I walked by a shop window yesterday and spotted this text on one of their t-shirts: Nobody is Perfect! I am Nobody. It made me giggle as I thought this would be an eternal struggle for my toxic mother.

If she would meet a sphinx and be given the riddle: Nobody is Perfect, what are you? She would be stuck! She KNOWS she is perfect, but I don’t think she would ever be able to utter the words: I am Nobody; she is simply too convinced of her own importance.

Keeping Up Appearances

For my mother keeping up appearances is the highest priority. She needs the world to see her as a community pillar, a great teacher, a devoted wife and mother. It is important to note that this is something she needs. She is intrinsically motivated to make people believe these things about her, to believe that she is perfect. So when something happens that reflects poorly on her, she will twist the situation to make herself shine.

Don’t confuse that need or drive with perfectionism. My mother does not need things to be perfect, she needs them to seem perfect. So rather than putting in an effort to make something good, she will expend the same effort to make it look good. It also means that she will stop at nothing to make herself look good. That includes making others look worse, in order for her to shine in comparison, or shifting blame for their short comings onto the people around them.

Making the Imperfections Work

Sometimes the reasoning is hard to follow. For example, when I dropped out of university after 3 years, my mother was horror-struck! She felt she was losing face because of me 1. dropping out of a MA course, and 2. having taken so long to realize I did not like the course… I had to move back across the country and lived in my childhood home for about a year and a half. I found myself a part-time job, figured out what course I did want to do, and enrolled the following year. Years later I found out that at the time my mother had spread the rumor that I had dropped out because I had a drink and drug dependency issue.

On face value you may think that me being an addict is worse than me dropping out. However where she wins is in me moving back. She managed to convince the whole community that she had made this huge sacrifice to welcome me back home, and had helped me rehabilitate from this. So she looks the hero, and I look the sad little junkie that could not cope with student life.

“False Accusations, Distortion Campaigns and Smear Campaigns can all be used with or without a grain of truth, and have the potential to cause enormous emotional hurt to the victim or even impact their professional or personal reputation and character,”
(from Out of the FOG)

Influencing how the target of the toxic person is perceived by other people (their community, family… you name it), is not only a way that the toxic person can improve their image. Additionally the toxic person will use these rumors to recruit Flying Monkeys, people who will help perpetuate and increase the abusive cycle.

What This Does To a Person

As you can imagine this behavior is toxic to say the least. My mother definitely does not mind making her spouse and children suffer the consequences of their imperfections that reflect so poorly on her. This has all sorts of negative repercussion, some of which I have finally started to understand. Growing up in an environment where your shortcomings are constantly high-lighted and judged, and your talents and successes diminished or even explained as problematic, has obvious effects on self-esteem and confidence. What I realize now is that these results are much more far-reaching. Having low self-esteem and confidence results in self-doubt or even self-contempt and self-sabotage. In daily life that manifests in a lack of self-caring and a lack of normal life skills.

Throughout my life my mother gave me a carefully balanced mix of subtle messages. They taught me that I was not good enough, that I should try harder, and that no matter how hard I tried I would never me able to amount to anything. So when I would go out to live my life, I would always believe that I would not be able to deal with even the most mundane issues. It meant that I applied for jobs that were well below my ability, and that I worked too hard at them to prove to everyone that I was worthy. These insecurities left me at risk of meeting people that would take advantage. I was lucky in the fact that in my life these people were mostly employers that gave me little to no opportunity within the work place, but as you can imagine that vulnerability has much more serious consequences for others.

“When it comes to emotional abuse, we are more likely to believe the victims will “just get over it” when they become adults. That assumption is dangerously wrong. Emotional abuse scars the heart and damages the soul. […] When it comes to damage, there is no real difference between physical, sexual and emotional abuse. All that distinguishes one from the other is the abuser’s choice of weapons.
(from You Carry the Cure In Your Own Heart by Andrew Vachss)

The effects can manifest themselves in subtle and seemingly random ways. I for example cannot seem to get the hang of brushing my teeth every night. It seems like such a trivial thing. I know I should, and I have periods where I get myself to work it into the routine, but I usually fall off the wagon within a week. Self-care is an issue for many survivors. This means that we are less likely to see a doctor when we feel off. In fact often we were not allowed to be sick when we were growing up, so we don’t allow ourselves this as adults either. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that these behaviors ultimately put me at a greater risk of more serious illness, but I am so thoroughly programmed that I find it difficult to break the pattern.

 I Am Me, and I Like It!

All my life I felt I had to strive to meet my mother’s impossible standard of perfection. Only now that I understand that this was her issue, not mine, am I finally able to see my own talents and treat my shortcomings with compassion. It is the realisation that I am still influenced by the upbringing I had, but that I can take my time to heal. I do not have to fix myself all in one day.

I don’t need to be perfect, I AM somebody!

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Having gained experience while working for a variety of European non-profits, I am proud to now work with SwanWaters. My connection with the website is not only professional. I am glad to tap into my personal experiences to help those who are living in toxic relationships whether with parents, partners or in their professional life. We need to make the world more aware of the devastating effects of emotional abuse and help more people on their way to heal and thrive.

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One comment:

  1. Profile photo of caziel

    May 27, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    Thank you for writing this. It is both scary and reassuring!

    There are things I am still only beginning to realize are due to the way I grew up and not just things intrinsically wrong with me.

    It is a bit frightening to realize how deep these things really do go but it is validating to know that I am not the only one who has experienced these same things and that I appreciate!


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