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