Today we’ll begin exploring why we sometimes don’t have any idea that people have wronged us, so we don’t understand that we need to forgive them. We don’t have the foggiest idea. How can this be?
Control plus lies
In abusive and neglectful environments, the people in control communicate lies. Chronic lies. Dangerous environments are innately manipulative. To maintain the status quo, the people in charge use propaganda to convince the targets and accomplices that the oh-so-benevolent people at the top of the food chain are doing the right thing (i.e., looking out for the little guys). Governments do it. Businesses do it. Families do it.
I didn’t understand that my parents were abusive and neglectful until I was in my 50s. And I was a Child Protective Services caseworker for 10 years. Even with that experience and training, the propaganda and the lies that I grew up with hid the truth of my own life and my own experiences for decades. And there was something else at play—something very surprising that protected me. Get ready to learn about adapting.
We adapt to our environment. Why? Adaptation helps to ensure our survival.
Think about the physical adaptations of various people groups to extreme climates. In extreme cold, we find people who are short and round, with a thicker-than-normal layer of body fat, short arms and legs, and narrow noses. Why? To protect them from heat loss and frostbite, to protect their lungs and more. Here’s a short, interesting article about various physical adaptations—gifts given by God for our survival. It’s really amazing.
We also adapt to our culture—language, foods, expressions of joy and sorrow, greetings, eye contact, body language, music, celebrations, slang expressions and much more.
If I’d been born in Thailand, I’d think nothing of eating bugs. If I was born in Pakistan, I’d be eating sheep brains. That sounds totally disgusting to me, but they’d probably feel the same way about what I eat. I’ve spent most of my life in the great state of Texas, where we eat Tex-Mex, barbecue and occasionally a thin-crust Domino’s pizza. The other day, Charlene and I met at Mitra’s Tearoom and enjoyed chicken and spinach quiche and more. I guess that would be French. Very tasty. Speaking of French, Logan starts his fourth year of French class this month. I really enjoyed listening to his teacher and the class speaking in French while I was working at home during the quarantine. French is festive. Voilà!
Food, language and culture go together.
We adapt to our climate and we adapt to our culture. Let’s dig into the powerful ways we adapted to our family. Remember, we adapt in order to survive.
Things that mattered
I grew up in a family characterized by detached intellect, where performance reigned, the leader and his protégé did the talking (I mean bragging), interactions were extremely superficial, and outsiders’ perceptions were highly valued. Feelings were not allowed. We had food, clothes and shelter; and we went to church two or three times a week. Do you see me checking the boxes? Check. Check. Check….
How did I adapt? I was given destructive roles. My primary role was The Narcissistic Supply—I mean Nameless Silent Movie Character Actor. I thought I was naturally “a good listener.” Not so. It was the sick role I was given in a sick place.
The core message
What was the unspoken, core message in our family? “Smart people are better.” One of my dad’s mantras was, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” And he meant it. In other words, “You will not need help and you will not ask for help. Besides, other people can’t be trusted because they aren’t smart enough. People in this family are smart. Smart people know all the answers. Smart people figure everything out for themselves. Asking for help would be an admission that you don’t have all the answers. Don’t do that.”
Not allowed and not happening
Problems were not allowed. We were too smart to have problems. Only losers had problems. Only losers like my dad’s half-sister got divorced. We were “better” than them.
Needless to say, my own divorce presented major problems for my dad. In Our Perfect Family—I mean Our Perfectly Dysfunctional Family—image was everything. And I had just trashed it. My dad never said the word divorce again. Did he ever ask me why I was getting divorced? Nope. That would be an acknowledgment of me as a human being and it would also be an acknowledgment of my divorce. Not happening. I’m shaking my head and rolling my eyes—a two-for-one.
My dad’s narcissism built a dangerous and lonely world where people were graded and classified. They weren’t treasured or known. They weren’t taught or helped. I was graded and I was taught to grade other people. One of the big struggles of my adult life has been to trash the pride and embrace humility. If you’ve struggled at all in this area, I think you’ll find this sermon series—The Humble and The Proud—enlightening and helpful.
Hiding the problems
Since I actually did have problems as a child, I had to hide my problems. I had to pretend that I was like all the other people in the house—too smart to have problems. Life was a constant lie and I didn’t even know it! It was just The Way Life Was.
After I’d been wetting my bed off and on for years, my mom finally mustered the courage to actually say something to me about it. She told me to drink less milk at dinner and to bring my wet sheets to the laundry room in the morning. I guess that was the pinnacle of her problem-solving skills. Oh, no. I said The Word That Couldn’t Be Spoken (i.e., problem). Silly me. What was I thinking? We didn’t have any of those. Problems were for losers.
