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The abuse left me with a self-defeating defense mechanism Pt. 1/3


2002to2009
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The abuse I went through has made me rebellious towards the idea of changing my self, even though I know this is what I must do. More generally, I have an aversion to facing possibilities of failure and learning from mistakes. My question is, how do I overcome this inner (and self-defeating) rebellion?

This is an excerpt from a recent journal entry:

I suppose one of the reasons people learn from mistakes is because they have such a strong emotional reaction to it—they chastise themselves. If I give myself an excuse for having made a mistake, I minimize that emotional reaction.

The context is that for years, I received nothing but criticism—both from my Dad and the bullies. It was unjustified, undeserved and cruel—most excusable from the kids, because they were sharks, reacting to a wound in open water. Anyway, all that constant criticism led me to develop a defense mechanism to survive. It wasn’t just being desensitized: I had to become immune to criticism, specifically; develop the capacity to ignore it so I wouldn’t be wounded anymore.

And please, do bear in mind that any other kid in your situation would have done the same thing—even a boy. The options are fight or flight, but it takes being a certain age before fighting is option even to males.

So, almost willfully, I would often do something to piss my Dad off, like being late, because I had put his parental guidance into the same category as everything else—unfair, unjust, abuse. I couldn’t tell the difference; I was a child. Besides, it’s disagreeable to anyone, adult or child, to accept advice from someone who’s hurting you.

I said almost willfully but the emphasis should be on the “almost.” They weren’t isolated acts of willfulness but part of an overall pattern of ignoring everything. In fact, the feelings I had when I was dragging and late for school or church were not feelings of rebellion, but had more of a sense of surrender.

Of course, the very defense mechanism I used to keep myself safe gave the abuse more ammunition. But then again, what wouldn’t have? If I had been a boy, and necessarily, an extremely precocious one, capable of physically fighting back at the age of five with little fists blazing, wouldn’t that also have given the abuse more ammunition?

I think my Dad was too preoccupied with his own unmet needs to give a hoot about what his behavior was doing to me. Something that probably didn’t cross his mind at all, though, and something that I’ve only discovered recently myself, is the indirect effect his behavior had on my ability to learn from mistakes.

Also, the abuse deprived me of the opportunity to absorb any of the valuable lessons he COULD teach. Even if I could have discerned that my Dad had valuable lessons to impart, I couldn’t stand the risk of being hurt.

He was horribly unpredictable—remember the incident with drawing on the books, how he smiled? It was obvious, although only on a subconscious level, that his behavior was arbitrary, based on emotion and not logic. It made me feel unanchored and made him seem untrustworthy.

But, even if he had chosen to be abusive only and always when it was “warranted,” the extreme nature of it would have still scared a child into fight or flight. There were two layers to it. I was terrified of him, resentful when he tried to be nice because he was actually in a good (unpredictable) mood and tortured by the impossibility of getting close to him. I remember trying so hard—wrapping pennies as presents, making cards, etc. At a certain point, though, I came to an inscrutable understanding that nothing would stop the abuse. To be without hope is pure hell, so I closed myself off, lived in my own head, and was able to ride out the rollercoaster in that way—by being numb.

Aside from alienating me in my own home, the abuse had another by-product, outside: I had already been criticized so much that when I actually was criticized for something legitimate in the outside world, I just couldn’t take it. It didn’t just hurt a little, so that I would learn from it—it hurt TOO MUCH. It was like a confirmation of all I’d learned at home about how little I deserved (and by extension, how little I was worth—even if I wasn’t called filthy names, the intimation was always there).

This included social ineptitudes—I closed myself off from the obvious fact that I couldn’t play the social games the other first grade girls played, and scholastic ineptitudes: I couldn’t take the criticism. Children don’t think about the fact that they’re the youngest in the class—they blame themselves. It hurt too much, so I didn’t try.

It is clear to me now that abused children are at a tremendous disadvantage. Not only are many of them not taught the tools they need to survive, but the hope and spirit they need to self-teach are beaten out. Even worse, to survive in a toxic environment they have to develop the ability to block everything out or suffer even greater trauma.

I remember having to get my ears checked in second grade or so. My ability to block things out was just that good. I think, maybe, at a certain point, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. That’s scary, because how might that childhood-taught ability impact me now? How many children are diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, when the cause is actually psychological? In today’s take-the-pill-and-fix-it world, I’m betting a lot.

If I had to sum up my defense mechanism over the years… seeping into high school and even college, it was a campaign of not trying. If I didn’t take anything seriously, I wouldn’t be hurt.

