The Long-lasting Toxicity of Parental Labels

When I treated adults who had been verbally abused by their parents, I sometimes wondered if they needed a stain remover more than a therapist. The disfiguring mark was not on the surface, however. Below the scalp, the mistreatment created a misunderstanding of their human qualities and mangled the internal mental machinery; warped their reasoning about themselves. I will offer some thoughts on the confusion caused — the fouled self-image the abused soul believes to be true, not recognizing the phony bill of goods he received.

Epistemology is a word you might not know, but frames how the negative label distorts the victim’s thoughts about himself. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. The field is important because it deals with how we process information to determine what is true (factual) and how we distinguish what is supported by evidence rather than a matter of belief, misunderstanding, or a misapplied label.

When did our tarnished child become discolored? He almost always was the target of family criticism, outside bullying, or both. The young one’s actions were mocked. Names were called over and over. I’ll concentrate on the home. Children are not in a position to find another one.

Kids need whatever protection parents provide, even as little as it is. No matter what, they must stay close to the caretakers when they are small. No Plan B exists, no reason to expect more kindness outside the family than in.

The small one’s dependency on the parents requires belief in the latter’s competence and knowledge about the world.

Think of the child as both who he is objectively, that is, how we might evaluate him in the absence of any bias; and as a social construct: the person described in the adjectives and nouns of the parents’ choosing, regardless of who he is in reality.

The child holds little knowledge of the world other than what is offered in the house. He claims no other authoritative information to suggest the social construct/label is wrong. Since parents are the first and primary authorities, nothing suggests they are misguided. Especially if their words are characterized as being “for your own good.”

Any hope of parental love, approval, and protection would depend on the ability to persuade the parent that the label has been misapplied. The small one cannot afford (even to himself, even were he able to put the concepts and words together) to challenge the parents’ description of him without causing internal terror. Such awareness would require his recognition of the dilemma he is in: a tiny person at the hands of powerful, disturbed adults upon whom he is dependent. The opinion of the home’s commanders is therefore taken for truth. Only if the girl or boy can accept the verdict and do better to please those in charge might he have a chance. This necessary bit of self-delusion allows him to hope his situation might be changed by something in his control.

He already accepts the truth of something for which the evidence is weak or nonexistent. Use of his cognitive equipment is thereby impaired from an early age.

Since the label now must be considered valid, let’s think of how the labelers treat our growing child as a personality, and how they respond to his behavior:

  1. The boy’s character, nature, and existence are seen as unworthy. The parents communicate — sometimes just by a look — that he doesn’t measure up. His presence alone is displeasing. No matter how inoffensive he might be in a given moment, he inhabits the status white bigots confer on people of color. The latter would need to vanish in order to make the racists happy. The child, to produce the same result for mom and dad, would have to, as well.
  2. Mistakes (and every child makes lots of them) are used by the authority as evidence the label is valid.
  3. Any behavior that is objectively good is either minimized in importance or ignored. No amount of proper behavior nor rational argument is sufficient to change the overseer’s verdict.

All of this is bad enough by itself. Worse, however, the child carries not only a dishonest label, but a warped way of thinking about himself. The internal mental machinery continues to inflict damage — even in the absence of the parents — when he takes on the world outside. Thus, whatever success he achieves there, it is never enough.

The past becomes present.

Too often the adult will carry the internalized words wherever he goes, continuing to search unconsciously for people who are like his folks (since their authority and value have not yet been overturned), and think about his own worth in the way he was taught. He remains characterologically flawed in his very existence. He believes he is a person who behaves in negative or inadequate or foolish ways, and someone whose strengths are trivial in contrast to all of the qualities inside that count against him.

The individual lacks self-awareness. He continues to see himself in terms of the social construct given by his parents. Moreover, the deforming quality of his thought has doubtless led him to many errors in dealing with the world, further confirming the verdict he received from the biased jury at home.

Only with enough unhappiness might the pain cause him to challenge the internalized parental voice, or seek treatment which will encourage such a process. His descent into the suffering can actually be the first step to discarding the social construct he was given, alter those self-defeating behaviors he since adopted, and transform his self-image. Without opening the emotion attached to the humiliating label, therapy is not likely to succeed. Indeed, had verbal persuasion by himself or others worked, counseling wouldn’t be needed.

