1) See them as their own people
Much as you might want them to live out your own unfulfilled dreams or become a smaller, more agreeable version of yourself, kids are going to have their own personalities, interests, and abilities. You could try to bend them to your will in every little way, but they’ll either distance themselves from you entirely or break inside.
If you’re in the habit of comparing them to other kids, please stop. There will always be some other kid who has better grades, goes to better schools, can hit a ball farther, plays the piano better, looks more conventionally attractive, and seems well-behaved at all times. That shouldn’t matter (and besides, those other seemingly perfect children are human and have their own faults and problems, which you aren’t privy to). Help your kids develop into their strongest, most decent selves, rather than wish for them to be someone else. Accept that they’re human and will never meet some ridiculous standard of perfection. Love them as they are. If you keep comparing them to others, they’ll pick up on that, on how they seem to always fall short in your eyes, never good enough in their own right.
And please, please, don’t use them as a surrogate for someone else. They aren’t your therapist. They aren’t the best friend you never had. They aren’t meant to step into the shoes of a spouse. They’re your kids.
2) Talk to them as if they’re people
We get into the habit of cooing at children when they’re very young and brushing off their observations, triumphs, tears and fits of anger as so much lovable nonsense or irritating noise. The thing is, even very young children have serious concerns about the world. It’s easy to dismiss them or talk over them – especially when we don’t have good answers to their questions – but if you keep doing this, you’re basically telling them that their thoughts aren’t worth listening to and that they’re better off keeping quiet about what’s most important to them.
Hear them out, with sincere interest. Try to understand how they’re communicating. A two-year-old, for instance, doesn’t have the same verbal and cognitive ability as an older kid, but in many cases may still be trying to tell you something important – something they discovered or are delighted in, or something that annoys or frightens them.
Even if what they say sounds silly, remember that they’re new to the world and can’t possibly know everything that you know. Not that you know everything. Make a habit of exploring things together and not being afraid of questions that can’t easily be answered. Don’t be afraid of silliness either. And just as you wouldn’t want to be regularly shouted down, interrupted, or belittled, please extend them the same decent treatment.
3) Help them develop competency
You’re there to give your kid support. What that means changes as they develop and grow older. Basically, if you do everything for them, they’ll doubt whether they can ever stand on their own two feet. If you need to be heavily involved in every decision, great or small, you don’t give them a chance to breathe and try things out. You’re basically telling them that you don’t think they can manage on their own. This could result in a lack of confidence across different areas of life, or maybe one particular area (e.g. schoolwork).
4) Be dependably loving
One day you’re warm and loving. The next day you’re cold and distant. On a given day, your kid’s laughter might make you smile. An hour later, you tell them their laughter is grating on your nerves. On some occasions, you give them thoughtful advice and comfort them if they’ve failed at something; on other occasions, you react with impatience and derision. You make earnest promises to them, which you break half the time. They don’t quite know what to make of you. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, they think. They start regularly second-guessing themselves.
5) Hold them accountable for the right things
Kids need to learn to be responsible for their actions – not to bully other kids, not to steal, not to destroy their siblings’ toys, not to smear the contents of their noses on library books.
However, they’re not to be held responsible for your bad day at work, your rocky marriage, the argument you had with your own parents, the delivery guy showing up an hour late with dinner, or your personal insecurities.
6) Give them room and time to play
Play is pleasure and growth. It’s a time for flights of imagination, for exploration and development. Kids ideally try out different things when they play, build their skills, and have fun. When they play with others, they learn to socialize and work out conflicts. They learn to take risks, in a relatively safe environment. Please don’t hover over them all the time as they play, dictating what they should or shouldn’t do and making a fuss if they don’t spend all their free time exactly the way you want them to. Give them the confidence to chart their own path. Make free play (and free time more generally) an important part of their childhood, instead of something wedged into the twenty minutes between piano lessons/chess club/swim team/computer class/household chores. Participating in scheduled activities can be fun and beneficial, and helping out with housework at an age-appropriate level can be fulfilling for them, but if their schedule is so overbooked that they don’t have time to just play or relax, ask yourself why they need to be so busy. Talk to them about it, too – about what they want and need.
