I was thinking about a blog post I had read offering career advice, and how similar such advice is to other self help advice. The posts author noted that most college graduation speakers are essentially not an accurate representation of the working world. These are people who have found their lucky break, or are one of the few majorly successful individuals out there. And when they offer advice on how they achieved this and they tell graduates to follow their dreams the advice couldn't be more misplaced or unrealistic. I am paraphrasing of course on what I took away from his post, and I think he made a really good point. It would have been much better to have someone come talk to graduates who was in the trenches of the working world, who had failed, who understood the struggles, and who had perhaps tried to follow their dreams and what they learned on the way.
I think the exact same thing is true for self help advice, especially advice given to survivors of childhood abuse/sexual abuse.
A lot of the time when we hear survivor stories it's when they have already done the majority of recovery work and it seems as if they just believed in themselves and they miraculously transformed. Our culture and media coverage of survivors does not help to change this image, in fact it prefers to promote the miraculous recovery and the individuals who believed in themselves, a higher power, or had some other kind of inspiring moment that helped them to completely recover. The reason for this is because the subject of abuse is to dark and horrifying for our culture to deal with. That is why the poster faces for abuse in our country are people like Elizabeth Smart, and Erin Merryn. This is not to diminish their experience in anyway or say that their recovery and stories are not important because they are. But we don't get to see the real raw experience of healing from abuse. I have not read their books, perhaps there is more of that in their written and personal accounts, but I think you can take away the gist of what I am trying to say. Their televised interviews are not so raw and gritty and focus more on them being a miraculous survivor. It's very tame. Not only that the type of coverage these stories receive makes such women into passive victims (even if unintentional), and tends to strip their power away when it is clear that both women are not passive but actively pursuing justice.
When it comes to self help advice and recovery stories I think a lot of survivors get the graduation speech version where "if you only follow your dreams and believe, you will recover". I think while inspiring a lot of self help advice is guilty of this. Even all of my favorite inspiring articles in O magazine seem to be from the perspective of those who have reached the finish line. At times it can feel like an advertisement to lose weight, "if you only follow this diet you can have your dream body". There is nothing wrong with inspiring articles, we do need them. But I think we also need the real, raw, and gritty versions of how people really got to that place, and for it be delivered with empathy and humor.
I was thinking about all of this and reflecting upon the career advice blog post because I had written a self help style post yesterday. And while I think I captured some of the realness of my experiences I thought that in an effort to continue to keep it a more honest and real self help post I would write a follow up post; from the trenches.
Not long after writing my post yesterday I still ended up feeling depressed and despairing about the future.
I still don't love myself, I have a lot of ideas about my worth that still need to be dismantled. I still don't like being me, and I still don't like being in my body. My Bitch Self hates it. I think the Bitch self is connected to my inner child and that they desperately desire to be someone else. The need to be perfect probably comes from the fact that inner child is the one who holds all of the abuse that happened. I still felt lonely yesterday, even with the realization that I have so much more than I would if i were still connected to my family, I felt lonely. Being a survivor who comes out and speaks the truth does not result in being admonished for your bravery (not very often). It more than likely results in you seeing the true nature of your entire family and seeing the beliefs they hold manifest themselves in the flesh. And all of these beliefs are toxic. It results in them shaming you and trying to punish your for upsetting everyone, or you have do what I did and disconnect for a time period. Though in my case it will likely be permanent.
It's hard to love yourself when you have been told you are worthless, not only over your entire childhood but again when your entire family rejects you for speaking out. When I feel so low I can tend to disassociate to detach from the feelings of rejection and that I feel I lack in value. This is often when I go into a mode where I have to fix everything, and I want everything to be perfect because somehow I think it will make everything okay, or maybe finally make me lovable, someone my family would love.
Any attempts to step outside my role of scapegoat and be confident were either dashed or taken away from me. This was especially true of anything that remotely looked like an accomplishment. Vaarsuvius couldn't have that because it might take away from them. They were jealous and Narcissistic, and they told me I could do nothing right, but yet I somehow was supposed to achieve perfection. Perfection was not what they wanted either. If I were perfect I still would not have won their love and respect. They didn't really want me perfect because then I would have been a threat. They wanted me stuck between never good enough and reaching for perfection where I would spin my wheels and get nowhere.
My family had a hierarchy, a caste system and I was supposed to stay in my role/ station in life and not reach above it. In so many ways I was told what things were for me and what things were not for someone like me. Not only that stepping out of the role of lowly creature for even a moment, and showing any sense of power would get me in trouble. I would be put back in my place. Laying low and out of sight was often best. Not only did they tell me what I could and could not do, directly or indirectly, I began to adopt this program for myself and began to define what things were for me and what things weren't.
