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#299: My family likes to play a game where they competitively insult me until I cry. Is this a legitimate problem?

Chess game from Bergman's The Seventh Seal

I would rather play Death Chess.

Captain Awkward,

I’m having a family issue I’m not even sure how to approach. I don’t know if this is a legitimate problem, just me overreacting, or a combination thereof, but I’d appreciate any advice you and your wonderful commentariat might have to offer.

Right now, I’m a twenty-year-old college student living at home for the summer. I move onto campus in two months, and I have plans to never live at home again. This is because of a myriad number of issues I have with members of my family, and I’ve come to realize that the only healthy exposure I can stand is obligatory holiday gatherings. For now, though, I’m stuck.

The incident that triggered this letter happened earlier tonight during a visit with my grandparents (who are saints and removed from the cycle of abuse). My mother and younger sister have this game they like to play where they insult me and make an endless string of jokes at my expense. Anything is fair game: My work ethic, my intelligence, my looks, my major, etc. The goal is to see how quickly they can get me to cry, which is quite easy to do because I’m an emotional person who cries at the extreme of any emotion. When I inevitably get upset, they tell me to lighten up and that if I didn’t react, they wouldn’t try to goad me. Please tell me I’m not the only one who feels that this is worlds of victim blaming?

My adopted, physically abusive father played the same game before he left us. There was a point where my mother became upset when I told her a story of him playing the same game, unbeknownst to her, when I was five or six years old. I try to remember that she is a victim of abuse, too, but I can’t excuse her for much longer. I’ve tried confronting her, but I always back down because she’s fond of threatening to kick siblings (my brother specifically) out of the house. She has never used this threat against me personally, but I know that the moment I accuse her of hypocrisy, she’ll whip it out.

Realistically, I could probably go to my grandparents for at least a little while. If pressed, I feel that I could ask for their help. I only have two months left, so part of me wonders if I should just suck it up and endure. Another part of me wonders if I’m overreacting, if I’m really just being overly sensitive, especially since I should be used to this by now.

I’m writing so soon after the latest incident because I want to preserve my feelings of anger and sadness before I cool down and rationalize to myself that it’s not that bad, you big baby. I’ve done this so many times after their games that I’m afraid of losing the nerve to write to you later. I find that it’s easier to talk myself down from my emotions rather than do anything about them. I feel immobilized by this need to not rock the boat or create confrontation when I could just slide under the radar. I already feel ridiculous about this – because sticks and stones? – but it’s bothered me so much so many times, that I’d rather be told that I’m overreacting and go from there than just cry and feel shitty about myself.

If there are any words of wisdom you can offer, I would really appreciate them.

Thank you,
At the end of a short fuse

:GIANT SIRENS, WARNING BELLS, AND KLAXONS OF UNPLEASANTNESS:

Legitimate problem! Legitimate problem!

That is not an okay game!

The fact that you are questioning whether you should even bring this up as a problem is a giant red waving flag. The fact that you are not “used to this by now” is a sign of your mental HEALTH and RESILIENCE and PERCEPTIVENESS and ability to take care of yourself. Crying and getting emotional is a TOTALLY NORMAL, CORRECT reaction to what they are cruelly doing and saying to you.

I’m quoting myself quoting Harriet J. of Fugitivus here:

Abusers are experts at convincing you that your own experiences are not real and that your own instincts can’t be trusted. If you could trust your own instincts and experiences, then you might have to do something, like, move across the country, get a bunch of therapy, and tell your family to suck your balls.  So the abuser is very invested in making sure you don’t find out or name what’s happening to you. “That wasn’t abuse!  If that was abuse, then I would be an abuser, and since we both know that I’m a good person and not an abuser, you can’t have really been abused, so you better work on some other explanation for what just happened.  Let me suggest some:

  • You were overreacting
  • You are exaggerating
  • You are being a drama queen
  • You are making that up for attention
  • That’s not what happened
  • You’re just crying wolf
  • You’re playing the victim
  • You’re too sensitive
  • I’m strict because I care about you.
  • You better not be airing our family’s dirty laundry in public.
  • If you would just ____, I wouldn’t have to ______.”

Let me help you name what’s happening to you. It’s verbal abuse. Your mom may never admit that’s what she’s doing, you may never get an apology, and naming it may be more trouble than it’s worth right this second until you are out of the house and on you’re own. That’s one to sort out in therapy. But you can use the a-word with us and with yourself and with safe people, without question.

I’m sure you’re correct in what you remember and your dad did abuse your mom. Most people who abuse others have been abused themselves in some way. This is why knowing the reason for something doesn’t always help you deal with it. Your mom (and brothers and sisters, who also grew up in this environment) have been abused. They are now abusing you. That abusive behavior is affecting you like any plain old soul-killing abuse. The effect it has on you isn’t counteracted by the fact that your abusers have experienced abuse themselves. Maybe some day in the far future knowing that will help you put stuff into perspective, but you don’t have to forgive and justify right now. The reason only counts if you say “Mom, you’re treating me just like I used to see Dad treat you, and that’s fucking scary and wrong, and I need you to stop playing this ‘game’ forever now.”  Saying that out loud to her has risks attached for you, and only you know whether those are worth running.

Nobody gets up in the morning and says “I need to get milk, lightbulbs, AA batteries, cat litter, and oh yeah, tell my kids what worthless pieces of shit they are. Better yet, I’ll suck the younger one into helping me abuse the older one- she’ll do it because she’s afraid of being on the receiving end.”  Sometimes abuse is deliberate and calculated, and sometimes it’s a reaction borne of pain and fear and habit. It’s not for you to have to decide and diagnose what’s “really” going on. Just get yourself away from it to a safe place where you can process it and heal and worry about the rest later.

I advise:

  • Ask your grandparents if you can stay with them for a bit. You can decide how much of the reason you want to tell them. “Things are tense at home.” “I need a change of scene.”  Just get away from the toxic environment.
  • If you can’t go to your grandparents right away (or stay away the whole time), be out of the house as much as possible. Work all the shifts at a part-time job. Volunteer. Take up biking and being at the library. Find the most time-consuming leave early and come back late activities you can and do all of them. Seek out people who like you and treat you well and spend as much time with them as possible.
  • Keep a journal where you write down things that are good about yourself. Try to write (or say in the mirror, Stuart Smalley style) 10 good things/achievements/better qualities about yourself every morning and every night. You need antidotes to the poison.
  • When your mom and sister start in on The Game, try saying “This game is not funny, and I don’t want to play it anymore.” Then get up and leave the room if you can. If you’re not at home, make sure you keep a cell phone, cash for a taxi, the numbers of a few trusted friends you can call for a ride. “This is stupid, I’m going to (friend’s) house.”
  • In a really stressful situation, it will feel better if you can say something back instead of just silently taking it and crying, even if all you can come up with is “That really hurts my feelings.” Repeat it back in a monotone after everything they say.
  • I think it comes from the comments in this thread. Start mentally inserting “You think” before or after (however it grammatically makes sense) every mean thing they say to you. These aren’t facts they’re listing.
  • Start seeing a therapist or counselor through the school the very first week you get back to school if you can’t set it up before then.
  • Check out a book called “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?”, by Dr. Karyl McBride. She writes about surviving abuse by narcissistic mothers. That diagnosis or categorization may or may not apply to your mom at all (we here can’t possibly know if it does), but the book might feel very healing for you to read and give you some help in realizing what’s going on is not your fault and some steps for protecting yourself and dealing with your mom and sister going forward.
  • Start making plans to meet your future self in that small, quiet room. Take care of yourself first and foremost.

I am so very sorry you are dealing with this. This is a big fat bowl of Not Okay and I am horrified on your behalf. You are very smart to ask these questions and look for a way to take care of yourself.

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82 comments
  1. kadimonster said:

    Oh man, LW, I think your family is my family. That is NOT okay. I wish I could offer some good advice, but I still don’t know how to get my family to stop playing that game, so may I please send you some good thoughts instead?

  2. My birth family is riddled with abuse, and yeah, fucek abuse and the abusers who abuse. And yeah, you were abused but you still abuse. I was abused and I don’t abuse. So no fucken excuses.

    • oh, and i didn’t mean you as the LW, but you as in all the abusers in the letter

      • JenniferP said:

        I feel for the little sister.

        It’s not the LW’s job to re-parent that child, or make excuses for the kid. The mom has successfully divided and conquered there. It’s just super-sad and maybe fixable down the road once the LW is out of the house and the sister is older and had a chance to get some help of her own.

        • Nan said:

          My cousin used to do social work. She referred to kids like the little sister as “broken children.” She said when she did work, she always tried to save those she could help first. She’d take the kid being abused out first, because they needed it the most, and were the most able to be “saved.”

          After that, they’d focus on the “broken children.” Most of the time, sadly, they’d stay as they were, still abusing like their parents taught them, even though they were so young and still had so much potential. That, or they’re very similar to how you said. They push all help away until further down the road- and at that point, they have to decide if they’re too proud to accept help and change the way they are or if they really want to put all they can into change.

          • Thank you for introducing me to the term “broken children”.

          • PomperaFirpa said:

            Oh God, that’s heartbreaking.

