A dear friend and fellow survivor exclaimed to me in frustration this week:
‘Will we ever escape our past?!’
I understand the emotion of that statement, and I have been in that place many times. When the vibration from your past once more cause an earthquake in your present.
Maybe Escape is Impossible
Escape is quite a strong word. It conjures up images of Escape from Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption. It is a fight against the system. It is dark and usually involves doing things that are awfully degrading (like crawling through sewage). Even if the escapee manages to get away, they spend a whole lot of time looking over their shoulder waiting for the police to show up and drag them back to their prison.
Is that a process your want to put yourself through? Do you want to struggle through all that, only to constantly feel like you need to keep looking over your shoulder?
It feels a little like the remark ‘I wish this never happened’ that I talked about in Release the Past, Embrace the Future. The wish to escape your past, is almost a wish for it no longer to exist. But is that what you wish? It would mean that you also lose the positive ways in which it has shaped us. And before you role your eyes at me: yes there are ways to gain positive from these experiences.
Perhaps what you want is for the vibration from your past not to be destructive earth quakes in your present.
So, what if you could sever some of your emotional ties to that past? What if you find ways to fit it into your present that are not hurtful, not painful reminders of what you had to go through? What if you could relate to your story in a way that allows you to build a light, happy and fulfilling life?
Let’s not try to escape our past, but rather learn how you can use its vibration not for earthquakes, but to create music for your future.
Learning New Skills
Being the target of abuse, we have had our entire identity wiped out or altered. We have become ashamed of who we are, feel the weight of guilt on our shoulders. We think we have no talents, no assets, no lovable traits, and the list goes on. I think the earlier we were exposed to abuse, and the more it was repeated over our lifetime, the more firmly this false programming has taken hold. We have not learned or have unlearned a lot of basic skills that are important when dealing with life.
We talk a lot about learning to set and maintain boundaries, but you will also want to think of building your self-confidence and self-esteem or learning to trust again. If you have been subjected to financial abuse you may need to teach yourself to manage your finances again (without being triggered).
Learning new -more or less- practical skills will help you feel more in charge of your life. This will build your self-esteem and will help you become more resilient and emotionally stable.
Caring For Our Hurting Selves
Sometimes it helps to do some mental time travelling. Going back to a memory, and imagining your present self giving support to your past self can help you heal. Visualize giving your past self a hug or sharing words of encouragement.
On days when I feel particularly sad, for example, I sing ‘You Are My Sunshine‘ to myself. It is just a little way I can give the child inside myself a little hug when she is hurting.
This isn’t about explaining the past, or figuring out how it has shaped you. This is about giving yourself some emotional support. Trying to visualize these interactions in your mind, will actually help you rewrite history in a way. It won’t be as if it never happened, but it will change the dynamic in your memories. You will begin to feel less weighted down by the overwhelming pain of it all.
The F Word
That’s right. I am dropping the F Word: Forgiveness.
I know that forgiveness can be a touchy subject, but I think that is mostly because we mistake it for a pardon. As targets we have excused our abuser’s behavior for years. Every time a boundary was crossed, an act of (emotional) violence was committed, we forgave their behavior only to have the same or worse done to us the next time.
Forgiveness is not an excuse or a pardon. It is acceptance of what happened. It is the process of letting go, and has nothing to do with going back for more. Holding on to the anger, holding a grudge, it does nothing to the abuser and only restricts your recovery. The anger is creating a direct line of access for your past to enter your present, and often in its most destructive ways.
I have honestly forgiven my parents for their behavior. That does not mean I ever intend to reestablish contact, or that I do not hold them responsible for their behavior. It just means I am no longer consumed by anger and indignation at their failure to care for their children. I feel sadness for them (and my sisters), and their inability to address their own trauma. I am sorry about the kind of loving relationships they are missing out on because they are incapable of that level of connection. I genuinely hope they will find healing on their path, but even then I would not be interested in regaining contact. Too much has happened, too much trust has been lost. I said I forgave them, I did not say I forgot what they did.
Forgiveness is not a pardon, is not forgetting, is not an excuse.
Hard as it is to forgive your abuser, there is an even harder aspect to forgiveness: extending forgiveness to yourself too.
“I had forgiven his affairs, his harsh words, his passive-aggressive threats, and his refusals to talk to me for days more times than I cared to remember. So, what of that? Now I had trouble forgiving myself for forgiving him.” – Aubrey Cole in The F Word
There is an enormous amount of things we blame ourselves for. Why did we stay? Why did we not stand up for ourselves? Why did we let ourselves be used as flying monkeys? Why did we talk to ourselves in their voice? Why did we allow ourselves to be affected so badly?
You can probably add another 50 questions you ask yourself, things you blame yourself for. It is time to let that go to my friend. Acceptance and forgiveness needs to include (if not begin with) forgiveness of yourself. This happened to you. You dealt with it as best you could. You made some bad choices. You made mistakes.
Would you end a friendship because your friend made this same mistake? Would you turn away a friend escaping abuse because it took them so long to realize? Because they tried too many time to salvage their marriage or their relationship with their parents? Probably not, right? So why are you putting yourself in the penalty box?
Become Your Own Cheer Leading Squad
Now that we are talking about how you talk to yourself anyway, can I just tell you to stop being so hard on yourself?
Can you please acknowledge how much you have survived and accomplished, how many amazing talents you have? Rather than continuing the abuser’s work of tearing yourself down, become your own cheer leader squad (not just one cheer leader, become a whole squad so you can do pyramids in your own honor).
Create affirmations to remind yourself of your strengths.
Take some time to reflect on your healing journey, and be amazed at your progress (and celebrate).
Dance and sing to songs that make you feel more empowered.
Help other survivors along their journey, and experience how much you can contribute to their healing.
All these ways of celebrating, validating and empowering yourself will help you internalize better self-esteem. The more you look inside yourself for self-esteem, the more stable it becomes. After all the behavior and responses of others are beyond your control. The more you decrease its influence on your well-being and self-esteem, the more you are in charge of your own emotional and mental state.
More emotional and mental stability means you are more resilient to deal with the challenges that life will throw your way. And that includes memories of your past.
Does that mean you have escaped your past? Maybe not, but you have given it a place in your life. It is still there, but you now have the keys to the prison and you can come and go as you please.