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.
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.
Do you feel like you have to fix whatever you think is broken in you or the shiz in your life is really going to fly?
As in, any. minute. now.
Do you feel like all that crap needed to be fixed, like, yesterday?
Yeah, me too.
But let me ask you something: how’s that attitude of crisis and urgency around your shortcomings working for you?
I know for damn sure it hasn’t worked for me.
In fact, it just kept me feeling stuck, small and broken.
Even worse, it seriously challenged my faith in my Higher Power.
And I get it. It can totally feel like that sense of urgency is the only thing that’s keeping those defects of character from getting worse and then REALLY messing up your life.
But let this be an invitation to create a little space around that feeling.
To help you out with that, I’ll let you in on a not so little secret about me. (more…)
We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. ~Brené Brown
As I take stock of this past year, it’s clear that for me 2014 has been very much about transcending old belief patterns that are no longer serving me.
One of those is a persistent pattern of seeing myself as less than others. And hence I keep finding myself in relationships with people who treat me the same way I see myself.
Like so many things we need to heal in our lives, healing for me with this has been a process of peeling back each of the layers. And with each layer the pattern becomes less extreme.