With the help of a wonderful therapist, I am addressing the negative stories that I tell myself. Those go-to places that underline all the things that we believe are wrong with ourselves. The I am not worthy, I am not strong enough, I am not thin enough, I am not pretty enough, I am not smart enough stories. There are so many of them. I have a number of them. I am working on identifying them, looking at why they exist in the first place, when I started feeling that way and letting go of the particular circumstance(s) that initiated the negative chatter. I cannot win is a theme that repeats incessantly in my thoughts.
When it comes to fighting for what is rightfully mine with my ex – whether it is about finances, time with the kids, setting boundaries or other – I feel defeated just at the thought. I have this sinking feeling on the inside. I am sad and hopeless and just “know” that it is pointless even contemplating fighting, because I can’t win, no matter what I do. I justify this mindset with examples – the time he won a court case against me; the amount of things I had to give up to get a divorce settlement; the numerous times I have compromised myself to get to a resolution; and more.
It is also evident in my extreme conflict avoidance. I have to be very riled up to be combative in a conflict situation. My normal reaction is to withdraw completely into myself, until I am compelled to say something. Usually what I then say is anything that will smooth the situation over as quickly as possible; a peace at any cost strategy. And more often than not, there is some cost that is attached – where I want to say no but say yes; where I end up compromising myself to keep the other party happy; where I spread myself too thinly and then regret it. There are so many examples that they are too numerous to mention. All to avoid being in a fight. To avoid the shouting and anger and shame and fear. It mortifies me to admit that there have been times when I should have stepped up to defend others, but I just wouldn’t do it. I avoided entering the fray and that too came at a cost.
The fear is something that surprises me in some ways. After all, why should fear come along with the I can’t win thought? Prior to writing this, I have not taken the time to think about why the fear rises. On reflection, it is the fear of punishment. Punishment can come in different guises, but for me they are either physical or emotional. The emotional ones are the ones that have wounded me the most I think.
My earliest memory of feeling this way was when I was about 3 or 4. My mother was shouting at me for some indiscretion – what in particular, I don’t know. It was most likely not the first time and I can assure you that it was not the last. It could well have been something which I may not have even done. (In my childhood, it was often immaterial if you were related to a particular incident or not. Your mere existence could mean that you would be dragged into the matter.) I remember feeling that I can’t win and feeling devastated by the way I was being treated. I remember the feeling of anxiety that my mother would abandon me. It was a real fear, because at that age, without her, I would not be able to survive. I had to employ a survival strategy, which entailed being submissive and passive – crushing down the will to fight back.
I don’t remember that incident well, but based on the interactions I have had with my mother over the years, I know that if you tried to defend yourself, it lead to more shouting and more blaming from her. There was no opportunity to express your thoughts or opinions or feelings and as mentioned, definitely no way you would be permitted to justify and defend yourself. There was humiliation included in these verbal barrages and constant reminders of how you have let her down again and how the family’s image was now tarnished. I felt deep shame at letting down everyone and especially my mother – one of the people I strived hard to please. I was forlorn that no matter how hard I thought I had tried, and I really did try, I just seemed to stumble and fail in her eyes.
For my 3 or 4 year old self, it was true that I couldn’t win. She was the adult and I was the child. I had no hope of winning the situation. This was underscored numerous times in my childhood with similar scenarios, but every time I had the same feeling of helplessness. It has carried over into my adult life. That little girl is still running the show when I am in conflict. She is desperate to get away and hide and end the fight as soon as possible. She is fearful of abandonment. She feels filled with shame. This is no longer an appropriate reaction as an adult.
For me it is a very large part of the battle won to identify these triggers and behaviours. As soon as I understand them and where they come from, my brain stops as soon as I slip into the familiar routine. The red flag is raised and I can stop and take a breath and remember that I CAN win. I am the adult and no longer the child. I can tell Small Me that there is no reason to be afraid and to worry – I have got this. She doesn’t need to fight or stand up and be counted; Big Me has it under control.
I wonder if it will always have to be a conscious choice that I can fight or if, over time, the brain can really be reprogrammed with a new view. I deeply desire it to be the latter. I want to heal these hurts and be able to lift my head with pride that I stood up for myself and others when it counted. I want to be the warrior woman. It is not easy and I feel afraid, but I am starting to do it anyway. To get better, as Brené Brown says, I need to lean into this vulnerability.