Much of the abuse I grew up with was not physical. It was emotional. And emotional abuse is often much harder to put a finger on.
Sure, if someone calls you a loser or some other kind of slur, that’s easy to recognize.
But so often, emotional abuse comes in all the subtle ways someone tells you you’re not good enough, smart enough, or worthy.
The back-handed compliment. The lack of enthusiasm behind a ‘Congratulations.’ Dreams that are nitpicked under the guise of ‘not wanting you to get hurt’ or ‘just wanting you to be realistic.’ Not just one dream – all of them. The ‘why can’t you be more like…?’ Diminishing the significance of your accomplishments or exaggerating the significance of your mistakes. Bragging about another family member when your own accomplishments go unrecognized, leading you to believe you don’t measure up or you’ll never right for reasons you will never be able to understand. Leaving you out of the loop when it comes to important information. I go go on and on… (In fact, if we crowd-sourced this, we could come up with quite a long list!)
These are things that, in and of themselves, don’t seem like such a big deal (don’t be so sensitive – you’re being ridiculous!) But these things taken in their entirety can amount to a staggering level of cruelty.
If you grew up with enough of this, you quite likely internalized a fair bit if it, and now you’re doing it to yourself.
I’ve recently come to realize that unrealistic expectations are another form of emotional abuse. They’re another way those messages of being unworthy or not good enough get communicated. They’re definitely one of the forms of abuse I internalized the most. So I want to use this post as a chance to bring that into the light.
So why are unrealistic expectations so cunningly cruel?
Well, the first reason is because they are so hard to recognize.
They’re often expectations that very well could be reasonable for someone else, but they’re not at all reasonable for you right now. In this time. In this place. Under these circumstances.
But we’re either ignoring or discounting the circumstances that stand in the way.
Unrealistic expectations can also come from the fact that we want something so badly. And, again, we discount the obstacles either because we don’t want to wait, or we don’t want to feel the grief of not getting what we want.
I say unrealistic expectations are cunningly cruel because the damage they do is like death by a thousand cuts, just like all those other subtle forms of emotional abuse.
Unrealistic expectations inevitably lead to failure.
And while failure can be an amazing teacher, if we don’t realize the failure was due to unrealistic expectations – and we so often don’t – what we end up ‘learning’, the message we end up reinforcing, is that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not capable enough, not worthy.
In other words, unrealistic expectations only reinforce messages of shame.
So, what’s the antidote?
I’d say the first step is giving yourself credit for the smallest of accomplishments.
Did you get up this morning? Woohoo! And cue the crowds doing the wave!
Oh, you showered, too? Round two of Woohoo!
Sounds ridiculous, I know. But I assure you it feels great! Feels even better if you give yourself credit out loud. In front of the mirror. Those are two total self-love catalysts right there. (No lie, speaking out loud to yourself in the mirror is the beginning of some powerful neurological rewiring.)
Why such adulation for the small things?
Because, like I said, it’s very hard to recognize where we’re being unrealistic. Because we’re either ignoring or discounting the obstacles.
Start acknowledging the the small things that you achieve and you’ll slowly but surely start seeing the things standing in your way, small and large.
And then giving them the respect that they’re due.
The fatigue. The long to-do list. The fear. The grief. The lack of time or money.
The second antidote is, when you fall short, to ask yourself this question:
“If I assume I did the best I could, what was standing in my way?”
And then ask yourself if you’ve been diminishing the significance of whatever that is. And if that is the only thing that’s been in your way.
Hint: You may need to bring a sponsor or a trusted friend into this question to help you be honest with yourself.
And, finally, take the answer seriously.
What I often tell myself is that something SHOULDN’T have that kind of power to get in my way, when in fact it does. Or I’ll look at just one thing, when there are several things. And so I end up mustering the resources to get over a 4-foot wall when the wall I’m facing is in fact 20 feet. Then I can’t figure out what the hell my problem is and why I can’t get past it.
And that, for me, is a major recipe for a whole host of shame-filled limiting messages about myself.
Do this enough and your self-esteem and self-confidence are pretty well crushed, aren’t they?
