Ditta Oliker

Ditta M. Oliker Ph.D.

The Long Reach of Childhood

On Being A Burden

The effects of believing you're a burden – and the link to being an outsider.

Posted Aug 12, 2014

Today the focus is on the long-term effects of a child internalizing the belief that he or she is a burden – and how it can then feed into a pattern of being an outsider in adulthood.

It can be helpful to check a dictionary for the exact meaning of a word like "burden" in order to understand if the words used to define the term have special significance for an understanding of a specific problem. In the case of “burden,” the dictionary captured the essence of this blog. The first definition is simple and benign: “Something that is carried.” The definition continues with, “Something that is emotionally difficult to bear, a source of great worry or stress.” It ends with various synonyms of burden such as “affliction, cross, trial” and notes, “these nouns denote something onerous or troublesome.”

Imagine being a child and feeling that you are a burden.

The story of Lisa serves as a good example. Lisa is a 61-year-old woman, still married to the same man for the last 40 years, mother of two grown daughters, and grandmother of four grandchildren. She holds a degree in accounting and has worked for the same firm for the last 15 years. She sought therapy at the suggestion of her internist, who saw her physical complaints and difficulties strongly tied to an increasing level of stress she had been experiencing, coupled with her covert references to intense feelings of loneliness, isolation and alienation.

For some time, we had been focusing on her being the perennial caretaker, going back to when, as an 8-year-old child, she had played – or had actually become – caretaker to her younger brother. Both parents had demanding jobs and both were active in various interests outside of the home. Assuming responsibilities too early as a child often leads to later issues for the adult, including being taken for granted and being taken advantage of.

When I suggested the possibility that her history of needing to be a responsible caretaker at such a young age could be causing some of her current stress, Lisa assured me that she and her brother were well taken care of by a series of women specifically hired to take care of them. To my mind, in spite of the presence of these women, her excessive caretaking, tied to beliefs she might have internalized as a child, could still explain some of her feelings. Remember, children think concretely and in egocentric ways and her childhood history could have led to a distorted belief of being that is now being played out in adulthood.

On this particular day, Lisa was telling me about a recent interchange that she had with one of her daughters. She was sharing some concerns about not having finished an important business report that was due the next day and her daughter had offered to help. According to Lisa, she gently declined her daughter’s offer. Her daughter’s response to Lisa declining the offer was still reverberating in Lisa, now a week later.

“What did your daughter say?" I asked.

Holding back tears, Lisa answered, “She said, 'But I want to help – I love you.'”

“What was your reaction when your daughter said that?” I asked.

Lisa remained silent for some time and then, barely audible, replied, “I don’t remember ever feeling I was really loved as a child.”

As sometimes happens in therapy, a hidden door to a new understanding of the past begins to slowly open.

In the weeks that followed, Lisa shared a more detailed telling of her childhood environment and why she would not have felt loved. Her narrative focused on such issues as: her mother’s total commitment to her job as executive director of a non-profit organization, which required many extra hours beyond a normal workweek; her father’s intense interest in sports and his involvement in her brother’s involvement with basketball; how it was difficult to hide from her friends the continuing lack of involvement in her life by her parents; what, as a child, she needed to do to adjust to the different caretaking styles of those caretakers over the years; and, most poignant of all, how it felt to become truly attached to a particular caretaker and then have her leave.

It was not difficult to see how Lisa, as a child, would have felt unloved, unimportant, even abandoned. And why becoming a major caretaker would have made her feel important and included. How she may have allowed others to take advantage of her, possibly encouraging them to do so. But all of this new information about her childhood and our attempts to understand how she had been affected by it still didn’t touch the root source of the damaging sense of loneliness, isolation and outsider feelings she struggled with.

I asked her to imagine how, as a child thinking concretely and in egocentric ways, she might have felt as that child.

“Well,” she said, “it’s not hard to understand why I would have felt unloved.”

I stopped her by saying, “When you say ‘not hard to understand', you are in your head, thinking like an adult. Slow down – take a breath or two – and try to think like a child.”

It is difficult for an adult to think concretely like a child and Lisa continued to struggle.

“Go back to that moment with your daughter,” I said. “She had offered to help you – you declined – and she said, ‘But I want to help you.’ She didn’t say, ‘I love you and I want to help you.’ There’s a 'but' in there that somehow changes the meaning. Keep in mind that in any interaction between you and another individual, there exists a physical and psychological space that holds the words, the body language, the emotions, beliefs, and echoes of childhood that forms the 'feel' of the interaction and what each of you believes is the true message that was communicated.”

“So what you’re saying,” Lisa defensively asked, “Is that I did something wrong or said something that I shouldn’t have said?"

“No,” I replied, “The question I’m raising is that – by her saying, ‘But I want to help,’ – had she interpreted your message differently than you intended?”

Lisa answered tartly with, “My message was simple and clear. I’m fine. There’s no need for you to help me. You have enough to do.”

“Do you remember what you actually said when you declined her offer?”

Lisa, now clearly annoyed, countered with: “I don’t remember exactly what I said. And what difference does it make?”

It makes a difference if we can use that moment to understand something that you still struggle with. Think of what it means when someone starts a sentence with a “but."

Lisa, silent for a few moments and calming down, questioned, “That I really don’t want you to help?”

I then added, “That you didn’t just decline her offer but rejected her offer, which possibly conveyed some aspect of rejecting her.”

Lisa exploded: “How dare you suggest that I was rejecting my daughter. That I was just like my mother and some of those bitches that were the caretakers. The only message I was sending to my daughter was one of assurance – that there was no way that I was going to be a burden to her."

And there it was – said with all of the feelings of a deeply wounded child who had internalized a strong belief that she had been experienced – by her parents and all of those hired helpers – as a burden. Not just as “something that is carried,” but also with the full force of the entire dictionary definition – “something that is emotionally difficult to bear, a source of great worry or stress – an affliction, cross – something onerous or troublesome.”

In the weeks that followed, Lisa realized how she had inadvertently pushed family, friends and associates away by declining any overt or covert offers of help. Each time she would experience someone offering to help her or to take care of her or just wanting to be involved with her, her decline of the offer would be wrapped in her feelings of needing not to be experienced as a burden. She clearly did not realize that the others were experiencing her as rejecting them and their desires to be involved in her life, which in turn reinforced her feelings of always being an outsider.

There can be a number of basic scenarios that result in an individual being caught in a chronic state of outsiderness. Regardless of the specifics of any given environment, the experiences of not belonging in childhood have enormous power to affect the quality of life of the adult. To the list of possible scenarios leading to one feeling like an outsider, I now add the individual who, as a child, felt like a burden.

For more information on the effects of being an outsider, see my November 2012 blog, On Being The Outsider.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever, including strategies that can play an important part in the process of breaking free. Hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey. And hope the beliefs you’ve brought from childhood are free of distortions.