Many people don’t even realize that they were (or are being) abused. But the assumption that the pain will go away is not correct. What is needed is to take active steps towards recovery. This includes a bunch of wonderful tools.
1. The First Tool Is To Discover Yourself
The worst part about verbal abuse is that over time, the victim loses track of who he or she is. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? But it is true. Imagine a small child sitting in a high chair being fed. Mom wants that child to eat. Eating is obviously important, so mom says, “Oh, this is delicious, soooo good.” The little child tastes it. Now, one of two things can happen. Either the child decides it is good, eats it, and grins, or the child hates it. The child may spit for the fun of it, so spitting is not an indication of whether the child likes it or doesn’t. (Spitting is actually a develpmental exercise of the tongue and throat and is, to the baby, a brilliant discovery of what great talents he or she has. Although it is annoying to the adult, it seems to be a standard developmental process that you just have to get through.) Suppose the child spits it out and grins. What should the mom do? Mom should put that food aside, end the meal, and let the child go play. Why? Because if the child were really hungry, he or she would have eaten it. The grin indicates a game.
But suppose mom is worried the child hasn’t eaten well. Suppose the mom is into a power struggle with the baby. (Silly, but common.) So maybe mom gets mad and says, “This is good! You like it! Eat it!” Or suppose mom very patiently says, “You really do like it and we’ll just sit here until you eat it.” All of a sudden the joy of life is gone. The baby is not playing a fun game any more and is forced to eat something he doesn’t want. Babies have a very, very short attention span. If the mom is really patient, she can get that baby to eat everything. Life may not be fun, but the baby “thinks” he likes all the food.
How To Destroy An Identity
What’s the problem? Hardwired into the baby are, indeed, choices, preferences, tastes. To what extent we want to humor that baby and go with his tastes and to what extent we want to teach him to like everything is a personal value of the parent. Certainly, it is a good idea not to give in to extreme finnickiness. A very fussy child will not grow up to be a flexible person. You can’t cater too much to a baby’s whims. At the same time, the parent has to draw the line somewhere or that child will have no personal identity. To what degree is the child himself and to what degree is he a carbon copy of his parents?
Abuse happens when that parent–or marriage partner–continues to tell the victim over and over and over and over who he is until the victim doesn’t have a mind of his own any more. I have met countless people who have no clue
what they would like to do for down-time
what sort of work they would really like to do if they could choose
what they wish their spouse would say/do to make them happy–that’s right; they don’t even know what would make them happy
why they are unhappy
How To Discover Yourself
Finding out is a long adventure. It may prove to be confusing and frustrating along the way, but ultimately, you end up discovering yourself. The way to go about it is to select one category at a time, let’s say it’s clothing. Go to the mall and start comparing two items. You may not be ready to say, “Oh, wow I love this and I hate this,” but you may be able to reach deep inside and say “I like this one a little better than this one.” Note why. What do you like? What don’t you like as well about the other? Is it the color? The pattern? The cut? The degree of dressiness versus sportiness? The way it’s made? The way the pieces go together? The way it blends with your coloring or not? If all you do is go through that with three or four comparisons, you’ve done an enormous job. You don’t have to buy anything. In fact, unless you need something, I’d recommend not buying just yet. Wait until you know yourself more fully. Go home and think about your preferences. What did you discover about yourself that you weren’t consciously aware of before?
You can go through his process for lots of categories: food, furniture, landscaping, decorating, jobs, hobbies, the opposite sex, and so on.
2. Nurturing Yourself
This can be very hard for some people. For one thing, you have not been nurtured before so you don’t even know how to do it. But worse, because you have not been nurtured before, you may not even like yourself. This is the most common outcome of being abused. No one acted nice to you before; therefore you don’t deserve to be treated nicely. You just think you must not be a good person, not worth liking, so why be nice to yourself? Of course this is not true, but in your heart, it is hard to believe otherwise.
3. The Spiritual Way To Start Feeling Good About Yourself
If you have any spiritual inclination at all, spend some time every day thinking about some of the Big Questions: Why was I born? Why did God create me? What is my purpose here on Earth?
If you consider the amazing complexity of the universe, it seems pretty apparent that it could not have happened by accident. No one can successfully answer the questions: How come matter could come out of nothing? What happened before Time? What is at the End of the universe? Matter, Time, and Space could not exist or work together without some Intelligent Force behind it. There would be chaos otherwise; every day the sun might not rise, gravity might not happen, we might not wake up in the morning.