  3. KC said:

    Oh my gosh, I feel for you so much, LW. I’ve spent the last few months going through the “Oh my god, Mom’s abusive!” realization-being told by other family members that I’m wrong and that my experiences weren’t real-“maybe she’s okay”-mother does horrible things that prove she’s abusive-cycle, and I’m just starting to break out of it and seek help right now too. I hope you can get out of the house for a while, especially because being in that environment tends to make you start thinking, “well, this isn’t so bad…” or “maybe this is normal…” until your family does something like this again. (Or your siblings may try to convince you that you’re wrong, which is what’s happening to me. Do not believe them, especially if they participate in your abuse.)

    I really don’t know if I can give much advice, considering that I’m stuck in a similar situation right now, but know you aren’t the only one out there, there are people willing to help and encourage you, and you can get to a healthy place, even if you have to cut off your family for a while (or possibly forever).

    The most important thing for you to do right now is form Team You and get out of your family’s clutches. If you have friends in town, get in touch with them and see if they might let you crash/couch surf for a while if your grandparents don’t work out. (You don’t have to give them all the details unless you want to.) If you have friends and/or relatives who are not part of the abuse out of town, keep in touch with them too. If at all possible, have a financial fall-back plan in case your mother cuts you off – is she helping to pay for college, housing, textbooks, anything? Make sure you’ve looked into some options for what to do if she leaves you high and dry for leaving her.

    I know it’s hard, but try not to worry about the siblings she’s threatening. If she does do something to hurt them, it’s her fault, not yours. You did nothing to cause their pain, she is lashing out and being unreasonable and hurtful. They may blame you for it because she does, and that’s going to hurt. If you still feel any love for your mother or abusive siblings, it’s going to hurt to leave them or have them be mad at you for leaving, but it will be okay and you will be better off in the long run if you get out now.

    We’re here for you, LW. Stay strong. You are right to call it abuse and you are right to make every effort to leave. From one person to another going through a similar situation, it’s difficult and it hurts and it may make you angry or cry – that is okay, you will get through it, do what is healthy and good for you even if it means you need to cry all the time or vent to your friends right now.

  4. Bunny said:

    What you’re going through is NOT OKAY.

    LW, do your grandparents know about the abuse you’re dealing with? Have they witnessed it, or have you told them about it? If you feel like you can do so safely, please try to tell them about it. If you do feel at any point that you have to get away from your mother, having your grandparents know what’s going on will make it all the easier if you find yourself calling them about moving to stay there for a while.

    You must be an incredibly strong, awesome person LW, because I don’t know many people who could withstand what you’re going through and still have the space to feel compassion and understanding for the people abusing you. You deserve a life surrounded with people who recognise that awesome and treat you accordingly. Please find a way to get free!

    I don’t know if you accept internet hugs, so I’ve got an internet Buffet Table of Kindness stocked with hugs, kind words, warm smiles, tasty drinks, and blankets. Please take as much as you want.

  5. AmyJ said:

    LW, I am so sorry that your family is so awful to you. Nobody deserves to be treated by that by anyone, but especially not by the people who are supposed to have your back no matter what. I hope you figure some way to get away, asap. Right now is not too soon.

    You know, I think a lot of people tend to think verbal or otherwise emotional abuse “isn’t as bad as” physical abuse. But here’s the thing: plenty of people are boxers, or wrestlers, or martial artists. Or heck, even football or rugby players. All of these things involve some level of physical ‘assault’ of another person, but they’re not abuse. Why? Because everyone involved is consenting. What makes abuse isn’t physical contact, it’s lack of consent. The reason people think of physical abuse as more “real” is because you can see the damage. But what really hurts is the verbal and emotional abuse, in all cases.

    I know this is something of an oversimplification, because physical abuse can lead to lasting physical issues (or, heaven forbid, even death), but my point is this: abuse doesn’t have to be physical to be real.

    • jenfullmoon said:

      I think physical is “easier” in some way because there’s evidence that you can point to that anyone can see that the abuser is a dick. It’s so easy to hide the verbal abuse, especially when most abusers can keep it under control enough to not dish out the hate until they get home or in the car. It’s easy to get gaslit into thinking this shit is normal, too.

      I read the book “The Actor And The Housewife” (I don’t know why, all right!?!) and the housewife’s birth family has a game they call “Fun for Some” that pretty much goes along these lines. “Fun for Some,” indeed.

      • I dunno about that. A lot of physical abusers are just as good at hiding the marks on the abused, and at getting the abused to hide them, too. Not all victims of physical abuse have black eyes to show for it, and not all physical abuse leaves marks at all, much less where they can be seen.

        • Y’know, even then, physical abuse still has more “credibility,” because if I tell people, “my mom hit me in the face,” even though there are no marks, they accept that as Real Abuse and a Real Problem much more readily than if I tell them “my mom told me I’d always be worthless.” Marks aren’t the only reason physical abuse is taken more seriously.

          But honestly, I think all abuse is emotional abuse. Physical abuse is, ultimately, an attempt to attack your emotions via your body. There’s not necessarily a bright solid line between “she hit me so I’d feel bad” and “she yelled at me so I’d feel bad.” (And although not as directly, emotional abuse absolutely can be fatal.)

          Which is to say that what’s happening to the LW is very serious, is Real Abuse, and I very much hope they can find a safe place to stay or a way to stay safe for the next couple months, because the hurt they’re feeling is real and not okay.

          • Oh, people definitely take it more seriously, way too often, and I’ve dealt with this myself, frequently. I was simply disagreeing with the idea that physical abuse always leaves obvious and visible marks, because a lot of people actually will discount physical abuse that doesn’t leave them as not-really-abuse. Some people will takes just about any excuse to discount abuse.

    • Dr. Confused said:

      That’s an awesome way of explaining it. My husband was physically abused and my best friend was sexually abused growing up, so I often have thinking along the lines of “I was ONLY emotionally abused, why do I still have all these issues and those close to me are handling everything so much better?” I feel like a whiner who should just suck it up and deal.

      • Chloe said:

        I’ve been verbally abused by my family for most of my life, and I thought all families were like that for the longest time. I didn’t even know it was actually abuse until I started seeing a therapist and she explained to me why she was so horrified that my family treated me that way. Even now, I still feel like what I go through isn’t quite worthy of being called “abuse”, but every time I talk about it with her, she is horrified at the way my family acts.

        So, yeah, physical abuse just seems more real to me than verbal abuse does. I know they’re both very serious and scarring, but I feel like most people just look at verbal abuse and go “yeah, people do that; that’s just how people are”.

  6. Bev said:

    “If you didn’t react then I/he/she wouldn’t do it” is stupid even if it’s true. And it probably isn’t, they’d just up the ante until you did react, and then use that same excuse. I mean, there’s room for teasing in the world, since it’s a bonding mechanism and teaches us about social norms, but if it makes you cry it is by definition not teasing.

    Also, you have probably learned a few unreasonable behaviours from being in this family (lord knows I did from mine), so you may want to examine those once you have space and aren’t immersed in that environment.

    • staranise said:

      Actually, it’s interesting that I never thought of this before: “If you didn’t react it wouldn’t happen”, besides being untrue, is INCREDIBLY disingenuous coming from the mouth of an abuser. Because its result is that the victim becomes smaller, quieter and more passive–a more perfect victim! It’s not only conditioning you to blame yourself for your abuse; it’s conditioning you to make you easier to abuse.

      Not-reacting is a good way to stay safe in the presence of an abuser. But as a long-term tactic to not be abused anymore, it’s pretty full of shit. Which is why abusers recommend it.

      • KC said:

        Wow, that rings so true. And I think a lot of abused people really internalize that and take it to heart, which is sad. I know my mother (who was abused and is abusive) has told me before that I got bullied by my sister and by other people as a kid because they wanted to get a rise out of me and I gave into them by crying or getting angry, so I should ignore them or just give in. It’s so crappy and it’s so terrible that we teach people to just ignore or not react when reacting is reasonable.

        • staranise said:

          I got told ALL THE TIME when I was a kid that bullies just wanted a rise out of me. It turned me into a quiet, anxious, insecure needmonster who was terrified to show anything. I loved theatre but couldn’t act, because I couldn’t emote with my face for an hour out of a day, when the other 23 were dedicated to “not giving them what they want”. Over the past year I’ve had to watch videotapes of myself and relearn how to communicate with my face.

          Meanwhile the idea of confronting the bullies, demanding that an authority figure help, or seeking out support from other people was off the table. I was told that if I stopped reacting, they’d go away.

          They went away a) when I started talking back, b) when my brother threatened him with physical violence, and c) when I said to my parents, “I hate this school. I am moving to this other school in a city 50k from here. You are helping me.”

          • Hallom said:

            Yes I was told this too! (See my comment below). And it is such terrible advice. “Don’t let them see that it bothers you.” So you try to hide it but it is pretty obvious it does, and that just makes it more fun for them. And more of a challenge for them to rise to. It actually escalates things. The variant of the advice that actually works is: “Honestly don’t be bothered by it.” But how is a 10-year-old kid supposed to do that with schoolyard bullies? And how is LW supposed to do that when the bullies are her family?

            I could go on for a long time on this topic.

          • Bunny said:

            Yep! Not once in five years of school bullying did my carefully learned blank expression and lack of a reaction stop anyone from trying. They just tried harder or escalated it as much as they could. Only thing that stopped them was the day I finally did “react” by leaping on one and almost choking the poor boy while screaming at him… I got given a lot more space after that.

            Not advocating violence, just pointing out the ridiculousness of the idea that “not reacting” is any kind of fix. All that did was force me to internalise everything. It either got released through self harm, or through eventual, horrible explosions of emotion and violence that made me hate myself.

