They desperately need the approval of others to replace the genuine lack of esteem they feel for themselves.
—Renee McDonald, PhD, Associate Dean, Southern Methodist University
Even at the beginning of our interview for this book, Caroline felt the need to apologize. Sharing her life’s story is one of the greatest gifts she can give to others living in her situation, yet somehow she was worried that her story might not be good enough.
“I feel weird about this, like I don’t belong because my story wasn’t nearly as horrible as everyone else’s.”
The Washington State−based mother of four apologizes a lot, to everyone, even when there is no apparent reason to. She believes that she is so worthless that even her pain isn’t good enough. While it’s true that she lived with mostly nonphysical violence, it doesn’t make her story any less relevant. Quite the opposite. She represents hundreds of millions of men, women, and children who have suffered similar upbringings and feel that they are somehow worth less than others; that they are not good enough—and never will be.
“Nonphysical violence or emotional abuse can be just as damaging and more long term, but physical violence is so much easier to grasp. People are more sympathetic,” she says. Caroline makes a great point.
As a daughter, wife, and mother, Caroline has spent her life doing for others first and putting her own needs last because it simply never occurred to her that she deserved to make herself a priority. So the lie she struggles with most is a feeling of intrinsic worthlessness—of being worth less than others. She has felt powerless and insignificant, has suffered from low self-esteem, and has constantly sought the approval of others. According to research, this sense of worthlessness is one of the most pervasive feelings among anyone who grew up living with domestic violence in childhood and one of the most lingering and damaging of the lies. Without a sense of worth, children of domestic violence lose their personal resolve and often give up on the dreams that nourish and sustain them. Rediscovering the truth and restoring that sense of worth is the foundation of the natural esteem they should genuinely have for themselves. Achievement, however small and incremental, brings confidence, allowing you to build from strength to strength.
WHY WE FEEL WORTH LESS
We all suffer from bouts of low self-esteem now and then as we make our way through school, relationships, and careers. Even children from nonviolent backgrounds experience occasional low self-esteem and need to remind themselves that they are good enough. But for people who grew up living with domestic violence, feeling worthless is a constant theme in their lives that can last long into adulthood.
As brain expert David Sousa describes it, “The cognitive belief system is the result of all the information we’ve collected from the world around us. It’s our belief of how the world works and where we fit in. Of course, [even as adults] people who have grown up in a violent home form a different view of how the world works than people who grew up in loving homes. One of our weaknesses as a species is that when we establish our self-concept as children, it tends to stay with us.”
In Caroline’s case, it all started when she was a little girl in North Carolina, where the entire family had to walk on eggshells to avoid the next explosion of nonphysical violence in her house. To a young child, the choice of words and tone can strike just like a physical blow. There was no physical violence, but fear dominated her life. Her desire to please and the compulsion to be the perfect daughter drove her. It was Caroline’s way of keeping the peace in a volatile environment.
Caroline’s parents divorced when she was five, and she was heartbroken when her father left. At first, she saw him every other weekend, but the contact became less and less frequent. He moved five states away, and Caroline’s mother didn’t exactly encourage visitation.
Her mother remarried when Caroline was six; four years later, her stepfather and mother convinced her to sign papers to allow her stepfather to legally adopt her. She was told she’d still be able to see her dad, but as soon as the adoption was official, he no longer had any legal right to see her.
Caroline was confused as to why she could never see him. Nothing was explained to her, and it left her feeling like she wasn’t worth fighting for, that she wasn’t important enough somehow. Several years later she found a way to contact her father, but when her mother discovered their correspondence she showed one of the letters to the stepfather.
“I have something to tell you,” she told Caroline as she brought her up to their bedroom, where the walls were full of fist-size holes—evidence of her stepfather’s reaction when he saw the letter.
“It wasn’t directly said,” recounts Caroline, “but my mother’s message was clear: This will happen to me if I ever contact my birth father again. It was my fault, and I’d better behave myself.”
