How do you react when you hear the phrase "dysfunctional family"? Do you smirk and say, "Oh, man, I could tell you some stories"? Maybe you roll your eyes and think, "Christ, here we go with that 'My daddy didn't love me enough' bullshit." I used to do the latter; people use a bad childhood as a "Get Out of Responsibility Free" card, and even if they were actually from dysfunctional families, who gives a shit? Get over it and move on with your goddamn life, pussy.
But research says there are some very weird, specific and often annoying personality traits a person develops coming from a bad home, and once you know how to look for it, you see them everywhere. See if you recognize any of these people. Maybe you remember them from high school. Or, hell, maybe it's you ...
#5. Lying Becomes Their New Reality
You Know Them As:
This is the guy at school or work who always has to top everything you say. You tell him that you just learned how to do an ollie on your skateboard, and he responds with "Yeah, I learned that when I was 4. I can kickflip over a bus now." Or he tells you the story of how he was almost robbed at the ATM, so he had to use his martial arts skills to disable and apprehend the three attackers. You just automatically know that his story is closer to him walking by a bank and seeing someone who sort of scared him. Then he picked up the pace and went home without issue.
How It Happens:
I haven't told this to many people, so it makes total sense to admit it in front of hundreds of thousands of strangers ... but I used to be a compulsive liar. Don't worry, I confronted and dealt with that issue several years ago, but from early childhood well into adulthood, I lied about absolutely everything. Stupid shit that didn't even require lying to protect myself or someone else -- lying without a purpose. Things like my shoe size or level of education. Claiming I could play certain instruments, in conversations where nobody even gave a fraction of a shit in the first place.
It wasn't until I started doing heavy research into dysfunctional families that I realized that this was a pretty common trait among people who have lived through abuse or neglect. It starts off the way you'd imagine: You learn by example from your parents or siblings. "No, I'm not drunk! We were just out of water, so I bathed in vodka. Get off my ass!" Then you start using it as a tool. "Yeah, I got all of my homework done. Can I go out and play now?"
Eventually, it gets so ingrained that lying becomes more comfortable than telling the truth. Then, even further down the line, telling the truth starts to feel uncomfortable -- the same way lying feels uncomfortable to normal, healthy-minded people. In the minds of many people who have grown up in a dysfunctional family, lying and honesty literally switch places on their moral compass. Before they know it, they're saying shit that isn't true and not even stopping to ask themselves why. "So far this year, I've had sex with 218 women. At the same time."
They don't do it to be evil. There's no malicious intent behind it. But it's so hard to not think of them as manipulating assholes who are only out to fuck with your head. In truth, it's a defense mechanism, learned and utilized in order to avoid horrifying consequences for mundane things. "If I tell Mom that I broke my glasses, she's going to flip out and beat the piss out of me. Just tell her a bully did it. The kids call him 'Mean Breakglasses' because he does it so often." Or they're looking for the praise and respect that they never got growing up. "When I tell people I'm a 12th-degree black belt in taekwondo, they act impressed, and that feels awesome. Obviously, they're afraid that if they don't show respect, I'll spin kick their head completely off of their fucking neck."
#4. They Lose the Ability to Finish Projects
You Know Them As:
The friend who constantly shows you this awesome drawing they've been working on. "And over here, I'm gonna have a black dragon wrapping around her naked boobies and breathing a stream of flaming skulls while the boob woman casts some wizard shit. He fucking breathes skulls, man. It's gonna be so badass." Then you never see it again. When you ask him how it's coming along, he tells you he got busy or decided he didn't like it, so he scrapped the whole thing. And that's that. A week later, he's showing you the beginning of another project that is doomed to incompletion. What a lazy fuck.
How It Happens:
Obviously, there are plenty of people out there who are lazy or just have short attention spans but have never had their pets thrown at their head by their mother or been called "future corpse fucker" by their father. But their reasons for stopping a project in midstride tend to be because either they got distracted or they realized how much work was involved and just said, "Screw this."