          • PomperaFirpa said:

            I got told ALL THE TIME when I was a kid that bullies just wanted a rise out of me. It turned me into a quiet, anxious, insecure needmonster who was terrified to show anything.

            THIS.

      • It’s also disingenuous because the mother could just, you know, decide to stop doing it. She doesn’t need to give LW handy-dandy advice on how to stop her, when she’s already able to stop herself.

        • ladyquirk said:

          Thank you so very much for saying this. In the midst of apologizing for upsetting me, my dad always says that if I didn’t react, he wouldn’t do it. Because that makes it so much better. Not only is he asking for me to submit to his abuse, but he’s telling me that he does it specifically because he enjoys my upset reaction.

    • Lemur said:

      “If you didn’t respond it wouldn’t be so much fun for us and we wouldn’t do it” is bullshit. Healthy, ‘normal’ (non-abusive) people DO NOT take pleasure in making someone else cry. You know who does? Predators, abusers and all-around d-bags with sadistic tendencies. If they didn’t bully, belittle and attempt to humiliate you, you wouldn’t cry. And ‘you not crying’ is a Basic Thing to expect out of interpersonal relationships!
      My family did some of the same things growing up, and as a result part of my interactions with people is of the “playful teasing” variety, like, “I wouldn’t tease you if I didn’t like you”. *However*! I have learned to watch people carefully or ask them to make sure they take it as “friendly”, because I don’t want to hurt someone or make them uncomfortable! If I did, or didn’t care that I did, that would make ME a d-bag.
      Good luck, LW. You are not crazy, or a whiner, or exaggerating. That is bullshit and loving, healthy families don’t do it. Get out. You are strong enough.

  7. MusicSheep said:

    I am 31 years old and have just realized in the past couple of years that the reason I can’t stand my family is NOT because I am an inherently bad and ungrateful person, but because they treated me abusively and I inherently knew I did not deserve that. Good for you for realizing this cycle early and for knowing that it is wrong and not what you deserve.

    I also experienced a style of abuse that was “not abuse.” My parents told me over and over that it wasn’t abuse, and that if I wanted to be abused they could do that if they felt like it, and that if I called for help, no one would come because no one was being abused. (NOTE: This was abuse!).

    As usual, the Captain’s advice seems spot-on. I want to add, though, that the hardest part about this realization for me was accepting that my bad relationship with my family was NOT caused by my being a bad person/daughter/ungrateful bitch, as I thought for so many years. I still struggle with this a lot. I was also fairly convinced that all of my failings and problems would prevent me from being a successful adult, and that I was always going to be a complete mess of a person.

    Please know, LW, that neither of these things is true. You are not a bad person for wanting OUT of this bad situation, and you have enough strength and awesomeness to live a wonderful and successful life while keeping your family at a manageable emotional distance. I wish you the very best.

  8. Hallom said:

    I don’t have any advice to add but I wanted to stress that THIS IS A LEGITIMATE PROBLEM and YOU ARE NOT OVERREACTING. Actually I found this absolutely horrifying.

    “My mother and younger sister have this game they like to play where they insult me and make an endless string of jokes at my expense. Anything is fair game: My work ethic, my intelligence, my looks, my major, etc. The goal is to see how quickly they can get me to cry, which is quite easy to do because I’m an emotional person who cries at the extreme of any emotion.”

    Possibly because of my childhood this really struck a chord (cried very easily at a lot of bullying, which very quickly became other kids trying to make me cry … which also led into a lot of “boys aren’t supposed to cry and why are you such a girl” BS) … but I never had it from my own family and that is just appalling that they are treating you this way. So trust your gut when it tells you this is not okay and you should try to get away.

    Also why is the problem always “the person who’s crying is too emotional” instead of “the bullies are bullying him/her with the deliberate goal of making him/her cry”?

    Okay I can see I’m now getting too emotional and possibly overreacting. It did strike a nerve. But a couple of last comments:

    First, maybe you’re not actually particularly emotional? I’m assuming this cycle didn’t start yesterday … I think if there are years of frustration and not being listened to by people who are supposed to be in your corner, anybody would be on edge and prone to an emotional reaction.

    And second, even if you are particularly emotional, isn’t that a good quality? I mean, maybe in your circle of friends, people being too willing to share their feelings and feeling too much empathy is a major problem, but somehow I doubt it …

    • Also why is the problem always “the person who’s crying is too emotional” instead of “the bullies are bullying him/her with the deliberate goal of making him/her cry”?

      This is perfect

    • Lyla D. said:

      “First, maybe you’re not actually particularly emotional? — I think if there are years of frustration and not being listened to by people who are supposed to be in your corner, anybody would be on edge and prone to an emotional reaction.”

      Oh my gosh, this. If I were in the LW’s shoes I would be an absolute emotional wreck. Anyone would if the people who are supposed to be supporting them are continually chipping away at them. Especially if the INTENT is to make them cry and the very essence of such a “game” is to not let up until one of them “wins”.

      It’s such an insidious, horrifying cycle.

    • Camilla said:

      Incidentally, I used to think that it was a A Problem that I cried easily. It turns out that a certain type of shame and misunderstanding makes me cry, and then “I’m ashamed that I cry (might cry) over nothing” would take over and the feedback loop run out of control.

      At some point I came up with a script for “how a normal adult should behave when they are crying at an inappropriate time and place” so that I could break up the situation where I’m hiding the tears ineffectively and everyone else is pretending not to see them. After I worked that out the whole “I cry easily and that’s horrible” was replaced with “everybody cries sometimes and I know what to do if I cry” and frequency of tears diminished greatly.

      (It also helps somewhat to put some types of crying in context as legitimate social communication – sometimes it’s an active submission behavior, similar to a puppy who licks at the face of a senior dog.)

  9. Annie said:

    Wow…dear LW, it’s not you – really it’s not; your family is abusing you. I hope you can get some distance and perspective to see how NOT-messed up you actually are. Emotional? Hell yeah. That’s your survival instincts telling you that these people are endangering your well-being and you need to get out of there, but you feel stuck.

    This was exactly my life for several years. My mother, my brothers and an uncle (my mother’s brother) thought it was “fun” to try to make me cry. I spent virtually every day of my life until I was about 35 being told by my mother that I was wrong and defective in every way possible – looks, personality, and most especially, my emotions – and I internalized it and believed her. It’s taken me years to recover my self-esteem (oh how I wish the Captain was around in my youth!) That list of abusive excuses the Captain quotes? My mother said every single one of those things to me. Unfortunately, so have many other mothers to their daughters. But that realization, in part, helped me to see that the problem wasn’t me.

    If you are a sensitive individual, that is a GIFT, not a defect. The fact that your family is exploiting that to abuse you is effed up on their part. You may feel that your emotions are out of control, and for my part, I can acknowledge that sometimes I did get extremely emotional and felt out of control. Staying around that abuse will do that.

    It took me years to figure out that my mother was a very cold, narcissistic individual who was pathologically afraid of emotions. I was a sensitive child with an imagination and a soft heart, and I was a huge threat to her. I embodied everything she was afraid of, so she attacked me. I reminded her daily of her defects. That realization finally hit me, unfortunately, when she deliberately didn’t tell me that my best friend had died, and I almost missed his funeral. My friend’s mother (a good mother) gave my mother the information because she mistakenly thought that such difficult news would be easier coming from my mother. SO not.) It was difficult and emotional news that she didn’t want to deal with, so she chose to simply ignore it. And when I got upset with her for not telling me, she attacked me. Actual words: “what are you so upset about? You have no right to be upset.” “My best friend died!” “Stop being so dramatic. He wasn’t your friend. You have no friends. No one likes you.” What she did and said was so obviously wrong that after that, oddly, nothing she said hurt me anymore.

    I really hope you don’t have to go through something like that. But I do want you to know that you can, and will, eventually get some distance and you can get to a place where, if you have to encounter their “game” again, you can protect yourself emotionally from it. Part of it starts, I think, with seeing clearly what’s going on. Also, when you get up the nerve to actually call them out on their shit, you will feel good and strong, and not regret it at all. (One thing that totally shut my mother up once was saying that she was behaving “just like her mother”—apparently a sore point. Maybe telling your family that they’re repeating your father’s abuse might have some effect on them.)

    I do think that if you can stay with your grandparents, you should. You need to protect yourself. Also, it changes the “game”. Suddenly there are consequences to their abuse, and you’re not there anymore to be abused. You’ve taken back some power by removing yourself.

    I hope that college is awesome for you and that you can surround yourself with good people who value you. Use your sensitivity and emotions to make art, or help others, or change the world, or do any of a million things that you CAN do because you’re smart and sensitive. Many Jedi Hugs to you. It WILL get better.

  10. sasha said:

    Oh, I’m so sorry, LW. You’re absolutely right – this is abuse, no doubt about it. Making you think that you’re “overly sensitive” is part of the game. It’s what abusers do. It’s one form of what’s called “gaslighting” – making you think that everything (e.g., your reaction, your sense that this is wrong) is all in your own head, and not on them. It’s easy to doubt yourself when you hear this all the time, but no, trust the feeling you have now.

