I grew up in a chaotic household with a bizarre, usually absent father and a raging, abusive and hate-filled mother. Both drank, but sober she was even worse. We had to deny anything was wrong and no one helped me or my siblings. I bore most of the abuse.
Now, as an adult, when I come across bizarre or difficult people I become somehow paralyzed and cannot deal effectively with them. I feel a deep sense of shame. Part of me knows as an adult I can tell the person “knock it off” or “stop mistreating me, it’s wrong and I won’t put up with it” but I don’t. The few times I have tried to tell someone to stop, it not only didn’t make them stop, it made them angry and more abusive, which is all the more reason I’d rather just leave the situation or avoid the person from then on.
Now I am working for someone who seems angry, deeply disturbed and who basically insists on constant attention and fawning obedience over even the most minute things. She makes a lot of reference to ill-health and I sense that management is happy having her in this position and couldn’t care less how she treats the subordinates, and that she is somehow protected because of her ill-health.
I don’t think quitting is the answer at least not now; and really I sense that her feeling its okay to mistreat me somehow stems from my own reaction to her behavior. Recently, after she got sarcastic with me, I was deeply depressed for two days. I’m tired of being unhappy. I’m tired of being depressed. I recognize some connection between my background and my life today, but don’t know how to rectify it.
A: You’re probably right that your paralysis has something to do with your history. As a child, you were helpless to get out of the situation. You learned then that the way to prevent further hurt was to essentially freeze. It was a survival technique that worked at least some of the time. You never learned how to be effectively assertive because it was pointless to even try with your parents.
Lessons learned in childhood are very powerful. In our early years, we put down a template for how people operate and what we need to do to get along. We then carry that template into every other relationship. I suspect that you generally avoid being around such difficult people. That works as long as you can get away. But, as you are finding, when you are stuck in the situation, your old survival pattern comes back. The problem is that it doesn’t work in your adult life.
This is exactly the kind of pattern that therapy can resolve. Therapy will help you separate past from present and learn new ways to take care of yourself. Your therapist will help you practice handling these situations during sessions and will give you support while you try them out in your life. You will probably also need to do some work healing the hurt child you carry within so that angry people don’t immediately send you running (figuratively) for cover.
You’ve carried the hurt long enough. Please follow through. Ask your doctor or someone you trust for the names of therapists in your area who have a good reputation. I always suggest that people give themselves permission to interview a few therapists before settling on who to work with. The most important variable for whether therapy will be effective is how comfortable you feel with the therapist.
I wish you well.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 16 Feb 2011
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2011). Difficult People Make me Depressed. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 19, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2011/02/16/difficult-people-make-me-depressed/