Growing up Critical: How to recover from an overly critical childhood

If you want to get to the root of your self-sabotage, look to your childhood.

by: E.B. Johnson

As parents, you want the best for your child. Sometimes, that can mean showing disapproval for certain behaviors or choices in order to encourage better choices and behaviors in future. The problem is, though, that when parents regularly show disapproval, they can actually encourage their child to act out in hurt and resentment through rebellion and self-sabotage that haunts them throughout their adult lives.

“See, kids are like dogs. You knock ’em around enough eventually they’ll think they did something to deserve it.” — Sawyer, (LOST)

Critiquing a child one too many times is much like criticizing an adult one too many times. It can end in the child responding in an angry and violent pushback that is destructive to others and even themselves. Children have the same need to reclaim their compromised pride, respect and dignity as adults. So when those things are taken from them, they collapse just like adults do.

Learning how to live with and recover from an overly-critical childhood begins with understanding that childhood and the hurts inflicted during it. Once you become familiar with all the ways an overly-critical parents impact who you are, you can start to develop the skills you need to recover from the pain.

Criticism becoming a way of life.

A rebellious person can often trace the roots of their rebellion right back to a caretaker with an overly critical tongue. Domineering parents are determined to raise their children in an authoritarian manner and that can take a toll on the delicate and often sensitive psyche of a child. Constant criticism from a parent results in an overly critic inner-voice within the child. This critic warps the child’s view of the world and can even result in some distressing behaviors that follow them through later life.

Getting stuck in a tunnel of criticism and controlling behavior makes it impossible for parents to recognize the distress in their child, and makes it even harder to change course when things aren’t working out. This rigid way of looking at the world (and the control of your kids) results in the child feeling suppressed, and even oppressed, by their parents; which stokes anger and further compounds the negative emotions that are already playing around inside their heads.

In our youth, we base our opinions of ourselves on the opinions of our parents. Constant disheartened reactions from them or expressed “disappointment” can result in feelings of rejection, abandonment, hopelessness and even low-grade depression.

These are hard feelings; intolerable feelings. When we get stuck in them we lash out the only way we know how to — with retaliatory anger that unbuckles our lives and sends us spinning into chaotic oblivion…one bad choice at a time.

The consequences of frequent parental criticism.

The more often this nasty cycle of criticizing and lashing out repeats itself, the greater damage it has on not only the family bonds, but the child itself.

In many families parents find themselves trapped in a toxic cycle of criticism and punishment, which results in the child pushing back angrily and withdrawing even more from the caretakers. The parents are not able to exert a beneficial influence over the child, because he or she has withdrawn more thanks to the demoralizing treatment received.

Research has shown that parents who use strict, authoritarian styles actually produce children with lower self-esteem and poorer behavior than those kids who were less frequently controlled and criticized.

When a child is constantly harped on, they become unable to internalize the self-discipline and responsibility they need to thrive as adults. Rather, they start to look constantly to the directions of the parent as they lose trust in their ability to guide their own lives.

Frequently criticizing your children can also teach them to bully others, as the force being exerted by the parents (even emotionally) teaches them that might makes right. It can also cause them to feel as though they aren’t securely loved, which can result in some truly horrifying behaviors later on down the road.

As parents, it is necessary to realize that even though children are typically blamed when they challenge their parents, they’re only trying to protect their vulnerable and delicately blooming sense of self from assaults that can be deadly at such a fragile time. Rather than forcing them into a corner where they choose substance addiction and love addiction to fill the hole of “never being good enough”, they must be embraced with love and understanding.

The rebellion foments.

When we don’t feel loved, accepted or as though we are “good enough”, we turn away from activities and relationships that are linked to our self-esteem and look instead for the things that numb us. We engage in behaviors that self-defeating and self-destructive at the same time.

These self-sabotaging acts of rebellion can include purposefully injuring themselves, using drugs and alcohol excessively and other high-risk activities that seem to form around a devil-may-care attitude to life (and death).

This rebellion comes from an empty place, a need to destroy the thing that was never good enough for the people that meant the most.

Our defiances as injured children are often as explosive and all-consuming as the criticisms of our parents. We become so consumed by our need to prove them wrong (or right) that we are compelled to act out so aggressively that we can’t even see our deeper hurts. These unhealed wounds fester our whole lives over, and destroy the person that we are as well as the potential of what we could become.

The rebellion fails.

We rebel against the vision of our parents in order to erase the stain of their judgements from us, but no amount of burning away their criticisms will make us feel it any less keenly.

