In my family, we showed our love for one another by making fun of one another. We bonded over making fun of one another. In fact, I learned that “being easy to make fun of” was one of my top-valued qualities.
My family told me that my voice was too squeaky and annoying. That I was forgetful and irresponsible. That I was ditzy and “blonde.” That I talked too much.
But they said all of these things in a “loving” way.
In a story I still found hilarious until a year or two ago, my mom would pick us up every day from school. Because I socialized a lot, I was usually the last one in the car, so everyone would play a game: Let’s see how long Demetra can continue to talk without anyone responding until she notices.
Sometimes we would get most of the way home.
Today I wince at that story. I feel such sadness for the girl bursting with excitement about her day, only to realize that everyone was pretending to want to hear her speak. But it is telling that I still found this funny, so many years later.
We attract the behaviors in our partners that remind us of the kind of love (or lack thereof) we experience in our families, and I followed suit. My last partner in particular “teased” me in the same way my family did. He laughed at how much I talked, how messy I was, how dramatic I was, how emotional I was.
Today I would term this “criticizing,” but I didn’t think of it that way initially. I thought of it as love, because it was said in a joking tone, and that’s what had been taught to me.
The reason I didn’t notice was not only because I was used to it, but also because the way we often get used to things is by internalizing them and making them mean things about us.
I grew to learn that criticism was an acceptable, good way to show love. So that was how I began to talk to myself, too.
I became my own sort of internal police. I learned to laugh at myself – which in this context meant that I learned that these things about me were things that weren’t valuable, they were things that were meant to be laughed at. I knew my family loved me, but I also knew these things weren’t good ways to be – because deep down, that criticism hurt.
No one was celebrating my sensitivity, my self-expression, my stories, after all. They were laughing at them, bonding with each other about them – and I felt left out.
It is often too painful as children to decide that something is wrong with our family systems; instead we decide that something must be wrong with us. I decided it must make sense that I was made fun of, because I was annoying, I did talk too much, I was dramatic and emotional.
I learned to keep my voice from going too high. To keep from squealing. To watch how much I spoke. To monitor any language that sounded too dramatic. To tell myself that no one wanted to hear me talk (it can STILL surprise me to this day, when I’m surrounded by friends who give me their full, serious presence when I’m speaking).
And the culture around me backed this up.
Patriarchy splits us into pieces, into separate senses of selves. Boys learn to have honor, success, importance, but not feelings – so they make fun of one another as “gay,” “pussy,” “sissy.” Boys get to have a powerful self, but not an emotional self. Often they shove that part down, and instead their emotional pain turns into violence.
Girls learn to be good, to be selfless, to be beautiful – but to not have desires or opinions that honor themselves. Girls get made fun of for being ugly, for having the wrong body type, for being too loud, selfish, or bossy, for being too shrill or sexual or prude – basically for any way they choose to express themselves that does not fall perfectly in line with what is expected from them at any given moment.
When we learn that criticism is love, our boundaries get confused.
Most of us learned that the child making fun of us on the playground probably just has a crush on us, after all.
The president of the United States has mocked disabled people, women, fat women, people of different ethnicities – the list goes on. He built a campaign on this; on his ability to make fun of and put down others. The best way to bring people together is by giving them a common enemy; copywriters know this well, anyone looking at history knows this well. If we can make people feel like they are special, that they are better than others, they will want to join our cause.
They will want to feel special to avoid looking at the pain and vulnerability they are feeling in themselves.
Trump does this easily by giving everyone a nickname – Crooked Hillary, Sleepy Joe, Goofy Elizabeth Warren. I look at this man and I see a man who was never shown love in his childhood, was never allowed to be himself, feels so much shame about himself and his vulnerabilities that he projects it all over the world around him to feel better (incidentally, it seems like a book about exactly this is coming out shortly).
A girl from my high school spent the better part of last year following me, her friends tagging her in my posts, watching my stories – solely to make fun of me with her friends (she still might do this – I haven’t looked). We are nearing 30 years old. I feel sad about this, and what I wonder is: What am I showing her about herself that feels so deeply terrifying to witness?