I think planning New Years resolutions gives me a sense of control over my life that I did not have back then. It is also a rebellion against who they said I had to be. I want to decide for myself what I want to be and map it out all over Pinterest. The only problem is that I am still buying into the belief and what they told me. And that is that there was something wrong with me to begin with. It is wonderful to have the power to decide who you want to be and what you want your life to look like. But if you assume that there was something wrong with you to begin with it won't be an empowering change, you will still be fighting your Bitch self and holding onto self hate.
My mode of planning the perfect life is an attempt to run far away from the part of myself I do not love. I think if I create the perfect life, and the perfect self I can leave that other part behind. But it's still there, always there. When I think about the advice to love yourself, it assumes that you have enough inner love already to do that. If you don't and you try it, your inner self will call you on the carpet. It will be like a trying to pull one on a little kid, who then crosses their arms and shows you that they have all intentions of going limp noodle. I loved a passage I read in The Courage To Heal, it was a writing exercise to your inner child. It suggested that you be honest, if you didn't feel warm and fuzzy self love towards the inner child to be honest about it. Tell them that is where you are at but you still want to start talking. Admitting that lets you be exactly as you are in the moment which is actually self compassion. Also you can't just placate your inner self with insincerity, and even if you don't feel warm and fuzzy your inner self will at least know you are not trying to lie to them or ignore what you feel. I did some of those writing exercises and it seemed to help create a truce inside myself. But not even this exercise was enough to completely change how I felt. Dealing with perfection and self loathing are a daily struggle, best met with self compassion, though I don't always manage that. I keep slowly going forward and trying to change the messages from my family that I internalized as truth.
New Years depression can set in because I look around at things I want to do and realize that that I don't have all the money in the world to do them. I get frustrated and depressed and I carry around this idea of what I thought my adult self was supposed to look like, what I was supposed to have achieved.
All of this is connected to those same messages about value. I am not currently working because a lot of my coping mechanisms of dealing with things fell away when I started to address the abuse and begin my work of healing myself. I was exhausted and I felt I couldn't keep up with the world. Reality check: being a survivor often means feeling exactly what I just described but many people do not have the option to stop working. I am lucky and I don't take that for granted, but even so my spouse and I make sacrifices to make this work until I can return to a career. And for survivors like myself sometimes you may have a limited amount of people in your support network, and perhaps no spouse. This is devastating when your family then rejects you in favor of protecting the abuser or just because they can't handle what you are saying. It can be really difficult to take time off from work or explain why you are having such a hard time if you are still in a career. I have a very hard time not feeling like an adult, feeling lazy, and worrying that I won't heal up fast enough to make any contributions to the world. This is compounded by the lack of visible scarring, so when engaging with others trying to explain why you needed the time off or why your are exhausted can be difficult. Our world does not make enough allowances for mental health and healing.
I hope this post helps other survivors out there, and to let you know you are not alone. I wake up with bad hair, bitter coffee and have an apartment that I wish a maid crew would come clean because even sans career, some days are too much to want to lift a finger. I face the bathroom mirror with self loathing and my body frequently with shame. I consume copious amounts of books and self help articles just to try and make myself feel better, and everyday feels like a therapy session. Part of me still wants to wake up after New Years eve with a body that would make Heidi Klum jealous and then head to my corporate offices and a company that would make Martha Stewart jealous. I am still that little girl who wants to be 13 going on 30 and who prays:
I still feel that way, but I hope to keep searching for ways I can authentically love myself. However I grimace because the journey there is messy, and I will fall back into self loathing and those other things I learned from childhood. I will want to be perfect and just to have a magic fix. But maybe even then I will still be achieving the spirit of my goal to embrace my imperfections. Because when I think about it if I feel my life is not perfect and I have messed up in the self love department, and I fall back into the hole where I try and be perfect; embracing that whole mess is pretty much what accepting imperfection is. It is not trying to be perfect by not being a perfectionist or anything else. It is doing exactly that and being as kind to yourself as you can. I feel like I should say "aha". Anyways from the trenches, one survivor to others, I want you to know that I still think having to go through the abuse and then all work of healing sucks. I didn't want to be here, but here I am anyway. It's not pretty, it is often gritty and sad. I just keep trying to heal and work things out as best I can. I think that is the true reality for survivors, even those who are thriving, you do the best you can, and try to let it be enough.