One of the things I try to do in writing on my blog about my experiences and lessons in life is that I like to be real.
I try to counter what I talked about in my last article about our culture being narcissistic and based on appearances. That we are shallow, we try to keep up with the Joneses, paste on a smile and say we’re OK.
These behaviours above serve us in some ways because we don’t necessarily want to spill our guts to people we don’t know. It gives us privacy and the right to project an image we want so that we can grieve in private, or feel the way we feel, but in private.
But the appearances based culture and the culture of silence also works for the abuser and the oppressor, not the abused.
One of the common characteristics of narcissistic, dysfunctional and abusive families is that no-one on the outside can know what is going on in the inside. There is a culture of secrecy and also often, denial.
“You may not speak about this to anyone.”
“You are twisting it – I did not do that to you.”
“We don’t air our dirty laundry in public.”
Another aspect of how I was raised was image management and ensuring no-one ever gets to see your weaknesses or vulnerabilities. This is another feature of dysfunctional families. We don’t talk about abuse, addictions, mental illnesses, because it makes us ashamed. We’re different from other people. And we keep that secret, and paste on the smile and pretend all is well. We keep it locked away.
So the aim of my writing is to counter that.
It’s hard being honest in what I write. It makes me freak out – did I share too much? Did I show too much vulnerability and my clients will think I am a train wreck for having had issues? It’s a fine line between being real and over-sharing.
The main difference between the two for me is that I don’t share when I’m in the middle of something. I don’t use this blog for therapy. I write when I have worked through something, and I can help others see they might not be alone, or when there is something useful I learned that came out of it. I won’t share my struggles as they happen – I will give you the sanitized version with the lessons.
The times when I have written about the past, and problems I’ve had, I invariably get an email that demonstrates little understanding of what I’ve written about. In response to articles like:
I’ve had the following from complete strangers:
“Any time you want someone to smack you back into positivity, I’m here for you.”
“I don’t understand why you should be sad when you ‘have it all’?”
“Maybe you should try some form of healing? Here are my recommendations for you.”
Messages like that can be irritating and at the same time I understand because it’s just gaps in peoples’ experiences or knowledge of me and my experiences. And it’s a common thing to want to help and support.
I’ve also had responses from people that show that they appreciate other people writing about hardships because it makes them feel they’re not alone.
But I want to go back to the emails such as ‘let me help you smack you back into positivity’.
I want to talk more about my path and explain why smacking someone with this particular family background back into positivity does not work. I’m going to share what I’ve learned recovering from my abusive family and talk about my healing work with adult children of narcissistic families and abuse victims. This is really my niche in healing.
First of all, some details:
When I have told the details of my childhood to people (there are a few who know all of what happened and some of my friends don’t know), the usual response is “how are you still sane?”
Even my therapist couldn’t believe that I would appear so high functioning in the light of what happened in our household growing up. Some members of my family are not high functioning at all.
I don’t want to give too many details because the people it involves are still living, and I don’t want to infringe on their privacy so I’m not going to name names or name relationships.
But this is what went on in our household:
- Stealing and other “unethical” activities
- Violence and physical abuse
- Suicide attempts
- In my opinion, emotional stuntedness, emotional neglect, and emotional cruelty
- Co-dependence and enabling
- Controlling and enmeshing, a stealing of self-determination and personal power
I have been battling the demons that I inherited since I left home. Back then I didn’t know why the demons were there, because I was told every family has problems and this is all normal.
I was also told by them that I had a loving family, who provided everything for me (it’s true that I was well provided for materially), who were doing their best. This is a viewpoint that is upheld by everyone in the family. The confusing thing about my childhood is that it wasn’t all about the above. There were also good times. I had toys to play with, friends to play with. There were efforts made towards happiness but there were some crucial elements missing that ended up being, in my opinion psychologically and emotionally abusive. A compliment would be given or a nice thing would be said, then in the next breath, you would be cruelly put down. It was crazy making and for a long time I learned to ignore the critical input. But I felt despair for much of my childhood. I knew something was not right or I thought perhaps it was me who had something wrong with me.
When I realized that I didn’t have an easy childhood or time growing up, and I realized what it did to me, then I started working on the healing in earnest.
What sort of problems do adult children from dysfunctional, narcissistic and abusive families face?
Believe it or not, the effects of an abusive childhood are not something you snap out of.
The American poet Sharon Olds said about her childhood:
“It is a lifelong labour trying to turn away from lies such as that one is worthless.”
(Feeling you’re worthless can result from physical, sexual, psychological and emotional abuse. Any kind of abuse leaves you with the core belief that you are worthless and you’re a ‘thing’, not a person.)
Anyway, what she says about it being a lifelong labour is true and there is a reason for it.
There is a very crucial time in a child’s development which is roughly between birth and the age of 3. The brain is still forming and neural pathways are still forming. This is true of course throughout all of childhood but especially during those toddler years.
If you are nursed or looked after by someone without empathy, someone cruel or critical or if you are not given enough physical touch, left to cry, emotionally or physically abandoned, or if dangerous or frightening or traumatic things happen to you, it affects the way your brain grows and forms.
