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People can be quirky. That is part of what makes us individuals. And those quirks can be amusing or irritating to others, based on their personality, which is a summation of their own experiences and quirks, also emotional and thought patterns. Some people are attracted to people who are opposites from them in significant ways, while others are attracted to people who are similar to them. One article I read recently suggested that people tend to be attracted to others who have similar levels of emotional development, that being one of the reasons why dysfunctional families tend to perpetuate themselves across generations. People with similar levels of dysfunction recognize each other, fall in love, get married, then pass those traits on to their kids.
With respect to what I'm calling "dysfunctional" here, let me divide that into different categories.
Mild dysfunction isn't necessarily something that means the person is flawed or that there is something wrong with them. It just means that there are certain rules or expectations they have about how people interrelate,and they are somewhat inflexible about them. It might not even be fair to refer to something like that as a dysfunction, as much as a convention that existed in the family of origin, and that is carried on by the children of that family into the family of their own, later in life. To the extent that you carry on quirks your parents have, into the next generation, you may be experiencing something like what I'm trying to describe here. For example, as a child your parents may have insisted that something be done a certain way. In your new family, you tacitly negotiate the importance of that with your spouse. They also negotiate similar expectations with you.
This can be something as trivial as what brand of mayonnaise your family uses. Say your parents always used Hellman's, for example, so you won't use Kraft's. Your spouse kinda prefers Kraft's, but it is less important to them what brand you use, than that there is harmony in the family. So, Hellman's it is. I postulate that a lot of this gets worked out in the post honeymoon phase of a relationship. Once the ego defenses collapse during the amorous love phase, then they begin to reassert themselves. Conflicts emerge and compromises are worked out, and the relationship between the partners gain richness and deepen over time, as a fabric of shared priorities and compromises is constructed. I digress.
More seriously dysfunctional components of a family structure can cause bigger problems though. There are things that are beyond quirks or benign "inherited" preferences, but that actually can cause physical or emotional harm to a spouse or child, for example. Physical and emotional abuse, neglect, are examples.
It is well understood that emotional abuse can be every bit as severe as physical abuse. It is also well understood that abuse can cause profound harm to the recipient thereof. In researching this subject over the last few months, one of the things I learned is that people who are subjected to abuse will react to it in different ways, based on their own personal traits, and in a synchronous balance that works with the nature of their relationship to the rest of the family. Some will rightfully not put up with it. Others may internalize the abuse, essentially blaming themselves for it, as a way of explaining or understanding why it is happening.
In particular, children may internalize the abuse. They don't have the cognitive ability to understand that what is happening is wrong. They don't have the defenses, the assertiveness, that an adult often has. They are also not in a position to leave, because they are unable to support themselves outside of the family unit. So in some cases, children who grow up in an abusive environment use the only defense they have available. They can't blame the parent or parents who are perpetrating the abuse, so they blame themselves. Similar behavior can be seen with some abused spouses.
I'm not doing justice to describing the family structure, dysfunctional or otherwise, in the paragraphs above. I'm only supplying a context for details that are to follow. If you want an in-depth view of what I've poorly summarized above, please consider getting a copy of the revised edition of "The Family", by John Bradshaw. It literally takes hundred of pages to do the subject justice, and Mr. Bradshaw has done an excellent job.
Having sketched out a framework for this, and provided a cite for a much better treatment of that framework, now I turn to an example of this. I have a friend I'm going to call X. I know X as well as anyone does, and he has gone through a period of chaos then healing after finding and dealing with emotional abuse sustained during childhood. Until X was about 8 years old, his childhood was pretty normal. Loving parents, safe, clean environment, no important unmet needs. When X was 8 years old, though, things began to change. X's mother had, over the course of several years, slowly lost an important sensory ability. By the time X was 8, that ability had been totally lost. X's mother was affected by this, triggering what an educated guess calls bipolar disorder.
This didn't come on suddenly, it was more like a slow confusing descent. As the mental illness progressed, X's mother changed. She was like a different person compared to the mother X had grown up with up to that point. She increasingly became emotionally abusive, to the point that X's whole world shook around him. Things were regularly said that a person wouldn't say to their own worst enemy. Any significant event, like a holiday or birthday, guaranteed that emotional punishment would be thrown like boiling oil on everyone in the family. As the disorder progressed, X couldn't even predict what would set his mom off. It was seemingly random, which made it even more terrifying.
