Shackles


Greetings gentle readers. I have returned safely from a wonderful, refreshing vacation, but re-entry was a bit bumpy. 🙂 We brought back a stomach virus, to which I added some asthma and sinus problems, so I’m sloooooowwwwly getting back into a normal rhythm. It was really nice to be away, but it’s also really nice to be back. 🙂

I wanted to share with you an analogy about healing that I thought many people might find helpful (h/t to Blackbird as it was during a discussion with her on psychcafe that I first came up with this one :)). When I first started seeing BN, the prism through which I saw myself was one of pathology. That I had been injured and damaged by the abuse and I needed to be “fixed.” One of the greatest gifts that BN has given me (which is saying a lot as the list is quite long) was instead seeing my struggles as development gone awry. That there was nothing fundamentally “broken” or “wrong” about me. I just had not gotten what I needed or been taught what I needed to know. That anyone who had endured what I did would have similar struggles with similar issues; my reactions were reasonable, it was the circumstances that produced them that were unreasonable.

Now telling a victim of abuse that they are not damaged can be something that feels accusatory. As in “there’s nothing wrong with you, so why don’t you just stop whining and get on with things?” So we need to acknowledge that there is fallout from what we experienced that needs to be dealt with. On the other hand, most abuse victims carry a sense of being fundamentally flawed (as in beyond repair or the hope of actually possessing any worth) so re-enforcing that belief by telling them they are “sick” can make it feel like they face the impossible task of changing who they are in the most basic sense, rather than making changes in their behavior.

We often think of ourselves as someone who doesn’t have arms when everyone else had them and how difficult that makes  things. But I think the truth is closer to being people who had invisible shackles placed on their wrists as soon as they were born which made it impossible to use their arms. I know it’s a small distinction but here’s the difference. A person without arms is fundamentally deformed, markedly different from anyone. There is something intrinsically wrong with them so to speak. We want this recognized because we want someone to understand just how difficult things really are for us. (May I interject right here, that I do believe it is very difficult for us, not because we are lazy, dishonest, damaged or anything like that, but that we have experienced deprivations that have literally made it harder for us to function. I don’t want to come across as expressing ANY condemnation, because I think you’re all worthwhile just as you are and face real challenges that people without our experiences do not.)

But if you’re really a person whose arms have been shackled their whole life with invisible chains, then you face the same problems as a person with no arms.  BUT your problem isn’t visible to anyone else, so to an outside observer, unaware of the facts,  it makes no sense that you’re struggling. However, it also means that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with you; you are not deformed. You are having normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. If you put invisible shackles on any human being, they would be facing the same types of problems. Maybe not exactly the same ones you are, as they might have different strengths and compensate in a different way for the non-use of their arms, but they would also face the horrible uphill struggle to survive without arms.

So the purpose of therapy is to unlock those shackles and allow you to develop as someone who has always had two good arms but was never taught to or allowed to use them. You’ll never quite react as well as someone who could always use their arms. When things get hard and you react automatically, you may act like the shackles are still there. They were invisible after all, so it’s easy to forget you don’t wear them anymore, and you have a lot of ingrained reflexes from when you wore them. But then you remember they’re gone and suddenly you have so many more options because you are learning to recognize that those impediments have been removed and that you have two healthy arms, capable of everything arms were intended for.  You just need to remember that the shackles are gone.

So both understandings are helpful because with either scenario, your pain and struggle can be heard (which is vitally important) but when you’re missing your arms, there’s no hope to change it. You can’t grow new arms.  When you’re wearing shackles, they can be removed, and you can go back and develop the skills with your arms you should have been taught. With shackles you will have hope of healing.  So next time it feels impossible to heal,  remind yourself, I have arms, I just need to take off these shackles.

  1. Jen
    June 14, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Oh AG, the timing of this entry is incredible. Yes, the prism of pathology — that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. What is wrong with me? Let’s fix it — dammit! Do something! This entry, coupled with some other well-timed insights, is finally helping me to “get it.” I can have more grace and understanding toward myself. I DO have arms, legs, all of it — the process is to restore them to their intended use. Wow, wow, wow. Thanks for helping this process along even more.

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    • June 14, 2012 at 4:21 pm

      Jen,
      I’m glad that this proved so helpful. I know that this understanding was crucial to the healing I did with BN. Sometimes I think the harder half of healing is believing that you can. BN’s unwavering belief in my ability to heal and his understanding of what was actually happening with me was what allowed me to see the possibilities. I’m so glad this resonated with you; thanks for taking the time to say so.

      AG

      Like

  2. Jenny
    June 14, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Thank you for this, AG. I’ve been struggling so much, especially with the idea that I’m broken. My T is awesome and consistently reassures me that I am not, but the way you put it really brought it home. My abuse was 40 years ago, so I’ve had a long time to feel unfixable, but I do have hope that I can heal and live a better life.

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    • June 14, 2012 at 5:40 pm

      So glad it helped Jenny. My abuse happened over 45 years ago, it’s never to late to heal and begin to live a fuller life. I’m glad that you have an awesome T, that relationship is so important to healing. You’ll get there (just a lot slower than you’d like if you’re anything like me. :))

      Like

  3. marleym6
    June 15, 2012 at 8:25 am

    Wow! So powerful for me…right now. Especially in my journey to trust myself. A big thanks!

