when your pain is de-legitimised
January 23, 2017 5:02 PM   Subscribe

Growing up my parents had a strange relationship to sympathy. I think in retrospect they were trying to make me a tough little girl, but whenever I expressed pain to them they would tell me not to complain or de-legitimize or downplay the issue. I have definitely internalised this over time.

Whether it was physical pain like scuffing my knee or more psychological pain, such as feeling bullied or sad in a social situation at school, my parents would tell me to stop crying fake " crocodile tears" or they would chalk up the bullying and social problem to my own behaviour, and tell me it was something I brought upon myself. I was never able to get reassurance and sympathy from them that I craved and instead would get blamed for being a brat and whining : my pains were never registered and legitimised. As a teenager, I had a lot of self-esteem issues and psychological problems, including an eating disorder. I used too many substances and attempted suicide twice. That's all ancient history now (I'm 32) but now I am wondering if perhaps these issues were related to my need for attention and sympathy.

Today, as an adult, I feel so much better, and for the most part, thanks to years of therapy and self-help work, I think I am an emotionally stable person. But I think this problem still haunts me. I think I ended up internalising a lot of this. Whenever I am sick, no matter how obvious and severe the symptoms are, I immediately start doubting myself, and wondering if I am exaggerating, that I am a malingerer or that I have Munchausen syndrome. I feel that my problems are petty "first world" problems (they are, certainly) or blown out of proportion because I am too sensitive. I also have fears that I will drive my close ones, such as my boyfriends, or friends away, if I complain to them too much.

Has anyone else experienced this? Maybe it is a pathology to seek out sympathy the way I have been seeking it my whole life? Is this why I attempted suicide as a teen, so that my parents could "finally" feel sorry for me? I have a great life, relatively speaking, but I have problems like anyone else and occasionally seek to talk and vent (I still weirdly try to do this with my parents and they still pull the same stuff, but on the other hand, my friends have been much better "shoulders to cry on" I guess). Finally, my question is: how can I take a balanced look at my life and the problems that arise that is neither too harsh nor too leniant?
posted by jacobnayar to Human Relations (17 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I would encourage you to go back to therapy to work on this, as it's going to crack the lid on all the stuff that wasn't completely emergent for you to deal with in order to function before.

These statements are heartbreaking:
I am wondering if perhaps these issues were related to my need for attention and sympathy
Maybe it is a pathology to seek out sympathy the way I have been seeking it my whole life?
as if you are malfunctioning because you have a normal human need for empathy, sympathy, caring, and connection from others, which you were abusively denied by your parents.

Unfortunately, this is common enough that you shouldn't have a problem finding a CBT-based therapist to help you develop strategies for battling these beliefs and building up your skills for self-assessment and communication with others in ways that mutually assure everyone involved.

(Not your parents, they don't get to fuck with you anymore. Consider going no-contact for a while so you can focus on treatment.)
posted by Lyn Never at 5:17 PM on January 23, 2017 [11 favorites]

My family was very poor when I was growing up, and my dad was not reliable and did not work regularly. When I was sick and had to miss school, my mom had to take time off from work to care for me because my dad would not do it. So whenever I said I was sick, my mom would tell me I wasn't sick -- because our family literally could not afford for me to be sick. As an adult looking back, I understand why she said this and what was going on, but also -- whenever I'm sick, I doubt myself. I constantly ask other people to validate whatever I think isn't right. I have talked with a therapist about this, and for me the technique that works is to imagine that a friend was saying the way I feel, and what I would say to her.
posted by OrangeDisk at 5:22 PM on January 23, 2017 [21 favorites]

This is me to a certain extent. I was never suicidal but I've had my moments. What helped me was getting some perspective on my parents' perspective. It wasn't so much that they de-legitimized my pain as they were just totally out of touch with it. My dad was an alcoholic and barely in touch with his own feelings and found the feelings of others confusing and overwhelming. My mom was self-involved, likely narcissistic and just didn't see other people as "real." So we could stay home from school if we had a fever, but rarely went to the doctor and were always cast as being "too sensitive."

