There is a difference between self blame and taking responsibility for your actions.
This is because true healing requires forgiveness of self and others.
Without forgiveness, there will always be pain. Blaming yourself for everything wrong with your life is as much of a cop out as blaming everyone else. Forgiveness is the selfish act that sets you free from blame. Blaming yourself is debilitating and only leads to stagnation, depression and despair. Blaming others allows you to stay stuck in the victim role. Self-responsibility coupled with forgiveness allows you to separate what’s yours from what’s not. Because when you work that out, you can work out how you can change your own actions in the present to take control of your future.
True healing requires forgiveness of self and others.
The idea of self-responsibility as a tool for change is not new. Irvin Yalom speaks of it in his text, Existential Psychotherapy. In it, he discusses what he calls the four existential givens which every human being must come to terms with at some time or other. These were Death, Isolation, Freedom and Meaninglessness. Freedom is to responsibility what Yin is to Yang. You can’t have one without the other. Freedom means we are, to an extent, free to live our lives how we see fit. That we make certain choices each and every day which lead us down different roads. That while our past shapes us, it doesn’t make us who we are. It means we create our future by every thought, every word and every deed, moment by moment. So, with freedom comes responsibility. If we are free to choose how we go about our lives then, we are also responsible for a great part of how we experience our lives, and for what happens to us.
This is sometimes hard to hear. Some people, especially those who have suffered at the hands of others reject this notion of responsibility and may, understandably, feel angry at the suggestion that they are somehow responsible for a wrong that was done to them. That is not what is meant by self-responsibility. You are not responsible for what happened to you as a child at the hands of a damaged or dysfunctional adult. You may not be responsible for the abuse that someone else targeted you for, but you are responsible for how you respond and what you do afterwards as an adult. You are free to respond in any number of ways to a situation that may not be to your liking but exists none the less. For example, you lose your job due to company restructuring. This is something that may be out of your control. However, how you handle the fall out is entirely within your control. You can choose to be angry, bitter, frustrated, despondent and anxious or you can choose to be pragmatic, hopeful, proactive, creative or stoic. Each of those choices will equate with an entirely different experience. The decision you have to make, then, is what kind of experience do I wish to have? A bitter, hopeless and frustrating one. Or, a meaningful, hopeful and interesting one?
Self responsibility is empowering.
Once you realise that you can choose your thoughts, words and actions you are free to choose thoughts, words and actions that will bring you more joy, peace and love. As opposed to choosing actions that will bring you more of what you don’t want…anger, depression, anxiety, shame… So take your power back and choose wisely. Choose what you want to focus your attention on, the negative or the positive. There is always more than one way to look at things. We have the power to take our lives back, one thought, word and action at a time.
Jordan Peterson is an infamous psychology professor and author whose recent book, “12 Rules for Life – an antidote to chaos,” is an acclaimed best-seller. Throughout this book Peterson espouses the wisdom he has gained from his years researching and engaging with clients. This wisdom is distilled into 12 epitaphs which he calls ‘rules.’ Whilst I have not yet read the entire book (it is on my reading list), I thought I’d borrow his format with this post which I have entitled Three rules for empaths – an antidote to abuse.
I am suggesting that three important rules to consider are boundaries, honesty and self-love. But more about them later.
These ‘rules,’ if followed, will go a long way towards protecting you from abuse, toxic relationships or mere awkward interpersonal interactions.
If you are an empathic, highly sensitive person, a co-dependant or even just an every day person who simply thinks that ‘most people have the best intentions’ or someone who tends to ‘see the best in everyone’ then this post is for you. Or, perhaps you’ve recently been the target of a nasty smear campaign or have just come out of an encounter with a toxic person or abusive relationship and you are looking for answers.
