How Growing Up In A Negative Home Can Paralyze You In Adulthood
Many clients struggle with the inability to change. Most often, this is related to an upbringing where change was seen as impossible. As I discuss in the post “The Depressed Marriage,” when two depressed people marry, there is a negative atmosphere that infiltrates every aspect of the kids’ lives. This can also happen in a home where parents are anxious, or hoarders, or alcoholics, or suffer from personality disorders or untreated trauma. There is usually one “problem” parent and one enabler, and, sadly, observing the “normal” enabler makes a child feel just as stuck and hopeless as watching the person who has been identified as the problem.
Here are some examples of negative messages that a child in a dysfunctional family may hear, and the parents who may say them:
“It’s terrible that I have to live like this.” (A hoarder, who denies that even the smallest change to their living situation is possible.)
“Your father will never change, and of course I would never leave him.” (An enabling parent who is married to an alcoholic/abuser/narcissist.)
“Everyone knows you’re a stupid kid, I don’t know why you try and act smart.” (An emotionally abusive borderline parent.)
“If I only didn’t have to work at this job, things would be okay.” (A depressed parent.)
“Of course we can’t fly to Florida for vacation. Didn’t you even read the article I showed you about the plane crash that just happened there?” (An anxious parent.)
“I was really doing well till I got laid off, but you know that would make anyone drink.” (A substance abusing parent after relapsing.)
When a child observes parents who are stuck in lives they don’t like, doing things they hate or fear, with no discussion of how things can change or improve, they learn some or all of the following:
- Change is impossible.
- Change is only temporary, and then you revert back to the same old terrible life (this is especially true for children of substance users who frequently unsuccessfully “quit” using)
- If I change myself, I am being disloyal to the family.
- Life is supposed to be comprised of suffering, and only naive people think otherwise.
When children are raised by people who consistently teach them that change is impossible, they are at risk of feeling paralyzed as adults. They may feel that they can never be happy, and should never even try. This emotional scar remains even when these children grow up and escape from their dysfunctional homes, and even if they sever contact with their parents entirely.
Here are some ways that this paralysis can manifest in these adult children:
- Staying with/enabling a partner who is emotionally abusive or who is a “problem” person
- Chronic career frustration and dissatisfaction, even across multiple jobs and fields
- Deep ambivalence and even fear about having children. This is often related to the memory of how “trapped” and unhappy they felt as a child themselves, which taints their idea of childhood
- A continued dysfunctional relationship with the adult child’s own parents, characterized by fights, drama, and the inability to create a new and different relationship
- A general dislike and mistrust of people, especially those who seem happy or content with their lives.
If anything in this post resonates with you, I strongly encourage you to reach out to a therapist. Life is too short to spend it feeling constricted, sad, and paralyzed. Growing up in a negative home has already changed you, but as an adult, you have the capacity to keep growing and changing, and even reading this post means that you have even a small desire or hope that your life could become more fulfilling, free, and open. It is hard to learn new ways of being, and it will make you feel exposed and vulnerable, but you owe it to yourself to try to “re-parent” yourself to enjoy and deeply experience your life. (Also, read the book Running On Empty if this post spoke to you.) And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Negative Thinking Can Be Changed, And It Makes All The Difference.
Order Dr. Rodman Whiten’s books, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage and How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family, and listen to The Dr. Psych Mom Show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. If you need therapy, check out her online group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.
This blog is not intended as medical advice or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a medical professional. If you try this advice and it does not work for you, you cannot sue me. This is only my opinion, based on my background, training, and experience as a therapist and person.