I’m sure it comes as no surprise that, as a trauma survivor with chronic anxiety who spent years learning the delicate art of people-pleasing to survive an abusive environment, I sometimes have difficulty determining what my own wants are for a situation.
I’m much better at it than I used to be. I’ve grown a lot more assertive over the years, I’ve grown a lot more comfortable acknowledging to myself what my own needs are instead of suppressing them, and I’ve also become much better at outspokenly telling the people around me when something bothers me, when something needs to change, or when I want something.
But sometimes I allow a situation to continue that shouldn’t, and after the fact I always ask myself “why?”. After all, I’ve been actively working on my healing with friends, mentors and with my therapist. I’ve drastically improved when it comes to discerning my own needs and most of the time I’m not afraid to say what they are. So why does this ability still fail me sometimes?
I’m thinking of one specific situation which I allowed to go on far longer than it should have: namely, maintaining a relationship with my abusive dad instead of cutting him off.
It’s difficult to cut people off sometimes, even we consciously realize that they’re bad for us. We might have an ingrained tendency to look out for other people’s wellbeing, even when their presence is toxic for us.
We might be religiously indoctrinated to consistently forgive people and give them another chance as the “Christ-like” thing to do, despite the fact that we keep getting hurt over and over again. We might be empaths – feeling everything that the other person feels, and terrified of making them feel bad as a result of our leaving.
We might be hopeful about a person’s potential to change for the better, and as such feel guilty about leaving because of the idea that it might hinder the other person’s growth.
In my case, I think I stayed in a relationship with my dad for so long (albeit a relationship with ever-increasing and ever more drastic boundaries) because of some mixture of everything I just mentioned. His behavior was getting better.
He genuinely cared about family visits and about putting on a kind face. He had even been getting better about his treatment of my mom. His behavior still irritated me and I dreaded telling him about anything actually going on in my life, with the exception of work. But he seemed to be improving as a person, and as such, the possibility of an actually healthy relationship was very real.
The last time I saw him was almost a week ago. I had wondered about his own growth and whether it might not be risky after all to start opening up to him.
Perhaps not about everything all at once, but at least starting by gently telling him at least some of the fundamental truths of my person that he wasn’t privy to.
In that moment, I wondered what the first truth might be that I would tell him. Should I tell him I’m not Catholic anymore – that I haven’t believed since I was 17? He had just been talking, during that visit, about the fact that he and my mother had at first gotten married in secret without her parents’ knowledge. Should I tell him about my own romantic life, of which he knows nothing? About my partner of two years, of whom he has no clue?
I never did open up to him. I didn’t realize it at that moment, but in a mere thirty minutes I would make the decision to cut him off for good.
Toward the end of the visit there was a fight. He became angry and defensive, despite everyone else in the room simply being calmly inquisitive. The tension in the room became thick as mud in the course of ten seconds, and then he was standing, yelling, pointing fingers in people’s faces. I hadn’t seen a tantrum like this from him in years.
As a child, an older teenager, and even a mere few years I go, I would have been paralyzed. But this time I wasn’t. I simply acted without even really thinking about it: I told him I was uncomfortable, and that I was going to leave. And then I gathered my things and left.
The fight has continued over text and still needs a resolution. But in some ways I’m glad it happened, because it illuminated certain things for me. As much as my dad has grown, he still has tendencies toward aggression that make a relationship impossible. He still has tendencies toward dishonesty that make trusting him impossible. He still has tendencies toward emotional and psychological hostility that make vulnerability with him impossible.
It was the realization of those last two points especially that made me realize, the night that the fight happened, that I can’t continue my polite charade with him even when the tensions eventually die down.
A relationship cannot exist without trust and without the ability to become vulnerable with the other person. As long as I continue a relationship in which I can’t trust the other person and in which becoming vulnerable with them will result in my hurt, I’m disregarding my own needs and living in a state of denial about what’s best for myself.
At some point in the near future, I’ll have to have a final conversation over text in which I outline why my dad’s behavior was inappropriate and resulted in driving a (perhaps permanent) wedge between us.
But the fact that I’m not panicking over it is an encouraging sign. I feel peaceful about this decision. And I know that I can now make room in my life for much healthier connections without stressing about feeding this toxic one that took so much from me and gave so little in return.
As unpleasant as the situation has been, it’s revealed to me how far I’ve come in my own journey of healing. I can calmly remove myself from a situation of aggression. I was able to state my discomfort in front of the person who abused me. I was able to reach out to others about the situation and receive advice from them. And I can now peacefully make the decision to cut a toxic thread from my life.
There’s still work to be done, but for now I can take pride in what I’ve accomplished.
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