I was emotionally abused -- will I ever trust anyone?

I can fake it, but it's just a pose.


Cary Tennis
December 21, 2004 1:00AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I was emotionally abused as a youth and have arrived at adulthood deficient in some basic necessities for a lasting, positive relationship. Trust, for one: I am able to fake trusting, but it's nothing I actually feel. It's a pose that I decide would be beneficial on an intellectual level, which I then proceed to carry out. In many ways, I am as much a manipulator as my parents, though this distresses me in a way it does not for them.

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I am not antisocial and certainly get along with people -- co-workers, etc. -- without making waves. But I can't seem to take it to the next level. I used to think it was shyness, but now I believe I just can't picture anyone wanting to stick around for the long haul with me.

Is it possible to acquire these things with therapy or medication or something else, or is there some crucial period to learn how to bond with another human that I've missed? And why does abuse that doesn't result in any kind of a bruise do so much lasting damage?

Wondering

Dear Wondering,

Say that when you were growing up your parents were junkies and you never knew when the television was going to be hocked. After you start living on your own, you figure you ought to have a television, but you just never buy one. A friend asks you why you don't have a television. You say you just don't need one. But you kind of miss it. So you ponder this. Why don't I have a television? You listen to the little thoughts that run through your head and you hear this: "It'll just end up in the pawnshop." You realize that, to you, a television is something that always ends up in the pawnshop. If you had a TV, you'd always be expecting it to disappear.

Your junkie parents are flopping in a shooting gallery in Jersey these days and they don't know your address, so they can't come to your place and steal your TV and hock it. But still you can't help picturing that little corner of the flat you grew up in where every now and then the TV would be missing and that's how you'd know that your dad had lost a gig for nodding off on the bandstand or your mom was trying to quit stripping and was short on cash and they'd hocked the TV for a fix.

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And you remember how one time, for some reason, as a kid you went with your mom to the pawnshop, how the men looked at her because they'd seen her onstage and stuck dollar bills in her G-string, and when they saw you, her son, their faces showed shame and embarrassment mixed with a strange, contorted glee. And every time you think about going to Circuit City to buy a television, in your mind's eye you see those men in the pawnshop.

So it's easier to just not have a TV. But you can't really explain all that to your friend, right? And besides, you miss watching reruns of "Friends."

So what you do is finally one day you take a little leap of faith and go to Circuit City and buy a television and put it in your living room. The first night you have it you go to sleep wondering if it will be there in the morning. You go off to attend to your day and come home and it's still there. Day after day you leave the house and come home and find it's still there. Gradually, you begin to trust that television. It's a thin, brittle trust at first, but it's something.

This is how I believe it happens: If your parents lied to you and betrayed you and didn't show up on time, if they stole your money and called you stupid or whatever they did, you are naturally going to expect that to happen again. But you can consciously rearrange your life to accumulate experiences in which that doesn't happen, and over time that forms a new set of expectations. You develop a new set of positive experiences that retrains you emotionally. You start with years of habitual mistrust and fear and nightmares, and over time you replace all that with stable memories of successful, respectful interactions. I've seen murderers and drunks and people who were raped by their parents get better bit by bit. They still get fearful and have moments of weird terror and suspicion and out-of-body feelings, but the feelings pass and they keep going forward.

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You look at these kids who've known nothing but trust and success all their lives and you wonder how they got there. It's obvious: Their trust is a rational response to an environment in which trust was never violated. Likewise, your mistrust is a rational response to patterns of betrayal.

So don't think of yourself as broken. Think of yourself as somebody who needs to arrange his life to accumulate experiences of trust that, over time, lead to greater courage to initiate relationships of greater intimacy.

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