One thing about growing up with secrecy, silence, and paranoia in an authoritarian family is that it gets really hard to untangle the effects of emotional abuse from one’s actual personality.
Until recently, for example, I rarely asked questions. Part of that is because because so many of my childhood and adolescent questions were answered with :
- contempt: “You stupid kid”
- ridicule: “I can’t believe you don’t know that”
- silent treatment: absolute silence as if I had not spoken
- dismissal: “You don’t need to know that”
- anger: “Don’t ask things like that!”
- annoyance “Don’t bother me with that”
- mockery: “Why do you care about that?”
- impatience: “I don’t have time for this.”
I learned that questions are irritating, intrusive, inappropriate, and unwelcome. I learned that I would be mocked, ridiculed, and subject to anger or silent treatments if I asked questions or showed curiosity.
As I grew through adolescence into young adulthood, not only did I not ask many questions, but I would go way out of my way to make sure no one could know I was ignorant. At the same time, I had absorbed the family values so much that I also found the questions of others to be irritating, intrusive, inappropriate, and unwelcome.
See, the family code was secrecy and silence. Family first meant that questioning family was disloyal. To have a self within the family—most particularly a dissenting self—was disloyal. Outsiders were not to be trusted. I was told explicitly and repeatedly: “Nobody needs to know what goes on in this house.” It was always a warning and a threat. The message was twofold: first, talking to outsiders about family business (and everything was family business) was dangerous, because outsiders did not have our best interests at heart. And second, of course, was that disloyalty would be punished.
Over time, I had to learn that it is sometimes okay to ask questions. That there are, in fact, times when asking a question is actually the most appropriate thing to do. I have had to learn that everybody is ignorant of a great many things, and that there is no shame in not knowing everything.
But the way people interact around ignorance is often upsetting to me because of how people frame their responses. Like when someone brings up a new band or book or movie:
Them: “Hey, wasn’t that XYZ thing awesome?”
Me: “Never heard of XYZ.”
Them: “You’ve never heard of XYZ? Where have you been???”
Most of the time, they’re not actually trying to mock or shame me. Most of the time, people you’re already having a conversation with aren’t actually that mean. But this kind of phrasing, while perhaps (likely?) just meant to be dramatic or funny, sounds to my ears—my ears that are still connected to the ears of my six-year-old self—as mockery and shaming. “You don’t know that? Stupid kid. You don’t know that? Stupid kid. Stupid kid. Stupid kid.”
The other thing that happens is how people react when I make a mistake. I am smart, and I am efficient, and I have an easy job. So on the rare occasions when I forget something or make a mistake at work, there are people very quick to make a big deal out of it. “Oh my god, nissetje made a mistake! Let’s mark it on the calendar!” And the Mistake Incident will get brought up over and over for days or weeks or months. This is irritating, of course, because it’s childish and petty. It’s also irritating because I absolutely know I overreact to it. And it’s especially irritating and hurtful because I am so conscious of trying to never make any comment that could possibly be construed as shaming or teasing people about their mistakes.
It’s so cruel to mock people for mistakes! One of the big effects of that is that people are scared to take risks or learn anything new. This has been a huge lesson and journey for me in my own life; it never seemed worth doing anything unless I could do it perfectly right away, because I was already supposed to know everything. So if I wasn’t perfect, it was obviously because I was a stupid kid who was never going to get anywhere in life. There went the piano lessons, the baseball team, the decades in which I didn’t make art, the second university degree, etc. I never learned as a kid that you have to practice at something to get better at it; I was just shamed for making mistakes.
Now, currently, I still don’t ask a lot of questions, but I do ask some. Personal questions only arise in personal relationships, for the most part. And even then, I am careful. I figure if people want me to know something, they will tell me. (It doesn’t always work.) And I am not very tolerant of people who ask questions that I find overly personal and intrusive. As far as practice goes, and learning new things, I still start a lot of projects without finishing them, even though I am mostly happy to try new things and experiment. It’s hard when I suck at something I really like doing, and I will abandon things for months and years while I work up the courage to go and suck at it again.
I don’t know which traits are side effects and which are just me, and I’m not sure it’s really productive to overthink it. I know that being humiliated and shamed for making mistakes or for asking questions when I was a kid has stayed with me. I care so much about hiding my vulnerability or ignorance that I am often afraid to try things out. I make art and am frustrated that it isn’t perfect, so I stop for months. I get rejection slips from publishers and take it too personally so I stop submitting any work for years, and write little. Even though I know damn well that the only way to get better is to practice, being imperfect is literally frightening.
But the project for the last few years has been to do it anyway. My goal is to do some art every single day. My reality is that I get to it maybe five or six times a month. My challenge is to see that as a victory, not as a failure.
I don’t know yet how to address the worthless core, the stupid kid. Most of the time, I do see myself as reasonably competent and creative. I have wonderful friends who love me and whom I love. Despite all my fears of being exposed and vulnerable (and thus open to ridicule and pain), I take risks, form relationships, and feel both trust and hope. But when the depression and anxiety and PTSD symptoms get stronger, I slip on those dirty old clothes again and feel sticky and itchy with shame and the certain knowledge that I am not good enough, that I am no good.
So the project is to get naked. Strip off those outgrown clothes; be open and vulnerable. Ask questions despite the fear. Allow myself to be known. Deeply appreciate the people who make themselves open to me, and try to learn from them. Keep asking and growing and learning and doing. Make art. Keep writing. Become friends with uncertainty. bell hooks says “we may know in fragments,” which I take to mean that partial knowing can be enough to carry us forward, enough upon which to act.
“Don’t ask questions” is an invalid command. There is safety is shutting down and remaining silent. But I believe that wanting to know “why?” is a sign of health. I don’t have to be perfect, or know things perfectly.
It is healthy to be curious. It is good to look around in wonder and ask questions. It is okay to have only fragments of knowledge and to try to fit them together: not like a puzzle with finite and precise pieces, but like a collage or a mosaic. Like poetry. Like how friendship grows.
Authoritarian families (and other systems, like states) isolate their members and control their access to people and information. They discourage questions.
But questions lead to connections. And connection leads to everything.