triggers

Standing Up to the Storm

The moments I’m most proud of in my life are the ones when I stood up for myself. Really stood tall and strong in my values, stood firm in my boundaries and centered in my truth. These were pivotal moments that changed my life.

I can think of many times—many more times, in fact—when I did not stand up for myself. Mostly that was out of fear of not being loved, fear of rejection, fear of abandonment. Fear of rocking the boat and changing the status quo. I was afraid, and so I took the abuse or the unfairness, I was a passive and silent accomplice, I bent myself to the other person’s will in order to keep the peace. I was a pushover in every sense. I wanted everything to just be OK, and I believed that by keeping my head down and letting the storm crash around me, I had a better chance of getting through unscathed.

There were other times when I maneuvered around standing up for myself—I didn’t curl up into a ball mouthing abject apologies, exactly, but I wasn’t centered or steadfast, either. I allowed myself to be pushed to my furthest limit—even beyond it—and then mustered up the courage to push back a little. Still out of fear, still letting the waves and water move me from where I knew I should be. It never worked all that well.

These situations have ranged from petty to profound. Being bullied by friends or in the schoolyard, cringing with shame and fear. Or acting as mute witness to someone else being bullied—not participating, but not stepping in. Allowing those I care about most to manipulate me with guilt trips and silent treatments, feeling mortification for disappointing them and panic at their chilly rejection of me when I didn’t meet their expectations. Having the man who claimed to love me make unreasonable demands, one after the other, caught off-balance in his cycles of manipulation, love-bombing, fury and emotional abuse. Allowing him to effectively control, punish and use me, invading my home, claiming things I had already said “no” to, diminishing me with his very presence in my life. I didn’t truly stand up to him, not until the very last days of our withering relationship, when I finally realized I had nothing to lose by not giving in.

I regret every moment I accepted the unacceptable, cowed and inactive and miserable. It was never the right choice. It never created less conflict, nor inspired greater intimacy and understanding, nor changed anything for the better.

However, there were a few, critical times when I stepped forward—right out into the stormy waters, the thunder and lightning crackling above, the ocean black and roaring below. I climbed onto my rock and refused to move from it. Refused to be buffeted off by the winds of blame and guilt, refused to be frozen off by silent treatments and withholding of affection, refused to be frightened off by the storm of words or threats crashing around me. I stood in the center of my own truth, my own values, in the very center of myself, and refused to look away.

And every single time, without exception, it was the storm that failed and died away. The ocean that calmed. And my rock that remained dug into the foundation of the earth.

These moments created positive, lasting change—for myself, my relationships, my happiness. Not only that, but they didn’t cause the sky to fall. I didn’t lose the love or security I’d so feared losing. Because standing up for yourself doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s values or truth. It only comes at the expense of their manipulations, bullying, boundary-crossing or other toxic behavior.

I’ve learned that there’s a huge difference between making reasonable compromises in friendship and partnership—compromises that respect both people’s needs, triggers and preferences—and compromising myself, my core values, my essence.

In one, I’m still standing in my own truth. No one is asking me to feel or be anything I’m not in order to satisfy their needs. There’s no angry or threatening push from either side. I can honor myself fully, and fully honor the other person, making choices and considerations that take both people’s comfort into account. No values are compromised. No one is giving up any truth.

In the other, I am asked or expected to compromise the very integrity of who I am, to relax, change or abandon my boundaries without regard for my comfort, to accept responsibilities and burdens that are not mine, or, at best, to find tricky ways to placate the situation that don’t exactly align with my truth—but hey, at least the boat stopped rocking.

You know something about that boat? Screw the boat. The boat can go to hell. I’ve spent enough time and effort carefully working to prevent that leaky little thing from shaking, failing miserably at every turn, frantically bailing water when the waves got restive and someone demanded more of me than I was willing to give.

The first time I ever leapt out of that useless boat, I found my rock there waiting for me.

I stuck myself in the boat again many times after that, imprisoned by the threat of loss or disgrace, felt myself being crushed against an unforgiving shore when even the boat failed me. And felt the weight of my fear holding me down.

I don’t allow that to happen anymore. I still get pushed at sometimes. I still find myself needing to find that center, seek out my rock, and stand there ready for the storm. I still have to separate my stories and triggers and fears from what’s really true and what really matters.

But these days, all it takes is remembering all those different moments. When I caved and crumbled and when I stood tall. When I honored another above myself, and when I couldn’t imagine doing so. When I chose fear over strength, and when I chose truth over keeping the peace.

I could continue to regret my choice to surrender, or I could celebrate my choice to fight.

And I will burn my damn boat rather than ever climb aboard again.

the opposite of survival

I still remind myself often of the stark, manifest differences between my life without my abusive ex-boyfriend and my life with him. The strain so overwhelming I had to numb myself against it. The gut-wrenching dread that I was going to lose him—and lose myself somehow in the process. The shrinking from his anger, his moods, his neglect, his icy rages, never knowing what emotional blow was coming next. The inner knowledge pushing against me all along, telling me any way it could that this man was BAD FOR ME, which I dismissed and fought. The ache to be loved and wanted, which he never managed to fulfill but always somehow promised to in a way that I believed. The thrill of being noticed and petted, and the emptiness of being dismissed, devalued and manipulated. The cycles I could feel myself spinning in, unable to step out.

It was every kind of wrong way to be in a relationship. To be asked so much, and to say yes to it. I know I was looking for more in him. I was looking for the kind of belonging I’d shared with my ex-husband, which I was still grieving so intensely when this man landed in my life. I was bereft and unable to determine what boundaries were worth enforcing, and so I basically had none. I applied my own good intentions and kindness and integrity to him, because I wanted him to have it. It was entirely projection, and entirely free will. Though he was very good at manipulating me, and very capable at being charming, and very perceptive and adaptable, none of his techniques would have worked had I not chosen to be prime for the plucking. I walked freely into that trap and helped him to shut it behind me.