It was our job to be impressive. It was not our job to actually possess admirable qualities. It was okay to lie and cheat as long as you were a winner—as long as other people thought highly of you. In the last series, I wrote about the second-grade art contest. My dad painted a beautiful landscape painting and made me take it to school and pretend that I painted it. I was mortified, but I did what I was told. When the teachers asked me if I painted it, I lied. Thankfully, they were much smarter than we were. I was so relieved that I didn’t win.
Because everything was a show based on lies, I knew nothing about Godly virtues like love, truth, honor, wisdom, justice, mercy or forgiving. I thought I knew what those words meant, but I really didn’t. I didn’t have a clue. Because I was taught to grade, classify and compete with other people, I didn’t understand what compassion was. I had to figure out all those things after I left home. That is sad. Pitiful.
The power of the family
Let’s do a short rewind and repeat from The Trauma of Disengagement, part 4:
Since my mom took me to school and church, she presumed that someone else taught me what I needed to know.
Here’s the reality:
The vast majority of what we learn about life
comes from our parents and our experiences at home—
the purpose of relationships, how to live,
how to communicate and how to treat people.
A quote to remember
This quote from William Temple (1881–1944), Archbishop of Canterbury, pinpoints the power of the family:
“The most influential of all educational factors is the conversation in a child’s home.”
To me, the key word in that quote is conversation. We didn’t have conversations in the place where I grew up. Ditto for my husband Brandon.
Things that are not a conversation
A monologue is not a conversation. A rehearsed script is not a conversation. Showboating is not a conversation. Looking at The Speech-Giver and saying “uh-huh” is not a conversation. Freaking out and fabricating chaos for attention is not a conversation. Sitting, listening and bobbing your head up and down is not a conversation. Performing for your audience is not a conversation. Being asked one question and giving a short answer during a 15-plus-minute “conversation” is not a conversation. Complaining to elicit pity is not a conversation. (Pssst. Complaining is a manipulative tactic employed routinely by sociopaths, narcissists and other dangerous people. Click here for details.)
Do any of those concepts or behaviors sound or feel familiar? Grab your journal and do some reflecting on those descriptions of Things That Are Not A Conversation.
The important people
There were two narcissists in the house I grew up in, and I thought everything that was going on was normal. I didn’t understand what they were doing. I didn’t know how sick everything was. I didn’t see it. I didn’t hear it. I didn’t comprehend it. It was just The Way Life Was.
Dad and my younger sister Pam were The Important People. The rest of us were there to serve them, listen to them and make them feel good about themselves.
The Important People mattered and I didn’t. The Important People talked and I didn’t. The Important People ran the show and I didn’t. The Important People got certain perks and I didn’t. While Perfect Pam, the malignant narcissist, was away at college, my mom sent her these wonderful care packages all the time. I wondered why she only sent me one per semester. Now I know why. Pam was her favorite because of their sick, codependent relationship.
Molded by the roles
This paragraph from the last series explains the power of family roles to mold our thinking and our living.
When you were groomed for your role in a dysfunctional family—and mine was The Narcissistic Supply, better known as Nameless Silent Movie Character Actor—it’s very challenging to shake that role, to remove your costume, to say no. You were trained every day for more than 18 years for that role. And they expected you to play your role for life. That way, everything runs the way it’s supposed to in Our Perfect Family—I mean Our Perfectly Dysfunctional Family. The same ol‘ movie gets cranked out every time you’re together, and even when you’re not.
To learn about deprogramming the roles, see The Big Why, part 5.
Parents and sometimes well-meaning relatives will say, “You were always this way, even when you were little.” Indeed. But we have to dig deeper than observations from people immersed in the family system. We have to dig deeper and wider.
Yes, young children adapt automatically to their environments.
Our adaptation doesn’t condemn us to live that way indefinitely.
Immersed and shielded
For those of us who were raised in dysfunctional families, our adaptation shielded and protected us—to varying degrees—from the harmful and dangerous things that were going on around us. Why? So we could survive in an unnatural, dangerous environment. Our adaptation kept us from the full impact of what was happening. Our adaptation kept us from seeing, clearly, what was going on. We were little, we were children, we were teenagers.
We didn’t have the maturity, the life skills, an objective perspective or the authority
to deal effectively with abuse and neglect while we were immersed in it.
Our adaptation protected us to a certain extent. We were acclimated or numbed to the harshness of the environment so we could survive there.
People ask themselves: Why do these bright, college-educated people keep making such bad personal choices? Why do they not get it? Why do they not see what they’re doing and how destructive it is? Why do they keep making the same mistakes again and again? Why won’t they problem-solve or get some help?
I’ll tell you why. Because most of us are still wearing the dysfunctional family roles and costumes we’ve been wearing our whole lives and we have no idea what’s going on. We don’t have the foggiest idea.
Blind and deaf
We adapted to a sick environment and it made us sick too. We copied some of the sick behaviors and embraced some of the sick beliefs. And we didn’t understand it. We didn’t understand ourselves or why our lives were such a mess. It was like we wore very dark, scratched-up glasses all the time and we couldn’t see straight. There were thick ear muffs on our ears and we didn’t hear right.
