Abusive families usually abuse in more than one way. For example, in my family, we children learned quickly how to gauge the feelings, thoughts and opinions of our parents. People say that no one is a mind reader, but we came as close to mind reading as anyone possibly could. It was essential to our survival.
We learned to listen carefully to everything they said openly or obliquely. We watched their expressions closely for clues to their moods and reactions. We paid attention to the way they moved: the turn of their heads, the gestures they used. When we saw a flying hand, we knew to duck. Even when away from them, we parroted their opinions as fact. We shut out the beatings or justified them by telling ourselves we deserved the punishment. I (being the only one who was sexually abused) forced myself to forget what happened during the daily naps.
When we could, we deflected the anger toward a sister or brother onto ourselves. I was much younger than my siblings, and when my mother was in a rage at me, my oldest brother would grab me up and run away from our mother. After she followed us outside and was running around the house to catch up, he would carry me inside, and lock all the doors to keep her out. He would only unlock them after she’d had time to cool down, and he was sure she wouldn’t hurt me as she had hurt him so many times.
When I grew up and left home and was finally safe, I didn’t stop trying to mind read. It had become an ingrained behavior. If a friend looked confused or perhaps angry or frustrated, I was on my guard. What had I done to cause it? What did I need to do to fix it? My mind raced to it figure out as my heart pounded. I tried not to let on, because it was crucial to figure it out without asking. Most of the time, it would blow over, because it was never about me to begin with. Sometimes, I would ask what I had done to upset my friend only to learn . . . it wasn’t about me to begin with. I was a bit shocked to learn that I wasn’t the cause of every negative feeling in those around me.
I have worked hard to internalize that and to wait until someone expresses frustration with me before starting to panic. I squelch the panic if I can, but it’s still hard for me to stay calm and control my feelings as we talk and work things out. I’ve learned that I can work things out with the people and relationships that really matter. But it’s work. It’s a process of retraining. And it can only be done with safe people who can be trusted with the precious person of me.
As you develop relationships with safe people, people whom you can trust, try out your wings. Don’t always jump to the conclusion that you’re causing the problems you sense in your friends. Try to stay calm and just wait. Healthy people who respect others will tell you if there’s a problem. Then it’s your responsibility to react as a mature adult: without becoming defensive or crumbling with guilt. Remember the Guilt Bucket? This is the time to use those lessons. You’ll find it much easier to respond in a composed manner if your Guilt Bucket is healthy. Your relationships will grow deeper with the mutual respect that builds between people who are respectful of one another through the ups and downs of relationships.
Growing up into a healthy, responsible, mature adult is hard for anyone, even from the best of families. For us, it’s a true challenge. But challenges can be overcome, and you can overcome this to become the kind of friend/spouse/parent who is capable of real relationships that are open, kind and loving.