Like you, I don't know how to go to the doctor. I don't really know how much I am supposed to suffer before a normal (or normative, I am normal) person would be like "This is bullshit, get some medical attention" and this is true for emotional pain as well. I put up with crap from other people (usually just random stranger stuff, but sometimes co-workers) that most people wouldn't deal with. When we were kids we were just supposed to suffer, was the standard. Deal with your emotions on you own or stuff them, no one cared. It was bleak. Now that I am an adult I try to take care of myself. These things helped

1. I have a sibling and even though her response to this stuff was different, she can legitimize that what happened to kid-me was bullshit and that we both deserved better. That is validating.
2. I have a good peer group who I can be honest with who are sometimes my sounding board when I don't know how to respond to things. If two out of my three friends are like "No, dude, go to the doctor" I consider that pretty seriously. AskMe can sometimes be good fo that, though sometimes it is not.
3. I had to be a little firm with myself about my doctor-avoidant "I don't deserve this" mentality because I am also very very cheap (and have money) and it was hard to tell what was me not wanting to spend money and me in there with the negative self-talk about myself.
4. I look at past-me as someone who had a hard time and future-me as someone who deserves taking care of by present-me. I try to talk to myself as I would do a friend, positive self-talk has really helped me.
5. I am honest with my partner about my feelings and he is great with support. We have a very TEAM US approach and I never feel like I have to hide who I am around him, but at the same time, I learn to be sort of more balanced with my feelings (I am anxious) so that I am a good partner to him and not just OH MY FEELS LET ME TELL YOU

And lastly, I no longer let my one surviving parent tell me a damned thing about my childhood. The most charitable way I can look at it is that she wasn't there. The old lady who I sometimes see is never going to be there for me in that way (she is okay in other ways) and when I stopped trying, I got happier. Meditation (I meditate every day like it was my job) also allowed me to "sit with" uncomfortable feelings without feeling like they required a response from me, that helped.
posted by jessamyn at 5:28 PM on January 23, 2017 [35 favorites]

I think it is a simple matter of meanness - your parents treated you poorly when you were sad or sick. Who would do that to a kid?
posted by benadryl at 5:36 PM on January 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

You deserve to be acknowledged and validated. Your parents saying that the problem or pain didn't exist didn't teach you how to manage or deal with it. My mother does the same thing, and I've learned that she is NOT the person to call if I need validation or support for anything involving emotions. How to take a balanced look at your life? Start by asking yourself how you feel about a situation. Simply acknowledging that you're sad, angry, proud, excited makes it easier to then decide whether that's the feeling you want to act on, or if there's more to think about, or... Validation is empowering. You don't need to judge how you feel to acknowledge it. And really, we don't always have control over how we feel, so simply witnessing it without a value judgement is useful to understanding why we feel that way. You're allowed to be angry. And happy. Even about the same thing! I'm sorry you were made to feel that your emotions and needs aren't valuable.
posted by AliceBlue at 5:37 PM on January 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think it is very common and tends to run through entire families and generations - as you said, the theory is that is it to make you tough/resilient, but, in reality, it has the opposite effect where you doubt yourself.

Meditation is good for "listening to yourself" so that you know how you really feel about something without all of the "external" noise (your parents' voices from your childhood are included in this).
posted by heyjude at 5:44 PM on January 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

I can relate to the dynamic you're describing! You're not alone in being a woman who, from childhood, has been conditioned to ignore her own emotional landscape in a way society presumes does not happen with women (as though being born female means you don't require actual emotional nurturing...). If it helps, what you're describing sounds perfectly valid to me (another early 30s woman, who has struggled with mental health challenges, healthy eating, and feeling good about still being here). I hear you when you're saying that even though materialistically speaking, everything in your life is good, emotionally speaking, you're aware you've been suffering from a structural deficit for some time now.

how can I take a balanced look at my life and the problems that arise that is neither too harsh nor too leniant?

Keep gently challenging your internalized scripts (that your pain "isn't real" and that you're feelings "don't exist") and replacing them with better scripts (what you imagine a 'more mature' person would think or say). Do it mentally as your adult self to your inner child self that you can sense still feels anxiety around having emotions and concerns validated. The trick is, at this phase of life, you don't need your parents anymore to do this kind of recovery work. If you can develop a good sense of connection to when your inner child self is acting up (e.g. through anxieties, uncomfortable sensations, etc.), then you can also pace yourself through mentally relaying what your child self genuinely needed to hear from your parents at that developmental stage. Every time you're catching yourself and doing the dialogue, think of it as literally re-recording those old scripts with far better ones! Try doing it with mirror work too. Pay attention to how your body feels to get a sense of whether you're doing it effectively or not.

This is a book describing this approach in more detail, although it's pretty straight forward and if I took the time I could probably find you a better link somewhere on the web.