People who are nice to themselves do not make fun of others.
It’s actually not that vast of a spectrum; though the critique by Trump and the critique by my family are rooted in two entirely different energies, both occur because of avoidance. Both are afraid of vulnerability. Both are afraid of getting hurt.
Criticism is never love.
And what I am pointing out is that it is relatively easy to recognize criticism when it’s meant to be mean, when it’s obviously cruel.
But when this criticism is rooted in family systems, or rooted in otherwise “loving” relationships, it is easy to forgive or even miss it altogether.
Even recently, I can find myself thinking, is it REALLY that big of a deal?
That is, until I spend time with a partner and friends who literally never make fun of me ever, and manage to show their love for me without cutting me down in the process.
I know that my family loves me; I also love my family. I’m sure my ex loved me. But criticism is still not love.
We make fun of in others that which we cannot bear to accept about ourselves. We make fun of others to hide our own vulnerability; to guard against our own capability to love and be loved. We make fun of others when the feeling of love is uncomfortable. When our fear of being hurt by love is too painful.
Love is not just a feeling. Love requires action. We can claim to feel love and still have our actions be abusive and harmful at the same time. Feeling love is not enough.
We all know people who “love” us who do not act loving. Is that love? Is that enough for you? You must decide – but it’s hard to decide when all that’s ever been modeled to you tried to make you small.
When I began dating Jordan, it confused me. He was so NICE to me all the time; part of me wanted to reject it, to shove it away. Feeling someone being deeply nice to me, kind, considerate, loving – it felt gross. As much as I craved it, it felt awkward. More than that – it felt downright dangerous to a part of my body.
It was not familiar.
Sometimes I would thank Jordan for being so nice to me, for not criticizing me, for not getting annoyed at me (remember, I thought a good amount of my behavior deserved annoyance).
He would look at me with surprise, confusion crossing his face. “I LOVE you,” he’d say, as if it was impossible in his mind for those two things to coincide. And I would cry.
Gradually I began to understand that because Jordan truly loved me, and wasn’t afraid to truly show his love for me, he also genuinely loved the parts of me that had always been criticized. He loved my voice, he loved my forgetfulness, he loved how I can be messy, how fully I feel and experience all of life.
The dissonance happened once I began to do my own inner work. As I did this inner work, it gradually began to occur to me that I wasn’t all that nice to myself on a day-to-day basis. My family was critical; society was critical of women. I turned this in on myself, and it was so normal, so constant, that I did not notice.
And then when I finally did notice, I began to be nicer to myself. Looking back, I can see how much that was what really started to fracture my relationship with my ex. I was growing, I was being nicer to myself, and he was not. The difference became too huge; it split us apart. Suddenly I was feeling hurt by and reacting to things that never used to bother me before.
I started telling him to stop criticizing me. This is just how I am, he would say, confused.
When we broke up, it was the first time I felt fully and completely allowed to be myself. My inner voice had calmed down, it had stopped monitoring my every move (let’s be real, it’s still there – but I’m aware of it now, so it has much less power).
I had never felt so completely free; such permission to be exactly who I was. There wasn’t anyone there to criticize me, it was just me.
You could say that I was finally truly loving myself.
People make fun of one another – in a “loving” way – when they are too afraid to open deeply to the vulnerability or depth of actual love.
Teasing is not love. It is a way to avoid love. It is also a way to avoid looking at all the pain that is getting in the way of love.
You do not have to pretend that it is love.
And your boundaries, your ability to honor and love yourself, your ability to repair the split selves society has caused so you can bring yourself back to being a whole, healthy person… all of those things will be better off for it.
If you liked this piece, you might also enjoy:
Get exclusive content
I write a weekly-ish newsletter helping people feel free to fully express themselves, experience more pleasure, and love who they are. Want to join?
Thank you for subscribing!
If you receive an error message when trying to subscribe, please use this link instead.