Tag Archives: emotional abuse

Don’t Take the Bait

When Jim returned home from his Saturday fishing trip, his wife, Marlene, was withdrawn—cold as ice. Alas, the all too familiar silent treatment had set in. He asked Marlene if there was a problem. With her head turned away, she murmured a mere, “No.” Remaining calm and unaffected, he said, “Well, you’re not acting as if nothing’s wrong.” He then encouraged her to say more. She didn’t respond. At this point, Jim had two alternatives: either invest agonizing energy into altering her mood, or just let it play out. He chose to let it play out.

A wise choice on his part because silent treatments are best ignored. Attempts to squelch them have a way of simply reinforcing them. Silent treatments are a substitute for verbalizing. As children, indirect communication may have been the sole option for some. Perhaps they were screamed at or ignored for speaking up directly.

As a young child, Marlene may have been taken seriously only when she got quiet and emitted vibes of being annoyed or hurt. If so, she learned that there is a greater payoff for going quiet than for speaking up. Her manner, though, is self-defeating in an adult partnership of equals. How can Jim be attuned to her needs if she alienates him—if he’s left in the dark?

Before he started counseling, whenever Marlene would go silent on him, Jim’s urge to fix the situation would be overwhelming. Tormented with guilt and unrest, he would try anything—short of turning cartwheels—to appease her. It never made a difference. Instead, it only left him feeling disgusted with himself.

Now, Jim doesn’t get caught up in those antics.

He has come to realize that the solution to dealing with Marlene’s silent treatments lies in changing conditions in himself as opposed to changing external factors.

In the past, if someone was withdrawn or angry with him, Jim automatically assumed he was at fault. But Jim is no longer inclined to accept blame that doesn’t belong to him.

In our counseling sessions, I emphasized to Jim: “Don’t be managed by silent treatments. Refuse to take the bait.” Instead, I urged him to practice integrity. Silent treatments are designed to control or punish. Thus the term “punishing silences.”

Inherently, they are an insidious form of aggression. Not only do the aggressors hide their weapons, they don’t see themselves as aggressors. Intent on believing they have been wronged in some way, they view themselves as victims and therefore feel justified to punish.

Being on the receiving end of a cold shoulder can be an intensely frustrating experience. Because there’s an unwillingness to discuss the unspoken complaint, people in Jim’s position are declared guilty without knowing why and without being given the opportunity to defend themselves.

The fair and open approach entails dialogue between both parties, mutually engaged in seeking a satisfying resolution.

Jim made such an attempt soon after returning from his Saturday fishing trip. In a forthright manner he invited open dialogue, giving Marlene ample opportunity to express what was on her mind. He wasn’t nasty about it, nor did he come off like a puppy deserving of a good whipping. He merely attempted to address an obvious problem.

Jim went as far with it as he could—the rest was up to her. Her manner exuded alienation, leaving him no healthy alternative to backing off. In so doing, the responsibility for Marlene’s mood was appropriately placed squarely in her lap.

Jim and Marlene went about their weekend barely speaking a word. The atmosphere was thick with silence—and tension. By Sunday evening the silence broke.

Apologizing for her behavior, Marlene explained what her problem was. She was disappointed when he chose to go fishing because she had been anticipating a romantic weekend—time with just the two of them. Ironically, since Marlene failed to be up front about her desires and expectations she sabotaged the entire weekend with her sulking. Her apology was a victory for integrity.

Had Jim manifested his former pattern of absorbing blame and engaging in feverish attempts to appease his wife, a different outcome could be anticipated. More than likely, the silence would have culminated with Jim groveling apologetically and Marlene enshrined in her self-righteousness.

Instead of surrendering to guilt, though, Jim displayed strength and poise, thus uplifting the dynamic between them. Quite possibly, Jim’s demonstration of unyielding integrity stimulated some healthy soul-searching on Marlene’s part.

Her use of silent treatments may become a relic from her past. Now, at least, Jim is breathing new life into the pattern of their relating. By changing his behavior, he’s stimulating Marlene to follow suit.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Feed the Lightness

 

“The evil of our time is the loss of consciousness of evil.” 

