Trigger warning: abusive relationships.
If this hits home for you, I think this article could help you but I want to warn you just in case you’re not in the headspace to read about it. That’s okay. I wasn’t in the headspace to write about it for a long time – this article has taken me four months to get to, but only 15 minutes to write...
We are a product of our experiences. It’s important to acknowledge this – everything we’ve done and been through has left a mark on who we are, whether we like it or not.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is a good thing! I saw something on Instagram that said, “You’re not going to want to hear this, but you needed to go through what you did to become who you are.”
I entirely disagree. This implies that people deserve to go through hard times. But no one needs to struggle to realise who they are, no one benefited from being treated badly or experiencing something difficult, and certainly no one deserves to struggle. However – what we’ve experienced and how we learnt to cope with it does have an impact on who we are and what we do.
From my own perspective, I was in a very unhealthy relationship from the age of 16 to 20 which involved emotional, verbal, physical and sexual abuse. I won’t lie, it’s been almost six years and I still really struggle to write that sentence. I was in denial about it for years – living the single life, “working on myself.” It’s true, I was, but I failed to address the trauma I’d experienced and really work out how it changed me. Turns out, venturing back into the world of relationships is an effective way to unlock this... Painful, but effective. Probably should have seen it coming.
As humans we are constantly learning from our surroundings – we consciously and subconsciously realise patterns, and as such we build methods and mechanisms to work with those patterns. For me, at the impressionable age of 16 or 17, I learned that the easiest way to avoid conflict and avoid being hurt was to stay quiet. It didn’t matter what I thought or felt or wanted, I was going to be wrong anyway. So I worked out that the best thing to do was to accept what was in front of me and just get on with things. Just be okay with everything.
As you can imagine, this doesn’t work particularly well outside of an abusive context. The people I have around me now have respect for me, my wants and needs, wishes and opinions. This is a big one – I learnt that anything that wasn’t a cold hard fact (such as people’s feelings and opinions, including my own) could, and would, be contested so there was no point in even trying to go down that road. As such, I stopped putting any effort into empathising with myself or anyone else, because my survival instinct told me I just had to please one person to be safe – my abuser. Their reactions to what I said and did were unpredictable at best, violent at worst, and so I spent years consistently being told that I was wrong. This does not do wonders for one’s self-confidence.
While in that relationship, I lost faith in my own thought processes; I couldn’t understand why my own logic and opinions that I’d employed for the first 16 years of my life suddenly weren’t working. Turns out they just didn't suit my abuser’s narrative, but I’m only figuring this out now many years later. In recent months since beginning this voyage of self-discovery, I’ve been questioning myself again – why am I struggling to back my own beliefs so much? Why don’t I trust my own logic, why am I out of touch with my own and others’ feelings and thoughts?
I’ve very slowly worked out why, and now it seems obvious - my trauma response is still very much in control, more than I thought or wanted to admit. Turns out, this is what happens when you put things away in boxes on shelves for years. I’ve returned to a situation I haven’t had to face in a long time – being in a relationship - but a healthy and safe one this time. I have no roadmap for this specific situation, so my response is to shut down every time something goes slightly wrong because that’s how I stayed safe last time.
So, I’m acknowledging this and accepting it. I’ve explained to those closest to me that it’s not that I don’t care about them, it’s not that I’m just breezing through things blissfully unaware, I’m not deliberately trying to deflect responsibility or push down my own thoughts, feelings or opinions on things, I’m just reverting to how I’ve learnt to cope.
I’m learning that we don’t have to stay quiet to stay safe. We can and should connect with our own thoughts, and express them, without fear of being hurt. It’s hard, and it’s a roller-coaster – I find myself going from feeling like I’m making progress, to feeling like I’m a terrible person who has no idea how to be a good friend or a good partner, and it doesn’t take a lot to tip the balance either way.
But I know that deep down, I’m still the person I was before I turned 16 – I'm still kind, loving, patient, gentle. I just need to re-learn how to act on all those things, how to reconnect with myself and allow those around me to connect with me too. We are a product of our experiences, but that product should be treated with kindness and compassion. We can rediscover who we really are underneath the trauma and barriers we’ve put up. It takes work, but that’s okay.