The subject of violence has always been on the radar of medical professionals who work in the field of mental health. Cases of violence always receive detailed coverage in the press, they are disseminated on social media platforms followed by a plethora of commentary either condemning or justifying the perpetrator. And while many organizations and individuals have been working, at best to eliminate or, at least decrease cases of violence wherever it occurs, there is an inconspicuous, but grave danger hidden in a place we least suspect.
This article examines how people can fall victim to hidden violence by those closest to them: their family members. This particular case study (names have been changed or omitted) is unique in that many different factors led to implausible results. However, any and every one of these factors take place separately in thousands of families, leading to dire consequences.
Sona’s family was well known and respected in their city. Hers was a large family boasting generations of prominent and sometimes ordinary officials, doctors and educators. Naturally, it was expected that their children would also grow up to become well-respected, influential people themselves. For a small child that meant clearly knowing what was allowed and most importantly what wasn’t allowed. The general understanding was that when an adult said something (i.e. demanded it), one was not allowed to ask why, silent obedience was the rule. This meant that strength was always right, simply by virtue of their strength and not because what they said was grounded or justified.
Starting from first grade, Sona’s mother was quite strict in making sure that her notebooks were always clean, her marks excellent and her behavior exemplary. In fact, Sona liked knowing that her outfit was the cleanest, her shirt the crispest white compared to the other little girls and her notebook the only one without any scribbles or corrections. She liked the fact that when classes were over, her mother would always be standing in front of everyone and the teacher would approach and greet her first. It’s true, Sona would become very upset when things sometimes didn’t work out; she wouldn’t sleep all night if she hadn’t finished her homework. But, no one seemed interested in that fact. At that tender age, a child’s brain is not mature enough to understand the impact of repetitive behavioral tendencies and yet this was how a perfectionist character was developing in Sona.
In psychology, perfectionism in a person means one who is seeking perfection, striving for flawlessness and this is reinforced, consciously or not, by the notion that such a state of being is attainable. Perfectionism is expressed by trying to ensure the results of your actions are perfect or attempting to fix the flaws of the outside world. By accepting the fact that ideal things exist, perfectionism thereby refuses to accept any imperfect result, forcing the person to keep going back to work and bettering it. This phenomenon is the foundation of many neurotic disorders. Instead of feeling satisfied when making great efforts and achieving a sufficiently high quality result, perfectionists are left with feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction. This is because they see what they have done as flawed. Constant criticism increases stress levels, creating tension which in turn leads to an increased desire for perfection. Hence, a vicious cycle is created and breaking that cycle on their own is nearly impossible.
How a Good Girl Should Behave
Growing up the rules for good behavior only increased for Sona. When she started making friends at school, it turned out that not all the girls were worthy of her friendship. When her mother discovered that other than Sona, there were other straight-A students in her class, raising her hand first in class became mandatory (she would later find out that her teachers were also instructed to ask her first). Her classmates didn’t take that well and made fun of her for it. However, Sona didn’t dare tell her parents about the bullying, because that would mean that her mother’s approach to life was being ridiculed, and her mother could never be wrong.
One day when she was ten, Sona walked home with one of the boys from her class after school, none of her girlfriends were around at the time. The next day at school, she found out that her brother had beaten that boy, and when she went home, she herself earned a slap and learned a valuable lesson - never be left alone with a boy without getting the permission of your father or brother. It turned out that boys were bad. But for whatever reason, from that day on, Sona began to be ashamed of herself. When boys looked at her, she considered herself to be the bad one and not the person looking at her. Later she would wonder why she felt dirty when she herself had done nothing wrong.
When her father’s friends came to visit she had to wear proper clothes, make sure her hair was tied back and if someone asked her a question, God forbid, she answer. In those instances, she had to lower her eyes and stay quiet, otherwise sparks of anger would fly from her father’s eyes. Sona was interested in what the adults were talking about, even though she didn’t understand half of it. However, she wasn’t allowed to ask questions. The most distressful was that as much as she followed the rules, it didn’t matter, she couldn’t foresee which word or movement of hers would cause disappointment. This made her control herself more and more. However, even that turned out to be impossible, because what was acceptable one day, became unacceptable the next.
At this age a child has trouble discerning how and why another person thinks. Hence, the child has trouble accepting the fact that another person’s behavior is not a direct response to what he/she has done, but can be the result of that person’s mood, issues, objectives, etc. This is how the phenomenon called internal locus of control is developed. This is when someone starts to believe that everything that happens to them is a direct result of their own actions and gradually blame themselves for all their failures, while ignoring external factors that may play a role. As a result, they start to wrongly perceive that they are more mistaken than others, they are the reason for causing inconvenience and negative feelings in those close to them, and gradually the feeling of constant guilt comes into play.
