Trauma is tricky because it makes us believe that we don’t have a choice – a choice about our relationships, our emotions, and our reactions. The truth is, unless we are physically held captive,* we do have choices.
A huge part of healing is learning to recognize our choices, and trusting ourselves to change course when a circumstance is dangerous. This relates to our discussion last week about different ways of being safe. As a review, the five ways of being safe are: physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and financially.
Once you’ve learned to recognize when you are not safe – remember, it’s not just about physical safety! – then you are ready to explore your choices. You may realize that many areas where you believed you didn’t have a choice, you actually do have options.
In order to Redefine Love, you must accept the reality of choice. If someone is hurting you, or you are hurting someone else, it’s time to make a change.*
The Victim Complex
Too often we see ourselves as victims of circumstance, swept up in relationships that spin beyond our control by some invisible force over which we have no control. This is a lie we tell ourselves in order to avoid accountability, and we’ve all done it. It’s okay if you’re still actively doing this. It’s never too late to change your point of view.
“They left me no choice!”
I like to use the carjacking scenario to explain the reality of choice. Hopefully you are never in this situation. But it does get you thinking…
Imagine you are driving along a quiet street, minding your own business. You stop at the stoplight, and out of nowhere an armed man is pounding on your window and jiggling the door handle.
It’s tempting to think that you are forced to get out of your car in the middle of the street and watch a criminal drive away. “He left me no choice!” you might say.
But the reality is, you always have a choice.
It might be a really, really hard choice, but it’s still a choice. You can choose to get out of your car and let him drive away. You can choose to roll down your window and tell the guy exactly what you think of his rotten behavior. You could step on the gas and blast through the intersection, or crash into the car in front of you.
Maybe you close your eyes tight, sink down in your seat, and pray it’s a nightmare and that he just disappears.
The truth is, there are all sorts of things you could do in this scenario.
Well, that depends…
Like all choices, what option you choose depends on all the other influencing factors.
Maybe you are more attached to your life than you are to your car, so you hop out and let him drive off into the sunset.
Or maybe your two-year-old is in the back seat and this dude will steal your car over your dead body.
Or maybe you had a rotten day at work and this guy is getting on your last nerve, and you decide to go berserk on him. You slam the door into him, jump out, and proceed to pound him into next week while hollering, “Not today, buddy. Not. To. Day!”
Maybe the intersection is quiet, and you just gun the engine and take off.
Or maybe the intersection is busy and you decide that driving off would be deadlier than handing over your car.
Maybe, just maybe, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this problem, or any other problem, so we need to give ourselves and others a little grace when we are tempted to explain what you would have done in their situation.
Choice: Empowering or Overwhelming?
Well… we have a choice here, too. We can choose to be empowered by our choices, or overwhelmed. When we feel empowered, we are creative. We are open to other options. We are, well… empowered – confident, competent, and motivated.
When we are overwhelmed by our choices, we are frozen in place. We shrink and hope no one notices us, and that someone else will make the difficult decisions for us.
A family legacy
The primary characteristic of dysfunction is a lack of accountability. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, your subconscious mind has already decided that choices are overwhelming. You were raised with the notion that nothing in your life is within your control, so why even try to find a solution? This is just the way it is.
(Incidentally, the phrase “this is just the way it is” is one of my all-time pet peeves, along with it’s nasty twin “this is how it’s always been done.” Phooey! Cue the muttering under my breath, “The way it’s always been done. Just the way it is. I’ll show them the way it is.”)
People raised in dysfunctional family systems were provided no foundation to build upon, and no tools with which to mine within yourself. You may not even know where to start when it comes to making decisions and choosing your own relationships, worldview, and responses.
Breaking the generational cycle
In order to break free from toxic relationships, you must first be brutally honest about your own toxicity. It’s okay. We all have darkness within us. It can only control you if you try to hide it from the world. The truth truly does set you free.