7) Model self-worth and confidence for them
I’m not talking about false bravado here, or the attitude of “suck it up/don’t cry/never show weakness, imperfections or vulnerability because no one will like or respect you.” I’m talking about genuine self-worth and confidence. Basically, you like yourself; at the very least, you’re regularly kind to yourself. You’re pleased when you do well, and you don’t beat yourself up endlessly when you make a mistake and constantly tell yourself that you’ll never get things right. You practice self-compassion and forgiveness, and have a basic faith in yourself as a human being who is capable of leading a worthwhile life and accomplishing things. You enjoy feeling good but also understand that sometimes you’ll feel down in the dumps. You’re human and imperfect, and you’re ok with that. You can still work towards your dreams, cope with mistakes along the way, take risks, love other people, receive love in return, behave decently, and enjoy life.
Kids pick up on your attitudes. They see what your attitude is towards failure and imperfection, towards embarrassment and shame. If you regularly act as if messing up makes a person unlovable or unworthy, your kids absorb that idea too, and it could batter away at them. So work on yourself. Examine your beliefs. Do you compare yourself to other people all the time? Do you tear yourself down and tear other people down? Are you basically comfortable in your own skin? Do you consider yourself a perpetual failure in life, or – even if you want some things to improve or change – are you basically ok with you who are?
Work on becoming a healthier person, mentally and emotionally. Do it for your own sake, but also know that your kids will be much more likely to develop healthy self-worth and confidence too.
I can’t speak for every situation, but at least some of these points will ring true to you if you’ve felt the effects of emotional abuse.
You aren’t meant to be your own person
In an emotionally abusive relationship, you become defined by how your abuser sees you and how you serve his or her needs. Your own hopes, dreams, hobbies, aspirations, needs, etc. are secondary or non-existent. The abuser knows what you need (knows you better than you know yourself). They know what you like and don’t like. They know what you are. Without them you won’t survive – that’s what they want you to believe. Without them you’re nothing. Who else would bother with you and look twice at you? Only them.
In various ways your life is subsumed by their behavior, moods, dreams, and demands. If they’re your parents for example they might want to make you entirely a reflection of themselves or their cherished ideals; your dreams are supplanted by theirs, and when you resist you meet with harsh consequences. Children become mere extensions of the parent, molded exactly to parental specifications, occasionally polished like a trophy when they succeed in pleasing but otherwise subjected to a barrage of negativity meant to fit them into a rigid mold, irrespective of who the child is as an individual.
Other times children become an item the parents have checked off on life’s to-do list. Great, we have a kid. Let’s give it some food, clothes, and video games to occupy itself with and turn our attention elsewhere. If it seems to need something more it’s just being a nuisance.
Or the kid becomes a punching bag for the parent. Parents see in the kid qualities they despise in themselves and go in for repeated attacks. It could also be that the parents need to feel powerful, or they feel threatened when something’s out of their control (other people’s independent minds are a source of potential upset and frightening variability); inside they may be hurt and angry and trying to defend their own wounded selves by lashing out. Maybe they’re imitating behaviors dished out to them by their own parents. Regardless of the reason, they don’t stop and think about the effect it’s having; they don’t stop and try to really see what’s going on with their own kids. Maybe they don’t care.
The abuse manifests in multiple ways and can stem from any number of reasons, but the bottom line is, you’re not treated as your own person, which means of course that you don’t receive the respect accorded to a human being. Emotional abuse cuts you down and undermines your sense of self and your feelings of worth as a person. You’re diminished, a lesser humanoid, a projection of the abuser’s mind, a means to an end, plaything, a servant, a yes-man, a pawn, a possession, an inconvenience, a convenient scapegoat, an enemy and threat, a stand-in for something or someone else, or an extra appendage or extension of the abuser (or all of these things, at various points). Whatever it is they want you to be, you’re not fully you.
You aren’t supposed to exist outside of the reality of the abuser – how they define you and what they’ve made of you in their own mind. Think of how they react when you try to break out of their reality…
Your perceptions of reality are by default invalid
Abusers are great at caging you in their version of reality. They’re adept at rewriting reality to suit themselves and protect themselves from accountability. When you say that something happened, they say it didn’t, and that’s that. When you remember that in the middle of an argument you were angry but in control, raising your voice a little but otherwise in possession of your temper, they’ll tell you you were harsh, screaming, over-the-top, rude, disrespectful, etc. etc. (they’ll rarely or never remember any such thing about themselves though).
