I was stuck.
You know the feeling? When your mind, like a record needle caught in a scratch, annoyingly loops on repeat? I was stuck like that.
Let me try to explain, but first, a little background. I love relationships with people. People have always fascinated me, and I enjoy them, quirks and all. I’ve always gone into new relationships believing the best about the other person. Believing they are, deep down, good people with good intentions. Giving them the benefit of the doubt. Trusting that they will contribute to our relationship in a mutually kind and respectful way.
I can get stung over and over again, and I will go back and try again. Historically, I’m forgiving and long-suffering to a fault.
Even when the other person is unable to take responsibility for their behaviors and can’t say they are sorry for anything. Even when the other person has to be right all the time. Even when the other person’s worldview has to reign supreme, and I’m not allowed to express mine without getting an earful or the silent treatment.
At least, I used to be that way.
How I Made Peace with Letting Go of My Family of Origin
Over the past few years I’ve learned what boundaries are and how to implement them in my life. I’ve finally accepted the truth that not everyone is willing or even able to contribute to a mutually satisfying relationship in which both parties are respected as individuals with equally valid perspectives on various issues. Finally being married to a man who does do this has helped me see how dysfunctional so many of my prior relationships have been. How I’ve let myself be used in those relationships.
I’ve been told it is abusive to point out abuse.
But that idea is just what some people have decided to believe. That’s a story they have told themselves to justify their abuse. I don’t believe that. It is my belief that pointing out cruel behavior is not abusive. Cruel behavior is abusive. And hiding it or pretending it doesn’t exist only perpetuates abuse.
Abusive people count on others to be polite and keep their mouths shut. They stand prepared to hang whistle blowers with all the worst labels, and we all know it. Right? So we quietly put up with their abusive behavior in order to protect…what? Our reputations? Our abusive friends and family? Our peace of mind? Probably all those things and more.
Calling out abuse is a horrible position to put yourself in. And if you’re anything like me, you want to be nice and kind and have peaceful relationships with everyone, and calling someone out on their cruel behavior feels mean, which goes against the grain of who you are and what you feel inside.
When I was waking up to and getting out of abuse, I had to blow the whistle a few times. Blowing the whistle on abuse is like lighting the sticks under your own stake. Every time I did it, I got ready to burn. I got ready to lose people I loved. People I thought loved me.
The harsh truth of reality turned my rose colored world to ashes. I won’t lie, it hurt like crazy.
Someone told me the pain I felt was my own fault. I was doing it to myself, and I just loved drama.
But I don’t love drama or stress or strained relationships, and the peace I’ve experienced since a lot of these kinds of people have left me has been amazing, and I’m grateful for that peace. (You can be sad and have peace.)
Let me explain by going back to the witch burning analogy.
Remember in history when women really were burned at the stake for being witches? Were they truly witches? No. And the fact that they insisted on their innocence rather than “admitting and repenting of their witchcraft” is exactly why they were burned.
So, did they burn themselves? Were they the cause of their own horrible demise? No. I mean, yes in that if they would have told a lie, they could have lived.
“Historically, a confession was the single best way for the court to gain a conviction and an execution for charges of witchcraft. The irony is that none of the accused Salem witches who confessed were convicted or executed but all 19 people who refused to confess were found guilty and executed.” Source
I’m not going to sugar coat this dilemma. If you call out abuse, you will be burned at the proverbial stake. Many women have literally lost their lives when they tried to get away from abuse.
Hundreds of thousands of Christian women have lost their church families, their families of origin, their reputations, their children, their financial stability, their homes, and their health for calling out abuse.
I’ve talked to many women in the thick of it who believe death is better.
One woman I know took action on that and succeeded. Her blood is on the hands of abusers in her life. God sees it. God knows exactly what happened.
Abuse is a great unseen holocaust. (Small “h” – not to be confused with the historical Holocaust – capital “H” – that killed millions of marginalized Jewish people in Germany.)
So back to the beginning. I was stuck.
I was stuck because I blew a whistle publicly and made people mad. And I don’t like to make people mad. I like to make people happy. I like to make friends – not enemies.
Here’s what I wrote on my personal Facebook wall:
Tom and I are not invited to my nephew’s wedding. Similarly, we weren’t invited to the family gathering my sister and her husband hosted in their home after my dad’s funeral last year.
My ex-husband was invited to both.
To be clear, I only have two sisters. Our children grew up together and have countless memories together. I watched my nephew grow up, and I love him and wish him and his new bride the best. But his mom and dad (both conservative evangelical Christians) have shunned me since my divorce and remarriage, and it appears their negative feelings toward me have been passed on to their children.