    I grew up in a verbally abusive household, and I can tell you from experience what has worked for me (mostly variations of what the Cap’n and others have already said):
    1) Don’t engage. Calling your mother and sister on their abuse will, likely, only lead to further abuse. Or, in your case, getting kicked out of the house. So, rather than fighting back or calling them, instead:
    2) Leave. For now, leave the room – or, better yet, the house – whenever you can. Take the dogs for a walk. Go to a friend’s house. Drive to the mall or a coffeeshop, even. Just get out of the house! If you can’t leave the house, then get up and move to a different room when they start playing the game. Preferably somewhere they can’t/won’t follow you, e.g., your room or the bathroom. If you make it clear that you won’t stand for the abuse – and, moreover, will completely deny them the involvement and reaction they want – they will (hopefully) eventually give up. This has worked wonders for me – my mother was so shocked when I walked out during one of her rages last year that she actually apologized, and hasn’t done it since (in over a year!).
    3) Really leave. As soon as you can, go Far, Far Away. Like hundreds or thousands of miles away. Be “too busy” to call more than once a week (if that). Build your chosen family of friends, and those family members (if any – maybe your grandparents, or eventually someday your sister?) who are on Team You.
    4) Most importantly, believe that it’s Not You. This one took me a long time to realize; I hope you’re able to figure this out – and really believe it – quicker. Abusers gonna abuse, and who knows why or how they choose their victim. If it wasn’t you, it would be someone else. There’s nothing inherently wrong with you causing the abuse – it’s all on them.

    Sending lots of Jedi hugs your way, and wishing you all the best!

    • thepaintedlady said:

      Second the “leave when it happens” approach. My dad is/was verbally abusive (he still falls back on those patterns every once in awhile though I’ve learned after years and years what works to stop him in his tracks). The first time I did this was sort of the beginning of the end of that being part of our relationship – he called me probably six or seven times and I didn’t answer, went and crashed at a friend’s house, and called him late the next morning when I woke up with “Let me make myself clear: this is what will happen every time you speak to me like that in the future.” And to this day, he yells, and I leave politely, tell him patiently that I’m hanging up, or explain to him very calmly that he has to leave now. The key, in my experience, was to remain calm. Even if you’re crying, which I still do sometimes, keep your voice as even as possible, and use non-inflammatory language. Aside from minimizing the amount that someone can be derisive about the fact that you have feelings, there is such power in being able to act like the adult around assholes who are trying to make you feel powerless.

  11. Just Claire said:

    I heartily recommend “Will I Ever Be Good Enough”. I checked this book out of the library and kept renewing the book unread. (I was too scared of what I had to face!) After many renewals, I couldn’t find the book to return so had to pay the lost book fine: more than the value of the book. Of course I found the book after paying the fine. Pissed I forced myself to read the book. A great guide to freeing myself from the Mom’s Not That Bad/Mom Didn’t Mean It/Mom Does Love Me Really rationalizations.

  12. LW, I went through something similar growing up. Unfortunately, I ended up taking on the role of verbal abuser in my subsequent relationships. It’s taken a lot of unpacking to get to where I don’t get amped up to 11 whenever there is a disagreement just because before…that’s what I needed to get through it when my family surrounded me like that.
    I hope you can seek out therapy, and kind friends, and a different model to base your family structure on. I wish you the absolute best. You aren’t too emotional; there’s no such thing. You are wonderful you, and your family can’t see that, or they are jealous of the way that you’re being successful in life. You keep on truckin’.

  13. “When I inevitably get upset, they tell me to lighten up and that if I didn’t react, they wouldn’t try to goad me. Please tell me I’m not the only one who feels that this is worlds of victim blaming?”

    Wow. That is the textbook definition of victim blaming.

    “My mother and younger sister have this game they like to play where they insult me and make an endless string of jokes at my expense. Anything is fair game: My work ethic, my intelligence, my looks, my major, etc. The goal is to see how quickly they can get me to cry, which is quite easy to do because I’m an emotional person who cries at the extreme of any emotion.”

    I wouldn’t do that to someone I hated. That is absolutely, 100% a completely legitimate problem. It’s *horrible* that your own family is doing that to you.

  14. Book Girl said:

    Oh, dear LW, I’m so sorry, this is indeed a legitimate and terrible problem. My family did the same to me. It is abusive, sadistic and cruel. There is NOTHING wrong with you that causes them to treat you like this. Please get some support in dealing with this. Therapy saved my life and my sanity. Decent people will be horrified at your family’s treatment of you.

    One of the hardest thing about emotional/verbal abuse is that it leaves no visible scars, so you have nothing concrete to point to to show what your family are doing to you. The emotional scars, though, can be devastating. You have done a very brave and wise thing in writing in to Captain Awkward, and your letter reminds me of her wonderful post about people who like you ACT like they like you. It applies to family members too.

    Please find people who will take what you are going through seriously, and who will support you in dealing with this, you deserve so much better.

  15. case-in-point said:

    Great good googly mooglies, you have an awful family. Look, for the two months until you leave for college, you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do to survive. If you stand up for yourself, great, if you pretend you can’t hear them, great, if you suddenly decide to start training for a marathon, great. There is no wrong answer to what you do to cope until you can get out of that house.

    Once you’re out, there is one thing I’d like to point out to you– those “obligatory holiday gatherings” are actually not obligatory. They may be difficult to get out of if your family is paying for any of your support, and you’ll get the guilt laid on you thick if you opt out, but I assure you that there are ways of getting out of them. Here’s a sample conversation I had with my mom, “Mom, I hate to do this to you, but I don’t think I’m going to make it home for Thanksgiving. I’ve got two term papers due and a whole slew of exams right after the break so I really need to stay here and study where it’s quiet. *mom starts in on the but you’ll miss Thanksgiving thing* I’m sorry about missing the family, mom, but I’ll be OK. I’m going to a small shindig the day of with all the other kids who couldn’t make it home.”

    I mention the holiday thing because my family is verbally abusive to me as well as being demanding and entitled to my time. I have found that holidays are particularly fraught because of all the stress and expectations that go with holidays and the amount of time that everyone feels obligated to spend together. Last year was the first year that I backed out of all the holidays, although I’ve been skipping Thanksgiving for over a decade. It’s well worth the effort and the guilt trips to me to be able to spend a Christmas without anyone making me cry. I’ve also found that everyone is calmer and even able to enjoy each other a little bit when I visit in October and in May (I’m so far I have to fly which I only do twice a year). But if the stress and togetherness of holidays tends to bring out the worst in your family as it does in mine, I’d seriously recommend skipping holidays and family vacations whenever possible.

    • Sheelzebub said:

      “Once you’re out, there is one thing I’d like to point out to you– those “obligatory holiday gatherings” are actually not obligatory.”

      SECONDED.

      Also, LW, I would urge you to surround yourself with people who treat you respectfully and kindly, and spend your free time with them. Including holidays if that is doable. I know that it seems weird to not spend holidays with your family, so I won’t tell you that you absolutely should skip them, but keep it in your mind as an option. People who enjoy making you cry, are being abusive as hell. And one thing about button-pushers and abusers is this: they do NOT like it when someone does the same thing to them.

      If you cannot stay somewhere else, then I second the Captain’s advice to be out of the house for as long as possible every day. I would recommend working a lot and socking away all of your money (and make sure it’s in an account that only YOU have access to). Also, be very careful with your laptop and cellphone–right now it’s “only” verbal/emotional abuse, but if someone is willing/able to make a loved one cry and *enjoys* doing so, all bets are off. Someone who enjoys that shit is just not trustworthy. Guard your privacy, change your passwords often, and sock your money away.

      I hope you’re okay. Many, many Jedi hugs if you need or want them!

    • LW said:

      I realize that it might have been a poor choice of words to describe the holidays as “obligatory.” While I know I can’t be legally compelled to spend them with my mother, I do wish to spend them with my siblings and grandparents, who are part of the family/holiday package. Unlike the past two years where I had to come home for several weeks each break because housing kicked the students out, I’ll be able to stay on campus through every holiday in question. It’s because of that arrangement that I feel comfortable going off to Thanksgiving dinner (for the moment), but I do appreciate the reminder to be wary of mentally obligating myself to events that could be emotionally disastrous. I realize I tend to do that, being the eldest and having this compulsive need to keep the peace at any cost. I’ll not be attending any family gathering without a very quick, very effective out.

      Also, thank you for the advice! I’m so sorry you seem to be dealing with a less than stellar family, too. Here’s hoping we can both have our respective peaceful holiday seasons!

  16. Oh, LW, I’m so sorry. The way you’re being treated is totally Not Okay.

    If you feel up to it, I recommend skimming through some of Harriet J’s other posts at Fugitivus. Sadly, she’s not posting any more, but there’s some amazing stuff there. I’d start by checking the “abuse”, “abusive relationships”, “boundaries”, “family”, and maybe “domestic abuse” tags. (Can you tell that I think your mom is abusive?)

    If you want to try to talk it out one last time, you could talk to your mom one-on-one, at a time and in a place that’s relatively low-stress. Maybe even in neutral territory, like a coffee shop. Here’s one possible script:

    “Mom, I need to tell you something. When you and [sister] make fun of me, it really hurts me. I know you don’t think it should, and I know you think I should lighten up. But I’ve been trying, and the things you say still hurt me. A lot. It reminds me of the way dad used to treat us. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but I want you to know how I feel.”

    Only you can know whether this is a safe conversation to have with your mom. If you think it might not be, DON’T. Your own physical, financial, emotional, and mental safety come first. If you think that putting up with it for two more months is going to be the safer alternative, you can regularly remind yourself that, once it’s over, you’ll never have to come back, and that you can totally give your graduation tickets to your grandparents instead of your mom and sister.

