Michael Bader: Sinners in heaven or saints in hell? — The problems that result when someone can’t face trauma and/or abuse from their past
April 30, 2018
One of the hardest things for a human being to do is to fully acknowledge and face the failures of his or her parents. The worse the failure, the harder it is to accept.
Instead, the universal tendency in children is to blame themselves and minimize or excuse parental abuse or neglect.
It is said that "a child would rather be a sinner in heaven than a saint in hell"— that children adapt to abusive or negligent parenting by blaming themselves for their parents failures, exonerating the latter, which provides an illusion of agency.
The logic goes, "if it's my fault that my father hits me, maybe if I try harder to behave, he'll stop."
Accepting their own innocence and confronting their caretakers' failures leaves children feeling too helpless and vulnerable.
For example, in the film "I Tonya," the Tonya Harding character puts it this way, "I figured my mom hit me, she loves me. It was what I knew."
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The pain of being assaulted by her mother is denied and the mother is let off the hook. Objective reality simply cannot be faced.
How parents shape their children
We are all powerfully motivated to let our parents off the hook, even if that means distorting our memories and twisting reality.
The reason is that we depend for our very survival on the protection and understanding of our caretakers. We'll do anything to maintain even the illusion of parental love. If that means saying that black is white — or that abuse is love — so be it.
Two recent novels, "My Absolute Darling" and "Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine," provide beautifully drawn examples of this, each featuring a heroine raised by a psychotic and paranoid parent.
In each case, the heroine herself becomes disturbed as she grows up forced to normalize her parent's pathology. When we are forced to accept a crazy reality as if it were normal, our own sense of reality has to be compromised.
We have to continually confront the contradiction between our emotional need for caretaking and our objective knowledge that our caretaking is absent or corrupt.
We inevitably err on the side of our emotional needs and, as a result, repeatedly deny what we rationally know to be true. The result is that our very capacity for reality testing becomes impaired. We can't hold our caretakers responsible, and so we take the guilt on ourselves.
Growing on your own
In the best of circumstances, as we grow up, separate, form relationships with other, healthier caretakers and positive role models — hopefully becoming more mature individuals in our own right — this need to cover up for our parents can then diminish.
We might mourn the past, but at least it is a past that we can realistically face. In this way, we can reclaim the childhood innocence that we surrendered in the interest of exonerating the caretakers upon whom we depended for our sense of how the world works—and how the world is supposed to work.
Some cultural critics believe that we have become a society that downplays individual responsibility, overly blames parents, and gives people excuses for their problems.
For example, in the recovery movement, it's often claimed that the disease of addiction is based on escaping personal responsibility.
One patient of mine said: "People need to put on their big boy pants, stop whining, step up, and do the right thing. No one likes a complainer."
Articles are written about the "victimhood culture" that allegedly exists on college campuses. Book titles like "The Culture of Complaint" abound.
Everything I know about human psychology says that these critiques are false. I think that they're based on a fundamental misunderstanding of childhood that inadvertently blames the victim.
After all, children are dependent on parents for their sense of reality and morality, and parents have an awesome authority to define both.
From child to adult
When parents create an abusive, neglectful, or otherwise cruel environment, children are highly motivated to comply with and internalize it, because for children to feel innocent and not deserving of mistreatment — in other words, to place responsibility where it belongs, with parents — presumes a capacity to create and maintain a separate, alternative and healthier reality on their own, without validation or support. This is impossible.
Children have to adapt, comply, and "get along" with their caretakers in order to survive and sometimes that means feeling responsible for their own mistreatment.
I'll go one step further and argue that people who seem to constantly blame others are actually wrestling with exaggerated feelings of self-blame, not innocence. I've had several patients like this and invariably they grew up in families where they felt guilty and responsible for their parents' moods and behavior.
Under the constant pressure of this guilt, they grew up feeling obliged to prove to themselves and others that their suffering is not their fault. They have to turn up the volume of their complaints to drown out the internal accusation that, deep down, they are the guilty one.
As adults, they come across as whiners and blamers, but what we're really seeing are belated and ineffective protests of innocence.
Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.