However, if you knew you were facing a 20-foot wall and not a 4-foot one, wouldn’t that change everything?
Wouldn’t you realize you needed more resources? More time, more energy, time to grieve, a support system, fewer things on your list.
And if you didn’t have the things you needed at the moment, wouldn’t you have a better sense of what to do about that?
At the very least, you would tell yourself different things about why you’re not over that wall. Instead of not being good enough or capable enough, you just might not be ready.
You can also apply these antidotes to those around you. Genuinely celebrate the small things. If they’re falling short of your expectations, assume they’re doing the best they can and then ask what might be in the way. The answer to this question will be much more fruitful when it comes to figuring out how to respond to these disappointments.
So, are you frequently disappointing yourself? What small things can you give yourself credit for? If you assume you are doing the best you can, what might be in the way? What could you do to take this obstacle more seriously? How can you offer the same grace to those around you?
Share your answers in the comments. I read every one.
I’m confronting new frontiers of things I have to admit I am powerless over, so I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on the spiritual principle of surrender. It’s the principle behind Step 1 of the Twelve Steps.
Step One in AA’s 12×12 suggests we will never recover without an admission of complete defeat.
It sounds clear enough, but I know from my own experience that it’s often not as clear-cut as that.
I don’t know about you, but as much as I know I’m powerless over certain things, my mind still THINKS, still tries to figure things out.
Minds are created to do that, you know.
And that leads me to this question: Where’s the line between true surrender and just acknowledging that my mind still wants to figure things out, you know, just doing what it was designed to do?
Because I know I can get stuck in analysis paralysis, I decided to look back at other places in my life where it was clear that I had surrendered and then take a little inventory of what I did that made it clear I was surrendering.
Here’s what I was able to identify:
1. I was willing to do, and ultimately did, things that made me VERY uncomfortable.
In other words, I stopped doing the same things over and over again expecting a different result.
2. I reached out to people when I was afraid, or stressed, or feeling other deeply uncomfortable feelings.
I was willing to act on the knowledge that our disease, whatever it may be, thrives in isolation. Recovery thrives through connection.
3. I acknowledged it was hard and gave myself credit for the work.
This meant I let go of unrealistic expectations.
You see, often my unrealistic expectations show up in the form of believing something should be easy when it’s really quite difficult. The program principles are simple. But putting them to practice in everyday life can be challenging.
The recovered part of me believes that 12 Step work is PhD-level emotional work. My ego, which wants to keep me small and sick, will keep telling me it should be easy so it can keep me stuck.
4. I was open to seeing, and therefore recognized, the things that I had been doing that were unmanageable and insane.
I was willing to be humbled by the truth. When we first walk in the doors, the truth is not pretty. It certainly wasn’t for me.
5. I was willing to let it take time.
This was the hardest one of all, in my opinion. Because when the denial lifts and I start to see the insanity I’m creating by not surrendering, man do I ever want it fixed NOW.
However, this thinking is still part of my disease.
In one of my programs, people often wish you a slow recovery. As uncomfortable as it makes me to hear it, I understand why. Sitting with any of the program principles is one thing that allows them to truly sink in.
But this is also the point at which I know I’m ready for Step 2, because this is the place where I most need to trust in a power greater than myself.
This is also a place in which I surrender the conditions under which I’m willing to recover. For me, this is one of the conditions that is most difficult to let go.
So, those are my five signs that you’ve truly surrendered.
Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you have any other signs by which you know you’ve truly surrendered? Which one of these is the most difficult for you? Share your experience, strength and hope in the comments. I read every one.
In my experience, two of the most difficult recovery concepts are acceptance and surrender. So I’m going to try to tackle these two in this and the next blog post.
This week I’m going to start with acceptance.
Many of us are very familiar with the quote in the Big Book: “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.”
While I love the beautiful truth of this quote, I’ve found the daily lived experience of coming to accept things in my life to be a little messier.
I’ve had a lot to accept. I suspect you have, too. Since I just finished reading Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, I thought I’d share with you what I’ve come to consider four fundamental truths about acceptance.
So, without further ado, here they are:
One: Acceptance f-ing sucks.
It requires you to walk through, and yes, ACCEPT, some downright shitty feelings.
