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Dear Dr. Saltzman,

After reading about the symptoms of passive-aggressive disorder I realized that I matched every one of the criteria. I have been told that I have a need to please everyone and I have difficulty expressing anger in a healthy manner. I usually keep it bottled up and avoid dealing with the person I am angry with. I grew up with a physically and verbally abusive father. I remember thinking to myself at a young age during a period of frequent abuse that I had no other feelings for him except for fear. I truly wished at many points that he was dead so that I would not have to endure anymore of it. I could not even begin to defend myself; I was fearful of saying anything after he flew into one of his rages and often I didn't know what would set him off.

He drank heavily off and on throughout my childhood. He would occasionally fly into irrational, violent rages after drinking and one particular period that stands out in my mind is finishing a scheduled after school sports activity with my sibling and not being able to remember whether he had said that we were to meet him by the front door or the back door of the mall which was a fairly good distance in between. My sibling and I raced back and forth to each entrance in a panic trying to look for him to come pick us up and finally after about half an hour passed and we began to realize that this may provoke him more, we just decided to walk on home, even though he had previously flown into rages for doing so because it was too dark to do so. He met us at the foot of the stairs at the front door and he had been taking heavy sedatives for chronic pain and had not discontinued his heavy use of alcohol. His features did not even resemble the father I knew. I never knew why he could look at us with so much hatred.

Reflecting on this as an adult with a child of my own, I find this even more disturbing that one could harbor so much hatred to a ten year old child. We subsequently received excessive physical punishment. He would appear disgusted if we lay cowering on the ground as he was shoving us about, telling us to get up on our feet and quit acting like a baby. He used to box when he was younger and recalling this as an adult, it makes me think that he was dealing with his 10 year old daughter as a sparring partner.

Although I obviously have mixed emotions toward my father today, the feelings I am most conflicted over are those of my feelings toward my mother who did little too prevent these incidents from my father. She would often justify his behavior by saying that we shouldn't have made him angry. When she was mad at us, she would threaten to tell my father about it, knowing fully well that doing so was likely to cause physical violence.

I should back up and explain that what my mother has told me about her father was that he too was abusive both physically and mentally. She may say this in one conversation and then praise him in the next and downplay the abuse. In fact, in recent years, she has claimed to have totally not been at all present when the physical violence occurred!

This total refusal to acknowledge these experiences which hurt and scared me so much has made me very angry. At this point, just for her to acknowledge that we were indeed exposed to physical and emotional abuse would be enough. Discounting that it ever existed or claiming that she was "out of the house" when it occurred makes my blood boil. During one period, I remember that at least some form of physical violence was occurring every two or three days. I even remember telling my dad to stop when he was hitting us at one point and telling him that he was a bully.

But her whole take on the existence of this abuse varies with every conversation that we have about it. It makes me absolutely furious when she simply says that we are overreacting and downplays what has continued to affect me as an adult. I felt really letdown by my mother because she was supposed to be my protector. And as mentioned above, at times she would, as I remember telling her at one point, "sic" my dad on us. This comment was made as a child in reference to the way a master may send his dog to attack.

In fact, she has conflicting stands on many issues and I know enough about psychology to know that this is because she too is a passive-aggressive personality, in that her coping skills involve appearing to hold no ill will toward those who anger her in one moment to bitterly complaining about them the next.

In her relationship, with my father, she has been the victim of verbal but not physical abuse as far as I know. I remember thinking to myself at a young age that my mother would appear more like a child when she was dealing with my father when he became violent. It was a side of her I wasn't used to seeing. She constantly sends mixed feelings and contradictory stands on issues to me and my sibling constantly, to the point where I don't want to deal with her anymore and I feel very resentful and feel very little trust in her because she is so flaky. One moment she can be soft, kind, and helpful. The next moment, without any provocation, she is sullen, angry and appearing totally uncaring. I am worried that I will carry on with these behaviors. The comical relief that can be found in the situation is that she thinks that her children are the ones that are up and down! Perhaps we are, but she can't recognize that our behavior mirrors her own.

Around the time that my the physical abuse increased (my dad went on unemployment for chronic pain and was home every day on his prescribed pain relief Demerol with little slowing down of his alcohol consumption, I began having problems. I realize this when I identified the year that he was laid off and the year that I began getting into trouble. I remember writing a swear word on a paint project at school to see what it looked like. Up until I began getting into trouble I was described as very polite and quite a daydreamer. I also had problems with stealing. Even from my own parents. Knowing that if I got caught I was likely to encounter some physical abuse. My self esteem was at a very low level. I was in grade four at this point, I was nine and ten years old and my self-esteem was horrible. I can realize the damage now that I have a child of my own.