The reality is that there are damaged people out there, many of whom have their own histories of abuse and trauma perhaps, but whether consciously or unconsciously these people wreak havoc on society at large. Many are undiagnosed cluster B personality types who do not have the capacity or the desire to self-reflect. They have a deep, psychological need for validation, approval or a crippling fear of abandonment. They also lack empathy for others to varying degrees (common to all cluster B personality types) and they cannot abide criticism in any form, forever blaming others, the system or circumstances for their woes. They have little regard or capacity to care about the feelings of others or the impact of their actions on society in general. Therefore, their behaviours go unchecked in the community as they bulldoze their way through relationship to relationship, negatively affecting people whom they come into contact with, either via the workplace, in families or in intimate relationships. For an example of the sorts of damage these people can do see Sarah M. Brown’s excellent article in Psychology Today, Who does that?
The ‘who’ Brown refers to are Cluster B Personality disordered people, many of whom run rings around the unsuspecting. The good news is that if you become entangled with one of these pathological personality types eventually you will come to the realisation that there is something not quite right about this individual. You may not be able to put your finger on it initially, or you may question whether or not you’re over-reacting or even imagining it. But something about this person starts to ring alarm bells. Hopefully, you are in a position to remove yourself or step away from this person as fast as possible. Far too often, unfortunately, people find themselves trapped in a situation or relationship with someone who is turning out to be not quite the way they presented themselves in the beginning.
If this describes you, and you have come out the other end, shaken, scarred or maybe even traumatised beyond belief, you may be wanting to know how you can avoid having to go through anything like this ever again? Well, this reflection is not that. This is not a “Red flags” to watch out for piece. There are plenty of those on the Internet, but what this article is really about is you.
This is because it is (often) the case that you directly allowed the narcissistic/toxic person into your life or allowed them, at any rate, to affect you negatively. This may not be the case for children of narcissistic parents or if your boss turns out to be a narcissist, but even if this is your situation the below three rules will go a long way towards either helping you heal from an encounter with one of these toxic people, or towards dealing with this person in your life. If you practice the following rules, such that they become a part of who you are, you will be less likely to be 1. Attractive to narcissistic/toxic or sociopathic people as they will pass you over for a ‘softer’ target, and 2. Easily sucked in by one in the future as you will be more grounded and sure of yourself.
Now, let’s go through them one by one.
Rule 1: Boundaries. Boundaries. Boundaries!
Rule one could actually be all three rules combined. Because, if you get rule one right, you most likely won’t have to worry about rules two and three. However, rules two and three are essential for healthy relationships. After all, healthy relationships (and by healthy, I mean positive, fulfilling, respectful and joyful relationships) are everything a toxic or abusive relationship is not.
The first step to living within your boundaries is knowing them. Yes… knowing what your boundaries are is the key to protecting them. Sit down, have a think and write some things down that are important to you in terms of values. What do you value most? What sort of person do you want to be? How can you live your life in such a way that you sleep soundly at night? What sorts of people, relationships, activities do you want in your life? These are the sorts of questions it is well worth asking yourself from time to time. One way is to get a blank piece of paper and draw a line down the middle so as to make two columns. At the top of one column you write the word, “YES” and at the top of the second column you write, “NO”. Then simply fill out both columns with a list of what you will say yes to and what you will say no to in your life. It is your life after all, just as it is your body and your time. No-one has the right to tell you what you should feel, think or do. Knowing your boundaries is the first step towards protecting them. Once you are clear on what you will say yes and no to it becomes easier to tell when someone else is trying to encroach on your boundaries.
Note: Be aware that toxic people will often be quite subtle in their boundary violations, especially in the beginning. They will often start with small, seemingly insignificant requests which may not seem like that big a deal, but they will still make you feel uncomfortable. These are often used to ‘test the water’ so to speak, to see how you react. If you give in on a small boundary violation, they will then push things a little further next time, and so on. This is just something to be aware of, which is why the next rule is also very important.