X couldn't do anything except walk on eggshells all the time, waiting for the next incident of emotional abuse. Unable to understand what was going on, unable to escape it, X had limited, childlike defenses available. One of those defenses was to blame himself for his mother's behavior. That is what I was referring to above, when I said some people internalize the abuse. Think about it: X didn't know that what was happening was wrong; X knew he loved his mother; Consequently, X came to believe that it was his fault that his mother acted that way. If she said he was worthless and that she wished he had never been born, she was right If she degenerated him in ways that were every bit as painful as a severe beating, it must be his own fault. I also suspect that internalizing abuse is a way that children or other victims use in an attempt to gain some sort of an illusory control over the situation, because the situation is otherwise emotionally impossible to deal with. By blaming themselves, they give themselves the illusion that if every aspect of them is perfect, then the abuse will stop.
One of the most horrible results of being abused as a child is that it colors how the victim sees the world later in life. In the case of X, he carried that internalized blame, or Toxic Shame, into his adult life. X was essentially a shame based person, and his perception of the world was largely controlled by that. Something that another person might see as a setback, or even just bad luck, X perceived as confirmation of the underlying shame he felt about himself at the most basic level. People like that may have characteristics such as always seeking to please, emotional overreaction to perceived slights, hyper-vigilant behavior, being socially withdrawn. Shame based people take everything negative as something personal, as a reminder of that underlying sense of being less than human that defines their self image.
Needless to say, X wasn't a very happy person. Some events later in his life caused him to finally seek help for this, and through a long process, X was able to remove the shackles that had kept him bound in a shame based prison. He learned to take off the filter of toxic shame through which he saw, and misperceived, himself and the meaning of events around him.
I won't go into any details, but will hit the high points of how he got there:
X had to recognize the abuse for what it was. That isn't easy to do, especially with respect to abuse by a parent. There is a natural tendency to deny it, and to defend the offending family member. As a first step, that defense has to be dropped. That can take months of work, and it isn't something X was able to do alone. I postulate that it happens in several phases.
First, the abuse has to be recognized as incorrect behavior by the parent. Not normal. Something to be condemned.
Second, the victim has to recognize how the abuse affected them. They need to see how they internalized abuse by a parent, and made it their fault. Then they need to see the fallacy in doing that.
Third, they need to recognize that the reason for the abuse was something outside of them. In the case of X, it was his mom's bipolar disorder. Once X accepted that, with a bit of time and work with a good therapist, he was able to recognize that the shame didn't belong to him. It belonged to his mother.
Fourth, the victim needs time to emotionally process all this, and re-order their emotional house free of the toxic shame. It doesn't happen overnight.
This is a fundamental change in an old component of someone's personality, and fixing that isn't like swapping out a bad part. The way the victim sees and perceives the world is changing, and change is scary and takes time to get used to. I also postulate that there is a period of time when the victim, now beginning to become free of the emotional harm from the abuse, has to test drive the new perspective he or she is starting to develop. There will be times when that doesn't always go well, and sort of a "two steps forward, one step back" period goes on. How long? For as long as it takes. They may reconnect with others who do not echo this new perspective, and that may cause regression. They may also connect with new people who are free of it, and that can move things forward.
So where did X end up? I think he is still in that "test drive" period, although he is growing more confident about his new perception of himself and the world with every day that passes. I've seen some amazing changes in him. He was a very timid person in a lot of ways, but is now someone I'd characterize as much more Type A. He doesn't take everything as some sort of judgment against him. He has a growing sense of self worth that is completely independent of anything external to himself, for the first time in his life. Prior to this, the only sense of self worth that X had was based on what is called "other esteem." He was his job, the title there, how nice his car was, or his house was, or how much money he had in the bank. Now, he isn't a summation of external validations, but is instead first and foremost, himself.
I asked X if I could post this, and he said it was OK so long as there wasn't anything personally identifiable in it. He looked over it before I posted, and gave his OK.
I also asked X what was the single most important thing he had learned out of this process. He said that "Unless you are being a jerk or something, how people react to you is 95% about them, and 5% about you."
Nothing here specifically reflects on someone unless I call them out by name. Instead, it is just a collection of stuff I think is funny, or find interesting. If you are offended, that is about you and not about me.