Yes, it’s true there is enormous pain in the world. You have suffered. You have perhaps suffered inordinately. Where is that Force, you want to say? But don’t ask ME that question because I am just a human. I could not create a world. I could not create Time, Space, and Matter. I could not create Life. I am limited. We all are. These questions are on a magnitude way out of our reach. Neverthelss, I never said you have to understand God to recognize that there is order–and genius–in the universe and it came out of a Superior Intelligence.
You Were Created With Love
I’ll take that a step further. It had to have been created with Love. Here’s the logic behind that statement: If everything we know and understand is so limited that it’s only a small part of what explains the functioning of the universe, and if we do know that there is love in the world (even if you may not have experienced much of it), then that love must also be a small part of a larger Love that we cannot understand.
In other words, everything we know of in our limited human way had to have been created. Just as Time and Matter did not, could not, have existed without some Force creating them, so too the emotions had to have been created. Whatever the human heart can feel–its capacities–had to have been created when it was created. Just as the big picture items like Space could not have just existed before the Beginning, so its components needed to be created for it; nothing can create itself and a human who did not know love could not have imagined or created it if a Higher Power did not invent it for us to discover.
Happiness Was Created For Your Benefit
The same argument can be made for Happiness. It exists, therefore it was created. But, you argue, why were you not created to be happy? I will ask another set of questions for you to think about: How is it that some people are born blind or deaf or can’t walk or are retarded? Are they supposed to remain unhappy the rest of their lives?
It seems to me that our Declaration of Independence said it best: It is our job to pursue happiness. It may not be handed to us on a silver platter. And we have the freedom to do that. We have the innate human resources to do that. We have the role models of happiness to go for it. Of course, if we don’t even know what makes us happy, we have to go back to Part I, the exercise above, to find out. But, hand in hand with that exercise, we have to consider the possibility that happiness is attainable and that we, personally, were meant to have it.
To sum it up, you were created with love.
You were created for a Purpose
You were created to be happy
You may have to work hard to get that happiness
4. Rewiring The Brain
Let’s suppose you just can’t bring yourself to a belief in the possibility of a Higher Power, Love, Happiness, and that you, personally, were created to find happiness. There is still another way to alter a fundamental belief in your own “badness.” If you figure that an abusive parent or an abusive spouse or even an abusive boss spent a lot of time drumming your “badness” into you then it would take a lot of repetition of the opposite message to undo that original message. Now, the interesting part about this is the new neuropsychological research that supports this.
Research explains why therapy has worked–and not worked–from the perspective of what’s happening in the brain. The long and short of it is that when bad things happen to people, the neural pathways in the brain become firmly etched and it is up to the good therapist to create an emotional environment in which new pathways become etched. The good news is that pathways unused fade out after a while. The bad news is that this process is harder to do with emotions than thoughts and beliefs. Emotions originate in a different part of the brain, a more basic part, and there appear to be more pathways going out of it than into it. This does not make the job impossible, only difficult. Having this information should be helpful to you when the going gets rough because you’ll know that what you’re experiencing is to be expected but doesn’t mean that change won’t happen at all.
So how do you create those new neural pathways? You not only have to repeatedly think different thoughts–positive, self-affirming ones–but you have to do it in a new emotional context. In other words, harness the power of the emotional part of the brain. So, if, for example, you would always get a queasy stomach, hyperventillation, confusion, and sweats when you hear a deep voice that would remind you of the deep voice that was so mean, and with it would come negative, self-destructive thoughts, you would have to set up an emotional context where you could have a different reaction. For example, find a friend with a similar deep voice, arrange a fun experience like the beach or ice-skating (depending on where you are geographically) or whatever and listen to his voice, notice your automatic reactions, but at the same time allow yourself to soak in the fun of the experience. Now the neural pathways in your brain will have “mixed signals”–literally–because the old negative ones will have competition from the positive ones.
