Fearing the End of the Story

It’s starting to feel like I’m hitting the denouement of my story. At least, it feels like I’m hitting it for this part of my story…

I’ve been living in the climax of a stressful, traumatic, gritty, exhausting story for the last four years or so. Unlike the climax in a short story, my life story climax plateaued and stayed climactic for a really long fucking time.

But I can feel myself progressing. I can see it and this week in particular, I’m having an upswing, which is a very welcome change after months and months of being depressed.

But it’s all starting to change and, to be honest, that scares me a little bit.

Okay, it scares me quite a bit. Because I harbour a deep sense of fear that healing means my past doesn’t matter or is no longer true.

I’m often scared that if I stop being an outright champion and reiterating the facts of my past loudly and consistently, then people will think (and I will feel) like they didn’t happen. That me growing and moving forward isn’t a positive thing; that it’s an obliteration of all that came before and as such, leaves no room for relapse, triggers, memories, or scars.

I’m scared of getting better, which sounds ridiculous, but letting go of the fierceness that’s kept me safe and strong is incredibly uncomfortable.

Why do I sabotage myself like this? Why stymie the progress in my life for the sake of holding onto a broken and battered story? Why not celebrate the fact that I’m safe and have moments of joy and can relax sometimes and have goals and achievements that I’ve accomplished as an individual? What the hell is wrong with me??

Well, we all know that the answer to that question—nothing at all, and a whole helluva lot.

I think I’m scared because I learned to not trust good things. I learned that setting expectations guarantees disappointment and that making goals or changes results in failure. These are some of the strongest lessons I carry with me from my past as a codependent and I resent them as much as I recognize them. I hate their potency as I begin to notice all the good shit that’s going on in my life again. I give space to my fear and allow it to bring me back to a state of helplessness, which on an intellectual level I recognize is bullshit, but on an emotional level, feels (strangely) comfortable and normal.

So how to avoid giving up? How to stop the self-sabotage? How to savour the good stuff and build my confidence while recognizing that moving forward absolutely does NOT mean that my past doesn’t matter?

My first instinct is to answer that with a “hell if I know!”, but I DO actually know! The answer lies in the capacity I developed during my trauma to survive…I can’t quit. I just don’t give up. I allow myself to feel my fear and to acknowledge it while also seeing the positive things that are happening at the same time. I get uncomfortable and then push through those feelings and keep trying. I embrace the upswing and the denouement; the falling action in the climactic journey I’ve had these last few years. I remember that every story remains for as long as we exist and that mine is still true even if I’m smiling and even if I move on.

I will always be a person with mental illness. I will always be an abuse survivor. But more importantly, I will always be myself. And being me is a nuanced, changing, shifting, growing, colourful experience; I can’t cling to one version or one time and say that it’s the only truth in my life!

I’m feeling ready to embrace more of who I am and give space to the things that come from this new acknowledgement. Maybe that sounds new-agey and super corny? Fuck it.

Yes, I’m still scared. I still worry (thanks anxiety) that I’ll fail at trying something new or that I’ll push myself too far and have to pull back from the goals I want to achieve. These are very real, very tangible fears that I’m not working at surpassing. I tell myself that being happier is something I deserve and that it’s possible, with love and support around me, to do more than just survive. It’s time to start thriving.

xxJ

Boundaries, People! Boundaries!

I recently had someone ask me, “How do you get people, women in particular, to recognize [emotional abuse] for what it is early enough in a relationship to drop that person like a hot potato?”

This really got me thinking; if we understand what emotional abuse is (the categorical and intentional manipulation of someone in an effort to create a significant imbalance of power and a strong codependency), how can we avoid getting caught in it? What early warning signs can we look for?

Again, I somehow managed to get my thoughts about this down to a single word: boundaries.

Boundaries are, I think, the fundamental tell-tale in the beginning of a relationship. And what I mean by that, is that people who respect your boundaries tend to be people you can trust. Those who repeatedly push or challenge your boundaries in ways that make you feel confused or hurt are people you need to be wary of.

In all my unhealthy relationships, a lack of boundaries has been key to the relationships’ failures. Both myself and my partners didn’t practice maintaining and respecting healthy boundaries and that got us into heaps of trouble.

A healthy boundary is one in which your needs are met and you feel safe and confident. For example, using a tool like Our Family Wizard to manage communication between me and my ex-husband is a way of keeping a safe boundary between us, especially when there’s conflict.

Safe boundaries are ones that keep you feeling secure and they can be used not just with former partners, but in all our relationships.

Here’s another example: Many people feel overwhelmed after giving birth and having excited friends and family show up to meet the new baby right away. Asking your loved ones to wait a few days, or until you contact them to say you are ready, is setting a healthy boundary.

Telling someone you need time to process a difficult conversation is setting a healthy boundary.

Saying no to unwanted sexual advances is setting a healthy boundary.

Stepping away from a close-talker is setting a healthy boundary.

Doing anything that preserves your sense of safety and self-worth is establishing a healthy boundary and this is a reasonable thing to do, no matter what someone else might tell you.

Okay, but how do you actually set up those boundaries?

Again, my answer to this question is also only one word: assertiveness.

