This Thing Called Healing
I can’t take criticism. After a lifetime of abuse, the smallest critique sends me either running to the bathroom to cry or coming out with both fists flailing, trying desperately to fend off attacks. All I hear is yet again how bad I am, how messed up I am, how selfish, stubborn and hard-headed I am, how emotional and silly I am. And I believe it and then start having ugly and dark thoughts about why I even exist. My mind searches my memories (the ones that aren’t blank spaces in my mind) for something to contradict the “bad me”. Something to prove that I’m actually ok. And I can’t find any. Only memories of being told over and over how bad and defective I am.
So a criticism as small as a 1 on a scale of 1-10, I receive as a 7. I beat myself up horribly and become outright depressed, or I fight and push the critic away, even counter attacking to protect my exhausted, mutilated sense of self. Fight or flight. I feel defeated, just give up inside and let the guilt wash over me, crumbling in a heap of self-hate as I have done so many times in my life. Or, I declare that I will not take this anymore, and I attempt to launch an all out counter attack, while awful memories flash through my head like knives, creating an even more urgent sense that I have to fight to survive.
When I finally do see the reality of the situation, no matter which way I chose to handle it, I feel humiliated, weak, stupid, embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, all in the light of already feeling like a terrible person to begin with.
When will I ever get control of this thing? When will I see that not everyone wants to abuse me? I have to somehow learn to take helpful criticism as an opportunity to grow, and not run for cover from the bombs I think are being lobbed at me.
Judith Herman, in her book, Trauma and Recovery [*Affiliate link], talks about the three stages of healing for someone who has experienced long term (or complex) trauma (like many of us who have experienced domestic violence) —
- The establishment of physical and emotional safety.
- The establishment or re-establishment of trust.
- Re-integrating into society.
Each of these stages can take years to work through and each is dependent on the others.
The first stage is establishing safety. Physical safety, although it isn’t always easy to accomplish, is usually fairly clear-cut. We actually know what it means and can make plans and goals to reach it. But emotional safety is so much more tricky. Many of us have never even seen what that looks like, or the last time we experienced it was so long ago, we can’t remember it.
I am finding that I am bouncing back and forth between feeling emotionally safe and feeling lulled into a false sense of security that I am safe, when maybe I’m actually not. I am just so used to watching my back and being betrayed and lied to, that I can’t trust that I am genuinely safe.
This is where I think I am stuck. I am running in circles, trying to learn trust (Herman’s second stage) and what exactly that even means, and understanding that I am not just physically safe, but emotionally safe too. Trust affects safety and safety affects trust. I can’t feel safe if I can’t begin to trust and I can’t begin to trust if I can’t feel safe. At times I feel like I’m riding a runaway horse on a merry-go-round of fear and I can’t make it stop.
The path to healing is not straight-forward. It’s not really that clear and it’s full of twists, turns, wrong ways and do not enters. It’s long. Longer than I think I ever realized. I think the longer you have been in abuse, the longer that road to healing will be, so no one can say when anyone else will actually “heal”. There is no set map, but there are well established ways of building the roads and bridges we need in order to make our way successfully across the madness.
Take it one step at a time, ask God for and seek His constant discernment and understanding, take action to learn, re-learn, train and change the things you can change.
Decide each day that this day, the fear will not win. This day, I will make it through the flood of emotions that will happen without becoming defensive. This day I will tell myself and try to believe that God sees worth in me and I don’t need to defend myself or crumple in a heap of guilt anymore. I may have different choices from those I wanted to have today, but I still have choices. I have the choice to begin to change those pathways in my mind that tell me I’m not worth anything, so that the abusive memories will have no more power over the reality of my life today. I have the choice to seek help and work hard to believe I can be who God made me to be.
I can’t look into the future to find a goal to reach for, because it’s too far for me to grasp right now, but I can decide that today, the abuse will not win. Today, with God’s mercy and love, I will win over the damage that was done to me.
Do you feel like this? For those who have been able to heal from this, how did you do it?