If you’re feeling a certain way they’ll tell you that it can’t be true. You really aren’t angry. You really aren’t hurt. What you are is sensitive/ungrateful/irrational, etc. Nothing is ever as bad as you say it is. Things usually don’t happen the way you remember them. The abuser is the final authority on what’s real and what isn’t, including your innermost thoughts and emotions.
Another possibility is that they do acknowledge your emotions or thoughts, but then tell you exactly why you’re feeling or thinking that way – because of some personal defect, or because you’ve been brainwashed by someone (hanging out with the “wrong people” who’ve planted “wrong ideas” in your head) or it’s some other external cause, anything but the abuser. It doesn’t matter what you say the cause is. Your explanations are automatically dismissed.
It isn’t long before you’re lost in self-doubt. It didn’t really happen that way, did it? Maybe I really am exaggerating. It couldn’t have been so bad. I’m a bad person for feeling this way. Other people may seem to confirm what your abuser is telling you (they might not know the whole story or may be inclined to believe your abuser over you for whatever reason, or they might not want to ‘stir up trouble’ or ‘make an issue’ out of it).
Remember also that abusive people don’t have to behave badly all the time. In fact some of them are well-intentioned; in their own eyes they’re doing what’s right, and they sincerely believe that you’re making life more difficult for them and for yourself by not changing who you are and what you do. You can have really good times with an abusive person – fun times, laughter – and they may behave helpfully in some respects. They can tell you they love you, and maybe they really mean it, at least in their understanding of what love is; you might love them very much in return. You may perceive their insecurities and troubles and feel bad for them. There are definitely people who abuse with deliberate malice and evil, and one weapon in their arsenal may indeed be to gaslight you. But abusers don’t have to act with consistent, deliberate malice in order to abuse.
So maybe you think they have a point, and you’re the unreasonable one; or you feel that you can stand to be even more accommodating than you already are. If it’s a little odd that you’re usually or always wrong while they’re always in the right, well, it’s just another sign that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. You start to doubt your own judgment, perceptions, and emotions. Perhaps you question your sanity. You lose trust in yourself.
It also doesn’t help that you can’t fully account for what they do. They might blow up sometimes, and remain calm on other occasions. They might threaten you or be cold or indifferent to you in the morning and in the evening behave in a warm and friendly way as if nothing had ever happened. No apologies or explanations. Maybe they tell you you’re forgiven. What a relief. The storm is over. It wasn’t as bad as you thought it was, right?
You’re entirely responsible for their emotions and behaviors
If they blow up in your face, criticize you relentlessly or lapse into an exaggeratedly dark and terrible mood it’s all your fault. You shouldn’t have said or done XYZ, however minor it is; you shouldn’t be the way you are. If you’d only change and be perfect at all times, everything would be fine.
What happens if you internalize this attitude? In addition to the pain your abuser inflicts on you, you’ll also experience the pain you inflict on yourself as you put most or all of the blame on your own shoulders, second-guess what you did, wonder what you could have done differently, spend time wishing you could be better, and perhaps come to despise yourself for being such a deficient person. You’ll feel guilty. Nothing like a good strong dose of guilt to corrode your thoughts about yourself. In fact after a certain point you might live in a state of perpetual guilt. Why can’t I be as good and worthy as they want me to be?
You might make excuses for them: they work so hard or do so much/they must have a personality disorder/they’re hurting themselves too/they’re damaged inside/you know that there’s good in them and they’re trying, really, it’s not as if they’re like that all the time… and so forth and so on. The excuses keep you focused on them and what they might be thinking and how you can predict what they’ll do, while you ignore your own long-term well-being. If the relationship remains in its current abusive state, you’ll have to keep contorting yourself and tiptoeing around them so that you don’t make them do the bad things they’re prone to doing. Because it’s all your fault, isn’t it? If you feel drained, angry and stressed from having to deal with their behaviors, it’s your fault for not being a better person to begin with.
