Guest Post by wordssetmefreee
There are times when we do things hoping to make someone else happy. I’ve made my children’s favorite dishes countless times over the years. I’ve recalled that a certain teacher likes the Chai Latte at Pete’s Coffee and Tea. I had bought her a bag of this tea when I wanted to appreciate her for her dedication. When my best friend turned 40, I looked everywhere for a copy of Tagore’s Fireflies to get her a birthday present that would mean something to her.
And then, there are times when we try to make someone happy and it takes us down a very self-defeating path. I remember this friend who was not quite committed to our friendship. I mistook her last minute cancellations for genuine personal problems and felt protective toward her. I would listen intensely to her problems, and think about them, and offer helpful suggestions. I did not realize that she very rarely listened to me or cared about what was going on in my life. I mistook her flakiness for innocence and an inability to defend herself. A little late into the friendship, I realized that she would show up only when nothing else was going on in her life. While I would put our meetings on the calendar and fit things around them. Once I began to see her for who she really was (not evil, and nothing personal about her callousness, but just an inability to be someone solid, reliable, and committed to anything), I put an end to our friendship without a fight. I simply told her it wasn’t working.
The above situation is inevitable in relationships – we trust people sometimes, assume they are true to their word and when we learn otherwise, we distance and protect ourselves. A relationship is like a dance – sometimes it’s smooth and comes together beautifully. Sometimes it’s awkward. Sometimes, we start stepping on each other’s toes – and then it’s time to stop and assess what’s happening.
So what happens when we don’t protect ourselves? What happens when we try to mend the relationship by doing more and more while getting back less and less? We are setting ourselves up for manipulation and abuse. In these instances, the more we try to make the other person happy, the less happy we ourselves become. Because their happiness comes at a cost of ours.
This is what I was thinking of when reading some recent emails on this blog. Women in our culture are taught at a very early age to put others’ happiness ahead of theirs. This makes them easy targets for manipulation and abuse.
But it doesn’t just have to happen in abusive relationships or just with women. It can happen at the workplace or with friendships – with both men and women – trying to make someone else happy or trying to make someone proud of us comes at a cost to our own happiness and is invariably detrimental to our relationships and our emotional health.
Yet this self-damaging behavior (varying in intensity) is exceedingly common. Students compete hard to get into the best colleges rather than to pursue something they find interesting in a less than top-notch college. Employees try hard to please their bosses and become disheartened at their criticism. People try to impress their neighbors and friends with better cars, better houses, and better clothes. People have multiple surgeries to stretch their skin free of wrinkles. Some people earn so much money but it is never enough. They are still working on landing a better deal, a better job, a better yacht, and a better life.
It almost seems as if it is human nature to try to win the approval of others, and in doing so, we set ourselves up for misery. No one can claim that they haven’t tried to win someone’s approval somewhere in the teeniest possible way.
Where does this begin, this need for approval?
It probably starts with trying to please our parents. When we are little, our parents provide us with every need. We depend on them for our survival. We feel secure when we see them, the guardians of our world, happy. Bringing a smile to their faces seems to trigger the pleasure centers in our brain.
I remember how I would fear my parent’s disappointment more than my own, when I received a bad grade on a test. I also remember a particular day when I went on stage to receive a trophy in a debate tournament. I did not think much of my trophy because I felt the topic was predictable. The event felt special because my father, who had to travel a lot, was in town and was able to attend. As soon as I took it, I searched the audience for my father’s face. I found him smiling and clapping. Even though there were many people in the room, they all just blanked out for me. All I saw was my father’s proud face. Why was his approval more important to me that my own reaction?
Our parents have been given something precious – this tiny bit of power – to mold a life – and power can be intoxicating. They begin to teach us, influence us, shape us. Much of this happens with good hearts and intentions. (I’m referring here to non-toxic parenting.) And yet some part of parenting begins to create certain expectations that don’t necessarily value the individual at hand.
A Habit That’s Hard to Break
And thus, our parents have naturally set the stage for seeking approval. When we ace a test, we see tour parents smile, and we want to keep acing tests so badly. When we do badly on a test, we get heart broken. And this sets in motion a pattern of earning approval and being rewarded for it.
Earning approval suppresses the self because the rewards are external. – a pattern that some of us eventually break out of, when we realize that setting our own goals, self-assessing our own efforts, and asserting our individuality is the more genuine way to happiness.
Some people, however, continue this pattern and extend it to other authority figures (after they outgrow their parental home). They must gain approval from their neighbors, their friends, their in-laws. They must keep others happy. It’s now a habit that’s hard to break.
It takes them on a path where they’ve forgotten who they are and what they want. Even though the approval they get feels good in the short run, the conditions for approval keep changing, and it’s a hard game to keep up with. Human beings are insatiable creatures – give them control and they keep wanting more. The person seeking approval gets caught in a web of someone else’s greed and insecurities.
The Need to Belong
Human beings are mostly social creatures and thrive in groups. Sometimes we seek approval because we want to belong in a group. The group gives us warmth, affection, camaraderie, fun, and in return, we give the group back conformity. In college, I belonged to a group of girls who wore mostly Western clothes. (I didn’t think deeply about my clothing choices, I just wore what I liked and my parents didn’t have strong opinions on the matter.) And being similar in other ways made us gravitate toward each other. We also spoke comfortably in English and belonging to different states made the English speaking a necessity. There were 2 girls in my group that spoke condescendingly about other girls who appeared more traditional in their dressing choices. They also made fun of other people’s (English) accents. This wasn’t good-natured fun, this was clearly ‘I’m better than you’ kind of talk. I felt uncomfortable with this talk but never protested.
I was not assertive enough in my 20s to say, “She has the right to wear what she wants. Stop judging her.” Or “If you think her English is so funny, let’s hear you talk in French.” Or “The gist of what she’s saying in imperfect English has far more depth than your superficial Gibberish.”
This is not to say the group was all bad. We had a great time discussing books, watching old B&W movies, solving made-up mysteries, dancing to “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head”, making fun of each other, falling in love with Mr. Darcy, and singing “I have Confidence in Me” at the top of our voices until the neighbors protested.
