When Childhood Dominates Adulthood

Meredith grew up in a secluded, economically and socially depressed small town. She was the oldest of five siblings and it was her job to help take care of them because mom worked and dad was chronically ill. Her parents were very domineering, and they made it clear to Meredith from an early age that she was not meeting their standards. During her teen years they reminded her again and again that she was not living up to their expectations.

Meredith’s childhood and into her teens was a life of hearing constant criticism from her parents. Their frequent scolding and emotional abuse didn’t help her develop much self-esteem or self-confidence, and she grew into adulthood believing she was pretty incompetent and unable to meet others’ standards.

Meredith graduated from high school and over the next ten years had two failed marriages, both to alcoholics. Predictably, she married men who treated her poorly. Because of her childhood, she expected poor treatment from men and, ironically, this was the type of treatment that made her comfortable. People who have psychologically painful experiences in childhood often find themselves as adults attracted to partners who re-create that childhood distress, which is something they are used to dealing with and that provides them with a sense of predictability.

Now in her 30s Meredith shows some insight into her problems and is able to talk about them openly and frankly: “Everywhere I go I see couples. It seems that there is no one made for me.” She adds, “Being alone makes me wonder if I think right. Sometimes I pray to die. Since high school the world isn’t what I thought it would be. I’m tired. I’ve worked all of my life and have nothing to show for it.”

Meredith doesn’t want to kill herself because she believes she will go to hell as a sinner. She says, however, that there is no joy in her life, only fear. She admits, “People are my downfall.” She doesn’t speak with others unless they speak to her first, and at lunchtime she eats in her car to avoid being around co-workers. These actions keep her feeling lonely and alienated. She says she doesn’t know how to get along with people, and if she tries, she figures she will fail and things will be worse than ever.

Meredith basically spends her days re-creating her childhood: She assumes she can never live up to others’ expectations, and she has put herself between a rock and a hard place. Her withdrawal from life creates a self-fulfilling prophesy because she does not allow herself to have productive social experiences that can re-program her brain. She feels so socially inept, and is so afraid of being around others, that she is unwilling to learn how to interact with others and just be herself. “I don’t care if I live or die,” she says.

This case illustrates several rules of effective coping: First, Meredith allows herself to be dominated by a concern for what others may think of her, something over which she has no control; Second, she is unwilling to develop actions in her present that will help her stop living in the pity parade of her past; Third, she keeps herself as the center of her life; Finally, she has not given herself permission to experience life. Although she continues in counseling, her prognosis is not good.

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