Rule 2: Honesty
Some toxic personalities become very skilled at getting others to unwittingly break their own boundaries in often subtle, covert or even devious ways. Some (especially sociopaths, psychopaths and some malignant narcissists*) will purposely say all the right things and act in such a way as to project an image of healthy normality, or of who they think you want them to be. Often this involves a period of romanticising and idealising you, the target. They will tell you what you want to hear. They will mould themselves into your perfect other, reflecting your needs and wants seamlessly. Thus, you may let your guard down at first with these people. However, sooner or later the mask of perfect normality will slip. This will usually be in the form of getting you to ‘bend the rules’ in some way which usually involves breaking a small but significant boundary. If this happens it is important to check-in with yourself often. It can help to monitor how you feel after spending time with a certain person and to honestly reflect on whether this person makes you feel supported, respected and valued, or whether you feel anxious, unsure or somehow ‘less than’ after being with them. Do you find yourself questioning your own reality or version of events? Are you being accused of saying or doing something you know you didn’t do? Is this person trying to emotionally manipulate you in some way, guilt trip you or become overly emotional when they simply do not get their way, until you give in to their request and they become as sweet as pie again? Do you feel drained emotionally, physically and even spiritually after you spend time with them? If so, you need to be honest with yourself about the effect this person is having on you. To be able to see what is rather than what you hope something to be is a skill worth cultivating.
Now, being honest with yourself doesn’t mean you have to be honest and upfront with everyone you meet. If you choose to be honest with a toxic person, be prepared for some heavy-duty backlash. As I mentioned above, they do not take well to criticism. The best you can do is be honest with yourself and then be direct, clear and steadfast in your NO; No, I don’t want to do that, No, I cannot drive you on Saturday, No, I won’t lie for you, etc. You don’t owe them a reason. Saying no should be good enough for a reasonable person. If you love and respect yourself, then saying no to a narcissist/toxic person becomes easier to do. This brings me to rule number three…
Rule 3: Love and accept yourself, just the way you are.
Self-love is the key to tying it all together. I have written about self-love before and have mentioned Louise Hay, the queen of self-help who advocated for self-love as fundamental to self-improvement and healing. But how do I love myself, you may ask? There are many things one can do to love and accept oneself. There are affirmations, there are acts of self-care, honouring your needs and feelings, being truthful with yourself and others are but some of the ways. However, I think a simple rule of thumb is to attempt to treat yourself as if you were someone you really cared about and wanted the best for. In other words, be your own best friend, mother and even lover. Show kindness, love and even affection for yourself in all things. Consider yourself a unique, worthwhile and valuable individual who is deserving of love and acceptance, just the way you are. Check out my summary of Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability for more about what it means to have a sense of worthiness.
But let it be said that those who have a healthy sense of worthiness, self-love, acceptance and compassion for themselves are less vulnerable to anything a toxic or abusive person may conjure up. When you value yourself, it acts as a natural repellent or barrier that protects you from unsavoury characters who may cross your path. The best part is, if you take these three ‘rules’ to heart and practice honesty, self-love and keep proper boundaries then you don’t need to do anything other than be yourself. You will naturally attract people that value, accept and love you for who you are into your life, which will leave little room for narcissists, abusers or the like.
I hope you found this post helpful. If you are in an abusive relationship, help is out there. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or 1800respect if you are in Australia – or your local domestic violence support service in your country.
*I am purposely using non clinical terms for the sake of readability here.
Sometimes life has a way of serving you up what you fear the most.
For me, it was the fear that people would come to know about my abusive relationship; that they would find out that the fairytale my life appeared to be was far from true.
Because for me, at that time, I erroneously thought that it would be THE WORST THING EVER if people were to find out. I believed that it was more desirable to live a life which consisted of walking on eggshells, bearing the occasional blow-up, waking up every day feeling sick to the stomach and depressed, than it would be to face the knowledge of everyone finding out how foolish I had been. I had made my bed, I thought, and now I would have to lie in it forever. That was some time ago now.
But I was reminded of this long-ago state of being as I was watching the recent Leaving Neverland documentary. For years, Wade Robson and James Safechuck kept their secret and lived with shame and secrecy for fear of ‘everyone’ finding out. Both of them even testified under oath that Michael Jackson never acted or touched them inappropriately, and this is one of the ‘facts’ that Jackson supporters bring up often. They lied for so long, how do we know they are telling the truth now?
