Leading a ‘double-life’ in abusive childhoods

double life

“I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”  -Oscar Wilde, The importance of being Earnest

Many of my clients grew up in families where they could not be themselves at home. They were coerced to play a family role at great odds with their natural temperament. Their natural temperament might be well received outside the home, too. These difficult childhoods created conflicts over which beliefs about oneself to adopt. For a while a kid may live what feels like a double life.  Self-empowering and enhancing beliefs from outside the home versus self-diminishing and undermining beliefs inside the home.  Ultimately, without external intervention, kids usually find a way to live a single life that prioritizes belonging to the family over their own happiness.

 Consider the double life of “Trent”:

Trent’s mother and father treated him with relentless cruelty. She would constantly find fault with innocent behaviors and claim he would never fit into polite society. When he would pick his nose occasionally as a child, for instance, she would scream at him to stop. In the meantime she would derisively watch him and tell him not to even think about picking his nose. She would also attack his goodness as a person. She decided that any of his attempts to be happy were selfish and inconsiderate on his part. That he was “ignoring the family” by wanting to have friendships outside the home. Trent got this same reaction when he volunteered his Saturdays for Habitat for Humanity. He thought that devoting his time so selflessly could not possibly provoke her ire. He was wrong. She decided that he had not taken out the trash as promptly as she expected and screamed at him that he “liked to go around acting like Mr. Do-gooder but he fails to act responsibly – whatsoever – at home
Trent’s father was a self-absorbed man who never took Trent seriously. He only seemed interested in interactions that could boost his flagging self-worth. He did not see Trent as a potential source of such boosts but rather a burden to be put up with. He would smirk and call Trent “Mr. Whiner” whenever Trent protested how his mother treated him. Other times he would see nothing wrong with how viciously his wife screamed at his son. Essentially condoning his mother’s abuse.
When Trent’s father did show attention to him it was to correct or criticize what Trent was doing. Trent concluded that criticizing Trent gave his Dad that needed boost so Trent would find ways to present himself in need of correction. Given the lack of any source of relationship in his family, Trent had to overly upon his father’s criticism as a substitute for parental love.
Trent always felt oppressed, presumed guilty, incapable and ready to be attacked when he was at home. It was a question of when not if he would treated as if he was a terrible human being – and over time he grew to believe that he deserved it.
Importantly, everyone outside his family found Trent to be a kind, thoughtful, decent, funny and smart guy. He easily made friends and people enjoyed his company. As a ninth-grader he was captain of his middle school’s football team, excelling in his classes and enjoyed a vibrant social life. At school and with his friends he grew to believe that he was likable, funny, and smart.
Trent felt like he was living a double life of opposing different realities.  Each had its own set of beliefs about who he was – and one of them had to give. These conflicting set of realities might be stated as:

1) the people closest to him required him to believe that he deserved their contempt

2) the people outside his home saw him for the good person he actually was

So, either feel close to the family and believe he deserved others’ contempt or believe the true good things about who he was with “strangers” outside the family.

Closeness meant he was an embarassment. Feeling good meant alienation. Quite a double life.

For most kids the deck is stacked against them to conform to the life endorsed in the family. Feeling a sense of belonging with one’s family is necessary for survival. In a different post, I’ve discussed how the child must be able to believe that his primary caretaker is available and accessible to him. This affords what is called ‘felt security’ – or the knowledge that if the world gets too big, lonely or dangerous the child can always seek refuge, protection, connection, and support from a specific adult with whom he is bonded. Only the young child’s specific caretakers can provide this sense of felt security early in life. If that caretaker has their own psychological problems then the kid’s search for a secure bond can get fraught. A kid with parents like Trent must now contort his beliefs about himself in whatever way required to achieve a sense of felt security with these malevolent parents. He has no other option. It was like the proverbial Well was poisoned and there was no other source of water.
Trent could survive believing falsehoods about himself but he could not tolerate an absence of felt security at home. If parents have bad attitudes towards the child then he will find a way to accept responsibility for their attitudes and keep smiling back at them.  
A father who constantly berates his son for small mistakes is not a bad Dad – his son rationalizes to himself. Instead, he forces himself to believe that his father would treat him well ‘if only he was not such a screw-up’. Now the kid has to walk around experiencing himself a screwup so that he can preserve his father as a good dude. A lot of times, this same kid might be a fantastic athlete or student at school. He may gain praise from his coaches or acknowledgement of his intelligence from his teachers. What is he supposed to do with this information? Even though his coaches and teachers are accurately seeing and acknowledging him – they are not part of his family. Which reality does he claim? The one where he has a father but feels like crap about himself all the time? Or the one where he feels good about who he is but has no father?