They refuse to acknowledge that they give you pain
Even as they tell you that you’re responsible for their every angry flare-up, critical attack, or low mood, they refuse to acknowledge that they have any negative impact on you whatsoever. If their speech or behavior hurts you – if in response you’re sad/angry/stressed out or wish to avoid them – it’s because you’re deficient in some way. They’ll tell you you’re too sensitive or have poor control over yourself. That you’re foolish or irrational and tend to overreact. The best is when they sincerely believe (or profess to believe) in their own good intentions and tell you that you lack the wisdom and maturity to see how beneficial their relentless criticism or other corrective measures are. Everything they do is GOOD and RIGHT. Why can’t you appreciate that? What is wrong with you? they say. Everything, you reply. Everything is wrong with me; haven’t you always told me so?
You’re manipulated and controlled
What you wear, how you look, what you do, who you hang out with, what you believe in, what you are in your entirety… everything is up for grabs.
The control they exercise can be violent and aggressive, but not necessarily in a physical way; for instance, an abuser could scream at you or relentlessly pick on you or humiliate you to get you to change or to keep you in line.
Abusers may also be passive-aggressive, giving you the cold shoulder or silent treatment, or becoming deeply despondent or emotionally volatile every time you do something they don’t want you to do. (Remember, you’re supposed to be in charge of their every emotion!) They convey to you that you’ve deeply deeply disappointed them. (Your response? GUILT. Lots and lots of guilt.) Even if you aren’t doing something they disapprove of, they may want to throw you off balance by behaving as if you’ve gravely wounded or offended them. (Remember, you’re supposed to be doubting yourself and your perceptions of reality!) Inconsistent behaviors, rules and expectations are also great for keeping you off-balance and keeping your mind on the abuser and how to anticipate what they’ll do next.
They might make threatening pronouncements: “You’d better not do that, or else!” The retribution they threaten might come from their own actions, or it could be the promise of some general disaster in your life (“if you do that, you’ll fail out of school and no one will love you and ten lightning bolts will hit you on the way home, mark my words!”) Fear is potent. Fear is the friend of an abuser. Anything to make you meek, nervous, jumpy and stressed. You might be unhappy with the abuser, but the wider world is so much more scary, right?
When it comes to parent-child relationships people say, “Aren’t parents supposed to control their kids?” Well, what do you mean by that? Ideally, parents want their kids to grow up to be good, non-abusive people. They want their kids to be well-functioning, able to take care of themselves and possessed of resources (including important emotional and mental resources) that will help them handle life’s challenges. They want their kids to be healthy, happy and fulfilled. Do parents need to discipline their kids? Sure. Do they have to set some boundaries? Of course. But that doesn’t necessarily make a parent controlling. What are some signs of controlling parents?
- They might need their kids to be a certain way (to love the same things the parent loves, to be the parent’s best friend/confidant(e)/pawn, to be a good little scapegoat, etc.) or turn out a very specific way, regardless of what the children’s individual inclinations are (you’re going to be a business executive or die trying! You’re going to get married by the time you hit 25, or else!)
- They don’t stop at setting some reasonable boundaries for behavior, but police the minutiae: exactly how the child spends their time, exactly what they wear to school every day, exactly who they spend time with… they do their best to deny their children any meaningful choices or respond negatively to any choices their children do make.
- They infantilize the child. They do things like tie their child’s shoelaces, help them wash their hair, help them get dressed etc. past an age when a child would require such assistance. A nine year old is treated like a five year old. A sixteen year old is treated like a nine year old. No gradual increase of responsibilities, privileges and overall independence. Remember, the child isn’t supposed to really grow into a separate human being. They can also mess with the child’s head by treating them in an infantile fashion in some ways but making adult demands of them in other ways.
- They try not to let the child get too close to other people, including other adults who might be parental surrogates or other children who are potential friends. Other people may introduce a different reality than the one the abuser is trying to cage the child inside. (You see this in adults who are abused too – their abuser may hate it if they get too close to others or have any other meaningful relationships at all in life.)
You regularly feel two inches tall
An emotionally abusive person doesn’t have to do all of the following things; even a couple of these tactics, used regularly over time, can wear you down:
- Neglect and dismissal. They ignore your needs, and dismiss what’s important to you. They might not even notice you’re around. Your triumphs and disappointments mean little to them. You’re there only when they feel like noticing you or require something from you that will satisfy their own needs. Sometimes the attitude of neglect is more pronounced – a deliberate cold shoulder or silent treatment or pointedly turning away from you when you enter a room. They might regularly talk over you when you try to be heard.