What is assertiveness? Well, I’m glad you asked! The Cambridge Dictionary defines “assertive” as this: “Someone who is assertive behaves confidently and is not frightened to say what they want or believe.”

So this means that assertiveness is when you act confidently and say what you need. And I believe that in order to establish healthy boundaries, you have to be assertive.

But wait! Let’s be clear that “assertive” is vastly different than “aggressive.” I think lots of people get these two things confused, so I want to dispel the notion that being assertive is a bad thing! Aggression is forceful and angry; it doesn’t respect boundaries and it can be violent and driving. Assertiveness doesn’t undermine other people and it isn’t nasty. It’s confident. It’s honest. It’s authentic. It’s the middle-ground between passive and aggressive (don’t even get me started on passive-aggressive!) and is also the only healthy way of expressing your needs and getting them met.

If you’re passive, you give your power away to other people. If you’re aggressive, you take power for yourself. If you’re assertive, you respect other people’s space and power, while maintaining your own.

What I’m saying is that the key to recognizing potentially abusive behaviour from others is to notice whether they have healthy boundaries for themselves and if they also respect your healthy boundaries. And the key to maintaining your boundaries lies in being assertive—not aggressive or passive—about what you need.

Sadly, there’s is no magic method for avoiding narcissists, abusers, or shitty people. I do think, however, that tuning into how someone responds to you setting up or maintaining boundaries can be fundamental in helping to avoid unsavoury or overly needy people. It may seem like you are pushing people away when you act assertively and put up your boundaries, but in the end, you’re not responsible for how others respond to your behaviour and those who stick around are much more likely to be the authentic, quality people in your life.

It can definitely feel scary to place boundaries around yourself, but remember, these aren’t walls; they’re boundaries that can stretch and grow, change and shift. You get to set them and you get to decide who comes in and out of them. You also get to choose how you respond to other people setting their boundaries and if you can succeed in creating a balance between getting your own needs met and meeting your partner’s needs (or your friend’s/family’s/children’s/whomever’s) then you will be poised to succeed in a healthier relationship.

xxJ

Boundaries, Kara! Boundaries!

Emotional Abuse is All About…

I’ve been thinking lately about how to succinctly describe emotional abuse. Wondering, how do you put into a few words the cunning and cumulative manipulations that an emotional abuser uses? How do you talk about it swiftly, without going into gratuitous details about the put downs, verbal assaults, neglect, withholding, and other revolting behaviours an emotional abuser displays? How do you talk about the lifelong trauma that results from being emotionally abused, or how to parent after abuse, or how to co-parent with an emotionally abusive partner? How do you say all that in a just a few words??

It seems it’s impossible for me to stop the torrent of descriptors that come out of my mouth when someone asks me what emotional abuse is all about, but I do want to try and find a clearer and more direct way of conveying my understanding of it.

I think we need to find ways to summarize and express what emotional abuse (sometimes called “mental” abuse) is all about without overdoing it. We, as champions of sharing our experiences of emotional abuse, need to draw people in by not overwhelming them, while still conveying the magnitude of emotional abuse’s insidious nature.

“A healthy relationship will never require you to sacrifice your friends, your dreams, or your dignity.”

source

In the talk I gave recently I spent 20 minutes or so sharing my experience, describing emotional abuse, and offering ideas for managing post-abuse. There was also a great discussion afterwards, with people offering truly insightful and interesting comments and questions that led me to further extrapolate on my understanding of emotional abuse and my identity as an abuse survivor.

As I reflected on my talk later, I realized that in the end I could sum up emotional abuse using just six words:

Emotional abuse is all about control.

That’s really what it comes down to. It’s one person creating a significant power imbalance between themselves and another person, exerting control and maintaining it for as long as possible and in as many ways as possible. It’s constructing a powerful codependence in which one person benefits immensely from the suffering of another.

I think about my past relationships and these are the kinds of controlling behaviours that come to mind:

  • Being told what to wear/what not to wear
  • Being promised things repeatedly and then having those promises undone
  • Being expected to report about my whereabouts and goings-on, even when in my own house
  • Having a partner who never showed up on time or who consistently procrastinated getting ready, making us both chronically late
  • Telling me who I could spend time with (and who I couldn’t)
  • Using sex as a bargaining tool instead of an expression of affection

…I could go on, but I suspect that the picture’s becoming clear.

Emotional abuse is about control. Full stop. And it is just as harmful and just as scary as physical abuse. It carries an intense traumatic impact and on top of all of that, it can be impossible to prove because it can  happen so surreptitiously.

How would you summarize emotional abuse? What other ways might we succinctly categorize and explain what emotional abuse is and how it affects people? Or do you think I’ve summed it up accurately?

Finding new and better ways to describe emotional abuse is something I will continue to work on. Not only so I can continue to improve my own understanding, but also so that I can increase the vocabulary we use when talking about it and so that knowledge and compassion about this topic can build and develop. So that everyone knows that emotional abuse is real and understands that what it’s really about, is asserting and maintaining control in the worst, most calculated and cruel ways.

xxJ

The chains of control exerted by our abusers often feel like they are inescapable, but I’m living proof that you can break through them, even if the word “forever” hangs over you like a prison sentence. Remember this: absolutely nothing is forever.