Sona sometimes recalls the image of her mother sitting in the kitchen and her father circling around her, his hands clenched in a fist, cursing in a harsh voice. She is certain that the situation has escalated because of her, because of some misbehavior, but for the life of her, she cannot remember what she has done wrong that day. However, these were episodes, which carefree childhood memories could easily push away. Life was simple and understandable - be good and everything will be good. The rules were clear, although sometimes incomprehensible, however, punishment was inevitable, although fairly mild.
When her classmates started falling in love, in her consciousness, Sona considered it a bad thing. She can’t even remember liking or feeling attracted to someone. It was as if she lacked emotions.
Many parents, not wanting to directly reprimand their children, end up expressing their appraisal through facial expressions and emotions. This quickly and inconspicuously leads to relations based only on encouragement and criticism, leaving no space for tolerance and forgiveness. Because of this, the child unwittingly learns that his/her behavior will be closely monitored and evaluated and instead of pursuing his/her goals, seeks positive feedback. As a result, the child starts to believe that their self-worth is in their own hands, dependent solely upon their actions. However, in reality it depends on the person judging them. This model of behavior gradually makes the child let go and ignore their real dreams, because, in terms of their self-worth, trying to realize their dreams can lead to unwanted results. Instead, the child constantly takes steps to get positive feedback and in this way be able to slightly increase their self worth. In Armenia, when girls reach puberty their new found desires are condemned by society. Young girls either hide their feelings, which leads to internal anxiety during their developmental years, or they simply ignore their feelings and cast them out.
Clashing with Reality
After graduating high school with honors, Sona went to Yerevan to try to get into Yerevan State Medical University. During those years, “getting ready” for university entrance exams meant students would have to go to private tutors one-two years before graduating high school. However, Sona’s school’s principal said that as the school’s pride and joy she didn’t have to take private lessons, she could get in on her own merit. Sona recalls, “The principal said, ‘Do only Einsteins study in Yerevan? Is there no justice in this country for a girl like our Sona to have to study with a private tutor?’ My father added that they needed money to exempt my brother from military conscription and they couldn’t pay for both expenses anyway.” Sona wasn’t worried at all. She prepared for her entrance exams with her school textbooks. “I took the exams with confidence,” she said.
She received nine out of twenty on her chemistry exam. With those marks she was accepted into only one department at the university that had nothing to do with medicine.
This was the greatest disappointment of her life. Sona had truly believed in her abilities. Up to that point in her life the greatest value she had was her knowledge and her greatest merit was her model behavior and diligence. And one day she realized that even if she did everything right, it wouldn’t guarantee success. The fear she felt was so great that it overshadowed her feelings of disappointment. She only remembers feeling unprotected during that time. “I desperately wanted for someone to hug me and say that it was a lie, that life was fair, that everything would be alright with me. When I returned home, I wanted this so much that my father’s anger took me by surprise although if I had thought harder, I would’ve understood that this was the only way he would react,” Sona recalls.
By often praising children, parents and educators confuse encouragement with evaluation. The well-known pedagogical principle that it’s the effort that should be valued not the abilities is often misunderstood. Making an effort becomes the greatest value when children are praised despite what results they reach. They are often praised for things that are ordinary, creating the impression that what they’ve done is special, instead of realizing and valuing something that was truly difficult for them to do. As a result, children gradually start believing that what’s important is not acquiring objective knowledge, but how much work they put into studying. It’s indicative that these children can’t evaluate their knowledge seriously and objectively. This means that, depending on personal characteristics, these children develop different psychopathological attitudes. Some of them believe that they are not appreciated and that people are biased and dishonest towards them. They become offensive, hostile and suspicious. Others are discouraged, give up and refuse any further progress. Sona, and thousands like her, took a third path: She believed she was worse than the rest. However, she didn’t quit and decided to work harder to better herself. This allowed her to not give up, but made her even more vulnerable towards failure.
Sona soon realized that at home the attitude towards her had changed. It was as if they had lost hope in her. Moreover, they talked to her less and weren’t interested in any of her successes. They didn’t even reprimand her as often as they did. During her first year at university she would take the bus for two hours to Yerevan and back everyday. During her second year they allowed her to live with an aunt in Yerevan - transportation costs were too much. She remembers that if she ever got hungry and bought something to eat from a vendor besides the lunch she brought from home her parents would get mad at her, because she had spent two-days worth of money in one day.
