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Can someone explain to me how early trauma can lead someone to be abusive/narc/borderline in adult life?

(24 Posts)
bydaytisbright Fri 17-Jul-15 16:32:41

My mother - who I've had a terrible relationship with my entire life due to her physical/emotional abuse and borderline tendencies confessed last week that she was repeatedly raped and physically assaulted from when she was 9 years old until when she was 17 by her uncle. She told her parents and they blamed her and told her there was something wrong with her and that she was losing her mind and she would go to hell for lying.

When she told me, she told me out of the blue, like a statement with no feeling, and didn't allow me to ask any questions, offer any sympathy or find out how she felt. Once she had said it she didn't want to speak about it anymore, she shut me down and I am feeling rather shocked.

Because I have been harbouring such negative feelings towards her for so long, I am not quite sure what to make of things anymore. I felt very sorry for myself for the way she treated me (she used to shame me for ordinary things - like puberty, and seemed to enjoy humiliating me and making me embarrassed of myself.) I've been in therapy for years trying to get over it. But now I feel somehow what I went through is nothing compared to what she went through.

Can you tell me how this process might have worked? Why would she repeat the same shaming and humiliating behaviour on her children that she experienced herself and found so awful?

pallasathena Fri 17-Jul-15 16:49:18

I don't know, but maybe it was her reality and the only one she knew? Maybe, she was acting out that reality, awful though it was.

From what I've seen over the years, people who have experienced horrific abuse go one of two ways.

They either keep acting it out because its there, in their psyche and they don't know any better or haven't had proper intervention through counselling for example. And two, some people are so horrified of perpetuating any abuse on another person that they consciously decide not to ever go down that road no matter what.

The fact that she's offloaded on you could be a cry for help. One that she's now ashamed of asking for because she was told wasn't she, all those years ago, that it was her fault.

Be gentle with her. And kind. It took courage to say what she said. She must think very highly of you and know that you won't judge.

So sad.

PatriarchalHandmaiden Fri 17-Jul-15 16:53:55

When given a bad parenting model, one has to be very self aware in order to challenge that. And even then this can be an uphill struggle without some form of help like counselling. If someone isn't very self aware then they just practice the parenting model that was given to them.

Skiptonlass Fri 17-Jul-15 17:40:39

When you're little you need safe boundaries to grow and explore. You need to know your parents are there for you and there are absolute edges to your world. I think in some ways kids need that stability even more than love.. Plenty of freedom within rigid limits.

If you remove that, your entire sense of self is adrift. You just can't grow a whole, normal psyche....all your energies are focused on survival and defence of the self. You never go through that stage of confidently testing boundaries, safe in the knowledge that at the core, it's ok.

Later when you're older, you see patterns of behaviour and internalise them, but at heart, I think the issue is not having that early sense of rock solid stability in order to form a stable sense of self.

Don't compare your experiences to hers - yours are valid and should not have happened. Once she was an adult, the behaviour was hers to direct and she should not have done those things to you.

I'd give her time. And be kind to yourself. It's incredibly sad.

maryclarey Sun 19-Jul-15 10:47:28

Op I could have written your post except for a few differences. My mother was emotionally and verbally mainly but sometimes physically abusive all through our childhood. I have tried to confront her in the past but she refused to admit it. She has hardly any friends left due to her controlling behaviour, has reduced my father to an obedient wreck, caused me to spend a long time in counselling to deal with overeating and other issues but the cherry on top of all that is that my sister, whose morbid obesity, depression and self harming as a result of the abuse, has gone from strength to strength over the last 15 years, until she attempted suicide two months ago. Neither of my parent have been to see her. My mother has suddenly told my father that she was abused as a child and this is why she did what she did. Whilst I have sympathy for anyone in that situation I am so full of hate for her right now, in the immediate aftermath of the attempt and with no attempt from either of them to take responsibility and see her, that I cannot offer her any support. I also would like to understand how someone who has been abused can cause so much pain to their own children.

PeanutsOnTheFloor Sun 19-Jul-15 10:54:56

Be kind to yourself OP - it doesn't make what you went through any less traumatic.

Garlick Sun 19-Jul-15 11:29:48

First of all, byday, let me congratulate you on engaging so well with your therapy. It often (even usually) happens that, when we begin to properly understand ourselves and find our true balance, this empowers other people to confide relevant facts. What your mother did was courageous and she must have done it in response to a new feeling that you'd understand how her information affects the issues you're dealing with. Don't be surprised if she backtracks: in my experience, she may be devastated that she's revealed her 'dirty' secret. As time goes on, she might show signs of wanting to discuss it - but, if it happens, she'll be needing you to manage her trauma during the talks. You might not feel ready to do that, and it's okay to gently head her off.