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If I had to sum up my defense mechanism over the years… seeping into high school and even college, it was a campaign of not trying. If I didn’t take anything seriously, I wouldn’t be hurt.

Worse, when I sensed that I wasn’t trying and that it was part of a pattern, I blamed myself, quietly calling myself lazy with a sense of surrender. Doing that robbed me of the opportunity to look deeper for the cause and thereby find a cure.

My mother was kind to me throughout all my grade school years. I’m grateful I had her as a friend, but her kindness also had the following effect: it put her official stamp of approval on my not trying to better myself while simultaneously teaching me nothing, because after all, this is someone who even today prefers to “watch the world go by.”

Even now I have a horrible problem with all the antibodies I’ve built up to protect myself from criticism. It’s like having a huge open wound.

This is why, at work, when I do something wrong, I can’t honestly say: “Ahn—sorry; won’t happen again.” Because very often it does and I don’t make promises I can’t keep. I’ve tended NOT to learn from mistakes, because I have trouble facing any suggestion of my imperfection.

I’m still at somewhat of a loss as to how to solve this. It’s something of a catch-22, because if I allow myself to feel the full emotional impact of a mistake at work, people look at me weird. (Lately, this has started to happen; I’ve cried at work—something I only did in grade school maybe twice out of eight years of misery).

Yet, whether I have a 1).: psychological equivalent of an asthma attack (more typical at work), or, 2.): fog it off completely, I find myself making the same blunder a few weeks later. Both reactions are opposite extremes, and both have the effect of subverting reality. Finding the middle ground is proving to be frustratingly difficult for me. Of course, I’m not a very patient person, but this is torture. I can compare the feeling to being like one of those skate-boarders…on one of those “U”-shaped decks, constantly moving from one lip to the other. There’s no certainty.

Since the main way human beings learn is by making mistakes, this is something I have to get over. (That would actually be a good name for a book: Zen and the Art of Making Mistakes…heh).

Adding yet another layer of complexity is the tremendous amount of shame I have for being so emotionally vulnerable. The feeling is one of being a child in a world of adults.

So, when I do allow myself to feel the full emotional force of having fucked up, I also have to deal simultaneously with the shame over the fact that it’s affecting me so severely. (Hence the psychological asthma attack).

It’s like the game is rigged, because there’s a heap of emotional motivators to NOT feel the impact of a mistake. As a child, I was naturally vulnerable, and that made what I was going through that much worse. As an adult, the very tactic I used in childhood to become less vulnerable leaves me still feeling like a child, and ashamed over it.

Of course, that feeling of being like a vulnerable child doesn’t just happen when I make mistakes or have to deal with feelings of failure. I’m confronted by it continually in the waking world. And when it happens, the old antibodies come out.

Even when I catch myself, my instinct is to withdraw, and people pick up on it, especially in a rat-race workplace. They can tell I’m fighting something, that I’m forcing myself to interact, forcing myself to assertive. So they call me on it. It sets me up to be tested in a way that “naturally” assertive people, like Leah or Mr. Hall, generally aren’t—or, if they are, they don’t cave in under the pressure.

For a while, it’s going to have to be that way, though. That kind of “natural” assertiveness doesn’t come without practice. Witness: when I first started being social. After exposing myself over and over to what I most feared, I discovered a new instinct. It was completely unconscious, but it did take work.

Of course, until I get that practice, I can’t do what comes “naturally” and expect to be respected—the instinct to withdraw still rears its head. It’s because the struggle to act the right way (assertive, confident, etc.) can be tiring. But…that’s going to happen a few times—maybe even a lot of times. Kinda has to.

What comes “naturally” touches on yet another layer of complexity: I have a sense of being completely unanchored, without having one set of habits—one set of ingrained behavior—that I can rely on as being natural and innate to ME, not a reaction to a painful past. It’s like not having a center. It feels scary, sometimes.

But, that’s something I just have to face. If I want to change, I have to cut the cord and come to terms with the fact that I’m operating from a vacuum.

Now, I know where I want to head. I’m aware of the person I want to be. It just sucks because it’s a heckuva lot of work. Acts of self-confidence and social glibness require a strong acts of will and usually some pre-meditation. Even when I know the right thing to do, it’s like swimming upstream sometimes.

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(Last part; sorry--I write LONG journal entries).

For the most part, I think I accept the amount of work required to heal myself, but there may be some part of me that rebels against the idea.

