By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’m always asking myself why I’m the one who is always saying “I’m sorry.” Why is everything always my fault? I’m 60 years old, and I still feel the need to answer for everything. It’s gotten to the point where if it’s snowing outside and a family member’s plans are ruined, I feel responsible and find myself saying, “I’m so sorry it’s snowing.” Is this crazy or what?
I’d like to give you some examples of what some of my relationships look like. My husband Moishe is probably considered a decent guy. He supports his family, doesn’t have any terrible habits that I know of, and basically does what he feels a father and husband should do. But whenever anything goes wrong, it’s always my fault. If the new refrigerator is acting up after three weeks, it’s my fault because I selected the wrong appliance, I had the wrong people install it, or I slam the door shut too hard and that’s why it’s now making funny noises. Whatever happens, small or large, important or unimportant, his first reaction is to point to me and come up with a reason why I did something wrong to create the problem.
There are often much more important issues going on that I get blamed for. For instance, if one of our children makes life choices that are what we consider horrible, and both of us are devastated, it usually boils down to something I did wrong as a mother.
And when we get into a disagreement, if I don’t ultimately apologize, the argument never ends. Even if I know 100% that I did nothing wrong, I have to say I’m sorry, because it seems Moishe can go on forever not talking to me, if it would mean he has to apologize. I can’t stand it when we are not talking, so eventually I say I’m sorry.
Recently, my daughter’s engagement was broken off. She was blindsided and did not see it coming. She is quite depressed at the moment and says she’ll never get past this devastating occurrence. I feel terrible for how much she is hurting. But she has decided that it’s all my fault. Everything has always been my fault. If her haircut is bad, it’s my fault, because I recommended a place for her to go. If she feels her dress doesn’t look good on her, it’s my fault for allowing her to wear it. If she does poorly on a test, it’s my fault because I didn’t force her to study more. She’s 22 years old, for goodness’ sake! So now, with this broken engagement, it’s all landing in my lap. Everything that went wrong between them is my fault. Her list of my bad advice and actions is very long.
I’m just so tired of being the one dumped on. I’ve taken it for so long that I feel as though I want to just run away from everyone and be alone somewhere, where no one will blame me for anything and I won’t have to apologize constantly for things I didn’t even do wrong.
I don’t know how things got this bad to begin with. How I became the punching bag, the dumping ground, the schmata! But I feel as though no one in my family can ever see me any other way and there is no going back to a normal place. And I think it’s taking a toll on my health. Yes, I’m getting older, but suddenly I’m just not feeling very strong or healthy anymore. So many things bother me and I often think there is a connection between my health issues and how I’m being treated.
Do you feel my situation is hopeless? Chanukah is over, but maybe there is still one miracle left for me, because it would take nothing short of a miracle to change the way everyone in my family sees me and treats me.
Let’s first look at a few facts. When every single person in your family treats you the same way, there is a clear pattern emerging and it’s not just a coincidence. Clearly, (and I’m sorry to sound as though I’ve joined the group of people who feels comfortable blaming you for everything), there must be something in your behavior and attitude that allows for this disrespectful and inappropriate behavior. From the get-go, you not only gave family members permission to dump on you, but you actually taught them how to treat you. And they were quick learners.
Another fact, which is a consequence of the first fact, is that some people are trained to blame. When something goes wrong, there has to be someone who did something wrong, thereby creating the problem. For the healthier individual, when something goes wrong—say, a new refrigerator starts sounding funky—it doesn’t turn into a question of who did something wrong and is therefore responsible. Maybe, the refrigerator is just a lemon—end of story. No one needs to hold the blame. But that kneejerk reaction to point a finger and blame is ugly and often meaningless, since often there is no guilty party.
Now that we understand some of the facts, let’s look at the emotions involved. There are two issues here. One has to do with your inability to handle someone being angry at you. You don’t do fighting well. You seem to be caught up in your own fears and conditioning to the point where you can’t tolerate your husband and probably anyone else for that matter, being angry at you and ignoring you. And because that reality is so disturbing to you, you always cave in and apologize, even when you are the hurt party. Yes, hopefully your apology ends the fight and you and your husband or whomever, can go on with your regular lives, but I’m not sure you’ve done anyone any good. In Moishe’s case, you’ve allowed him to be unaccountable and irresponsible, and he therefore never has to take ownership of his mistakes. How then is Moishe supposed to grow as an individual? Learn to be a better man? Develop kindness and compassion?
The second issue, closely tied in with the first one but not exactly the same, has to do with your ability to assume blame for whatever goes wrong in your family’s world. Again, everyone has been trained to believe there always has to be a guilty party, and that you’ll happily assume that role, thereby enabling everyone else to avoid looking inward and determining what role they played in the problem. Again, this allows for stunted development within both your husband and your children. No one has to look any further than you in order for the show to go on. And what a show it is! In the center we have a very sad-looking clown!
No doubt, your intentions are and always have been good. You’re trying to rescue everyone from any uncomfortable feelings. But it is through these uncomfortable feelings that we are often able to grow into better people. Therefore, what probably feels in the moment as a kindness toward family members is actually quite damaging for them.
So the real question here is how you turn this situation around. I can assure you, it won’t be easy. First you’ll have to deal with your own need to please and avoid conflict, which has gotten you into this mess to begin with. Secondly, you will have to learn how to tolerate your own discomfort while your husband or other family members “punish you” by not talking to you. You’ve never learned how to tolerate this discomfort, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t create a shift in your abilities, as you begin to turn your heart inward and focus on your own wellbeing. And thirdly, your family will all have to go through their own detox-like programs, while they get used to a different kind of wife/mother.
Will it take a miracle for all of this to happen? It might feel like a miracle, but actually the miracle lies within you, should you choose to do the necessary work. But it can be done. And it must be done. I happen to agree that there is a very close body/mind connection. You’ve held in so much sadness, anger, and disappointment related to your treatment by the people in your life who probably mean more to you than anyone else. Holding all that in can definitely take its toll and ultimately play out as physical ailments.
Turning this around will be very hard and at times totally draining on you. But you can do it and, ultimately, the rewards will make it all worthwhile.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.