Not That Bad
Some thoughts about minimizing
New thing: you can also listen to me reading this post in a very casual and unedited way, if you prefer, via included audio file. But please do scroll down for some questions about newsletter management. Thank you!
I was chatting with some friends recently about family stuff, and one friend said, “I didn’t grow up in a dysfunctional home, but…” and went on to describe some dynamics that made others of us say, “Yes, actually that is a dysfunctional home.” That got us onto the ways we’ve all perceived our various situations as “not that bad.”
There have been lots of times in my own life when I thought of my own childhood as “not that bad” in the course of wondering why it affected me the way it did. I was never hit, sexually interfered with, my parents were not cruel and generally not emotionally abusive to the children in the family. Though we were poor, we were poor in a good neighborhood, never homeless, and I don’t remember ever having to miss a meal because we couldn’t afford groceries. My mother had some really great parenting skills when it came to mothering young kids, and my dad had brief periods of engagement, as well.
It’s very easy to look at all this and think things were not that bad, and there’s no real reason for me to go around talking about my allegedly dysfunctional childhood.
Well, let’s see what some of the readings say about that.
Distorted reasoning can become intergenerational as children absorb, model, and live out their parent’s way of thinking about and handling distressing situations, and it can affect the health of relationships. Denial of someone’s behavior—for example, a distortion of the truth—is excessive minimization or rationalization. When we attempt to make distorted behavior seem somehow normal, we have to twist our own thinking to do so. Also, as children we make sense of situations with the developmental equipment we have at any given age; when we’re young, we either borrow the reasoning of the adults around us or make our own childlike meaning. - Tian Dayton, The ACOA Trauma Syndrome (emphasis mine)
Or, as I put it in the chat with my friends, it’s really hard when significant aspects of your family history have been objectively dysfunctional to separate out what is that distortion and what is just families being nuts the way everyone’s families are nuts.
As for the things that are more clearly abuse, the Big Red Book says:
As children, we did not have the option to leave our homes. If our parents slapped us, molested us, or neglected us, we had to live with them. We had to figure out a way to survive. The subconscious survival decisions we made as children involved changing the meaning of words. Because we were vulnerable, we changed the way we perceived the emotional and physical abuse. We feared for our safety or feared we had caused these things to happen. We developed stories that minimized our parents’ behavior or which convinced us that we were wrong and deserved their harmful behavior.
What I get from this is that minimizing is part of survival. We were kids with little to no agency, living in occupied territory and dependent on the adults in the house to feed and clothe and shelter us. We may have needed to pick out one of the adults as “the good parent” even though they were also part of the whole dynamic (a thing that on its own is a topic for many future posts, methinks!) and that helped us feel that things were “not that bad” and we were at least a little protected. Maybe we were, maybe we weren’t. What did we know? No matter how dysfunctional, it was all our normal.
As for my friend, I pointed out: Your mom was dealing with chronic pain that you felt you had to help manage, your dad was an anxious child of immigrants from a historically persecuted ethnic group, there was free-floating Christian guilt…it might not be the way you typically think of dysfunction but it has many of the same results.
Identifying oneself as being from a dysfunctional family can be seen as a bid for sympathy, a tendency to victimhood, a trait of a person creating drama where there is none. Understandably, we don’t want to be seen that way.
I guess the gauge is in the ways we’re still affected. Are we hypervigilant? Anticipating the needs and moods of others and trying to meet and manage them? Are we so dependent on external approval that when we don’t have it, we feel obsessive and anxious and pre-occupied? Do we interpret and analyze communication to the nth degree rather than taking it at face value? Are we seething with resentments because our loved ones aren’t successfully interpreting and anticipating and analyzing our needs, instead of just communicating them directly? Do we have our own issues with compulsions and addictions to substances or processes?
If so, there’s a reason. These were all, once upon a time, survival skills that for whatever reasons—obviously bad or “not that bad”—we needed. But now, they’re mostly making the experience of our adult lives kind of shitty.
I like this, also from the Big Red Book:
When you are speaking about what happened you are owning your losses; you are letting go of minimizing, rationalizing, and denial. It is part of rectifying your past. It means you are no longer carrying the baggage that comes with denial. At times adult children have been criticized for blaming their parents. The principles of ACA are not about blame. They are about owning your truth, grieving your losses, and being accountable today for how you live your life.
On a different note, some thoughts about this newsletter:
If you want to write about something on any Adult Child related topics, or respond to any of my posts with one of your own, let me know. Eventually, I’d like this newsletter to be a variety of voices.
I am thinking about making this an invite-only newsletter, which would make it more like a private group. The idea is not to keep anyone out—I would extend the invite link to anyone who asked—but to encourage more discussion and a sense of safety about sharing experiences. Do you have any thoughts about that, for or against? Would you be more inclined to write a post or do discussion in comments if it were not public? Any posts I do want to share more widely I can always post at my Adult Child publication on Medium (and if you want to write something for that yourself, that’s also an option).
Let me know what you think.