It's interesting, don't you think, the legacy that remains way after an experience has been and gone? The imprint that is left on our soul and that permeates through to our thoughts, feelings and behaviours? I was chatting with a wonderful friend of mine about this just the other day. I had said to her, in all innocence - "Oh, there's something I meant to tell you!" and her response had been "why, what have I done?"
She has recently left a long term relationship in which she'd been unhappy for a long time. Living her life treading on eggshells, afraid of her partner's unpredictable and often abusive reactions, for years she was expecting to be chastised or criticised for something she had or hadn't done. The way in which she might say something, or even the way in which she might approach him. Her automatic fall-back position had been to check what she was doing wrong - because, of course, whatever the issue had been when she was with him, it would always have been her fault.
She's free, now, and is building her own life. Reclaiming her independence and finally starting to believe herself to be the stunningly beautiful, loving, brave and accomplished woman all her friends and family have always known her to be. For years she just thought she was to blame, and did everything she could to appease her partner and keep the peace. Making excuses for his repeated bad behaviour in company, covering over the cracks that the rest of us could see as clear as daylight. These days she looks back at those times and asks herself incredulously "what on earth was I thinking!" shaking her head in disbelief now that she can see so clearly just how damaging many aspects of the relationship had been.
Yes, she's free now. Yes, like any of us who have escaped from similar situations, she can now appreciate the truth of the situation. And yes, also like so many of us, she's still left with the legacy of those many years keeping herself squashed and quiet. Shrinking away from the harsh light of truth, ignoring the signs that things are seriously wrong. Staying silent in order to keep the peace. Appeasing and cajolling, believing that if only you love the other person enough, then everything would be OK. That when things weren't OK, then you blame yourself for not being good enough, or loving enough, or deserving enough. The questions continue - what am I missing? What am I doing wrong? How can I make things better?
Just a few days earlier, during my conversation with Beatrix, we'd had a similar conversation. She had received an entirely inappropriate email from somebody she hardly knew. Vexed and embarrassed by the message, her automatic response was to go back to the person in question and try to understand what must be going on for him in order to prompt such an improper communication. She is a psychologist, and we both share some similar experiences. So I pointed out to her that here she was demonstrating the living legacy of a lifetime spent in an emotionally abusive relationship. Rather than tell the person exactly what she thought, she was intending to put her own feelings to one side and instead do her best to understand where he was coming from - and she'd wanted to do this without appearing offensive in any way shape or form. And yet the message the other person had sent had been both offensive and disrespectful!
This, for me, is a huge legacy - or perhaps a burden - left to many women who have suffered any kind of abuse. Nurturing by nature, we are inherently adept at understanding situations from the other person's point of view. It's a great skill, and is very useful. It's also a great danger when exploited by people who's intention is less than supportive. To those who are lacking in empathy, they know that the target of their unjustified fury will do their level best to understand where they're coming from. That she will bob and weave, listen and learn, do everything within her power to make the other person feel better!
And so we become trapped in a vicious cycle of abuse and blame. The bully's continuing abuse and blame of the victim, and the victim in turn blaming themselves for their inability to make things right. Taking responsibility for situations that were none of their doing in the first place.
When everything was happening to me, I lost track of the number of times I was urged by my friends to not become bitter. To keep open and trusting, and know that what I had experienced was the exception and not the rule. And, whilst my conscious intention was to maintain my unwavering faith in the goodness of human nature, I confess it's been a struggle to stay as willing to accept people as I did before. I've become more selective with people I choose to share my time with. I'm less forgiving of behaviours I would previously have put down to just an intriguing foible or a simple misunderstanding.
For a while I thought that perhaps I was closing down to others. That perhaps I'd become exactly the kind of person I'd been warned by my friends to not be - but now I believe that actually I've become the opposite. Somebody who is exceptionally open and trusting. Somebody who still cares tremendously about the fate of other people. The difference now, though, is that my trust is directed at myself. Now I know my personal boundaries and I know if somebody has crossed the line. And now I won't stand for it anymore. I won't make excuses, I won't shut up and put up - because it doesn't help the other person, and it certainly doesn't help me! And if I can't be honest, open and true to myself, then how on earth can I expect to behave that way with others?
One of my favourite stories that I first heard many years ago puts this beautifully in to perspective. The story exists in many formats, and this is the gist of it. A motivational speaker was busy one weekend working on an important after-dinner speech he was due to deliver the following day. But he was gettting frustrated because the words weren't flowing, and his thoughts were muddled. He was also torn because his small son was nagging him, quite rightly, to come and play with him. He decided that perhaps if he could give his son something to play with for an hour or so, then he could finish writing his speech in peace, and then he could dedicate time with his boy. In one of the Sunday magazines, he'd found a page that depicted the map of the world. So he decided to cut it in to small pieces and give it to his son to put back together again, with the promise that once he'd done that, they could both go out to the park to play. Confident that this task would take his son some time, he settled back in to his writing. He was astounded when, less than ten minutes later, the boy came back to him smiling from ear to ear. The map had been stuck together and the map was perfect. Astonished, the father asked his son how on earth he'd managed to finish such a complex task so quickly? "Easy" replied the boy "on the other side was the picture of a man's face. So I followed that and of course it meant that the map was right as well - now can we go and play?" Laughing, the speaker put down his pen, grateful to his son for not only being so clever but also for giving him the inspiration he'd failed to find by himself. The next day he delivered his best ever motivational speech entitled "When the man is right, his world is right too"
Too often we fall in to the trap of giving our love, trust and openness to others, hoping to make things right, whilst completely ignoring ourselves in the process. It's taken me a long time to truly understand this for myself - and I believe that's why, now, my world is certainly shaping in to a more wonderful place than I've ever experienced before.
Beatrix laughed during our conversation as she realised the habit she'd unwittingly fallen into - needless to say her response to this person turned out to be short, sharp and to the point. He hasn't responded.