The Key to Deepening My Relationships as an Abuse Survivor
Healing can be a long process, especially from complex trauma. There is an entire lifetime of coping mechanisms that survivors must unravel before they can decide what to keep and what to toss out. The process of becoming who you really are is tough for anyone, but for those who survived childhood abuse, it means learning fundamental aspects of development that were previously denied. When a baby learns that their caretaker is unreliable, it is extremely difficult to expect others to be reliable throughout their whole life. This deficit creates a whole host of coping mechanisms in survivors. Some become combative and antisocial. Others go to the opposite end of the spectrum.
I am the kind of survivor who learned to cope by being extremely self-sufficient. I hid behind the masks of “I’m fine” and “That’s OK.” I never required much from my relationships, because it was reinforced enough times for me to know on a visceral level that I would be let down.
Instead, I was agreeable. I was as low-maintenance as a person could get. I was pleasant and easy to be around. I made others feel comfortable and I never challenged them. I was soft and gentle around aggression and anger. I made other people look and feel better than they really were.
Well, guess what? The easier I made it for others, the harder I made it on myself. I grew into a lifelong habit of never expecting others to step up, and as a result, I created a self-fulfilling prophecy. I made it easy for others to take advantage of my goodness. I made it easy for others to neglect me.
The point of healing from trauma is to learn how to be in close and trusting relationships with others. My agreeableness might make others feel close to me on the surface, because there is no conflict, but what it is really doing is keeping them away. By never expressing needs or requiring more from others, I became a stranger to myself. As I awaken to who I really am, I can no longer live a life where I deny myself in order to keep the peace. I have decided that the people I love deserve to get to know me better. I long for intimacy. I long to be known. And with intimacy, there’s vulnerability. In order to let others see who I really am, I open myself up for heartbreak. To draw closer, I must ask others for more, and asking for more invites more conflict.
Many years ago, when I learned what boundaries were, I made a point to have them. As I grow and heal, more and more boundaries are now necessary. When someone like me tends to diffuse conflict by being agreeable, boundaries can seem counterintuitive. Saying no to others makes people upset, and this conflict is painful, especially when the people around you are not used to hearing “no.” Conflict is a double-edged sword. It is scary because it puts you at the mercy of others, but it is also the very thing that draws you close. Without conflict, people drift apart, and never get to the deeper, more important issues of life.
Right now, I have decided I am worthy of a life where others are more aware of my needs and desires, and have more opportunities to meet them. I have decided I am worthy of asking for more. I am letting go of being easy and agreeable. Now in theory, this is a beautiful opportunity to draw closer to the people who really love me. In reality, it feels like the whole world is crashing down, because I don’t know if others love me enough to survive the test.
When someone suddenly puts up a healthy boundary where there previously was none, it is not easy or pleasant for the other person. It is often met with hostility. The other person resists the change because it usually means their easy, unexamined way of life just got challenged. These are necessary growing pains. When one person puts up a healthy boundary, the other person in the relationship must also grow and change with it, or the relationship won’t work.
For someone like me, this is a terrifying but necessary process for survival. I have let go of enough toxic people in my life to know how painful, but important, it is to do so. Yet, even more scary than letting go of toxic people is needing to have healthy boundaries with the ones you love. If the one you love does not respond well to new healthy boundaries, you might have to let them go, too. Perhaps they only loved you for the surface-level, agreeable version of you, and not who you really are. I can’t think of anything more heartbreaking than that possibility.
It is especially difficult to confront someone who, like me, avoids conflict, because they never learned how to handle it, either. There is a lot of panic and fear that has to be dealt with before getting to the issue at hand. When two people suck at conflict, a lot of stuff can pile up while they both float through life saying “I’m fine” and “that’s OK.” Resentment builds until one day, the people who seemed to always get along so well are suddenly lost and miserable. They then have to face a choice. They can either both learn healthy boundaries and confrontation together, or they will keep drifting apart.
To decide that I am worthy of more is perhaps the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do, precisely because it is something I cannot do all on my own. I need to be in relationship with others who agree that I am worthy of more.
Photo by Hazzel Silva on Unsplash