Which is another layer of complexity, arising out of the work I envision, and additional reluctance because I didn’t feel accepted as a child. (Except by my mother, who accepted anything, which in a way is like accepting nothing. I mean, I am O.K. as I am….but, if I don’t grow, I won’t go where I want to be). Because I crave acceptance, it makes me resent the idea of changing. Plus, I resent having to do all the work to repair damage I didn’t do. Combined, the two create a psychological hurdle.

Let’s face it—we’re not O.K. as we are. I don’t want to be the under-confident, unassertive little girl who gets taken advantage of in the workplace. And, even if I were a housewife, I would still wind up getting taken advantage of with the kinds of obsequious behaviors and assertiveness issues I have. Plus, I wouldn’t be a good role model for any potential children. I guess it’s kind of like AA—the first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem.

Maybe that sense of being unanchored and not having a center is something I need to embrace more, not less. I mean, you don’t need to obsess over it, but you should give yourself due credit to acknowledge what little you have to work from. Considering that you have to do all the work, it’s only fair that you acknowledge how much of an achievement it is.

Soooo…. you’re not able to rely on automatic instinct and react immediately to a social situation in the workplace—so what? Speed comes with practice. I guess, as with casual socializing and dating, practice comes from exposing myself to what I most fear. It’s more difficult in a job setting, because there’s more at stake, so it’s natural to be a little more afraid. But, facing that fear is what I have to do.

It never dawned on me that self-doubt might be a completely normal reaction under the circumstances. The training was poisonous, so why wouldn’t you have doubt? There’s a distinction, though, between REALLY doubting yourself and simply doubting the habits you accumulated in a toxic environment.

One of the reasons I still hesitate and waffle during conversations is because I’m stuck by self-doubt, mid-sentence. In recent years, I’ve had a breakthrough of being able to trust my feelings and thoughts as appropriate and worthy of being shared, although it still occasionally manifests itself in my getting tongue-tied.

My thoughts and emotions ARE typically appropriate in the context of a conversation. (And even when they’re not, so what?) Sometimes they’re very appropriate. What still isn’t appropriate is the fearful reaction I have to people in general, my inability to accept criticism, and a lingering reluctance to try for fear of failing.

I often feel like a loser—even giving myself credit for all the psychological muck I’ve had to wade through—because I compare myself to other people. I’m 30 and I’m just getting started with my Master’s degree, while others are finishing theirs in their 20’s. Thing is, I could have started it much earlier, but I had to get out of my parents’ house and go searching for love. I’m only on my third major relationship (one just ended) and I’ve accumulated debt with the previous two. The first debt was a school loan because I just had to study the same kind of thing my boyfriend was—even though I already had a bachelor’s degree. The second was a home loan for a boyfriend with a child from a former marriage.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Going back to college allowed me to experience the social scene, including dorm rooms, parties and all that—that I’d completely exempted myself from the first time around. And the second guy is helping me pay off the debts I accumulated while with him.

I have friends telling me, vis-à-vis men, that I could do so much better—why do I sell myself short? Well, I’ve “learned” perfectionist tendencies, and they include comparing myself to that image of cultural female perfection, leading me to believe that I’ve less valuable because my boobs aren’t the right shape and I have cellulite. Yet, everyone tells me I’m pretty, and even though I just turned 30, I can pass for a college freshman, apparently. That’s one of the few justices I’ve experienced. But when it wears off I need to be a lot further along in my personal development. Also, I’m starting to hear my biological clock tick, regardless of what the mirror tells me, and I think I’d be a good mother, despite it all.

I think a lot of this could be resolved the same way it was before: by deliberating exposing myself to situations that (for the most part) prove the old programming wrong. But for now, I am still at an impasse of not knowing how to face fear of failure and learn from mistakes without causing an international incident.

It’s like being on a diet, and I’ve hit my plateau. I have absolutely no clue how to experience failure to an extent I can learn from, but not so much that I torture myself and then swing with the pendulum into a foggy dismissal.

I think, in fact, that before I can address any of the other issues, I have to address this first. Because again, mistake-making is how people learn. If I can’t fix this, the rest of it will come to a grinding halt. I guess this is “the” problem…

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Wow, you are articulate, 02-09!:) Your struggles make sense to me considering your upbringing. Have you thought of going to see a therapist? Mark tells us that we discover who we are in the context of relationships. Yours have been problematic, so getting help within the context of a healthy relationship to your therapist could really help you discover some positive things about yourself and also help you form other healthy relationships. What do you think?