I was afraid of losing their friendship. I was going against my beliefs (that we respect other people’s choices and abilities) and ‘blending in’ to preserve the relationship. A lot had changed for me over the next 20 years – as I gradually learnt to speak my mind and openly advocate for my values and beliefs, without losing valuable friendships. But it took time and effort. It didn’t just happen.
Dependence and Fear
If a woman is financially dependent on her husband and in-laws, she may do things that go against her value system, to keep them happy. This is not just a matter of survival. This is also something that is driven by fear. Although survival is an issue here, there are solutions. There are means and ways to garner supports, get skills/education, find a job, file for divorce, and free oneself from this prison. It is not an easy path and it is strewn with hardship, but it’s not impossible. What is much harder to overcome is the fear – a fear that is induced my sheer numbers – parents and in-laws, neighbors, extended family, and friends acting against one person. It feels like the whole world is telling you that you need to adjust, you should know your place, you have to earn your basic rights, and to please quit complaining.
Fear makes people try hard to win hearts, a venture that is bound to fail, because people who need to be “won over” are never worth it.
Some of us hate conflict. Others take it head on. Some of us worry about how others feel. Others don’t. When my brother and I used to fight in our teens, we would sometimes stop talking. I would cry all night and analyze my every word and action and try to look for something I did wrong and look at the situation from both his side and mine. He would sleep through the night blissfully. It’s not that he didn’t (or doesn’t) love me. But I think I worked much harder at our relationship than he did. Even now, I work harder at my other relationships than he does with the people in his life. I can’t just sleep through the night when I fight with someone. This makes me vulnerable to some degree.
Can We Break Out of This?
So, what can we do to watch out for this behavior? Some people seem to have a natural ability to resist it. They may have been born assertive, outspoken, and seem to always be able to prioritize their wishes, desires, and happiness. What can we do if this is not our first instinct? How can we protect ourselves and safeguard our personal happiness?
Make a conscious decision to love yourself.
In many cultures, children are taught that loving oneself is selfishness. This is such a mistaken notion. If we are unable to love ourselves, we can’t truly love others. If we judge ourselves harshly, we are more likely to judge others. If we disrespect ourselves, we become insecure and resentful of other people. If we despair over every mistake of ours, we are more likely to see other’s mistakes as permanent failures. If we see our mistakes as growth, we tend to be more forgiving of others’ faults. Therefore understanding that it all begins with us is the first step.
Get to know yourself.
What do you like and dislike? What makes you uncomfortable? What do you fear? What gets you excited? How do you typically react in a given situation? Many of us have never been asked these questions, growing up. We’ve often been TOLD how to feel. As adults, we may continue to fumble when presented with various situations. We wonder – How should I react? How am I supposed to react? “Maybe, it’s not okay to get angry when someone tells me to wake up earlier. Maybe, I’m the one being unreasonable.” When we don’t know ourselves, we don’t know what we want. Then we don’t know what to fight for.
This is something we don’t learn, growing up in India, and other similar cultures. I grew up in a house full of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Everyone used everyone’s things. This wasn’t ‘sharing’ or ‘generosity’. It was mostly inconsiderate behavior. Those who were pushy got more, the nicer ones got less, as a result of this no-boundaries environment.
My parents bought me a scooter when I turned 16. I took good care of it and used it responsibly. My older cousin began ‘borrowing’ it and I was expected to ‘share and be nice’ and I did. Then he would use it roughly and it began needing more and more repairs. Sometimes he would bring it home with not a drop of gas left in it. Sometimes I didn’t have it on hand when I really needed it (when I went for tutoring). When I questioned him on these things, he told me that since he’s a boy, he should have more access to it because, he can go out late and run errands and help the family. My parents didn’t want to fight with his parents over it. The result was someone getting away with inconsiderate, irresponsible, selfish behavior.
Keep track of the cost to yourself.
When you deny yourself your rights – the right to ownership (in my scooter example), the right to respect for one’s own time (in the example of my friend who stood me up often) – then we are entering the area of unfairness and unhappiness. This crossing over often goes unnoticed. Being aware of this boundary alerts us to someone impinging on our rights and taking advantage of us.
Understand that being nice is still okay.
You don’t have to be rude or loud or mean to stand up for yourself. But you do have to be firm. And you have to be unequivocal with your communication.
Don’t say, “Can you please not use my computer?” to your children, especially after you told them it’s off limits. Instead say, “Don’t use my computer. It’s not okay to use other people’s devices without their permission.” If you see something as a violation of a boundary, say it in no uncertain terms. And say it like you mean it. You are not asking or requesting. You are telling someone what you think and that you intend to stand by it.
Assess your relationships from time to time.
Stepping on each other’s toes? Frequently unhappy? More and more conversations leaving a bad taste in your mouth? Take a step back and try to be objective. As yourself, “Am I getting something valuable out of this relationship? Is there give and take? Am I being listened to? Do my thoughts and feelings count? Do I take the lead at least half the time? Do I get to make my own decisions about personal things that affect no one else? Do I feel supported and affirmed by the other person?
Answer the above questions honestly. Be willing to look at the truth. Do you feel you could’ve stopped some people from manipulating you sooner? Did you badly want to believe they were good? Did you try too hard to make things work? If the truth is undesirable, that’s okay. That’s what we humans do – we make mistakes. You can always change course and begin to work on reclaiming your happiness.
Not everyone is naturally assertive. But we can all work on it. Our relationships teach us many things about ourselves. There is this inner commentary that our brain engages in – a sort of an objective, truthful, and meaningful analysis of our experiences. It’s up to us to listen and pay attention.
Are you naturally assertive? Or did you have to work at it? Which experiences shaped you? Did you try to make a relationship work, only to realize later that it wasn’t worth it? Do you prioritize your happiness? Do other people’s opinions have a strong influence on you? Do you struggle with trying not to seek approval? Please share your experiences in these situations.
I’m most interested in the growth aspect of this. What did you learn? What would you want to work toward?
Guest post by wordssetmefreee
A couple of weeks back, I received an email from J1289 that described some of her difficult /abusive childhood experiences. As a child, she was constantly blamed for things she had no control over. She was belittled, compared to others unfavorably, manipulated and controlled in ways that were a clear abuse of parental authority. She went out into the world, began to question and re-think many childhood misconceptions, and began to form a different (more coherent) view of the world and herself. Despite the abuse, she re-built her self-esteem, a remarkable feet considering many adults (who haven’t suffered abuse) may go through their entire lives without a clear sense of who they are and what they want.