~Krishnamurti

A Wrinkle in Time, a recently released movie based on the book by Madeleine L’Engle, is a magical story about good winning over evil.  I found the movie to be a breath of fresh air, providing an element of hope at a time when the world around us seems to be darkening.  The main character, a young girl named Meg, stood her ground on multiple occasions. She wasn’t one to surrender her convictions or her sense of truth. Interestingly, that character asset proved to be the crucial factor in conquering evil in the story.

We need everybody to be in touch with their “Megness” in this day and age.

Silence and a shuttered soul are the enemy.

It takes courage to take the high road by opposing something that’s just out and out wrong! The students—turned activists for gun control—from Parkland, Florida are recent examples. Rather than appease the status quo, they’ve chosen to take it on.

How many times—in our day-to-day lives—are we faced with the choice of siding with darkness or taking a stand against it? How about the times we observe insults, disrespect, abuse and discrimination? Do we cozy up to silence at those times?

Cowardice allows the darkness to expand.

We’ve all found ourselves in a group of people engaged in a bashfest. Some unfortunate individual is being maligned or trashed behind their back.

What to do?

Join in to feel a part of things? Or stand there, silently uncomfortable? Either choice makes our soul uneasy. It feels like we’re participating in a betrayal of sorts. And we are. It’s a betrayal of the person being targeted and a betrayal of ourselves at some deeper level.

Not long ago a friend of mine, Tina, found herself in one of those situations. The conversation started out as idle chit-chat, but then regressed to badmouthing other people. “It didn’t feel good,” she said, “but I didn’t know what to do.”

The model for “what to do” arrived in the form of a woman who happened upon the scene. The first words out of her mouth were:

“Enough feeding the darkness. What are you doing to feed the lightness?”

That brave woman didn’t wait for an answer to her question. Without a moment’s hesitation, she took charge of the conversation, redirecting it to a positive topic. “It was amazing,” Tina said. “The energy shifted immediately.”

Simply put, the atmosphere morphed because one person decided to feed the lightness. I don’t know her name but I think I’ll call her “Meg.”

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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Why Didn’t they Put Up a Fight?

 

Larry Nassar sexually assaulted dozens of young female gymnasts under the guise of medical treatment. I’ve read so many critical comments directed at these young women that I felt compelled to respond and offer another perspective.

Why didn’t they object? Why didn’t they just push him away while shouting, “No!”?

At least two very substantive reasons come immediately to mind.

First of all, girls are conditioned to be non-aggressive and to fall in place just below men. This can be easily observed in the youngest of females all the way up through adult women of every age and in every station of life.

Second, Nassar’s position as a doctor, along with their trust in him, won their obedience. From the onset, those girls were indoctrinated with the idea that their doctors and coaches were the best in their field and fully vested in helping them succeed. Their parents believed that . . . everybody believed that. So any discomfort or pain they felt while receiving Nassar’s “treatment”—physically and psychologically—was immediately dismissed. Their distress was in direct conflict with their programmed brains.

If you’re a woman, I’m sure you can think of a time in the not so distant past when your behavior was directly impacted by one of these factors. You may tolerate more aggressive behavior from your male boss than you would if he were female. You may bite your tongue when your doctor dismisses your concerns. Consider the wage differential between males and females working in equivalent positions.

And of course self-diminishing programming isn’t limited to the female population.

Over the years, I’ve counseled both women and men who were sexually abused as children. In every case they felt powerless. Their perpetrators were older, bigger and often in a position of authority. To a child, a babysitter qualifies. Camp counselors, parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins and pastors qualify as well.

When I’ve asked my clients why they didn’t resist, I get similar answers, such as:

“I was afraid of what he/she might do.”

“I didn’t think I had that option.”

It’s important to recall what it was like being a child among giants. One does not rile a giant—it isn’t safe. Vulnerability squelches any boldness we might have. Our survival instincts instruct us to just go along.

Criticism and judgment is not what the victims of perpetrators need. They need to be given the respect of being understood. They need caring regard for what they went through, for not putting up a fight and for keeping it a secret.

They need empathy.

Such a response would appear impossible for those who never experienced sexual abuse. But it isn’t. Have you ever been exploited, tricked, overpowered or violated? If so, you understand. Did anyone ever betray your trust? If so, you understand. Were you ever beaten by a parent and too embarrassed to talk about it at school? If so, you understand.

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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Courage to Feel Deeply

 

In some households, tears are taboo.