Another author whose books I would recommend you gently spend time reading is Alice Miller (PDF copy of "Drama of the Gifted Child" available here). Her work quite specifically addresses the suffering adults experience when raised through strategies that required complete submission (and you might as well say eradication...) of the child's will through denial of the child's authentic experiences by their parents/caregivers. Since you've been severely depressed before, you may find her words can speak light into emotional/mental places that have never felt light before (like hearing the validation you knew you needed back then, from a focused caring adult). Good luck!
posted by human ecologist at 5:59 PM on January 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

Human ecologist, it's funny, my therapist recommended the Alice Miller book to me, but I didn't identify with the "gifted child" part of the title and never looked into it! I am going to now. :)

Thank you so much to all of you who have responded. I am so touched by the fact that you've reached out.
posted by jacobnayar at 6:18 PM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a family where you weren't really allowed to have emotion, too; pain and distress were illogical and self-indulgent. It takes a long time to repattern this kind of self-narrative, I know. A lot of good responses here already, but two things I want to add.

1) When people respond or judge to your pain, it's more about them than it is about you. So don't worry too much about the veracity of their judgments. Perhaps they, like you, have been taught to suppress negative emotions, and that's coming out in their judgment; perhaps they're trying to minimize your situation to make themselves feel better about it, because they're worried for you and it's distressing them; perhaps they're bringing baggage they had from when a family member was in a similar situation.

All of this applies to when you're working through your childhood stuff, but also to the responses you're now: I'm hoping you have lots of kind, sympathetic people in your life currently, but your parents are probably still reinforcing those same negative patterns every time you talk to them, so try to constantly "fight back" mentally.

2) One good way of challenging your internalized scripts is to look at yourself from the outside, as if you were a stranger with the same problems. Ask yourself, when you're having doubts about a situation: "If my best friend was suffering like this, would I think she was being self-indulgent or give her a hug?"

For instance, I have chronic pain, and I experience a lot of shame for not being able to do "normal" things that I "should" be able to do. Reading a lot of chronic pain blogs and memoirs helps. When I can see another person struggling/trying to cope with the same challenges I do, I of course respond with sympathy, validation, etc., instead of self-judgment. I would never judge a chronically ill person for not being well enough to hold down a job; but of course I berate myself for the exact same thing. The key is to learn how to take this more clear-eyed view and learn to invert it/turn it on yourself.

To me, you sound like a kind, thoughtful person who probably judges other peoples' pain a lot less harshly than you do your own: grant yourself the same kindness and sympathy that you grant others. And if there's a particular problem or trauma you're coping with, maybe look into books/blogs that touch on the same topic?

Best of luck. It sounds like you've done a lot of personal work on this already, and I know it seems like an endless journey sometimes, but I know you'll get there.
posted by stellarc at 6:56 PM on January 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

I experienced this from a family that was dysfunctional and abusive. At 46 I no longer have a relationship with any of them. YMMV.
posted by jbenben at 1:03 AM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

My mother initiated a different dynamic growing up. If we were even *thinking* we might be sick, she ran with it. My siblings and I frequently were encouraged to stay home from school, even when we *weren't* sick! (mom called these: mental health days)

I see now that she was lonely, and also trying to be a great mother that was extra-sensitive to our emotional and physical well-being. But it was very confusing as well: it encouraged the belief that "what you feel is real." If we *felt* off, well... it was *just as bad* as being "too sick" to go to school or work or get out of bed, etc.

It took re-calibrating as an adult to understand that this wasn't the best approach, and understand how enmeshed this kind of thinking becomes. To this day, I feel profoundly guilty when I call in sick (regardless of how sick I feel) because I never know if I'm truly sick "enough" by OTHER people's standards.

What has helped me, and might help you, is meditation - as others have noted above. It can center you and take away self-criticism, self-doubt, self-judgment (that is really the detritus of yoru upbringing: your parents criticism, judgement, doubt, etc).

Good luck. This is a tricky one, but don't be so hard on yourself. <3
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:14 AM on January 24, 2017

Based on similar personal experiences, I waited until I was SIXTY until I dealt with the self hatred, suicidality, and "I don't have the right to be taken care of or to take care of myself"

Many years of CBT-oriented therapy didn't help. After seeing it recommended many times here, I read The Body Keeps The Score. I understood those childhood messages had been encoded in my body: I was maintaining the pain by reflexive repeating those parental opinions. Working with an EMDR therapist has been amazing. (And to the voice in your head which says, "But surely my experience is not traumatic," I've learned that the measure of trauma is not the insult but how you process (or don't). )

Don't wait.
posted by Jesse the K at 7:49 AM on January 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

I was largely ignored as a kid, too, and it's still affecting me. I was never taken seriously for a bad cold (turned into pneumonia), a bike accident (I will swear til my dying day that I sustained a serious concussion) and PCOS symptoms that probably could've been helped earlier had anyone paid attention. And those are just a few examples. I still procrastinate on self-care, and my default position for everything in life is that nobody's paying attention to me, and that I don't deserve concern or care.

