A few days ago I was stumbling across blogs as I found Kim Saeed’s post on narcissistic abuse and the prison camp effect. I have never been in a relationship with a narcissist, but for some reason, I could relate to its effects. Then today I came across a post on confusion and forgiveness in emotional abuse. Some points in this post struck a chord with me. I often am convinced that I’m the one doing something wrong in every case of disagreement. This is common in abuse survivors in relation to their abuser, but I do it in any case where there is a perceived power dynamic, and I see power dynamics everywhere. Even with supportive people like my husband, I find myself second-guessing myself.
My therapist has said that I have likely been in a situation where other people controlled my life all along. This was not intended by the individuals who did this and isn’t necessairly bad. Children need some level of direction from their parents, for example. Where it gets problematic is where the child or adult becomes more controlled by parents, carers, staff or other authrotiy figures than is healthy for them. I am using the standard of the controlled person’s health here rather than society’s norms, because society allows for and even condones a lot of harmful power dynamics. Prison camps for example. What I mean is, being controlled in a way that is socially accepted can still be harmful and may have the same effects as narcissistic abuse.
One factor that makes institutional abuse, like prison camps of psychiatric abuse, more complicated than abuse by an individual, is however that the individual is not solely to blame. For example, psychiatric patients are commonly subjected to solitary confinement and forced treatment. This is institutional abuse. It involves a generally accepted power dynamic. The nurse who secluded me or the countless nurses who threatened it were not narcissists (although I have my doubts about the doctor who shove the seclusion plan down my throat without consent). They were simply doing their job, and their job was to control even if it’s for goodness’ sake.
One of the steps in changing maladaptive schemas, according to the authros of Reinventing Your Life, is to write letters to the people who contributed to the formation of these schemas. You obviously don’t need to send these letters, but the goal is to have your inner vulnerable child speak out.
I have told my story of the traumatic expeirence sin my life many times, but it is hard fo rme to actually write letters to the people who caused or didn’t protecct me against these experiences. I am not at this point in therapy yet, but one of the things that I think will hold me back is the need to address these people directly. Even if I’m not going to send or publish these letters, it still feels as though I’m telling these peole to their face that they abused, abandoned or failed to protect me.
Another thing which the authors acknowledge, is the fact that sometiems people who abuse or otherwise trumatize others, are well-intentioned. In my case, the people who hurt me didn’t know better, had the best of intentions, and/or didn’t realize what they did was causing me long-term trauma. I struggle with this big time. When I still had a DID ddiagnosis, I struggled with the connotation of severe, usually sadistic abuse. After my diagnosis was changed to BPD, I told some of the people who hurt me that I realize they aren’t sadists and that I had been struggling with this connotation in DID. Reading this chapter in Reinventig Your Life, I found for the first time someone acknowledging that well-intentioned treatment can still traumatize children (or adults). The authors say that, in writing the letters to the people who hurt you, you need to let go of excuses like this and let the vulnerable child in you speak freely and express her feelings.
Later in the process, the authors say, you may choose to forgive your parents (or others who hurt you, I suppose). I have often written aabout forgiveness, and I realize now that it’s required to feel your true feelings before you can come to forgive. Forgiving means accepting what happened, but also letting go of the need or want to be angry about it for the rest of your life. I have often tried to forgive the peeople who hurt me, without feeling the true extent of the hurt. That is stuffing feelings, not forgiving people.
A few days ago, Soaring Survivor wrote an interesting post on forgiving yourself in the process of healing from domestic violence. Forgiving yourself, she says, is harder than forgiving the abuser.
I always find myself thinking that my situation is almost unique, in that I myself was aggressive and my family responded with aggression to my behavior. Then I found out, I don’t remember where, that in most situations of intimate partner violence, there is not simply one person who is the perpetrator and the other who is the victim. Rather, there tend to be some form of abuse on both sides. I am not saying that this is the case for Soaring Survivor, as I don’t know her situation. What I mean to say is that my situation, involving sort of provoked aggression, is not as unique as I used to think.
This makes forgiving myself extra hard. I have forgiven my family, I think, but too often this comes down to trivializing what happened. I know that my parents weren’t sadists, and I often say this to justify their actions. They did what they thought was their best.
Then a few weeks ago I read a response in a women’s magazine from a person with borderline personality disorder to two parents who had complained about their children’s BPD being attributed to abuse. The borderline patient said that even very ordinary parents make mistakes, and this can set off BPD in vulnerable people. Does this mean they’re pitiful victims? No.
What I realize as I write this, is that maybe the hardest part of forgiving both yourself and the people who hurt you in your life, is shifting the focus away from the question of blame. Ordinary partners and parents (and children) act out violently, and accepting this is hard but necessary for both survivors/victims and the general public. Abuse happens, and the idea that only sadists perpetrate it, gets a whole lot of survivors/victims unnecessarily stuck in self-blame. Forgiveness may involve accepting what happened without letting it hold you back from living a fulfilling life. I’m still struggling with this.