Well according to some statistics, only about 30% of child sexual abuse victims disclose their abuse, and many wait a long time for doing so. The reasons for this are varied; the fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, a fear of not being believed, and feeling as if they were somehow complicit or even to blame for the abuse are all thought-processes which can silence a child well into their adult years. However, I personally think the core factor keeping victims of sexual abuse silent is shame.
Shame enters from an external source from significant people in our lives and becomes internalised
According to www.intothelight.org.uk , “Shame enters from an external source from significant people in our lives and becomes internalised.” The shame of the sexual abuse of a child is somehow flipped over from the perpetrator- who seemingly feels no shame -to the abused, who carries the burden of shame for both and for always. And the best receptacle for shame is always silence and secrecy.
This shame can then become generalized by the survivor and can manifest in different ways resulting in symptoms and behaviors which may seem unintelligible to an observer unaware of this person’s situation or history. The main effect which shame seems to have on a person is to constantly feel as if they are wrong or inconsequential. That things are somehow always their fault and their responsibility to fix; that it is absolutely essential that others are not put out by them, because they don’t count. Shame can result in behaviors which may look from the outside to be ’self-sabotaging,’ such as addictions and compulsions. Relationships become tricky because the shame infused person can never feel as if they are equally deserving of love, care, attention or that their needs are as important as anyone else’s. This can leave them susceptible to further abuse, manipulation and being taken advantage of. They may have a seemingly pathological fear of saying no. They may feel unlovable and therefore resistant to relationships where they are loved and respected. These are but a few of the examples of how shame and silence can impact a person throughout their life and cause them to act in ways which may make little sense until they are seen through the lens of trauma.
So for those questioning the validity of the claims made by Robson and Safechuck, citing their previous silence and lies as proof of the incredibly of their stories – do some reading on the long term effects of child sexual abuse and trauma in general, (including the trauma that comes from living with an abusive partner) and see what you come up with.
Sexual abuse and violence create shame which in turn breeds secrecy and silence. The best way to combat silence, is to break it. To speak your truth, perhaps quietly, tentatively at first and then, in time without shame. Shame may appear to be THE WORST THING EVER, but if you are lucky your worst fear may turn out to be the path that leads to your best self ever.
For the last 16 months I have worked as an AOD Counsellor (AOD stands for Alcohol and Other Drugs) and during this time I’ve come to notice certain reoccurring themes that keep presenting themselves in both my individual and group sessions.
I started to write these down and have come to a formative model of recovery which I liken to Kubler Ross’s stages of grief model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Kubler Ross published a book in 1969 called On Death & Dying in which she described the common phases or stages that patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses went through after their diagnosis. The stages are not necessarily linear, however there does seem to be a process of change happening, and this is something I have also noticed in my work with those recovering from addiction. I am not talking about the well used Stages of Change model well used in AOD treatment services since its inception in 1983 by Prochaska & DiClemente, which identified that change is a process that individuals go through involving a series of stages or phases that ultimately lead to lasting change.
Like the stages of grief, the below themes are not in any particular order, except for the first one. In my observation, a true and real commitment beginning the process seems to be a first important step, as it is in the 12 step model:
We admitted we were powerless over our addiction and that our lives had become unmanageable.
Sometimes, it can take many attempts to even get this far. As with the 12 step model, often the first step towards change is often the biggest leap to take.
Below are some of the themes or Tasks of Recovery as I have observed them. All the themes mentioned below need to be reckoned with at some point in the journey of recovery in order to get from the action stage to maintenance stage and towards real lasting change. I just want to say that it doesn’t matter what your addiction is, alcohol, drugs, porn or gambling, the following themes I think are universal and can be used alongside other therapy models often used in addiction treatment such as CBT or Motivational Interviewing. The following themes also feature heavily in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy so those of you who are familiar with ACT may recognize some of the concepts.
