How to recover from bad childhood
June 10, 2021 6:23 AM   Subscribe

Have you done this? Bad childhood (in my case)=harsh and critical home environment, widespread bullying by peers

I recently read this book and it so perfectly captured my upbringing in a way that's never been so clearly stated before, despite decades of therapy. I had a harsh, demeaning mother and largely absent father. Some things among many that struck me from the book was the absolute opacity and unreachability of my mother, and how it explained why I was continually treated as though I were incompetent and constantly compared to e.g. my older, cool cousins, and how I would be worthwhile if only I weren't so (sigh) ME. The book explains how it's in the parent's best interest to create these feelings of shame and uncertainty in the child, in order to make them easy to control. While the parent isn't necessarily being consciously malicious, they understand at an instinctual level that raising an independent child risks creating challenges to their own fragile psyche.

Paradoxically, I was pushed academically to succeed, skipped a grade in elementary school despite already being young for my grade, switched school a bunch of times due to family moving, and by the time middle school hit my immaturity level and shy and cringing behavior landed me at the absolute bottom of the pecking order at my large school. While my experience wasn't quite at the level of Carrie, it sometimes approached it, including my clothes, jacket and shoes being painted by the soccer team (while I was wearing them) in art class while the teacher was looking away. That's one of many horrific memories.

I'm pretty sick of therapy at this point--I've been in it for around 30 years beginning in college, with varying levels of success with different therapists. Some really helped, some actually made me feel much worse. What else is there to talk about at this point?

However, this book really hit home for me, in a way I've never understood before, that these deep-seated concepts I have about myself might be false ideas planted by an insecure parent. Some of these concepts include the idea that "they" are always going to hate me because of who I am--"they" being literally any group of new people. The idea that I'm inept and unlovable in a unique way that I can never overcome. The idea that I have to excel in everything--it's either 100 percent success, or total failure.

It's of particular interest to me because lately I've been embarking on a career in art, with some success. I've had my illustrations published a couple of places and shared on social media. My emotional reaction has been decidedly Not Good. I can barely look at Instagram anymore, despite needing to promote my art there and having had no problems with it back when I was just a lurker. It brings up all sorts of middle school feelings. I constantly imagine the critical voices of people rolling their eyes at and dismissing (or worse, ignoring) my art. And--perhaps this is the biggest one--I question whether I'm on the right path to begin with. I showed some early aptitude at art, and it was always one of the ways I could gain approval as a child from my parents. So am I still just doing this for them?

I'm curious if anyone has read this book or had experiences similar to mine, and have been largely successful in rewiring your mind and self-concept. The book does include some exercises that I've worked through, but I want more. I'm thinking of embarking on finding a new therapist specifically to work through these, but therapy is expensive and time-consuming and I feel like I have little of either right now. Are there any methods you've used in your daily life to fight back against these harsh thoughts about yourself?

posted by ThreeSocksToTheWind to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. I will be picking up the book and following this thread. You could be describing my childhood, which from the outside was pretty good. I do not have much to offer in the way of advice: I struggle with the feelings you are describing, especially that inevitably 'they' are going to figure out how mean/selfish/bad of a person I am. The only thing that has helped for me is (so much) time and distance. Developing long-term relationships well outside of my mother's orbit has helped reinforce that maybe I am not terrible. Thank you for sharing.
posted by dazedandconfused at 6:48 AM on June 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

No, you can't unwind the effects of a bad childhood. What you can do (and I'm speaking here from experience) is understand how this experience has shaped you and help you come to terms with it. You can't help your feelings, but you can understand them and manage your response to them.
posted by SPrintF at 6:57 AM on June 10, 2021 [8 favorites]

Try some reading around complex PTSD. Pete Miller's book is often recommended, and has pointed me in some hopeful directions that aren't just more talk therapy. Same thing with (the horribly titled) "Drama of the gifted child" by Alice Miller. It's definitely a bit old-school, but it captured the issues for me in a way that nothing else has.