But, how does one forgive those that let us down? How do we forget their meanness, their ignorance, and their selfishness? These lines from her email really stood out for me –
“I do admit I have those horrid memories I have suffered in the past come back and it’s hard because you feel so alone in your thoughts, and think it’s only you. It fills me with disgust, anger and hatred towards my family members and want to cut of relations with them. Sometimes it gets to me so bad that I have no idea how I can keep it in since I cannot vent it to anyone.”
Experiencing abuse can leave scars that are difficult to erase.
Not everyone undergoes abuse – but many people face difficult, painful situations at some point in their lives, when they have been wronged in some way. We may have been betrayed by a close friend. We may have felt abandoned by a loving family member, when they failed to stand by us in a crisis. Someone we looked up to may have let us down, disappointed us. Such experiences can be unsettling and hold us back from seizing happiness.
It is common to harbor feelings of resentment, perhaps even hate, against those who were supposed to love us and be there for us. Over time, these feelings begin to take a toll on us. Negative thoughts can eat into a big part of our day. Our experiences begin to influence how we interact with others. We may find it hard to trust other people long after these harsh experiences. We may be wary in relationships, fear emotional intimacy and have difficulty forming deep friendships.
So, how do we get past our past? Simplistic advice such as ‘forgive and forget’ or ‘the past is past’ is not very helpful. Other nice sounding but unhelpful advice includes –
- “forgiving is a choice”
- “don’t cling to negative feelings”
- “you can’t change the things that happened to you”
- “it’s not worth it”
- “you need to move on”
- “put your energy into something that helps you”
- “anger and resentment are unhealthy”
- “start on a clean slate”
- “focus on the present”
- “change the things you can”
Let’s think for a minute about why this is not helpful. ‘The past is past’ sounds hollow because the opposite is true for the one who suffered in the past. For this person, the past IS the present. The past continues to haunt. It has shaped who he is today. It continues to shape current interactions and relationships.
‘Forgive and forget’ doesn’t make much sense either. How can we simply forget? We can’t just erase certain memories from our minds. They’re still there, whether we like them or not. How can we just forgive? Someone did something wrong. If you examine their actions today, they are still wrong.
And yet we know, all of us, that it is not healthy to constantly harbor negative feelings, to let past wrongs have a hold on us.
So, how do we free ourselves from this pain? How do we lighten our burden?
There are several things we could do to help ourselves –
Understand the past
Yes, this requires us to remember the past rather than forget it. Understand what exactly happened. Was it emotional abuse? Was it abandonment? Betrayal? Humiliation? Disappointment? What exactly happened and who is responsible for what? What was the other’s role in it? What was your role in it? If you were a child, you did not have any control over the situation. If you were an adult, you did have a role. This is not victim blaming, it’s trying to understand how you came to be victimized.
Acknowledge the past
Now that you have a clearer understanding of the past, acknowledge it. Burying it does not help. Acknowledge the fact that you were wronged. Remember how you felt – fear, shame, sadness, anger, pain, guilt – we try hard to bury these feelings, but the minute you acknowledge and accept them, they begin to become less burdensome.
Although it is irrational, we tend to blame ourselves (on some level) for the bad things that people do to us. Children often think it is their fault, when they are abused. They must be “difficult” or “bad”, and they deserve to suffer. There is no such thing as a “bad” child. Here, the responsibility rests with the adult, never with the child.
If you were abused/wronged as an adult, forgive yourself because you did what you could, given what you’ve been given. Not everyone is born assertive or spirited. Many of us learn assertiveness through experiences. Very few of us are lucky enough to have strong and supportive role models. Abusers also know how to tap into people’s vulnerabilities and cut off their support systems. So, give yourself a break.
Don’t erase pain
Pain is undesirable and we would not wish it on anyone. However pain has a role to play in our lives. Just as physical pain acts as the body’s warning system and protects us, emotional pain, when handled with the right perspective, helps us grow. It makes us stronger. Pain makes us understand what is really important. It simplifies things. Pain reminds us of the things we love and value. If you have gone through a lot of pain in the past, it may always be there inside you. You can never erase it completely. Therefore it is important that you use it to become stronger and more connected with yourself and others.
Separating your current self from your old self
A curious thing begins to happen if you have taken an honest look at your past, acknowledged it, and forgiven yourself. You begin to feel a separation. You begin to observe yourself objectively, like an outsider. You are able to finally separate the past from the present. That was you then and this is you now. This separation creates distance. You still remember the past events but the feelings associated with those events are less intense.
Let’s take a detour here and consider the example of an ordinary setback, removed from abuse, betrayal, or anything deeply traumatic. You are 5 years old and you just broke up with your best friend. You came home and cried as if your heart would break. For the next few days, you did not play with anyone at school. You stayed in your corner and sulked. By the end of the week, you were neither sad nor happy; you just went about your day in a cynical way. By the following week, you even laughed at something goofy someone did. By the end of the following week, you probably made a new friend. The anger and hurt may still be there. But alongside some positive feelings (new hopes, possibilities) crept in unnoticed and pushed the hurt into the background. Years later, you may even recall the good times you had with this friend you broke up with.
Our minds are interesting – they are geared to both remember endlessly and forget quickly. What we remember and forget depends on a complicated set of parameters such as our own nature, our perception of the event, our age, the context, the people involved, our feelings towards them, and our state of mind. What we remember also depends on what our conscious mind chooses to suppress in attempting to protect us.
Applying the ordinary setback and separation you experienced at age 5 to a more traumatic incident -as you begin ‘separating’, you will be able to recollect the incident without the same intensity, without the gut wrenching pain that you felt during the event or for many years following the event.
Being able to recollect a painful experience without the same intensity of pain is the first sign of freedom from the past.
Change in perspective
Separation leads us to start seeing ourselves differently (we are no longer victims, we feel more in control) and therefore we begin experiencing things differently. We now know what to look for in people. We are more trusting because we are more confident of protecting ourselves in relationships. We get better at drawing boundaries but we also get better at breaking through constraints and self-imposed limits.
