Why and How I Became My Own Worst Abuser (and how I plan to change that)

I’m writing this, my own experience, because I believe many others may have experienced similar things and had a similar response, although perhaps for different reasons. I understand that there is nothing in this that is flattering to me, but if it might be helpful even to only one other person, then it is worth publishing.

I can speculate but never truly understand why my parents disliked me. As a child I believed there must have been something inherently wrong with me. The core of their cruelty obviously had nothing to do with how I acted or what I said since, apparently, the hatred of me had started before I was born, when I had yet to do anything or say anything at all. I reasoned, therefore, that a fundamental part of my being had to be so bad that even my own parents couldn’t love me, which had to mean that no one could love me, so I determined to find out what was wrong with me and to fix it. (Note: I failed to realize that there were other reasons for my parents’ feelings toward me that had nothing at all to do with me.)

I was given the clues for what was wrong with me in statements like “you’re weird,” “no one can ever love you,” or “you’re worthless.” The problem was that none of those statements identified a particular fault that I could change. How was I weird? Why was I unlovable? What could I do to become worthy of affection, respect, or even just tolerance?

With so little direction from others about what I could do to improve myself and make myself acceptable, I was forced to discover that necessary information on my own. I got used to the patterns of my family’s criticisms of me, which were generally constant. I watched closely and learned to anticipate how the condemnation of me would go each time. I didn’t learn enough to ever prevent it, but as it was starting, I could see where it was aiming, so I would rush to criticize myself first, before others could.

There were three benefits that I believed would come from me criticizing myself sooner and worse than my loved ones would do:

1. I had noticed, while very young, that when others tried to hurt me physically, their blows hurt far more than if I hit or otherwise hurt myself somehow. I tended to believe that this was because, when I hurt myself, almost always by accident though I took a dare at least once, my attention was split between the sensation of receiving the blow and the sensation of delivering it, rendering both less intense than either would be were it the only sensation I felt at the time. I suspected this might apply to emotional blows as well, so I rushed to beat myself up (figuratively) for any and all identified misdeeds, hoping that when I was doing it to myself, my family would back down, leaving it to me, and spare me the greater pain of them doing it to me. Most often my family did not back down, but sometimes it seemed they did – enough to keep me trying.

2. My family obviously felt it was necessary to punish me rigorously for any and all faults in me, including those they couldn’t even identify and those about which I was certain they were mistaken since, although I agreed that I was deeply flawed, there were still some criticisms of me that simply didn’t make sense. I reasoned that if I took over the punisher role, berating myself badly enough that they would no longer feel the need to punish me themselves, that would leave them free from what I assumed had to be a hated necessity for them, for which they might be coming to hate me even more. I could not imagine how anyone could ever want to hurt another person but, apparently, I was so horrible that even my younger brother felt it necessary to join in the slam-fests and rages against me in order to correct me. I tried to convince myself that this cruelty was done with the best intentions toward me, though it never helped me. I tried begging them all to help me improve myself instead of just pointing out how much I needed improvement, but it seemed this was the best they could do. I hoped that, with my loved ones freed from being forced to punish me by me taking over that role, they might even have a chance to find and praise something good in me. I was desperately hoping that there would be something good in me they could find, because I couldn’t find anything good in myself.

3. I was eager to avoid the punishments for being such a bad person by no longer being a bad person. I wanted to try to correct every fault as quickly as I could – ideally before anyone else noticed them. I did also try to be good, which is much more than simply not being bad, but it quickly became obvious that there was nothing I could ever do that was good enough to compensate for my inherent wrongness, so finding and fixing my faults as quickly as possible, ideally before they were noticed by anyone else, seemed my best chance to avoid the constant criticisms from my loved ones. This required me to be always alert for any possible flaw in myself, no matter how slight. My goal was to catch my every fault the instant it first appeared inside me, before it became public knowledge. I became fixated on my flaws and lived in expectation of more emerging in every moment.