The same thing goes for the affirmations. Many therapists have handed out positive affirmations to read and instructed clients to read them daily. The complaint has often been: But I just don’t believe them! The therapist’s answer has always been: Just do them and eventually they’ll seem real. Actually, one important part was missing and that was the problem. The very act of doing them brings to mind the old negative tapes that say, “This is not true.” The affirmations must begin in the right emotional environment. You must begin by catching yourself doing/saying/being in some way consistant with the affirmations. At that moment, you must make the affirmation. For example, you’re stopped by a cop who is about to give you a ticket and you handle that pretty well. You catch yourself right away and tell yourself: “I was cool; I didn’t explode,” or “I was cool; I didn’t cry,” or whatever. You give yourself the affirmation when it is true. Thus the words are consistent emotionally for you. Next time you’re down on yourself, you can remind yourself about that one time you did something right. As you keep catching yourself doing things right, the list will grow. And you can’t argue with it.
This takes care of the mental side of nurturing: Convincing yourself that you are a good person through a spiritual look at your place in the universe and through literally rewiring your brain. Nurturing also has a physical side which must be addressed. Even children who were not physically abused, I have found were physically neglected. It is therefore important to begin the nurturing process on a basic physical level as well.
5. Physical Nurturing Is Necessary Too
You must do for yourself no less than you would do for a loved pet. That includes the basics: Adequate and tasty food, eaten with sufficient time to let it digest properly; enough sleep; time for reflection and relaxation; decent clothes that look good on you; a daily shower or bath that you stay in long enough to enjoy; a comfortable temperature in the house, at least so you should not suffer; a chance to enjoy the outdoors and breathe fresh air.
It also includes staying away from that which hurts, like a depressing job, bad company, friends that take advantage of you or are a one-way street, abusive people.
It could also include a higher level of physical/spiritual nurturing though listening to and/or playing music you enjoy, having flowers around or gardening, burining incense or using cedar chips or other aromatic things, having a fishtank or waterfall for auditory and visual comfort, and fixing up your surroundings so they are visually pleasing to you.
Circumstances are such that no one has the full ability to create a perfect context: Jobs can’t easily be changed; residences often can’t be fixed; that divorce paper hasn’t gone through; money may be short for niceties. This is normal and realistic. The important thing is to do what you can with what you’ve got. In fact, I’m wondering if the act of doing for yourself may be more important than what you actually do in the healing process. I’m not sure on that and I would imagine it’s a combination of the two.
6. Connecting With The World By Surrounding Ourselves With Friends Who Affirm Us
One of the beauties of connecting with others is that in choosing your company, you can choose those people who affirm you. Let me ask you this: Would you rather spend time with a buddy who says you’re a good person and boosts your morale or someone who brings you down? The latter person may feel more real because, with a history of abuse, that’s what you’re most familiar with. But you can get used to the comfort of the other person after a while, especially if she is sincere.
In order to do this part of the exercise, it is necessary to discern the good people from the ones who could be toxic to us. It is important to hear what they say and think about it. It is important to notice and not gloss over slips in their behavior that aren’t nice. It is absolutely necessary not to fall into the old patterns of being attracted to the wrong people. It is mandatory that you resist this in the same way a recovering alcoholic resists drinking.
It makes sense to look for the right kinds of people in wholesome places. Not bars, for example. Take a class; go to religious services; join a gardening club, chess club, repertoiry theater, band, art guild, poetry circle; become involved in civic activities; get a second job that doesn’t necessarily pay much but gives you an opportunity to express your creative side.
Figure out where to go by calling your county or city volunteer associations and ask for the names of others. Be a hospital volunteer, animal shelter volunteer, work with the abuse hotline (only when you are ready), or school volunteer. Work with your church, synagogue, or mosque; the county library; the local symphony; environmental groups; teach computer basics to elderly shut-ins. There are huge directories in every county of this country with enormous listings of places to volunteer. You will gain from helping and you will gain from the comraderie with the other helpers.
Lastly, one way of correcting mistaken assumptions about the meaning of life, happiness, love, and your place in the world is through socializing just to be an observer. Getting to know people, not as friends and companions but merely to learn about how they live could be enormously beneficial. If you become friends in the process, great. Thus, you might go out of your way to connect with someone at work or at the volunteer organization with whom you don’t feel you have something in common, just to learn and understand about people. Maybe that person is rich and you have been poor; maybe that person has a loving family and you never did; maybe that person is more talented than you think you are–or less so. It doesn’t matter. Get to know her and try to understand how she thinks. You will be richer for it. You can learn about how people tick on the internet, in a self-help book–or from those people themselves. Try it.