Jill is one of six children. An adult now, she recalls her father being a harsh disciplinarian “who frequently beat us.” When the beatings produced wails and tears, he shamed and belittled them, demanding that they stop. Having to endure horrid, abusive treatment was bad enough, but then they were forbidden and chastised for expressing the very pain his abusive hand produced.

Sadly, Jill and her siblings were shamed for something that is as natural as breathing—shedding tears. Emotional repression—being restricted from crying—isn’t all that unusual. Children are frequently told things like: “Stop being a baby,” “Get over it,” “Tough it out.”

The effects of having our emotions hushed are far-reaching. For example, when parents disapprove of their children’s tears or sad feelings, it’s easy for the children to assume that their emotions are wrong. Even worse, children can form a negative opinion about themselves. They can begin to believe that something is bad or unacceptable about them at their very core. Why is that? Because our emotions are part of who we are. We quite naturally conclude:

“If my emotions aren’t acceptable, then neither am I.”

This early programming has a way of clinging to us into our adult years. And so today, Jill has difficulty shedding tears. The shaming and belittling continues, but now it takes place in her own head.

Jill is not alone. When Ken was a child and cried, his mother would say, “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself!” Instead of receiving comfort, he was criticized.

Neither Jill nor Ken were consoled for the emotional pain they suffered. As children, it wasn’t okay to talk about their pain. In fact, it wasn’t okay to have pain. The irony is that we feel emotion of some kind every second of every day.

Children who conclude that their feelings are not acceptable grow up to be adults who are unfamiliar with their own emotions, and therefore ill-equipped to handle them or the emotions of others.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, says people who weren’t raised to know, appreciate, and acknowledge their own emotions have a hard time reading and accepting emotions in others. Consequently, he points out, they lack the ability to respond with foresight and sensitivity. This deficiency frequently results in bungled relationships, whether in the home, the workplace, or among various social acquaintances.

Buried or unexpressed pain doesn’t go anywhere. It just sits there and festers, producing a silent poison that attacks our joy and well-being. Many symptoms of stifled emotions include depression, sleeping difficulties, a constant knot in the stomach, or sudden angry outbursts.

Crying is nature’s technique for nurturing internal wounds and disappointments, both past and present.

Tears aid in the healing process, allowing us to move on. And far from indicating weakness, tears are a sign of maturity and strength. Think about it:

It takes toughness and courage to feel deeply, to hurt deeply, to grieve deeply. Only the courageous among us dare to do that. Tears are for the very gutsy, not the fainthearted.

So I asked Ken, “Is feeling sorry for yourself really all that bad? Who started that nasty rumor anyway?”

Sometimes compassion is forthcoming only from ourselves. And who’s better suited for the job? Who’s more understanding of our distresses? I would much rather see tears than self-belittling and unforgiveness toward oneself.

Here’s the advice I gave Jill:  “Overcome the mark your dad left on your spirit by treating yourself better than he treated you. Cry as often as possible. It’s the loving thing to do for yourself!”

Good advice for all of us. 🙂

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality..

(c) Salee Reese 2018

 

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My Girlfriend Is a Bully

Avoid people who don’t care what they do to you.

Picture a large, ugly, brutish ogre who frequently pummels people over the head with a club. More than likely, he’ll be catered to because doing so will make things a trillion times more pleasant than the alternative. Standing up to him will have the same effect as throwing gasoline on a roaring fire. Better to shrink down and become docile than incur greater fury.

Not all bullies look like ogres. Some are pretty. Alan’s girlfriend, Vicky, fits that description, and yes, her hot-headed tirades trigger an impulse to appease.

“I have to watch what I say around her,” he said. “She’s quick to take offense.”

So Alan treads cautiously, taking care not to ripple the pond.

This inclination to avoid making waves is exactly where bullies get their power. Defusing that power involves overriding our built-in response to fear—our natural impulse to steer clear of trouble.

The automatic flight or fight response, writes Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D., author of Emotional Vampires, was necessary for our primitive ancestors. “Without it, they wouldn’t have lived long enough to become our ancestors,” he said. To assure survival, the rules were plain and simple: “If the danger is smaller than you, kill it and eat it. If it’s bigger, run away before it eats you.”

According to Bernstein, bullies take full advantage of this instinctual fear response. So it’s understandable why bullies would use intimidation, aggression and anger as tools to gain control over others. It works!

