When I was a little kid my mom burnt my arm with a cigarette. Not on purpose, she was just being her usual careless self, but the burn was pretty bad – a deep circle that went through several layers of skin.
My aunt was there when it happened. It hurt like hell, of course, but I automatically shrugged and said it didn’t hurt. Without even thinking about it. I was probably only five at the time and the instinct to hide my feelings was already ingrained.
I still remember how incredulous my aunt was when I said it didn’t hurt. It has to hurt, she insisted. She was clearly puzzled as to why I would say it didn’t. Why would someone do that? Especially, why would a little kid do that, when little kids are by nature less reserved and more easily overwhelmed by the perception of pain?
Mom casually said she was sorry, but she was obviously not too concerned. She didn’t ask why I pretended it didn’t hurt. She was either unaware of the obvious fact that I was hurt, or was content to leave that fact unacknowledged. It was normal behavior that I was used to at the time, but today it seems unfathomable. I can’t imagine burning my daughter and then shrugging it off. I also can’t imagine not being really disturbed if my daughter reacted to a burn the way I did that day.
Why am I thinking about this incident now? I think that it serves as a good illustration of how I was taught to act as a child. Of how warped it all was from the get go. The lessons I learned early on impact me to this day. Unlearning those lessons is a long, complicated, difficult process, and I’m wondering if it’s a process I’ll be going through in some way for the rest of my life.
The main thing that I was taught was that my feelings were unimportant, and that I was a burden to others.
I learned that if I selfishly brought mom down with my feelings that there were consequences. Such as, violent, evil mood spells where hate would radiate from her very pores. Sometimes it would go on for days. During that time I was motherless. I knew not to expect any basic needs to be met – if there was no food in the house I would go without until she snapped out of it. I also knew that she was capable of any number of horrible things at any minute. Such as the time she locked me out of the house in winter and wouldn’t let me back in until I had gone to all the neighbors and pretended to be selling cookies for my elementary school. She didn’t open the door until I came back with some money, which she angrily yanked from my frozen hands as I was finally let back into the warmth. She sped off in her car without a word and I didn’t see her for days.
Is it really any surprise that I continue to have problems with taking responsibility for other people’s feelings? I learned at a young age that my very safety and security depended on me being able to please other people. When I couldn’t please my mom, she made it clear that her resulting behavior was my fault.