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Why Learning to 'Love and Be Loved' Is Difficult After a History of Abuse

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Love feels unsafe. To the little girl within me, love is unsafe because she grew up with abuse. To her, love means hurt. Love means pain, trauma, inconsistency, insanity and conditions.

Love was fucked up, twisted and tied so deep into their self-hatred, that it came out wrapped in violence, rather than gentleness and warmth. Bitterness, rather than compassion and understanding. Jealousy and resentment, rather than supportive holding and cheerleading.

The love wasn’t hers, it was theirs – it had the potential to change any moment. And generally, it did. No matter how hard my inner girl or inner teen tried, things stayed the same.

Why – and how – would they be any different now?

I remember the first time I was told about unconditional love, five and a half years ago.

“You don’t have to do anything for someone to love you? People can just love you for you?” I laughed, thinking it was a joke. When I realized it wasn’t, I felt a sudden sorrow, a deep grief, for myself.

How did I not know this?

My relationship with love had been “wrong” my whole life. An innately wise part of myself always understood unconditional love existed. As a kid, I remember watching other parents and children, knowing somewhere deep inside what I experienced at home wasn’t the only way. Somehow I also knew, beneath my wounding and fear, that things wouldn’t always be this way.

What I was experiencing was only one half of my love story. As I’ve begun healing in my youth and early adulthood, my relationship with love — towards myself and others — has been rapidly changing. I’m learning what love actually is, but I’m in the raw and messy stage. My defenses, fears, wounding and insecurities feel more tender and in my face than ever before. I can’t step round, look past or dive through my wounding, anymore.

I know this is healing, but it’s really, really, hard. I feel like a shadow of my former self, although that former self was numb. My need to feel safe and not too raw and exposed, feels more important than any other need I have, so it governs almost everything I do. I barricade myself off from the world, yearning for connection, but feeling terrified of it. People offer me love and I often run in the other direction.

The times I do try to stop and let the love in, I’m still holding the person or their act of care as far away as is possible in that moment. I’m scared the love they give isn’t really meant and they’ll regret it. I think it’s because my mum used to offer love or do something supportive and then swing back around 20 minutes or a few hours later with abusive rage about the fact she did this.

I’m either desperately longing for love or desperately avoiding it. I rarely feel like I sit in the middle of these two and let the love in.

I’m scared.

I take risks. I show myself and my needs or vulnerabilities and then freak out by reading into people’s every move or every word. I disappear, convinced I was “too much,” even if the other person didn’t say anything or do anything to imply I was “too much.” I let people in at a certain distance, allow them to support me to a certain point and then stop. They can’t see the whole of me, right?

I used to find myself laughing at the theories my inner critic comes up with in these moments, because they so well thought out, convincing and hilarious. But at the moment they just feel frustrating and annoying. They constantly get in the way of connection. I have so many people who love me — and people often comment on how loved and known I am. Why can’t I just let these people in?

Ugh. It’s so frustrating.

I also struggle to trust that love and time given to me won’t disappear at some point soon. It feels terrifying and almost impossible to trust that someone might still be there after seeing everything, after seeing me. Even my best friend of eight years who has shown me over and over again she is not going anywhere, I still am half waiting to disappear at any moment. She’s someone that despite the gigantic amount of love she has shown me and continues to show me, I still don’t let in completely or trust that she’s really here.

My desire to fuck up any love or support given overwhelms me almost constantly, too. I fight against it daily. I really hate it and desperately wish it wasn’t something I feel or want to do, yet the stories pulls me in and the feelings of fear and self-hatred overwhelm me.

I have and have had, gorgeously supportive people in my life who have given me so much love and really care about me, but I hold them so far away it breaks my heart. I don’t trust them, but most of all I don’t trust my own “lovability.” I want to show them I’m not lovable, that they made a mistake loving me and offering support. I feel stuck in a cycle of hating myself and berating myself for this inability to just let people in, which makes the situation a whole lot more difficult to deal with. I often find myself crying and feeling utterly heartbroken and frustrated towards this belief and habit of mine. It makes life so much more isolating.

When friends have broken down in tears and expressed what they’re struggling with, I have always loved them even more. Moments when they have shared their deepest insecurities or feelings of darkness and shame, I just want to hug them and tell them I love them. I feel so much more connected and seen when they express all the things that just make them human. Why I can’t I trust people feel like that with me?

I have so much proof I am lovable and people love me. I have so much proof people can still be there after knowing and witnessing the parts of me I am ashamed of — the “complicated” bits of me — but this trust still feels really difficult.

I know to love and let love in is the most vulnerable thing we can do, because there is no guarantee or certainty. But doing this feels even more scary and vulnerable when you’ve grown up with abuse. Because alongside the proof that I am lovable and able to be supported, I also have a lot of “proof” from my childhood, a different kind of love — the love that comes with abuse. I am slowly untangling and learning a new language of love, but my history of abuse is still very much there, so integrating it will take time. I just want that time to be soon.

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Thinkstock photo via yukitama.

Originally published: March 27, 2017
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