It was control by intimidation, another form of nonphysical violence that can have a profound and lasting impact on a child.
I AM NOT GOOD ENOUGH
A farm boy from the Midwest and a former military man, Caroline’s stepfather wanted to erase any trace of his wife’s past life. He was the father now. Her mom had to keep the house in perfect order and Caroline and her siblings had to do well in school, toe the line at home, and do nothing to challenge their stepfather’s authority.
Caroline’s stepfather grew up living with domestic violence. A middle child who’d had much less financial success than his siblings, he’d been made to feel that he wasn’t accomplished enough. In fact, when a venture with one of his brothers went bankrupt, he felt like a failure. He felt insignificant, worthless. And one thing is absolute: We always find a way to feel important, somehow. And he found it in his home.
By the time Caroline turned thirteen, the nonphysical violence in the home was getting worse.
Yet her stepfather was a good provider, someone financially stable who would never cheat, and who gave the family a comfortable middle-class existence. Her mother never wanted to go back to the life of poverty with her first husband.
Caroline also played her part, excelling in school and college, where she earned a degree in computer science, not that she ever received a shred of affection for her model behavior. Being the perfect daughter didn’t bring her much happiness. In fact, she was desperately lonely.
“I always had to have a man on my arm,” Caroline confessed. “It was a kind of validation,” she says. From the age of eighteen to twenty-four, she was a serial dater, always having another boyfriend lined up before the previous romance ran its course. None of them ever worked out. She never had a clear vision of what she wanted. She dated at least twenty guys until she settled on one—a man very much like her stepfather: stable job, steady, and controlling. But he had something in common with Caroline as well: He’d grown up living with domestic violence.
I NEVER ACHIEVE ANY OF MY GOALS, SO WHY SET THEM?
We often invite people into our lives that are like those who have hurt us in the past. As Rick Warren points out, “Many people are driven by their need for approval. They allow the expectations of parents or spouses or children or teachers or friends to control their lives.”1
It was as if, on an unconscious level, Caroline was seeking to prove she was good enough to her stepfather, that she could make it work.
“Even my mother said, ‘He’s a lot like your dad. Are you sure you want to marry him?’ But like her, I made allowances because I knew he would be a good provider,” Caroline explains.
The first few years were fine—well, mostly. It is ironic that the unacceptable can seem OK when you’ve grown up with domestic violence and your new situation is even marginally better than what you experienced as a child. The early warning signs can just slip by, and be easily explained away, or dismissed.
After Caroline had her first baby, her husband would lock them in the house during the day when he went to work in order to (in his words) “protect her.” It continued for years. He wouldn’t allow her and their young children to have dinner until he was home, no matter how late he stayed out. Looking back, she now realizes he was just testing her; telling her he’d be home in a few minutes and appearing two hours later to make sure she obeyed his rule.
After ten years, Caroline’s husband moved the family across the country to work at his company’s headquarters. But his career had a severe setback, which he took out on his family with nasty comments and passive-aggressive behavior designed to put Caroline in her place. One wrong word—something as innocuous as asking for help with the dishes—could result in a silent treatment lasting for weeks, then months, then for as long as a year.
Through his silence, he was effectively saying, “The cold shoulder I give you will teach you a lesson. And I will keep it going until you apologize, and even then I won’t easily let it go.” But Caroline’s husband was perpetuating the cycle of violence from his own family and making things even worse for Caroline and his children in a desperate attempt to exorcise his own pain.
The violence in Caroline’s marriage was insidious. She kept making excuses. She told herself things were good enough, for her. She’d do a better job, and it would be better. As unhappy as she was, she was determined to keep the family intact for the sake of the kids. Besides, she was a Christian and didn’t believe in divorce. She married for keeps.
The family moved again, to Tennessee, where Caroline’s husband decided to start up his own IT business. The mood at home got even tenser. Start-ups can be a white-knuckle ride at the best of times and Caroline’s husband had something to prove after the humiliation of being sidelined at his previous job. So the silent treatments grew longer.
