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Why Do I Beat Myself Up Over What They Think?


I am a 51 yr old married woman. I was a victim of "date rape" at 14, physically and emotionally abused by my first husband. Even though I have survived these things and I know those things were not my fault, how do I let go of things that I have done in the past. The things I am talking about are tolerating abusive relationships, drinking too much on an occasion, smoking cigarettes and etc.

I know you are probably saying "You’re 51, grow up"! Well, that is part of my problem. I have 2 older sisters who are also married with children and grandchildren…..and both of my parents are alive and in great health (which I’m very blessed). The issue is that they still tell me what I should be doing, they are very critical of how I do things and it doesn’t matter how I behave, it isn’t right. If I don’t have a drink then I’m encouraged to, if I do drink, then I’ve over indulged. If I find outside the home activities (horseback riding) then I’m old and foolish, if I stay at home I’m a weird recluse. They never support me in front of my husband of 14 years. Their comments are always, she’s your responsibility not ours. You were crazy enough to marry her. This will be at times when I’m cracking jokes and basically trying to have fun.

There are so many examples of this that the list could just go on and on. They all say that it’s my life and live it to the fullest but I think what they are actually saying is that it’s your life and you need to live it the way we want you to. I am my own person and I am not stupid but why do I beat myself up over what they think and basically make myself completely miserable just trying to make them happy. My husband has never said these type of things to me and he says that he is completely happy in our marriage, so my problem isn’t stemming from this relationship. Am I crazy, have I been abused in other ways that I don’t recollect?? What is my problem?? I am so tired and I want so badly to be at peace with myself.

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The thing that jumps out at me as I read your letter is that you are feeling ambivalent about the meaning of the judgmental comments you receive from your family. Part of you thinks you might deserve or require such comments. Maybe they are justifiable. Perhaps, you seem to be saying to yourself, you have been damaged in some way you don’t remember and this damage is causing you to behave in bad ways. Perhaps your family’s judgmental talk is present out of loving concern as a way to correct your bad behavior and help you. The other part of you is thinking that you are being abused by your family and do not deserve to be talked down to in this patronizing manner. You simply aren’t sure what the case is and it is giving you a headache!

You’re asking for my two cents, and so I’ll tell you that from my external and detached perspective, this looks more like mild but consistent verbal abuse coming from your family rather than a series of loving acts. It seems like a pattern was established many years ago making you into the scapegoat of the family, and all of your siblings and your parents are continuing to act out this abusive pattern.

Who knows how this abusive pattern got started? You say that you were victimized as a teenager, and that you didn’t have the greatest judgment when you were younger (show me a teen who does!). Your family may have made a collective decision to treat your youthful vulnerability with scorn rather than compassion. Sometimes families do this because by isolating all the scorn and judgment on a singular target, the rest of the family gets to feel more powerful. That is the ancient purpose of scapegoats; to isolate and exclude "sin" and "weakness" so as to make everyone else experience the illusion of holiness and power. In psychological terms, this behavior is called "splitting", and its presence is generally regarded as a sign that a psychological problem is present (for the people who are doing the splitting; in this case your family).

Family therapists tend to view problems like this in systematic terms, never looking at just one member of a family, but rather looking at the family as a whole. So what they would see is a family with problems, and you as the unlucky identified focus of those problems, which are not yours alone (no matter what other family members say) but rather problems belonging to all family members.

The way I see it, it is painful to feel ambivalent, but also good that you do. Your ambivalence is caused by your healthy self-esteem poking a hole through the continual and probably decades long abuse which is designed to make you and everyone else in your family think that you are the problem. It would be less painful (in a way) to not be ambivalent, but that would mean that you were buying into what they were saying about you, and then you would feel pain of a different sort. I think this ambivalence is a sort of growing pain, as you come to realize that you don’t deserve to be the scapegoat, and never did; as you reject the rhetoric and the mold your family has forced you into. As you get clearer on not deserving to be forced into this scapegoat mold, you can expect your feelings to change. Perhaps you’ll even get angry at family members at some point.

As far as hidden abuse memories are concerned, these are possible, but I’m thinking (based on the limited information you’ve provided) that that is not what is going on for you. I’m thinking you’re grasping onto that possibility as a way of trying to make up an explanation for why you should be treated this way by your family, and the explanation is far-fetched because there is no good reason for why you are being treated as you are.

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