The title of this post is the title of the article from which I am citing the excerpts in this post and in the posts to come. I came across “See Yourself Differently” by Isabelle Taubes in the June 2010 UK Edition of Psychologies Magazine. I don’t think that Taubes is breaking new ground in this article, but she very succinctly brings to the forefront the myriad issues which make body image such a complex problem for women. Since I cannot find this article archived online, I will share longer excerpts here:
“The relationship we have with our body is constantly fluctuating between love, rejection and acceptance. Every morning when we look in the mirror, we see something different. If we’ve had a night of tender caresses with a lover, we might see a desirable body. After a bad night’s sleep the mirror is merciless–bags, wrinkles, bad skin…Our relationship with our own reflection is wracked with insecurity. One critical look can make us feel like an unattractive blob, while a seductive smile can reassure us and put a spring in our step.
‘We attach enormous importance to our appearance,’ says psychotherapist Didier Prades, ‘but it’s impossible to see ourselves as a whole. Our vision of ourselves is inevitably fragmented.’ This is why we expose ourselves to merciless examinations in which each body part is scrutinised (sic) and judged as a separate entity: ‘I like my shoulders but not my thighs, the stomach’s all right but my bottom’s terrible…’
‘There is no such thing as a body that can simply be,’ says Susie Orbach, in her book Bodies (Profile). Orbach, author of the seminal Fat Is A Feminist Issue, examines how we judge our bodies by external standards in a way that makes our relationship with them riven with dissatisfaction. ‘Disguised as preoccupation, health concern or moral endeavor, almost everyone has a rhetoric about trying to do right by their body, which reveals a concern that the body is not all right as it is and that the body is a suitable, indeed an appropriate, focus for our malaise, aspiration and energy.’
Our intolerance of what we perceive as imperfections is partly caused by the desire for a slim, firm body, but that certainly isn’t the whole story. Our relationship with our bodies is fraught with difficulty because the image we have of ourselves usually bears no relation to reality.
‘At 16, I felt like a skinny little nobody,’ says Helen, 52. ‘This was basically because my mother constantly told me that’s what I was. Then, just before I left for my first holiday by myself, my father said, “Watch out for the boys! A pretty girl like you–they won’t leave you alone.” I was astonished. After that I started to see myself differently. And naturally I threw myself into the arms of the first boy who paid my any attention. When I look back at photos from that period, I can see that actually I was lovely and not a tragic skeleton as my mother had always implied.’ (Psychologies, 105)
We all have a 16 year-old Helen inside us. This young woman’s mother imposed a false view upon her–“You are a skinny little nobody”. Why? The mother-daughter relationship is fraught with difficulty. I will devote more than one post to this topic, I’m sure. What I want to point out is that, as Taube writes, Helen’s self-image “bears no relation to reality”. Maybe Helen was petite or small-framed, but she was not a “nobody”. As an impressionable young woman, she believed her mother. Later, her father offered her an alternative opinion–“You are pretty.” Perhaps Helen had never thought of herself as pretty, but now that her father called her “pretty” she was going to believe that instead. It’s easier when these alternative opinions come at a younger age, I think. There is less time for the “untruths” to embed themselves in our consciousness. We can see the truth more clearly, and, therefore, choose to believe it more easily.
There is no point to reading this (or writing this) if it doesn’t get us thinking. So, try to remember a particularly influential “untruth” that was told to you when you were impressionable and vulnerable. The first thing that comes to my mind would be a conversation that I had with my mother. I was 19 years-old, and I had recently been diagnosed with a seizure disorder. I was not diagnosed by a neurologist but rather an internist who was not very familiar with anticonvulsants. I was, therefore, overly medicated with antiquated drugs. I was a zombie. One side effect of the drugs was weight gain. My mother had always struggled with her weight. She always thought herself to be fat even though she never was. I, on the other hand, had always been a string bean. I was nearly 6 feet tall by 17 years, and puberty was very late. She had always watched from the shadows with a jealous eye as I wore short shorts and tank tops with no bra oblivious to the world around me. After a month on the anticonvulsants I had gained over 10 pounds, and I felt uncomfortable in my skin. I could feel my thighs rubbing together. My clothes were tight. My breasts were larger. My face was rounder. I didn’t quite look like me anymore. So, I did what most girls do. I cried, and then I went to my mom. She sat down next to me on my grandparents’ couch. She put her arm around me, and I put my head on her shoulder. She quietly hushed me while gently rubbing my back. I shared my feelings with her; it came pouring out of me–all the frustration, the self-consciousness, and the insecurity. As I wiped my tears she said, “I understand, honey. You see, you and I, we just aren’t little. We are big girls. Get used to it.” It was like a bomb going off inside me. She wasn’t comforting me. She had been waiting for this day all my life, waiting for me to be like her (or at least how she believed herself to be)–big. From that moment on, I have not been able to shake the feeling of being “big”. I feel oafish, hefty, large, big-boned, unfeminine even. Men are supposed to be big. Not women. Right? (This is my neurotic self talking here) So, that is one of my stumbling blocks; one of my “untruths” that I essentially agreed to believe. Had there been another person in the room when my mother dropped that load of crap on me who offered another opinion like– “What you are experiencing is a side-effect of the medications that the doctor prescribed. It is not because you have done something wrong. In fact, let’s see if we can get a different medication for you. Until we can change it, I want you to remember that you are a strong, intelligent, capable, and beautiful young woman who is just experiencing a rough time. This too shall pass, and your weight will get back to normal. And, you know what? You’re beautiful no matter what. Oh, and you are NOT big.”–would I have believed it? Yes. That is so much more appealing than the other choice.
