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When Dysfunction Seems Normal


My client Ronni works as a barista at a coffee bar that’s poorly managed. Managers come and go, her schedule is changed from week to week, and she’s often asked to fill in for missing employees. Her goal has been to try her hardest to be flexible and do a good job to please her managers. My goal has been for her to return to college.

My client Marlena always seemed to find jobs where she was physically abused by a boss or co-worker. She was never badly hurt, just a shove, light slap or having keys or the like thrown at her. It was almost uncanny how this happened in job after job. When I made comments about unwanted touching, especially with aggression, being totally unacceptable, Marlena would shrug and say, “Oh, it’s not so bad. I’ve had worse.”

Want to guess what these clients had in common? They both had abusive childhoods—Ronni had emotional abuse only, while Marlena had that along with physical and sexual abuse. Consequently, they both had a high tolerance for mistreatment: it’s what they’d grown up with. I was horrified about what was happening to each of them—as Ronni started to get more depressed than I’d ever seen her and Marlena seemed so angry and hopeless that I worried about her returning to drug use after being clean for years.

Ronni’s mother had told her outright that she never wanted her and was cold and critical along with having alcohol abuse disorder. Her grandmother ran between warm and chilly, depending on whether Ronni did as she ordered and Ronni did whatever she could to make her happy. Both mother and grandmother were narcissistic and poorly organized, and Ronni was severely taken advantage of as if her needs didn’t matter.

Marlena’s sisters and brothers were also abused. She knew that those who fought back against her father had a worse time of it than those who didn’t, so told herself the abuse didn’t matter and considered it a good day when it was only verbal. She took it all, as if a parent abusing a child was the most natural thing in the world. 

Both clients were so used to being mistreated they thought it was normal behavior and it took them a very long time, with me alternately coaxing and badgering them, to see that what seemed as life as usual to them was highly abnormal and dysfunctional, never mind unacceptable. Finally seeing the light was a major turning point for each of them.

If you frequently find yourself in high drama, abusive situations where you get the short end of the stick, consider if you’re unconsciously replicating your childhood and have a historically high tolerance for dysfunction. To change the pattern, talk with a therapist.