Seek positive, affirming people
It is helpful to surround ourselves throughout these stages with strong, positive, supportive people. People who themselves have struggled with something but have come out strong make the most valuable friends. Avoid people who are insecure or tend to be dismissive of your struggles. Love (from a close friend or family member) can be a powerful healer.
We use the expression “natural” to describe a picture of someone being unselfconscious or just being in the moment. A lot of our stress comes from being disconnected from nature, and therefore from ourselves. Pain has always been a part of the human experience but nature was a refuge, a haven of solitude that healed us, one which we are getting farther away from.
Nature can be your best friend. Take a walk in the woods. Spend time gardening. Hike up the hills and watch the world below. Nature is both calming and invigorating. Observe a tree. Notice how the branches are asymmetrical. The texture varies dramatically from the rough bark to the smooth leaves. Nature is imperfectly beautiful. Nature reminds us of our humanity and helps us accept our weaknesses.
Nature changes so imperceptibly that it is impossible to just sit there and watch the leaves turn red in fall. It is impossible to find the exact moment when the sky begins to lighten (just like one’s healing). Yet, you know these things will happen, with time. Thus, nature imbues us with patience and the confidence that time heals.
Seek new experiences
As you begin to trust people more and as you begin to enjoy your own solitude more, seek out new experiences. Travel if you can. Experience different cultures. Try something you’ve always feared. If you are uncoordinated like me, try a salsa class. If you are uncomfortable in water, take a basic life skills swimming class. New experiences challenge us to keep growing and evolving – and when we keep evolving – are we not moving ahead, are we thus not separating ourselves more and more from our painful past?
Forgive those who wronged you
Ah … the final step to freedom! Forgiveness is supposed to be one of the hardest things to do. Especially when the person who has wronged you does not realize it or admit it. But if you have gone through all of the above stages, forgiving someone is a natural progression. The stages may take months or years depending on the intensity of the pain inflicted, your vulnerability at the time, as well as your perception of the incident/phase. But once you’ve understood the past, achieved separation, undergone a change in perspective, and opened yourself up to new experiences and people with trust and confidence, you’ve gone a long way in healing yourself.
You are now strong enough to forgive. You begin to see the person who wronged you as being human rather than evil, as ignorant rather than malicious, as limited rather than insidious.
Remember, we are not forgetting our past, but we are finally able to look at it with different eyes, more perceptive eyes. It is no longer a raw, painful wound, but a scar that will always remind us of how far we’ve come. A scar that affirms our strength, so we can continue to go places.
Please share your struggles and experiences with letting go of past wrongs, disappointments, failures, disillusionment, and other painful experiences.
Guest Post by wordssetmefreee
The last post and some recent emails brought up the subject of abuse within families. I’m glad that the email writer moved out. She is able to analyze her situation quite rationally, which indicates that she got out in time. Although the majority of these emails tend to come from women, men can also be victims of abuse. One recent email from an American woman detailed how her Indian boyfriend was being emotionally blackmailed by his parents. Many commenters advised her to stop dating him because he needed to gain control of his own life before entering into a relationship. In my own extended family, my cousin, who I grew up with chose to not get married. After delaying his parents’ attempts to get him married for a few years, he finally came out in the open and declared he doesn’t ever want to get married. He is an only child and has been subjected to emotional blackmail (such as daily threats of illness and suicide, hysteria, self-starvation) from his parents. Five years since he announced his decision, they are still around, but I do see that he is worn down, tired, and stressed most of the time. He was a happy, fun loving child, always following me around (I’m eight years older to him) asking me to play hide and seek with him. It bothers me when I see him become a hollow version of himself.
Emotional abuse is a potent method of damaging someone’s psyche, especially a person’s sense of self worth and dignity. It is potent because it often goes unrecognized. Its incognito status allows people to inflict substantial damage on victims – as much as that through visible forms of abuse such as aggression and violence.
Socially sanctioned forms of abuse are the hardest to recognize. In many cultures, parents have unlimited authority over their children. Any situation where authority goes unchecked is a fertile environment for abuse. Another culturally sanctioned form of abuse occurs with other authority figures such as teachers, boarding school staff, clerics and law enforcement officers. This is not to say that all parents, teachers, clerics and police are abusive; but if their authority is not subject to checks and balances, there is potential for abuse, and support when it does occur.
It is important to note that in the case of parents, spouses, and intimate partners, they may not always be aware that they are turning abusive. Although it is difficult to empathize with the abuser, he/she could also be caught up in a destructive cycle that cannot be voluntarily broken, without professional help, and distancing from the victim.
In the Indian context, parental abuse often goes unrecognized because there is an entire network of constructs, rules and operations that have been built around it. Recognizing parental abuse threatens so many existing power structures that cultural walls have been built around it to safeguard the unquestioned authority of parents. Accusing one’s parents of the smallest wrongs is tantamount to treason. There is so much fear and guilt surrounding this discussion that many sons and daughters don’t dare to broach their parent’s fallibility. Any attempt at doing so is often accompanied with tremendous guilt and self-reproach on the victim’s part.
However, problems, especially when they are deep-rooted, cannot be pretended away. It is important for us to recognize abuse. People are often shocked at the word ‘abuse’ when it is used in the context of their loved ones. Ironically, it is loved ones who are the most likely to inflict abuse – their increased proximity to the victim and their sense of entitlement, and in some cases, co-dependence make intimate relationships more prone to abuse than relationships that are one step removed.
Who can inflict emotional abuse?
– Parents on their minor children
– Parents on their adult children
– Adult children on their aging parents
– Relatives on children in the family
– Bullies at schools, colleges, and in cyber space
– Police on people in their custody
– Teachers and school authorities on children
– Managers on their reports
What forms does emotional abuse take?