Our adaptation made us blind and deaf to the dysfunctional behaviors
that surrounded us every day. We were blind and deaf.
And many of us still are.
The gravitational pull
I gravitated toward sick people because I was sick—emotionally and spiritually. The sick people felt like home. We spoke the same language. We “got” each other. My story in Grieving Divorce paints a vivid picture of the kinds of destruction we can do to each other. It was like two blind and deaf people living in the dark—not seeing or hearing each other. Not knowing what to do to fix the mess. Just spinning our wheels and doing what we’d always done: The Way Life Was.
Eventually, these struggles can help us to admit the obvious. We don’t have all the answers. Trouble can get us down on our knees, calling out to God for help. That is a life-changing moment.
Relationship struggles and emotional distress
can lead us to start or continue The Healing Journey,
which includes both emotional and spiritual healing.
From adapted to transformed
We automatically adapted to the environment where we grew up so we could survive there. So. We. Could. Survive. What now?
Our real family
After we leave home, we’re called and challenged to adapt to our real family—The Family of God. If you don’t know what that means, read these posts: Thanksgiving and The Post-Trauma Transformation.
Seeking truth and more
Many of us need to work for a while with a skilled professional counselor to find truth, to learn about healthy boundaries and to develop courage. Some of us need to find our own voice—the voice that was silenced by The Important People. Some of us need to replace our destructive, condemning self-talk with healing truths from God’s word. My preacher reminds us to “preach to yourself” (e.g., God is with me, God is for me, God made good plans for my life, God sees me, God knows me, God made me, God hears me, God loves me.) It’s important. God’s truth heals.
Let’s look at more from The Big Why, part 5, one of my favorites:
Taking off the costume
…How can we be transformed from a character in a bad movie into what we need to be—a truth-seer, a truth-speaker and a Courageous One? How can we take off our costumes? The costumes they gave us? The costumes they told us we were “made” to wear?
The real you
We must seek truth from The One who is truth—God Almighty: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.”
John 14:6, New Heart English Bible
And somebody else, even your parent, doesn’t get to tell you who you are when that “who” conflicts with what God has to say on the subject.
That post ended with a list of scriptures that answer the all-important questions: Who am I? Why am I here? One of my favorite scriptures from that list is at the end of today’s post in our Truth from The Word.
We covered a lot today. Now it’s time to reflect in your journal or on a piece of paper. Please take your time to answer these questions when you can pray and reflect peacefully. Allow God to shine the light of truth on hidden things that he wants you to see today—and in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Read these verses and pray before you begin.
“Thus says the LORD who made the earth, and who formed it to establish it;
the LORD is his name: ‘Call to me, and I will answer you,
and will show you great and hidden things, which you do not know.’”
Jeremiah 33:2-3, New Heart English Bible
1. What, if anything, is still unclear or confusing to you about your childhood?
2. What questions do you have?
3. What are some of the ways you adapted to your family?
4. What was the core message?
5. How clear is your picture of the environment where you were raised?
6. Are certain years, places or people very foggy in your memory?
7. In your heart, do you believe that some of the key realities/issues are still hidden?
8. What negative behaviors and/or false beliefs did you get from your parents or siblings?
9. Have you made choices in your life that seemed out of character for you?
10. Where are you on The Healing Journey—emotionally and spiritually?
11. What victories have you experienced, emotionally and/or spiritually?
12. What do you perceive is your next step?
The right time
Some of us experienced abuse, neglect—and perhaps horrific events—that we don’t remember. If the Lord wants you to know more, he will bring the pieces to you at the right time and in the right way.
Trust God and his timing. Be at peace.
As truths from your past come into the light, you’ll begin to understand who wronged you and how they wronged you. As part of The Season of Grieving—when you deal with traumas and losses—you’ll understand the need to forgive the people involved. Depending on the circumstances, you may have some serious regrets. You may need to forgive yourself too.
Coming next: I’m excited about our current subject—When the Need to Forgive Has Been Hidden. Next time, I’ll share how the Lord used dreams and the interpretations of those dreams to teach me important truths about the people in the house—my parents, my siblings and me.
Come back later this month to read about a laundry basket and the truth it revealed—40 years later. Until then, thanks for reading and for Choosing Peace.
Healing through truth and music
Peaceful Readers, I’ve found great healing in my life through the beauty and truth of God’s word and through music. I hope the truths and songs that I share at the end of each post will bless you too.
Truth from The Word: “Do not be afraid; for I am with you. I will bring your descendants from the east, and gather you from the west. I will tell the north, ‘Give them up,’ and tell the south, ‘Do not hold them back. Bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the farthest parts of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, and whom I have created for my glory, whom I have formed, yes, whom I have made.’”
Isaiah 43:5-7, New Heart English Bible
Song for Healing: “Wonderful Merciful Savior” by Selah