Finally, fifteen years into the marriage and the end of one of his cycles of silence, she decided she wasn’t going to apologize anymore.
“When you are ready to speak to me, I’ll be there for you,” she said.
He said nothing at first. They lived separate lives under the same roof. He was working from home, in the basement study, while she was upstairs.
A few days later, he broke his silence.
“When you get in your car today, I hope that you get into a bad accident and die,” he told her. His words landed with a sickening thud. But she thought, maybe he didn’t really mean it.
A few days later, it was their daughter’s prom night. He showed up late and gave his daughter the same cold shoulder he gave his wife. She was devastated, and Caroline was so enraged she decided to say something. It was the first time in their marriage she ever told him off.
Physical violence was the one thing she couldn’t accept and when he struck her with his belt and told her to “drop dead,” she immediately filed a restraining order and applied for a legal separation. When he crossed the line into physical violence it was her wake-up call—and she knew that she and her children deserved better.
FOCUSING HERSELF ON A CLEAR OUTCOME, NOT A GOAL
Caroline never spoke about what happened, keeping her feelings locked inside. As the children got older and her husband stopped locking his family in the house, she was able to get out more, and developed a wide circle of friends through their church. But she was too embarrassed to open up. But what was she embarrassed about? That as a child she had things unconsciously encoded into her that she couldn’t control? Embarrassed that her parents experienced the same thing she did and did not know any better?
At the time Caroline didn’t understand that we can counter the lies only by sharing our experiences in order to change the meaning. She does now. For Caroline, who had always found it difficult to share personally, it was easier to write for herself, privately, than to talk to someone about it. As the long silences from her husband stretched from days, to weeks, to months, she decided to write down what she felt. With no one to talk to, she figured this was one way she could start a dialogue, so she started to keep a journal, applying great focus to this task.
The more Caroline wrote the more she enjoyed it. Just as before when she decided that she would never accept physical violence, Caroline exercised the same determination to get down on paper everything that she had felt and experienced throughout her lifetime. Eventually she put some of her writings together and self-published a book, A Journey Through Emotional Abuse: From Bondage to Freedom, that she felt could give a voice to others like her.
Again, it was an act of sharing, or self-expression, that put her on this path to extraordinary accomplishment. Writing was the tool that enabled her to free herself from the lie that she was worthless. In turn it enabled her to talk about her experience with others. Writing became a pathway from feeling worthless to being accomplished.
Caroline grew up in a home in which her basic human needs were not met. But she did not fall victim to what afflicts so many children of domestic violence: She is not dead from suicide, addicted to drugs, in jail, or repeating the pattern of violence. That act of writing and sharing led to changes in Caroline’s life. With her newfound independence, she made new friends and joined a new church where she found a man who is “the complete antithesis of my first husband.” They started slow, as friends, until his kindness won her over. Today, she tells him everything. He is the close confidant she never had before. Seeing her story through his compassionate eyes also helps her get closer to the truth—that she is worthy.
IF I WASN’T WORTH CARING FOR, WHAT GOOD AM I?
Like Caroline, Mort never felt good enough. Born in 1952 and raised in a blue-collar town south of Chicago, he was the baby of the family. No one ever hit him. His father was a big guy with a quick temper, but he adored his youngest son and never laid a hand on him. And yet violence, both physical and nonphysical, surrounded him as he was growing up.
The nonphysical violence in particular was intense, with loud and bitter arguments between his parents erupting regularly over everything from money to housecleaning and disciplining the kids. As it often does, it spilled down toward their children—a hurtful by-product of these homes. Among Mort’s most painful memories are the insults and put-downs from his mother. As a boy, she called him “you little schmuck” so often that Mort began to think that was his name. As a teen, he remembers a conversation between his mother and one of her coworkers, a nice lady who took a shine to little Mort.
