It feels personal, but it’s not

This post contains discussions about mental health that may be upsetting or triggering for trauma survivors. If you are at risk for serious depression, anxiety, emotional instability, or self-harm, consider reading this post in the company of a trusted, trauma-informed supporter.

Perhaps the most deeply damaging part of trauma is the sense of worthlessness it causes. Even if our conscious mind knows that we don’t deserve to be hurt, our subconscious mind defaults to blaming itself. When we experience trauma, our subconscious figures we deserved it, even though that makes no logical sense! So it’s crucial that we learn how our brains work so that when trauma occurs, we don’t slip into this dangerous default of self-blame.

(You can learn more about how our subconscious mind blames itself in the blog post Naming, Blaming, and the Uncluttered Subconscious.)

I’m by no means an ego expert. I leave that to the masters of philosophy – Eckart Tolle and the like. But I do know this… When someone is hurtful, controlling, abusive, or toxic, it’s not about you. It’s never about you.

Even those times when it feels deeply personal, it’s still not about you. Maybe especially when it feels deeply personal.

Let’s go straight to the nitty gritty. Let’s address the deepest violations of our personal autonomy: sexual assault, physical abuse, spiritual abuse, and emotional abuse. When these things occur, it sure feels like it’s about you, right? How can it not be? It’s your body, mind, and spirit that’s being violated.

But I argue that the more deeply you are being violated, the less it has to do with you.

Let me explain…

Someone who abuses another person’s physical or spiritual being is so deeply insecure, is so deeply inside their own head, they don’t even see you. You barely exist to them.

They are so full rage, feel so out of control, so full of fear and personal insecurity, that the only way they can find even a moment’s relief is to lash out, to force someone else into their experience, to make someone else feel as scared, insecure, and angry as they do. So they rape. They beat. They try to control how others see the world.

All types of abuse are directly related to survival. When someone abuses another physically, sexually, emotionally, or spiritually, they are reflecting their own fear of physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual annihilation.

Because these are enormous topics, I’m going to dive deeper into a few of these categories individually, in their own post in the coming weeks. Abuse is far too deep a topic to cover in just this one discussion. In today’s post, we will do an introductory overview of how the It’s Not Personal concept shows up in each type of abuse:

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse occurs when a person feels so out of control of their own physical body that they seek that control externally. We’ve learned in previous discussions that emotions are the brain’s dashboard. When we are angry, our brain sends signals to our body that there is a threat. When we are sad, our brain sends signals to our body that there is reason to grieve. Every emotion has a corresponding message that we must explore.

Someone who is entirely disconnected with their own body does not have any means of interpreting these emotions. All they know is that they are deeply and profoundly uncomfortable. They know by instinct that they must act – that they must somehow physically respond to these emotional cues. So they lash out.

This also explains when people attack themselves with substance abuse, eating disorders, or self-harm. They simply do not have the tools to process big feelings through and out. Nobody taught them how to acknowledge and act to process emotions in a healthy way. No one taught them how to approach emotions with intention and curiosity. So they lash out and attack others, or turn inward, and attack themselves.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse, assault, and harassment comes from the same place of feeling out of control. Someone who perpetrates sexual crimes feels completely powerless, specifically related to sex.

It’s important to realize that sex involves much more than the act of sexual intercourse. It has to do with how the person defines themselves as a sexual being. Therefore, an individual does not necessarily have to be sexually assaulted in order to become a sexually aggressive person themselves.

Instead of approaching sexuality as a natural and normal part of the human experience, our culture places sexuality into a category of deviance that must be controlled. In short, it creates shame around something that should be beautiful.

With each passing generation, that shame builds and corrupts and confuses, resulting in sexual abuse and exploitation in all facets of society, from marriage to parenting, to religion and government. It isn’t sex that broke us, but the shame we’ve created around sex.

