Your past does not have to define your future, but sometimes, in order to overcome it, you’re going to have to work like hell. It’s not a level playing field; some people have come out of abuse, abandonment, or neglect. Children growing up in an unsafe environment often become adults who find it hard to trust and to open. You can only know what you know, after all. If the people who were meant to love you, nurture you and protect you were not able to do that due to their own limitations or history of abuse, you’re going to have some serious healing to do.
The problem is, it’s very common to seek what we know, because it feels familiar, it feels like home. Frequently, people who’ve come out of abuse find themselves in relationships with people who abuse them, and this strengthens their ideas that they aren’t worthy of love, and that no one can be trusted. This must be love because it feels like home. I feel unsafe or unseen or unheard. I have to earn love by being perfect. I have to dance like a monkey to get approval. These are all learned ideas and behaviors, and if this was your experience during your formative years, you have a lot of unlearning to do. You have to crash your own hard drive and start over. It’s always harder to unlearn something than it is to have it explained to you correctly from the beginning.
Not everyone can explain love to you, though. You have to have received it to understand it. You have to have had at least one person whose face lit up when you toddled into a room. Someone who taught you about hugs that make you feel like nothing could ever be wrong. Someone who wanted nothing but for you to be happy. You need to have gotten at least a little of that from someone, anyone along the way to have a clue about what it is. People who grew up in violence don’t know a lot about those feelings. Survival becomes the thing. How do I maneuver around this situation and these people in order to be safe? How do I endure this abuse without hating them? A kid turns it inward. If my own mother or father can’t love me, it must be me. It’s not conceivable to a child that maybe their parents are limited in this way, that maybe they have their own healing to do and they simply don’t have the tools to love them well or protect them, let alone nurture them, cherish them, celebrate them. Trauma and abuse can be carried forward just like genes. I’m not saying it’s genetic. I’m saying this stuff gets carried forward in the heart, in the body, in the mind, and instead of breaking the cycle, a lot of people repeat it. They don’t mean to and they don’t want to, but they simply don’t know anything else. A feeling floods the nervous system and they act out; anyone in the way is going to suffer.
For children who were sometimes abused, and sometimes loved, it gets even more complicated, especially if there was no discernible pattern. A child who never knows what to expect, never knows if she’s going to be hugged and praised, or beaten and broken down, can never feel safe. Heading into young adulthood that way, which is challenging under the best of circumstances, sets the stage for romantic relationships that are unlikely to be healthy and loving, to say the least.
Anyway, I’m writing about all this because my inbox is flooded with messages from people who are trying to forge a new path, to find a new way; people who’ve been betrayed by those they thought they could trust. People who are afraid to open, even though they desperately want to, because what if they get hurt again? Or what if they’re loved for the first time? People who think maybe they should just give up and be alone. I think when you’re coming out of a history like this, you have to work it from the bottom up, and from the top down. You have to flood your system with new information. I’m talking about the combination of therapy and yoga, which I highly recommend if you’re coming out of abuse. You need someone you trust to help you deconstruct thoughts that weaken you, and may be so ingrained you don’t even realize you’re thinking them, and you need to get in your body and retrain your nervous system which is used to a perpetual state of fight or flight. How can you even know what peace feels like? Joy? Happiness? Rage? There’s no time to honor your own feelings in a war zone. You push that sh&t down so you can survive, so you can get through. You’re so on the lookout for other people’s feelings, for the feeling in the environment around you, it doesn’t occur to you to think about what you want, what you need, or how you feel. What language is that?
The thing is, there are tools. If you’re suffering and you want things to be different, you just start where you are. You get yourself some help. You take over the job of re-educating yourself. Human beings have an insanely awesome ability to heal, to forgive, and to love, they really do. If your heart is broken, there’s more room to let the light in. People who come out of abuse and heal, tend to be incredibly compassionate, and grateful for every good thing. Joy is like this unexpected gift that’s never taken for granted. If you need some help, try this or this 🙂
Sending you love,
4 thoughts on “The Re-Education of the Heart”
What a great post Ally. Love you!
Love you, too, Aviva!
Thank you! So very insightful!! For me, the relearning is one part. The other part is practice, practice and more practice! I guess that’s why I love yoga!! Thanks for being there!!! Vicki
Glad this spoke to you, Vicki 🙂