Ghost in the brain
May 15, 2014 11:52 AM   Subscribe

Based on my dysfunctional upbringing, it finally occurred to me that a lot my anxiety comes from being concerned that I will get "in trouble" a disproportionate amount for doing something that I didn't know was so wrong as to be deserving of the punishment. I have just recently started therapy again and will certainly bring this up, but I'm sure some of you will have some advice for me.

I'm a 35 year old professional. I do not get "in trouble" like a child. I do a good job. I am a good person. When I was a kid, I used to get told I wanted to be right all the time because I would get defensive. In reality, I was afraid of being "in trouble" and that it was a terrible horrible thing from which I could never recover and must be avoided at all costs. So when I get defensive at work or personally (or any of the other self defense mechanisms I used to deal with the dysfunction), I can see how it's just me being afraid of this unknown "in trouble" where this small thing I did wrong gets reacted to in this horrible way that doesn't really fit the wrong.

For awhile this did manifest in a sort "why bother?" approach to life because I felt I couldn't do anything because even when I did something right, there was still something wrong with it because I forgot one detail. As a kid it would be something like cleaning my room all wonderful but I forgot to empty the trashcan - bed is made, clothes put away, closet floor nicely organized with shoes, a good job except for that one thing. So therefore, my mom's eyes, I did not do a good job and I just don't know how to clean my room and when am I ever gonna learn, is she going to have to pick up after me and everyone else in this house forever, etc etc and then she's just pissy the rest of the day and complains it about to my dad when he comes home and he's just like "uh, yeah, empty the trash can, like your mother said."Ok, so yeah, I should have emptied the trash can but I was just so proud of myself for doing all those other things right that I had gotten yelled at about before only to find out they didn't matter at all because I forgot this one thing this time. It's not that I didn't know it was wrong per se, but because my mom was dysfunctional, it wasn't "Great job - and remember, a clean room has an empty trash can too!", it was "my god you just don't know how to do anything right."

Just as an opposite - if I ever broke curfew, never got in trouble. Not once. So i really never had any idea what would be "wrong".

tl;dr: Have you had to deal with growing up being punished disproportionate to the trouble you caused? How have you learned to handle it and grow up and away from it so that you don't alienate friends and coworkers by being edgy all the time from reacting to a long-dead woman's bizarre idea of child-rearing? If there are terms for any of this that I should google or search for on AskMe (and can also bring up to my therapist), please let me know.

posted by inmyhead to Human Relations (15 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
If you're a male, check out "No More Mr. Nice Guy" (Robert Glover author). Available from your book/ebook/audiobook provider of your choice. Covers exactly the upbringing you talk about here and how to overcome those effects now that we are grown.
posted by unixrat at 12:14 PM on May 15, 2014

Response by poster: i'm a ms nice girl. :)
posted by inmyhead at 12:26 PM on May 15, 2014

Best answer: I did it both ways growing up, and neither worked for me.

As some points of reference, when I was about five or six, my mother decided that I was too old to take aspirin crushed in a spoon and mixed with water. I remember being quite ill with a fever and being sat down in the kitchen and told to swallow the pill whole.

I couldn't (or didn't want to) do it, and it ended up on the floor. I was told that I was to pick it up and keep trying. I had one large glass of water, which would not be refilled. So, this process was repeated until I was staring at a crumbling aspirin and a empty glass of water. At this point, I was repeatedly force fed the aspirin until I began to vomit. I hoped that this would end the session, but instead it would be rinsed off and placed back in my mouth.

Eventually, I got it down, but received a beating for wasting so much time and acting like a "baby."

Around this same age, I was also forced to memorize my multiplication tables, and would get struck repeatedly with a section of a blue Hot Wheels track for every wrong answer.

There are many other instances which are similar to the above, but these two are fairly representative of my childhood.

I grew up, terrified of displeasing my mother, and anything less than a 95 on a test would result in severe punishment. My room could not be clean enough, my friends not acceptable enough, my intelligence not displayed enough to satisfy the expectation of a perfect child who simply did not exist.

When I was 12 or 13, there was a particularly severe punishment--which lasted a few days, for something I did not do. At some point during this, I snapped. I finally had had enough, and every subsequent attempt to control or discipline me was met with fury and violence. I hit back, I cursed, used racial epithets, and needless to say the police were at my house about every time I was in trouble.