Here are a few suggested exercises. Pick a lie. Just one. Write it down. Now, if you could go back in time and tell your younger self the truth, what would you say? Write that down, too. If you feel strong enough, then imagine yourself counseling your younger self. Tell her (or him) the truth that you wish your younger self had learned and internalized. Imagine yourself sitting next to her, comforting her in her pain, looking her in the eye, and speaking true words–words of encouragement and kindness. This kind of exercise can be very healing. Role-play the conversation perhaps. Speak the words of your younger self out loud, and then be who you are today speaking the truth to your younger self. This can be very empowering. If doing these exercises is too painful, then don’t. Sometimes this sort of work needs to be done with a therapist. That’s okay. If you feel like sharing your experiences, then please do. Knowing that we aren’t alone in our struggles somehow makes it easier.
In yesterday’s post, I discussed Ingre’s “La Grande Odalisque” and its reception in 19th c. Paris. Ingre depicted the concubine unrealistically. Professionals in the field of anatomy have commented on Ingre’s work saying that the concubine’s spine would need five more vertebrae to curve in the manner in which Ingre depicts. Her arms are not of equal length. Her pelvis is not angled correctly. Of course, most of Ingre’s choices are stylistic in nature as this work is influenced by the Mannerists who preferred elongated limbs and necks. Parisians would no doubt know this as the Paris Salon was one of their sources of entertainment–“Hey, let’s go to the Salon tonight! I hear Ingre is showing his latest painting.” What the movies are to us, the Salon was to Parisians. The difference between 19th c. Parisians and 21st. c. Westerners is that the Parisians thought the Odalisque looked ridiculous, even absurd. Ingre did not represent her skin tone realistically. The shape of her body is unattainable. I’m sorry, ladies, but we are simply not going to be able to grow five more vertebrae. What’s more, the Parisians did not feel the need or the desire to try to imitate the art because the art was not imitating their lives. It was irrelevant even if was beautiful. It was not real.
This is a facet of our paradigm that needs to shift. What we see in films, advertisements, magazines, and other media has been changed so that it not only matches the current standard of ideal beauty but furthers it. Just like Ingre’s “La Grande Odalisque”, however, what we see is not real, but we interpret these images as if they are. So, when you look at any given cover of a magazine as you check out at the grocery store or the gas station, what you are taking in to your consciousness is an altered image. The model or celebrity who inspired the image upon which you gaze is beautiful no doubt, but even that individual no matter how beautiful, no matter how thin, no matter how physically fit, no matter how perfect, does not measure up to the current standard of beauty because their image has to be altered, too. Don’t you see? The current standard of beauty is impossible because the icons of beauty and physical fitness that are held up for all to emulate don’t even measure up. This kind of beauty isn’t just an illusion or a lie; it’s bondage.
This beautiful oil painting hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. It was originally met with great criticism because it did not essentially represent what a “real” woman looked like. The limbs are too long (one arm is, in fact, shorter than the other), the spine is too long, the tone of the skin isn’t right, the curve of the pelvis in relation to the curvature of the spine is impossible for a real woman to reproduce. Whatever the original woman from whom Ingres drew his inspiration looked like, she did not look like the woman represented in the painting above. She was changed to fit into Ingres’ artistic ideal, or changed in order to communicate his artistic vision. (To read a brief yet interesting commentary on “La Grande Odalisque”, click here.)
