being honest, but instead are being jerks.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:48 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Well that's bizarre and kinda freaks me out, but kinda cool too. Thanks Ragged Richard.
posted by thrasher at 11:02 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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