Personally, if I had finished all the short stories and novels I've started over the last 20 years, I'd have enough money to retire, based on bulk alone. It turns out that's pretty common among kids who come from dysfunctional families because they lacked the instruction and motivation that's readily available in a normal, healthy family environment.
Some of you are about to realize that your home situation wasn't as normal as you thought when I tell you the following: In a normal family, when a child has a hobby or homework, the adult generally helps out, serving as a makeshift teacher. They're right there to point out why you need to add glue here before you hammer a nail into it, or why you carry the one in this math problem instead of writing "Go fuck yourself" in the blank. Even if they're not directly instructing, the child can watch the adult do their own project, while asking questions along the way. Either way, there's an education present that isn't there in the dysfunctional atmosphere.
So the child learns that starting something is pretty easy. But when the hard stuff shows up in the middle, they give up, because they don't know what to do next. They feel like they've failed before they even reach the halfway point. But just as damaging is the absence of a cheering section. For instance, in a healthy household: I'm in the middle of a clay sculpture of a fully erect penis. Detailed right down to the most subtle capillary and circumcision scar. I show it to my dad, who glances over and says, "Oh, wow, that looks great. Exactly like your grandfather's! Keep going, I can't wait to try that out on your mother!" I've been shown praise for my creativity, and I've been motivated to finish the project.
In a dysfunctional family, the best you can hope for is a quick glance away from the TV, followed by, "Can you not see I'm in the middle of this show? Fuck off and stop bothering me." This is the beginning of what will eventually morph into ...
#3. They Become Ultra Responsible (or Catastrophically Irresponsible)
You Know Them As:
This is the friend who gets super pissed off when you're four minutes late for something trivial like going out for coffee. They may or may not go as far as becoming OCD, but in general, household objects have their place, and they need to be put back in exactly that spot when you're done using them. Bills can never be late under any circumstance. Everyone in the world must be taken care of first, before they, themselves, are even considered.
On the opposite end, you have the sack of shit who just crashes on friends' couches until they kick him out. Then he finds a new couch, repeating the process while thinking that the world is out to get him. Life has made him a shit sandwich, served on a plate that's also made out of shit.
How It Happens:
There is rarely any middle ground with people who have been through a lifetime of dysfunctional bullshit. In many cases, children end up taking on a parental role due to neglect from one or both of their actual parents. They learn from an early age to feed themselves, get to and from school on their own, do their homework without help or guidance ... and often the only help they get in any area is from older siblings who have taught themselves these skills. So you get a 9-year-old kid taking on the responsibilities of a 40-year-old adult, and it seems absolutely normal to them. "Where's my briefcase? I have a parent-teacher conference to attend so I can speak to my teachers about myself."
When they move out, the upside is that they are fully trained to take on "real life." The downside is that they often become obsessive about their responsibilities, and end up teaching this to their children, using the same method that their neglectful parents did. Because they don't view that as neglect -- often, they just see it as a teaching method.
Unless something happens to provoke the revelation of "Holy crap, that was all bullshit," it still feels completely normal to them. That's hard enough to realize when you're on the responsible end of the spectrum. On the other side are the people who tried everything to please their parents, but realized that the fight was futile. So they simply gave up out of emotional exhaustion.
Unfortunately, that "Fuck it, I'm done" attitude isn't a one-time thing. Just like the rest of the traits in this article, it becomes a point of habit. Then it further becomes an ingrained behavior. Then a virtually inseparable part of the personality. You see these people refusing to get jobs or continually quitting the ones they have. They neglect chores, relationships, bills. I've been through both of these traits, and I'm telling you from experience that finding a middle ground is like parachuting into a foreign country without knowing the customs or language and trying to survive from scratch. All while being gang fucked by bears. Foreign bears.
#2. They Judge Themselves Without Mercy
You Know Them As:
Chris Farley used to have a skit on Saturday Night Live where he played a nervous interviewer who didn't do much research. And when something didn't go quite the way he wanted, he'd flip out, punching himself in the head and calling himself an idiot. One of the reasons that was so funny (besides the fact that Chris Farley was ball-punchingly awesome) was because most of us know people like that in real life. They constantly beat themselves up over minor mistakes and missteps that most of us would consider insignificant.
