Imagine walking into a bank. An eerie silence fills the room and you notice, too late, after the door closes behind you, that something is very wrong.
You can feel it in your bones. Everyone SEEMS to be okay, everyone seems to be conducting business as usual, but you just can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong.
Too late, you catch a glimpse of a masked man behind the counter with a gun nudged into the back of one of the tellers. Your heart starts to accelerate and you turn around, frantically looking at the others in the bank, wondering if they’ve seen what you’ve seen.
You want to do something, get out of there, anything to be safe. You start to head out the door but the obliviousness of everyone else makes you stop. Every one in the bank is just going about their business as usual!
You make eye contact with the security guard and he nods his head, indicating – you think – that he understands, that he’s seen what you’ve seen. You start to breathe a sigh of relief, but instead he says: “It’s OK! Everything is just fine. Why are you panicking?”
All of a sudden you wonder if you are OK. Are you hallucinating? You must be, because everyone else seems fine. It must be you! What else could it be? How could you be the only one who notices something is wrong?
This is my illustration of what a child who grows up in a home where there is dysfunction and abuse experiences. I believe we’re born with great instincts so that we actually feel inside when something is wrong. But a child who hasn’t developed enough self esteem and trust in himself doesn’t have the strength of conviction to argue against the altered reality that an abusive parent presents them with. Plus, they have to first dispel the notion that this person who is supposed to love and care for them is basically lying to them and denying their reality. It’s a tough call, one I think most children resolve by deciding either one or a combination of three things:
- They decide that what they sense and feel is wrong and that whatever the parent says is happening is true and right;
- They decide that they are responsible for what’s wrong since everyone else seems to be oblivious to it, and since they’re responsible, they decide they can fix it;
- They decide that the feeling that something is wrong is not a valid feeling and so they ignore their gut feelings and accept the situation for what it seems to be. They convince themselves that things are okay.
- First, he tried to distract me. He tried to show me a drawing he had made in school. Since I was not about to be deterred from what I was saying, I put him off.
- Second, he tried to comfort me. He sat on my lap. He hugged me and tried to engage me in conversation.
- Third, he went into his room and sat down quietly. You should have seen his little, worried face. It seemed to ask, “What’s wrong? What’s happening? Am I going to be okay?”
- Fourth, he came directly to me and asked, “Are you mad at Daddy?”
Now, imagine if I had responded, “No, I’m not,” or in some shape or form denied his reality; imagine all the questions in his mind that would have been left unanswered, the resulting self-doubt, paranoia, the need to fix, the desire to act out, or the resignation to accept whatever might come to pass? So many things!
I tried to comfort him as best as I could, recognizing that it was a mistake on my part to argue in front of him in the first place. And I’m sane; I’m responsible for my actions. I am interested in his welfare and compassionate and empathetic. Imagine if I wasn’t?
This proved to be an eye-opening experience, because I could clearly make the connection between what a child in those circumstances would feel; how if left unattended he/she would take those feelings and turn them against him/herself, resulting in a compulsion to try to compensate for other people’s shortcomings throughout his adulthood.
Children who grow up in dysfunctional homes where their reality is denied grow up to have an over-developed sense of responsibility; the need to “fix” the problems around them. They live with a paranoia that if something goes wrong – if anything goes wrong, it’s because they’ve done something wrong. They live with an internal fear that if they don’t conform, they will be shunned. They worry that others won’t like them if they don’t play along.
These fears and worries come together, culminating into an internal belief that you cannot want for yourself; that you must compromise your ideals, your desires and your needs in order to have a relationships with others. The adult who has had their reality denied in childhood grows up believing that they are here to take care of others, and to undo the damage takes just as long as it took to damage them in the first place, if not longer.