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.
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.