    • so-so said:

      It’s hard for me to imagine anything good coming of that conversation. Mom knows she’s hurting her daughter’s feelings; that’s what she’s TRYING to do. LW cries. Words are not clearer than that. And “I’m not telling you to do anything?” Why would you want to say that?

      “I” statements only work with people who either care how you feel or have some investment in the social rules that they should care how you feel. Clearly in this family, “mom should care about daughter’s feelings” is not a rule.

      I say this as a person who’s tried to use “I” statements in with my husband, and he just ignores them; it hurts more to have it confirmed that “when you do that, I feel hurt” is not something he’s going to react to or care about, than to take some other approach.

      All I have is the letter to go on, but I think there’s a strong possibility that if LW tells her mom, “when you play that game, I feel hurt” that her mom will say some version of “I know! that’s the point!”. And LW doesn’t need more of that.

      • jfs said:

        Actually, there might be value in getting Mom to say out loud “I am deliberately trying to hurt you”.

  17. jessimuhka said:

    LW, I feel you. Growing up, my stepdad used to goad me to tears, and then tell me “Are you crying? Because I can give you something to cry about.” I also experienced a lot of the verbal bullying the other commenters referenced with the same suggestion I ignore it, or toughen up. This is all bullshit.

    Now, as an adult, I’m occasionally accused of being unfeeling or a robot because I’ve been so conditioned to hide my emotions. That doesn’t feel great either. It’s like I can’t win, I’m either too emotional or not emotional enough. Journaling and trying to be aware of how I feel in the moment is helping. I would recommend getting away from your crappy family sooner than later though. Good luck!

  18. From The Back Seat said:

    LW I hope for your sake the next couple months go by as quickly as possible. That is such horrible verbal attacking that your mom is orchestrating against you that I am impressed that you have been able to last as long as you have.

    I am going to go against the grain on some of the (good) advice given by the Captain and others here and recommend that you do not go to your grandparent’s house. I say this because as saintly as they may be, if they have been witness to these attacks (the latest you claim was at their house) and they did not step in or intervene then they either do not recognize what is being done to you as abuse or are unwilling to step-in on your behalf. In either case, when push comes to shove they may not be in your corner when your mom comes hunting for you should you choose to walk-out before you move away for school.

    There are a few things I think you need to do now, and by writing the Captain you’ve already taken a step in this direction. Go find some friends and trust-worthy adults and confide in them as to what is happening. This is important because you are going to need people in your corner for at least the next couple months and truthfully beyond that even after you move away for school. It is also good to have a group you can rely on because should you find that you have to get out of the house sooner than later (either for a few hours or for good) before school starts, you need somewhere safe to go to that can offer you advice on what next steps to take. Also, assuming you are still a minor you are going to need some adult to stand in your corner should things go sideways.

    If you do decide to try and stick things out until you leave for school (and I hope that you are somehow able to support yourself while doing so and not relying on mom for assistance) there are a couple things that I think you could do. First, call them out on it right after the first volley. Don’t let it get past that if you can because you will still be calm to respond back with a clear mind. Don’t let the idea that she may “threaten” to kick you out of the house stop you. If this is a tactic that she pulls out of her pocket often then it is likely an empty threat and holds no water. But do confront her regardless and if she does follow through and tell you to get out then go and don’t go back unless you have 2 or more friends as back-up and then only to gather your things and then get out permanently. The thing that gives bully’s power is that they feel they can act without consequences or reprisal and thus feel invincible to do as they please. She may think that you will come back after a while because she believes that you need her more than she needs you around. Exiting and not returning will be a kick in the pants for her. And this is where having that trusted adult comes in (again assuming you are a minor still) because they are going to need to run interference when your mom freaks out that you aren’t coming back.

    The other thing I would recommend (with a proviso) is buy a recording device and when your mom starts in, pull it out, turn it on and set it down beside you mic facing their direction. When they ask what that is for, tell them: It is so you can record this abuse they are subjecting you to. They may stop short and will likely say that they aren’t abusing you, but do not turn it off until you opt to leave the room. If it shuts them up then great, mission accomplished. If it doesn’t and they continue then you have it recorded so you can give it to your therapist to help you work through what you suffered when you are able to seek that help. As well, when you decide to inform your mom you are gone for good and she asks why, you can play her the recording of her being abusive, then just leave. It can be a powerful thing to hear yourself saying things that were recorded previously. The proviso is that if there is any inkling of the abuse turning physical, DO NOT DO this as they will go overboard. That said, if you feel that the fuse is burning down on them and that any confrontation you have with your mom or sister might get physical, then just get out of dodge asap.

    I’m sure not everyone will agree with everything I said, but I do hope that you will at least take the advice and get some people in your corner now who you can go to when you need to get out, even temporarily. I wish you the best of luck when you do move on to school and hope that your future experiences there will show you a happier world to live in.

  19. Melle said:

    I’ve been reading through Making Light’s Dysfunctional Families Thread (latest iteration here — this may be a good place for you to get some support from others in similar situations, LW?). The “it’s not that bad” thing is one of the recurring themes in the thread I’m reading right now, and someone (and I wish I could remember who so I could properly credit them) pointed out something that gave me a bit of a “Aha!” moment:

    The presence of that little voice telling you it’s not that bad, that it’s not really abuse, that you’re overreacting? That is, in and of itself, a warning sign, because people who are genuinely not being abused don’t have to convince themselves they’re not being abused.

    In my case, the “Aha!” moment was not about my family, but about the bullying I went through in my early teens — eighteen years later, I still have a tendency, when talking about it, to minimise it, to claim it’s not that bad, that I was just particularly sensitive, etc., and, well, I don’t actually have proof that one particular thing the bullies liked to do almost certainly caused the agoraphobia and the panic attacks I used to get in crowds.

    Something else I realised: whether or not something “counts” as abuse/bullying/whatever is not about some objective standard of “If they do/say X, it’s abuse/bullying/wev,” because different people are sensitive about different subjects. Like, my parents and brothers and I tease each other a lot, often about amusing incidents from my and my brothers’ childhoods, and my youngest brother likes to call me “shorty” and use my head as an elbow rest just to demonstrate that he can (note: I’m 5’7″ — its not that I’m short, he’s just freakishly tall), and it’s all in good fun because none of those are things that actually hurt. If any of us were to stumble upon a sore spot — if my brother were to start teasing me about being fat, for example — there would be apologies and the subject would be off-limits for teasing henceforth, because we actually care about each others’ feelings.

    So the key issue with your mother’s and sister’s behaviour, to bring this rambling back on point, is not so much what they’re actually saying to you (although it does sound horrible just from what you’ve described here, and seriously, fuck a bunch of that noise), but the way they react when you point out that they’re hurting you. If I stand on someone’s foot in a crowded bus, and they point out that hey, you’re on my foot, and: ow, I’m going to apologise, and pay more attention where I’m stepping in future, because “I didn’t mean to step on your foot, so it shouldn’t hurt, and anyway, if you’re hurting, it’s your own fault for being so sensitive!” will not impress the person whose foot I’ve just stepped on, and will just convince the rest of the passengers that I’m a huge jerk. Because I would be.

    Your family is deliberately and knowingly stomping on your feet, and then telling you you shouldn’t be in pain and that is grade-A bullshit, my friend.

    (Not to mention, a common troll tactic: “I’m going to say as many hurtful, insulting, and offensive things as I can think of, and if you’re then actually hurt or insulted or offended, I win!” Riiiiiiiight. If the only way to “win” is to stop having normal human emotional reactions to things/events/people, I’d really rather keep “losing”, ta ever so.)

    • Your point about the “shorty” reminds me of a very friendly group of colleagues I once had. Someone, as a joke, called someone else “bignose” and she started to cry because, unknown to us, she had longstanding insecurities about her nose (which incidentally was a perfectly normal nose, slightly on the small size if anything, which is why it seemed a safe joke insult).

      The chap who said it was mortified, and apologised profusely, and none of us ever so much as said nose again in her presence. That is how normal, pleasant people behave on finding out someone has an easily pushed cry-button.

    • mintylime said:

      Thank you so much for sharing the Making Light link. It’s … sort of hard reading, because I want to hug them all, especially the ones who say “but it didn’t seem that bad or real” and say “it was real! it mattered! they were dicks!” while the voice in the back of my head says to me “but not when it was you”. I’m about a third of the way through and just got hit with a clue-by-four about “respect” because that’s one of my trigger things, even if I can’t remember how it started (see, it’s not real because my memory is bad, I don’t remember it happening, so it must not have happened).

      Ahem. Anyway. Thanks!

      • Kaesa said:

        (see, it’s not real because my memory is bad, I don’t remember it happening, so it must not have happened)
        Oh god, this is something that happened to me. I’m so sorry that it happened to you too.

  20. Oh, LW. I feel for you. Here’s to the future when you have a door you can shut against your horrible, terrible family. You can get there from here.

    I think the moment I saw things for what they were in my own family was when my mum told me that I shouldn’t be upset about being called “you stupid bitch,” because it was meant as a term of endearment. As CPP puts it: fucke themme.

