Autobiographical writing / Child abuse / Psychology

Behaving badly

Do you “beat yourself up” over minor errors?

Do you call yourself names? Make blanket negative statements about your worth or competence? (“What an idiot! You never do anything right!”)

Do you make threats or imply that catastrophe will befall you? (“ne will ever like you! No wonder you don’t have any friends! You’re life is hopeless.”aunty)

Me, too. As soon as I let myself feel my frustration, that’s what I hear in my head. Like me, you have learned to express your anger abusively. You saw others express anger through verbal abuse, and that’s what you learned to do also. Nevermind that this is self-directed and not other-directed. It’s the same kind of behavior. It needs to stop.

You probably know that, and you’re probably working at it ways that are not helping you as much as you’d like. Standard approaches to this kind of internal dialogue involve cultivating an attitude of forgiveness toward oneself. So, we minimize the magnitude of the mistake. We try to see our own point of view better. (“You did this because you thought this. That’s understandable.”) We acknowledge the error but try not to get all bent out of shape about it.

Working from that end may help you feel less angry, but it doesn’t help you respond to anger more appropriately when you do feel it. It doesn’t address the root cause: you are expressing anger in unacceptable and damaging ways.

Name-calling is not okay

Making threats is not okay.

Catastrophizing is not okay.

Attacking someone’s character, personality, or worth is not okay.

These are all forms of verbal abuse. They are not acceptable.

Life is frustrating. Our own fallibility is frustrating. It is okay to feel frustrated. It is not okay to verbally abuse anyone.

You can say, “I feel frustrated when I….because I think…when I do that. (Or it causes this problem later.)” You can own the frustration when your fallibility causes problems for you in your life—as it inevitably will. You can express that frustration. You can name the cause of that frustration.

But you cannot verbally abuse yourself. It’s just not nice.

At the same time, people who abuse themselves or others often have what has been termed a “harsh punishment schema,” meaning they hold a belief that people ought to be punished severely for even minor mistakes. Abuse can come from a sense a mistake has been made, and now it’s time for punishment to be handed down: it’s a distorted sense of justice.

This leads to problems mainly because the bulk of our larger society does not hold this view, but also because others are often a bit more circumspect about who is allowed to determine what punishment is fair and who can administer it. The individual who happens to note the mistake is not the person in charge of determining appropriate punishment or delivering it.

See? Use kind words.

See? Use kind words.

There are also rules about punishment, even for atrocity, and the person in charge of determining justice is bound by them. In most developed countries, judges cannot decide willy-nilly to hang someone and parents cannot beat their children black and blue. Parents are not allowed to verbally attack their children either, although that one is harder to enforce.

This is where my four rules come from that I listed above. They are standards of behavior you’ll see in action in any kindergarten classroom, but if your growing up years were anything like mine, they were not held to a home. People behaved badly. When you demean yourself, you are behaving badly as well.

It’s time for some re-education.

Anyway, that’s what I’m trying out today.

9 thoughts on “Behaving badly

  1. I don’t beat myself up for minor errors very often, but I do tend to strongly anticipate being shamed. So much so that I feel deeply ashamed whether anyone else notices the error or not.

    The self harshness tends to come out most when I am dealing with old issues, trying to make new connections and taking chances in what I am putting forth. I tend to completely negate/ demean/ belittle/ dismiss what I say/think/feel. It’s become obvious that despite how mean I am being to myself, it’s actually a defensive reaction. It’s like I’m trying to put myself down before someone else can. It isn’t completely restricted to dealing with old issues or how they apply to my current life, but that’s where I most often see it cropping up these days.

    • I’m glad it helped. Perhaps because we were raised to think that’s how we should be treated, but not how people generally should be treated–just us. Or maybe we were just raised without a sense of fairness: “Life isn’t fair,” they said, so we don’t really notice that the rules we have for ourselves aren’t the same as the rules we have for other people. It doesn’t occur to us that those kinds of things should be fair. Natural disasters aren’t fair, but human beings can be fair. Equal treatment is not an unreasonable expectation.

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