I grew up in a house where I constantly had to walk on eggshells. Any sudden loud noises would provoke an over-the-top shout from my dad, followed by a lecture on what the perpetrator might have done wrong. The wrong thing said would turn him from smiles and peace to a thundercloud at best, and an enraged screaming terror at worst.
Any mistakes were met with endless criticism. Any behavior outside the norm – a new style of clothing, a different hobby displayed in the living room, music that wasn’t religious or entirely instrumental – was regarded with suspicion; often, a rule was made against it based on the idea that God had somehow directly spoken to my dad and told him that the behavior was problematic, with no other specifics.
Any actual violation of the countless rules in the house was unthinkable.
So I learned how to protect myself. I learned how to instantly read the mood in any room I walked into. I learned how to analyze the most minute expression on a person’s face and the slightest shift in their tone of voice. I learned how instantly sense a person’s state of mind from their body posture.
More problematically, though, I learned how to avoid conflict. This entailed wording my sentences with impeccable thoughtfulness so I wouldn’t give the wrong impression, and bending over backwards to make sure no one in my life was inconvenienced or upset or angry. I became afraid of making even the smallest decisions because of the notion that someone may not like what I chose.
When you’re hanging out with a group of friends all relying on you to pick a game, that’s when it starts to get really awkward. Avoiding conflict meant extra emotional labor for myself in terms of analyzing every detail of everything I said or did to make sure no one was offended.
I also learned how to be clingy. When you’ve grown up in a house where happiness and kindness can instantly turn to anger and pain without any warning, receiving kindness and seeing happiness in another person can feel like an odd sort of drug. And when you’ve been isolated for most of your life and developed poor social skills as a result, anyone who shows even the slightest kindness or attention seems like a potential friend.
These two ingredients combined in my own childhood to create a toxic clinginess: doing everything to keep people happy and avoiding any potential act that could decrease their happiness. I often mistook attention for actual friendship in high school, and would stay up for hours at night helping people sort through their own emotional troubles and listening to the nuances of their own lives – even when they didn’t exert the slightest effort to do the same for me.
I could easily sum up the two paragraphs above with a single term: “people-pleasing.” It was one of the unhealthiest survival mechanisms I learned growing up in an emotionally abusive home. Although I became aware of it in my late teens, it wasn’t until my early twenties that I started to actively work on it. However, getting rid of this survival mechanism meant getting rid of another one first: paranoia.
When your primary goal in life is to avoid conflict – because conflict means screaming, criticism, your own voice being silenced, privileges and privacy being taken away, further restrictions on an already suffocatingly restricted life – it becomes very easy to see potential conflict everywhere.
In my case, seeing potential conflict and deflecting it became a knee-jerk reaction, no matter who I interacted with. Conflict with teachers could potentially lead to those teachers personally disliking me, which could lead to decreasing grades. (I was a straight-A student.)
Conflict with friends could potentially lead to those friends disliking me, which could lead to abandonment at best and bullying at worst. Conflict with family members who were not my dad could lead to them resenting me, leaving me alone in the ongoing battle with my abuser.
Paranoia and people-pleasing spun with each other in a vicious cycle that fueled my brain while I was still living with my dad. But needless to say, they didn’t work so well for a healthy life once I left.
Unlearning those behaviors took a long time, and to an extent I’m still unlearning them. But there were certain concrete steps in the healing process.
The first step was definitely removing myself from a toxic, abusive environment and placing myself in an environment where the abusive behaviors I’d experienced all my life were nonexistent. I finally had freedom. Freedom to go where I wanted without endless questioning. Freedom to dress how I wanted, watch what I wanted, express whatever thoughts were on my mind. Of course my new environment wasn’t without its own particular problems – no environment is. But it was, overall, healthy.
That led to the second step: learning to address conflict without fear. For the first few months of my stay with my friends, I was paranoid about avoiding any sort of conflict whatsoever. But slowly, I learned that pushing back when I needed to be clear about my boundaries wasn’t going to hurt me. It wasn’t going to make my new family resent me – it was just clearing the air and helping everyone understand each other’s needs.
I learned that the freedom in my environment didn’t extend only to my own actions and words; it also extended to my interactions with others. Since I had the freedom to address things that bothered me without punishment, I was able to slowly form the habit of talking about uncomfortable issues with other people.
It was almost refreshing when I had my first real fight with my roommate. We didn’t yell at each other or use any insults, but we nonetheless expressed exactly what our frustrations were and what had made us feel the way we did respectively. And in the end, we were able to work through the conflict peacefully and productively.
Learning how to talk about things that were bothering me, or things that I wanted to change, then led to a crucial third step: learning how to express what I wanted. It had been all to easy, growing up, to repress my own preferences so as not to offend other people.
That toxic habit eventually grew to the point where I didn’t even know what my own preferences were in some instances – whether I would like or dislike certain activities or conversations. I had developed a mindset where I actively avoided any decision-making.
Being in a healthy environment helped me to foster the mindset that my own wants and needs mattered. I learned how to identify my own feelings about a situation – happiness, boredom, discomfort, excitement, etc. And, although it took a very long while, I eventually learned how to talk about my own wants.
The most difficult part of this lesson was unlearning the notion that expressing my own wants made me controlling or domineering, or would lead to other people resenting me.
Slowly, I became comfortable with an alternative concept: expressing what I want doesn’t violate anyone else’s boundaries. It is ok to be assertive. It is ok to lead or direct a group of people. It is ok to be confident in my own desires and decisions.
These three things are still very much a work in progress in my life. In many ways, I’m still learning how to navigate conflict, and how to maintain confidence with big decisions. It was easy for me to learn how to do these things on a small scale when I was nineteen, living with friends and still attending community college.
Now, at 23, I’m learning how to apply what I’ve learned to a larger scale: job offers, negotiations with coworkers and managers, following through on life decisions that my family might not agree with.
But what I’ve learned is that habits are strengthened through small activities that build up to larger ones. Practicing navigating conflict and expressing myself, and recognizing the things about my environment that are toxic or healthy, over the past few years has helped me develop the mindset to take on these same things on a larger scale now. And if I keep pushing myself to grow in these areas, I’ll become even better at it.
See How Emily Survived Her Abusive, Catholic Dad
Thanks for reading. Please comment if you can relate.
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