I picture what it would do to him if I were to call him, at nine years of age, names like F*ckin' bastard, Useless piece of crap, or a F*ckin' disgrace to the family and thrown from one side of the room to another. I still have a hard time realizing how this has affected me because at the same time this was being administered, I was told that I deserved it and my mom did nothing to stop it and would in fact threaten me with my father when she was dealing with me knowing that this behavior would ensue. And yet she constantly asks why I have problems with self esteem and why I am so hard on myself. I am tired of playing this stupid game.

I became bulimic at fifteen. Both of my parents were highly controlling and domineering parents and I remember thinking that there was a relief in being able to control one thing myself that they could not do anything about and that was my eating. When I was seventeen and the overbearing controlling behavior would become unbearable, I began cutting myself with a razor blade at seventeen. I went on to suffer from problems with alcohol and drug abuse myself as did my sibling and I tolerated abusive behavior in my relationships. I should mention that my sibling also suffered from the same eating disorders, the same tendency towards cutting and the same abusive relationships. I began suffering from increased bouts of depression and panic attacks, when I was nineteen, I was subsequently treated for my anxiety disorder with anti-anxiety medication which my parents would discredit as everyday worries that could be treated without medicine.

At twenty, I was the raped by a male acquaintance who drove me home after I had too much to drink. My parents first response was that it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been drinking and made me feel like it was my fault. My boyfriend at the time had to explain to them the concept of date rape. What makes me furious is that my mother continues her denial by asking me (!) why we turned out the way that we did. Seeing the problems that we are now facing as the adults of an abusive alcoholic and a mother with passive-aggressive disorder is obviously too much to deal with and she has resorted to totally convincing herself that she has no idea how we turned out the way we did. She takes some sort of relief in the mistakes that we have made that are basically the result of a dysfunctional upbringing by focusing on these mistakes to deflect the focus off the accountability that she and my father need to be taking.

Please suggest to me how I can begin to deal with this problem.

ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman


Anger seems a normal and natural response to the obvious inequality of opportunity in this life--one child having supportive, sensitive, understanding parents, for example, while another has to suffer the kind of parenting that you experienced--but anger, while normal and natural, is only one stage, although an important one, in the process of coming to grips with one's actual situation. When I say "actual situation," I mean not the ideal situation that one wishes one had, but the factual, practical situation in which one finds oneself. In your case, as I understand what you have written, you find yourself an adult survivor of a violent and unfair upbringing who has to suffer with the inappropriate habits and outdated survival mechanisms which usually follow that kind of childhood conditioning.

To put this another way, the anger you feel, while expected, and in many ways justifiable, needs to be chewed, swallowed, and digested, so that it can change from anger into understanding and compassion, particularly compassion for yourself and for the people who hurt you. Until this happens, you will be paying a double price for your frightening and damaging childhood. I say "double price" because as long as you continue to react to both the past and present actions and behaviors of your obviously inadequate and troubled parents by becoming "furious," as you put it, you will be hurting yourself in the present (a self-inflicted hurt which is what "fury" really is) in addition to the hurt you already sustained as the terrorized child of those troubled parents.

You may think now that you would feel much better if your mother would only stop denying the "accountability that she and my father need to be taking," as you wrote, but in my experience this is rarely true. You will feel better, in my professional experience, when you accept the past for what it is, when you know in your heart that it is over and done, never to be changed and never to recur, and when with some psychotherapeutic help you find ways of living that work well for you now. As long as your feeling better depends upon what someone else (your mother) says and does, you have given away your power to that person. And, since you already know that your mother is confused and troubled, why would you want to let her have that power over you?

To reclaim that power over your own life requires living for yourself as best you can, regardless of what some other person says or does. In other words, you are far too enmeshed with your mother, and your still waiting for apologies and statements of responsibility is one manifestation of that enmeshment (to see what I mean by "enmeshment," you might like to read this ask the psychologist letter and my reply). When the enmeshment weakens, then you will feel freer to live in the present, and even to enjoy the present, and so then you will feel "better."

To answer your precise question, I suggest that you seek regular sessions with an experienced psychotherapist in order to get help in moving beyond your anger and into the kind of deeper understanding which often follows just after anger, and which, once grasped, can make surprising and positive changes both in point of view and in personal behavior. In my experience, a therapeutic approach called "cognitive-behavioral" often works particularly well in helping people to achieve the attitude needed for this kind of "getting on with it," so you might like to look for someone with training in cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy.

Be well.

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