Decide that you want to make a change and commit to doing whatever it takes to staying on track. Russell Harris, author of The Happiness Trap has a great quote on commitment that I love. It really embodies a mindful, compassionate stance on recovery:
Commitment doesn’t mean you never make a wrong move or take a detour, and it doesn’t mean you stay on track 100% of the time; that’s unrealistic. It means even when you keep going off-course, you keep catching yourself and then getting back on track again
Connect with your values, meaning, purpose and spirituality. Use this self-knowledge to empower and motivate you to make the best decisions you can make, starting from now, that will help you to create a future now that is better than your past. Better doesn’t mean perfect, but better as in more real, honest, richer, meaningful and more colourful. A future present that contains more contentment, joy and inner peace.
Acceptance of the past and present means accept what has already happened. Doesn’t mean you like it or approve of it or wanted it to happen. Accept your current situation. Doesn’t mean you like it either or want it to be this way. However, struggling with non-acceptance of past and present is a futile exercise. It is a waste of time and energy which could be better used elsewhere. Don’t let your past dictate your future. This is what happens when you refuse to accept reality or practice avoidance. You are destined to repeat past mistakes. Acceptance releases you from this repetitive pattern. Acceptance means just “dropping the struggle“. This frees you to direct your attention and energy into doing what you need to do, in order to improve your life.
Lying & Honesty
Address lying and practice honesty in everything you do. Stop lying to yourself and others. Start speaking your truth, in a compassionate way. Be authentic, transparent and congruent. Make your word your bond. Turn up on time for appointments. Don’t say yes to something unless you are really intending to follow through. Don’t hide how you feel. Pick one person besides yourself that you can be 100% honest with. This can be a therapist, friend, partner or priest! Doesn’t matter who as long as it is someone trustworthy. Embrace the truth, it may not always be pretty but it really will set you free.
However, learning to be honest with yourself and others can be difficult if you are not used to it. Here is a simple strategy for practicing honesty which I call NOTE.
N – notice your thoughts and feelings. Take a breath and just sit with whatever is going on for you at that moment.
O – own it. Own your experience, don’t try to rationalize with yourself, or judge your feelings as right or wrong, good or bad. Just acknowledge that this is how you are feeling at the time.
T – take a breath. Take at lease one deep breath in and let it out. This allows your emotions (or energy in motion) to settle.
E – explain your reality. Start speaking. You will be surprised at how much easier it is to speak openly and honestly when you have given yourself a moment to check in first.
Forgiveness & Compassion
Forgive others for what they had done wrong to you. Forgive yourself for things that you have done. Simple as that. Like acceptance however, it does not mean that you are O.K. with it or like it. Doesn’t mean you approve of what was done, however, forgiveness is essentially a selfish act. Forgiveness frees you from negativity and resentment. Resentment is the cause of most dis-ease according to Louise Hay. Release resentment and be free of negativity. You will feel lighter and more at ease. Forgiveness is necessary if you are going to practice self-acceptance and love. There is no love without forgiveness. To err is human, to forgive, divine.
Guilt & Shame
Own up to any wrongs you have committed in the service of your addiction and address any lingering shame. It’s important to look at shame as a relapse prevention strategy as it is the most likely cause of lapses and relapse. Shame operates like an invisible suit of armour that keeps us safe yet apart from others. Shame keeps us from making real connections with people who might otherwise love and accept us. It is really important to separate guilt from shame. Guilt is feeling bad because of what you have done. Shame is feeling like you are bad. Remember, we are not our mistakes. It is important to address guilt, make amends if you have to (unless to do so would cause further harm) but remind yourself that you are always only ever doing the best you can with what you have at the time. In the past, you did not know this. Now you do.
That’s all I have come up with for now. If anyone has some others that they think I have left out or any feedback relating to the above please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear it!
I recently found a copy of a book that I can honestly say changed my life when I came across it many years ago.
The book is called “You can heal your life,” by Louise Hay.
It was first written in 1984 and has sold more than 40 million copies world wide.