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Thanks for the compliment; believe me, I'm only like that on paper. :-)

To be honest, I have reservations about seeing a therapist again, mostly because my Dad LOVED the idea that I was the "crazy" one. Meanwhile even the therapists would tell me that the only reason I really needed therapy was to cope with his abuse. (Of course, being the bi-polar polar bear with sociopathic tendencies that he was, there's no way on earth that El Dorko would ever have admitted HE had a problem. He was perfect).

Of course, now that I'm getting my MBA and am eligible for free school counseling, I don't have much of an excuse left for not going into counseling. Kind of funny--out of all three guys, the current one is the most like my Dad. You keep trying to solve the old problems, I guess.

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From your posts, 2002, I find you to be a very thoughtful person. You are very self-aware, and your willingness to explore new experiences is very inspiring considering your concern with psychological asthma attacks. But, are you not jumping the gun a bit when you feel you are a loser?

There is no correct time to pursue a Master's degree, and surely there is no “right” way to search for love. Your life experiences are as legitimate as anyone else's. Even if you compare yourself to others or to the ideals of popular culture, you are a human being who is worthy of respect. In my opinion, you are worthy of this respect even if you cannot appreciate your worth.

As for your intention to continue growing and advancing yourself, you may find that a small change in perspective can help. The Mental Health Net Self-help book is very thorough and I strongly recommend at least going through the headings for future reference when you do wish to read it. I also recommend Getting Things Done, by David Allen. Allen's approach to problem solving is described as reductionist because it encourages the reader to process thoughts into goals and next actions. Chris Hardwick of Wired Magazine recently wrote an amusing article concerning a few self-help productivity approaches, Allen's being one of them.

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I would like to add that seeing a therapist does not mean that you are crazy. Your Dad may like to suggest that seeing a therapist means you are crazy, but this is to bother you more than anything else. In fact, by trying new ways to work with people like your boyfriend and Dad, you are probably doing yourself the greatest favour. Clearly your father will change only on his own terms, but your journal tells me that you don't need to wait for him to take initiative. Even if you do not like the idea of seeing a therapist, focus on doing what you need to do, and get it done.

I think Mark and Allan have mentioned how painful it can be when one receives harsh criticisms from parents. The attacks from home base hurt deeply, and there are plenty of emotions that result from such acerbities. Feelings of anger, resentment, and depression can easily mislead and confuse people from their primary goal: being themselves. This goal happens to be like a full-time job that cannot be resigned from. Thus, each of us has every reason to ensure that this job can be done comfortably.

Don't let your Dad's taunts – or anyone else's - hold you back from seeking support. Also, if you do see a therapist, you can keep this to yourself. There is no point in sharing this with your Dad if you know that all he will do is taunt you. If you wish for him to seek help from a therapist, just tell him and leave it at that.

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  • 3 weeks later...
  • 1 month later...

Hello 2002-2009,

Reading your Entry left me in tears.

I have been trying to find ways to express how I feel and what is going through my head when I have my emotional outbursts, and you seem to have it down pat. Your line "I’ve tended NOT to learn from mistakes, because I have trouble facing any suggestion of my imperfection." fits very well with me we as well. Anytime my boyfriend tells me how attractive some other girl is it turns itself into a slight on me and my not being attractive (in my head). I turn anything around to be negative on myself no matter what the situation and it makes me feel worse about the way I feel (low self esteem). Society teaches women to be these innocent, whorey, childlike creatures that should have nothing to say unless its in agreeance to the master of the household and this leads to us feeling worse off then we did before. :mad:

You said something else that hit home for me too " Adding yet another layer of complexity is the tremendous amount of shame I have for being so emotionally vulnerable. The feeling is one of being a child in a world of adults." I feel like this on a daily basis. Like I am unsure and scared of what anyone will think of me for having feelings and then the guilt kicks in. Its a never ending cycle that kills me everyday.

The this "So, when I do allow myself to feel the full emotional force of having fucked up, I also have to deal simultaneously with the shame over the fact that it’s affecting me so severely. (Hence the psychological asthma attack)." My emotional outbursts, no matter what the set off, are so large and unstoppable that it leaves me completely drained and helpless. I feel like my emotions have control over me not me over my emotions. It makes me feel embarrassed and weak to think of it that way, and no matter what I cannot seem to push past the never ceasing guilt that comes with being me.

I just wanted to say my piece and how your "little" journal entry really touched base with me. Thank you for posting it. I feel somewhat relieved to know that I am not the only one that feels this way.:eek:

I will be returning to counciling next week (have to make appointment) and I guess the only way to deal with it is one day at a time. I hope that you find yourself in a spot where you no longer feel this way. I hope this for myself as well.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Hi, ILTN. One thing I've noticed as I've branched out, socially, is that everyone has these problems to some extent, and some people experience something very similar.

