BY Kathryn Spence
Accredited BACP Psychotherapeutic Counsellor, Accredited BABCP CBT Therapist, EMDR Therapist
12 November 2022
Note – I will use the words ‘parents’ and ‘carers’ interchangeably throughout the blog. However, this refers to anyone who is the child’s main caregivers (which can also include nannies or close relatives).
A child’s need to fit in is an unconscious primordial necessity. A baby, toddler, child cannot survive without someone to care of them, life absolutely depends on it. Babies are born with a primary desire to seek relationships. When our carers are fairly consistent, safe, attuned, caring and responsive to our physical and emotional needs, this helps us develop a safe and secure attachment and the ability to develop healthy self-esteem.
The problem is that no one is really taught how to care, parent or emotionally regulate. Personally, I wish this was a fundamental part of schooling but it isn’t at the moment. Children are not taught these vital life skills as part of their education. They’re generally 'taught' at home, and this is how their parents were 'taught', and their parents and so on. Generationally we just try the best we can, copying what works and what doesn’t work (because we don’t know any other way), or doing the exact opposite to our experiences as we didn’t like them! This is not anyone’s fault, most of the time we’re doing the best we can, searching social media and Google for advice and reassurance, but there’s still so many contrasting ideas and views on how to do everything.
How we Learn to Fit In
Children do not choose to be born, they don’t choose their parents, their neighbourhood, clothes, home, toys, school, hair cut etc. etc. etc. It’s all done to them (albeit because they cannot choose these things until later). They can’t choose the idiosyncrasies of their families and what is valued, praised, criticised or ignored, so they learn to ‘dance the dance’ of their family and learn to adapt – to fit in!
Sometimes this is to be a responsible child, a good girl / boy, a high achiever, a helper, a pleasing child, whichever way is conditioned in their family system and thus the child unconsciously adapts to their environment.
The problem lies where there is dysfunction in the household e.g. abuse, emotional neglect, scapegoating, stress, relationship problems, physical neglect, a lack of protection to danger, bullying. In these cases, it is essential that a child still stays attached. They HAVE TO, their life and survival depends on others taking care of them.
So they develop the Moral Defence.
The Moral Defence
This is a destructive yet essential strategy for the child. The child will internalise their parents’ ‘badness’ as part of them. For example, imagine a mother who is unable to tolerate a child’s distress (as they never learned how to manage emotions), and in these situations repeatedly tells the child off or ignores them, the child will not think “My emotions and distress are valid and acceptable, it’s OK to be scared, that’s a flaw my mother has, I’m OK”, no, they will learn to stop crying and manage their mother’s distress instead, suppressing their own needs, feeling that they are bad for having upset their mother in the first place because they are fundamentally ‘not good enough’. In a more severe scenario, a child who is being abused at home will be told over and over it is their fault, they’re bad, and they will feel like they’re the ‘bad one’, because even though that person is hurting them, they’re also their caregiver and life-line. The parent’s shame is projected onto the child so the child feels shame in order to keep it all a secret in order for the abuser to keep on abusing. The abusing parent remains idealised so that the child can stay attached, wanting to be loved and cared for; and so a trauma bond develops.
Our main survival drive is to create attachments to others – attention is a very important childhood need, we crave it from people we depend on, even if that person is dangerous. It is particularly complex when the abuser uses both fear and kindness towards the victim.
We mix up comfort, care and attention with the person who is hurting us. We also develop loyalty to them, which feels like genuine love and affection. This forms a ‘trauma bond’, where we want to have contact with the abuser and see the danger as normal. In some cases, we learn to 'enjoy it' when what we actually ‘enjoy’ is the attention.
To lessen the feelings of badness for the child (as this would be unbearable if this was all the child believed), the child will unconsciously adapt to their carers’ ‘good’ aspects and this becomes part of their own character. Moving from ‘unconditional badness’ to ‘conditional badness’. For example, ‘I’m OK if I’m… perfect, successful, please others, hide my feelings, entertaining, the funny one, etc. etc. This is exceptionally clever of our unconscious child brains to adapt in this way – it helps us stay acceptable in our family and we survive childhood. But it is so destructive too – it leads to the child having an internal sense of just being bad, their self-esteem is shattered and it can lead to an array of trauma-related disorders in childhood and/or in adulthood and future relationships (e.g. eating disorders, substance abuse, OCD, perfectionism, acting out in negative behaviours).
