I wanted to say something about speaking the truth.
I have often found myself in conversations with people discussing personal circumstances that are gridlocked. Marriages are in turmoil. People feel unheard, invisible, and helpless. I’ve been in that situation. Or, perhaps it’s something familial. Fathers are still foisting their high and hidden expectations upon their grown sons causing their sons to feel emasculated and inadequate in other spheres of their lives outside of the father-son relationship. Whatever the case may be, when I find myself talking to people who feel stuck in situations like these I always find myself saying, “Speak up!” The usual response is: “What would that change?” followed up by, “My husband will never change so I have to just make myself as small as possible,” or “My father has been dishing out demands and ridiculously high expectations since I was a kid. He expected me to talk when I was an infant and walk at 10 months. If Neil Armstrong could walk on the moon, then why couldn’t I run on it? I didn’t even run track. He will never see me for who I am. Nothing I say will change anything. What’s the point?”
I understand this. I have lived with this view and experience in most of my key relationships.
When I was growing up, I was the romantic comedy queen not to mention all the classic old movie romances. I grew up in a sprawling Southern Victorian house with almost too much space so, fortunately, we had a lot of room to get away from each other. Oh, and that white porch swing on that wraparound porch allowed me too much room to be dramatic. I would tuck myself away in the “rec room” upstairs and watch Grace Kelly in “The Swan”, Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron in “Gigi”, Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in “Funny Face”, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in “Charade”, and, of course, I could never forget Hitchcock’s classic leading men and ladies in “Rear Window”, “To Catch A Thief”, and “The Birds”! And then “The Princess Bride” happened to me. I was done for. I was completely slain when I saw “Room with A View”. And, then I was resurrected when I discovered Jane Austen–O, Mr. Darcy…Mr. Darcy…Mr. Darcy. In my head, love and relationships were going to be like that. My husband was going to be a mélange of Mr. Emerson, Westley/The Dread Pirate Roberts, Mr. Darcy, Gaston Lachaille, and Cary Grant. Oh, and he would dance like Fred Astaire in cowboy boots. How’s that for high standards? It explains my constant sense of deprivation and disappointment every moment of high school. I would moan, “Where are you, Mr. Darcy? Where are you, Westley? Where are you, Mr. Emerson?” I wish I could say that I am embellishing my memory, but I’m not. My mother used to call me Sarah Bernhardt for my constant displays of drama. I hated that nickname.
All this is to say that I came into marriage with obviously high expectations. I wanted the fairy tale. I think I expected to be rescued. The more I read about the psychology of adult children of personality disordered parents, the more I am able to to understand myself. I am better able to organize my past and present emotional experiences and give feelings and responses a context.
I have written in the past that I found life coaching, which I did for six months after three years of intense psychotherapy, to be far more challenging largely because a life coach does not carry you as a therapist does. Therapists share the load, but life coaches direct you to do your own work–all of it Since my therapist transitioned into being my life coach, he knew me well, and he felt quite free to be blunt with me. His message? “If you aren’t happy, then the problem is you. No one is responsible for your happiness except you. So, define ‘happiness’ in the context of your own life and begin crafting a life that helps you take responsibility for what happiness means to you.” This might not be a shocking sentiment to any of us but putting it in a context can be quite shocking.
“I’m not happy in my marriage.”….”It’s not your husband’s job to make you happy. That’s your job. So, what are you going to do about your level of happiness in your relationship?”
“I’m not happy quite a lot.”….”What are you going to do about that?”
“Can we just go back to therapy? I feel like I’m getting slapped in the face repeatedly for 30 minutes, and I feel like you like it.”….”No, we can’t, and I know that this is very hard for you. You’ve been in the therapeutic environment for a long time. You’re used to finding problems and attempting to solve them. You aren’t used to building a life for yourself. It’s time to starting learning empowerment. It’s time for you to start learning to see positives. Not just problems. It’s time to start answering the question: What do I want? Not just ‘What don’t i want?'”
