Virginia Ironside's dilemmas: My parents call me ugly and inconsiderate

"Faced with such powerful subconscious feelings, there’s little you can do except get the hell out of there"

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia

A year ago I visited my parents and was told that I was ugly and inconsiderate. Some of what they said to me, I can’t even repeat to my husband, whom I trust and love. They were “too busy” to attend my graduation and never came to my wedding. When I explained how they had hurt me, my parents told me that I was hysterical and that unless I apologised, they would disown me. I have two younger brothers who are adored by my parents but who also seem to dislike me. I need some insight – this situation blights my life.

Yours sincerely, Gina

Virginia says...

It sounds as if you’re the victim of scapegoating. This is very cruel family behaviour, which, if broadened out to the wider world, can create all kinds of problems, usually racial, in which one group blames another for all their misery.

In a family, one person – usually a child but sometimes a mother or father – is scapegoated by the rest of the group. The mother may be portrayed by the entire family as an over-emotional idiot, say, and is roundly abused by the father – with the children then taking their lead from him. I’ve seen fathers scapegoated by overbearing mothers, poor men constantly put down by their wives, and told that they’re useless even by their children, who learn to despise them.

In your case, you were the child and obviously you’ve been selected by your family to be blamed for all their ills.

Why? It could be that you remind one of your family – usually the strongest – of someone they disliked very much when they were young. Or, more likely, one of the family sees in you all the traits in themselves that they fear and dislike. If they can put all their hatred and rejection of these traits out there, on to you, they don’t have to deal with them in themselves.

Faced with such powerful subconscious feelings, there’s little you can do except get the hell out of there. And if I were you I wouldn’t even write a letter or announce your withdrawal. Just refuse to see them. And I imagine that, oddly, this will make them extremely uncomfortable. Because in order to survive, your family need you very badly to be around. You’re a prop on which they can hang all their bad feelings. Take away the prop and suddenly all these bad feelings will come home to roost. They’ll have to deal with them themselves.

If you can see what’s happening as something along these lines you’ll find it easier to understand your family’s behaviour. Few of them can be blamed because I’m sure none of them knows exactly what they’re doing and the leader in all this – because there will be one who is followed by everyone else – won’t have enough insight to see what’s going on. Understanding their behaviour will, I hope, make you feel less of a rightful target of their abuse. If it hadn’t been you it could have been one of your brothers who would have been picked on and you, no doubt, as a child, would probably have followed the pattern of abuse yourself because that was how you would have learnt to survive in your family.

I’m so glad you have a loving husband. Do talk about this idea of scapegoating with him and read around the subject, too. It’s nothing to do with you. It’s the result of completely dysfunctional behaviour, initiated by someone very hurt and sick who can only exist as a person by blaming someone else. The best way to help yourself is not just to understand it but, if you can, to leave it behind completely.

Readers say...

Turn to your husband

These people do not deserve to be your parents. You are trying to be a dutiful, loving daughter and they are treating you as a nuisance. They have ignored the successes in your life and do not care whether they hurt you. I would strongly advise you to reduce communication with them to the occasional phone call, if that, at least for a while, and to turn to the people who do value you. I would also urge you to open up to your husband. Perhaps by removing this barrier of communication you have set up between you, you will find the tenderness you deserve.

Catherine Rose

Stop seeking their approval

I would cut yourself off from your parents, who seem to be uncaring and very destructive. You don’t need them, so stop looking for their approval – you are wasting your precious time. Enjoy your relationship with your husband. Get checked out by your GP, you may be depressed, possibly needing medication and/or counselling. You can chose your friends but you can’t chose your relations, unfortunately.

Linda Dickens

Put your feelings in writing

If a friend told you that they thought that you were ugly and hysterical, then they wouldn’t deserve you as a friend. If your parents have said such things to you, then they don’t deserve to be a part of your life.

The fact that they have threatened to disown you for the heinous crime of daring to share your feelings with them, speaks volumes about them, not you.

Letting them go doesn’t mean you have to stop loving them, it just means accepting that they will never be the people you would like them to be and letting go of, and mourning, the dreams you have of a mutually loving relationship with them.

Instead of suddenly cutting all ties with them you could write to each of your parents and your brothers. Let them know that you will only welcome them into your life if they treat you as though they want to be a part of your life. If that is beyond them, for whatever reason, then they do not deserve you and, for your own sake, you need to let them go.

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Next week's dilemma

My birthday is next week and I’ve only been in my office for two months – it’s my first job and I’m 18. I’m not sure whether to bring a cake in or whether it’s up to my colleagues to provide one for me. I’m told differing things by different members of staff. I really don’t want to put my foot in it, and I’m not sure whether it would be a good thing to mention my birthday or if I should just keep quiet about it. Presumably people know my date of birth – or at least my boss does because it was on my CV. My friend says I’m making a fuss about nothing, but I don’t want to get it wrong because I’m enjoying my work.

Yours sincerely, Amy


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