Times haven’t changed very much. Nearly every image of a person that we see has been altered in some way to fit into a cultural, artistic, marketing, or other ideal, or the image has been altered in order to change our perceptions of what the ideal ought to be in the first place. In either case, what we see is not remotely authentic, and the result of this barrage of inauthentic and deceptive imagery is, at the very least, a deepening sense of inadequacy. At the worst, the self-hatred, helplessness, and disempowerment that many of us feel resultant from our life experiences is exacerbated.
In an effort to explore some of the reasons for my own struggles with self-image, I want to dedicate some posts to “Learning to Feel Good About Our Bodies”. I don’t have any magic beans or mantras here. Mainly, I just have questions, and I would love some feedback because I feel pretty victimized in this area. When I look back on my progress over the past five years, I can see a lot of growth in a lot of areas, but body image has remained largely untouched.
I recently came across a British publication entitled Psychologies Magazine, and it frustrates me deeply that they do not post their archives online because they published a series of articles on this topic in their June 2010 publication. Their articles were succinct, helpful, and relevant to the lives of all sorts of women. One thing that I gleaned from reading through their series is that a poor self-image is a problem that haunts every woman. It takes many forms, but it’s there. Not every woman was hurt, abused, or traumatized, but every woman had suffered in some way. My intent, therefore, is to post some longer excerpts from some of their more meaningful articles in an attempt to peel back the layers of our self-image. Wouldn’t it be nice to finally see yourself differently? I don’t mean as that “Perfect 10” you’ve always dreamed of being. I mean being able to look in the mirror and see a beautiful person looking back. And, you wouldn’t need to criticize her or punish her or “should” her or tell her to try harder or work out more or eat less or stand up straighter or insult her or cut her or anything else. You could like her. You might even love her. What a relief that would be.
So, this is all part of telling the truth, I guess. It’s part of telling ourselves what we want. So, find yourself another person. You know, that person who has signed up to be a member of the “You Historical Society”. That person who loves you no matter what you look like or smell like in the morning. And, if they love you after you’ve puked up Mexican food, then you know that they are a Lifetime Member. And, tell them what you want for yourself concerning your body–how you would like to feel about it, how you would like to feel in it, and what would have to change so that you could be happy with it. I’ll post the first excerpt from Psychologies Magazine tomorrow.
By the way, this is a photograph of the first plus size supermodel Emme taken by Theo Westenberger in 1994 for People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue. Ingres’ “La Grade Odalisque” was recreated for the shoot. Her soft hips, tummy, and arms were not altered or airbrushed, and she is clearly very beautiful and sensual. Emme is a size 14.
**A note to readers: Please continue to the next post. It’s very short, but I wrote it as an addendum to this one wherein I discuss the great importance of La Grande Odalisque in 19th c. Paris, and what we can learn as post-modern woman from the 19th c. Parisians’ viewing of that painting. As usual, French woman are a few steps ahead of us where beauty and love of self are concerned.
I was reading an article today taken from a magazine entitled Critique: A Ransom Fellowship Publication, and I want to share part of the article with you.
“Today the notion of God’s judgment tends to prompt discomfort rather than assurance, a reason to disbelieve or to modify the meaning of St. John’s vision (the Book of Revelation) to something a bit more to our liking. It is hard not to be cynical about any notion of final justice in a pluralistic world. What would it look like? More to the point, is there anyone capable of such a wonder? Besides, even if at some point the brutal criminals of all time are found guilty and punished the suffering of the innocent still would cry out from the blood stained pages of history. Though this would be better than the insufficient justice of our world, it would be of limited value to the victims who were torn, body and soul. For many, what they knew of life was defined by suffering.
St. John’s vision, however, provides an understanding of reality that breaks through such cynicism. Of all the world’s religions, at this point Christianity is unique in providing a hope that is qualitatively different. C.S. Lewis spoke of this great mystery, as what can only be described as “heaven working backwards.” Timothy Keller sums it up this way:
The Biblical view of things is resurrection–not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. That means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater…Just after the climax of the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings (by J.R.R. Tolkien), Sam Gamgee discovers that his friend Gandalf was not dead (as he thought) but alive. He cries, ‘I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?’ The answer of Christianity to that question is–yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost” (“None Other Lamb, None Other Name, In A Broken World, A Quiet Confidence” by Denis Haack)
The idea that “everything sad is going to come untrue” encourages me to no end. I would point out that this is not just a Christian idea. Other spiritual traditions believe this as well. Redemption is a universal idea–a universal truth. Yes, it sounds like a fairy tale, but I have always loved fairy tales. It gives me hope and energy to keep going in the face of adversity and hurdles that look just a little too big, or a lot too big. This was the thought I wanted to leave with you today.