In answer to your question: What the previous posters said. A child is wholly dependent on the adults in her life for survival. We're hard-wired from birth to understand those adults as all-powerful, pretty much godlike, and to accept their definitions of life as absolute facts. When those adults hurt the child, she must explain it to herself within this childlike framework: she concludes, therefore, that it is right. The adults have good reasons for hurting her. It's her role to accept the pain (indeed, she has to; she depends on them) and, if they tell her she deserves it because she is bad - or because they love her - she'll take that as gospel. It's who she is; they prove it. She has no other framework.

As we enter adult life, everybody's perception of how the world works is the one their caregivers gave them. Many people complete their adulthood without ever questioning it. Others learn from what they experience outside the family home, which leads them to reject and rewrite the 'god-given' rules. But, without addressing the entire set-up through years of bloody challenging therapy, the lessons learned from outside are piecemeal: just parts. We can choose to change those parts, if it suits, but our choices often go haywire because we haven't yet learned that the unifying principles we live with are unhelpful.

It's a bit like re-decorating a shabby house. You put on lovely new paper, but it soon peels because the walls are damp. Your updated kitchen keeps blowing fuses because the wiring's frayed, things keep going mouldy and, no matter how shiny your bathroom, the waste pipes keep backing up. In psychological & emotional terms, this might translate to learning that it is wrong to rape and beat a child - but not realising that you still believe you're a fundamentally bad person who deserves pain, and that little girls are sexual land-mines waiting to go off. It's very sad for everyone in that picture.

Go very gently. Stay authentic flowers

Buttonmoonboots Tue 21-Jul-15 09:51:42

they either keep acting it out because its there, in their psyche and they don't know any better or haven't had proper intervention through counselling for example. And two, some people are so horrified of perpetuating any abuse on another person that they consciously decide not to ever go down that road no matter what.

Exactly this. I'm a survivor of abuse. My father was very bitter about his childhood yet repeated it all on me.

I agree with Skipton's post too. She was an adult. I have less, not more, understanding for my father as he knew how it felt and chose to repeat the behaviour (unconsciously perhaps, but still a choice) instead of facing it. The fact your mother was abused is very sad but does not make your pain less valid or important.

It is hard to be the person who stands up and says: enough. Personally I feel quite shocked reading some of the posts on this thread as I have as yet failed to fully appreciate how hard it has been to change things. You should also recognise that it is difficult, brave and important to admit to yourself that your mother was wrong.

Just to be clear. Many abuse survivors do not go on to abuse anyone, but are affected in other ways, and generally still need therapy to help.

Buttonmoonboots Tue 21-Jul-15 09:53:34

I don't like the shabby house description though (found that upsetting and a bit hurtful). Trauma leads to the development of false selves. The house itself isn't shabby. It just has shabby dust sheets all over it. At its core it is just fine.

pocketsaviour Tue 21-Jul-15 09:57:17

I repeat what Garlick and Buttonmoon said, but would also like to add:
A reason for doing something is not an excuse for doing something.

It took me a long time to understand and absorb that fact but once I did, my healing began.

queenoftheknight Tue 21-Jul-15 10:07:52

Some of my behaviours, pre therapy, were pretty abhorrent. Selfish, careless, and abusive. All learned, all internalised from my childhood.

My therapist helps my shame by saying that when we know better, we do better. And these days, I do much, much better. Incomparable to my former self. A new damp course and a full rewire. smile

buttonmoonboots Tue 21-Jul-15 10:48:57

I think this thread is currently in danger of implying that all abuse survivors are automatically going to become abusers unless they have the wherewithal to go to therapy; and that survivors do not recognise that the abuse is wrong while it is happening.

That's a pretty damning indictment of trauma survivors, if you think about it; and it's this kind of insidious othering that leads to society in general having empathy for child victims but not for the adults they become. I have never forgotten the time a friend of a friend said: "Oh but X isn't like us, she was abused so she doesn't know better." No. Fuck that. Some people do not do better but we all know, deep down, what is right and wrong, and we all make decisions about whether to hide that truth from ourselves.

We all have maladaptive behaviours or traits that we have learned in order to cope in the past. Sometimes these are abusive. Some people have to be taught to consciously relearn behaviours. But we all have perfect houses, underneath. We all have a true self buried somewhere.

My point is that it's problematic to say being abused means you don't know any better. It's this kind of talk that makes me afraid to tell people I am a survivor, in case they think I'm a danger to anyone. People can react quite strangely to adult survivors of abuse.

Some do go on to become abusers, but it's not a done deal. I'm still working out the exact nuances of what is normal, but I have always had a pretty good idea. I was six when I first decided to be better than my parents.