Louise Hay is known as the ‘queen of self-help’ and was ahead of her time in many ways. She was the first person to popularise the notion that your thoughts and feelings are directly related to your life outcomes. That everything in your life today was created by your thoughts, emotions and actions to date, and furthermore that at this very moment we are creating our future selves by the thoughts, emotions and actions we choose today, moment by moment. I still recommend this book to friends and clients who are struggling with any mental health issue or addiction or who are just going through a rough patch.
I have had many copies of this book since the first time I read it 10 years ago, I can never seem to hold on to a copy for long. I am forever giving them away but nowadays you can download a copy for very little on Amazon or pick up a copy at most second hand bookshops. That’s where I picked up my latest copy from.
As I was reading through the first chapter today I was reminded of her core message which is so simple it is often considered overly simplistic to be of any real use to people. I disagree as most truths are simple, it’s our humanity that’s complicated.
Louise’s basic message is “Love yourself” and everything will fall into place. She states,
Self-approval and self-acceptance in the now are the keys to positive changes, (p.9).
While this sound simply wonderful and it is, in reality simple does not necessarily mean easy. Whenever I speak to clients of self-love and acceptance I see and hear doubt and resistance. Often they will agree with me in theory but often the how escapes them. How do I love myself? They ask, sometimes with tears in their eyes.
In her book Louise outlines some clear instructions on what to do to start ‘loving and accepting yourself’. She is a big fan of saying positive affirmations daily as one way to retrain your brain to start thinking in a way that will begin to create the changes you want in your life. Do positive affirmations work? I believe they do, as I have used them in my own life to positive affect. When you learn a little about how the unconscious mind works you can see how if you have been programming your brain with negativity and so creating negative experiences for yourself, it makes sense that changing the internal script by thinking more positively can have the opposite effect.
An example of the above is constantly feeling unloved and misunderstood. This combined with negative self-talk such as “no-one will ever love me”, “I always get abused”, or “everyone always takes advantage of me” will certainly create more of the same. However, when you start choosing more positive thoughts or even more realistic thoughts such as, “I am loved and supported”, or “most people mean well” or even “everyone is doing the best with what they know,” then the script changes. Science now has an explanation for why this works which is called “neuroplasticity” and which I have written about before. However Louise Hay has been saying much the same thing, albeit in much more simplistic and metaphysical terms for decades.
If affirmations aren’t your thing then there are other ways to love yourself more. One simple thing is to treat yourself well. Put yourself first. Listen to your body. Eat food that nourishes you and is good for you. Care for yourself as you would care for a dear friend. Give yourself a break. Let go of perfectionism. Try to be compassionate to yourself for past mistakes or perceived failings. Be your own best friend. These are all simple but effective ways to care and love yourself more.
However, there is something else that Louise talks about which is even harder to do than loving yourself and that is forgiveness. She writes,
We must release the past and forgive everyone, (p.9).
Woah. Hold up a minute there. Everyone? Everyone??
I remember struggling with this one caveat when I first read it 10 years ago and I must admit, I still do. Forgiveness of self and others unfortunately goes hand in hand with self-love and compassion. Until one is willing to forgive or at least release resentment for past wrongs (done to and by you) healing will always be slow going. Like constantly picking at a scab deters the healing process and leads to scars, attempting to love and accept yourself without forgiveness of self and others only slows down the healing process.
I know this is something you don’t want to hear. Often we hold on to our hurts and resentments like dysfunctional friends whom we no longer even like all that much but can’t bear to cut loose. They are a drag but at least they are company. They keep everyone else away but are always around to light your cigarette, pour you a beer or pass you that tub of ice-cream. Louise says,
Resentment, criticism and guilt are the most damaging patterns, (p9).
They are the most damaging because they are the most sticky. They like to stick around and feed our bad habits and negativity in order to keep us around. Almost like a codependant relationship.
The truth is that unless you can kick out those freeloaders, Resentment, Criticism and Guilt and their cohorts Shame, Blame and Anger or at least be willing to let go of them true healing and self love will always feel just out of reach.
Finally, it is never too late to start making positive changes, or begin to think differently as,
The point of power is always in the present moment.