I have to wonder sometimes if I’m being that misguided about anything else, walking shortsightedly and unconsciously into situations that don’t serve me or align with my values. It’s totally possible, it probably frightens me more than anything else. Probably the stressful and anxious and irritated moments I’ve experienced over the past few years have been due to something very similar, and probably they’ll happen again. Uninformed or inflated expectations, autopilot, ego-driven and lack-founded thinking, fear of abandonment and disappointment. They’re part of my makeup, part of my humanity. I can’t ever turn them off for good, or cease to be aware of the danger they present to my well-being.

I hope that the difference now is that I am much more aware of them. My triggers, my spirals of doubt, shame and fear, my lack, my story. I enter them as easily as I ever did, but I now have more tools and resources to STOP, think, listen and make different choices. I’ve empowered myself to consciously CHOOSE, and choose differently, rather than simply to carry on down the well-beaten paths. Each time I learn something new, gain new perspective and experience on how to live a more aligned and positive life.

The experience of being with my ex was mostly about survival, suffering through a wasteland and struggling to stay strong and whole while being invaded and exploited and torn apart from the inside. It taught me what I never want to feel or be or live again, and was valuable in its extremes of sadness, loneliness and pain. But since the day we broke up, each challenging emotional and mental episode has lifted me further along, given me greater access to my inner wisdom, empowered me to make the choices I want to make, shown me how to trust myself and emphasized the value in it, taught me the true meaning of thrive.

My thesaurus lists the antonym of “survival” as “death.” But I believe that the true opposite of survival is well-being, the experience of more than merely existing, of thriving. If the opposite of being alive is being dead, than the opposite of continuing to exist or staying alive with endurance, persistence and fortitude is living joyfully and consciously with light, love, health and happiness—flourishing, prospering, creating. The antonym to “thrive” should not be “fail.” If you’re not thriving, it may have nothing to do with failing or diminishing, but rather with sinking into numbness, negativity or grim determination. One can be ill physically and thrive in every other way—it’s a spiritual, emotional and mental state of abundance.

I know I didn’t thrive for one second once I’d twisted myself around the trunk of a narcissistic man, by my own free will. I made choices that were good for me, I protected some boundaries, I allowed myself whatever room I could find for healing and peace. But still, it was basic survival. My finances didn’t prosper—they didn’t unduly suffer, but they didn’t grow in wealth or abundance. My health didn’t suffer unduly either, and I did begin to improve my strength in boot camp—but I was sleep-deprived and anxious, constantly on the alert. It couldn’t have been called flourishing. My relationships with others didn’t change for the better or worse; they didn’t fail, but they didn’t become more loving or nourishing.

The moment I woke up the day after our relationship had really and truly ended—as far as I was concerned, since I knew I wasn’t going back—my entire body felt different. My mind was lighter and clearer, my anxiety was almost nonexistent, my soul felt peaceful, all for the first time in more than two years. I only cried once more, and very briefly, because even in my mourning for what I felt I’d lost, I sensed the breaking of a new, powerful, beautiful, revolutionary dawn in my life. I began to thrive that day, continuing into the weekend and following week, and on and on until today. My memories since that time have been filled with golden light—even the dark and embarrassing ones, even the cloudy days shine with subdued brilliance. I know what it means to be whole and aligned. To be free of self-doubt, to fall back into my own arms in loving trust. To be empowered and validating, to take back what was yanked out of me and restore what was lost. To detoxify, release, forgive and heal. To openly address, examine and learn from my patterns and failures of the past. To take risks when my instincts told me to, and to step back when they told me to.

I don’t know what the future holds. But while with my abusive ex I felt held hostage by the present, by the sheer act of getting through each day without losing my shit in a crunch of anxiety and overwhelm, today I feel opened and unafraid. Whatever the future holds for me, I’ll find a way to celebrate it, to grieve losses and to be grateful for everything I receive. I know I won’t ever have to live through self-imposed years of strain, suffering and worry again, whether caused by financial mismanagement, addict spouses, sociopathic boyfriends, codependency, disrespect or following shoulds and guilt trips over my instincts. I won’t choose to serve others over honoring myself. I won’t choose them over me, or doubt over trust, or fear over love, or survival over thriving.

It’s unthinkable now to imagine giving one second of my time or one joule of my energy into a man who treats me without consideration, care or thought. I don’t know how or why I put up with it. Why I chose to—felt I had no other choice than to—give up my needs, wants and feelings in order to sustain a relationship with a man who wasn’t good to me. I can’t imagine living in toxic sludge ever again, feeling unsafe or neglected or invaded in my home, accepting abuse as a matter of course, dealing with someone else’s drama and solving someone else’s problems. I can’t guarantee myself a future of only happiness and no challenges, failures, loss or sorrow, but I can guarantee that I will never, ever choose to compromise myself so pitilessly, or betray myself so brutally, or live in such lack and strain, or accept overwhelm and paranoia as my lot. Whatever I do from now on, I will do it out of self-love and self-respect, trusting my inner guide, honoring my needs, and giving and receiving in balance. It serves no one to give endlessly and receive nothing—even the taker loses in the end.

However and whyever I chose to suffer through the darkest parts of my past, I know better now. I will trust myself. I will never let a tortured, twisted soul into my innermost sanctuary of love and trust. I will never subjugate myself in order to earn someone’s love.