Sadly, none of my reasons to rush to be my own worst critic worked as I had hoped. I’m sure now that it failed to lessen the constant criticism of me by others. It certainly did nothing to earn me praise, much less the love I needed. Also, in the short-run, it didn’t spare me any pain when I savaged myself. In the long-run, I’m pretty sure it hurt me far more. Worse, no matter how fixated I became on rooting out all my faults, I not only failed to become flawless overall, but I seemed to fail to cure even a single fault. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I thought I had improved, no one else ever noticed any improvement in me at all.

The only result from this disastrous experiment of mine was that I formed the habit of seeking out everything wrong with me, without ever crediting anything good in me. It was the exact thing my loved ones did to me, except, with access to my unspoken thoughts and hidden feelings, I succeeded in doing it even more thoroughly than they ever had. Over time I became blind to any possibility of good in myself, no matter how hard I continued to try (becoming a perfectionist) because no matter what accomplishments or awards I achieved, it was never enough and would never be enough. On the other hand, failing to win awards or accomplish goals was certain to be used as proof by my loved ones that I was worthless, and I came to believe in my heart that this was true. I became my worst critic, beating myself emotionally, even for things others wouldn’t notice, with more savagery than even the worst of my loved ones could have inflicted upon me.

I clung to the hope that my self-berating would, eventually, improve me enough to make me lovable. By adulthood, however, I finally realized that the world takes you at your own self-evaluation, and my self-evaluation was the lowest it could possibly be, which meant I was creating the hatred and contempt of others toward me by hating myself, even though I never intentionally did anything unkind or harmful to others. Perhaps, worst of all, was the fact that this inner critic – so much harsher than all my loved ones put together – was inescapable. My parents have since died. My husband divorced me and shuns me. I opt to stay away from his crazy, cruel mother now, and I’m struggling to create distance from my brother – yet all their abuse, through all the many years of our relationships, are still active and strong in me, echoing through my thoughts, especially whenever I try to interview for a job or sell one of my skills to a new client, or start a new venture, or do anything at all to find a way to survive. Their voices merge together inside my head demanding I stop trying because I’m such an obvious failure that I’ll never succeed. “No one could ever want to hire me or even help me. No one is ever going to want to be around me, much less love me. I would do better to just give up and die…” except I won’t give up. Stubborn me.

What I am determined to do, instead, is call out those voices for the liars they are. I know better than to try to ignore them. My father did that, and I watched as his similar insecurities took him over and ruled him, turning him cruel to innocent, little me, almost without him realizing the deep damage he was inflicting. It seemed to me that he had so much pain he couldn’t endure it, so he used me as his scapegoat, hurting me to relieve his own pain without consciously realizing how horrible he was being. When I finally told him, in adulthood, what he had done to me and how deeply he had hurt me, he wept. In his heart my father was not a cruel man, only a deeply damaged one, but his heart never had a voice because his fears and insecurities took over and drowned everything else out.

I will not allow the same thing to happen to me. I don’t dare let these echoes of unjust condemnations slip through my guard to control me from my unconscious. They want to keep doing drive-by damage, but I’ll stop them by confronting them. I have to face them calmly and deal with them directly, dispelling them over and over, every time they pop up, until their energy is exhausted. I have to counter my bad habit of seeing only my flaws by forming a new habit of seeking out positive qualities in myself, no matter how slight, that I can place, as often as necessary, in the stead of the self-cruelty and the cruelty from others that has been my norm until now.

It isn’t easy changing habits. It requires effort and concentration at almost every moment. This is a matter of survival, however, so I cannot give up. I will succeed because I have to. I still have too many abusive people in my life, rushing to tear me down, and I have no one at all in my day-to-day who cares about me or encourages me. That is probably the most difficult hurdle to overcome. Just the fact of my isolation from anyone, except those who intentionally try to hurt me, becomes the worst weapon against me. My own mind, as well as my remaining abusers, use it as constant proof that I shouldn’t survive. I shouldn’t even try to improve. I should just give up because no one in my world cares about me anyway, which is proof that I have no value at all. However, while writing my own obituary for my past self, (published as part of my Halloween 2021 blog and discussed more fully in my blog “Power of an Obituary”) I realized, to my shock, that I was worthy of love. I always have been. Not only that, but I was amazed to discover that I have qualities that are needed in this world and that are, according to my loved ones, so extremely rare as to be essentially non-existent – especially kindness and compassion for others. I disagree with my loved ones that these qualities are stupid and useless. Rather, I hope I can find a way to accomplish great good through these qualities. I choose to believe that I have the ability within me to make this world a better place. Even if no one else ever gives me credit for any good I do, even if I am never loved by anyone, I will not stop until I have done all that I can to prove my worth to myself and to please myself by bringing value and help to others.

