Tag Archives: Frederick Douglass

Husband and Doormat

I-am-not-a-doormat - touched up

The problem with walking on eggshells is that it imprisons you, and nothing gets better.

That was my response to Naomi in our counseling session. She habitually succumbs to her hot-tempered husband.

“I’m careful about everything I say because, well, he gets ugly if I tell him what he doesn’t want to hear,” she said.

He routinely undermines her self-worth with hurtful, sarcastic remarks. But instead of objecting, Naomi immediately self-censors how she feels.

There’s a price to muzzling ourselves: a restricted voice—unspoken words held captive in the throat—is a form of confinement. If we can’t talk freely, we aren’t free.

Frederick Douglass, the renowned abolitionist, would agree. In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he equates freedom with the ability to articulate grievances. Our founding fathers understood that basic truth when they wrote the constitution.

“When did you become a slave to his moods?” I asked. “And why is degrading treatment okay with you?”

Naomi lowered her head …. and after some tears and lots of sighs, she opened up about the many years of putting up with his abusiveness.

A pattern, though, took root way before Naomi met her husband—when she was a small child. Her one sibling—a sister—kept the household in constant turmoil with her explosive outbursts. Naomi was frequently the target of her sister’s rage and hostility.

“My parents catered to my sister in order to keep things peaceful,” she said.

And they coached Naomi to do the same. When her sister was offensive toward Naomi, instead of being supportive by prompting her to stand up for herself, they hushed her.

“They would tell me to not make waves,” she said.

In fact, Naomi was reprimanded if she fought back or defended herself. Anger wasn’t allowed, even when it was unquestionably justified.

“I was supposed to be understanding,” she said.

Clearly, Naomi and her sister weren’t held to the same standards of conduct and selflessness.

This sent a distinct message to Naomi: the difficult people—those hard to live with—are to be excused.

In this seedbed of her early formation, Naomi naturally concluded that her feelings should always take a back seat, and that she’s expected to quietly endure harsh treatment.

This early programming set the stage for the dynamics in her current relationship. In effect, Naomi married her sister. And now her parents reside inside her head, instructing her to “not make waves” and to tolerate her raging and demeaning husband while ignoring her emotional wounds. A clear-eyed, critical stance toward her husband’s behavior leaves Naomi feeling guilty, causing her to second-guess whether her feelings and observations are accurate, acceptable or even normal. My work with Naomi has included helping her question her programming instead of herself.

“What did your parents need to do differently?” I asked.

“I should have been allowed to assert myself with my sister,” she responded. “They should have let me fight her, stand my ground and say how angry she made me feel. Instead, everything was suppressed. I was never able to speak up to verbal abuse.”

Since her feelings weren’t validated as a child, Naomi has to learn how to do that for herself as an adult. Trusting her emotions is an important hurdle. She is learning just how important it is to be able to honestly assess how others treat her, and how to do it without feeling guilty. Sometimes, subjecting another person to critical analysis is absolutely called for—and necessary for both parties.

I asked her, “Now, what does your husband need from you?”

She seemed surprised by the question. “He needs . . . he really needs me to be myself. He needs me to be honest with him, or he’ll treat me like this until the end of time and we’ll have no chance of really being together. We’ll be ‘husband and doormat’ until we’re old and gray . . . .”

A few sessions later, Naomi told me how she had successfully stood up to her husband after he made a rude comment. She told him she didn’t deserve being talked to that way. And as one could easily predict, he flared up. She, on the other hand, felt bad about upsetting him.

In so many words I said this to Naomi:

He’s upset because you’ve given up your doormat status. Remember, he married a doormat. He didn’t opt for a partner who stood up for herself. So understandably, he’s not in a jubilant mood upon running headlong into your integrity. He’s going to fight back at first, hoping to return things to how they were. Consider his fury a clear sign that you’re evolving.

She smiled, and I could see the relief on her face. Clearly, a new day is coming for Naomi! 🙂

Hopefully, Naomi’s husband follows suit and does some evolving himself. If not, she probably won’t stick around. That’s because once we perceive things through clear eyes, and once we become our own advocate, it’s impossible to go back to tolerating the status quo.

Something to keep in mind:

Don’t automatically assume when someone’s angry at you that you’ve done something wrong. Maybe, just maybe, you did something right.

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2015

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Filed under Couples, General Interest, Get Free, Parenting, Random Acts of Courage

Life’s Hidden Agenda

zen proverb cropped

The soul wants growth and that doesn’t translate into a smooth ride.

I think life is akin to climbing into a canoe and paddling down a stream that’s rife with challenges and uncertainties. Yes, it’s risky and stress-provoking—to say the least. But if we hang in there, we get really good at navigating obstacles. Call it “personal evolution.”

Frederick Douglass, the slave who became a highly admired writer, said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

One of the first obstacles we encounter in life entails our physical body—it’s limitations. As babies, we stretch to reach a brightly colored toy but our body won’t budge. We haven’t mastered crawling yet.  And when we do, we move on to tackle walking.

But what if someone rescued us from that particular struggle and just carried us everywhere? Would that person be doing us a favor? Not at all. Our muscles would remain soft and our potentials would come to an abrupt halt. Not only that, life would become rather beige.

It’s unlikely that someone would actually rescue us in such an extreme way, but rescuing in the form of overindulgence happens everyday. Click here to read a column I wrote on the subject and how it impacts us no matter what age we are.

Here’s an excerpt:

Overindulgence stifles personal courage. Consequently, adults who were overindulged as children tend to avoid taking personal risks. Even if their current life circumstances are miserable, they’re too mortified and paralyzed by fearfulness, and they feel too incapable of trying out different possibilities or options.

So despite our irritations with life’s bothersome problems, they benefit us. I like comparing it to garbage and manure. Both are nasty but they do fertilize our gardens and make things grow.

We need to be asking ourselves: Who are the people who possess wisdom, courage, stamina, flexibility and an understanding heart? We all know the answer. It’s those who have encountered and tackled countless obstacles. They’ve suffered losses and disappointments, endured mistreatment, experienced frustration, abandonment and betrayal.

Eckhart Tolle, author of A New Earth, expressed it well: “The challenges of our life situations draw out that which is deeper in us.”

So let’s grab our paddles and go out a bit deeper, shall we? 🙂

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Filed under Contemplations, General Interest, Get Free, Parenting

Life’s a Struggle, then We Live

plant breaking through

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

This was said by Frederick Douglass, former slave, social reformer, and author.

Frederick fought obstacles and won, and so did Diana Nyad, who at age 64 became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida.  It took 53 straight hours with no breaks and no sleep. To say it taxed all of her inner resources is putting it mildly. Her haggard appearance after the ordeal attests to that. So does her story of struggle and severe challenges.

In an interview with Oprah, she explains that swimming to her “is never about swimming.” It’s about “never giving up, finding your grit, your will, and a way through your obstacles.” Click here to watch a clip from the interview.

Without struggle, we grow sissified and develop a flabby will. Yes, it’s a predictable and comfortable existence, but not a very satisfying one. Life stands still and we’re constantly besieged with chronic boredom. Doctors prescribe pills for that. The pills serve as a welcome numbing agent. In essence, they keep us numbed to the fact that we’ve deserted ourselves.

The opposite of self-desertion is a relentless, unapologetic determination to follow our deepest yearnings, to push through limits and take action—whatever that means to each of us. In some quiet place inside, we know exactly what that is.

For Diana Nyad, it was swimming one hell of a long distance! For Frederick Douglass, it was living from a place of absolute freedom.

Diana Nyad. Frederick Douglass.  I see no difference.

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Filed under Contemplations, General Interest, Get Free