TO RATHER BE BAD AND FEEL GUILT AND SHAME THAN TO FEEL POWERLESS
My mind is used to “going inside”, to re-write my role in different kinds of outer events and situations. Note the difference, I am not re-writing the actual event or situation, I am re-writing me. We all have individualized coping strategies, but our actual choices of defense when being subjected to abuse, violence and trauma, are quite limited. Boiled down, we change our own role, other’s roles or the event or situation itself (meaning we change our perception of ourselves, others or our surroundings, of “reality” in different ways).
My strongest defense have always been to dissociate, meaning I mostly re-write myself. It does impact how I see others, but I am not actually re-writing them, just seeing them through my own re-written story. This might sound strange or complicated. Bear with me – I will give you an examples and share how this ties into the title of this blogpost – why it has always been easier for me to be the “bad” one and feel guilt and shame over that – than to feel powerless. And how that sense of powerlessness was fortified in me by the ones whose intentions where to help me - by pointing out everything that was "wrong" with me. Never asking me if I had been wronged.
When I was 25 years old, I decided to share my story about how my father had abused me when I grew up, with my mother. I invited her home to me, just telling her I wanted to talk to her about something important.
When she came, she was behaving obviously (in my eyes) in a nervous way. I am not much of a cold talker, so I invited her to sit down and we had some coffee and cake. I gathered myself and just said it out – that I wanted to talk to her about how my father had abused me when I grew up.
I had hardly said the first words before she interrupted me. And she told me he was not actually my father, that he was my stepfather.
The “conversation” (I am putting “conversation” in quotation marks as it was not really a conversation, it was mostly her talking and me observing and listening) after that was an “extraordinary” experience.
It became clear to me she had always know about the abuse. I know I had concluded many times before that she must have known. But I also could not understand how she could know, and let it go on. My mind could not handle that part. I grew up feeling utterly worthless (except for what my body could offer), but if she had known all the time, I was not sure I could bear the added worthlessness, that I had been so insignificant to her that she knowingly let me live through that abuse. To be honest, I still can not fully grasp this.
I did ask her straight out if she had known, and she partially and (to me for being her) lamely denied it. The whole story that unfolded and they way she behaved partially denying it, coming from a woman who would have no issues with twisting the truth and putting herself first, in any situation, there seemed to be some guilt involved? It seemed me speaking about this made her vulnerable in that situation. Or it was what I wanted to see? She was nervous and affected. She behaved out of character. She had made this decision to tell me about my father (now revealed to me as my stepfather), to ease my pain. This decision must have come from her knowing about the abuse. She knew or felt what I was going to talk about, or my sister whom I had already brought it up with her, had told her? Or she was nervous about her telling me about my father/stepfather – and not really nervous about what I wanted to talk about (but really did not talk much about at all that day – or any other day – with her).
She told me the whole story of how she had tried to find a solution of to first not have me at all, that she tried to abort me, when she understood she was pregnant with me. And when that did not succeed how she decided to pin the fatherhood on a man she had briefly met that past summer. How she got back with him, and then told him she was pregnant by him.
She also told me that my real father knew all the time that I existed and that she had never had any intention to tell me about this. She said it out as she had intended to take this secret with her to her grave. My stepfather was still thinking he was my real father too. The only ones knowing the truth was my mother and my real father.
Why did she tell me now?
I had started to talk about the abuse I had endured. I had spoken to both my sisters about it, and with the psychologist I had at the time plus some of the people who worked at the psychiatric hospital I had been in. I had been quiet for years and years but had finally started to talk a bit about it. Why had I started to talk about it? The decision was mostly fear driven (as most of what I did was back then). My decision to tell my mother was part of this “opening up”. I also did feel some anger, if only very slightly. Fear and anger – those were my motivators. I felt I was without any safety or protection – and it seemed I kept on ending up in dangerous or harmful situations. With no tool to handle them, except re-writing myself (dissociate from myself). I lived with strong PTS(d) symptoms, besides the dissociation. Sharing with “family” was supposed to help.
Her reason for almost counter-telling me this now about who was my actual father, was to make the abuse feel less horrible to me, she said. Her idea was that if he was not my real father, that would make it less horrendous. That her telling me this would somehow negate the severity of it.
I know I was in chock through that conversation. Her logic was not reaching me. I also was sitting there with the news that I had another father, who had known about me since before I was born, yet never had reached out to me, never had wanted to be part of my life. And for several years now had known I was repeatedly trying to kill myself to “get out”, without doing anything, not "showing up" in my life - until now. Until I had started to speak.
To me it seemed I had “lost” an abusive father and “won” a neglectful one. I had now one that had wanted me for the wrong reasons and one who did not want me, though I was actually his child.
And I had a mother who wanted me to feel grateful to her for sharing this with me. Who wanted my understanding of her suffering of having me, giving birth to me, of having to marry a man she did not love or want, a mother who wanted my empathy for having had to live a life she did not want.