Abuse survivors do not lack knowledge of right and wrong. We all know, deep down, when we have been traumatised. Some people hide the knowledge and the feelings, some people act in through self-harm and the like, and some people act out by harming others.

Sorry for the rant, I just don't like the abuse victim = abuser vein this is going along.

buttonmoonboots Tue 21-Jul-15 10:50:13

I suggest you read up on Winnicott's idea of the false self, also.

Garlick Tue 21-Jul-15 16:24:33

Congrats, queen star I, too, believe I've changed fundamentally. I haven't finished yet - probably never will; once you get the habit of examining stuff, it sticks!

Button, we seem to be coming to this from different standpoints and I don't feel able to respond to your posts without risk of sounding too personal. I'll just say that, to my eyes, "abuse victim = abuser" is far more complex & nuanced that this little equation would suggest. I have behaved abusively and, far more, have thought like an abuser without even realising it. Very happy to changing this - and, to my surprise, happy to know how it feels to think like an abuser.

shovetheholly Tue 21-Jul-15 17:08:21

"I think this thread is currently in danger of implying that all abuse survivors are automatically going to become abusers unless they have the wherewithal to go to therapy; and that survivors do not recognise that the abuse is wrong while it is happening...But we all have perfect houses, underneath. We all have a true self buried somewhere."

I see what you are saying, but I am not sure it's as straightforward as that.

In particular, I don't believe at a very fundamental level that we do all have perfect houses 'underneath'. I think that a lot of people are the creation of their environment and background, in terms of the structures of thought that are habitual to them. This means that it's often very much more complicated than a black-and-white model of good and evil. Yes, everyone knows that beating a child senseless with a brick is wrong. But someone who is a strict disciplinarian might genuinely believe that their child will be terribly hurt if they don't behave in an utterly controlling way that is less obviously damaging. It's not just a matter of 'false consciousness' - it's an honestly-held certainty that is 'done for the best', even though the consequences can be devastating for the child in the long term.

Also, even where there is that moral recognition, there is a big difference between recognising that something is wrong and knowing how an alternative might look or feel, or how to 'act it out'. People often do need help to find other ways of seeing the world, which is partly why things like CBT can be very useful for panic and anxiety disorders, or even anger problems.

thegreysheep Tue 21-Jul-15 22:51:17

I think sometimes, but not always, ppl can repeat abusive patterns even though they hate the abuse they suffered, if they don't have self awareness.
My dad is a bully and I confronted him constructively recently about some of his bullying behaviour. He said to me he never would be a bully as he had been bullied and he hated bullies- but did it screaming, standing over me with his face in my face and fists clenched...
My friends do hates his father as he blames him for his mums alcoholism as his dad put his mum under constant pressure to be perfect and was constantly critical and undermining and his mum started drinking too cope with the pressure...But he ddoesn't see that he is doing the same to his wife and she who never was a big drinker is drinking more and more.
Op hopefully ur mum will start to be more open or at least it might give you some closure as to why she treated you so badly, it wasn't your fault, and you are taking steps yourself to be more self aware and break the cycle.

buttonmoonboots Tue 21-Jul-15 23:01:19

Hmm. I believe we all have a true self who knows what's what but sometimes it is denied the opportunity to run the show.

BertieBotts Tue 21-Jul-15 23:25:04

It might not be that she has a personality disorder, it might be something like PTSD. It can manifest in lots of ways, one of which is aggression. It's absolutely not true that all abuse victims become abusers, but it's foolish to say that none do, because some do (I couldn't tell you percentages), and it's also absolutely not as clear cut as acting out the abuse vs becoming a timid doormat victim. That is far too simplistic.

Trauma is a really complex thing and we don't actually know all that much about how it affects people, except the fairly obvious observation that the longer it goes on for and the earlier it began, the worse the effects. If she was never allowed to speak about it then it must be very difficult for her to speak about it now - I expect that would be why the very cold delivery and the refusal to talk about it any more. Perhaps you could let her know about sexual abuse counselling services - there are various centres around the country. But it has to be her own choice, just, if she wasn't aware of their existence.

It must be very difficult for you to separate your feelings of anger towards her for her actions and now this feeling of horror/sympathy at what she has told you. Of course it brings up that feeling of if it happened to her, why did she do it to me? I think that it's actually okay to try and see them as totally separate things. You can feel sorry for her situation while retaining anger about your own - indeed, her trauma does not cancel out yours, and you are still very entitled to feel angry.

Her experiences might have led to her actions, but that was always the case - knowing what the experiences were does not change that they happened, and they do not erase or cancel out the damage done.