– humiliating, excessive judging/criticizing, shaming, slandering, ridiculing, being dismissive, labeling, condescending
– controlling, taking away choices (requiring permission for going out, controlling spending, controlling routine choices like dressing, showering, eating), infantalization
– accusing (being overly suspicious, reading into every move), blaming (holding victim responsible for abuser’s problems and happiness)
– unreasonable or impossible demands
– emotional distancing, silent treatment, alienating, emotional abandonment or neglect (withholding affection, love, support, withholding communication and expecting mind reading)
– excessive codependence (treating the other person as an extension of themselves, not respecting boundaries, knowing what is best for you, being constantly needy)
– threats and intimidation (loud voice and aggressive body language meant to induce fear, direct or indirect threats to the other person, her reputation, her children, her parents, her safety)
– emotional blackmail (threats of suicide, ill-health or becoming an alcoholic), hysteria (disproportionately intense reaction to mistakes), and self-injurious behavior or threats on self-harm (cutting oneself, burning oneself)
– baiting (deliberately provoking anger through false accusations, preying upon weaknesses)
– creating no-win scenarios (asking someone to choose between two bad options – “you either starve or you apologize for something you didn’t do”, “you either cut off with your brother or cut off with me”)
Some less common forms of expression
– Symbolic suffering (setting fire to a toy or favorite object) – inflicting suffering on an inanimate object or a small animal meant as a threat or intimidation
– Engulfment – showering excessive and suffocating amounts of attention, constantly checking whereabouts, inducing guilt (when victim enjoys something) and fear, exhibiting pathological jealousy
– Stalking – either physical or via phone/email
– Gas lighting/brainwashing – omitting or twisting information to favor the abuser and make the victim doubt their own memory or understanding of events
– Recruiting – making the other person an accomplice in questionable activities
What It Feels Like
The victim often feels confused, hurt, and frightened. (I will begin to use the female pronoun but this applies to both men and women.) She loses confidence and begins to doubt herself. She may doubt her own opinions and beliefs. She may even begin to doubt facts and her own memories. There is a sense of one’s reality slipping away. This makes the victim feel powerless. Most of the victim’s energy is focused on “being careful” around the abuser’s moods, trying to “read” his signals, and working hard to earn his approval. The victim is filled with a feeling of dread; there is always the feeling that something may explode (even when things are going well). The victim begins to blame herself when things get ugly (“if only I had been more careful, if only I got home earlier, if only I cooked his favorite meal”). The abuser and victim go through cycles of “good” and bad phases. During the “good” phase, the abuser regrets his actions, tries to flatter or please the victim, and makes peace. The peace is invariably temporary and is shattered for the smallest and most unpredictable “reasons”. Initially, the “good” phases serve the purpose of locking the victim in the destructive relationship; however in later stages, the victim begins to understand the hollowness in the kind gestures, begins to recognize the pattern to the point of being able to predict what is coming next, but is unable to break out of it.
How To Cope
There is only one way to cope with abuse. And that is by putting physical distance between oneself (victim) and the abuser. At first, this might mean leaving the room and refusing to engage in abusive interactions. Eventually, moving out of the abuser’s life is necessary for survival. Leaving requires 2 things – planning and support. A practical plan is necessary – where will I live temporarily, how will I earn my living, etc. The victim also needs the support of another human being – a close friend or relative who will help the victim not give in to her fears and go back to the abuser.
Even after getting away from the abuser, many victims continue to suffer the effects of abuse – they will continue to suffer from a lack of self worth, make harmful or self-destructive choices, become close to people who are another version of their previous abuser, and continue to be unhappy. Victims need to work with a counselor and take the support of strong, reliable friends/family and work on the process of self-healing.
The abuser can recover only through psychological counseling and doing the hard work of recognizing, understanding, and modifying his own destructive behavior patterns.
Victims of abuse cannot be told or expected to “snap out of it”. Recognizing and dealing with abuse, and supporting the victim practically and emotionally are the only ways to authentic healing.
Sharing an email.
Maybe this is just of one of the reasons why relationships and heartbreak should be acknowledged as and talked about as a part of growing up – not as something some immoral young people do on Valentine’s Day.
“This is the worst emotional crisis of my life…
My question is, why didn’t it hurt him so much? Maybe because he has been in and out of relationships and has more experience dealing with it? By contrast, this was the closest I had ever come to anything close to a relationship.”
What would you say to the email writer?
Heartbreak, and if/why men and women deal differently with it.
I am a regular reader of your fabulous blog. It has shaped my thoughts and feelings like very few things in life have. I also comment here fairly regularly–not so much of late, but certainly until some months back.
I am a 38-yrs-old mother-of-two who recently took a job after a long break. Lookwise I would describe myself as above average and moderately attractive.
At work, the person who sat next to me was a 25 year old guy. He was more experienced in the field, while I was a virtual novice, so I often turned to him for help and suggestions.
I cannot say we hit it off immediately– I initially thought he was a feku who boasted a lot. However, we gradually started talking quite a bit. I realized, much to my surprise, that he had actually not been boasting about anything. He had excellent manners and was very well brought up. Spoke excellent English. He did not bring his lunch to work because he stayed two hours away from office and did not get the time to cook in the morning. I started taking extra chapatis for him initially, then started taking the trouble to prepare special dishes for him in the morning. He himself was a fabulous cook and everyone around would look forward to days when he did bring lunch.
By the next day, I finally reconciled myself to the fact that I had made a huge fool of myself, and that what I had wanted was really pointless and could have repercussions. I kicked myself for telling him anything–I should have just listened to his admission of desire and kept my own mouth shut. I then threw myself into salvaging the remnants of our friendship– sent him emotional messages telling him how precious our friendship was to me, how deeply we used to trust each other, how we could talk about everything without misunderstanding the other, and how he was the one friend I should like to stay in touch with always. He gave monosyllabic responses to a string of messages, acted very distant and aloof. Said I should really forget the whole thing and not think about it so much. That he would always cherish my friendship but that I should really be concentrating on my priorities. By the next day his responses grew fewer and farther between. The next day I tried to call him, and discovered to my horror that he was not answering my calls.
Is there a greater humiliation than this, to not have your calls answered? I have never felt so insulted, so abjectly humiliated in my entire lifetime. I tried for one more day to revive whatever was left of our friendship by sending him “normal” messages– I knew it was all but over, but what we had was so good, I couldn’t let it all go without at least trying. I finally saw the writing on the wall and quit trying.
This is the worst emotional crisis of my life, IHM. The pointlessness of it takes my breath away. I cannot stop thinking about him for more than a few minutes at a time. Tears come unbidden. I mourn for the totally unnecessary loss of a great friend, the one person I would have like to always be in touch with. I am wracked by feelings of shame, guilt, mortification, and humiliation every time I think about it. The worst thing is, I cannot even talk to anyone about it. People have been commenting that I look unhappy and unwell.