The rage was my mind attempting to overcome the terror.

Perhaps this isn't as extreme as what you experienced, but I don't think that your lingering effects are any less than what I used to endure.

Fear. Constant fear. Especially of people... but also confrontation and trusting others. Not to mention the overarching subtext of complete inadequacy which undermined every success I had, and trumpeted every failure.

Much like you, I allowed these terrible occurrences in my childhood to influence my adult life.

I was told that I play a part in every resentment I carry with me. That somewhere, somehow I am responsible for the anxiety, fear, and misery which is in me. I was told that those things which happened to me as a child were not my fault, but the fact that they hadn't happened in decades and I was still operating under their influence was my (albeit understandable) responsibility.

For me, the path was partly in forgiveness. Understanding the sickness she had, and to a degree still has. Of how she did the best she could, with what (very) little she had. Also, forgiving myself, and realizing that the thoughts I had were distorted and simply not real.

For years, if I did something as simple as dropping the toppings off of a pizza while taking it out of the oven, it would be a litany of inward verbal abuse for an hour.

The abused became the abuser.

My mother wasn't there any more, but she didn't have to be, the self-inflicting thoughts and dialogue filled in for her.

In a strange way, I almost needed that constant barrage of internal abuse. I had nurtured and developed self-defense mechanisms and manners of living which were well suited for abuse and deprecation, but I had none at all for the more mundane challenges that life is known to throw people's way.

So in every challenging situation, even if there was no one unreasonably yelling at me, I stepped in as the abuser because I didn't know how to handle life in any other way.

Today, I am not afraid. I have forgiven my parents as best I can, and I have decent relationships with them both. I have forgiven ME for the years of aftershock abuse. I can turn down the volume on the internal criticisms when they don't serve a purpose. I have a child (and another coming!) whom I do NOT treat this way.

The keys for me, and the focal point of much of my work in therapy, was realizing my fears were delusional and a ton of work on overcoming my feelings of inadequacy.

That's why I'm so glad to hear that you're going to therapy. It's really amazing what the perspective of someone with some letters after their name did for me, and how I realize that although that scared, little child will always be lurking somewhere in me.. Today, I can comfort him with positive, assuring self-love, instead of continuing to heap on the abuse.
posted by Debaser626 at 12:38 PM on May 15, 2014 [47 favorites]

This is going to sound flippant, but as someone who has struggled a lot with what you're describing, I've been helped a lot by internalizing the stoned wisdom of Ray Smuckles.

Being in trouble is a fake idea.
posted by Juliet Banana at 12:40 PM on May 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

I grew up with some combination of this and other stuff, so FWIW and these are specific to what you requested (friends and work):

-If the person is a close friend (not coworkers), you can just tell the person. "I'm sorry that I react or am reacting this way," (maybe you don't want to deal with another person who has explosive anger, whatever it is) "but when I grew there were adults who behaved the same way and I have a hard time interacting when people do the same thing." IF these are close friends/ you both know each other's weaknesses/it can help.

-If it is a workplace, try to remember it is not the same thing. There really should not be emotion involved (unlike your parent), but rather, the goal is to have the entire team produce something for a client, and as a team, the final product should be of a certain quality. So ideally, after a project, everyone reviews it and if they tell you - hey,you did not paint the widget, it is not an attack but to help you as part of the team do the correct step next time. So you add paint widget to the protocol and that is that. But it is not 'inmyhead can't do anything right', it is'corporation X, which includes all the employees, can make great widgets.'View it that way, incorporate what they suggest, and remember that you are part of a team that can produce great widgets (or whatever it is you do at work).

-One thing that will differ as an adult vs a child is that you don't have to put up people who behave in that way/or you can set boundaries.So if someone tells you "you can't do anything right", you can ask, "Hey, do you mind just asking me to fix X and not labeling as not right? Or to tell me without emotion and judgement" --- or something like that.Or if they are a jerk, you don't have to even interact with them day in and day out.

-All those people in your head from the past? Plus all the people in your head from the future (because you will meet people like that again). Prove them wrong. That's how you get over yet. Whether someone tells you that you are an idiot or can't do X or whatever - don't answer, just do it and excel at it, to meet the quality that you deem appropriate in your head, not some random person's head or judgement.
posted by Wolfster at 12:42 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Now that you're an adult, you have to realize that her problems were her problems. Every kid does get punished fairly or unfairly. There really is no way to please someone inconsistent like that (or people in your life now) all the time, even if you are hypervigilant like you appear to be.