Uppermost among these is fear. Fear that my loved one might never recover. Fear they may die. Fear I may die. Fear my loved one will lose their job, and then we might lose our house. Or fear that I might lose my job because I’m so obsessed and so stressed.
Second to fear is grief. Grief over not getting what we want, the relationship we want, the life we want, the dreams we had for ourselves, the dreams we had for our loved one.
All these downright shitty feelings that acceptance requires us to feel only beg the question: Why, then, would we do it?
How can this possibly be the “answer to all my problems?”
Well, because the things we do to avoid acceptance are always self-destructive and often harmful to others, too.
They’re the things that land us in the rooms of 12-Step recovery to begin with. The drinking, the drugs, the eating, the spending, the inappropriate sex, the gambling. These are all numbing behaviors.
The things we do to avoid acceptance are also sources of immense shame. In fact, I think shame is one of the worst prices we pay for not accepting what is.
That said, I don’t think we can even experience the following three truths, if we do not first acknowledge this one. At best, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment, and at worst, failure.
At least in the beginning, acceptance is going to feel like shit. And yeah, we have to accept that acceptance sucks, too.
Which leads me right into number two: Acceptance requires support.
Time to cut yourself some serious slack here. Because essentially what this fundamental truth is saying is that, if we had the wherewith all to feel the incredibly painful feelings around what we’re struggling to accept on our own, we’d have done it already.
We need support in order to be able to accept. We’re not supposed to do this alone. Even if we have the support of our Higher Power, our Higher Power often supports us through other people.
This is another reason why we can’t ignore that the first word of the Steps is “we.”
Not to mention, this support is essential if we hope to climb out the shame.
One thing I’ve had to accept is that my mother will not change. Without support, I tended to interpret this reality as my own personal failure. In other words, I felt like I wasn’t worth changing for.
With support, I can just grieve what is without internalizing any limiting messages.
Number three: Acceptance is the path to freedom.
Acceptance allows us to redirect our energy in productive ways. It allows us to change the things we can.
There’s a reason the Serenity Prayer starts with acceptance first. I must accept before I can change. And I go nuts if I can’t figure out the difference between the two.
When I accepted my mother wouldn’t change, I got to grapple with forgiveness. While this has been a process, the deeper I go with it, the freer I get.
And with forgiveness, I got the clarity I needed to make healthy decisions about that relationship.
The other huge piece of freedom that comes with acceptance is that acceptance gets us out of transactional, conditional, and therefore toxic relationship patterns.
You know the ones: “If I do this, you’ll love me.” Or “If you do/don’t do that, I’ll be OK.”
When we live in these kinds of relationships, we live in constant psychological fear that one or the other party is going to mess up these often unspoken conditions.
This means we live in a prison of our own making.
But when we, for example, accept that certain people are never going to love us no matter what we do, we may grieve, but we’re also free to build relationships with other people who will love us.
So, on to the last, and in my opinion, most important fundamental truth about acceptance:
Four: Acceptance bears gifts, if we’re willing to surrender to it.
These gifts are nothing less than your own spiritual and personal unfolding, your ability to show up in all the glory of the person your Higher Power put you here to be.
Yes, we have to walk through some shit to get here, but you’ll never know how amazing the gifts of acceptance are until you do it.
But hear this: your ability to show up in this world completely differently, and quite effectively, and totally yourself, is, in my humble opinion, a beautiful representation of the spiritual awakening and the principle of service revealed in Step 12.
Why? Because this is where we truly make a difference to others.
It’s also what allows us to welcome, and ACCEPT, the good in our lives. If you were like me, accepting the good was sometimes harder than accepting the bad.
Does it get any better than that?
In two weeks, I’m going to share with you five signs I’ve found that demonstrate you’ve truly surrendered.
In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. What are some of the gifts you’ve experienced through acceptance? Are there things in your life you still struggle to accept? What are the feelings you’re avoiding feeling if you accept? What is that costing you?
Share your experience, strength, and hope in the comments. I read every one.
Let’s just start with one of my oldest narratives that can continually play on repeat in the back of my head: “I’ll never be good enough.”