My question is, why didn’t it hurt him so much? Maybe because he has been in and out of relationships and has more experience dealing with it? By contrast, this was the closest I had ever come to anything close to a relationship. I never had a boyfriend, ever. My husband is the only only man I have ever even kissed or properly hugged. Could this be a reason?
I have been scouring the web for articles on heartbreak. One said that the older you are at the time of your first heartbreak, the more it hits you like a cannonball and blows you to smithereens. Well, that certainly rings true to me.
But really, IHM, do you think men and women deal with heartbreak differently? I would also be grateful for some advice for myself from your very knowledgeable readers. How to deal with this crushing pain? And is there still a way for us to be platonic friends again, the way we were before that ill-fated conversation, or have we really lost it forever?
Sharing an email.
I wrote you a mail few days ago but wasn’t very clear on my problems I guess. In this mail I am giving you a complete picture of myself and my issues. Please publish it on your blog as I really need sound suggestions from all the people who comment here and in most of whom I see a reflection of my thoughts and opinions.
I am a 28 year old working and married woman. As with most urban girls these days, I have been raised with non traditional values and never had marriage as the only and ultimate aim of my life. I am the youngest in 4 siblings and was relatively pampered as compared to my other siblings. Since I was the last kid in the family I am extremely attached to my parents and led a very, very, almost unhealthy, protected life. Due to this I became a very emotional person and I have always had trouble dealing with my emotions. I soon realized the downside of this personality attribute, esp when I started working and worked on it to show my emotions only to my family and very close friends.
My husband and I met when I was 18 years old. After being pursued by him for almost 3 years, I said yes to him when I was 21. After almost 5 years of relationship, we got married 2 years ago. This information is relevant because I wanted to point out that my DH and I have practically GROWN together. We know each other inside out. By God’s grace my PIL’s are also nice people and my MIL is a very simple woman. Although she has irritated me at times with her illogical demands (like wearing the fanciest sari for a small function etc. ), she is not an evil woman. She cooks my favorite dishes when I visit them or vice-versa and has always treated me with love and respect. No restrictions on what I wear, where I go, whom I meet or how frequently I have to call them up. So I’m blessed that way I believe. Similarly, I have adjusted and kept quiet as per the need and have never disrespected them. We share a sweet bond and we genuinely adore each other.
Now the problem – My DH has been my support through all thick and thin. We have loved and supported each other unconditionally all these years. I have been completely emotionally dependent on him. My professional frustrations, my insecurities, my hopes, my dreams, he has been privy to all. He supports my decisions and has never ever forced me to do anything against my wish. Likewise, I have trusted his decisions and respected them, sometimes even when I didn’t like them. In spite of sharing a close bond, we have had terrible fights and arguments in our relationship on the most trivial of issues. He is also the youngest in his siblings and is quite pampered. I felt that both of us used to behave very immaturely and hence the frequent fights. To resolve this, I thought I would try to restrict my emotional outbursts and would let go of my need to have the last word in our every argument. I did exactly this and the arguments and fights did reduce. However, stifling my emotions did not help me very much. I started having feelings of resentment towards my hubby and did not feel myself with him anymore. He sensed this and he also turned to silence so that things don’t turn ugly. This has taken a huge toll on our relationship. While I cry and let out my emotions secretly, he feels that I could never grow up. Few days ago I had been crying non-stop for almost 2 hours (amalgamation of issues in office, some problem with my parents’ health and emotional disconnect with DH) and he could not take it any longer and said he is going out or a walk. I felt all the more hurt and then we had a very emotional conversation. I told him that since I could not share my pain with him anymore, could not tell him how he has been hurting me (knowingly or otherwise), I feel very suffocated. He let out a sigh and said in a very sad tone that he could not handle my emotions anymore. He could not handle my frequent emotional ups and downs and the fact that I refuse to grow up. Since that day we have been living a very normal, emotionless life. I am not finding any utility in staying married to him. I married him for love (which was an EMOTIONAL REASON). I don’t know if I am overreacting or this is worth calling the marriage quits. We have loved each other madly all these years and it pains me to see US like this. I also don’t know which is better, horrible emotional fights that would end within the day itself and we would be passionately back in love or the silent resentment that hangs for days and days between us.
Divorce is not a taboo in my family and I know my parents, even if it pains them terribly, will support my decision. The only sad part is that both the set of parents (mine and DH’s) have seen one of their kids getting divorced and it has broken them from inside even though they supported their kids’ decision. One more divorce in the family and it will be too much for both the parents to take. Also, I do not want to take such a strong decision without believing that it is the only way out.
Please help me make a sound decision.
Sharing an email.
“He said he believes in giving quality time rather than quantity time to the family. I kept quiet but my mind does not stop thinking here.”
I am a fan of your blog and postings/suggestions. Thanks and I am really grateful for the same as it helped me to align my thoughts to a great extent in past.
My background in brief. I am 31 year old and average looking woman working for past few years. I earn around 30k and have been leading a contented life. I do not have a father and it has been my mother and me living in a decent area with a home of our own.
I was married at 26 and was in 6 months old dead relationship from minute one. I can say confidently that I have tried everything to make the relationship work but this man wanted to live a bachelor’s life without any sort of attachment and responsibility and wanted a marriage for society and name sake. This suffocated me and I came out of it without being touched or questioned by this man. I mentally came out in a year’s time and legally in 2010.
Since then, I did not have guts and trust to look out for new relationship. I have my own fears of getting in to trap and believing wrong people. Now I have been speaking to this guy who is 34 and has been introduced by a commonly known person to our families. I had my own fears and reservations to commit myself to a man who smokes, drinks and has non veg (I am a vegetarian). I never considered getting in to a relationship with a man who has a kid (but living separately) as I feel I may not be capable of handling the situations which I may come across in future. This guy has applied for divorce on mutual consent and is waiting for the hearing soon.
I decided to speak to this guy initially over phone and say no to the alliance as I did not want to say straight NO to the person who introduced me to him. He is a 75 year old wise man who is a well wisher to me and my mother.