The biggest thing that's helped me (though it's still very much a work in process) was finding a psychiatrist who has an approach specifically rooted in dealing with complex trauma. Being able to put all of the various issues into a larger context, as opposed to trying to chip away at them individually like previous therapists have, has been very eye opening.
posted by Jobst at 7:02 AM on June 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

I share a similar background with a side of abuse, but switched out of the public school system so high school was way better. If we want to share bullying stories, I got to stay home during a grade 6 Class Meeting to have people stop bullying me after a group of kids pulled my underwear off (I was wearing a dress), flushed it, and then backed up the toilet that way...sigh. Good times!!! Now they want to add me to their reunion Facebook group! AHAHAHA.

I agree with The Drama of the Gifted Child and its ilk but here is my sort of on the ground view:

I definitely don't have An Answer and struggle with a lot of similar things. But some things that help me are:

1. The most important thing I think I can share is that feelings...are just feelings. Like, they are great information sometimes but mostly they are just...things that come at me. Because I'm multiple and non-neurotypical, this becomes obvious to me internally because different people in my head have radically different feelings about the exact same inputs.

So when you have these feelings, it is really okay to sit down with yourself and say "I am having these feelings that no one will like me. I honour those feelings. But they don't relate to what will actually happen."

I expect that I will carry my feelings forever, like...I am never going to be the kind of person who walks into a PTA meeting and feels at home. That's okay, I can choose whether I go or not anyway. My parents' mistake, among many, was that they were not willing to feel bad. But I'm okay to feel bad about bad things.

1 b) I go punch things (targets) sometimes.

2. I don't make friends with groups. I make friends with individuals. I do have groups of friends that have developed anyway (mom groups, etc.) but I never ally myself to the group, if that makes sense? And by really micro-focusing on individuals, like wanting to get to know people for who they uniquely are as unique people...then I come to appreciate them and sometimes me.

What that has meant over time is letting go the idea that there is some kind of monolithic in/out, cool/uncool edict. Like, no one's actually cool. In my job I was lucky enough to get to interview people, like famous people, and it turns out if you are privileged to have a few minutes with people where they go off-script and talk to you as people...we're all scrabbling around. Life is messy.

3. I think it's very important in any kind of creative role to try to separate yourself from your craft. And that is suuuuuuuper hard and there is a lot of writing about it. (I recommend The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes even if you're a visual artist.) But I think what has helped me the most is both professionally and personally being around other artists/writers/creators - sometimes in very different fields. When I was editing I found it much easier to go to the art meetings than the edit meetings because I could freely express my lack of expertise and watch the dynamics.

This is hard if you had parents who took your Academic Work or your Art as a reflection of you or more precisely their parenting, but I think it is key.

3 b) control your inputs. Schedule time to look at your social media and don't look at it the rest of your time.

3 c) consider getting help. I have a background in professional content marketing and social media and if/when/maybe I finally finish my book and if/when/maybe it gets published I am hiring a friend to do my social media for it. (Starting when it's accepted for publication so there's some runway.) I think it will be better for my mental health to have someone do professional work and not treat it like my readers are friends. When I was leading online publications, the readers were not my friends and I still really valued them! But I never confused me with [big women's magazine.] That's what I kind of want even when I'm working in the place that is really personal.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:11 AM on June 10, 2021 [12 favorites]

I will second the wow. I had a very similar upbringing. Emotionally manipulative (and also crazy-religious) mom, dad who never did anything with me, older brothers who belittled me, constant bullying at school. While I usually consider myself fortunate that it wasn't that bad in that there was little (but not zero) physical abuse from my family, I did describe my childhood to one therapist and insisting it "wasn't actually truamatic" and when I finished he looked at me and said "it sounds pretty traumatic to me."

So well into my late 20s I still felt like a failure, like I never belonged in any group, like everyone laughed at me behind my back. It sucked. Well into my 30s I felt angry.

I still have occasional feelings of inadequacy but for the most part I'm a well-adjusted, happy 51 year old. Some things that helped:

Therapy. Yeah, I know. But therapy for me wasn't just sitting and talking to a therapist. Probably the biggest breakthrough I made was when I just decided to write about the bullies who tormented me. I let all the anger out in one big ranty blog entry (remember blogs?) and it was like everything just flowed out of me and I was rid of it. This was in my 30s. Up until then I was angry every single day. From that day on I stopped being angry.