How to Free Ourselves of our Past
Firstly, we need to recognise the part of ourselves which protected us in this way and to be thankful for our survival response. Then we need to free ourselves from our past – to update the part of ourselves who adapted these beliefs and behaviours. Now we’re an adult, our survival is no longer dependent on our early abusers, we can learn to feel safe and gradually realise we don’t need to use these defences anymore. We can be free to be who we want to be and how we want to act; for example rather than always people pleasing (a lot of the time to our own detriment, leading to burn out and resentment), we can do things that make us happy and look after our self-care.
When our childhood was abusive, we need to know where the shame and badness actually belongs; with the mother, father, aunt or uncle, grandparent, sibling, teacher, religious leader, family friend etc. who hurt us. The problem was always with that person, it was their behaviour not ours that was to blame (not even the behaviours we had to do in order to survive this person, we were a child and only acting on instinct to cope). All children deserve to be protected and cared for, it was the fault of the abuser for abusing, no matter what they told you and no matter what you believed at the time. You were always OK and this moral defence served you well in part, but you don’t need it anymore, you have survived!
"I wasn’t bad, but what happened to me was" "I wasn’t to blame, [abuser] was" "I’m OK as I am" "I don’t need to… please, rescue, be perfect…"
In non-abusive households, we can accept that the actions of our parents were not intentional, but a by-product of how society doesn’t teach us how to parent. We can forgive those around us for not getting it quite right in certain ways. It certainly impacted us, but it wasn’t malicious. But the conclusions we made about ourselves as children were not factual or accurate too, we were ‘good enough’ and ‘we are OK as we are’, ‘we won’t be rejected if we’re not perfect, strong or please others to our own detriment’.
Permission to be OK as We Are
Once we give ourselves permission to be ‘OK for who we are’, treat ourselves with kindness and compassion, recognise our positive characteristics and qualities, then we can start to gradually change our behaviours and learn people do accept us for us. When the longstanding thoughts, feelings and beliefs that we’re not good enough as we are, we recognise them for what they are ‘old beliefs that are out of date and no longer protective as they were first intended to be’ and let them pass, acting in the here and now in ways that benefit us in the long-term.
When we Defend by Imitating Perpetrators
Some children, also internalise the abuser’s actions and imitate the perpetrators towards other people. This is the child’s last major defence against feeling vulnerable or helpless, whilst still having a strong desire to attach to others. If this is the case for you, then seek therapy and a good therapeutic relationship so you can learn to feel safe, not to blame for your childhood and how you learned to protect yourself. But take on the responsibility of your actions as an adult and learn to act in healthier ways towards yourself and others.
When we're in an Abusive Relationship as an Adult
If you’re currently a victim in a toxic or abusive relationship now as an adult, based on the belief that you are bad, not good enough, to blame for the abuse you suffered as a child, then I hope this blog has helped you understand that it wasn’t you, you’re not bad, you don’t deserve to be abused, no matter what anyone tells you. Get out and seek help.
Sources of Support (in the UK)
Respect (Men's Advice Line) https://mensadviceline.org
Respect Phoneline (for perpetrators of abuse who want to stop) https://respectphoneline.org.uk
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I am an accredited therapist and offer in-person therapy in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) as well as online therapy within the UK.
Please contact me to enquire about therapy.
Berne, E. (1958). Transactional analysis: A new and effective method of group therapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 12(4), 735-743.
Fairbairn, W.R.D. 1952. Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, London: Tavistock.
Harris, R. (2007). The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Wollombi: Exisle Publishing.
Nuttall, J. (1998) Fairbairnian object relations: The challenge to the moral defence in gay men with HIV, Psychodynamic Counselling, 4:4, 445-461.