They F*** You Up by Oliver James

Book reviews is something I wanted to be part of this blog. I actually have a list of books I want to talk about here, but when I am in front of the blank page, I want to summarise them so well, without forgetting any of the details, that the whole thing ends up becoming complex and too time-consuming.

The other day, I was explaining to one of my best friends the content of They fuck you up, and thought I might be just easier to simply do it like that. Like if I was explaining it to a friend.

They fuck you up is a book that explores how our family and the way we were raised by your parents (or main care-givers), has affected us in our life – making us the adults we are today.

Some people can consider this a bit of a “dark” or “intense” book, but in my experience (with myself and others), it is always positive and helpful to understand yourself a little bit better.

It also makes you think about the kind of parenting your received and about the kind of parenting you want to provide to your children.

Hoping not to simplify it too much, the book comes to say a few interesting points:

Being raised by our loving and responsible real parents is generally the best option (“obviously”, you may add…)

As children, we need constant love, care and attention. We also have a direct undeniable attraction to our birth parents, especially to our mothers when we are just young babies, so separation from her at an early age is likely to create a trauma of some sort in the future. The baby cannot speak but wonders, where is that smell, that sound, that warmth, that voice, that hear-beat I knew? That makes a baby go into an alert-status, and this affects their trust negatively, potentially making them feel unprotected, with their needs not met – the world is a dangerous place and they are not safe.

If the real parents are not responsive, being raised by a stable and an emphatic care-giver is the second best.  Jumping from carer to carer is definitely not beneficial for a child, and the longer they spend in an institution, the more at risk he/she is emotionally.

However, the book also empathises that since children need love, stability and constant care, they need to be able to trust and be attached to a (what the author calls), an “empathetic” and responsive carer – someone who can attend the fragile child’s needs, love and stimulate them. In the extreme cases, where the birth parents are not able to provide this (such as violence, addiction, or any case where the child’s suffers deprivation), then having a non-biological but capable carer would be better, and do more good to the child, in the short and long-term.

It mentioned the case of prince Charles, who had an absent mother, who went of travelling for long periods, and a very unloving and strict father. This affected him negatively, but the author mentions that the constant and stable care and presence of his nanny, made up for some of the potential consequences of his parents damaging upbringing.

We all play a role within our family and siblings. The gender and order we are born at can influence the adults we become.

Firstborn children tend to be more self-assured, assertive, competitive and dominant. There are many leaders that are firstborns, with the author giving many famous examples. They are more likely to identify with the values of their parents, do better at school or in their careers, and be obedient to paternal authority. They are also more anxious about their status, more emotionally intense and less quick to recover from upsets. More vengeful and prone to anger.

Lastborns are very different overall. They are less self-confident that firstborns, more altruistic, emotionally emphatic, less prone to anger, more social and easy-going. They are more open to experiences, adventure, more rebellious and be less conventional. More likely to go and travel the world, or to enjoy high-risk hobbies or contact sports.

The author says that the major reason for those rules is that, depending on our birth order, we adopt different strategies to get our parents attention. He also argues that this is why we tend to be more different from siblings born immediately before or after us.

The younger the child, the deeper any potential trauma will be rooted in their brain – with 0-3 years being a critically special period for any future issues.

Specifically, the author says that we script our sense of self in our first 6 months, our relationship patterns in our first 3 year and our conscience aged 3 to 6.

The author makes a very interesting point here. It asks the reader why siblings are sometimes so different when they are all born within the same family and from the same parents? The family unit can be the same, he argues, but the moment/timing our parents are at, as well as the family environment, can vary a lot from child to child.

The family life can be radically different for the parents between baby number 1 and baby number 2. With mum and dad having drifted apart, or maybe being much closer together. Maybe they are more financially stable, or maybe the opposite is happening and they grew up in uncertainty. Maybe they divorced shortly after and baby number two was born in the middle of the turmoil. Endless reasons, but the bottom line is that the moment the parents are in (when rising their babies) does shape them greatly.

In fact, I remember it had a questionnaire to do to your mother,  and included questions such as whether she suffered from major losses of close relatives or friends, depression or major stress during the first months of our life.

Depressive scripts make high achievers, or control freaks

Coming back to babies and children who feel the world is a dangerous place, when they feel their environment is a bit “crazy” or their house is not “normal”, that makes them create security systems as a survival measure. This could be anything they can have control over when their environment is so out of control. Obsessive cleaning, jealousy, or inner controlling habits could be potential results of this, including extreme cases such as self-harming, addictions or eating disorders.

The book also mentions that, generally speaking, many outstanding achievers come from family scripts affected by loss, instability or depression. “Their diligence and intelligence are a lifetime struggle to repair damaged self-esteem and to prove their worth”, says the book. They can develop a great determination to trust no one and seek maximum control of their environment, so they will never be let down again. They could also feel very strongly about social injustices and end up being hurt anti-social people, angry against the system. Interesting, the book mentions how father loss could led to over-achieving in high-status or lucrative roles – sees as masculine; while mother loss tends to led to success in fields more creative and artistic, such as writing or poetry – more feminine culturally related.


The second part of the book goes in depth into the different relationship profiles existing among adults, and again it remits each of them to our childhood experiences and wounds, with numerous and very interesting examples.

Overall, I found this book very fascinating – from a personal, sociologically and psychological point of view. I would recommend it to anyone curious in knowing more about how our early life experiences shaped us as adults; to better understand them, heal and develop our emotional health as adults, loving partners and future parents.


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