How It Happens:
You'd think that adult children of dysfunctional families would paint themselves as victims. Constantly expecting or wanting sympathy and reassurance that they're special and loved. "Please feel sorry for me! My daddy didn't love me enough!"
It turns out that more often than not, the opposite is true. They tend to judge themselves exponentially harder than other people. In many cases, this is because when they were growing up, the consequences for failure were pretty dire. You just didn't bring home low grades, or make mistakes, or have bad moods, or express feelings. If you did, it was met with explosive reactions that made it pretty clear that those things are off-limits. It's what weak people do. It's taught that failure is the worst thing a human can do -- it's unforgivable.
And though sympathy and empathy generally make us refrain from giving other people shit when they fail (except in extreme sociopathic cases, such as the entirety of YouTube commenters), we do the polar opposite with ourselves, going overboard and beating ourselves up over the situation. We can't let it die. I still do this -- I'm not sure if I'll ever get past it. It just feels natural that if you fall below your own or someone else's expectations and standards, you deserve to have your ass kicked. And since no one else is going to do it, it might as well be me. And strangely, because of all this ...
#1. They Become Hypersensitive
You Know Them As:
You come home from work, exhausted, and you just want to sit down, relax and enjoy the silence for a bit. You're not in the mood to talk. Your appetite is shot. You just want to be left alone so you can collect your thoughts and normalize. But every two minutes, your worried partner asks, "Did I make you mad? Did I do something wrong?" Meanwhile, you try to figure out a good spot to put the saint trophy that you're sure you'll be receiving for not grabbing their skull, pushing it into the floor and juicing them like a fucking orange.
How It Happens:
Believe it or not, they knew about your mood long before you returned from the fridge, flopped on the couch and let out that long, beer-tainted sigh. It's another defense mechanism (notice a pattern here?) that they picked up years before they even knew of your existence. When Mom or Dad's moods started to fluctuate, bad shit happened. Over time, the kids learned that those moods always had telltale signs that predicted their eruptions. Ash that preceded the lava.
At first you take notice, even if it's subconsciously, that before Dad explodes, he starts rubbing his temples. Big, obvious things like that. But over time, you can't help but pick up on more subtle signs. He lets out a very soft sigh when it's going to be just a quick stick-and-move belittling session. He fidgets with his lighter when it's going to be a really bad one. The skill is developed so that when you see it happening, you can either brace yourself for the train wreck, or you can make yourself scarce so you don't have to deal with it.
"I'm sorry, there is no Erica here. I am just a normal, everyday bunny."
Just like any skill, the more you use it, the better you get. Over the years, it becomes so woven into the fabric of your personality, you couldn't remove it without completely breaking down who you are as a person and rebuilding the cloth from scratch. So it's rarely ever a case of the person just trying to smother their partner with attention out of some sense of insecurity. It's force of habit. Alarms are going off in their subconscious that shit is about to hit the fan, and they need to defuse that bomb before it goes off. And anything can trip the alarm. The slightest change in tone of voice. The most subtle shift in eyebrows before you speak. The way you're standing. A simple change in your daily routine. The subtle way you look them in the eyes and say, "I'm about to physically punch you directly in the face with my fist. Here I go."
It sounds like a damn superpower, but it can be a real problem in relationships, because the constant questioning and attempts to fix the other person's bad mood can be suffocating. Every person needs to be allowed room to vent their stress and frustrations, but that thought scares the ever-loving shit out of the person who lived through a dysfunctional family. Because he's used to those very things being followed by aggression and hate.
All of these things are fixable, but it requires you to take a long look at yourself and decide if there is even a problem in the first place. It's harder than you think. If you need help, here's a good place to start. Either way, it's a whole lot more common than you think, so don't let the assholes of the world make you feel weak for seeking help. You have as much of a right to be normal and happy as everyone else on this goddamn planet.