Undoing the Lessons of Abuse
There is also a time in all of our lives when we become the thing we could not understand. We find ourselves lying in bed with the covers over our head, afraid to come out and face what is on the outside. We have all had that one thing that caused us to retreat to our beds, to shut out the world, to shut out life. To cry. To yell. For me, that one thing was my grandfather.
I remember the day my grandfather came to live with us. He appeared out of the blue, this short, wrinkled thing that reminded me of the old guy on Fraggle Rock. So how bad could he be, right? He always wore this fuzzy brown and orange cardigan. He spent most of his time watching Channel 13, the public announcement station for our small Oklahoma town. All day long, the screen would alter between solid lines of blue, green, and red and bold large print announcing the Bingo Meeting at the Local Union #202, the Pancake Breakfast at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, etc. We didn’t talk much. I can only imagine the things he had seen and done during his long life, but he took all of those stories to the grave and left a far more interesting one behind.
The moment in my life when my grandfather began abusing me was a beginning, a turning point. To be sure, there were many lessons learned, but the two that shaped me the most were that being vulnerable only leads to trouble and that I had to handle things on my own. Undoing the lessons learned from this beginning has not always been easy. Yet I tackled them, put them to rest, and “reshaped” who I am. What I came to understand is that we do have a choice in the matter. We do not have to stay broken and burdened.
The fact that we have the freedom to change
I came across that quote in one of my textbooks. It speaks directly to our journey of rewiring and reshaping who we are. I particularly like the idea that our existence is never fixed or finished. In relation to the outcomes of abuse, it can sometimes seem like we are just stuck with these results. Yet, this just is not the case.
“is hard to face up to, so we tend to invent an excuse by saying, ‘I can’t change now because of my past conditioning.’ Sartre called excuses ‘bad faith.’ No matter what we have been, we can make choices now and become something quite different. We are condemned to be free. To choose is to become committed: This is the responsibility that is the other side of freedom. Sartre’s view was that at every moment, by our actions, we are choosing who we are being. Our existence is never fixed or finished. Every one of our actions represents a fresh choice.”
As I work with clients, one of the main hurdles to overcome is the idea that we have no choice in how we think, respond, or feel. Whatever our past experiences, we are not condemned to forever be in a fixed state of reliving or rehashing. Sometimes, just noticing that we have a choice in things is a huge first step toward transformation.
One of my clients believed he had no choice about how he reacted to confrontation or disapproval. For example, when his co-worker made an off-the-cuff comment that he had dropped the ball, he responded by railing against this comment for twenty minutes, leaving himself and everyone else wondering why he had been so defensive. He was aware of this and wanted to change this behavior, but was stuck believing it was just how he was built—there was nothing he could do about it.
As we explored his fears and concerns, we found the false belief that was driving his behavior, “If other people are disappointed in me, I will end up alone.” This false belief raised the stakes for him every time he experienced disapproval. He did the work to challenge the false belief so that his reactivity to disapproval decreased. This allowed him to embrace his freedom to choose to respond to confrontation or disappointment in a way that was even-tempered instead of over-reactive.
What have you been telling yourself that you have no choice about?
Regardless of where you are in your journey, you have been making choices all along to bring you to this point. Some of those choices may have actually led you to achieving some of the steps in recovery already!
Check out this Indications of Recovery list (adapted from Shelter from the Storm):
- I am willing to face the abuse and acknowledge the hurt and the pain.
- I understand that the abuse was a violation.
- I have an increased awareness of my value and worth.
- I can list significant others I can trust.
- I can share thoughts and feelings about the abuse with others if I choose to do so.
- I recognize relationship tendencies that avoid honesty and intimacy.
- I am overcoming feelings of shame and guilt.
Look at the list you created of things you have been telling yourself you have no choice about. What would you do or say differently if you were to embrace your freedom to choose? Once you have identified what you would do differently, give it a try!
Pay particular attention to the outcomes of choosing powerfully. How does it feel? How do people respond? What becomes possible or present in your life as a result?