Finding something I was really good at and mentoring others. This was a big confidence boost. I always felt like I sucked at everything because I really did kind of suck at sports and art. But then I got good at something, in my case hiking, and took an outdoor leadership class. I started leading hiking and backpacking trips and suddenly people were looking up to me, treating me like some kind of expert. I made a lot of friends and got a lot of praise from people. I still have trouble accepting praise but it was still nice to get some for the first time ever. Bonus: I met my wife in the outdoor leadership class.

Sharing your art with an audience. Again, getting praise and validation is nice after decades of getting none. It's a double-edged sword because I often wonder if I'm doing it just for the validation I get when I tweet a photo of something I've made, but it's nice to be proud of something and have others say "hey, good job."

Find your people. They're out there. If your current friend group doesn't feel genuine, try to find a new group. It took a while, I still often feel like I don't belong in some circles, but I have other circles where I really feel like I connect with the people in the group.

Living with the knowledge that it's never too late to have a happy childhood. I buy Lego sets. I build models. I am goofy and silly and try not to give too much of a fuck if people think I'm childish. I'm making up for lost time.

Accepting family as who they are and also accepting that you're not required to like them. I'm not going to spill my family crap here only just to say that the family I have created for myself (my marriage, my child, my friends) is so much more satisfying than the family I was born into.

It took a while, and I'm still working on it. But I'm so much happier today than I was back then. Part of it is just time, growing up and gaining distance from my childhood, but there was actual work. Very often I didn't realize it was work, I was just doing something I wanted to do, but eventually I'd realize "wow... that thing I just did was very satisfying and filled some gaps that have been there since I was a kid."

It's possible. It's work and time but it's possible. I was unhappy for a very long time. Life is never perfect and I still have ups and downs but I'm happy now. Good luck.
posted by bondcliff at 7:15 AM on June 10, 2021 [26 favorites]

I absolutely agree with getting help for the marketing aspect of your art. It's psychologically gruelling putting your art out there, even without your specific background.

that these deep-seated concepts I have about myself might be false ideas planted by an insecure parent. 

This is so huge. I'm so glad for you that you've gotten this part.
posted by Omnomnom at 7:18 AM on June 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

I used to struggle with wanting to wipe my slate clean, too. I wanted to undo the effects of my awful childhood, band it was so frustrating when I couldn't because what good is my adult power if it can't be used to rescue my true, undamaged self from under all this rubble?

I had read about "radical acceptance" and "loving the broken parts of myself" etc etc etc hundreds of times in dozens of books, but it never really sank in until I came up against this wall that made me feel utterly powerless and helpless. My rock bottom was to realize I CANNOT change myself into someone to whom the bad things had never happened.

Did I say rock bottom? Maybe I mean tree of enlightenment.

The bad things happened to us. We bear the scars of it. Trying to erase the scars is like trying to become taller or to grow an extra spleen. It can't be done. We accept that this is who we are, and maybe we don't need to be fixed. Maybe healing from childhood trauma doesn't mean erasing those scars: it just means we give ourselves a chance to live our best life from now on, blinkered and hobbled and limited though we may be from those scars.

As a practical tip, one of the best ways to accept ourselves and love ourselves with scars is to start helping other people. Doing for others breaks the rut of obsessively ruminating over our own past, gives us tangible achievements to be proud of, and helps us foster deep and healthy relationships with other human beings which is literally what life is all about.
posted by MiraK at 8:30 AM on June 10, 2021 [10 favorites]

I found a good therapist who specializes in trauma (LCSW with a focus in EMDR) was super helpful. It took a few tries to find a good match so that can be hard and take some time. I also recommend the Crappy Childhood Fairy videos on YouTube and materials/courses on her website. It’s really, really good and you are you’re not alone. <3
posted by smorgasbord at 8:44 AM on June 10, 2021 [6 favorites]

I’ve been in therapy forever too but only recently started trauma therapy with a gentle therapist who uses the Internal Family Systems approach and wow. I’m still in the thick of it so I can’t tell you what it feels like on the other side, but I am meeting and accepting and loving parts of myself I’ve tried to excise and exile and shove into tiny dark nooks and crannies for so long. So that particular approach may be helpful for you.