Next step, develop and focus on who you are. What are your values, ambitions, likes and dislikes, morals, definitions of family, etc., and right and wrong, like in a 12-step program. Once you define your self and your life goals, you can take approval or disapproval with more of a grain of salt.

You can follow your own yellow brick road and, with love, let others follow theirs.
posted by PJSibling at 12:43 PM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Debaser626 - THANK YOU for sharing that. I nearly cried because that is exactly what I needed to hear. That was how I knew how to handle life, by getting mad at myself for little things because I hadn't been taught any other way. I was not physically abused, but very much mentally and emotionally.

She is dead now and that has helped a bit. But, I see what you're saying, about how you recognized your mother wasn't there and you didn't have to fill in for her. I'm going to try to think a similar thing about mine, that she really is gone and will never come back.

I marked yours as best answer but I still hope others will continue to share. Hearing it from all of you helps me find words for it so that I can feel like I'm taking a more concrete thing to therapy to work on.
posted by inmyhead at 1:04 PM on May 15, 2014 [8 favorites]

Feeling Good details out exercises you can use to try and combat the negative thoughts and instincts.
posted by foxfirefey at 1:12 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I so just want to give you (and Debaser) giant hugs, if they would help.

No one deserves to be treated the way you were. What your mom did was wrong, and I'm glad that you identified it as abusive in your follow-up.

Books or articles about survivors of childhood abuse would likely be helpful, and reading about PTSD might also be helpful (I'm not diagnosing you (and you shouldn't diagnose yourself), and it might not apply, but some of the self-help techniques for dealing with PTSD can be helpful for almost all anxiety disorders).

Alice Miller has some wonderfully compassionate books geared toward survivors of childhood abuse, which she defines very broadly but very appropriately as parents putting their own needs before their children's needs on a constant basis. The Drama of the Gifted Child is her most well-known work, and it's great despite the easy-to-misinterpret title.

If you're interested in or willing to try more Eastern meditation/spiritual practices, you might look into compassion and self-acceptance.

It can sometimes also help to remind yourself that while you were vulnerable to your mother's anger as a kid (in a very real way -- kids can't really fend for themselves, and so their actual physical survival depends on their ability to please their caregivers), you are now an adult who is not dependent or vulnerable in that way to anyone who might get angry at you. Even your boss is not powerful enough in your life to throw you out on the street with no way of earning a living. You have more power now than you did then, and the people in charge have less.

Good for you for caring enough about yourself to work on finding ways to stop beating yourself up constantly. I wish you peace and success.
posted by jaguar at 1:27 PM on May 15, 2014 [8 favorites]

I am going through a similar experience right now. My parents freaked out over everyday errors. Once, the home computer got a virus on it. There was a 2-hour argument involving everyone in the family, accusing each other of being the last to touch the computer, personal attacks of people using the computer carelessly, angry sobbing / victim mode, threats of divorce. The same thing happened whenever anyone got a parking ticket, or went out in winter without wearing socks, or lost their sunglasses, or is late to an appointment. The list goes on.

The result on me is that whenever any errors happen in my life, I panic. My body tenses up expecting the 2-hour ordeal, and I end up neurotic and either immediately furious or apologizing abjectly. I feel depressed for hours. Many of my friends have asked why I would get this way over accidentally letting a $5 coupon expire, when I'm not struggling financially.

Another MeFi user recommended the book "Toxic Parents". I read the whole thing in one day. It was eerie how spot-on it is. You might find it useful that it has sections on what to do if your abusive parent has already passed away.

In those examples of examining your room, your mom was already pissy, but needed an excuse. She would've felt guilty just wallowing in her unhappiness for no reason, so she kept looking until she found the empty trash can excuse. I remember reading a story about a school prefect who examines a student's room by putting on white gloves and running the gloves over every surface until there was a tiny speck of dust on the white gloves. Then he shouted abuse at the kid for being dirty. I feel like that story is an apt description of an adult looking for an excuse to vent their anger.

One thing the "Toxic Parents" book says is not to jump too quickly to forgiveness, and that in fact it's healthier to err on the side of NOT forgiving your parents. If you forgive them, you minimize and deny what was done to you. You first need to hold them accountable and to fully experience what happened, and only at the very end after a long journey, there is an optional step of forgiveness.