For thousands of years we’ve tried to control sexuality and identity, placing rules about who, when, and how we can express our sexuality. Then, when the rules have negative outcomes we blame the act rather than the rule. This rigidity towards sex create power struggles between individuals in an effort to control personal autonomy.

In the Sexual Abuse section of this series, we will explore more deeply how this shows up in our culture. For now, it’s important to note that these power differentials don’t have to manifest as abuse to be deeply damaging to our intimate relationships.

Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is a lesser discussed, and therefore often a lesser understood violation of personal autonomy. Acts of violence are not just an act against the body. They are also an act against the human spirit.

Many in the Redefining Love Community have asked me about spiritual abuse. This is a minefield that I’ve stepped away from for a long time, because I don’t want to push away anyone who could benefit from the principles of boundaries, accountability, and grace. But the more I see how deeply members of our community are suffering the effects of spiritual abuse, the more I realize that by avoiding this discussion, I am doing a disservice to our community.

When others push their own religious beliefs onto others, they are convinced it is coming from a place of love and concern for the other person (this is your path to enlightenment, it’s about your soul’s eternal damnation, etc.). But in reality, it proves a lack of confidence in their own enlightenment or salvation… Their own survival, in a spiritual sense.

Ultimately, people who are truly confident in what they believe don’t feel compelled to force others to do life exactly like they do. People who truly have faith in a higher power trust that higher power to run the show. This frees them from carrying the burden of other people’s enlightenment or salvation on their shoulders, and frees their loved ones from spiritual abuse.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is the catch-all for all other types of toxic behavior. And it is the one form of abuse we all perpetrate at some point in our lives.

There are varying degrees, of course. Telling your child that his skin will turn green if he eats his boogers is, technically, manipulative and a total lie. But in the grand scheme of things, not as harmful as screaming in a child’s face that they are stupid and pathetic because they spilled their milk.

For brevity’s sake, I’m not going to delve too deeply into the most toxic forms of emotional abuse. If you are interested in more information, please visit the Toxic Relationships page on the Redefining Love website. You can find that here:

It isn’t personal

Ultimately, in order to fully live into the Redefining Love Framework of Boundaries, Accountability, and Grace for ourselves and others, we must come to understand that toxic behavior and abuse is never about us. It’s never personal, even when it feels deeply personal.

Because when it feels personal, we get stuck inside the hurt, disappointment, and lack of trust we feel in others, and the shame cycle continues. We absorb the abuser’s shame, which becomes our shame, which we then pass on to others.

In order to break the shame cycle, we must realize that each and every one of us is acting and reacting from our own unique temperament and experience. When someone hurts us – even profoundly, even in such a way that leaves permanent scars – it has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with them. Their pain. Their rage. Their sense of powerlessness and insecurity.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

It may not be about us, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a valid gripe. What it does mean is that we can still love ourselves, regardless of how others treat us. Because our value, or worth as a human being, is not determined by how others treat us. It just is. We are inherently valuable, simply by virtue of existing.

And once we realize that, we also have space within ourselves to give grace to others.

We can still hold them accountable. We can say, “The way you are treating me hurts and that is not okay.”

And we can set boundaries. We can say, “No. You don’t get to treat me like that.” While also loving the value that is inherent in their existence.

They are separate from us. We are separate from them.

We all steer our own boat. We all determine whether we will sink or swim. We all get to decide who rides on our boat.

Power is found not over others, but within ourselves. Connection is determined not by how much power we hold over others, but by how well we love ourselves.

When someone hurts you, it’s not about you.

It’s about them. They’ve presented you with a choice:

How much do you value yourself? Do you deserve better? The answer is always yes.

So how will you respond? Will you internalize the pain, allow it to fester and become shame, and eventually pass it on to someone else. Or will to approach your pain with intention and curiosity?

Will you react with shame, rage, and bitterness? Or will you respond with boundaries, accountability, and grace?

We will be exploring this idea that It’s Not Personal further in the coming weeks. 

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