Also YMMV but I found the ACE test to be very validating. Like many here, I struggle because on paper and in some people’s minds, I had a good childhood. In my lived experience, it was pretty bad. My ACE score is a semi-objective way to tell myself, “no actually, it was bad, you’re not just whining.”

Finally, there are a lot of folks doing work on reparenting, so that may be a useful term for you. The concept is essentially loving yourself and meeting your needs in a way that they didn’t get met as a kid.

This is really really hard. These scars are as real and as painful and as mobility-restricting as any physical ones. I’m sending hugs (if you want them) from this internet stranger who gets what you’re going through.
posted by bananacabana at 9:23 AM on June 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

Your post really resonated and I'm having a hard time making all my thoughts logically coherent. But I did want to say that a big part of journey for me is meeting those negative voices where they are and really listening to them. I am not saying that I believe them when I listen -- only that I spent most of my life dismissing them, shoving them down, trying to avoid them and ignore them. This did not make them go away. It made them meaner and more insistent. Working with a really good trauma therapist (mine uses a family systems and attachment-based approach) has taught me how to take care of the part of me that deeply believes these very negative and damaging things about myself. I'm working with my therapist on different ways to meet that part of me and to take care of it. And I'm still working on accepting the fact that this part of me is never going to go away, but I think and hope that we'll both get there. Take care of yourself.
posted by twelve cent archie at 9:28 AM on June 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure from your description, but you might consider browsing the subReddits r/raisedbynarcissists and r/justnomil.

That book, among some others, is frequently recommended there. (It hasn't made it to the top of my massive to-read list yet, though, so I can't speak to it specifically.)

I think you might find more people whose experiences resonate with yours, and it might help you to see the steps some have taken that are say, a bit further along the path. Therapy can be REALLY hit and miss when it comes to abusive parents - all too often, the therapist becomes or creates additional problems.

That said, therapy - GOOD therapy - is still usually a big part of the solution. It can just be challenging to find.
posted by stormyteal at 9:31 AM on June 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

I've read the book and I will also recommend Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and a Metafilter favourite of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

The first is similar to your first book, while the seconds tells you what your parents should have done.

I think the next steps are to help you find out how your parents' immature behaviour has manifested in your thoughts and behaviours. Are you co-dependent? Enmeshed? Overworking yourself? Find it difficult to do new things because you fear failure for example? The first book talks a little bit more about this.

If you're interested in family and relationships systems, try looking at a few videos by Jerry Wise. He also has additional resources he can send you for free if money is an issue. You may also like Lisa Romano's community page on YT and some of her videos.

I have at least 15 other books/websites/places that may be of interest if you ever want to memail me.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 9:56 AM on June 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

To the person who mentioned Pete Miller’s book, did you actually mean Pete Walker?
posted by matildaben at 11:52 AM on June 10, 2021

Dr. Jonice Webb, mentioned above (author of Running on Empty), has a section on her website to find a therapist who specializes in Childhood Emotional Neglect -- might not be exactly what you're looking for but some of your traits overlap with how I perceive CEN. Dr. Webb also has an email newsletter that I signed up for ages ago.
posted by jabes at 11:56 AM on June 10, 2021

The thing that has put the biggest dent in my negative self talk has been just noticing the way I'm talking to myself. I'm not getting angry at the part that goes, "You're so stupid," but pausing and thinking, "Oof. That's harsh." Kind of like I would if a little kid I cared about said it to me. I think starting with a goal of just noticing rather than stopping myself from doing it, or having exactly the right correction was helpful for me. You wouldn't argue with a little kid like, "I am NOT stupid!"--you don't need to argue with your impulsive self-talk.