The mountain top of truth — knowledge of who he is — is a long distance away. But, as the old Chinese proverb tells us, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

22 thoughts on “The Long-lasting Toxicity of Parental Labels

  1. Thank you for this very good, clear explanation of how toxic parental labelling works.

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  2. Dear Dr. Stein:
    Thank you for an excellent article.
    At some point, I would like to get more insights from you in regards to the role of parents in dealing with children who have trouble with their schoolwork, overall but particularly in math , and typically, the kind that gets “stumped by long division” early on, and often, simultaneously, has problems with coordination and practical tasks involving making things or doing things.
    I am particularly interested in what should be done especially for children who often appear to inspire remarks about either not having or using, common sense.
    Finally, if it is not too much trouble, I was hoping that you wouldn’t mind a few comments about the origin(s) of personalities that just seem to rub other people the wrong way, and for no apparently discernable reason.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks, Joseph. I regret some of what your asking for is outside my area of expertise. Motor coordination and math difficulties, for example. I’ll give the “rubbing the wrong way” question some thought. Intriguing idea.

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  3. I wish for one more paragraph between the last two. Are there words of comfort for the time spent in the descent? Somewhere around mile 200, you are too far in to go back, but so far away from even sensing the promised fruits at the end.

    Thank you for the insight.

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    • drgeraldstein

      I’m glad you asked for this, Rebecca. The therapist should provide encouragement, let you know you are brave to open the issues up, and give support and understanding along the way. Citing progress as it comes may be helpful, and some basic hand-holding to let the patient know there is yet time, especially when (almost inevitably) the progress is slow. Thanks, again.

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  4. Steven Kuptsis

    This could have been written with my past specifically in mind. Thanks again for the time you took back in the day to show me how to get past this and find the happiness I now enjoy.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Wonderful to hear from you, Steven, and that your are enjoying happiness. All parts of your last sentence, especially your well-being, made my day! As Mr. Spock would say, “live long and prosper!”

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  5. I feel this article was written about me as I was under a daily barrage of screaming, criticism, insults, comparison and everything I did was scrutinized. I was a complete failure…never measuring up. No wonder I am filled with anxiety. Geez.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      I hope you see some light at the end of the tunnel, Nancy. Your self-awareness and insight sound encouraging and courageous.

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  6. So much for the old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Bones heal and become stronger, words destroy. You break my heart with this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. drgeraldstein

    Well said, Brewdun. I’ll keep a good thought in the hope of a mending heart.

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  8. An excellent post.

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  9. drgeraldstein

    Thank you, Rayne.

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  10. This came as I was thinking about how we’d go somewhere, and I had to sit in the corner as “bad” the moment we arrived. My sins were told to all, no one could speak to me, and I couldn’t have food. I think her normal feeling of self-hate was put on me, so she could feel ok. I know she had self-shame from words at home about these people we visited. Your words are timely, serendipitous as I struggle to reevaluate my own self-hate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Glad the timing was good, Deb. Thanks. Though I didn’t intend this as a comment on Mother’s Day, the day can be as complex as your comment suggests.

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  11. Thank you for your excellent article, Dr. Stein. I’ve spent my lifetime in unlearning the labels instilled in my childhood mind. I’ve learned to accept with humility those I cannot change.

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  12. drgeraldstein

    You know better than I then, from the inside, what this takes. Thank you, Rosaliene.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you for your timely post. I am in therapy with an earnest, sincere therapist who has a good heart and the right intentions. I had an horrific early childhood and as an adult I descended in despair. The despair was my saving grace, with the expected slow progress towards well-being. One thing that has been missing somewhat in this therapeutic relationship is kindness. As much as it repulses me I need the basic hand holding, support and understanding you mentioned in response to Rebecca. I mentioned kindness today in therapy: whether or not this therapist is up for the challenge remains to be seen. I went into therapy not expecting too much. It is unfortunate if we have reached an impasse. I have worked diligently in therapy and know a lot more about myself. As hard as it will be, it feels ok to walk away from this therapist. My hope is he has the compassion and skill to meet me where I am at, while maintaining healthy, professional boundaries. Working with trauma is not for the feint hearted. Living with a trauma is no walk in the park either.

    It is interesting to me that you don’t need to write about your former profession (amongst other things) and yet you do, in a thoughtful and articulate manner. You are a credit to your profession. Thank you for continuing to give back to people like me as you enjoy your retirement. At times your words have taken the sting out of my journey towards well-being and that is very meaningful to me.

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    • drgeraldstein

      I hope you get what you need from your therapist, too, Jakethedog. Your last paragraph takes my breath away. You are very welcome. Thank you for giving me the kindness you are asking your therapist for. I guess you can take the therapist out of the profession, but not the profession out of the therapist!

      Liked by 1 person

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