Life coaching was the beginning of my learning empowerment. It’s where I learned that I could speak for myself. The first time that I started to say ‘no’ came about in life coaching, and I started acting like a toddler when I finally found my ‘no’. I said no all the time! I mean it. I even said no to things I wanted to say yes to. My therapist found it hilarious. No, no, no, no, no! People called me to ask for favors. NO! People wanted something from me. NO! Would I like to volunteer? NO! I looked quite self-involved, but I was really doing something that I should have done years ago–individuate. When we individuate, we find our voice.
When you find your voice, something happens to you. In the beginning, you want to use it all the time, and sometimes you misuse it. Just like toddlers who say ‘NO!’ when they really mean ‘maybe’ or ‘yes’, you might find yourself throwing your newly discovered weight around. The point of this isn’t intent. It’s principle. We need to know that we can speak and be heard. We need to know that we can lay down a boundary and that boundary will be respected. Using our voices is actually identity work. That’s what is happening when 18-month old toddlers begin communicating intent. The strength of their ‘no’ is really meant to convey: “You are not me, and I am not you. Let me be me.”
Why does this matter? Recall what I wrote at the beginning of this post about speaking up. In my last post I mentioned that a friend of mine referred to me as a battered wife because I had the intent to engage my mother. She viewed this as an exercise in futility. She asked me directly, “What would your engaging her change?” She missed the point. I have no illusions that engaging my mother will change her, but engaging my mother will change me and fortify the delicate neural connections I’ve been attempting to forge regarding identity. When we engage a perpetrator with the intent to stand our ground, tell our story, and self-advocate, we do so for ourselves. We are actually coming against being re-victimized over and over again, putting down a boundary, and adding weight and substance to our own voices.
Many people who grew up with BPD/NPD/APD parents are terrified of them. They would sooner cut off a finger than confront their parent. This paralyzing fear resides in the brain and body, and, while they can provide evidence from their childhood that this fear is rational, this fear has no place in an adult who no longer lives with a parent. This sort of entrenched paralysis isn’t benign. It roots itself in a person and invades other areas of a person’s life like a cancer. The cure for this fear is, in part, learning empowerment because when you are empowered and able to self-advocate, then the object of your fear isn’t all-powerful anymore.
I experienced this for myself a few years ago the first time I told my mother no with my voice. I had written her quite a few letters before that moment, some with the help of my therapist, which specified boundaries and even had the word ‘no’ written. The written word, however, is not the same as the spoken word. I am very comfortable writing down my thoughts, but, in my mother’s presence, be it on the phone or in person, I am rarely able to advocate for myself. I fold. I, however, chose to tell her no for the first time in my life, and as soon as that word passed over my vocal chords it felt like adamant fortified my spine in that instant. I grew tall in the next breath. I trembled and my mouth grew dry, but I stood my ground and let my voice be heard. She seethed and cried. She attacked me, but, to me, it was worth it. It was the best moment of my life. I let all those years of effort and therapy quicken me. I had arrived. After I hung up the phone, I was completely triggered and shaking so badly that I had to take a hot shower to settle myself. I didn’t look like I had just won a war. I was drained and exhausted, but something inside me had shifted. I had crossed into a new space, and I was not going back to being the silent victim.
This is why we speak up. Does it change others? Often it does not, but it changes us. Every time we speak up, use our voice, choose to speak the truth rather than choose passive silence, we are actually pursuing our own mental health. We are demonstrating what it is to have integrity. We are demonstrating that which we want for those who are perpetrating abuse. I want my mother to take ownership of her mental health and happiness. How could I tell her to pursue such a thing if I sit in silence and say nothing when she behaves so poorly? How could I insist that she seek help for herself if I won’t even take responsibility for my own happiness by falling back on a passive declaration like, “Why bother saying anything? It doesn’t change anything.”
This is what it means to take responsibility for your happiness. It starts with learning to use your voice and learning to speak up. We advocate for ourselves not to change others but because it brings long-lasting change to us. This is reason enough.