Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dismaying Story #129: Crossing the Line of Emotional Abuse

Dear Andrew,

I read Dismaying Story #125: Feeling Trapped and the truth is I can relate a lot. My parents were not abusive, not in the physical sense of the word. I did receive a slap or two, but it was - I believe - in the normal range. They were not blatantly abusive in the verbal sense of the word either. But - although they were a lot within the normal range with everything and I can't think of anything morally or ethically or legally wrong with the way they raised me, I can also blame a lot of my problems in life on the way they handled things with me.

For you to understand what I mean, I will quote my father's occasional "pearls of wisdom":

"Why did you dye your hair red? Only gypsies dye their hair red" (at a family gathering, with around 10 people in the room)
"What's the point in taking extra courses in college! You're already failing the ones you have"
-"Dad, I'm third in my class"
-"I knew your college was no good"
Before I went to college: "You should study programming. Pays good" Later, I'm dating a programmer who's earning thrice my salary: "See, I told you should study programming. You never listen." (repeat over and over whenever money comes into the conversation)
"There are people who decide to be with someone even if they don't love them. You should be happy that your boyfriend wants to be with you and not wonder why he decided so."
"You should marry your boyfriend, that way you know he won't leave in a couple of years when he gets sick of you."
"Men are pigs. When me and your mother got married, there were three girls who expected me to propose. And I'm one of the good ones"

All these are told in 'banter mode', with a smile on his face like he's joking. I don't know why I keep listening to what he says and yet I do. And after he says it I spend hours thinking about it, replaying it in my head. And whenever I fail, whether he's aware of it or not, I keep hearing his voice telling me that "I never listen".

Every time I start something he points out everything that could go wrong. And then when it does, he says "I told you so". And then there's a long speech about how much he loves me and he wants what's best for me and he wants me not to get hurt, which is why he is doing what he is doing.

I believe he honestly thinks he's doing the right thing. But when he tells me to marry my boyfriend so that he won't he leave me he actually convinces me not to marry my boyfriend because he'll leave me anyway... if that makes sense.

Now, when I moved out and don't talk as much to him anymore, whenever I start something new I think of what could go wrong 'daddystyle'. This makes me more efficient and, yes, at work it does me good - I am ready for failure and I know what to do 'just in case'. But somehow I think he's setting me up for failure. I have grown to expect failure. I have grown to accept that I will one day break up with my boyfriend. That I will be fired from my job. That I will fail. And most of the time I prepare myself for that case.

I don't know if this kind of behavior counts as abuse, in the real sense of the word. But it still hurts, even more when I realize exactly what is happening and what I am doing and why, and when I realize I am almost powerless to stop it. It might not be abusive, but I still need to escape it.

Signed, Normal and Yet Not

Dear Normal and Yet Not,

I looked up the verb “abuse” in the dictionary and found this: To hurt or injure by maltreatment. To assail with contemptuous, coarse, or insulting words.

Your father certainly hurts and insults you with his words. We have to be careful how we apply such a definition, though, since many of us are probably guilty of hurtful words or the occasional insult when we are angry or in the midst of a heated argument.

In you father’s case, however, this is a long-standing pattern of consistent put-downs, insults, and condescension. Furthermore, his actions seem to have had a profound effect on your self-image. You have been conditioned to expect personal failure and to expect others to treat you poorly.

To me that clearly crosses the line. His behavior is abusive. Parents should support their children and lift them up. I tell my children all the time – no matter who you meet in life, you will never meet anyone who wants you to succeed and be happy more than I do; I will always have your back, no matter what. Your father may believe he is helping you with his “advice” but he is actually hurting you.

You seem to have entered into a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy – you begin a relationship and before long you begin wonder how long it will be before your boyfriend recognizes your faults and leaves. This causes you to be stressed and to act less positively in the relationship than you might otherwise. While with your boyfriend you may be moody, stressed, worried, defensive. In short, you are less fun to be around because you have little faith in the outcome of the relationship. In many cases this will cause the very outcome you fear. He will leave you because he can tell things aren’t going well. Then that little voice inside pipes up: “See? Your father was right. You will always fail. Your boyfriend will always leave. You are not worthy of happiness and a life-long companion.”

But here’s the thing – that little voice is wrong and so is your father. In a scenario like I just described, the boyfriend doesn’t leave because of who you are, he leaves because of how you have acted. This is very good news, because you can’t change who you are (and there is no need to) but you can certainly learn new behaviors.

You can learn to recognize the falsehoods that your inner voice serves up and to ignore them. You can reverse the years of negative conditioning and alter how you view your place in the world. You can stop criticizing yourself and expecting failure. You can stop hearing your father’s voice every time you try to achieve something.