Two days after her classes started her brother came “to meet with the boys” in her class. He gathered all the boys, threatening them by saying that no one should dare look at his sister the “wrong way.” She was humiliated, because there were only four boys in her class, all of them smart. She was already convinced at the time that she was the ugliest girl in her class - skinny, with a big nose and old-fashioned clothes - and that none of the boys were even interested to look at her, whether her brother threatened them or not.
“When my classmates would talk I would just stand beside them quietly and probably didn’t speak one word to them during the first year. Not only did I not talk, but when someone made a joke I was too embarrassed to even smile. I wanted to laugh, but I knew I should never open my mouth. Only my cheeks would get red. I’m like this even today. I can smile a little now, but I only know I’m happy when my cheeks get warm.”
Social phobia is an anxiety disorder where people fear being the focus of attention or showing emotion in order to avoid any negative reaction. People who are ashamed of their own emotions are people who were taught at a young age that their emotions might be unwelcoming for others. This happens when a parent doesn’t show what their child is feeling is important to them, or when the parent reacts differently to the same emotion depending on their mood or other factors.
An Independent Life
During her four years at university, Sona understood that at best she was someone with average abilities. She realized she was far behind her classmates, who were more advanced and had a wider worldview. She also found in herself positive attributes: No matter what situation she was in she never gave up or lost hope. She studied with good grades. She read books all day long at home to make up for the ones she hadn’t read when she was younger. But she never uttered a word beyond yes and no to boys. During her last year at university she was already walking confidently on the streets. She kept her head high even when boys looked at her. When she returned to her hometown she felt like a strong woman with experience and who understood life. A woman who had her own goals and desires.
When she returned home that summer Sona started thinking about getting a job. However, whenever she mentioned working she was confronted with her father’s and brother’s silent, but firm opposition. One time she dared asked why. Their response: she can never live on her own in Yerevan.
If Sona thought she had returned home as a mature person who had long proven her independence, then in the next couple of days she would once again begin feeling like a helpless child.
“My childhood was not a time of carefree games and parental love filled with nostalgia. It was a time of constant fear for me. Fear that I was not good enough, that I did not justify my parents’ expectations, that I would anger my father, upset my mother, disappoint my teacher. I would always dream that I would get to school and realize that I had forgotten something right at the moment when I had already passed the school monitor. I would go back to the entrance to ask them to let me out, but my tongue would get tied. It was as if my lips were glued shut. I would stand there like a statue and feel tortured, until I woke up.”
If the family setting is domineering, relationships become more difficult within the family when the child grows up and tries to embark on an independent adult life. If throughout the years a parent’s “affection” took on the unhealthy guise of supervision and concern about everything, then any attempt by the child for more freedom only brings tension and anxiety to both parties. If both the parents and the child don’t work on overcoming that tension, then circumstances develop with minimum resistance. This means that both parties return to the already firmly shaped model of strong supervision, which in turn creates interdependent relationships. However, more often than not, one side, the child, starts to rebel and tries to expand his/her rights. The other side, the parent or parents, resist, because they consider the child not ready for that. This tense atmosphere makes the child’s every mistake even more acutely visible, creating the impression that he/she is truly doing everything wrong. This in turn only strengthens the parents’ stance.
A few days after expressing her wish to work, the school principal and her son came to visit Sona’s family. They had come with a marriage proposal for Sona. She had known Vardan for a long time, they had gone to the same school. He was a shy boy who never stood out. When he asked her out on a date to get to know each other better, Sona agreed. A couple of minutes into their date, Sona realized she did not want to spend the rest of her life with him and she told him that. Vardan was understanding and said he would never want to live with someone who didn’t love him. They decided they would not get married no matter how much their parents insist.
A month later they were married. The newlyweds went to their new home holding hands, but their backs bent, partners in tragedy They spent their first night as man and wife in different rooms. In the beginning they were both only thinking about themselves, shocked by the injustice done to them and upset at each other for not being able to oppose the marriage. Sona acknowledges that if blaming each other was their only issue, then at least they would have started to talk. However, in reality they were embarrassed from each other and that is why no one took the first step to speak. Some time later they finally started sleeping in the same bed. When that happened it became clear that sex wasn’t working out. After trying several times they stopped, because Vardan was getting more distressed and strained. This is how they lived, two strangers in one house.