The role reversal in this conversation was something I could recognize and was familiar with, yet I felt surprised and confused. Here I had prepared to share this big secret to hear what she would respond – and this conversation was “stolen” from me and turned into me care-taking and having to feel comforted by this new twist of events. It was “just” sexual abuse and not incest. What a relief?
In my original family – I was the carrier of everything that was wrong. Of everyone’s secrets. Of everyone’s pain and everyone’s solution to their pain, at least the adult one’s.
I took everything on, literally and figuratively. I was the bad person, the black sheep, the mentally ill one. The canary, the litmus paper, the sponge, the sensitive one, the odd one. The wrong one.
And I kept on carrying it – because the alternative was to admit the extreme powerlessness I grew up in. That I dealt with every single day. The extreme confusion I lived with. The incongruence. The secrets. The objectification.
The violence, abuse and neglect was one thing, this other realm that came with it, I think have even more shaped me than the actual pain, fear and humiliation. The powerlessness affected all parts of my life – and what was left for me to affect – was me. I could change. And not really be me. This was the only thing I had power over.
And here again – in this “conversation” being the “weak one” – I had to comfort my mother for her life and life decisions and feel grateful over her decision to save me from the shame of incest.
It is first now I can see the “trade” I made. If I was continuously the bad one, in all the ways you can think of, I did not have to deal with this powerlessness. That also the constant role reversals were part of.
Now when I do see it more clearly – slowly – some more of my stress and trauma responses are softening. To admit the powerlessness and extreme fear I sometimes experienced as a child and young woman, and not sink into it – but hold it, and show myself compassion when it is triggered – I am slowly moving towards more inner peace.
The powerlessness is complicated and complex. It holds so many parts. It is not straightforward or simple. It is nuanced and also holds its opposite – a sense of power. I know some of that power I felt was not true power. On a micro level I could experience it, on a macro level, I was still powerless.
It has made me live as an “edge” person or a person living in the cross-roads, in the intersections – in the “in-betweens”. I will talk more about that another day, what I mean by that.
Today – I wanted to address the role of powerlessness. I have just touched upon the subject today. It is a vast one. And if you want to hear more about how I see early childhood trauma and the role of dissociation – and how you can learn to befriend it – join me in the trainings and webinars I offer. I am picking things apart. Now with some more distance and more inner peace, more resources to take care of myself and more of a human and nature-based safety network, I want do to this. Speak about how the unspeakable and the powerlessness have affected me, how I have worked with myself and how life can be worth living, even enjoyed – despite a dark personal history.
The stories we tell are important. It is – I think – important to name the un-namable as apart of reclaiming one’s own life story. At least that is true to me. Who grew up surrounded by so much secrecy. But even more important than the stories is – what lives behind them. What needs to be set free. And my sense of powerlessness – to get close to it, to hold it, embrace it, accept it, love the parts of me that still to some extent hold it – and to not fear it (or those parts of me) – is my way forward.
Without throwing out what helped me survive (my minds capacity to dissociate) – but also embrace the survival strategies – the dissociation – I still want to understand more about how this powerlessness have affected me. The real and the felt one. And I will continue to work with my perception of myself – because it colors my perception of the world.
With me sharing more of my story – the different parts of it – I want to highlight this that I think is so common – to make ourselves “bad”, and in some sense this is fortified by the diagnoses we often receive – making it crystal clear to us that there is really something wrong with us. If affects the whole narrative. Then it becomes understandable why we were hurt, because we are so wrong, so mentally ill, so challenging to deal with, so not really part of the “normal humanity”.
It has taken me a really long time to get closer to this unconscious reasoning. And how I by ending up in the psychiatric care in my twenties only fortified the early traumas, fortified the sense of being bad – and not addressing the powerlessness I grew up with – not making it possible to see the power I had then, but do know I have now.
I am not done yet – there are still aspects of a sense of powerlessness in my life – but I am dealing with it. One at a time. No longer re-writing myself – but seeing things around me differently. And seeing myself differently. Which is another kind of re-writing – one that I own myself.
PS. An afterthought. It might not be clear how I came to think about this “conversation” with my mother when I reflected on powerlessness and the often easier choice of feeling bad, feeling guilty and/or ashamed (putting it on myself). Then that is okay – I am processing this by writing about it – clarity usually takes its time to arrive – and often I have to repeatedly write about a topic before it is clear, processed and can be integrated as a known and felt new way of seeing things.
I am also noticing in myself a much less need to process out loud. And I debate with myself if to take this blogpost down or not. Not because I feel ashamed or do not stand for what I write, or because I do not feel it is important topics. But because so much is misunderstood – and this is just one aspect of me – my continuous work with myself. The world is sometimes a very judgmental place – and I just wonder if this – me continuously writing and sharing openly – is unnecessarily complicating my life these days – more than it leads me to where I want to go?
I will let this blog post – and others – be here for now. I might reconsider ahead. That too is a process!
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