- Relentless put downs and criticism. There are so many kinds. Cutting remarks, insults, sarcastic glee, compliments delivered in a patently insincere or backhanded way, a running commentary about your deficiencies, regular use of hyperbole (e.g. various aspects of your appearance, behavior or overall self are deemed the “worst ever” or exaggeratedly horrible), heavy doses of “advice” that repeatedly highlight your shortcomings. The put-downs don’t have to be verbal: facial expressions and body language eloquent of disgust, distaste, disappointment, anger, or dismissal also do the trick.
- Humiliation. Forget feeling two inches tall, why not feel like nothing? They exploit your vulnerabilities, push you towards tears and blind insensible pain, and subject you to degrading circumstances. When done in front of other people, one effect this has is to convince you that you’re small in everyone’s eyes. Everyone is a witness to your profound defects. Everyone is laughing at you or repelled by you.
- Constant comparisons to others. Why can’t you be more like someone else: a sibling, your best friend, a work colleague, or an abuser’s former spouse or romantic partner? Look at how they do things; they never screw up or have a bad day or look less than stellar. If only you weren’t you. (This tactic is great by the way at fostering resentment between you and other people – between family members and friends and co-workers. The resentment can distance you from those other people, putting you more firmly in the abuser’s power or making you feel utterly and totally alone.)
- Overreactions to your mistakes, however minor. If you forget your umbrella at the park, break a dish while washing up after dinner, pick up the wrong thing at the grocery store, get a lower grade than you expected on a quiz, overcook dinner or miss an exit on the highway, a federal case needs to be established against you. There might be interrogations and summary judgments. Over-the-top emotional reactions are typical: shouting, exaggerated irritation or despondency, nasty moods or iceberg coldness. Your past crimes might be aired and re-examined, to remind you that everything you do is wrong. Even if it’s something like coming down with a cold, you’ll be berated for not taking care of yourself; if only you’d taken some 100% effective preventative measure you wouldn’t be sitting there miserably sniffling. All the while you think to yourself, “If this is how they react to minor screw-ups or misfortunes, what will happen if I mess up big time?” Hello, anxiety!
- Intimidation and threats. Maybe they use physical violence, but they don’t have to. Shouting and screaming may be sufficient to produce a cowed silence. Or they crowd you in and lean over you, threatening you with the possibility of imminent violence. They may threaten you in other ways, or threaten your loved ones, or tell you they’ll hurt your pet or damage a beloved possession. Maybe they’ll act on some of those threats.
- Cultivating unrealistic expectations that you’ll fall short of. When you do fall short, you’ll feel diminished, sad, unworthy, and angry. If you internalize these unrealistic expectations, even normal setbacks and errors will feel like the end of the world. These expectations are often framed with the words ‘should’ and ‘must’ – I must always do XYZ, my life should be a certain way, other people have to behave in a specific fashion…
- Encouraging various cognitive distortions. These include all or nothing thinking (either you’re perfect or you’re worthless and hopeless), magnification of errors and minimization of achievements, focusing on negative details while ignoring the positives, blaming yourself for things outside of your control, and not being able to really believe or accept other people’s compliments, however sincere.
- Lying. They lie outright about you, including to other people. Your protests are dismissed as delusional or dishonest. They may lie about what other people said or did to you, sowing dissension between you and others and fostering mistrust.
There’s probably more I can add to the list, but I’d like to move on…
What to do?
There isn’t one simple way of dealing with and recovering from emotional abuse.
I think it’s necessary to identify that there’s a problem and then to start establishing and fortifying your own perceptions of reality and your own sense of self, fighting your way out of the diminished and degraded definitions the abuser has boxed you into. You’re piecing yourself together again.
You can start getting a stronger sense of self by gaining support from people who treat you well (including a good therapist); they can give you different and more positive and realistic perspectives about yourself that run contrary to your abuser’s negative treatment and viewpoint. They can help you understand the tactics of your abuser, and possibly how to counter them or sidestep them, while also developing yourself into a mentally healthier person. Other perspectives are key, including from people who’ve gone through similar things and have dealt with it in positive ways (there are a number of people online who furnish insights and advice – including this blogger, and her commenters, who regularly respond to letters from people in abusive situations).