I also wrote a fantastic obituary for my future self, setting lofty goals (published in my Halloween 2021 blog). Even if it is never more than a fantasy, even if no one on earth cares about me when I die, and all my loved ones who survive me line up to spit on my grave and rage at my corpse, I am determined, by that time, to be so proud of myself for trying my hardest and doing my best and succeeding at making something, however insignificant, better in this world, that no one else’s hatred of me will be able to matter to me. Even if they piss on my grave, my hope is that they will only be watering the flowers growing there. If it proves that they are right that I am worth nothing more than shit, at least I can do some good as fertilizer. So, plant my corpse with seeds, because I intend to keep growing beauty in this world.

The Power of an Obituary

I recently wrote two obituaries, which I published for Halloween (see my Halloween 2021 blog).  One was for the person I used to be, and the other for the person I hope to become. The latter was just goal setting, which is important, but the former proved to be a truly revealing and helpful exercise.

Obituaries focus on the positive aspects of a person’s life. One tries not to speak ill of the dead. Writing it for “J,” my former self, as if she were a stranger, set me on a journey that helped me reconnect to the person I had been before decades of mental, physical, fiscal and emotional abuse ground me down and convinced me that I was ugly, unlovable, useless, and unworthy of anything good in life, including basic, human kindness and minimal consideration. It also revealed to me a shocking truth that may, perhaps, be obvious to some, but that I had not realized before now. More importantly, I think what I learned could be useful to others.

I started the exercise doubting that I could find anything nice to say about J. I didn’t hate her. It was much worse than that. I pitied her. I had come to believe all the things my parents, my brother, and especially my husband and his parents, and even some of my own children had ever expressed about how useless, unlovable, unwanted, doomed to failure J was and had always been. I knew she had sincerely meant well, been truly, deeply loving, faithful, honest, hard-working and determined, and had always given her best to everyone around her, but obviously her best had proved worthless, just as everyone she had ever loved had said it was. How could I possibly find enough good in such a pitiful failure of a person to write an obituary for her?

I applied to life-long, though now distant friends, including some with whom I had reconnected since the divorce, asking what they remembered about me during the active years of our friendships. To my surprise they described a person completely different than the awful one my loved ones had convinced me I was. When I asked one person to comment on my worst faults, which I could easily list, I was shocked that she didn’t recognize many of those faults as applying to me. She reminded me of events we had shared together where I had naturally behaved in ways that refuted what I had just described, establishing my consistent patterns of behavior as, in some ways, exactly opposite to what I had come to believe about myself.

One of the faults my husband and children had berated me for so often it had practically become a mantra in our family was that I was “tactless.” One friend provided examples of when she felt I had been the opposite, including from earlier in that very conversation. Another friend agreed that this criticism was probably valid, pointing out that I was a “truth-teller” and adding that the truth would always be badly received by those who didn’t want it, no matter how kindly or diplomatically it was stated. With that one phrase she turned what had always been my most frustrating fault – one that I had striven with all my might to correct and had failed – into a virtue. It also made me consider (especially in light of more recent evidence) that perhaps my “tactlessness” had never been how I said things, but rather was the response of my loved ones toward me daring to speak at all. Certainly my husband and his parents had always hated me for that and many of the others had told me, since the divorce, when I started sharing more of my personal experiences and observations with others outside the family, that I should just shut up and tell no one anything at all about myself, ever. I hadn’t realized it then, but I wonder, now, if it is because they were aware of how truly abusive their behavior toward me was. I was, at that point, still believing their cruelty toward me was normal behavior and deserved by me. As I am starting to reconnect with others outside my family after the divorce, however (as in this exercise, for instance), I am learning that the way I had been treated was NOT normal, nor could it be considered acceptable under any circumstances. My husband, my brother, and others almost certainly realized that fact, even though I still didn’t. Now I wonder if convincing me that I was offensive to others whenever I tried to say anything at all was a tactic to keep me silent about their abuse so they would not appear as bad as they knew they deserved to for the way they were treating me. It, at least, gives me something to consider.