I’m not going to talk about how these things affect my life and the lives of my family here. But I do want to draw attention to them in order to make a point.
One of the insane things about abuse is that it hides, and if the victim comes forward to disclose it, she is labeled the bad one. “Why can’t she just leave well enough alone? She must have an ax to grind. Why is she airing dirty laundry? It’s better to keep family secrets—secret. She’s being negative. She’s unforgiving. She’s bitter. She just wants attention. She wants everyone to feel sorry for her. And this is only her side of the story. What about his? Or theirs?”
And THIS is exactly why people do unkind things like this. They can. It works. They look like good people if their victim says nothing (nobody knows what they did – they get away with it) – and they look like good people – victims even – if their victim says something (the victim is a “playing a victim” which is decidedly out of fashion in civilized society.)
I wanted to go to my nephew’s wedding. I wanted to celebrate with my family. I also wanted to mourn with my family after my dad’s funeral last year. I’m a human being who desires to love and be loved within a warm, emotionally and spiritually safe family. Just like every human that has ever existed.
But I divorced my ex-husband and have been told I am a “bitch.” So I am unworthy of celebrating and mourning, loving and being loved, within my family of origin.
And I will no longer pretend this isn’t happening or that it is okay.
Predictably, some family members got mad. In their belief, it’s okay to leave a family member out of a funeral or wedding, but it’s not okay to talk about it or feel bad about it.
I wanted to believe they would see how hurtful their collusion with this sister was. I wanted to believe they loved me as much as they loved her. That my feelings were just as important as hers. But I knew from a long history that I was accepted only when and if I colluded with the beliefs, perspectives, and narratives of my family members.
I wasn’t allowed to show up as me. I was only allowed to show up as an extension of them. As a player in their drama. And I was given the worst bum roles.
I was exhausted.
I didn’t want to live like that anymore. I don’t enjoy drama. I’m an introvert who just wants to drink coffee and read books and write blog post articles.
I just want peace in my life. I want to surround myself with mature, kind, respectful human beings. Like my husband, Tom.
But for several weeks after that I felt guilty. I felt guilty because of my brain’s programming. I’ve spent my life believing that I’m a bad person if I can’t make everyone around me happy enough. I’ve been a people-pleaser.
Here’s the pattern in my life, and tell me if it sounds familiar?
Someone does something I think is mean.
They cheat. They lie. They steal. They hit. They backstab. They fill-in-the-blank.
I point out the bad behavior.
“Hey, you cheated. Stop it.” “Hey, that’s not true. You’re lying. Stop it.” “Hey, you just took that from another person. That’s stealing. Stop it.” “Hey, stop blaming me for what you did. Take responsibility.” “Hey, you just hit me. That’s mean. Stop it.”
I’m no longer a big proponent of calling out chronically abusive people on their behavior. I think it’s a waste of time. Set boundaries and protect yourself, but don’t waste your energy on trying to convince an abuser that they are abusive.
They react the way abusive people react.
They tell me I’m the bad guy. To cheat, lie, steal, hit, or whatever isn’t the bad behavior. It’s the calling it out that’s the unforgivable sin. I feel confused and guilty. People are mad at me for pointing things out. I was supposed to look the other way and pretend I didn’t see it. Didn’t experience it. If I say “That hurt” I am accused of being too emotional. Too sensitive. Too bossy. Too picky. Too rude. Too self-pitying. “Self-pity is of the devil.” “You’re such a bawl baby.” I’m always trying to get attention. Making everything all about me. Self-centered. Vain. Obsessed.
Of course someone who is abusive will react poorly when you point out their chronic poor behavior. They can’t take responsibility for themselves, so they will put it all on you.
I feel bad for being such a loser, and I say I’m sorry and ask for forgiveness.
That’s right. With all these abusive messages coming at me, a girl who only wants to be loved and accepted like everyone else, I felt guilty for not measuring up. If only I could be more kind. More selfless. More quiet. More relaxed. More loving. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.
I was taught growing up that I could not be in relationship with others unless I initiated an apology every time I made them unhappy. I got the silent treatment until I could lay aside what I believed to be true and accept an alternate reality where I was always wrong, and my perspective was always mistaken and unwanted and assuming and delusional. I would say I was sorry for screwing up again, and I would ask for forgiveness.
The family member would graciously bestow forgiveness upon me, and I would get to be in relationship with them again. This felt so good. Such a relief would wash over me. It was like going from being cast out like a leper to being invited back in where it was safe and warm. I was loved again.