No matter how much you drink or love or run, a feeling of inadequacy instilled by a caretaker is an impossible one to escape. Though we try to transcend the negative assessments of our parents, we rely on them for such a long and critical period of our lives that we feel obligated to honor their opinions — whether we want to or not.

While rebellion might feel good for a while; while it might feel like you’re reinventing yourself and finding your power, it’s often more destructive than constructive.

Growing up with a negative view of self can drive you to destroy that self, engaging in behaviors and activities that are high risk and low reward. You burn and drink yourself apart, but the more you crack through those walls the more hurt you’re going to find. Rebellion never works when it comes to reclaiming our power from overly-critical parents. The only thing that works is facing the hurt head on and crawling through its fires of adversity.

You can’t conquer the darkness until you have the bravery, the courage and the skills to face it. It’s not an impossible battle. You just need to learn which battles to fight and forge the weapons you need to fight them.

Reclaiming your adulthood.

While experts typically see a bit of rebellion as a good thing, when it becomes a central part of who we are it can become destructive and corrosive to our strongest qualities. This deeply-rooted type of anger leaves us with low self-esteem and a feeling of unworthiness, but it can be overcome with hard work and a clear vision of who you want to be.

1. Accept your childhood and the parents you had.

We all deserve kind, compassion, accepting and loving parents, but that’s not reality. Some parents are warm and some parents aren’t. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles. The real secret is learning to accept the childhood you had and the parents you’ve got — regardless of their flaws or the ways they’ve hurt you.

Accept that some parents are incapable of showing their love in any way short of criticism. Accept that your parents aren’t capable of accepting you for who and what you are. Learning to accept these things, rather than dwell on them or rebel against them, will allow you to detach yourself from their power and remove your disappointment and fear of failure around them.

Your childhood happened. It cannot be taken back, relived or redone. There is no point in wasting your energies dwelling on it for the rest of time. You aren’t going to receive an apology for the hurts you received, and no one cares if you punish yourself for the rest of time or not.

Accept it, and do what you can to move on. Face it bravely, though it hurts, and know that whatever part you played — you were a child, who didn’t deserve to be injured.

Don’t compare your parents to other parents. Don’t ask why other people ended up with a mother and father who accept them no matter what. Comparisons will only make you feel worse and confirm whatever delusions you have about “family”. Making comparisons only goes to make you jealous and make you a victim. Neither is beneficial in getting to where you want to go.

2. Discover the “shoulds” that shouldn’t be.

“Shoulds” are messages we take in that form our Base Line on everything from school to relationships and society. These “shoulds” guide our behavior in an almost reactive way, and should be analyzed often for their value in our lives. When you take a closer look at your shoulds (especially the ones formed in childhood) you’ll often find that you’ve swallowed a spoonful of poison along with all that idealized sugar and fluff.

These beliefs come from years of cultivating and reinforcement. They can help us move forward or they can keep us stuck; they’re all the little quiet messages we receive in the in-between. Believing these messages when we’re young might steer us in the right direction, but they can also be diabolical in our adulthood; so it’s important to correct where correction is needed.

Parents can raise us to feel indebted to them, and while this might work as a child, it doesn’t serve an adult who knows their own mind and life. You might feel like you owe the people that gave you your life, but you can cope now — with or without them.

Remember that you’re older now and the circumstances are different. If you’re dealing with a toxic or judgmental parent that makes you feel bad about yourself — stop it. You’re an adult, and adults don’t owe anything to other adults; no matter what we pretend otherwise.

3. Realize: You have a right to love and respect.

Criticism can be helpful in the right time and in the right place, but what we need even more than criticism is love and respect.

Escaping the shackles of a judgmental parent starts with loving yourself radically and unashamedly. The most explosive rebellion you can engage in, when it comes to dealing with cold caretakers, is owning your right to respect and self-love in every single aspect of your life.

As humans living and breathing on this planet, we have a sacred right to be loved, but that love can only come to us when we cultivate an environment of kindness, generosity and respect around ourselves.

By surrounding ourselves with those conditions, we can build those qualities in ourselves, but it takes shutting out the things that suck those things out of our lives.

Part of realizing that you are worthy of love and respect is also realizing that you are allowed to slam doors on the people that do not attract these things in your life. When the conditions you need to thrive aren’t meant, leave behind those people who leave you stuck to the past.

While your parents might have made your journey to enlightenment harder, the only person keeping you from soaring is yourself. You have to make the decision whether to stay stuck or move forward.

