“If you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family.” ~ Ram Dass
It was exciting to go away to college. You were leaving home to meet new people and do things that had nothing to do with your childhood. But you were an adult, so you were ready to leave families you loved but who weren’t as important to you on this part of your journey.
But for people who grew up with a hyper-critical parent (or two), moving away didn’t give them the freedom they thought it would. In no time at all, even though you were in a new place and doing new things every day, that parent’s voice came through, telling you to study instead of going to parties. Or complaining about bad grades or not calling or writing home enough. These warnings could have come through the phone, email, or text, but they could just as easily have come from a voice in your head. Instead, this came from a voice programmed to remind you of your flaws and advise you on how to live your life better for the first 20 years of your life.
It takes time to get away from the messages you’ve been hearing almost every day for your whole life, and your parents are still a big part of your life when you’re in college because you probably still depend on them financially. But once college was over and you were an official adult, you could decide how to live without that punishing and demanding voice.
But alas, there you were in your mid-20s, working hard to pay your rent and trying to find a job or a way to be happy in the future while hearing your parent criticize every choice you made. Depending on how involved and critical your parent(s) was when you were a child, this voice may have become as annoying as an unmedicated schizophrenic’s auditory hallucinations. This is because you were officially “in charge,” with no institutions or rules to guide you at this point in your life. So, it’s sad that at this point in your life, if you had a parent who rarely or never saw the good in you, you would know every choice you made, from partners to careers to apartments, as lacking in some way.
Because your parents taught you as a child that any bad thing that happened was all your fault, you probably have what schema therapy calls a “Defectiveness/Shame” schema. This means you see yourself as fundamentally flawed in some way that can’t be fixed. If you kept this way of thinking as an adult, every bad thing that happened to you could be seen through this filter as reinforcement that you were flawed.
If you worked at a job where you were mistreated and grossly underpaid, you wouldn’t look at the situation objectively and decide it was wrong. Instead, you would think that you were to blame and stay there in a futile attempt to change the situation or, more subtly, to punish yourself.
If you were stuck with a roommate who stopped paying rent, you would probably blame yourself, even if they had perfect credit and a good job when you interviewed them. Any bad thing that happened to you would be seen as your fault.
Punitive Mode in Schema Therapy
In schema therapy, this constant voice of the critical parent is called a mode (or way of being), and the punitive parent mode is a toxic state of being. And the goal of working with a schema therapist is to figure out when this voice is talking and banish it. A punitive parent mode does not help you grow, improve, or prove someone cares about you. This voice only wants to put you down and humiliate you. While we didn’t have a choice to be exposed to a hypercritical parent when we were growing up, as adults, we can choose not to listen to the punitive voice that came from our parents’ mouths and into our ears, messing with our heads.
Even parents who are too hard on their kids have a soft spot for them, and it shows when their child does something that gets public praise and makes the parent look good. If the child gets good grades or is a great pianist, the parent will show love and support, especially in public. But this isn’t always the case. If the grades go down or a better pianist shows up at the recital, the praise will quickly become disdain. This type of love can lead to a secondary schema of approval and recognition seeking.
People who want to be liked can use the mode of compliant surrender, which means they give in to what others want instead of what they want. For example, many doctors and lawyers have jobs that don’t interest them, but their parents value them more because they think the work proves their success as parents.
Some people might have been free-spirited musicians, for instance, but gave up on their genuine love for someone more socially acceptable in their parents’ eyes. They might have even married someone who reminds them of their overly critical parent who always forces them to give up.
Link Between Defectiveness and Shame
The punitive parent mode can give a child feelings of defectiveness and shame. When approval is conditional, it leads to acceptance and recognition seeking, along with a schema of unrelenting standards. If the child comes home with an A- when they could have gotten an A+, it will be seen as a significant disappointment. At a swim meet, second place is a long way behind first.
For people exposed to this way of thinking, becoming an adult is a minefield of flaws and disappointments. To get rid of these feelings of not being good enough, the adult child of a critical parent may shift into an over-controller mode to ensure good things happen. Or, they may try to avoid situations where they could be judged, so they don’t have to feel like they’re never enough. This can be done by staying away from others or drinking or taking drugs.
If you grew up with a critical parent, you would almost always be critical of yourself as an adult. However, if this pressure made you happier and more successful, you could thank your parents and live your life to the fullest.
But as adults, we internalize this hypercritical voice, which almost always makes us feel worthless, unlovable, and broken.
Banishing the Punitive Voice
The good news is that the punitive parent voice and our stories are untrue. We are important and don’t do everything wrong all the time. We all have a lot of great qualities that we may not have noticed for a long time. The challenge is to separate that hypercritical voice from who we are and learn to banish the voice that wants to put us down while boosting the kind and caring voice.
How to deal with the harsh, hypercritical voice in your head:
- When you think something wrong with yourself, think about where it came from. Is this your punitive voice (likely the voice of one or both of your parents)? The first step in changing your inner life is to figure out the symptoms of the punitive mode (thoughts, emotions, actions) and where they come from.
- If you figure out that the hypercriticalness stems from one or both of your parents, ban them from your mind. This seems too easy to be accurate, and it is. Tell that voice, “Nobody deserves to be talked to like that, including me. I need you out of my mind, now!”
- As you banish the punitive voice, reach out to connect with a safer, more positive person in your life. Think of someone you know who makes you happy. If they make you feel that way, it’s likely that they were kind and saw the best in you. So when you hear that punitive mode, replace it with the voice of someone who thinks the best of you. Eventually, this voice will be your own, which cares about you and makes you feel good about yourself. But for now, it may be easier to think it’s coming from someone else who makes you feel good about yourself.
- Make it a habit to write down the good things in your life and the things you do well every day. If you grew up with a parent who was always critical, you would tend to look for what went wrong in your daily life and your life as a whole. Start to look at things through a different, more positive lens. Was it a lovely day that you could spend outside? Think of that as a success and move on. Did you and a friend have a nice dinner? Think about how you have good friends who like being with you. It will take time to see the world and yourself positively and to feel gratitude toward yourself and what you have in your life to celebrate. If you do this every day, change will happen.
- Talk to a schema therapist. It’s hard even to recognize decades of lousy programming, let alone undo it and replace it with something better. A mental health professional, such as a schema therapist at Loving at Your Best, can help you think about the messages you got you were growing up that you never deserved and help you work to replace the destructive statements with more realistic beliefs so that the toxicity you may have experienced when you were younger no longer affects your life. From there, a schema therapist can help you better understand yourself and your emotional world.