Childhood Abuse and Adult Autonomy: Growing Up with an Abusive Dad

A symptom of abuse that I’ve alluded to in past articles, and that has a specific relation to one’s growth as an adult, is the sense of paralysis resulting from emotional abuse.

I’ve described in past articles how, when one is emotionally abused particularly from childhood, the person develops a strong sensitivity to the moods of the abuser and trains themselves to apply that sensitivity to any environment where someone else is in a position of power or authority. I want to talk about the resulting paralysis now – or, another way to put it would be a loss or decrease in autonomy.

Growing up with my abusive dad, my family was absolutely terrified of doing anything that might displease him. We learned how to read his every mood, his every facial expression, his body language, the aura emanating from him even when he was just sitting and focusing on something.

It wasn’t simply a matter of not upsetting a man who was completely unpredictable. It was also a matter of not making any mistakes. If he asked one of us to do something, and we somehow botched it up, he would come down on us with the wrath of god.

If Mom forgot something he told her, she would receive a lecture. If she misplaced something or her organizational system failed her, she was “penny-wise, pound-foolish.” If I got a bad grade on a test, I was in for a repeated lecture about how I wasn’t applying myself enough. If I dropped something, I got screamed at.

So we all did our best to anticipate exactly what he wanted, and learned how to ask minimal questions so that he wouldn’t get angry at us for “being dense,” and how to apply what we learned from past incidents to whatever projects we did in the present. The lesson was simple: perform exactly as he wanted – read his mind to the extent we could – or get punished. Give him his exact specification – with no deviation or creativity – or get punished.

The idea that failure was not an option did more to stunt our growth than accelerate it. On the one hand, we all learned quickly how to be detail oriented and how to look for the slightest flaw in a project before submitting it for review.

I personally became very good at school because I learned how to determine exactly what my teachers wanted and give it to them for the best possible grade. On the other hand, I was told several times during my first year of college that my writing lacked a voice. I was so used to delivering what I thought the professors wanted that in the process, I hadn’t learned how to be confident making my own assertions and defending them academically.

The problem became more pronounced when I started working. During my first job in retail, I studied what I thought my managers wanted with painstaking detail. But they also became exasperated with me because I lacked initiative.

My tendency was to await instructions before actively doing anything, and as a result I got in trouble for not being proactive. I got in trouble for making mistakes because I was afraid of asking questions, and I got in trouble for not acting on my own judgement independently of what anyone told me.

It wasn’t until some years later that I finally understood what was wrong. In an ideal world, I would have learned as a child that failure is part of the human experience – and while it is one thing to experience consequences from failure, it’s another thing entirely to be punished for honest mistakes and for a brain that works differently from the person in charge.

I also learned, over the years, that a healthy relationship with any form of authority (be it a parent, a teacher, a professor, a mentor or a supervisor) takes place in an atmosphere where some forms of failure are permissible and seen as an integral part of the learning experience. Most importantly, I learned at my second job that failure itself is not something that should be punished by an authority figure.

Adult autonomy, in many ways, is feeling the freedom to explore, experiment and make mistakes. Abuse inhibits that freedom by essentially imposing a mental cage on the victim. Those of us who have suffered long-term abuse may have temporarily lost our curiosity, inquisitiveness and/or motivation because of the fear of being punished for it.

We may have been unfairly hurt for misunderstandings, miscommunication, simple mistakes, and the audacity to voice our own discomfort and wants and needs.

We may have been taught through outright physical pain, threats, insults and gaslighting that asking questions is a form of rebellion, that acting on our own initiative is tantamount to being out of control, and perhaps even that independence is itself a bad thing. (Yes, that last one was and still is a prevalent idea toted by my dad.)

The good news is that it’s very much possible to bounce back. I was fortunate enough to find good professors in college and good managers and supervisors after I left my retail job.

All of these people taught me in different ways that the way to grow and flourish as an adult is by embracing the idea that you don’t need anyone to tell you what to do; that it’s a good and healthy thing to be proactive; that asking questions is vital to success; and that my own ideas and originality are wanted and valuable.

Thanks for reading!

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