Being able to recognize that there’s a problem, and stepping back and regarding the situation as if you were an outsider, can be helpful. Words and actions that had once seemed absolutely true or sane to you lose some of their power; regarding the abuser with clarity, as someone who behaves in deeply flawed and damaging ways – and not as god-like or kind enough to put up with you or deeply insightful about your nature (“the only one who understands you”) or whatever other inviolable position they occupy – can take away from their hold over you and their power in defining you. Achieving psychological distance (and ideally physical distance) from the abuser is key. (If the emotional abuse is accompanied by physical and/or sexual violence, it’s imperative that you remove yourself physically from the abuser, including calling on intervention from law enforcement.)
It can take years to work on unhealthy mental and emotional patterns/habits if you’ve been in an abusive relationship long-term, particularly parent-child (a child’s sense of the world and of themselves is so strongly shaped by parents), but it’s possible to have a good life. It takes a willingness to work on healing yourself. Sadly this willingness may be undercut by existing poor feelings of self-worth, negativity, and discouragement – “I’m a hopeless case” you might say, even though you’re not.
In some cases people who emotionally abuse others may be willing to undergo therapy and effect positive changes in their behavior, but don’t count on it. Regardless of whether they’re working on themselves or not, put yourself first and work on yourself; you’ll need to in order to rebuild and redefine yourself in healthy ways and regard yourself as a full human being. (Also be vigilant about your own behavior. You might be treating others abusively, diminishing them and yourself, as you perpetuate patterns of behavior and thought you’re familiar with. You’re not doomed to repeat what’s been done to you.)
Here’s an additional article to read on recovery from emotional abuse. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
On Google yesterday I typed in the phrase “Why am I so…” and waited to see what suggestions autocomplete would offer to finish the phrase (yes I was procrastinating, I admit it). Here are the top 10:
Why am I so…
I did this little exercise out of curiosity about the kinds of questions we commonly ask of ourselves (at least on Google); from what I’ve read about the autocomplete algorithm, it draws on the search activities of the millions and millions of people using Google, along with phrases and keywords in Google-indexed web pages. (It could have drawn on my personal search history as well, but as I was logged out of Google and had disabled Web History a while ago, I’m not sure my own Googling affected the outcome much.)
Regardless, there are many, many webpages out there directly addressing these queries. So, what do we find on the internet in answer to them? Some good advice, some terrible advice, some people commiserating, others jeering. And there’s anguish. Lots of anguish. Our problems can consume our mental energy, and possibly our lives.
A few of the search terms are more blatantly medical than others (bloated, itchy, gassy) and more superficial; we want to find out why we have these symptoms and whether we should be alarmed, and how we can put an end to the unpleasantness and get some relief – but being gassy is rarely taken as a sign that we’re fundamentally defective. Others could definitely be medical and a result of certain lifestyle choices (tired, fat, etc.) but there are also deeper issues at work there; the possible answers are more complex and get at who we are (or who we think we are) as people.
Not that we’re always looking for answers. We want to work on ourselves, but sometimes we aren’t ready yet to make the effort. What we might hope to find – in addition to, or as a substitute for, any concrete suggestions for improvement – are opportunities to:
1) Confirm that we’re not alone. So many forums exist out there for people with depression for instance, who understand one another and maybe feel less alone as a result.
2) Absorb some sympathy. I don’t just mean in a “poor me” dramatically self-pitying “nobody has it this bad” sort of way (though depending on the individual there might be some of that) but just genuine warmth and support. Maybe we lack that from people in our lives.
3) Get encouragement. Doing anything about laziness or tiredness or other problems can be daunting. What we need are inspiring stories and kind words. This might give us a boost now or give us hope for the future, even if we feel as if we can’t manage the effort at the present time.
4) Satisfy our curiosity. We want to see what life is like for other people. That might include a comparison between us and them (e.g. they have it so much easier than I do… they might have succeeded in overcoming their problems, but I know for sure that I won’t).
5) Have our own suspicions or perceptions, however pessimistic, confirmed. There’s a kind of grim satisfaction we get from hearing that what we’ve thought all along is true: we’re screwed – by genetics, by poor choices, by any number of factors – and it will be terribly difficult to get well and turn our lives around. So there. If we can confirm that we’re hopeless, it means we don’t have to do anything, because nothing we’ll do matters. At least, this is what we tell ourselves.
