Why adult children of abusive parents live in denial

(OMTimes | Marcia Sirota) For many, many human beings, it’s painful to see the truth about our loved ones, and most especially about our parents and our partners, so we choose instead to go into denial.

Denial of former abuse is a powerful defense mechanism

Denial is a powerful human defense mechanism. We deny that the pain in our chest is serious because we don’t want to believe that we have heart disease. Unfortunately, when we deny a problem, we can’t fix the problem, and this is why far too many people suffer and even dies of untreated heart disease.

When it comes to relationships, our capacity for denial is infinite, but not in a good way. We might be dating someone who’s controlling, domineering and even threatening, but we deny that this person has all the hallmarks of an abuser. We might even marry this person.

The emotion that’s most closely linked to denial is hope, but it’s a false hope that things will turn out to be how we want them to be, as opposed to how they really are. When it comes to our relationships, we hope that the other person isn’t as bad as they seem, or that they’ll realize the errors of their ways and change for the better. This happens often enough in the movies and on TV, but almost never in real life.

I call this false hope “pathological hope,” because it’s coming out of our primitive psychological defense mechanisms, as opposed to our sophisticated, rational mind. The more we hold on to pathological hope, the less empowered we’ll be to change things for the better.

In our interactions with our parents, the combination of denial and pathological hope is especially common and especially hurtful. We don’t want to believe that our folks could have been neglectful or hurtful to us. It’s almost unbearable to acknowledge that we grew up with parents who failed us. It’s easier to deny the truth than to face it, or to hope that we can finally fix things today.

But what if this is indeed, what happened? Denying that we grew up with hurtful parents won’t help us heal the emotional wounds of a painful childhood. Pathological hope won’t change what happened to us in the past or make things better moving forward.

Many of us carry the hope that if we’re nice enough and helpful enough to them, our parents will finally give us the love, validation, and support we’ve always needed. What we fail to recognize is that if our parents couldn’t give us these things when we were kids, it’s highly unlikely they’ll suddenly be able to do it for us today.

No-one can earn love by being a people-pleaser. It simply doesn’t work. Everyone – be it our parent, our partner, our sibling or our friend – will love us if they’re able to, and they won’t love us if they’re unable to. It has everything to do with what the other person is capable of and nothing to do with how pleasing we are.

Many of us falsely believe that getting our parents to love us today will fix the hurts we incurred as kids. Even if we could get our hurtful or neglectful parents to be loving and caring today – and we can’t make them do this; they’ll only do it if they’re able to – nothing that our parents do for us today can fix the hurts we carry from the past.

If we were hurt in childhood, it would be nice to have our parents come around and be loving and supportive to us today, but it won’t heal our emotional wounds. As adults, we’re responsible for healing any emotional wounds we incurred in childhood.

Many of us believe that there’s some external fix to our problems. This is why we get caught up in addictions. We turn to outside solutions for our feelings of pain or emptiness, when really the only way to fix ourselves is through emotional healing.

We have to do what I call the “inner work,” to heal the wounds of a hurtful or neglectful childhood. Psychotherapy can help us do this.

Some people have an especially hard time facing the truth about their hurtful parents because the injuries were subtle. It’s easier for a child to recognize abuse when they’re being beaten or screamed at. It’s easier to recognize neglect when they’re left alone.

It’s harder to see the truth when the abuse takes a subtler form, such as a parent never being satisfied with the child’s performance, or failing to protect the child from other hurtful people, or constantly invalidating the child’s needs and feelings.

Darlene grew up with an absent father and a narcissistic mother who always put her own needs ahead of those of her children. Darlene’s mom constantly made it clear to Darlene that her needs were a burden, and that her feelings were an inconvenience. Darlene’s mom made her feel that she was obligated to care for her mother at all times and to put her own needs and feelings aside.

Darlene grew up filled with self-hatred, believing that her own needs were bad and excessive and that her feelings were an imposition. She grew up thinking that the only way to be loved was to be of service.

Darlene had few friends and the ones she had took advantage of her habit of people-pleasing. In her 20’s, Darlene got involved with an abusive man who promised to care for her but instead, exploited her terribly.

Darlene cared for her mother until the woman died in her 90’s. Darlene had been trying, her entire life, to get some love and validation from her mom, but even on her death bed, the best that her mother could say was how much she appreciated Darlene being there for her.

Darlene was made to feel guilty for thinking badly of her mother. She was filled with guilt whenever she considered the possibility that Mom was less than perfect.  Darlene was holding on to pathological hope for Mom’s love, even after her mother had passed on. That’s how illogical this kind of hope is.

The longer Darlene maintained her denial about her selfish, uncaring mother, the longer she suffered. She was a people pleaser at work because that’s what her mother taught her to be, so she burned out early and had to go on long-term disability. She was isolated, depressed, and suffered from addictions meant to compensate for the love and care she’d never received.

Everyone, including Darlene, needs to see that denial around hurtful parents isn’t good for us. It keeps us stuck in misery. When we let go of our denial and our pathological hope, we can finally face the truth about our hurtful parents.

It’s not a pleasant truth but it’s a necessary one to face. Denial around our parents keeps us stuck in low self-worth and counter-productive patterns of behavior. When we can face this painful truth, we become empowered to finally find healing and to start creating the amazing life that we truly deserve.

About the author

Marcia Sirota MD FRCP(C) is a board-certified psychiatrist, that does not ascribe to any one theoretical school. Rather, she has integrated her education and life experiences into a unique approach to the practice of psychotherapy. She considers herself a realist with a healthy measure of optimism.

Source: OMTimes

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