When I was growing up, there were many phrases I didn’t want to hear.
“Wait until your father gets home.”
“Don’t make things up.”
“You made another mistake.”
In a normal family, these statements might be bad (and certainly not good parenting), but not necessarily abusive (although maybe).
But in my family, they meant trauma. Traumatic experiences were coming, and I had to brace myself, dissociate, run or hide. These statements brought up all my adrenaline-fueled reactions to a ridiculously bad childhood.
That said, there is a statement that beats them all. One phrase had both immediate traumatic implications and a huge long-term impact. And unfortunately, it was used often. That phrase was,
“You owe me.”
Of course, that doesn’t sound like something a parent should say to a child. But I didn’t live with real parents. My parents were quick to remind me of the things they did for me. They wanted to be acknowledged and revered for those few moments when they did something for me. They wanted my undying gratitude for their moments of helpfulness. But most importantly, they wanted to hold it over my head, so they could use it as an excuse for their future abusive behavior.
And they did use it that way. When this phrase was used, I was unable to process their abuse as entirely bad. I had to see it as something different. It was “an eye for an eye”. It was my payment for their protection, financial support or moment of helpfulness. It was what I had to do to continue to expect my parents to do things for me … you know … be parents.
While this phrase had a major impact on my initial understanding of my abuse, it has also affected me throughout my life. And not just a little bit. This has been one of the reasons I have been unable to move forward to freedom, or break free of the grasp of my family. Why? There is no end to “you owe me”. As a child, I interpreted that to mean I owe them forever. I can never fully repay them. There is no way to freedom because they did something, anything for me.
And I have a part who holds this contract. I have written about her before. She feels there is no way to escape the past and the family. And most of her reasoning comes from this one statement. So now, it is my job to help her understand the truth.
What is the truth? They never did a thing for me. They were narcissists and were incapable of making a decision to help me without considering how it would benefit them. When they took me to swim practice, they were doing that to keep their image as a normal family. When they helped me with math, they were doing that to keep their image as parents of an academically-sound child. When they kept secrets of the mistakes I made from others, they were protecting themselves. They were worried about their own reputation. How do I know that? They used it against me.
And so I work to change that story held by my inner part. I let her know the truth. I explain how it wasn’t her fault and she doesn’t owe them anything. I explain the evil she was up against and how she could never have won that battle as a child. I have told her that she will never owe me a thing, that I will never use that phrase with her, because those who love us don’t expect that.
And her first reaction is anger. She is mad that they tricked her. She is angry that they wasted her time and that she wasted mine (she is compassionate like that). But there is a difference in her anger now. It is no longer focused inward. She is mad at her abusers. And I am grateful to see the change. She is learning that parents are actually supposed to do things for their children. And finally, she can let go of that feeling that her own parents were doing her a favor by doing their job … sometimes.
Written By Elisabeth Corey, MSW