I am also working my way through all of Alice Miller's books, and those have been useful too.

I'm starting to see glimmers of healing in myself. Last weekend, I was at a dinner with an acquaintance X who just got an enormous promotion. I started to feel the familiar sinking feeling that signals the onset of a few hours of depression. I heard the inner refrain (at a level almost below words) about how X is so hardworking and why am I not more hardworking, X really puts me to shame, I am lazy by comparison, etc. But for the first time, I heard another new voice, which said, "X is a friend and a really nice person. We like X. We're happy for X. X's success in no way prevents our success." It was really surreal to have two internal voices going on at the same time, plus trying to talk to X. I think the second voice is my own voice, which has been suppressed my whole life.

Please feel free to MeMail me if you want. I would be happy to have a person to mutually talk about these things with.
posted by cheesecake at 2:54 PM on May 15, 2014 [18 favorites]

A friend once pointed out to me that I could figure out how global warming was my fault. Being hyper-critical and self-blaming is very very common for people with difficult parents. Your brain is trained from early on to assign fault to yourself, and it becomes a well-worn groove.

One thing that has helped me is having kids and realising that there is no way I would hold my children to those insane standards. I don't recommend this as an alternative to therapy though :-)

Do you have a couple of friends who you respect as reasonable and kind people? Ask them to assess what blame you hold for things. Like "I forgot to water my plants over the weekend, and they're dead, how much of a terrible human being am I?" and have them re-calibrate what is okay, normal, terrible.

For example: I'm not good at feeling physical pain or asking for help when sick, because being sick or in pain was Your Own Damn Fault when I was little, and we were expected to sort of vanish into our bedrooms and not bother our parents. This is not great when I have ongoing health issues because I will tough it out and be all "Oh yes, I have had an incredibly painful headache and there are bruises all over my legs, also I keep throwing up, but otherwise I am fine, just need a cup of tea, sorry to be a bother." So now my husband has to recalibrate anything I say and ask several times a day if I am in pain etc. It's particularly insidious when I'm sick and automatically revert to childhood patterns because I haven't got the strength to overcome that conditioning, so he has to over-account for that.

Find a friend whose judgement you trust, someone kind! And ask them to help you second-guess your own self-judgement. A therapist would be good for this too.

You can relearn these old patterns and be kinder to yourself.

Also, avoid anything like Pinterest and facebook if reading about other people's successes and perfect-seeming lives make you feel worse. Look for books like Ann Lamott and blogs like 5 Kids is a Lot where people are honest about their failures and doubt and kind to themselves and others.

Also, do you reward yourself for good things? Especially incomplete good things? Like a nice houseplant or a new book or a new game when you have done 80% of a project? It's a way to counter the spiral of "all my fault, I fucked up again" stuff. To just stop and go, I did pretty well here and I shall have a new magazine to recognize that.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:20 PM on May 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

I just wanted to chime in and say this I really identify with this too! So thanks for asking the question.

One way it affected me was at work - it became more important to me to find out whether it was my fault when something went wrong than how to fix it.
posted by nvly at 8:24 PM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have found it helpful to remind myself, as I am internally berating myself for some stupidity as my dad used to, that I would not be berating my boyfriend, friend, kid, etc. for the same thing because I love them and do not expect them to be perfect. Humans aren't perfect.

Al-Anon has been incredibly helpful in teaching me to be kind and gentle with myself and to love myself as fiercely as I once hated myself. I'm not there yet but I'm a zillion times healthier. Which makes it way easier to accept the mistakes I do make on occasion and move on. YMMV.
posted by Bella Donna at 3:07 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ghost-in-the-brain...I like that phrasing.

I've had renewed traction on this front lately by characterizing these sorts of maladaptive thinking patterns as scripts which can be re-written by strengthening the functions of my different ego states wherein my nurturing parent self gives the rest of me permission to do things differently.

This is rooted in a theory of psychological functioning called transactional analysis, which was originated by Eric Berne in the 60's and 70's.
posted by macinchik at 1:41 AM on May 17, 2014

I have some similar issues, and my therapist thinks EMDR might be a good tool for combating it. YMMV.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 6:14 PM on May 18, 2014

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