To my surprise, I spoke to this guy over phone for around 2 hours on first instance and a few details were exchanged. He seemed to be a decent guy with an unhealthy marriage which he has tolerated for 8 long years and has a 7 year old kid (boy). I sympathize the plight of this kid as he is suffering and missing his father and his grandparents. He also admitted that he smokes (not chain smoker and smokes when needs to think too much), drinks (social drinking) and has discontinued having Non veg. He sounded convincing that he will keep these habits in control.
Going by what this man has told, his wife seems to be very focused on her priorities w.r.t her career and her property. She earns around 12 lakh PA and feels secure with money and decent property in her control. According to him, she has problem with his lifestyle, his spending habits and his parents who are aged and need moral support currently. He says that he did not have emotional support from her and looks like she has not made him feel that he is needed. He says that he earning more than her and in a good position at one of the leading companies in India would make time and initiate some efforts to improve the relationship but she on other hand did not care about it. He says that she was influenced by her mother majorly but had few good qualities of her own. To me, this guy looks transparent with his thoughts and sensitive towards family values. He is good, trust worthy but I feel this relationship will have its own set of challenges in it as other relationships have. I don’t want to get trapped again… That’s my fear.
As a person, he says that he liked me because I appear to be tolerant enough to listen to what he has been saying (which his wife did not do). He says that I appear to be contented with what I have and will not rule his head later on. He also says that my family values make him feel comfortable. Beyond this, I do not see him making any serious efforts to know me better evidently.
I have been trying to unveil the next layer of this man to know what I can contribute and have in store to make this relationship going. I am NOT really looking for a big sophisticated lifestyle but to be frank I am looking to continue life in a secure close knit family life where there is prominence given to contentment and wisdom along with personal growth and accomplishments to add meaning to life. I am very needy emotionally. I cannot handle long distance or a controlled relationship. I have fair clarity on what I do not want but I am kind of flexible in adjusting on aspects which can add meaning and value to my life in a long term..
The point of concern is that we spoke to each other for at least an hour on daily basis regarding his past, expectation, job insecurities etc. I was putting across many questions to which he could answer me in detail. He showed enough patience to answer me in detail which has helped me find this man worth trusting. My Idea was to know and understand the next layer of thought in this man as I was convinced to some extent of taking this ahead in spite his habits and a child.
He said that his child (who will be staying with his mother) would be in his mind and he will do whatever is needed for him but will see to it that he stays committed to me as well. I was okay with this as I would consider him to be selfish and irresponsible if at all he said that he has moved on completely…
In mean while he said that he is interested and happy to take this relationship ahead and also admitted that it has been so far good between us. And we decided that we will not be meeting in person or talking so frequently over phone until his paper work is completed legally as he said that his wife has been a bit fickle minded in past regarding her decisions but he is not interested in reconsidering to unite again with her. This did put me back to square one but I decided to wait until the hearing before putting myself out of it completely and I have communicated this to him as well…
So this actually has uncertainty but I have decided to meanwhile know more about him and utilize this time if at all things go fine legally. In the meanwhile, he says that he is workaholic and works for extended hours when he is on project which usually lasts for long duration. It’s been 10 days since he has got in to a new project and we have not spoken properly. I am confused now if I am over analyzing or am I unable to digest the fact that this is how my life in future will be with him.
My relation with my ex was dead because he was never available for me in person or over phone…The feel is being repeated again now in this case but I cannot react as we are not in a relationship. But I am concerned how I should be looking at it because it is a different person with new situation and background and reason. There are positives and negatives in this man as well.
He is good at communication but is not making efforts to know me evidently. I am afraid if he is taking me for granted due to my average looks or not so great salary and career aspirations. He seems to be family oriented man who had strong need for family and talks responsibly. He has the ability to listen, understand and empathize with points of view. But I have a strong feel that he is looking forward to prove himself in front of his friends and colleagues. Not that I am great treasure but I understand that he has his own insecurities with respect to his past. And this time he wants to show that he has got someone on whom he has control. I don’t want to be taken for granted.
I sometimes wonder if I am over analyzing and making things complicated for myself. He is due for promotions and I have a feeling that he will be more busy and unavailable for me. When I asked how we would handle this situation, he said that I believe in giving quality time than giving quantity time to the family. I kept quiet but my mind does not stop thinking here. If we have a kid, he/she will not be able to differentiate between quality and quantity. So, whatever time I would get in future, will have to be shared between the kid and myself. I know I am thinking too much but I have been in a relation where my husband did not want to spend time and he escaped. This time, the person seems to be interested but due to his work pressure, he will have to struggle to give time to family in between his constant traveling. I am finding it difficult to say NO at once as he is nice person. But I do not want to see myself trapped in a relationship without my husband by my side most of the time as well. I know, being in this industry I will have to make adjustments but if it goes beyond a certain extent, it will be difficult for me.
Can you please let me know if I am worrying for no reason or is there any better way to sort out and align myself to this need of situation which I am more or less sure to encounter. Please let me know how do I address this to him without making him feel offended.
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As of now.. what I understand is, this man is extremely busy at work , is unable to have adequate sleep and disturbed but has been trying to bring in required change in himself (with regards to his temperament) but I have a feeling that it is not really enough to start a relationship with me (where emotional security is my priority requirement). It’s like I have to respond when he calls but otherwise, I don’t find it easy to call him when I feel like speaking to him.
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This mail might appear very stupid and filled with anxiety but can you please think of anyway I can resolve this and take a better decision…
My problem is quite common, but that does not make it any easier to handle.
What do you think of Arranged Marriages where there is no direct or indirect coercion, caste-matching, horoscope-matching or dowry negotiations; and where the parents do no more than introduce the Prospective Bride and the Prospective Bride Groom?
And when would you judge (or blame) a man or a woman for breaking an engagement in such ‘arranged marriages’?
I follow your blog and have tried to understand how patriarchy is entrenched in Indian culture. I am writing you my issue and would like to get a feedback from your readers who I respect immensely.