“That boy of yours is adorable,” she told his mother. “And so bright!”
“Him? You gotta be kidding. That kid is worthless.”
She was just repeating the cycle. His parents were raised in an orphanage that was like something out of Oliver Twist. His mother and father each had a living parent, and the homes they were born into were violent. But what hurt most was being left in that cold and depressing institution because their families couldn’t afford to keep them. Mort’s mother was so bitter and hurt about being dumped there that she never got over it.
His parents were sweethearts at the orphanage and married young—his mother only sixteen and his father seventeen—just to get out of there. They worked hard, opened a neighborhood general store, and were able to provide for their three children, two boys and a girl, far better than their own families did. But what they couldn’t offer was nurturing and affection because they never had it themselves.
“I was a latchkey kid before the term was even invented,” says Mort, who survived on dinner out of a can during the week. At a very young age, Mort was left alone for hours at a time as he waited for his parents and siblings to get home from work or school, forced to wear a key around his neck to let himself in the house.
Being on his own in the house, however, was usually preferable to what would happen when his parents finally came home for the day. His father was a serial cheater and his mother was cold, withholding, and hotheaded, and the insults they hurled at each other were painful to hear. But much of their abuse was directed at Mort’s older siblings, and even strangers. When a man cut Mort’s father off in a parking lot, he followed him, parked the car beside the stranger’s, and punched the stunned man as soon as he stepped out of the car.
Mort’s older brother, Joe, whom he idolized, bore the brunt of the abuse. On one occasion, after Joe told his mother to drop dead, their father knocked out his two front teeth. A burly young man with a temper as explosive as his father’s, Joe emulated in his own life the violence he grew up with. Soon after, after a violent disagreement about money with his father, Joe walked out on his family to join the army.
“My brother was my best friend and he disappeared on me,” says Mort, who was thirteen at the time. He felt responsible, as if being a better younger brother might have convinced Joe to stay.
Mort’s reaction to the violence of the two male figures in his life was to be the opposite—a gentle, gawky people pleaser who lived to entertain others. Somehow, Mort brought out the best in these two men, who treated Mort with kindness and became his protectors. Because Mort was left on his own so much of the time, any crumb of affection they threw his way lit up his world. And yet he was determined to be nothing like them because he could see and feel the pain they were causing to others.
Deep inside, many adults who’ve lived with domestic violence as children fear that they will be like their parents, and this fear feeds their low self-esteem. But Mort was determined to be the opposite, as both a husband and father.
As Stephen Joseph writes in his book What Doesn’t Kill Us, throughout most of human history we have been hunter-gatherers, faced with all kinds of adversity: natural disasters, infectious diseases, and attacks by wild animals. These were the forces shaping the evolution of our species. “Accordingly, we are hardwired to adapt to those stressors: Our anxiety reactions are a legacy of our history. In a sense we are survival machines, programmed to react in ways that help ensure our survival,” he says.2
To ensure his own survival, Mort became that goofy, affable guy who could defuse any tense situation with a joke and a smile. After college, he used that gift for a stint in stand-up comedy, and eventually leveraged his likeability into a lucrative career as a talent agent. He took steps to become accomplished, despite his mother’s prediction. Not that he ever quite viewed it that way.
In his adult relationships, he aimed to please but always felt as if he were coming up short. He married a woman just like his mother—cold and withholding—and never felt good enough. She constantly berated him and questioned why he wasn’t more successful.
“I gravitated toward the familiar and married the woman who treated me in a way I thought I deserved.”
That fifteen-year relationship was just a continuation of what he experienced growing up. His wife was nonphysically violent. She cheated on him, lied to him, and put him down at every opportunity. Despite the unbearable emotional pain, Mort was under her spell. They broke up briefly when the extent of her infidelity was revealed, but after a few months apart he gave her another chance to disappoint him, which she took. When he finally realized there was no way to repair the relationship, she left him for a man who’d just inherited a lot of money.