Morality comes in to cement the kid’s adoption of the family’s reality.

As we grow up we tend to define what is morally good with behaviors and attitudes endorsed by our parents. Even if an attitude is widely seen as morally wrong, the pressures to belong to a family can coerce one into seeing it as morally right. For instance, parents who rob others to make a living could still be seen as morally righteous by their kids. If the morality was based on a belief that one must prey on the weak or else become the prey then the parents are acting morally. For such a kid to not take a smaller peer’s lunch money could end up feeling like the ‘wrong’ thing to do. That is, morality can get used to make us conform to the attitudes of parents etc. The goal is to remove internal obstacles to being how one needs to be in order to belong to the family.
So, the kid who defies the ill-fitting role he’s expected to inhabit at home not only feels less close to his family…he may feel like he is doing something morally wrong! When we believe we have done something wrong then we often feel guilty. This is why it can be so difficult for a kid to resolve his double life by adopting the one offered outside the home.  

Moments of resolving the double life

At some point this double life becomes untenable for the child.  There are often pivotal moments where he has to succumb to the reality inside the home over the reality outside the home. The tension between the two opposing sets of beliefs gets to be too much. They unconsciously know that if they believe the positive feedback outside the home they risk losing whatever felt security was available inside their homes. Can you imagine Trent walking around his home believing that he deserved positive recognition and respect for who he was? Both parents would have seen this as grounds for disavowal – at least emotionally – from the family.  
Often these peak moments result in scaling the self-diminishing ‘at-home’ beliefs outside the home. Clients may start to comply more intensely with the way they are treated at home. For Trent this was done in fairly spectacular fashion:
Although Trent had always been careful not to get in trouble outside the home, high school parties made this harder. As he found himself getting invited to parties where there was the usual amount of drinking and experimentation, he felt more conflicted. His friends obviously encouraged him to join in their revelry. Their positive feedback endorsed his belief that his presence was wanted by others. At the same time, he was getting the usual dose of vitriol, scorn and derision from his parents. He knew that something had to give and he unconsciously orchestrated it.
His friend was having a “day party” on President’s Day while his parents were at work. A lot of kids from school were going and there was the usual amount of drinking and cavorting that happens at high school parties. Trent told his mother that he was going for a long hike in the woods and walked several miles to his friend’s house. Upon arrival he drank a full cup of Peach Schnapp’s and didn’t look back. He grew so drunk that there was no way for him to avoid getting into trouble at home. To seal the deal, he stopped at a Department Store on his walk home, got into a fight with the strip mall’s security guard and ended up in the back of a squad car. Trent’s mother picked him up at the police station. In the ensuing days she humiliated him by calling the parents of all the kids at the party and telling them what their kids “were up to”. She refused to let Trent do anything outside the home for the next six months. Trent felt like an embarassment to everyone in school – the guy who got everyone else in trouble – and withdrew socially.
Trent took a gas can to his social life – we unpacked in therapy years later – because he had to. His unfortunate birth into such vindictive and self-absorbed parents left him scrambling to find crumbs of felt security wherever he could find them. He had the feeling that his entire existence hung by a thread for as long as he could remember. Against this backdrop there was no other way for this conflict to unfold. Trent had to make his reality outside his home seem closer to what he lived in the home. In so doing, he decided that he really was an embarassment and acted accordingly at school and at home.
There is an optimistic postscript about Trent. He has worked very hard in therapy to identify and disconfirm these beliefs about himself. He now enjoys a life in alignment with the true and accurate positive qualities he possesses.

