When I was young, I desperately wanted to believe that if I did something well enough, then I wouldn’t be criticized or punished. I’m not sure anyone ever said this to me directly, but I hoped and believed it. I believed the corollary as well, if I was criticized, then obviously I must have done something wrong. For example, if I asked my parent a question and got yelled at, then I must try harder next time to word it “better” or to use a quieter voice, or something.
When I wanted something like a pair of shoes without holes, I was told (with words, tone or body language) that I was selfish. I would then vow to never notice holes in my shoes again. I became “un-selfish” by never verbalizing any needs. It seemed to protect me from some criticism, so I globalized it to almost all situations for many years.
This philosophy of having no needs seemed effective in many situations as a child. One situation in which it didn’t work was during long car trips. I would need to use a restroom for a long time but would ignore it, hoping that my parent would stop sometime soon without me having to say anything. My need grew and I would eventually realize that I was about to have an accident and that would also anger my parents. Whether I spoke up about my need or remained silent about it, I wasn’t going to be praised--so in such dire cases I would eventually, voice my need. After being scolded or hearing an angry sigh or being angrily glared at for causing trouble, my parent would pull over at a rest stop and let me use the restroom. I didn’t feel good about voicing my real need, I felt guilty for causing my parent’s irritation.
|Photo by Anita Peppers http://morguefile.com/creative/anitapeppers|
When I was 19, I married an abusive spouse who also found all of my needs inconvenient. He was the one with needs and I was the one who must fulfill his needs. When my husband said that I made him feel like killing himself because I suggested he speak more gently to our children, I concluded that I was a mean person who drove people insane with unreasonable requests. It wasn’t clear to me how I was mean, I hadn’t meant to be unkind I was just trying to help my children, but on an emotional level I believed I must have messed up the communication in some way that I wasn't smart enough to figure out. I doubted myself more as the years went by and I spoke less and less from my heart. I attempted to avoid any subject which might be heard by my husband as a criticism. I had no wish to hurt my spouse, but I couldn’t seem to figure out the rules so I often didn’t speak my thoughts. Over the fourteen years of our marriage I globalized my thinking to most people. I became more and more isolated through my great hesitation to voice any needs, requests or thoughts.
Bottom line, I believed I should always please everyone and most especially those with whom I lived. I wanted to be a kind and gentle person, but on a frequent basis I seemed to be the cause of my parent's and spouse's anger, hurt or depression. I tried harder and harder to please—but I almost always failed to please them. II was driven to succeed—to be good enough, kind enough; bright enough; but my efforts didn’t work.
Having done a lot of healing, I no longer assume that all criticism is deserved. Now I know that if someone is deeply depressed, you can’t cheer them up by saying the right thing. When someone is angry about most things almost every day, you can’t please them with kind actions. When someone is controlling, you can’t do anything right enough to avoid his/her correction or criticism. When someone is sexually abusive, you won’t be praised for dressing modestly. When someone is bitter, you can’t be gentle enough to break through their warped perceptions. When someone gains emotional benefit from belittling others, you aren’t going to receive much praise. When someone habitually becomes intoxicated, you can’t say the perfect things to make them see that alcohol is hurting their relationships. No matter how careful you are with your words you can't avoid receiving unjust criticism from abusive people.
Abusive people criticize, belittle, and lash out. They judge, punish and threaten family members, regardless of how hard someone might try to love them, please them or help them. As I gained more and more distance from abusive people, I discovered that I don’t need to go crazy trying to be pleasing and right. Non-abusive people like me just the way I am. Like all humans, I make mistakes and don’t do everything right, but I no longer find it necessary to expend energy on trying to be pleasing through silence in order to avoid criticism and/or punishment. I no longer accept the toxic waste that abusers like to project onto others.
I now know that voicing needs isn’t selfish—it’s a human necessity. Asking for respectful behavior isn’t disrespectful—it’s an appropriate request.
Did you ever believe that you must have done something wrong whenever you were criticized or punished? Have you spent inordinate amounts of energy on trying to please someone?
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