    Like

    • June 15, 2012 at 10:20 am

      Marley,
      I seemed to have good timing with this one (a rarity! :)) So glad you found it helpful, thanks for taking time to say so. I hadn’t really thought of this from the angle of trusting one’s self but that’s exactly it. We can trust who we are, as we are. We just need to learn. Thanks for the insight.

      Like

  4. HeartandSoul
    June 16, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Perfect timing, AG! T and I were discussing this exact subject last session. I will never forget his reaction when I told him I felt so broken and no one could ever fix me… He smiled the sweetest smile and told me I was not broken in any way, I did not need to be fixed, but he could help me “recalibrate” myself and my responses to people and events. It’s the first time I’ve felt that might be true. It’s so hard to get past that perception of yourself, though. I just keep hanging onto those words.
    Thanks for this topic, right on time!
    Heart and Soul

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    • June 16, 2012 at 1:12 pm

      HeartandSoul,
      I really like your T. 🙂 I think “recalibrate” is an awesome term which really conveys what is necessary. And it is really hard to get past that perception, but just keep listening, no matter how many times you have to hear it, until you can believe it.

      Like

  5. June 19, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    I’ve been meaning to come back to this post for days just to tell you that the phrase “fundamentally flawed” was something I used to frequently say to T when describing myself, starting with my very first session with her. It’s so odd to look back at those times and see how much sense it all makes now.

    Thanks for another wonderful post, AG.

    Like

    • June 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm

      Kashley,
      I’m sorry that the phrase resonated with you, but totally understand why it did. It’s probably one of the most insidious (and wrong!) beliefs instilled by abuse; our feeling of complete worthlessness and ruin. I hope you’re not saying it as often now as I am completely sure you are not fundamentally flawed. Thanks for commenting, you’re really an encouragement to me.

      Like

  6. Starrynights
    June 28, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    I love this whole post, but especially this line:
    “When things get hard and you react automatically, you may act like the shackles are still there.”

    Sooo true!! I think the concept of invisible shackles was dead-on. How often are we tempted to judge someone because they SEEM fine?? Emotional scars run deep, so deep.

    Thanks, AG, for yet another post that facilitates healing. So thankful for your willingness to share what you’ve endured as well as what you’ve learned.

    Hugs,
    Starry

    Like

    • June 30, 2012 at 10:19 am

      Starry,
      So glad you liked it, I am particularly proud of this one, since I actually made it up. 🙂 I’m so glad it resonated with you. I so appreciate all your feedback, it’s a real encouragement to me.

      AG

      Like

  7. N123
    September 26, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    And sometimes you may even have moments that you discover an advantage having had learned to do some things with your feet.

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  8. September 26, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    N123,
    Welcome to my blog and thanks for commenting! I LOVED your comment, exactly the attitude to have in healing, that we will develop strengths we would not otherwise have had. Thank you for that. ~AG

    Like

  9. MAC
    July 27, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    Hi, AG. I love this post. I really, really identify with it. It’s something I am just recently starting to come to terms with – the idea that I’m not “broken” or “flawed” (except in the sense that all human beings are imperfect) and in need of fixing. It is so hard to let go of. I have to admit that sometimes the idea of being broken feels hopeful because it suggests that there actually is a fix, and that if I just try hard enough I can be un-broken, except that I’ve never been able to try hard enough, which feeds my “beyond repair” mindset.

    I was just telling my T the other week that I am beginning to realize that I’ve been thinking that I want to just be “done” with therapy so I can “go back to being normal”, as if what I’m working through with her is just a blip in my normalcy (despite the fact that my responses and reactions have been with me forever), and that I can eventually go back to being my detached, unemotional, unflappable, competent self, which is the shell that I’d created to hide my crap from myself and everyone around me.

    But I’m realizing that, in fact, that shell isn’t the real me. To use your analogy, it’s the “shackled” me. Or to use your analogy more precisely, it’s the “formerly-shackled-but-still-acting-shackled-but-pretending-not-to” me (catchy, no?). That realization is scary, because I’ve never known any other version of me, but it is also hopeful because, well, no shackles. 🙂

    I also really like what N123 said. I’m also realizing that because I’ve spent my whole life trying to figure out what other people want/need so I can give that to them, I am really good at reading people’s needs and meeting them where they are at, which comes in handy in ministry work and in teaching. Those are two of my great joys, and I don’t know if I would be anywhere near as effective at either if I hadn’t adapted in such a way as to be hyper-attuned to people.

    Thanks so much for all you are able to articulate. It makes this whole process so much more hopeful for the rest of us!

    Like

    • July 30, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      MAC,
      I just kept nodding as I read this whole comment (and I thought it was a very catchy description 🙂 ). The truth is that we NEEDED to believe something was wrong with us to provide a sense of control and hope in a hopeless and powerless situation. In reality it had NOTHING to do with us, it was about someone else’s lack, but to admit that would have been to face there was no way out, nothing we could do and that our caregivers, on whom our life depended, were not safe. There’s no way a small child is going there.

      BN gave me so much hope when he introduced me to attachment theory. Seeing my behavior as development gone awry allowed me to heal. And I have always appreciated that BN honors the very behaviors that are maladaptive and tripping me up now. The truth is there was a time when they were necessary to my survival. Seeing it through that lens means I don’t need to keep being ashamed about my behavior (ha! easier said than done I know!), just accept that it’s time has passed and I can change it.

      May I say I admire your perseverance in reading through the blog?I mean, seriously, woman, I am not exactly on the laconic side. 🙂 But I appreciate even more all of your kind words, it truly is an encouragement for me. xx AG

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