Overall, my friends presented a new and very different view of me than I had ever known. For this part of the exercise, alone, it was worth the effort. Thank God for my kind, wonderful friends.

The next step, however, was to actually write the obituary. To do so, of course, I had to refer to my prior, now deceased self in third person. Just that simple grammar shift from “I” to “she”, which should have been insignificant, made a massive difference in my attitude that I had not expected.

Toward myself, I am generally harsh and probably far more critical than even the worst of my external critics has ever been, though, obviously, I was never as condescending or contemptuous. While everyone else knew that they were better than me (who in the world wasn’t?), I could not possibly be better than myself. Even so, I am quick to berate myself for every failure (of which there are too many) and every misspeak, every mistake, every accident, and every imperfection, no matter how slight. My successes and virtues are barely noted and can never be enough, but anything bad about me forces my attention as something I must examine thoroughly and remedy, causing me to fixate on my faults to such a degree that my faults seem to be everything about me with nothing good in me to compensate. It is an echo of what all my loved ones throughout my life have constantly told me about myself, except magnified. I now realize that I had internalized the external abuse and was carrying it with me wherever I went. (For a fuller discussion of this see my blog “Why and How I Became My Worst Abuser”)

Switching to third person caused me to think of my former self as someone other than myself. I was now writing about another person – one whom I could consider as a stranger. Suddenly J was no longer the person I had been raised to despise as someone deserving every cruelty and completely unworthy of any love or kindness. In third person, J became someone about whom I could be objective as I tried find something good that I could honestly say about her.

I am in the habit from childhood of trying to be encouraging and uplifting to others – to find what is good in them and to reflect it back so they could see the beauty in themselves that I see. I do this because of the profound impact it has had on me the few times in my life a stranger was kind enough to do this for me. There have been moments when it was practically life-saving. Once or twice I wondered if the stranger might have been an angel sent by God to give me the encouragement I desperately needed at that moment. It takes almost no effort to do and, knowing how important a kind word can be, it seems the least I can offer to repay the world for this kindness given to me. I rush to say honest praise while I try to avoid criticizing unless it is truly necessary. This habit, which I had never before applied to myself, suddenly kicked in when I switched to writing about my departed self in third person.

To my shock, I found that there was a lot of good in J. In fact, she was someone whom I would have really liked, even admired, and found truly worthy of love and friendship had she been anyone else besides me. All the while I was hating myself for my seemingly overwhelming faults, J was demonstrating quite a lot of outstanding qualities that I would have appreciated had she been anyone else. I had been eager to expel her from my life. Now I’m almost sorry she is gone. It made writing her obituary very easy.

So now I recognize the trap of writing and thinking in first person for a person taught from birth to hate herself. “I” becomes irrationally detestable, no matter what. I have learned that it is healthy to regularly look at oneself from a different perspective, in order to obtain a more objective and, hopefully, honest assessment of one’s self. For me this exercise of writing about myself in third person revealed the destructive tendency I had to focus on my faults to the exclusion of all else, even long after those who had seemed to demand impossible perfection from me, in order for me to hopefully become barely tolerable to them, are no longer a part of my life. From now on, when my external critics pile their condemnation on me and try to grind me down, as they continue to do regularly, I’ll set myself up as judge over Aoife and write a brief to see how much, if any, of the criticism of my loved ones is truly applicable to her. I know I won’t ever be perfect, but I’m growing increasingly sure I am not nearly as horrible as my loved ones have always insisted. I now have a tool to help me assess myself more fairly.

I share this with you, dear reader, in the hope that you might try out this exercise to see what it reveals to you about you. Of course you may not need it, but I imagine it would be useful to many different kinds of people in many different situations. If you are willing, I would love to hear what you learn.