  21. First time commenting, but this breaks my heart, mostly because you’re the me of ten months ago – I didn’t know there was so much wrong with my life until I saw a therapist for depression and the mess of lies and gaslighting and verbal abuse fell apart. But this is exactly the sort of thing my family did to me, right down to the jokes about me and flaws in my character, and then telling me off for being too oversensitive if I dared say they weren’t funny. (And then they called me slurs for crying. Lovely.)

    LW – yes. Yes, this is abuse. Yes, this is wrong. Yes, people who love you and care about you shouldn’t treat you that way. You are not oversensitive, or overreacting. You did nothing to deserve this. You have been hurt and belittled and put down and it is okay to cry, okay to feel sad, okay to not want anything to do with these people. Please, please don’t feel (I know how hard this is) like it’s ever bad to cry or be sad, because these people are putting you through a living hell.

    You’re incredibly brave for just writing this letter, and I applaud you.

    I just want to say – once you get out, you might not feel like it’s possible to go back to that environment, even for holidays. (I say this because I had no idea it would be a problem – I survived twenty six years, what’s a short visit in comparison?) I got out, revelled in my own space, got hit with my brain going “You have freedom now? It’s flashback/dissociativeness/panic attack time!” and started having huge crying jags/panic attacks at just the thought of going back home and being in that space. I still can’t be around my sister at all (the worst of my abusers) and I struggle with anxiety/panic with just being around my parents, although I’m getting better at managing it and spending time with them on a limited basis. (Therapy. Therapy is good. I recommend it wholeheartedly.) If something like this happens to you, it’s also okay. As other commenters have said, you don’t actually have to go back: required family holidays aren’t required at all. Don’t think you’re required to do them, because if one hour around them is too much, it’s too much, and you don’t have to experience hell again once you’re out of there. (Why would you want to? Who would want to?) And it is hell.

    I hope you can get out ASAP. The difference it’ll make is amazing. Good luck.

  22. Dr. Confused said:

    My family went through a period of doing exactly what you describe. Every night at dinner, either my sister and my mother would gang up on me until I cried, or my mother and I would gang up on my sister. (Yes, I participated in this. I was a child/adolescent.) It’s fucked up. It’s wrong.

    I would like to suggest that this is likely not the only thing that is fucked up about your family that you might think is normal. It took me years after moving away from my family to get a sense that most of my family dynamics are wrong and fucked up. You only ever have your own family as a reference, and it can be hard to put it into context.

    I suggest you try to contextualize your childhood and adolescence. Try to figure out what most families do and try to figure out what is fucked up about yours. Therapy might be the best approach here. Another approach, and the one I took, is to randomly blurt out to friends things about your family and see how they react. Some of mine that got reactions far beyond what I thought they “deserved” considering their apparent normalness in my family: “My mom took the door of my room of its hinges and left it off for a year, to punish me for the untidiness of my room.” “When I attempted suicide, the cops fucked the door up. My mom didn’t fix it until after I moved out, instead giving me a dirty look every time she opened it for three years.”

    It is possible to have a family in which people are not constantly insulting each other and controlling each other and having crazy rages. Or whatever is going on in your family. These things are not normal or everyday occurrences. And you do not deserve them.

    • KC said:

      Yes, seeing friends’ reactions is very helpful for gauging appropriate behavior. The way I started figuring out that my family was not handling things normally or healthily was seeing the looks on my friends’ faces when I told them that my mom hit me or described my arguments or the things my family members said to me. Just be sure you do this with people you trust and who are supportive of you – this is scary stuff and people have different reactions to learning about the pain and scary shit their friends have been through.

  23. GrouchyABD said:

    LW, it depresses me how common “games” apparently are for assholes who like to hurt people. My husband’s family used to play a “game” on New Year’s Eve deciding what other people should do for their resolutions. This denigrated into some not-nice criticism, and my MIL always calls people “too sensitive” when they suggest she’s out of line. (The behaviors have morphed now that I’m around, but are still there).

    I just want to say that this “game” is not some quirk of just your family that you’ve failed to adapt to– it’s a tactic, and they aren’t the only ones who use it. And to second that the key is finding a Team You who appreciates your healthy ability to have emotions and want to talk about them. All the best to you.

    • AnthroK8 said:

      This is such a good point. It’s not a game if 1) all the players haven’t agreed to play 2) the rules aren’t clear to everyone before they start and are consistent all the way through 3) you can’t quit if you need/want to and 4) everyone playing has an opportunity to win.

      Abusive behaviors aren’t games.

      Right on, yo.

      LW, I am so sorry this is happening to you.

  24. Vionolo said:

    LW, there’s loads of really useful comments and advice here, I’ll try to keep my tuppence worth as brief as possible.

    1) You do not deserve to be treated like this. EVER. Your assessment of the situation is right and it is indeed a legit’ problem. You are clearly an awesome individual, because only those of us who are awesome have to deal with crap such as the game described. You may not find it easy to believe in your awesomeness at this precise moment – it took me a couple of years before I finally believed it myself – but someday you will see it. And that day will be good.

    2) If leaving is indeed an option as you think it might be, do so. To do so quickly and quietly, as though making a calm and controlled exit from a burning building, would be my advice. You don’t owe anyone there an explanation, and even if you were to offer one, it may be used as further ammunition. You so don’t need to be putting up with that right now.

    3) Now is your you time to start working on your self-esteem before heading off to college. College was the best thing I ever did to escape my own situation, I just wish I had had my head on straight, so to speak, before I got there as I missed out on so many fantastic opportunities because of my abuse-related-emotional-baggage. Think of a nervy tortoise in halls – avoid!

    Good luck! You are going to be awesome.

  25. secretrebel said:

    Dear OP, I am fortunate enough to have grown up in a loving and supportive family. but I have many friends with dysfunctional backgrounds and I have sometimes been able to help them by simply reiterating that what they have experienced is neither normal nor healthy.

    I’m going to say the same to you. Your family should be the ones who are there for you when you are sad or crying. They should rush to you and enfold you with love and ask what they can do to make it better.

    Making people cry is not fun, it’s not a joke, it’s not something you should just get over or get used to – it’s cruel and it’s abusive and it’s wrong. Don’t allow them to normalise this abuse. You might not be able to stop them doing it but keep telling yourself that it’s wrong.

    I don’t know how to script a safe way to explain this to them. But I say this. That if such a day comes that your family picks on you and says cruel things to you and you don’t feel sad or cry – that will be because they’ll have killed off all your love and affection for them so that all you expect is abuse. Maybe you could find some way to articulate this to them or maybe they won’t get it.

    “Those have most power to hurt us that we love; we lay our sleeping lives within their arms” (Beaumont and Fletcher)

  26. Camilla said:

    If they’re that kind of people, and you have that kind of time, it might be worth looking around for a major chore that your grandparents could have you do – they would have to know both what your actual reasons are, and have something appropriate to your skills.

    “Oh, grandpa asked LW to stay with him and help him build a new deck.” might be a convenient figleaf for all concerned.

    You haven’t detailed for us (and don’t need to) what the cons of asking for grandparental help are, but doing something onerous for them cheerfully, obviates any doubt they might have about how bad your family scene actually is. (I also don’t oppose the general idea of just asking to go stay with them, but there’s other spins you might use if they seem like a good fit.)

    • PomperaFirpa said:

      “Scanning old pictures from the family photo albums” is a common grandparent-y chore. Younger people have the know-how of the scanning! (Or can learn it easier than most grandparents!) Grandparents have the knowing of who the hell is in these pictures! TOGETHER, YOU FIGHT CRIME. Or, in this case, have an excellent reason to get the hell out of your mother’s house for the rest of the summer.

  27. Revolver said:

    Oh LW, I feel like we have so much in common. I have always been the most emotional of my siblings (don’t even get me started on a rant about how ridiculously ingrained the fear of being “too much” is in women). My siblings still accuse me of having cried as a child to get out of arguments, or to win my parents’ sympathy. As far as I remember, I cried because I FELT LIKE CRYING. Something made me cry, and it wasn’t me forcing myself.

    My dad is very much the push-the-emotions-down-deep kind of guy, and would shame me every time I cried. Believe me, being ashamed about crying NEVER helps the crying stop sooner.

    Eventually I tried to see my emotional-ness as a positive. I tried to joke about it with my family. I remember, the summer between freshman and sophomore years of college, we were all at my cousin’s graduation. My dad, brother, sister, and I were hanging out, and joking about me crying. It got a little overwhelming, so I asked them to stop talking about it, and my dad said, “What are you going to do, cry about it?” That was the day I seriously considered driving myself off the road and ending it all.

    BUT, thanks to great therapy and great anti-depressants, I can recognize the emotional abuse, and am on the way to recognizing the big emotions as an awesome part of me. However, it’s not easy, and I don’t think it’ll be easy for you, either. I still worry about my significant other thinking that I’m just a crybaby, or that I’m overreacting. I still deal with my dad clearly believing I’m overreacting.

    So I’ll tell you what I try to tell myself: You are allowed to feel what you feel. You are allowed to react how you react to what you feel. Just because you are more visible with your reaction doesn’t mean that you’re overreacting. It doesn’t give the cause of the reaction any reprieve from being hurtful. Just because someone else doesn’t find it offensive (or as offensive) doesn’t mean it isn’t offensive (or as offensive).

    Hang in there, LW.

  28. alphakitty said:

    I second what everyone above has said: Yikes!!! Not normal!!! Not you!!! Get out get out get out!!!

