one of the more valuable things I’ve learned in life as a survivor of a mentally unstable parent is that it is likely that no one has thought through it as much as you have.
no, your friend probably has not noticed they cut you off four times in this conversation.
no, your brother didn’t realize his music was that loud while you were studying.
no, your bff or S.O. doesn’t remember that you’re on a tight deadline right now.
no, no one else is paying attention to the four power dynamics at play in your friend group right now.
a habit of abused kids, especially kids with unstable parents, is the tendency to notice every little detail. We magnify small nuances into major things, largely because small nuances quickly became breaking points for parents. Managing moods, reading the room, perceiving danger in the order of words, the shift of body weight….it’s all a natural outgrowth of trying to manage unstable parents from a young age.
Here’s the thing: most people don’t do that. I’m not saying everyone else is oblivious, I’m saying the over analysis of minor nuances is a habit of abuse.
I have a rule: I do not respond to subtext. This includes guilt tripping, silent treatments, passive aggressive behavior, etc. I see it. I notice it. I even sometimes have to analyze it and take a deep breath and CHOOSE not to respond. Because whether it’s really there or just me over-reading things that actually don’t mean anything, the habit of lending credence to the part of me that sees danger in the wrong shift of body weight…that’s toxic for me. And dangerous to my relationships.
The best thing I ever did for myself and my relationships was insist upon frank communication and a categorical denial of subtext. For some people this is a moral stance. For survivors of mentally unstable parents this is a requirement of recovery.
If it wasn’t stated outright - it wasn’t said.
Oof, this hits close to home.
I never condensed it into a rule, but I realize that I’ve come to the same conclusion about not responding to subtext; it’s helped me SO much. It makes me a better communicator, and puts a damper on how much I allow myself to stress out over nonverbal details or radio silence from friends. I try to be as candid as possible about what I’m responding to; if a nonverbal cue is important enough that it needs to become a topic of conversation, it helps to be up front about what you’re responding to (”hey I noticed you’re being very quiet today, it may be nothing, but is something wrong?”) instead of trying to meet the subtext with more subtext or… just… do something confusing to try and alleviate the imagined situation without ever addressing it…. IDK I used to do a lot of weird things in HOPE that it was the correct response to unstated tension. Obviously this was what I used to do to try and defuse situations at home– when you’re not allowed to acknowledge a problem but you don’t want it to blow up in your face, you develop some weird coping mechanisms.
This also explains why I so frequently have anxiety attacks in restaurants or public places because I think “oh god we’re talking too loud about personal things and everyone is listening and judging”. This used to really fuck me up and make it difficult to go out with anyone or even just talk to my partner over lunch. Public spaces were real minefields to navigate as a kid with an unstable/unmedicated parent (and other equally unstable/unmedicated relatives, + me, a previously-unmedicated-unstable-child who didn’t always have control over their behavior or reactions) who would make family outings a living hell. Being able to tell myself “are you noticing what other people are talking about across the room? no? then the people across the room probably aren’t noticing what you’re talking about either”. It’s a mantra that’s helped me get through a lot of rough situations.
Also, medication and therapy! But that should be a given.
hypervigilance in a nutshell. when you’re surrounded by adults who consistently leverage unequal power dynamics against you, one of your only options are to manage it by preempting their instability. eventually it just gets absolutely ingrained into your approach to socializing with everybody. i still remember the moment that i finally realized that, with regular people, i can just disengage or excuse myself from social interactions without being emotionally cut down.
i still generally tend to assume people can and will leverage their social and emotional power over me when convenient. so i still have trouble maintaining relationships where i cant clearly grasp the dynamics. but managing it is much easier now that i am an adult, with significant leverage of my own. the problem with hypervigilance is that it triggers anxiety and stress responses to every little flag, and examining that to see if it’s cause for legitimate concern vs. a traumatic response, while also potentially having a panic attack over it anyway, is exhausting. sometimes it’s just easier to get away.
I think this is worth reading for anyone who has experienced abuse. Whether from a parent or partner or whatever.
My abuser was my husband and his abuse made me over think as an adult. To the point that a person’s stance, shift in weight etc can put me on alert.