The two main effects that I have studied involve the stress hormones such as cortisol and the bonding hormone oxytocin.
When anxiety inducing things keep happening in childhood or adolescence (traumas, etc.) your cortisol and adrenaline responses become skewed and stop working the way they should. This means that later on in life, when you perceive a threat to your wellbeing, your nervous system goes into overdrive. You produce more of hormones such as cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline than a person who wasn’t exposed to such traumas growing up. This results in anxiety and an over-response to stressful events. If you had a difficult childhood, it’s likely you will end up more stressed more easily and more often than the average person, and you will need to find ways to counter this such as deep breathing and meditation. You may also end up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and/or panic attacks.
The other part of the brain response that gets stunted if you have an insensitive caretaker or parents you cannot rely on emotionally, is the oxytocin response.
Oxytocin is the bonding hormone that encourages us to seek intimacy and companionship (because biologically there is safety in packs.)
Without proper mirroring and empathy in childhood, the oxytocin response becomes stunted meaning that abused and neglected children do not get a warm rush of oxytocin on the same scale as children who were cared for and empathized with. As a result from an early age, we stop trusting people and we don’t want to be around people because we don’t have as much of a biological incentive to. We don’t feel as good from doing it because the brain wants to protect us from others. We may develop overactive empathy (also known as hyper-vigilance) in order to be on high alert, to give us an edge in surviving, so that we can ascertain where the next physical or emotional threat will come from.
In addition, having higher levels of cortisol running through your bloodstream (as a result of trauma and abuse) opens you up to depression, major and minor as well as the anxiety I already mentioned, and a greater likelihood of chronic disease.
So in order to overcome the effects of this trauma and abuse, you need to heal, retrain your brain and nervous system responses.
In addition, all of the above interferes with relationships.
Codependent and abusive relationships
When you have abusive or dysfunctional relationships with mum and/or dad, expect to have a troubled romantic life.
The repetition compulsion sets you up for seeking out the same kinds of relationships with men or women, as you have with your parents.
In my case, I loved narcissistic and emotionally avoidant men, or men who needed a rescuer. I jumped from one abusive relationship to another since the age of 17. I have been single for three and a half years and this has been necessary for my healing. My first boyfriend was verbally abusive and a misogynist (I’ve had this more than once). I’ve been called a whore, slut and bitch by men who said they loved me (for no reason apart from being a woman they were annoyed with). I’ve been hit. I’ve had cruel and abusive things said about my character, appearance and body that have taken years to heal. I’ve been abandoned emotionally and expected to have no feelings or needs. I’ve been used. I’ve been a victim. Some people have had maybe one treacherous partner who they later found out was a bad egg. I’ve had several. Basically, I’ve trusted the wrong men. There have been a few good ones too that ended eventually but weren’t abusive. This abuse that I sought out could have destroyed me after what I experienced in my childhood and adolescence. It didn’t.
But this is a result of the dysfunction I grew up in. I looked for relationships that felt familiar. I was trying to resolve what happened to me. And I kept as much of it hidden as possible so no-one would know what a train wreck I was.
So this is why Sharon Olds is right. Have enough trauma or damage done in childhood and indeed it is a lifelong labour turning away from it. It’s not negativity or sadness that you can be smacked out of. You work at it in your own time and you rebuild yourself.
I have tried many things – cord cutting is a favourite.
Therapy, in my view, is essential.
Matrix Re-imprinting for old traumas.
Bodywork such as massage to reconnect with my body.
I’ve had hypnotherapy for the earthquake and intend to explore that more for present and past life traumas.
The good things about all of the above?
I am not a trainwreck or a victim – I am a survivor. In spite of all the above, I’ve built a successful business that gives me great joy and supports me financially. I managed to get through my education. I worked out where I want to live and took steps to live there. I cut myself off from the people that hurt me last year and I have some great friends.
All that I have been through has helped me as a healer. I don’t have any training as a conventional therapist but I can smell co-dependent and narcissistic family systems a mile off. I have a good understanding of attachment theory, abuse, grief work, and various personality disorders. I have compassion and empathy for other peoples’ struggles. And I also understand that we are all on a spiritual journey. I don’t tell my clients to buck up and snap out of it. I truly understand that life can be hard because I’ve had really low points. My heart today is more open than it has ever been, and these days I know how to lay down boundaries and tell abusive people to get lost.
Did you relate to any of this?
The issues above are ones that can affect us all. Maybe your story is more extreme than mine or not as extreme. For example, we may have a co-dependent parent who is not cruel but smothering. Or we may have one issue but not the other.
Either way, the answer is healing. And love.
Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Book recommendations for adult children of dysfunctional, abusive and narcissistic families:
- Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love
- An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s ‘Normal’
- Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives
- Surviving Grief … and Learning to Live Again
- Tear Soup
- For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence
- The Truth Will Set You Free: Overcoming Emotional Blindness and Finding Your True Adult Self
- The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy, and Love