You are far from powerless; you absolutely can do these things. This is neither easy nor automatic, but with the right help you can certainly achieve it. Find someone to talk to, preferably a therapist or counselor who can recognize what is happening and coach you through a transition toward self-awareness and self-affirmation.

You will be amazed at how much power you truly have to control your own success and happiness.

A final note: By far the most common search term used to reach To Love, Honor, and Dismay is “toxic parent.” This truly surprises me. The many Dismaying Stories on this site deal with a wide variety of issues I would have predicted would be more common. Nonetheless, apparently toxic parents are a problem for many people. You may gain additional insight into your situation by reading Dismaying Story #56: Divorcing Your Toxic Parents.

Good luck!

All the best,

By the way, keep those questions coming. I have received a few Dismaying Story emails recently but I could use many, many more.


  1. Andrew is very right, and very wise about this.

    Your Father was/is very definitely abusive.

    It doesn't matter if he has a smile on his face when he says things, or if he thinks he means well. That is called being passive-agressive and in denial.

    It's good that you don't see very much of him anymore. The less contact with a toxic person, the better. He in all probability will nevr change or admit to the truth of what he has done. It would require a self-examination and honesty he probably would do anything to avoid.

    It's no wonder his words became your reality because you heard them for so long.

    As Andrew said, the very good news is that you can change how you talk to yourself now, and become the parent you would have always liked in praising yourself for what is good, kind and smart that you do.

    This will be a gradual process, but you can stop your memories of your Father's cruelty from still continuing to wound your life.

  2. Your are right Andrew. Her father was abusive, sometimes we don't like labels but I would call it emotional abuse.

    To heal this wound is a process. As you said:

    "You can stop criticizing yourself and expecting failure. You can stop hearing your father’s voice every time you try to achieve something."

  3. We don't know the age of "Normal Yet Not", but as I read her letter I get the feeling she's perhaps only in her twenties, with college years not too long past.

    I think the bright side of this sad story is that "NYN" has realised what her problem is, and sought Andrew's wise advice.
    Had she simply struggled on, unaware, as many in her situation probably do, her outlook would be much less hopeful.

    I hope that, with help, as Andrew suggests, she'll come out of this a much stronger person, with the wish and ability to forgive her father for damage caused.

    Good luck "NYN"!

  4. Excellent advice, Andrew.

    She's not powerless - she can decide right here and now to believe in herself.

    I must be much more stubborn - if I heard that kind of talk (and I did from my first husband), I did my best to prove the prophecy wrong. Not that that's the best way to handle it, either. The ideal way is to work with a therapist to understand how these words have affected her and how she can learn to let go of bad advice.

  5. Hi Andrew. Thanks for visiting my blog.

    I read the post and I feel sorry for the young lady. I hope that she finds a way to overcome the weight of her father's words. It's not a hopeless case. She can still have a good life ahead of her if she learns to believe in herself.

  6. I hate to say it, but I grew up in a similar fashion. I got lucky Dad realized what he was doing and no longer says things of this nature. It did have an impact on me that's for sure. But over the years I have managed to build my own self esteem and not let anyone else's opinions do harm to it.

    You are right on this one Doc. I agree with everything you have told this lady. I hope she can find the help to get herself happy.

  7. There is no doubt the seeds of insecurity have been sowed. Abuse surfaces in many ways and can leave long lasting wounds on an adult. When I was a young child, I said " when I grow up, I am going to bring new awareness to mental health." For awhile I did work on making people aware of mental health without the need to label. I must say though, I think love is the great healer and so I continue to write and paint what brings warmth to a heart.

  8. I spent years in a marriage where emotional abuse was allowed to run rampant. My children and I will eternally bear the scars. It is hard to even look at pictures of when my children were small and have anything but sad feelings.

    My oldest son and I were just talking this morning and I was telling him how I was watching Voltron last night and remembering his little blonde self and how much he loved that show. We would watch it together. But there is always that twang of pain deep in my heart. Remembering that same little blonde, free spirit, whose father refused to let him call me "mommy" because it meant he was a little wimp. He forced him to call me mom. My son says that the memory of that hurts his chest still, and it feels like it happened just yesterday. I told him I am sorry I let that happen and he said he does not blame me at all. And then I said, "Well it just makes me wish I'd killed him." I said this with a smile and my son laughed. Yes, it's not funny. And this is no laughing matter. But if we don't laugh, we'll cry, right?

    Does this "mommy" thing sound like a huge and terrible thing... I mean on the scale of the terrible things that happen to children? No. But it was just one small thing among many.

    I can't stress enough that people should not put up with even one minute or the smallest type of emotional abuse. Because it never is small.

    By the way, my son always calls me Mommy now. He's 27 years old and a father of two. :)

  9. Great feedback. As parents and as adults it is amazing how much damage our casual comments can have on a young person. We must speak and think from a place of love and seek to understand the power we wield.