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Archive for April 21st, 2009

On my blog entry entitled Aftereffects of Childhood Abuse: Picking, a reader posted the following comment:

Do you think picking can be a verbal thing also? I remember being told by my parents and ex partners that I would often “pick” at them. Psychologically pick things apart that were most times relatively minor things. And “pick” is the exact word that was used too! What do you think? ~ Mia

I have been thinking about Mia’s question, and I am not sure of the answer. I tend to see this form of “picking” as different from picking at your own body. I don’t think it is about “picking” to relieve tension. Instead, I suspect that it is about testing boundaries and how solid a relationship is. I see “picking things apart” as different from “picking at” a person, so I will deal with one at a time.

Picking Things Apart

I see “picking things apart” as trying to understand how a relationship works. As abused children, we tried to figure out how to avoid being abused. We thought that if we good enough, smart enough, or [fill in the blank] enough, then we could avoid being abused. We thought that we always missed the mark, which made us responsible for the abuse.

So, we “pick things apart” to understand the dynamics of the relationship. We want to understand how X led to Y so we can either bring about the same result or avoid the result, as the case may be. It makes perfect sense for a child abuse survivor to pick apart a relationship to this level of detail, but it can be unsettling for a person who does not understand the need to do this.

Picking at a Person

Then, there is “picking at” a person, which is different. In this case, we needle another person to get a rise out of him or her. I can think of a couple of reasons why we might do this.

The tension of knowing that abuse is coming can be just as bad as the abuse itself. Abused children will sometimes “pick at” the abuser just to get the incident over with. I hear this from adoptive parents who are parenting traumatized children. The kids will go out of their way to annoy the parents. The reason is because they expect abuse to come, and they want to get it over with. It takes a long time for traumatized children to realize that their adoptive parents are different from their abusive birth parents.

We might also “pick at” a person to test the boundaries. The person says that he loves you, but you cannot trust it. So, you test the boundaries to see if he really will continue to love you, even when you do X, Y, or Z.

I do believe that psychological “picking” is a normal aftereffect of child abuse. It is just one more area of our lives that we need to heal.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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