The case of Isaiah

Isaiah was the single child born to two parents who were psychologically blind to his inner world. His father would explode in rages at his mother and Isaiah took it upon himself to try to keep his father calm. His mother seemed incapable of protecting herself. This task required Isaiah to ignore his own needs and stay hypervigilant of his father’s moment-by-moment mood state. This was initially difficult for Isaiah because he was an energetic, passionate and inquisitive kid. He had a lot to say and offer the world but this natural propensity interfered with his “mission” to keep Dad calm. On top of this, Isaiah’s parents withheld recognition for his many outstanding talents and accomplishments. They admonished him to “never think he was better than his peers”. Isaiah reasonably concluded that he is morally wrong if wants his fortunes to work out. He adopted a stance of ‘not caring’ at home – not sharing information about himself or showing any excitement in front of his parents.
Outside the home, Isaiah enjoyed a rightfully positive response. His friends, teammates and teachers were taken by his prodigal intelligence, athleticism, great sense of humor, and overall exubrance for life. He developed the competing belief that he is a person of significance whom people are happy to see.
In therapy he identified one pivotal moment when he had to give up – temporarily – the latter positive belief. He was in elementary school and the teacher told him that he had to work with another child on a project. That other student was much less academically oriented than Isaiah and this was infuriating for him because feared getting a bad grade. Isaiah took pride in his intelligence and work product at school and did not want it to be compromised. He complained to the teacher and she responded by admonishing him and telling his parents. He concluded from this moment that if he protects what is important to him he will make others feel diminished. From that point onward he expressed his intelligence and other gifts only ‘by accident’. He would figure out ways to ‘get by’ in school or in sports while giving the least amount of effort. This was not because he was averse to hard work but because he had to comply with the belief that wanting his just due was hurtful to others.
Therapy with Isaiah has focused on challenging his assumptions that is dangerous and morally perilous to care. He works extremely had to recover his right to fulfill his vast potentials.  The double life is resolving into a single life where feels entitled to want his just desserts.  
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).  If you experience any features of this sort of ‘double life’ and are interested in therapy please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.

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  1. Hi Jay,

    I think your blog does an excellent job in illustrating how “bad” behavior can be motivated by an unconscious sense of guilt and loyalty to destructive parents. Many years ago several of us, but most predominantly Marshall and I contributed to a whole edition of for the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic entitled “Unconscious guilt feelings in psychopathology and psychotherapy” in which Marshall wrote an excellent article with essentially the same name as I listed above, and I wrote up a case entitled “Unconscious Guilt as a cause of Sexualized Relationships”.
    I very much like your blog more than what I published in a related article, because it brings in the need for security the the adolescent feels as part of the problem.

  2. I threw away the last decade and a half of my life for a family that lied to me incessantly, blamed me for situation I had no part in, smeared me in the most cowardly and deliberate manner, abused me beyond imagination and then shamed me to the point of near-suicide.

    I couldn’t imagine doing something so malevolent to an enemy – let alone to my own child.

    My decision to say ‘enough’ is one I will never regret. May that cult of counterfeit beings enjoy the misery it deserves.

  3. Hi Jay,
    I always find your videos and blog posts eerily spot on with my own experiences and that of my siblings–we had two narcissistic parents: one extremely malignant and the other manipulative and covert. I wonder what your thoughts are on this “double life” being escaped by moving far away from home. I was the first to move far away, at 17, enrolled in college clear across the country, and all my siblings also did the same as soon as they could. I often notice how other people generally stay near their parents, within some kind of driving distance, which baffled me for decades. I don’t feel free to be myself, to be happy, to pursue my interests, to date whomever I want, or even to make more money than my parents, unless I live very far away from them and keep this “real” life away from them. This way I only have to wear the “evil” role they put me into once every two years or so when I see them. I hope this is a healthy way to escape? Thanks for all you do to shed light on these deep issues!