When it comes to anticipating that others won't like me, a couple things have been helpful. The first is a little cheesy, but it's: "You can be the ripest, juiciest peach, and there's still going to be people who just don't like peaches." Getting comfortable with the idea that it's not realistic to think everyone is going to like me has been weirdly helpful. The other has been working on liking and appreciating myself. I find that when my anxiety about being disliked or rejected goes up, there's usually been a downturn in my self-acceptance and self-love.
posted by theotherdurassister at 12:01 PM on June 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

Also, in case you weren't aware, the author of the book you mentioned has a followup: Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents: Practical Tools to Establish Boundaries and Reclaim Your Emotional Autonomy.
posted by jabes at 12:11 PM on June 10, 2021

I’ve read several of the books recommended in this thread, had a similar childhood to yours, and have been in counseling of some type or another for over 25 years, but it wasn’t until I started EMDR therapy last year that I started making rapid progress in unlearning a bunch of limiting beliefs and behaviors. It’s not a quick fix, a cure-all, and it may not be for everyone, but you could give it a try with an EMDR specialist. I found mine by searching at Psychology Today, and setting up a brief introductory call to ask about qualifications, beliefs, therapeutic techniques, etc.
posted by jet_pack_in_a_can at 2:21 PM on June 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

You might find the resources at Crappy Childhood Fairy worth looking at.
posted by rpfields at 6:17 PM on June 10, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks for your answers-- there is a lot here that I'm going to check out and refer to in the future.
posted by ThreeSocksToTheWind at 7:58 PM on June 10, 2021

What else is there to talk about at this point?

The feelings. I know that probably seems glib and you've probably talked about them in therapy, but not in that chasing them down to the end way. Just saying them and then probably cognitive "I am a person worthy of respect" kind of affirmation, or whatever. That never worked for me. Even the radical acceptance stuff hit a wall because I was so disassociated from my feelings. We did EMDR which helped because I couldn't hyperverbalise and intellectualise anything, I just had to sit with my feelings and hurt and identify it. And I can tell you it sucked. It was brutal. Every single one of my friends has been horrified when I've explained the process, and I honestly don't think there is any way to do it without someone who is trained. But, it honestly made more of a difference than any other treatment I've ever done. I have nightmares once every few months maybe? And they're often just nightmares? I've done triggering things that I'd never have expected to do with absolutely minimal fallout. And I didn't even go through the whole big list of trauma they make you write down - I did the top one, then another that came up, and it helped me resituate the trauma to where it is supposed to live.

But for instance:

Some of these concepts include the idea that "they" are always going to hate me because of who I am--"they" being literally any group of new people. The idea that I'm inept and unlovable in a unique way that I can never overcome. The idea that I have to excel in everything--it's either 100 percent success, or total failure.

My therapist will catch me in this cycle, and get me to elaborate. What is going to happen if they hate me? Do I have proof people don't hate me? What are previous instances of being not hated? Previous instances of being hated? Because the 100% success rate is me surviving it. And there's a lot of catastrophising and we all have our own way of doing that, and I think also our own way of combating it. Even before therapy I'd discovered that tendency of mine and refer to it as the "homeless in a box on fire" impulse, where any mistake is something my brain can spin into this future where I'm unloved, alone, homeless, and why not decide the box is on fire too. All because I missed my bus or I might miss my bus. Thats a hell of a lot of energy and emotional pressure going into something absolutely unreal. And irrelevant!

But it's a practice to not only be able to identify when the actual useful planning and forward thinking and nerves have become catastophic fantasies of anxiety AND think yourself down from them. And it sucks that some of us have to do that. But we do. And the best thing we can do for ourselves is ease up on emotionally abusing our own selves with this stuff.

I constantly imagine the critical voices of people rolling their eyes at and dismissing (or worse, ignoring) my art. And--perhaps this is the biggest one--I question whether I'm on the right path to begin with. I showed some early aptitude at art, and it was always one of the ways I could gain approval as a child from my parents. So am I still just doing this for them?

I struggle with this too. It is hard. I second outsourcing some of it but also letting yourself feel things that are good. As in, it's okay to read and reread the compliments! It's okay to have that squirrelly little feeling of embarassed happiness about it! You make yourself feel bad often enough that actively seeking good feelings is probably weird and strange, but also deeply deeply necessary. And you are not wrong for liking or enjoying it.

As for if you're still doing this for your what. If it gives you joy, if it is fulfilling, if it is also making you money, who cares? What actual impact does it have if you are? And even if they are abusive jerks, it's also okay to have a moment of happiness thinking "dad would be proud of me for this" even if you know he would be a weird jerk and not say it or whatever.