I have others, too. Like, “Good things won’t happen to me.” Or, “This won’t work for me.”
Now, I’ve been around long enough and in the rooms long enough to know that none of these scripts are original. A good chunk of the human race is running around with these tapes running in their head all the time.
With so many people struggling with these debilitating messages you’d think we’d have universally figured out how to shut them down.
So why haven’t we?
Well, I’m not a guru, but I think one reason is, despite the fact that the messages and the feelings are quite similar, the conditions that created them for each one of us are different.
Or, at least, they FEEL different.
And that’s why I believe it can be helpful to go to the source. And I mean the source on two different levels, the source and the Source.
The first source is the experiences, and especially the people, who played a role in establishing these old narratives to begin with.
It’s important to get as clear as possible on these things.
Complete clarity, however, is usually not possible unless we take this information to the Source. The Source of healing and recovery: our Higher Power.
And I don’t mean just to pray about these things, although that can be helpful. In fact, if the source specifically involves people who have violated us, praying for them can be very helpful. I highly recommend the chapter “Freedom from Bondage” in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous for suggestions on how to pray for them.
But when I suggest we take the information we have about the source of our old narratives to the Source, I am suggesting that we also pray for ourselves.
Specifically, I suggest we ask our Higher Power to help us see these situations and these people as our Higher Power sees them.
One of the most significant sources of my old narratives was my mother.
My mother was incredibly cunning in her emotional abuse. Consequently, she was holding a lot of power over me and renting a lot of emotional space in my head.
And I felt like my mother had the most intimidating presence. She was tall, she dressed extravagantly, and when she walked into a room, she took complete command of it.
It was an Al-Anon speaker who taught me to ask my Higher Power to help me see my mother the way my Higher Power saw her.
However, I had to pray for this awareness for two years before it finally came to me. But when it did, it was nothing I could have ever imagined.
My mother had just had major surgery and was having life-threatening complications as a result of it. I had driven all night to go back home so I could be there.
When I got there, she was in bad shape. They had to keep her sedated and restrained to keep her from pulling all the tubes out that were keeping her alive so she could hopefully recover.
During this time, we discovered new crises my mother had created with her disease, and many family members, myself included, were rushing around trying to contain the damage.
After a long day of this, I was exhausted.
I hadn’t been to the hospital at all that day and I was so fed up with all her crap that I had no desire whatsoever to go visit.
But this little voice in my head, which clearly wasn’t mine, reminded me that I had gone back home to be with my mother.
So I went back to the hospital, and as I was walking through the halls back to the ICU, I just kept praying and asking my Higher Power to allow me to have compassion because I was. Sick. Of. This. Shit.
When I walked back into her hospital room, everything was exactly the same as when I had last been there.
She was tied to the bed and sprawled in a restless position. Machines were breathing for her and feeding her. Her sheets, her hair, and her hospital gown were all sweaty and disordered. Struggling, powerless, unconscious.
But in my frustration and my prayers for compassion, it finally hit me: this was how God saw her.
Nothing could have been further from the bugaboo she had always been in my head. I sobbed.
In that moment, I was granted humility, compassion, and most importantly, freedom.
I have prayed what I call the resentment prayer that I learned from reading the chapter “Freedom from Bondage” in the Big Book. And that has always lessened my resentments.
But when I asked my Higher Power to help me see my mother the way my Higher Power saw her, and when that request was finally answered, it was almost as if there was nothing to forgive.
Not that her violations hadn’t been real, but it obvious to the core of my bones that there was no other way she could have behaved. Which meant that none of the abuse was about me.
Which meant that I wasn’t stuck in shame.
I’ve still had to grieve that my mother wasn’t the mother I needed her to be. But that’s a very different thing than feeling like I wasn’t good enough to be loved.
If you read my post on legitimate anger, this is one way of getting out of those old narratives so we don’t keep interpreting things that hurt or anger us in ways that keep us stuck.
So, now I’d like to hear from you. Do you have experiences with people or situations that your Higher Power has helped you see in a different light? Or is there a situation or a person that you need help seeing the way your Higher Power sees it?
Share your experience, strength, and hope in the comments. I read every one.