“I was never really emotional. Yes, I felt things inside, but because I couldn’t express them it was as if out of disappointment they would go away. But for me those years were worse than a bad dream. I felt lonely every second, I thought there was no one more lonely than me in this world. There was no one to hold my hand and say a few comforting words. My parents were busy with my brother who was studying at Yerevan State Medical University. If I ever said anything, they started giving me advice on what I was doing wrong. I didn’t need that. I already considered myself a freak of nature.”
Sona’s husband became more isolated, because he was constantly failing in his endeavors and their children were young.
“I would constantly hug my children like crazy. But they couldn’t understand what was going on inside me. Whoever I speak to seems to have this problem within their families as well. My mother also lived like this, and today she has this problem as well. If she wasn’t so scared she would admit this. Thousands of people are in this situation. For years I was constantly tired during the day, for years I couldn’t taste food, for years I couldn’t get myself to read a book or do something for pleasure.”
Difficulty to express feelings is a precondition for concealed depression. When people have this type of depression, they usually mask their symptoms, thereby it is often a condition that is unseen and unrecognized. On the exterior it looks like a person is doing well, when in fact they’re in a very dire mental state and require professional help. According to global epidemic trends, it’s estimated that around 30,000 people in Armenia suffer from hidden depression.
With the help of his parents, Vardan was able to get a position in the regional government. He was excited in the beginning. He would come home and, surprisingly for Sona, would talk about his day, what he had said, what he had undertaken. Sona started believing that there was hope for them to be happy. Vardan, however, soon discovered that he wasn’t able to carry out his responsibilities properly, because he was too soft and lenient. The excitement from those first few days turned into deep disappointment. He would get agitated quickly, get angry at the children, or he would start crying uncontrollably for hours. Sona understood that he was in a bad state and felt she should help him. However, whenever she tried to say something her words would get caught in her throat. She would sit beside him, put her hands on his. However, she would be so embarrassed to show her feelings that she could hardly breathe and would leave the room.
”One day I took the children to their grandmother’s. I went to the store and returned home. I made dinner and started cleaning up the house. When I went into our bedroom I found Vardan, hanging from the ceiling. I approached him and held his hand - it was already cold. I felt the same emptiness inside. I tried to force myself to cry, but only my feet froze. I stood there for what felt like eternity. I didn’t shed a single tear.”
Sona remembers how she called her brother, the hospital and the police. She remembers how one by one everyone interrogated her so she could explain again and again in detail what happened. No one, not even her mother, touched her. She just stood in front of everyone as if she was on trial. She remembers when all the necessary arrangements were done, she didn’t know where to go. She felt so bad about herself that she prayed nobody would ask that she come stay with them. She remembers the way everyone spoke to her, as if she was to blame for Vardan’s death. She remembers how her brother convinced her that Vardan’s mother would take her to court and she would definitely be found guilty. She remembers how they found out that she had gone to church several times and had spoken with a man and how because of that they called her immoral. She remembers how her younger sister, who was already a student in university, convinced her to go see a therapist and how her father told everyone about it, thinking that this would prove her innocence. She remembers that two months later she returned to her parents home and her father demanded she eat separately from them.
Sometimes when people are trying to find someone to blame they usually target those who are the weakest. Unfortunately, this is still widespread in our society. People try to analyze a situation, but instead of finding the reason they look for guilt. They don’t realize that the person who they think is guilty needs to be protected the most.
Often we don’t realize how much pain we cause our loved ones. Starting from childhood parents replace love with nurturing. This approach deprives children from the opportunity to live on their own terms. Parents give advice when all the child really needs is for them to just to sit beside them․ This can further deepen feelings of loneliness. When parents put responsibilities on the child, instead of taking on some of those responsibilities themselves, they increase the feeling of guilt instead of alleviating it. We don’t notice how children grow up deprived from things that are vitally necessary to them, and then we blame them claiming that they can’t do anything.
Sona’s situation may seem like a singularly tragic and extreme case. However, in reality, separate elements of this story take place in hundreds and thousands of families under the illusion of love and nurturing and become part of a larger vicious cycle, passed down from generation to generation.
“I now live with my parents. I’m scared to return to my own home. I live like a stranger and have no rights. They’ve taken my phone so I won’t call the ‘wrong place.’ They don’t let me leave the house unsupervised. I can’t say anything to my children in front of my parents, because they immediately refute what I say in front of them. I haven’t held money in my hand for four months. They open my door to see what I’m doing, and then silently close it and leave. But one thing I know for sure. I am not to blame for what happened. I’m worthy of another life. I’m 32 years old and for the first time I feel powerful enough to be free. I still don’t know how I’m going to do that, but I promise I will, because for the first time in my life I’ve learned how to smile.”