    In addition, pending your ability to get out, I’d consider having an MP3 player with the kind of earphones that go in the ear canal handy at all times, and when they start going at you (and walking away is not an option) pop those earbuds in. Even if you can kind of hear them with the earphones in, pretend you can’t.

    Though as always, only if that would be a physically safe thing to do. Your call on that.

  29. Sarah G. said:

    Yup, abuse, and my mom was also verbally abusive. My dad molested me for 5 years and my mom verbally abused me all my life and you know what’s harder for me to overcome? The verbal abuse. What they’re doing to you is incomprehensibly bad.

    I have students who say things to me when they think they can get away with it. I pull out a little tape recorder and hold it up to them, press “record,” and give them a very grim look. It actually worked for a while. You could try something like that, but it could backfire. You know more about your family than I do.

    You can also call CPS anonymously, if you want, to report your mom and what’s going on because once you’re gone she’ll start on someone younger. BUT you are under no obligation to do so. It’s not your JOB or SACRED CALLING to save your younger siblings from your mom. However, you do have tools if you wish to use them.

    Me? I left home and never went back. I went homeless rather than sleep in Mom’s house. You can do that, too. It sucks, but it’s an option.

  30. “The goal is to see how quickly they can get me to cry, which is quite easy to do because I’m an emotional person who cries at the extreme of any emotion.”

    LW, I don’t know you and I don’t know how easily you cry, but people have made fun of me for crying at pictures of Obama hugging babies, or the end of Dragonheart, and I want to say: people cry as much and as often and at whatever stimuli they cry. You are not a ball of irrational emotion for crying, and you may not be as emotional by nature as you think. Abuse kind of lurks under things and rears up in unexpected places (e.g. the reason pictures of Obama holding babies make me cry is because I had a terrible relationship with my father and seeing a tender male parent always makes me incredibly sad).

    TL;DR: you may not be as much of a crier by nature as you think you are, but even if you are, that is a legit way to be, and anyone who gives you shit about it, and any self-shaming you might do about it, is unfair.

    *crier fistbump*

  31. Elisabeth said:

    LW, I just want to be another voice saying “what they are doing is wrong and abusive and you are ABSOLUTELY not overreacting.” I can’t improve on the Captain’s advice, so take what you can from that and take care of yourself and go with the hopes and encouragement of all of us to make things better. You do not deserve to be treated this way. NO ONE deserves to be treated this way.

  32. 123Bee said:

    Your family sounds just like my family. My father was and still is verbally and physically abusive to my siblings. At one point or another all of us have gained up on each other with the intent to make each other cry (kind of like I’m going to inflict pain on you to get back at you for the pain you’ve caused me). It was a horrible cycle. I thought this was normal until I got into college and realized how happy and at peace I was and it was all because I wasn’t near my family anymore. In hindsight, it was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me. With the exception of my freshman year, I never returned home for the summers. I stayed in college, took extra classes, worked, and hung out with friends. It was great. Whenever there was a holiday and I went back, the verbal abuse started all over again. If it wasn’t towards me, it was towards my siblings. If it wasn’t my father being verbally abusive to us, it was my siblings being verbally abusive to each other.

    We are all adults now and my father and my younger sister constantly pick on everybody in our family. I consider them to be the most unhappy people I have ever met. They are constantly blaming other people for their problems and make it a point to bring up other people’s inadequacies as if they have none of their own. It’s taken me years of therapy to come to the realization that they will never change nor will they give me the love I deserve. I’ve given myself the love I’ve been missing by surrounding myself with people who respect and love who I am. Most of these people are not my family. I am also in the process of changing my inner dialogue because my father and sister not only verbally abused me, but they also got deep into my head and made me doubt my own feelings. It’s taken me years of counseling and repeating affirmations to regain control over my emotions and to trust that my feelings are valid. They really did a mind-fuck on me. Now, I set boundaries and keep my distance. My family and I live in different states, so the “I gotta go,” thing works for me or the “I don’t have the money to visit” thing also works. They give me shit for it, but I don’t care.

    It’ not all roses. I am not completely “over it.” I sometimes find myself trying to please them (by buying them things) to gain their love, but I know they aren’t capable of giving it to me. It really does feel like a death when you come to the realization that the family you want and the family you have are two different things.

    The truth is your family may never change. They may continue to be verbally abusive to you for years to come. I am a huge advocate of counseling. Sometimes we need the validation from another individual to know that what we are feeling isn’t crazy and you can get this from counseling. They should have services available at your college should you decide to see a therapist. Good luck to you.

  33. OOOOOOOOHHHHHHH MYYYYYY GOD. I can’t handle pity, for I can only think of wrath.

    THis is a spectacular evil done for no greater purpose, and it seems odd that anyone would even derive enjoyment from it. You should cut off your own pity and sympathy for it seems your parents never thought of it. Escape, or if you can, oppose, but do not under any circumstance surrender again,

  34. Kaesa said:

    LW, you are not overreacting. You also aren’t “overly sensitive,” although this kind of thing may continue to be a sore spot for you because your family did this to you. Try not to beat yourself up about it.

    My first reaction to this letter was INCOHERENT RAGE, because WHO THE FUCK DOES THIS KIND OF THING TO THEIR KID? Then I remembered that actually, um, my mom has done this kind of thing to her kid, or she did until I moved out. (She never framed it as a game, though, or got other people in on it. That is supremely awful. I am so sorry, LW.) Now she disowns me once a year or so (I need a ten-punch card, really), but now that I’ve moved out and am relatively independent, I don’t have to listen to her verbal abuse, so she doesn’t actually verbally abuse me anymore, she just kind of formally fires me from the position of her daughter.

    I want to give you all the Jedi hugs, because even as you read the responses to your letter, you might thinking “Oh, but I presented all the worst things about my family, it’s not THAT bad, I was just angry when I wrote in, remember the time they did a nice thing for me? That totally cancels this out!” That is the self-loathing gnomes/jerkbrain/gaslighting talking. It is absolutely that bad. Also, hey, that time they did a nice thing for you? Sure, I guess it was nice of them, but they are your family, they should treat you nicely, and it sure as hell doesn’t cancel out that this thing they are doing to you is completely, utterly reprehensible.

    Please make the plans you need to to give yourself some breathing room for now, and do what you need to do to survive. I third the Will I Ever Be Good Enough? book rec. It’s on Kindle (and possibly in other ebook formats), if you can afford it, have your own computer or e-reader, and are worried about your family finding the physical book. (If you have a communal computer but an Amazon.com account, you may be able to read it on their website without downloading any software, as long as you don’t leave yourself signed in.)

    Good luck, LW. You deserve so much better than this.

  35. PomperaFirpa said:

    Oh, honey. Oh, honey. That is not a game. A game is where two people play together, like tennis. This, if it were trying to be tennis, would have two people on one side of the court hitting balls as hard as they could at one person on the other side who has no racquet and who didn’t agree to be on the court in the first place. That is not a game, that is savagery.

    Before anything else, remember this: your reactions are not what cause this. Not ever. Nothing you do can cause this. Nothing you don’t do can cause this. Even if the word “abuse” never enters into it, your mom is being a bullying ass who’s trying to get her self-esteem-boosting jollies off of making you cry. (Which really– what the hell? There’s no challenge in making your own child cry; YOU INSTALLED ALL THE BUTTONS, WHY ARE YOU SO PROUD THAT YOU KNOW HOW TO PUSH THEM? Low bar for feeling accomplished there.)

    So your mom is an asshole! You are in great company on that one. I’m also impressed at the threatening to throw her kids out of the house part. My dad, no slouch in the emotional abuse department himself, used to pull something similar– not exactly the same, but the “I have all the financial power here, which is why you should not fuck up AT ALL” kind of threat. It was at its worst when I was about mid-way through college, and he was still hurt and surprised when I honestly said I didn’t miss him when I was at school.

    You’re not overreacting. You’re not being over-emotional. You are having emotions in appropriate proportion to the fact that your own mother and sister get their kicks out of insulting everything about you in order to make you cry. They are doing something that hurts you. For fun. Repeatedly. SWEET FANCY MOSES, THAT IS FUCKED UP.

    Look, every parent has a moment when their kids start biting and hitting each other where they have to explain “just because your sister makes a hilarious noise when you thump her on the head with your truck, you still don’t get to do it, because your jollies are not more important than her head.” (More than a moment. Like… a few decades, actually.) This is basic stuff. This is stuff that people start learning when they aren’t even out of diapers. And this is exactly the same thing as what’s going on here.

    I am not great with the practical advice here, I can only say that you are strong, and you are smart, and you are going to get through this, and it is so goddamn wrong that your own mother and sister are fucking with your head. I’m so sorry. Lots of love and jedi hugs in your direction.

  36. alphakitty said:

    Let me also say this: I have 2 teenagers. One enjoys teasing, as long as it is the witty wordplay kind that’s about catching an opening for a zing and has nothing to do with real or perceived faults or the soft underbelly we all have. The other hates it, no matter how playfully intended; teasing just does not roll off this one, it soaks in and hurts. She’s always been that way, even when the teasing is from someone whose opinion of her she values not at all.

    So we DON’T tease the more sensitive one! We DON’T say, “let’s tease her more because she’s so susceptible!”

    And we would never, ever, pick at either one of them and make them cry in the guise of “fun” or “teasing.”

    Parents are not supposed to hurt their kids. Period.

  37. Mike said:

    My family was abusive, but there was an undercurrent of caring. This caring was mixed in with a lot of abuse. The trick is to get the caring, without the abuse.