As an adult, I look back on that and see how screwed up it is. But because that was the only thing I knew, when I married my first husband, and the dynamic was exactly the same – it felt totally normal. I was in so much emotional pain all the time, I had to rely on a lot of denial and self-abasement just to get through those dark years. My conservative religion helped me beautifully by keeping me fed with a steady supply of misogynistic lies.
So here I was – really, really, REALLY wanting to just be done with this weird, controlling family dynamic where you never know where you stand – but I felt guilty about walking away from those relationships. Keeping the peace and maintaining relationships – even destructive ones – has been woven into the fabric of my life from a very young age. To walk away felt so wrong. But every time I considered it, I felt such a sense of relief as well.
I spent several weeks riddled with anxiety. I had a hard time sleeping. Night after night I had horrible nightmares. I could feel myself slipping into a depression. I knew I was preparing to let go. I was grieving.
But what I really wanted was a way to frame the entire experience in a way that made sense. As you know, if you are a victim of psychological abuse, there is a lot of confusion even over the most simple truths. Life is constantly going sideways when you live with someone like that. I’m still learning how to walk in a straight line at times!
I finally got a breakthrough.
A REAL breakthrough. I was writing in a journal, and one of the questions asked me to think about a recent experience in which I had a chance to practice boundaries. I thought about this experience with my family members, and it hit me. If we think about boundaries as being each one of us taking responsibility for our own home and yard – and the fence around our home and yard is our boundary, it all made sense. Here’s how. I’m going to tell this story in terms of boundaries, and see if it doesn’t make everything fall into place:
“Once upon a time there was a woman (let’s call her Rose) with a house and yard. She had a party and invited her family members to the party. All except one. She didn’t like that one (let’s call her June), so she left her outside the gate. Rose had every right to do this. It’s her house and yard, and she can invite whomever she wants. But June felt bad. She could see her family members inside Rose’s yard, and she longed to be part of the family that she belonged to.
A couple of her other family members came over to the gate, smiled, and said “Hi!” as if nothing was amiss. June said, “I’ve been left out. I wanted to be there. I feel sad and discarded. I feel angry too. Why doesn’t Rose like me?” Her other family members shrugged and said, “It’s not that big of a deal. You don’t have to get all emotional about it. Lighten up.” And they walked away leaving June feeling lonely and sad.
June noticed that some of the people at the party were glancing over at her, whispering. She wondered if they were talking about why she wasn’t there at the party. She yelled out, “I WASN’T INVITED! I WANTED TO COME, BUT I WASN’T INVITED. IT SUCKS. WISH I WAS THERE HAVING FUN WITH YOU!”
Some of them called out, “We are sorry! We miss you! We feel bad you’ve been left out, and we don’t think it’s right!” June felt a little better. Maybe she wasn’t crazy, after all. But then a couple of family members marched over with scowls on their faces and said in harsh whispers, “STOP IT! LEAVE IT ALONE! WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD?!” and they huffed away, leaving June alone again.
June thought about it. She had a choice. She could do what she always did under similar circumstances, and she could call out, “I’M SORRY! I’M SO SORRY FOR WHATEVER I DID, AND I WON’T DO IT AGAIN! I’M A BAD GIRL, AND CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME! I PROMISE TO KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT AND JUST SMILE AND NOD!”
Or she could respect their right to leave her out, and she could walk away.
So she walked away.
Once I saw the story in terms of boundaries, I was totally set free. My nightmares went away. I could sleep. I was no longer looping. I felt like a million bucks! I WAS FREE!!
Here’s the thing. We ALL get to have our own beliefs about how relationships work and what is healthy or unhealthy behavior. I needed to let my family members be exactly who they are. They had shown me time and time again who they were. I just kept wanting to believe something different, and that denial was what created all the drama for me.
Do you see this? Instead of accepting them as they are based on their consistent behavior, I wanted them to be different. I wanted to believe they were different than who they had shown me, over and over, they actually were.
Once I accepted, REALLY accepted them as they were…AND once I had accepted, REALLY accepted ME as I am…I was able to let go and find peace.
You see, the members of my family of origin get to have their own beliefs and boundaries, and if they don’t want me in their lives, that’s okay. If I love them – that needs to be okay. They get to do what is best for them. I WANT them to do what is best for them. I want to love them.
But now I also see that I am a person worth caring for. And I also have boundaries. I want to love them, but now I also want to love a woman named Natalie. And I want her to spend the last half of her life in peace.