I was with my family in the Minnesota River Valley today. We were visiting an historical site, and as with many historical sites many of the old buildings were not original to the location. The historical society purchased historically accurate buildings in order to recreate the town which is now only represented by ruins which are populated by snakes and wild turkeys. The site has actually been populated for thousands of years as there are Native American burial grounds in the area some dating back to 3,000 B.C.E. In the early 19th century, the fur traders from Canada came through, then the pioneers from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. The land was used for subsistence farming and commercial farming in the late 19th century. An entire community was supported by this land. There was a schoolhouse, a town, and livestock. The land was even used to foster spiritual development as remnants of a monastery and nunnery still remain in the valley. A surrounding city developed in later years and used this land as a dump. When the Minnesota Historical Society obtained these 88 acres for its purposes, there was a lot of cleaning up to do, years of neglect to repair as well as dumped garbage to clear.
The garbage has been cleared. The buildings are being maintained. The gardens are planted and growing, and the sheep and chickens are thriving. Something else is happening here in the Minnesota River Valley. It’s called The White Oak Savanna Restoration Project. The purpose of this project is to restore to the valley its original flora while minimizing the effects of non-native invasive species. Original prairie grasses are growing. White Oaks which grew in large numbers before the Europeans settled in Minnesota are beginning to grow again. Why does this matter to me? Why should this matter to you?
Sometimes the natural world expresses the desires of our hearts, perhaps God’s own heart, better than any song, poem, or word. When a butterfly emerges from her chrysalis, it reminds us that there is hope for transformation. Things can always change. There is still beauty in the world even for us. Nature is crying out on our behalf, speaking for us.
What I saw in the valley today involved the efforts of men and women. Mother Nature did not remove the garbage from her own landscape or plant white oaks or native prairie grasses or remove the buckthorn. Humankind had left a mark. There were ruins, but there was a town, too, with a schoolhouse. There were farms and animals, gardens and barns. Not every mark left is a reminder of a painful history. Some marks are good.
We all have a history, a “story” to tell. Some of our histories are long, sordid, and painful. Some of our stories are full of joy and adventure. Many of us have some of both. If we were to assess our own lands, we might find that garbage has been dumped there. We might also find that we didn’t put it there. Maybe that garbage was put there generations ago, and our parents’ parents thought that it was normal or okay or acceptable. Maybe we are the first ones to see it for what it really is–rubbish. Maybe we have ruins on our property. Metaphorically speaking, maybe there used to be beautiful houses, barns, and schoolhouses that have fallen into disrepair through years of neglect and forgetfulness. Maybe we are the first ones to remember the beauty and value of where we come from. Maybe our lands have been overrun by invasive species like resentment, addiction, anger, illness, helplessness, and despair, and the native flora like power, joy, peace, self-control, hope, love, and faith have been suffocated.
These 88 acres in the Minnesota River Valley were not restored by one person. It has taken an entire society of men and women committed to seeing this particular land as well as its purpose restored to it. It takes help to clear away garbage. It takes help not only to clear out invasive species but to identify them first. Do you know what an invasive plant looks like? I don’t. It takes help to repair old structures, restore foundations, rebuild fences, replant gardens, repave roads, and plant trees. It is a group effort. We need each other. Practically speaking, what can you do? Find your own society. Call it the “You Historical Society”. People who are invested and committed to seeing you and your purpose restored to you. It may only be one or two. It only takes the deep and abiding love of just a few trusted individuals to spur us on, but, o, what their love can do! Their love can help clear away the garbage, identify invasive species, repair or even tear down old structures that aren’t useful anymore, build new ones, plant gardens, plant trees, and new fences (boundaries). The possibilities are endless when you are in the “You Historical Society”. And, what’s more, you can be in theirs!
Restoration is something that is on God’s heart for me, for you. Listen to this–“Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.” That verse is from the book of Isaiah, chapter 58, verse 12 to be precise. I don’t know if every person feels “called” to assess their “land” and rebuild the places that have been long since deserted, but some of us do. Some of us are called to rebuild the walls and restore the homes not only for us but for all those that will come after us. When you endeavor to do this work, you will never do it alone because this is God’s work. You are partnering with Him when you enter into this calling because while it often feels destructive it is ultimately creative. You are replacing lies with truth, despair with hope, illness of many sorts with health of many sorts, doubt with faith, isolation with community, and hatred with love. Whatever your work might be, partner with someone else. Enlist in your own historical society and enlist in someone else’s.