4. Recognize the patterns and stop them from repeating.

When we grow up with domineering parents, we can often attracted to those people later on in our romantic lives and there’s some pretty compelling reasons for this.

All of us are driven to get an ending when things get left hanging unresolved. When we’re hurt by our parents, those hurts linger for a long time and it leaves us searching for the warmth and nurturing we didn’t receive at critical points in our childhood development.

When we don’t feel loved or good enough, we are driven to find a resolution for that need and it ends with us falling into familiar relationships and familiar patterns with people that are just as toxic for us as our controlling, judgmental parents. We look to receive what we didn’t get from our parents with other people, when we should be looking to get it from within.

You have to learn to recognize these patterns and break them before they become inescapable.

Living with feelings of hurt and rejection causes us to live in a grey state, where we allow ourselves to be taken over by autopilot and the familiar reactions that are so fundamental to the change we need to thrive. Automatic thoughts and feelings drive us into poor choices and cause us to gravitate toward people that feel comfortable to us — even when they’re toxic.

Learning to recognize and correct these reactions starts with embracing the hurts you don’t want to face. These decisions aren’t conscious ones, but they’re harmful ones, and stopping them starts with identifying your emotional triggers and the injuries that make you numb yourself to the reality of the world around you.

Healing is possible, but it starts with stopping the patterns and starts with ripping off the bandaid. Your wounds need to bleed a little in order to heal. Open them up, and recognize the patterns that lead to your constant re-injury.

5. Practice building yourself up.

Toxic environment are toxic not only to our souls, but our brains as well. The human brain adapts easily, and that means it adapts when it’s faced with negative or poisonous environments too.

In a toxic environment, the human brain actually “shuts down” to protect itself as much as it can. This actually impairs your cognitive function and slows down the production of neurons, making you vulnerable to depression, anxiety and even reduced vitality, memory and immune function.

Healing from a parent who did nothing but criticize you can often start with deciding to change that lifetime of negative messages. These ideas leave us feeling hollow or scared, but by building ourselves up instead, we can change them and remove their impacts from our lives.

This means realizing that your parents are human, and it means realizing that sometimes, your parents are just as broken as you. Opening your heart up to love, approval and validation is hard after a lifetime of being denied it, but it’s not impossible and it begins with a deliberate decision.

Be open to all the possibilities of you by practicing love, kindness and compassion on yourself. Take care of your body by staying fit and eating a healthy diet; learn to love yourself flesh, bone and spirit.

You don’t need the love of others to feel whole. You just need the love of yourself. It takes time to get there, though.

6. Be honest. Be authentic.

Our parents mold us and the first glimpse we ever get of ourselves is the reflection they project onto us.

It can feel as though you owe your parents this vision, as if they have a right to this sacred part of yourself. This is false, however, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can own our flesh authentically and live a truth that is aligned with who we are on the inside.

Be honest with yourself about who you are and live your truth authentically, despite the image your parents project of you. You are beholden to no one and your body is not owed to anyone…even if they created it.

Only when we build up the courage to live authentically can we get in touch with those things and people that make our lives truly worth living. Don’t miss out on the things that matter because you’re afraid to live outside an imaginary projection.

That person doesn’t exist. Only you do. Right here. Right now.

7. Set boundaries and get familiar with your emotions (all of them).

If you don’t carve out the mental space you need to detach from who and what was, you won’t be able to break free of the shackles your family past has over you.

Have enough respect for yourself to set boundaries with those who injure you more than they lift you up. Do whatever you need to do to protect yourself, and honor your worth by letting others know what you will and will not tolerate.

Embrace the emotions that make you uncomfortable and recognize the people and the triggers that bring out the best in you and your psyche. Learning to love ourselves takes time and effort, but know our worth isn’t difficult. As a human alive on this earth, you’re worth all the happiness, love and effort in the world. Only you can allow someone else to deny you that.

Putting it all together…

Breaking free of overly-critical parents is hard, but it’s not impossible. When we learn how to open our hearts up to the possibilities of change, we see that we can find love, kindness, compassion and respect if we just start looking for it within.

Don’t be afraid to shut the door when a relationship with your parents does more harm than good. Learn how to love yourself and learn how to love that broken little child inside you. When you realize that you are worth all the love, compassion and acceptance in the universe, you’ll attract more of that into your life. It starts by separating yourself from the past, however, and having the courage to stand up for the beautiful, authentic soul that you are.