How Therapy Helped Me Come To Terms With An Abusive Childhood
When I was a kid, I lifted my mattress off my box spring to check for bombs before I went to bed each night. My psychologist told me that the bomb I was looking for was a good metaphor for what was going on in our house.
I never knew when a bomb would go off, or when my mother would be drunk and my parents would fight. Home wasn’t safe.
Now that I'm in my 40s, I am so grateful that I sought talk therapy in my 20s. It changed my life path and changed me. I hope some of the things I learned can help you too.
1. Some parents don’t know how to parent.
My parents liked the idea of being parents and the idea of family so they adopted my sister and me. But they couldn’t handle the reality of being parents, and they didn’t have parenting skills. My parents were too damaged from their own childhoods to be healthy parents.
It’s OK to admit those things. It’s OK as a child, adolescent, or adult to acknowledge that your parents got it wrong. Giving voice to your reality — that your childhood is or was abusive — isn’t being disloyal to your parents; it’s speaking the truth. And it’s often a giant first step in getting help and repairing yourself.
2. Expecting your parents to apologize might be a fantasy.
Until therapy, I didn’t fully understand denial and how deep it can run. My psychologist told me I could write a book about life with my parents, send it to them and they’d think it was fiction. I was holding on to a dream that my parents would admit their wrongdoings, we’d all have a good cry, and magically turn into a close, healthy family from that point forward. My psychologist said, “That’s never going to happen because your parents are mired in denial.”
It was tough to let go and accept that my parents would never validate or apologize for the abusive way they treated my sister and me. Today I fully understand that some people cannot be fixed because they can’t even see who they are.
If your childhood was volatile and abusive, you have to mourn it and the parents you didn’t have. You have to take responsibility for fixing yourself and not seek solutions from the people who hurt you.
3. Accepting the limitations of a parent can prevent you from getting hurt.
After years of psychotherapy, I finally grasped that my parents had issues that made them not truly capable of love. Accepting this might sound profoundly sad, but the opposite is true — it’s incredibly empowering.
Now, when I do tell my dad I love him, and he says, “Thanks Sandra,” I'm no longer hurt. I have fully accepted what he can’t give me. I no longer expect him to be someone different. It’s incredibly empowering because I no longer need to hear it from him. I only feel sadness for my dad because of what he’s missing.
4. You don’t have to let people hurt you.
There were a few times in college when I hung up the phone on my mom. She was drunk and I didn’t want her verbal tirade. Not again. I had enough distance from my parents to recognize I didn’t have to dial in to abuse anymore.
When I was home on a college break, my dad read me the riot act. He said, “If you ever hang up on your mother again, you will have to answer to me.” I never forgot that moment. Even though my dad wasn’t conscious of it, he was telling me I had to take a front seat for abuse. My dad didn’t protect me.
I was more angry than scared. I would later learn in therapy that my anger was a healthy sign that I was retaining parts of me. There are thousands of ways we can protect ourselves from getting hurt and they usually involve slamming down a boundary and making someone angry. We don’t have to let people hurt us — even if they are our parents.
5. Develop your own internal system of validation and approval.
To be healthy, you have to get to a point where you can comfort and fulfill yourself internally without using anything external — a job, approval from others, a man — to do it for you. This was something that took me a long time to learn. I had to listen to my inner voice and trust my own perceptions without needing my every thought validated by others. I had to learn to comfort myself.
One of the best ways to practice self-comfort (and gain your own approval) is to make decisions that make you feel good about yourself.
6. Don’t give up who you are to please someone else.
When you grow up trying to please parents so they won’t be abusive, you're constantly thinking of their needs and disregarding your own thoughts and emotions. In an attempt to be a perfect kid, (falsely believing I had some sort of control in a house that’s out of control), I got a lot of practice hiding my true feelings.
I took that coping strategy into adulthood with me. I’d get involved with men who would make me feel good about me, because I’d act the way they wanted me to act, but I wasn’t genuine. I’d give up who I was in relationships. My psychologist told me to practice being genuine; coping strategies you learn in a dysfunctional home no longer serve you as an adult.
If you feel your childhood was one that damaged you, I hope you will seek talk therapy. It’s powerful and lasting. You can turn abuse into resilience, insight into wisdom and you can create a future that in no way resembles your past. And the cycle of abuse can stop with you.