Bernstein points out that “When regular people get angry they distrust their own feelings and hold themselves back.” But, he continues, this isn’t true of bullies. They “lean into their anger,” using it to their utmost advantage.

Vicky believes it’s high time Alan marries her, so she’s applying pressure. Her bullying tactics aren’t always thunderous. Sometimes she tones down the anger and uses sarcasm—a subtler form of aggression. She’s also been using guilt-inducing digs. So the question weighing heavily on Alan’s mind is whether he should marry her or run away before she devours him.

In our counseling session I tried to give Alan some things to chew on.

“Do you really want to be in a relationship where you have to shrink down in order to make it work? Is ducking and placating a life you want?”

Alan shook his head. “That’s not living,” he said. “She would have to change.”

I continued, “The next question is, will she? Is she likely to?”

The odds are against it because Vicky rarely takes a good, hard look at herself in the mirror. Instead, she’s a classic blamer, pointing an accusing finger.

How can we be self-corrective if we’re not self-reflective?

If Vicky were to turn her life into a play, the cast of characters would consist of villains and she would be the victim. In her mind’s eye, she’s constantly being wronged. Consequently, she feels justified to lash out, sometimes unmercifully.

Typically, such “victims” are blind to the wounds they inflict on others. In fact, if those wounds are brought to their attention, they’re likely to respond by saying: “But look at what you did to me,” or “How do you think I felt?” So instead of heart-felt compassion, the victim becomes defensive—feeling wronged one more time.

Alan has a kind heart. Casting him as a villain is not only erroneous, it’s an insult to his innate goodness.

Defeating bullies, Bernstein points out, takes place in the arena of our own mind.

For Alan, this means he must first become convinced of his basic goodness and that he doesn’t deserve Vicky’s degrading treatment. Having mastered that, he will naturally stand up against her demeaning assaults. He won’t shrink, he won’t skirt trouble—he’ll defend his integrity head-on.

When Alan changes his dance step, Vicky will invariably be challenged to do the same. If she doesn’t, he’ll be faced with a choice, and hopefully he’ll make the right one.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Nope … the Ring Won’t Change Him

 

Steer clear of people who fail to take an honest look at themselves.

Do you really want to be with a person who can’t be reasoned with, who doesn’t take an honest look in the mirror, and who flies into a rage at the mere drop of a hat?

That was the question I asked Brenna, a client contemplating marriage to a man who matches this description. She’s also fairly certain he has a drinking problem. Combine alcohol with his other troublesome traits and we have a person who’s impossible to live with—at least peacefully.

“If you choose to marry this man,” I warned, “you’re in for a difficult ride.”

I explained that the overuse of alcohol impedes a person’s ability to reason, self-manage and grow. Where, then, does self-reflection, self-restraint and accountability come from?

“Are you going to take on that task for him?” I asked.

Brenna does that now—extensively.

“The other day he tripped and blamed the dog for being in the way,” she said. “When I heard him shouting at the dog, I told him he shouldn’t take his frustrations out on an innocent animal.”

His angry outbursts are frequent and they’re usually aimed at her. She gave several examples and pointed out that “he thinks he’s totally justified, and never apologizes.”

“So how do you feel around this guy?” I asked.

“I’m always on edge—nervous about setting him off.”

“Do you really want to live that way?” I asked.

Brenna thinks that by marrying him, he’ll change.

“I feel I should give him a chance,” she said. “After all, everyone has imperfections.”

“This doesn’t fall into the same category as facial warts or accepting a husband’s failure to put the toilet seat down,” I said. “This is about someone being mean to you day in and day out.”

“But he could change,” she said.

“Brenna,” I said, “why would someone be motivated to change if they’re given the reward—in this case, marriage—before they change?”

“… I don’t have an answer for that one,” she said.

Brenna needs a strong dose of reality: People don’t change unless they elect to do so. Getting married won’t magically rectify a preexisting condition.

Valerie, another client, is a good case in point.

Like Brenna, she thought her boyfriend would change for the better after they tied the knot. She thought having a ring on her finger would end his crazed jealously.

But she was in for a rude awakening.

“One day, I was headed out the door to go grocery shopping,” she recalled. “What I had on—how I was dressed—was the farthest thing from my mind. But my husband noticed, and he wasn’t pleased. He was sure that I was meeting someone, so he followed me without my knowledge.”