I have been married for over 12 years. I had a typical arranged marriage. I was very clear about how I wanted my married life to be…my partner to be a friend, someone I can have fun with, and someone with whom I can be myself. When I met my now-husband, the first impression I had after talking to him was that he was a male-chauvinist. I wanted to meet him again for second round talks and said ok. We got engaged, went out for a month or so before he left to US on work. We married a year later but during our engagement period we had quite a lot of arguments. He was not happy that I was not in IT field, often questioned why my dad did not make me an engineer like my brothers. Couple of times during my engagement period I told my dad to call off the marriage which he never did. Well, eventually we married. On the day of marriage I did not have any love for him all I had was fear. I also had the hope that things will be better after marriage and I can make him happy.
Came to US on H4 visa. I did not know a lot about cooking. So had quite a few disasters in the kitchen. There was constant taunting how my parents got me married off without training me. I could not prepare the dishes that his mom cooked and he was very upset with that. I was quite shy talking to strangers and he used to make fun of me for that. I was not comfortable wearing western outfits at that time and he used to taunt me for that too how I had not dressing sense. In a nutshell, I was constantly put down for everything I did, my parents made fun of that my self-esteem diminished with passing time.
He was a consultant and travelled Monday thru Thursday. He wanted me to study instead of wasting my time. I agreed and prepared myself to do Masters which I completed successfully. Got a job which did not pay much because I was a fresher. Had two children in two years and life was going on a break neck speed with kids, work, social commitments etc. His travelling continued and I was running everything myself. Weekends he would want to catch up on sleep. Any request for help around chores always resulted in arguments.
He never liked doing anything with me from the beginning. I was an athlete and played quite a few games. He never like coming for a run or swim or walk with me. My requests were always turned down. We bought a table tennis table and I was very excited because I play TT quite well. But he never played with me. When we have friends over, he would play with them and if they are playing doubles and wanted a fourth person then I was called to fill in. The friends used to comment on my playing skills which he always made fun of in front of them.
He likes friends coming over but would never pitch in with cooking or post clean up. He would also become a guest and after they left will comment on what a poor host I was, how the dishes were only ok and always comment on my conversations with them. In fact I am quite versatile in conversing on any topic. I never have conversations with my husband because he always will try to say something negative and that shuts me down. I was constantly put down in front of friends too and was never appreciated even when asked for. His sense of humor is to make fun of people, on their short comings and would expect me to laugh at his jokes. I am quite sensitive and I do not see any humor in making fun of people. He never talks about his personal feeling to anyone even to me and would reprimand me for talking personal things to friends or family. All we talked about was mundane stuff like kids schedule, groceries, paying bills etc. I yearned for meaningful conversations and sharing personal feelings.
My children grew up and were missing having dad around during weekdays and even I was getting tired running the whole house myself and demanded that he stop travelling as much and take a local project. After quite a struggle he stopped travelling. But that did not make him take part in household chores or pitch in raising the children. It was always his needs that came first.
He always made my job seem worthless when compared to his. I did not work on climbing the career ladder because of kids and his travelling job. I was the anchor to hold things in place and did not want to take more responsibility at work that will take more time from my kids. Three years ago I landed in another job that put me in a position where I should be for the years I have been in the industry. The pay hike surprised him. The first bonus I got was close to what he made and he was so insecure because of that. In my new work place people appreciated my communication skills, my way of working and I got more accolades for my dressing sense.
All these years I never argued much with him because I looked up to him and thought that he was saying all these negative things because I was not good enough. I kept on striving to make him happy. Became a good cook, dressed better, and started paying attention to all those things he complained about. But the complaints never stopped, he always had something or the other to complain about. I looked after all his needs and I think at some point morphed into being his mother. I was just taken for granted and expected to run like a well-oiled machine. When I fell sick he would get irritated.
After I landed this new job my perspective about myself changed. I realized that I am not the problem he is the one who is unable to see anything positive in me. I started demanding more respect. That bothered him and any argument ended with him having more complaints about me how I was the wrong one.
This is not the kind of life I wanted my kids to see. He never acknowledges our anniversary nor remembers my birthday. I started telling him what I wanted from this marriage and this is not want signed up for. He always goes behind the culture curtain and says that this is how it is in Indian culture and I am getting too westernized. I wanted a trial separation a year back for him to realize how much I am holding his life together and wanted him to give me some credit. He said he will try to pitch in but was never consistent.
He always used to question me going and staying at my parents place saying I have my brothers taking care of them so why should I go spend time with them. His mom is very nice to me and I have a good relationship with her. But she also becomes a typical MIL when it comes to me going to my parents’ house. He would do anything to keep his mom happy even if that means crushing my happiness. I have argued with him multiple times on this but he always turns the table on me.
The last one year had been quite strained with me asking him to pitch in with the chores and focusing on building our relationship and he not being consistent with his trying. The last straw came when I caught him having an affair with an acquaintance. He has never been this emotional kind and I pulled along all these years with the hope that one day he will get me/understand me. But the affair broke it. It was a short lived affair of 3 weeks, no sex involved but there was hugging, kissing and long hours of phone conversations, texting and meeting for lunch and dinner. All that I wanted him to do with me he was doing with her.
He was more shocked that how did he let this happen to him rather than realize what impact this has on me. I have never cried in these 12 years of marriage. But the affair broke my heart. I cried so much. He says he never realized I loved him so much. He always used to say that romance, passion existed only in movies and not in real life and I was a strong believer of love. But this affair proved wrong when he was caught in all those emotions he always said never existed in real life. So he has it in him but just does not have it for me. He started the affair and that makes it even worse for me.
The affair is over now and the girl is out of our lives. I am unable to forgive him. I am waiting for the school year to be over before moving out. He wants me to stay and does not believe when I say I am moving out. He thinks everything will be normal if I become normal. He says I am being hard on him that I am not giving him a chance. He is so much into how the society thinks of him/perceives him and a divorce will kill that image that he has built around him.
He is willing to do all the things I have always wanted him to do. But my heart is not in it anymore. I keep thinking he is doing this so I won’t leave him but not when I wanted him to do. I keep asking him what was missing between us that made him go to her and he says there is no connection between our problem and that affair.
I know I will be ok and will be happy. I have my job and I know I can take care of myself. At least start living for myself instead of all the years I spent trying to make others happy. When I think of the kids I worry sometimes. Somedays I am clear this is over and other days I am doubting my decision. I read somewhere in your blog comments: the fear of the unknown makes people go along with known suffering…something like that.