But the single biggest question my therapist asked me about this kind of thing is: what would it take for you to feel safe and secure about this? She was talking about a bank balance, in that if I can't actually identify a number at which I will stop being frantic and unsettled and desperate about my budget, then it is probably not actually about the money - the money is a stand in for something else. And that's okay? Like, you can want to go above and beyond the bare minimum you need, or reconsider it, but you need to be able to set that minimum in order for you not to set a condition of "never happy" on your life.
posted by geek anachronism at 12:13 AM on June 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

I had a similar childhood and was diagnosed with and medicated for General Anxiety Disorder. SSRIs have improved my life dramatically, while talk therapy did not.
posted by jessica fletcher did it at 12:24 PM on June 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking about you and wanted to add a few more things.

The internet has some awful people but it also has some of the nicest, most supportive people out there who genuinely like your art with no ulterior motives. I love that about Instagram and have found a beautiful community on there of random people.

There are ways to interact with people on social media that are less direct. I totally get how it can be emotionally exhausting to see the positivity because you feel overwhelmed by the kindness, sometimes undeserving, and then guilty for not being able to construct a response. However, you can show appreciation for their appreciation by simply "liking" their comment or having a few go-to emojis you reply with. Or occasionally post a note of gratitude like "Thank you all for your wonderful comments! I can't reply to all in depth but I do read them and appreciate your support!"

I also want to add that, as someone who used to feel a constantly self-loathing, it really is possible to not feel so bad or feel less bad or at least less often bad. Taking an SSRI helped me get over the hump: I have PTSD and OCD so it's not "necessary" anymore but helps. When my EMDR therapist immediately diagnosed me, I felt both devastated that I did indeed have PTSD but also incredibly validated and seen like never before. She talked a lot about trauma being something you can heal and I thought it was BS but it's really been true for me. Granted, healing like trauma is a spectrum -- for a completely unprofessional phrasing -- but there's so much potential for good!! And again I want to acknowledge that, until I found that amazing therapist -- and also a good psychiatrist later -- I didn't find therapy very helpful and sometimes even awful, just like you mention and others say here, too.

Again, I really second the suggestion of the Crappy Childhood Fairy. She has great, totally do-able suggestions. If you have any questions about her resources, please write them here or send me a MeMail because I'll glad to get specific.

Finally, I want to share that things are getting much better in schools in terms of social dynamics. Parents are more self-aware these days, therapy is more available, and schools try to celebrate differences, foster inclusion, and stop bullying. I thought high school for over a decade and now teach middle school and can say that kids these days are amazing -- definitely the best generation so far!! While I know that doesn't change your own past, I hope it provides some solace or hope to know that it's getting better for others. <3
posted by smorgasbord at 3:17 PM on June 11, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks, smorgasbord, that's encouraging to hear that things are getting better in schools.

I was eyeing crappy childhood fairy and noticed she charges for courses... would you say they're worth it?
posted by ThreeSocksToTheWind at 1:28 PM on June 12, 2021

I have heard good things about the courses but my friend who is working through the programme has found plenty of useful free stuff on the blog and YouTube channel. She’s planning to do everything she can there and then see if she about paying after that.
posted by rpfields at 2:08 PM on June 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

I want to second it getting better. I was talking with some other queer people on their thirties today about how the kid who teased and misgendered my daughter and her friends got not only detentions but was banned from going to certain areas in the school and from approaching those kids. Which is...a whole lot different to our experiences as queer kids. Because it's not just the detention, it's the active protection of the queer kids, and the educational approach to inclusion.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:49 PM on June 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

I think they’re worth it but that you can get almost as much out of her free videos!! I’d start by watching a few of those a week, trying by out her strategies, and then deciding. Her twice-daily grounding practice of writing down fears & resentments is really cool and helpful! I also like her videos on making and pushing away friends. I love how she’s got such an accepting, reassuring tone while telling us we’re not to blame for our past but also now in charge of our future!!
posted by smorgasbord at 3:21 PM on June 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

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