It wasn’t until she filled her grocery cart that he appeared out of nowhere.

“There he stood glaring at me,” she said. “In front of everybody, he grabbed me and dragged me out to his car. When we got home, he cut up all my clothes and threw them out the window. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone.

“The next day he said he was sorry and swore he would never do it again,” she said. “I bet I heard that same story a hundred times! He would change for a short time, but then it just got worse.”

Periods of remorse don’t qualify as real change, not as long as the bad behavior returns and continues.

Valerie eventually left her husband.

“I finally woke up and realized he was sick,” she said. “It wasn’t me.”

Sometimes abusive relationships involve more extreme violence.

One client, Holly, told me how her boyfriend became enraged and struck her in the head. A few days later, he called—irritated. “I haven’t heard from you!” he accused.

“Why should I?” she said, “You hit me!”

His recollection about that evening was fuzzy—he had been drinking. But he did recall hitting her.

“There must have been something you did to provoke it,” he countered, immediately deflecting the blame to her.

If Holly’s smart, she’ll get out now. If she chooses to endure it, she can expect more of the same. Her boyfriend shows no motivation to take stock of himself or accept blame. He hit her, but wants to blame her for it.

People are reluctant to end bad relationships, even abusive ones, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because the other person wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t take it well, or he may change someday.

The raw truth is, unless partners display genuine insight into themselves, and show real improvement over their toxic behaviors, they’re not likely to change.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Latest Wow: Goodbye to Insane Guilt

I remember when Vanessa wowed me with this one:

“I’ve spent 30 years hating myself, and I’m tired of it. I need to learn how to love myself.”

Self-loathing wasn’t something Vanessa was born with.  It was learned.

When we were babies, we had no innate sense of disgust with ourselves. If our rattle fell to the ground, we didn’t berate or despise ourselves. We didn’t suffer shame over it—shame isn’t even a reality to babies. So the incident didn’t become an indictment against our character and we weren’t left with the sense of being a bad baby . . . or bad person.

Clearly, we have a lot to learn from babies! 

Yet as adults, many of us lug around a truck-load of accumulated guilt and shame—the irrational kind. It’s overkill. Yes, self-scrutiny can be a good thing, and sometimes guilt is warranted, like the guilt for being nasty to a store clerk, or breaking something we borrowed. But we shouldn’t agonize over those things.

Guilt’s function is to awaken us so that we do some healthy soul-searching, correct our behavior and make amends. But guilt shouldn’t be a weapon we use against ourselves.

When I began working with Vanessa, shaming herself was a constant occurrence. The house was never clean enough, she didn’t exercise or diet enough, she wasn’t a good enough wife, and she didn’t give Carson—her baby—enough of her time.

To make matters worse, her “internal shamer” followed her wherever she went. After hanging out with friends, heckling thoughts like,  Maybe I wasn’t nice enough, or Maybe I talked too much, would torment her for hours.

Vanessa was convinced she was bad to the core. But I believed otherwise. In one of our sessions, she showed me a photo she had taken of Carson gazing at her with loving, happy eyes. That told me volumes. I couldn’t resist commenting, “Well, you’re certainly doing something right!”

Bad to the core? Hmmm. Vanessa’s negative self-appraisal just wasn’t adding up. She was just too warm-hearted, too caring, too sensitive to be a member of that club. She clearly didn’t meet the criteria.

So where did the self-loathing and irrational guilt originate? Her childhood. A steady diet of severe punishments, along with a constant barrage of critical and condemning messages took a toll. Feeling guilty and bad about herself became her normal.

In therapy, Vanessa came to see that she had been needlessly suffering all those years due to a burdensome, oppressive mental habit.

That realization is the crucial first step to freedom!

Motivation is another important factor, and Vanessa had plenty of that because of Carson. Her strong desire to raise him to feel good about himself was what nudged her into therapy in the first place.

The crux of Vanessa’s problem was her conditioning—and buying into it.  She bought into a lie. The good news: if she could buy into a lie, she could buy into the truth.

The truth was found by removing the obstacles that blocked her from loving herself and by disbelieving the internal shamer.

Vanessa got there and in the process she realized that Carson’s perception of her was the simple, beautiful truth!

Love and irrational guilt cannot coexist. One cancels out the other. When we’re in a space of loving ourselves, such guilt cannot get a foothold.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2017 Salee Reese

 

 

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