As for the why, I suspect you'd have to delve into theoretical psychology and neurology to even get a possibility as to the reasoning there. If you are still seeing a therapist, it might be worth discussing with them? I don't think there are any nice neat easy answers to this one, though.

bydaytisbright Tue 21-Jul-15 23:31:59

Thank you for all of your replies. That you have all understood how I am feeling has made me feel so much better.

I feel a lot of anger too - that again, everything is all about her! Just when we get to a point where we are having some degree of reciprocal conversation, she comes out with this!

BertieBotts Tue 21-Jul-15 23:53:29

Yes - which is exactly why you need to separate it. And don't feel guilty about not wanting to spend time feeling sorry for her. You don't have to. In fact, it won't make any difference. It's a good thing that she felt able to tell you, but it is her issue to deal with, not yours. You have your own stuff.

It's also worth being aware that sometimes abusers will turn things around and become all "Poor me, it wasn't my fault because of my horrible life" when you start challenging them, in an attempt to make you feel too ashamed/cruel to continue. I don't know whether she is doing this or whether something else has triggered her to talk about her own abuse (I know a lot of the historical cases in the news at the moment are stirring up old feelings and memories which have been buried). I'm not saying don't be there for her, if you feel you want to be, but don't feel like you have to put that over your OWN recovery. And just be aware that it might be a diversion tactic.

I think I'm saying basically that it's okay to feel angry, it's not selfish, it's a perfectly natural reaction. Probably not something you need to share with her (right now) but it's okay to feel it.

Garlick Wed 22-Jul-15 00:00:16

Applause, Bertie smile

RonaldMcDonald Wed 22-Jul-15 04:40:17

As a clear statement, nothing written here suggests that those who have been abused abuse. Unfortunately mostly we only ever hear about those who do, as they present in therapy situations or by re enacting some of the trauma they didn't have a chance, the support or care to be able to deal with. Sadly many people who suffer trauma in childhood and manage not to re enact it are still unable to speak openly about it. Often their voices, struggle and experiences go unheard.

There are more than suggestions that early and then teenage traumas can lead to slightly different formations in how the brain works. These are the times when the brain is thought of as having the greatest fluidity.
Your mother's early childhood and attachment may have been fine before the traumas of her rapes.
For you, your mother was abusive from the get go and therefore may have had attachment issues with you even before there was an issue of how or why.
For both of you your responses and processing may have been scrambled in a huge number of ways.
There isn't IMO a trumping of one experience being worse than the other. I know that we want to make sense of it in that way at times but I am unsure of how helpful that becomes. There is just usually a lot of sadness, pain, anger and shame

I am so glad to hear that you are in therapy and are making such strong progress, it can't have been easy.
Your mum must have felt the need to share with you. I would hope that in her own time that also leads to therapy and eventually, if you'd like, both doing some work to repair the damage endured.
I hope you continue to do well.

ThumbWitchesAbroad Wed 22-Jul-15 05:21:52

If your mother was told repeatedly between 9 and 17 that there was something wrong with her, that she wasn't telling the truth, that she was a bad person for accusing her rapist of raping her, then she would have been mortified, ashamed, ruined mentally etc. and this would have given her a disgust of her own body, her own female-ness, her own self.

In turn, you being female and, later as it "showed" more, she has seen her own female-ness mirrored in you, and it has triggered the same shame, disgust, mortification - but because she can't deal with it sanely/coherently/sensibly, she's shaming you too because that's what she feels, and she has no mental equipment to deal with her feelings, because they are too chaotic.

She's obviously never had help to deal with her childhood/young adult trauma; if she had been believed, helped, counselled etc. she may have reached some resolution - but she wasn't and so hasn't. Some people have the wherewithall to resolve their traumas by themselves, but some don't - and tbh, not just the rapes, but the disbelief and the constant blaming of your mother for the situation must have made it incredibly hard for her to throw any of it off. sad

Doesn't excuse her, but it does maybe give more reason. She probably hates her own mother for not protecting or believing her; she hates herself for being abused and disbelieved; and she hates that you are female too. sad

Romeyroo Wed 22-Jul-15 06:11:26

Another survivor of childhood abuse here; whose mother simply repeated patterns she had experienced.

flowers and hugs to you, OP. It is up to your mum to seek appropriate therapy and heal herself, for as long as she doesn't do that, she is simply adding a burden to your life. And if that comes with no apologies or regrets for the effect on you, then that is really no help to you (sorry to sound harsh). You can only heal your relationship with her if it comes from her actually seeing you and the effect this has had on you.

All you can do with this information, OP, is mentally file it and resolve not to repeat these patterns of behaviour in your own life and heal yourselfflowers

I am sorry I am responding having only read the OP as I don't want to be triggered, which is my issue - but I wanted to add that having read the OP.

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