    Don’t entirely burn your bridges, but do get out. I went to college, then signed up for summer programs every year. To my mum this looked like I was going out and exploring the world, which was true, but it also meant that I spent 2-3 days a year at home. Then I started grad school in another college very far away from home. Again 2-3 days home visits a year.

    Other tricks are to sign a 12 month contract in your college accommodation, so you “might as well” stay in your college town.

    The main benefit is that mum is nice when she sees me, because it is so rare. However more importantly, she has paid off all of my student debt. This would not have happened if I had cried “ABUSER!!!” and run off to grandma.

    If I had left earlier, I might have been more healthy psychologically, but I doubt it. Cutting yourself off from your family is a big deal and I would never advise someone to do it, unless I had done it myself.

    Just keep reminding yourself that their behaviour is wrong, and you deserve much better.

    • Keely said:

      Caring + abuse. Such a familiar and sickening combo.

      True story: I was actually sitting here composing a comment when my mother called. We haven’t had a major fight in a couple years, but I still limit contact to once-a-week ish because I still find dealing with her to be rather stressful. However, most of our calls go smoothly, as did this one. She was caring, interested in my life, and as always, proud of me. (I’m on the opposite coast for grad school. Total coincidence I assure you.) She noted that it had been ages (read: more than a week but less than two) since we last talked and that she missed me, but there was no further whining or guilt-tripping.

      And so when I got off the phone, I was tempted not to comment anymore. “Why pick at old wounds,” I told myself. “Things are fine now, and were they really that bad to begin with?”

      Except the answer is: “Yes, yes they were.”

      The problem is, they were… but not consistently. I have seen my mother totally go to bat for us kids (5 of us) repeatedly throughout my life. I’ve seen my father with tears in eyes at my graduations, read heartfelt notes he’s written for such occasions telling me how proud he is. But that is the same mother who has been known to “borrow” money from her children’s bank accounts without permission or even warning, only to accuse us of being ungrateful or bad children when we inquire about it. It’s the same father who would yell until we cried and then berate us for crying. The parents that gave me “double kisses” (each one kissing one of my cheeks as I giggled and asked for more)when I happily squirmed between them in bed on weekend mornings when I was little… those same parents have compared each of my siblings and I unfavorably to one another as a twisted attempt at discipline (why can’t you be more like X?”) and also ranted about how one of us was “betraying the family” in front of the rest of us… to the point that it has fostered a great deal of resentment and damaged our relationships with each other.

      My family is lovely in many, many ways. Under the best of conditions, my siblings and I can have great fun together, and we have many lovely family traditions that we truly enjoy. And we give hugs and love and I truly do believe we all want the best for each other, for the most part. But on the flip side, we have traditions that are ugly. It pretty much became a rite of passage in my house to have mom steal your money and then gaslight you when you try to get it back. It’s generally accepted that our teasing often has an edge, and while crying isn’t the goal, if it happens it’s because you’re ‘too sensitive’.

      To this day, I really don’t know what to do with my sometimes-super-shitty-sometimes-lovely family. On the one hand, I can’t really deny anymore the fucked-up-ness of a lot of my interactions with my family, and I can even draw clear links between shit that went on in my house and behaviors/thoughts that I still struggle with. On the other hand, I have parents who call just to ask how I’m doing, who send the occasional care package or help pay medical bills.

      I have a good family, and an abusive family, and they’re both the same family. I’ve been in therapy on and off for years(depression and anxiety, yay), and I still don’t feel like I’ll ever stop feeling confused and betrayed by that paradox. I draw the boundaries I need to feel comfortable, I engage on my own terms, and when I go to visit once or twice a year I cross my fingers and hope that in the brief time I’m there, I won’t have to witness my dad yelling (or calmly lecturing, that can be just as bad) at someone until they cry, or hear my mother scream at someone for being a worthless, ungrateful, unloving son/daughter. And I try not to feel too guilty for being unable to fix it.

      People are messy, sometimes ugly things. I’m glad I had a happy childhood at least some of the time, but at this point in my life it would almost be easier to have 100% evil, worthless parents, that I could cut out of my life and move on. Abusers with a capital A. But I don’t. I just have a dad who learned “tough love” and a disdain for emotions from his own father. I have a mom who lost her own parents at 18 and has spent the next 30 years of her life helplessly trying to please a mother who isn’t even there anymore. None of that makes any of their shit okay… but I have to try to salvage something.

  38. BadDaughter said:

    I’ve been reading for a little while, and I feel the need to comment now. My family played that game (except that with them, it was never overtly framed as a game — as with all their “games,” the rules were unspoken and thus deniable).

    It is absolutely abuse.

    And I also have to reply to the commenter who spoke disparagingly of “crying abuser and running off to grandma.” (My grandmother provided me refuge from abuse and was the only family I had who loved me unconditionally.)

    Neither of my parents laid a hand on me. (They refused to believe me when I told them about the sexual abuse of another family member, but that’s another story.) But the household I grew up in was poisonous. I barely got out with my life.

    I credit my current status as a reasonably functioning human being with a really happy relationship, a job, and a decent ability to beat back the horrible voices in my head to the fact that I have not had any contact with my family of birth for the last eighteen years.

    Perhaps this makes me a bad human being. I left. I fled. I scraped their name off me like an identifying tag.

    But the fact of the matter is that I don’t care, because that’s what I had to do in order to keep breathing. It’s not actually that bad, being a bad daughter. At least I’m still alive.

    I want to tell the letter writer that this kind of abuse is never, ever “earned.” And that there is no way to make parents see you as a good child when they are determined to see you as a bad one. It hurts, but it is not your fault.

  39. LW said:

    Hi everyone, LW here.

    Can I just say how awesome you folks are? I really appreciate everyone sharing their stories and advice; it helps to know that none of this is in my head and that this isn’t “drama” (whatever that is) I’ve created where none needs to exist. Seriously, just hearing about others’ experiences – some of which are really saddening, too, and might I offer some mutual Jedi-hugging/well-wishing/fist-bumping? – makes me feel so much better-equipped to handle my situation.

    Therapy isn’t an option just yet, but that’s the first thing on my list after move-in come September. I’ll also be checking out the good Captain’s reading recommendation while I stow myself away in the library for the next couple months. Since my job and friends all reside in my current area, I feel it might be better to avoid bringing my grandparents into this by going the forty miles north to live with them. I do feel better, though, knowing that it’s a legitimate strategy. I will clue my grandparents in on what’s going on – “Hey, grandma and grandpa, when mom starts making fun of me, it really hurts my feelings and I would appreciate it if you guys could help me steer the conversation elsewhere when that happens” – so if the situation does escalate to the point where I need to leave, they won’t be so surprised if I give them a call.

    Again, I’m immensely grateful for all the support from the Captain and commenters! I wish I could have you all over for dinner so we could have good food (probably some Chinese takeout, not gonna lie) and awesome conversation about fun stuff and definitely not the shitty things our families do. My thoughts and best wishes go out to all of you!

  40. anodos said:

    LW, I’m so, so sorry you’ve had to go through this. Hang on to your awesome, and don’t forget that YOU DO NOT DESERVE THIS.

  41. Lily said:

    Abusers depend on you to keep their secrets for them.

    But you don’t have to do that.

    Here’s what I recommend:

    First, log on to facebook and friend every extended family member you can find.

    Then, every time they say something mean and abusive to you, post exactly what they said, by itself, with no commentary, as a Facebook status update.

    Mom just said this to me: “Mean abusive comment.”

    My sister just said this to me: “Mean abusive comment.”

    When your mom and your sister object and demand that you take it down, tell them that you’re not going to keep their behavior a secret anymore, and from now on, every mean thing they say is going to go online.

    Do not do this if you believe they will physically abuse you.

    Hang in there. I don’t know if you heard about this, but when you’re independent, have your own job and your own place, you get mailed a certificate that says you can tell unpleasant people — including family — to fuck right off. Do everything you can to make that day a reality.

  42. LW, I am so sorry. Yes this is abuse. No you are not overreacting. Go to your grandparents if you can. It is not ok that this is happening. It is not right. There are people who have been through what you have in different or staggeringly similar situations. I see many here sending you health, encouragement, love. I am gonna join the ranks.

  43. Oh and yes, “Death Chess” is a walk in the park compared to verbal abuse from family. Good call, Captain!

  44. Oh–and because I am specializing in short “I forgot” comments Find a good counselor. It will take a few visits to know if you’re in sync. Go anyway and keep looking until you have one. May the force be with you!

    • alphakitty said:

      Yeah, I want this for you too. Because you had a feeling that the way you are being treated is not normal or acceptable, enough to write here for a reality check… but you weren’t *confident* it was seriously messed up.

      I’d especially like you to get a really solid grounding in the way decent people treat each other, and the kinds of treatment no one should have to put up with from someone who claims to love them, *before* you find yourself in an intimate relationship where your partner is treating you like crap and you’re feeling tentative about saying, “Aw, hell no!” because your alarm sensors and whoopers are all out of whack and you don’t know, deep down in your gut, how very well you are entitled to be treated just because you’re a person. Think of it as tuning and realigning your sensors.

      In the meantime, if you start seeing someone, use the green flags list! Those are ALL things you are entitled to. I’m sure there are plenty of red flag lists, too, and you can certainly glean red flags from other threads on this blog. But this seems like a happier orientation.

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