When I was a little girl, I had a huge crush on Spock. I felt that anyone who could be that much in control of his emotions was really something else.

My emotional intensity has been so strong that I've tried to numb myself to it, with the result that I over-indulged the negative emotion and don't experience enough of the good emotion when it happens.

Part of this is our culture. People who stop in the middle of a crowded sidewalk to gaze at the clouds are sometimes looked down on or made fun of. Wouldn't it be great if we could all just be ourselves?

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...One thing I've noticed is that allowing yourself to feel good emotions, like pride when you've done something well, or, just allowing yourself to feel good about mundane chores, like in Goldstein's recent article, is actually difficult!

Feeling negative emotion, on the other hand, is easy.

It seems backward. It doesn't make sense that we're wired that way. No creature, evolving through natural selection, could evolve with such a backward reward system.

So, knowing that, what causes it? Is it our culture?

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Well, we know from animal behavior studies that both negative feedback (punishment) and positive feedback (reward) can produce learning. I'm not sure whether negative feedback is "easier" for all people, but it does seem more common among people I know. From my observation of those people, the bias towards negative feedback does seem to correlate with difficulties dealing with life. I'm not prepared to agree that it's maladaptive, though, because I've never seen anything that shows that happiness is favored by natural selection. For all we know, happiness may be a luxury that we've only recently been allowed to experience, now that natural selection is less of a force in human development.

Or that could just be my curmudgeonly take on life. :-)

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...One thing I've noticed is that allowing yourself to feel good emotions, like pride when you've done something well, or, just allowing yourself to feel good about mundane chores, like in Goldstein's recent article, is actually difficult!

Feeling negative emotion, on the other hand, is easy.

It seems backward. It doesn't make sense that we're wired that way. No creature, evolving through natural selection, could evolve with such a backward reward system.

So, knowing that, what causes it? Is it our culture?

It isn't natural, as a matter of fact happiness and laughter cause a release of their own drugs which is why some people are thrill seekers, always looking for the next natural high. The problem is look at human social evolution especially in places where religion plays an important role in society. Look at the 7 deadly sins and attempt to operate naturally without sinning. It's impossible. The Catholic church condemned people to feel guilty for normal natural behavior such as feeling pride for your own accomplishments, envy of someone which is what motivates to attempt to make something of ourselves. Lust. Try having a quality sex life without it. Anything in excess is bad for you but we are trained via upbringing and society that to be normal is to be bad.

Disclaimer, this was not meant to be a religious debate, the "7 deadly sins" simply originated by from the Catholic Church which is why I mentioned them by name.

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Malign: “For all we know, happiness may be a luxury that we've only recently been allowed to experience, now that natural selection is less of a force in human development”

Just Me: “The problem is look at human social evolution especially in places where religion plays an important role in society. Look at the 7 deadly sins and attempt to operate naturally without sinning. It's impossible.”

That’s really fascinating, guys. I never looked at it that way. I guess I’ve been watching my cat too much. She always seems happy…but then, she’s domesticated, right?

I’ll go one step further, Malign, and say that since we’ve inherited millions of years of animal instincts telling us to keep our eyes peeled, we invent our own predators in the form of anxiety and depression.

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Mmm, I often see anxiety as being more "adaptive", in the evolutionary sense. It only becomes a problem once it's not true any more. If everything really is out to get you, you're not paranoid, you're right. And it doesn't have time to cause you pain, because at least it's keeping you alive.

So here we are, stuck in a world where the old instincts don't work right any more. And what we're learning is what to use instead.

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Not sure if I agree. As far as anxiety being purposeful and natural, certainly, animals cry to be fed, cry because they are in danger or fear danger but they also suffer depression, anxiety and even hostility normally due to abandonment issues or simple boredom. Animals, even adult animals still play and not necessarily to practice survival skills. I've even seen fish suffer from anxiety and depression. Many fish cannot survive without a partner and not for reproductive reasons, it's for social reasons. Some of them can substitute for other breeds of fish to fulfill that social requirement, others cannot. Social animals mourn as well.

Point is, while you would think that all emotions would play into the survival game and evolution if you study animal behavior you will find that not all of their emotions are for survival purposes.

Guess we can think of it this way, as long as animals struggle with emotions with their simple lives, we are asking way too much of ourselves to expect humans to be any different especially when society forces humans to live contradictory to nature in the first place.

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