6) Stall. We’ll find nothing that we don’t already know. We’ve done this web search before, multiple times, combed through dozens of sites. We’re searching again (and again) to no real purpose. Googling our problems gives us the illusion of doing something meaningful to improve our lives, when it’s really time for us to start acting on what we know. Are we delaying any changes we need to make because we’re afraid we’ll fail? Because the effort is too great? Are we using these self-help searches to sabotage ourselves? Maybe.
People are more than capable of using an opportunity to get better as a way to prevent themselves from getting better. We’re masters at both irony and self-sabotage.
You know which one broke my heart most? ‘Ugly’ (“why am I so ugly?”). Looking through some of the search results you see people who’ve already made up their mind that yes, they’re ugly. It’s an incontrovertible truth to them. Most have been repeatedly told they’re ugly, in subtle and not-remotely-subtle ways, and they live in anguish. Offline they may try to mask that anguish and carry on as usual, but it eats away at them.
It gives you tremendous pain to look at yourself and see ugliness. To feel it as others stare at you. To be convinced that you’ll be spurned and alone for the rest of your life. Unless you do something… but what? If you get plastic surgery, will you love yourself? What about new clothes? Will you be loved then? The self-perception of ‘ugliness’ is never only about your pronounced nose, your belly fat, your varicose veins, your acne, your asymmetrical face, or a combination of all of those… it’s a deep feeling of wrongness crawling through you.
The feeling is so deep and pervasive, so very much a part of how we define ourselves, that we think it can’t be anything but true. It comes to dominate everything.
“Why am I so ugly” echoes in some of the others (‘fat,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘depressed,’ ‘tired.’) Looking at ourselves and seeing a lump. A nothing. No beauty, no spirit, just a blob of inertia and pain. Other people can hurt us and do their best to grind us down. But when they’re not around, we take over and keep at it. We’re deeply convinced that there’s no other life for us, no real and lasting alternatives to the state we’re stuck in. We might want to change, and sometimes are overcome with a desire to make the effort, but it gives way to a belief that we’ll never be able to do it. Even if we think we can, we’ll likely fail, and any failure will prove once and for all that we really are stuck. (Failure proves no such thing, but it’s a convincing lie that we often buy into). In any case the concept of who we are is fixed in our mind and it colors everything in our life.
The things we miss out on when our minds are overrun with these thoughts. There’s so much to think about, to enjoy, to wonder about, to love in this world, to fight for, to care about, to learn and explore and live for. It’s a tragedy when our self-perceptions prevent us from seeing this goodness, this vast potential, and keep us from believing that we can ever be a part of it.
Much of our mental energy is consumed by our problems. Sometimes the solutions are relatively straightforward, if it’s a solution we’re really after (Gassy? Don’t eat certain kinds of food. Itchy? Here, try this cream.) Other times the problem is more complex. And our attempts at solving it can set us back further. Instead of working on our ambitions and projects, enjoying our hobbies, nurturing our relationships, cultivating our minds – in short, doing all the things that could give us a richer life and help us ease our pain – we tear ourselves apart in the process of trying to make ourselves better.
It can be useful to find a name for a particular problem. For instance, if we figure out that our tiredness, emptiness, and lack of pleasure might be depression, then calling it ‘depression’ – knowing it for what it is – can be the first step towards managing it so that we can restore ourselves to a healthier life. But when our negative labels feel permanent and all-encompassing (Fat? I’m nothing but fat. Lazy? Yep, can’t do a thing. Ugly? Everyone thinks so, and that’s all they see when they look at me) then it becomes much more difficult to believe that we could ever see ourselves differently – that we could ever be different, happier, more contented, and lead a rich, varied, meaningful life, where we aren’t weighed down so strongly by one particular definition of ourselves.
Understanding and addressing our perceptions of ourselves, particularly when they’re so cruelly negative, is necessary for good mental and physical health, and for a strong life well-lived; our thoughts are fundamental to the kind of life we’ll experience. Wrestling with self-defeating perceptions can be a lifelong struggle, but hopefully one that won’t end in resigned defeat, grim confirmation that we were “right about ourselves” all along.
On that note, here’s a related post I found today: 7 Common Habits of Unhappy People.