It is inevitable if you are an adult child of dysfunction that you have absorbed some of that toxicity into your own life. You had no control over the family you were born into, and that’s not fair. Here’s a hard truth that I deliver with as much love as I possibly can: Life’s not fair. We can’t change the hand we were dealt, but we can change how we play it.
If you are unwilling to address your own toxicity, you will not be able to successfully Redefine Love.
It’s humbling to admit you’ve screwed up.
If you have been in dysfunctional relationships, you’ve probably spent a lot of time blaming other people. Admitting your mistakes is even harder when nobody else is willing to admit theirs. It may feel like you’re feeding yourself to the wolves. But it doesn’t matter if others are being accountable or not. What matters is that you are coming to a healthier place of peace within yourself.
We have been culturalized to believe that admitting wrongdoing is akin to weakness, and weakness makes us feel ashamed. It seems easier and less painful to simply blame someone else when things don’t go our way, or when someone else is hurt by our actions.
When we blame others for our shortcomings, we develop a victim complex. There is no greater toxicity magnet than a victim complex.
Culture has it all wrong.
My childhood was not rosy. The adults in my world were far from perfect and are solely responsible for their own behavior. I can mourn the lost little girl that I was, and the way that little girl was treated. And believe me, I have. But if you are unable to move beyond your grief it will turn to bitterness, which serves no practical purpose.
Allow yourself to feel angry at your hurts. Channel that anger into courage, and then move forward with your life.
Redefining Love requires you to admit your failings and account for them. I entered adulthood already deeply enmeshed in a generational Shame Cycle that began long before I was born. The mistreatment I endured due to other people’s shame was in no way my fault. That doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for the way my own shame impacted other people.
In some of my relationships my shame made me toxic.
Notice my choice of words: My shame made me toxic. Not the shame of my parents, my grandparents, my siblings, or anyone else. My shame made me toxic. Until I was willing to address my own darkness, I would continue to poison others with my shame.
Those I have hurt in my life were also caught in their own Shame Cycles and were hurting me right back. In most cases, it’s impossible to even pinpoint where the toxicity began, and it doesn’t matter.
I spent the majority of my 20s in a dismal state of sanctimony and self-righteousness. But I wasn’t perfect, and deep down I knew it. I saw bad things happening all around me and chose to remain silent. I allowed other people to define who I was, and thus wasted enormous potential within myself. Rather than stand up to the bullies in my life, I bullied others who were not the true source of my angst. I wasn’t blatantly evil, but my passivity was poisonous to others.
Whether you admit your shortcomings or not, you know they are there. Refusing to acknowledge your own darkness makes you ashamed, which thrusts you deeper into the Shame Cycle.
Holding yourself accountable has nothing to do with the actions or reactions of other people. The flip side of this, of course, is to be careful not to absorb the blame for everything wrong in your life. If you’ve wronged someone, own it, but do not carry the shame of others as your own.
Find your tribe
This is why it is so important to surround yourself with healthy, supportive, objective friends or loved-ones to walk this journey with you. You need someone who will honestly hold you accountable, who will call you out when you are slipping back into old patterns and celebrate with you when you do well, and have your back when you are being mistreated.
When I began my journey through my trauma, I had a very small circle of friends, as well as a very supportive therapist. As I healed (and continue to heal) I began making meaningful connections with other emotionally healthy people. Just as Shame Cycles can snowball, dragging in other vulnerable people nearby, so too can healthy connections grow exponentially.
Don’t hesitate to seek extra help if you need support processing your relationships. That vulnerability can be scary, particularly if you are accustomed to going it alone. But like anything, the more you practice, the easier it gets.
Physical or sexual violence is not your fault. In fact, it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the abuser’s need for power and control. There are a myriad of ways abusers control their victims, and no amount of personal accountability or boundaries on your part is going to change that. If you are being abused, speak out to someone you trust, and keep speaking out until you are heard and you are SAFE.