It’s easy for me to sit on this side of the post. I get to write about what I’ve learned on the path to Enlightenment as it were as if I’ve arrived at some sort of higher consciousness. I get to talk about telling the truth, recognizing denial, being honest, and recognizing our untruths so that we can begin to shake off the shackles that are hindering us. I get to talk about 12 Steps. The truth is, today the truth hurts. The truth is, today I am back at Step One. I have not come up with an entire program with a complete set of steps to follow and work…yet. I have come up with two steps, and yesterday I found myself back at Step One.
I’ve talked about my mother in previous posts. Never in great detail. I still feel the need to respect her, and laying out the very long list of her crimes against me and others will not change anything. What I will say is that she suffers from extreme self-hatred, and she has reasons to hate herself. Borderline Personality Disorder and self-loathing seem to go hand-in-hand, and while self-loathing is often unfounded, in her case, it is legitimate. It is also all-consuming, and it is preventing her from seeking help. And, I am helpless.
Why do I want this woman in my life? This woman who has hurt me and others so deeply? This woman who is incapable of saying one nice or complimentary thing to me? This woman who only finds fault with me? This woman who bears a large part of the responsibility for my abduction? This woman who knew about my childhood sexual abuse and did nothing? Why? Because I love her. Because I know how much she has suffered in her own life, and I feel compassion for her. Because I miss my mom. Because I remember what she was like when she was at her best–not raging, not dissociative, not cold, not mean. She was lively. She was happy. She was adventurous and fun. She was generous and supportive. At her best, she was exuberant and vivacious. Borderline Personality Disorder when left untreated ravages a person. Today, my mother is in darkness, isolation, and despair. I don’t even see a glimmer of light in her anymore, and she sees me as the enemy.
And yet I still feel responsible for her and for our relationship. This is one of my default settings–“I am responsible for my mother’s well-being and happiness.” My mother parentified me when I was very young. When I was 6 years-old, my father convinced me that I should live with him. I was terrified of my father, but I thought that if I chose my father over my mother, if I made him happy, then maybe he would be kind to me. Maybe he would stop hurting me. So, I agreed to this idea. In retrospect, my father was using me to hurt my mother. Their divorce was fresh, and he hated her. Children are used as pawns in divorces all the time. My father delighted in telling my mother that I wanted to live with him. I remember how his eyes sparkled as he slowly told her that I had chosen him over her. Then, she screamed. She ran up the stairs, locked herself in her bedroom, and screamed. In my memory, she seemed to scream for hours. In reality, it could have been only minutes, but, in that span of time, I believed in my 6 year-old heart that her pain was my fault. Her screams, her wails, her words–“How could you leave me?!”–it was all my fault. I curled myself up by the locked door. I cried out to her that I would not leave her. I begged her to unlock the door. I begged her to let me in. I promised to stay with her no matter what.
This scenario played itself out again and again. How many times has she locked herself in a bathroom, a closet, or a bedroom with a gun and a vile of narcotics vowing to kill herself this time? She’s done that too many times to count. And, there I was, on the other side, promising to stay, promising to be there, if she would only open up the door and stop crying.
This woman is not a safe person. She has refused counseling. She makes promises to get better. She always says, “I’m working on it”, but I don’t know what that means because she doesn’t even have friends. She won’t even speak to me. So, why am I the one who continues to push for a relationship? Why do I feel responsible for her? I’ve done my work. I know why I respond in these ways, but it does not change the fact that I feel pain.
Abuse comes in many forms–sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, and even spiritual. Many of us who have been abused have become compliant pleasers. We long to please and “make things right”, and I long to make this situation right; but, I can’t. Yesterday, I finally “got” it. I don’t know why I made the connection yesterday, but I did. I imagined that my mother was an alcoholic. I used to volunteer with an organization that helped alcoholics and addicts; hence, I’m familiar with AA, Al-Anon, and the concept of codependency. Objectifying my mother’s behavior through a different filter, one that involved substance abuse rather than something more nebulous like BPD or DID, clarified the situation. If my mother used drugs or alcohol and this addiction fueled rages, blackouts, unemployment, unsafe behavior, unpredictability, homicidal tendencies, physical, emotional, verbal, and spiritual abuse as well as suicidal tendencies would I pursue an active relationship with her? Hell, no!!! None of the aforementioned behaviors would be acceptable in any kind of healthy relationship. So, why would any of this behavior be acceptable just because it is fueled by mental illness? It isn’t.
And, the light went on. Finally, I see. If my mother were an alcoholic or an addict, I would require certain assurances before we could even begin to have a relationship particularly if any of the aforementioned behavior had been a problem. The fact that I require certain assurances from her today does not mean that I am bad, mean, wrong, demanding, insensitive, bitter, unforgiving, resentful, using her past against her, or cruel. I have been accused of all these things. I require assurances that she is safe because historically she never has been, and after years of being treated as if I have no worth, I have finally realized that I do. My choices in how I proceed then must follow that belief.
Perpetrators of abuse, even if they are our mothers, count on our believing that we have no power so that they do not have to change their behaviors. In my mother’s case, she is hoping that I will never leave her. One of my default settings is “I have no choice.” That is a lie. I do have a choice. I may not have had a choice 20 years ago, but I do today. I can choose to require accountability from my mother. I can choose to require assurances that she is a safe person. These assurances take the form of 1)going to a trained and certified psychotherapist at least twice a month, 2)staying on her medications, and 3)developing a relationship with me on the phone before we visit in person. At this point in time, she has chosen only to take her medications as far as I know. She refuses therapy, and she refuses to speak to me. The child in me that was forced to be her parent feels enormous rejection. Essentially, my mother is rejecting me because she perceives that I am rejecting her. This is very typical BPD behavior. Intellectually, I know this. Emotionally, I am deeply grieved, but you know what? Grief is healthy. When we lose something we mourn. That is how we recover, grow, and thrive. Grief means that I am not in denial. It also means that I am not willing to give up the ground I have gained in these past five years.
Thriving is a funny thing. I always thought it meant feeling happy or serene. I don’t think so. If you can grieve, then you are thriving. You can’t grieve, ask hard questions, stand your ground, look inward, reassess your choices, or do deep work when you are surviving. Surviving is about not dying. While this work with my mother is hard, and in some respects I hate it, it also means that I am thriving. After years of kowtowing to her toxicity, believing every word she said, and believing that I couldn’t live without her, I know better today. And, I am better today. So, where are you thriving? Where are you able to ask some hard questions? Where have you won a victory? Where have you been able to grieve? What ground have you defended lately? Pat yourself on the back because you aren’t surviving anymore. You’re thriving even if it doesn’t feel like it. You are. Even if it’s only in one small spot of your inner space, you are. And, if you aren’t, then don’t worry. You will.
I have been thinking about two ideas lately–forgiveness and default options. What does one have to do with the other? Perhaps more than you might think. A “default option” is defined as “an option that is selected automatically unless an alternative is specified”. When we use a computer, an MP3 player, a printer, a digital camera, a cell phone, we deal with default settings. Our technological devices come with “factory settings”. The factory from which any of these devices come have been given specific instructions on how to work via software, hardware, firmware, etc. Once they are in our possession, we get to tweak, change, or add to the settings embedded in the aforementioned in hopes that they will function in a way that we choose rather than allowing the Factory to choose for us. In fact, you can repartition your hard drive and start over completely! For many people, this is part of the fun of using technology.
Humans have default options, too, and many of our default options were not chosen by us. Our happiness and well-being are dependent on the choices of those who raised us for almost the first two decades of our lives. Our brains have not even finished growing and pruning when we reach 20 years. What goes into the completion of a human being? All our life experiences, our relationships, our interactions…I can’t even begin to estimate what one human brain can store. But, I am fairly certain that many of our responses to the life we have today is an option that we select automatically because we cannot discern an alternative.
I will be writing on this subject for a while, I think, but I want to introduce this idea–default settings can be changed. I’ll give one example. When I was a small child, my stepmother told me that I had caused my father so much pain, so many tears, that it would have been better had I never been born. She told me that quite frequently. Had there been an advocate in that setting to contradict her words, I may have been able to choose an alternative idea to believe. For every lie we’ve been told, wouldn’t it have been a relief to hear the truth? We could have chosen perhaps something better to believe, but it seems that the “bad stuff” is always easier to believe. From that moment on, I truly believed her, and whenever I hurt another person even if only by accident particularly if they cried–if there were tears–I believed that I needed to die. The idea that my causing another person pain became connected to a deep feeling of self-rejection and loathing. I began to hate myself because I should never have been born according to my stepmother. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone is capable of hurting another person in thought, word, or deed. Be perfect or die. What an option.
I believed this terrible lie until I was 30 years-old! One evening a feeling of deep self-loathing came over me so I prayed. Actually, I wept. I cried out to God for an answer. “Why do I feel this way?” Suddenly, I heard her words echo in my mind–“You have caused your father so much pain, so many tears, that it would have been better had you never been born.” There it was. A default setting. My causing someone else to suffer=my death. I had to change the default setting in my mind, my soul, and my heart. How did I do this? It started with forgiveness.
I will elaborate on this in my next post, but I want to introduce this idea because it is intimately connected to our ability to recognize the truth about ourselves, our experiences, and our past, present, and future. If you have abuse of any kind in your life experience, then you will most certainly have some toxic default settings. I’m fairly convinced that every person on the planet does, but trauma has a way of embedding these ideas so deeply into our physiology that it takes a great deal of time and intention not only to dislodge them but also to replace them. What I want to emphasize is that we can change them. You can change them.
Denial is an interesting experience. I used to think that denial was deliberate. A sort of Scarlet O’Hara worldview–“I’ll think about it tomorrow.” What I have discovered is that oftentimes denial is inevitable. Our brains have inherent mechanisms designed to protect us. We often do not remember painful events in their entirety until we are able–if we are ever able. While the psychotherapeutic community has at times abused the reality of repressed memories, repressed memories are indeed a real thing.
When I finally came to terms with my childhood sexual abuse, I could not believe it. I tried, but I could not get my brain to accept the events that I remembered. I felt like I was literally going crazy. I remember waking up one morning, the events clear in my mind’s eye as if I were watching a film play before me. I saw it, and I thought to myself, “What a relief. I remember now. That explains a lot.” And, I got on with my day. In truth, what I remembered remained a very distant memory. I did not know what to do with it. Lots of people are abused, I thought. Life must go on. How I began to live my life changed quickly. I avoided stillness and quiet. I hated being alone. I abandoned any sort of introspection, and I never sat still. I worked until I was exhausted and fell into bed, falling asleep quickly. One day, my husband suggested that I go have some “alone time”. I used to be the sort of person that craved stillness and peace. I would frequently seek out time to sit alone. No longer.
I decided to go to a trendy hot spot for lunch. I liked having lunch alone. It was restorative to me. I ordered my soup and salad and settled in for a round of people watching. As I looked around, I suddenly felt distanced from the world around me. I wasn’t necessarily having an out-of-body experience, but I did not feel grounded either. The din of the chatter and activity increased while the movement of the people ordering, visiting, and looking around slowed. My stomach seemed to sink, and my brain felt like it would explode. I felt like I was falling, but I was seated. Suddenly, I realized that I was weeping over my soup. And, the memory of my abuse replayed in my head over and over again. I realized that I had spent months running away from the memories of my abuse and all that those events entailed. I went home and told my husband that I needed to get help; I was sinking…quickly.
I found a therapist soon thereafter. We went right to work, and I remember still feeling unable to reconcile what I intellectually knew to be true with my emotions regarding the abuse. My therapist called it “crazymaking”. Love and abuse do not go together. Mother and jealousy do not go together. Brother and sex do not go together. In our close family relationships, certain things go together. Parents=safety. Mother=love. Father=protection. You get the idea. Parents, however, do not equal abuse, sex, rage, jealousy, neglect, confusion, loneliness, etc.. Our brains try to grasp the truth, but, in order that we are protected, our brains often deny. In certain cases, denial helps us navigate the dangers of our circumstances until we reach safety. Once we are safe, once we are experiencing stability, denial does not always serve a purpose. Often, we are left with coping strategies that no longer help us. At some point, it becomes necessary to dismantle the coping mechanisms so that we are able to grow and heal. The coping strategies, while important to our survival during trauma, impede the healing process because they root us in a survival paradigm. If we are looking to develop new strategies which will ultimately enable us to thrive, then we must discard the coping strategies that are only useful to survival.
Practically, what does this look like? One coping mechanism that I utilized a lot during my survival period (and during my healing period) is dissociation. Dissociation is quite useful. We are able to essentially compartmentalize the pain while superficially functioning reasonably well. I could do the dishes, fold laundry, drive around town, and do myriad tasks while I lived a different life in my head. When the pain associated with past events became unbearable, I would simply leave in my mind. Dissociation is one way the brain protects itself. There are many stories where a victim of rape explains that she/he simply left their bodies during the event; they watched the rape from somewhere else in the room. I actually developed a rich inner life full of pleasant places and people. I was able to be everything that I hoped…in my mind. This coping strategy is very effective during times of intense suffering. If an environment is abusive in any way, dissociation comes to the rescue, and we make it another day. Simply put, we survive.
Dissociation, however, does not enable us to thrive. It keeps us distant from our own lives and experiences. We become so hyper-vigilant. “When is the other shoe going to drop?”, “Things are going so well right now. It can’t stay that way.” Or perhaps we sabotage our own security and success because we just *know* that something bad is around the corner. The insecurity is so great that we must create a crisis in order to feel like we are in familiar circumstances. The pain may be nearly intolerable, but, at least, it’s familiar. We know how to survive that.
If telling the truth is the first step in learning to thrive, then how can we employ truth as a means to move past dissociation? In my experience, we must find a truth that is more powerful than our pain, our denial, and our coping strategies. In all honesty, I think identifying our coping strategies is important. So, here is the question? How are you coping with your trauma, your pain, your memories, and your present circumstances? Are you able to stay present in your life? What triggers your need to rely on coping strategies?
We must not condemn ourselves or our strategies. They helped us to survive. We are alive today because our minds found a way to live through whatever suffering we were forced to endure. Can we gently look within and find one strategy that may not be truly useful to us now? And, can we find one trustworthy person, a therapist or a good friend invested in our success and healing, who will listen to us tell the truth? Start a journal. Start a list. Write down one coping strategy that you needed in the past. Then ask yourself, “Do you still need it today?”
I have been ruminating on a certain idea. If a person survived a traumatic event or series of events, then what would be the first step towards healing? How does one move from surviving to thriving? Can that process be quantified into a series of steps? This is not an unusual idea. Alcoholics Anonymous has managed to create a powerful template for recovery from alcoholism with their Twelve Steps. What steps would one take to move towards a desirable life after having survived perhaps very undesirable events?
After much rumination, I propose that “Telling the Truth” is a good first step. For survivors of sexual abuse or any kind of abuse for that matter, truth may not be what we want because one cannot remain neutral in the face of truth. One either denies the truth or embraces it. We cannot do both. I’ll provide an example. As I’ve stated, I was sexually abused when I was a very young child by an intimate member of my family. When the weight of that truth finally fell upon me, I was crushed. I tried to broach the subject with my mother; as soon as I approached the subject she hung up the phone. Her reaction was telling–she knew. Not only did she know or at the very least suspect the abuse, she herself chose to do nothing. She did not take steps to protect me as a child. She chose denial. When I realized that her denial had caused me years of suffering, I was devastated. What I thought was true about my mother was, in fact, a lie. The framework of my reality was quickly crumbling. So, what then? What do we do with hard truths? What do we do with the: “I was raped.”, “I was molested.”, “My father violated me.”, “My mother did not protect me.”, “I feel worthless.”, “I was date raped.”, “I was neglected.”, “I was left alone as a child to fend for myself.”, “I was emotionally abused.”, “I was spiritually abused.” ad nauseum. What do we do with our truths?
My first step towards healing was simple but painfully difficult, and I would compare it with Step One in AA. AA’s first step is: “Admit that we are powerless over alcohol–our lives have become unmanageable.” Denial is very much like an addiction. It is a rut in our brains much like the rut formed by the ceaseless passage of a wagon wheel. It can run deep and border every painful truth that we wish to ignore–that we cannot absorb. Telling the truth provides an opportunity to form a new rut, a better way to choose. Truth shatters false paradigms and acts as a light in the dark spaces of our souls. A simple admission of truth is a good first step. What is your truth? What happened to you? What would you rather ignore, even deny? Are you able to admit to yourself that your life has become unmanageable due to denial? Are you paralyzed in any area of your life because you would “just rather not go there”? That’s denial. “I don’t have time to deal with that.” Denial. “I’m just too tired to deal with that right now.” Denial again.
Are you in denial in any area of your life? Are you surviving your life? Remember, thriving is the goal in every area of our lives regardless of what we have experienced in life. Start with one truth for one denial. One day at a time. One hour at a time. One minute, one second, at a time.
I have tried two times to start a blog, but I fail because I lack consistency. Perhaps on a deeper level I have lacked a purpose. There are myriad bloggers out there writing about myriad topics from recipes to books. I even stumbled across a blog written by a man who fancied himself to be the Marquis de Sade. His blog was a record of his exploits and encounters, shall I say. This is not my purpose, and, thank God, I have discovered a purpose to write…finally.
My intention is to tell the truth about certain experiences through which I have come in hopes that it may land somewhere. On the doorstep of a wounded soul in search of hope perhaps? I am not the Messiah, and I do not have a Messiah complex. I have, however, come through many terrible circumstances, and by the grace of God, I am not only alive but seemingly whole. I cannot provide all the answers, but I can tell my story. I can point to signposts, mile markers along the road if you will, that can lead another to a place of rest and restoration. Healing for the abused, broken, and battered is more than a dream; it is a real possibility, but it comes with a high price. Let us not make that sojourn alone. Let us walk this road together.