I have no advice for how to deal with it, but wanted to express my empathy and wish you the best. (I'm following this thread.)
posted by jhope71 at 9:42 AM on January 24, 2017

My father often called me too sensitive (usually when he said something cruel), called me a crybaby, ugly, deserving of bullying etc. My mother was difficult as well and it took years before she would allow me painkillers for menstrual pain - I have endometriosis, which hurts like hell, but apparently she doesn't and she never got painkillers when she was young, so I didn't get any either. Weirdly enough, now that I'm an adult and diagnosed, she suddenly recalls how I always had "abnormally" painful periods and she's so glad they finally found the reason...

Plus, doctors tend to treat (young) women like hypochondriacs. The endometriosis I mentioned above took ten years to get diagnosed because doctors, like my mother, told me "every woman had cramps." I have been "diagnosed" with depression, anxiety, panic attacks etc. when in reality, it's probably "just" thyroid weirdness, sleep issues and vitamin deficiencies. I believe the same would not happen to a man. This really, really doesn't help.

I wish I could tell you what to do. Therapy has been helpful, but to this day, I still need to ask someone else whether I should take time off work when I feel sick. I've been having the worst cold for weeks and went to see a doctor for some medicine so I could go to work (yeah, stupid) and he told me I should just stay home. Did I? One day after I texted my fiancé that my legs felt too weak to walk on, and he told me to stay home. I guess it's a strong work ethic, but mostly the feeling that your silly little illness is not a big deal and you just suck it up that makes us do this.

I'm sorry I cannot be more helpful, but I wanted to tell you that you are not alone. You sound like a very responsible person who hates letting other down. I understand the feeling of not wanting to appear whiny or weak, but would you think the same of your friends when they told you they were sick?
Wanting sympathy when you're ill, in pain, sad etc. is a pretty normal human emotion. In German, we say that shared pain is halved pain. Commiserating is super important and you deserve to have that. I hope you can work with your therapist so that you can stop feeling like you're a burden on people, because you're absolutely not.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 11:05 AM on January 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

To be clear, whatever their reasons were, the way your parents treated you is emotionally abusive. I am so sorry for that. I got a lighter version of this from one of my parents, they were divorced and my other parent was the polar opposite and my primary caregiver, and still I have a harsh inner judge and related issues.

If you aren't ready or able to reduce or go no contact with your parents, try to let go of the expectation that they will be the parents you deserve, that they will be able to provide the affection, sympathy, and caring that you deserve. I'm sorry if that sounds harsh, but it can be freeing to accept the limitations of others, probably because then we can stop pouring our hearts and souls into trying to squeeze blood out of a rock.

Keep on with the therapy, even if intermittently, during times of relative calm. Stuff continues to unfold and come up over time as wounds heal and our lives change. It also gives you a space where you can do some venting without triggering as much of the negative feelings of self doubt about sharing your negative feelings.

Know that the sympathy/recognition/connection you sought and were denied, that need is NORMAL and HEALTHY and in no way a sign of weakness or pathology in yourself. Either as a child or as an adult.

Be kind to yourself. When in doubt, imagine the child you were, how she deserved to be treated, with kindness and gentleness and love. Work on treating yourself that way. It is harder then it sounds, but also more effective then it sounds!

how can I take a balanced look at my life and the problems that arise that is neither too harsh nor too lenient?

My guess is that you do not need to worry at all about being too lenient. This is not in your training. In fact maybe you should aim for too lenient, I would bet cash that most people won't see it as such, and you deserve that extra space to be able to have and experience your feelings.
posted by The Shoodoonoof at 3:55 PM on January 24, 2017

I am going through a workbook right now called Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, and it has helped me so much. I greatly identify with many of the comments you made, and encourage you to check it out. It's about $12 on Amazon, and I feel like it was really worth it because it's helping me see that my parents' failings are not about something wrong inside me.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 4:30 PM on January 24, 2017

Nth-ing therapy. If you are able to find a good match, it's like magic.

My therapist recently recommended Eckhart-Tolle's The Power of Now and it's dense, slow going but really thinking about it has stimulated some really good therapy discussions.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:52 PM on January 25, 2017

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