The drawn-out death of their marriage sent Mort into a downward spiral. He started drinking heavily, gained seventy pounds, and drove his business into the ground.
But then something happened. During his wife’s brief custody of their children he could see the toll that her chronic emotional cruelty and neglect was taking on them. His sweet-natured son, the youngest, never complained, but he withdrew into himself. When his daughter, then in her early teens, acted out against her mother’s new boyfriend, her mother threatened to have her institutionalized. That was the turning point. It was at that moment Mort realized he had to intervene and become the One for his kids.
“I had to fix myself fast so I could be there for them; I couldn’t allow them to feel as worthless as I did growing up.”
BUILDING SELF-WORTH FOR HIS CHILDREN’S SAKE
This newfound strength and resolve led him to quit drinking. He quickly built his business back up to a level where he could provide for his children, got sole custody, and has kept them close ever since. Mort decided that the single most important achievement in his life was to be a father, and the health of his relationship with his son and daughter became paramount. Having experienced what it was like to feel worth less growing up and seeing the cold and dismissive way his ex-wife treated their kids, he felt a surge of compassion for his children. As they got older, he started communicating with them more, letting them know about their family history, and how it wasn’t their fault.
“Thank God for my kids. The other day I apologized for giving them the same mother I had, and they said, ‘Well at least we have you.’”
Today, even in their mid-twenties, his children see him almost every day, or at least talk with him on the phone. “We are unusually tight-knit as a family.” When he speaks about them, in just about every conversation, his eyes light up, and he can’t contain his joy. Their success and happiness are his proudest accomplishments.
DECIDING ON THE OUTCOMES THAT MATTER MOST
Both Caroline and Mort were proactive. They made it their business to find out what they could do to unlearn the lies from their childhood. Once they started to sense their own value, they gained enough confidence to begin to turn those feelings of worthlessness around. By taking the initiative and taking control, they managed to transform the lie of worthlessness into something true . . . a story of accomplishment.
Each of their stories highlights the importance of deciding on what outcomes are the most important in your life. What do you want to be your reality? Your outcomes. By exercising control over our own lives, through small everyday actions, we can prove to ourselves that we’re not worthless. Making daily progress through action toward the things we most want in life.
From the Lie to the Truth
Deep inside you are worthless—literally, worth less than others. If you aren’t worth keeping safe, if you aren’t important to those who created you, how will anyone else value you? You need the approval and recognition of others to replace the genuine lack of esteem you feel inside. When you don’t get it, it makes you feel even worse.
You established your self-concept, your sense of self, as a child through your cognitive belief system, which was the result of all the information you collected from the world around you. You believe the people who were supposed to be the ones who cared for you the most either did not or were unable to care for you. Thus, if they didn’t think you were worth protecting and loving, why should you feel that way about yourself? You saw other children being treated as though they were valuable, so you blame yourself and subconsciously look for every instance to prove the validity of this lie: that at your core, you are worth less than others.
I am accomplished.
I now know what I have overcome. I grew up without having my basic needs met—to feel safe, loved, and important. Yet I am here today. I accomplished something at a time in my life when I shouldn’t have been so challenged. I paid that price, but now I get the reward of knowing that there is no obstacle that I will face today that could compare to what I went through as a child and already conquered. I am invincible, unconquerable.
Whenever I doubt that I am good enough, I will remind myself of what I have already overcome and this will trigger me to take immediate action toward the most important outcomes that I want for my life.
Take the time to answer the following questions. State your answers in the present tense, as though each has already happened. Remember, a goal is a hope, an outcome is what happens. For example, “I have the loving relationship I always wanted,” “I enjoy my work and am making $___ per month,” “I control my feelings and they are pleasant most of the time.”
“What outcome, if realized, would make the greatest change in my life in the following areas? What do I want most when I think of my . . .”
· intimate relationship:
· physical health: