When I went to therapy, my therapist told me something very basic but it was also a statement that explained SO MUCH to me: I wasn’t feeling my feelings. This wasn’t something I recognized until I took up her advice to journal every time I FELT something. When I took up the habit of journaling, I found it difficult to stop myself from writing.
This taught me something:
I was blocking a lot of feelings and emotions that I didn’t feel safe enough to voice. However, I did find myself feeling safe with the idea of writing them down. The inability to feel my feelings was unintentional but it was also a reaction to abuse. There were so many versions of abuse and/or pain that I’d lived with and around. The brain, from what I understood, caused me to dissociate from the pain and to rely more on comedy and humor. Those methods of seeking refuge, against my surroundings and reality, affected me in many ways.
An abused individual’s system is a reaction to his/her/their circumstances. It is because of the lack of safety (any version of safety) that their mind and body reacts- because they never grew up in a safe environment. They grew up in an environment where they were always made to feel unsafe, one way or another.
I’d grown up in a system and around people to whom blocking emotions was a defense mechanism. Cracking mean jokes was a defense mechanism. Backbiting was a defense mechanism. Passive aggressive behavior was a defense mechanism. Saying or doing things to cause anxiety was a defense mechanism. Judgment was a defense mechanism. Backhanded comments and compliments were defense mechanism.
By virtue of growing up in or being part of that system, I, took was a part of it but I always found there was something wrong with it. I didn’t understand it. Why did adults tell their children not to lie but then, lied to everyone, every single day? Why did they crack cruel jokes about someone, only when they weren’t around? Why did they confide in one another about a third individual but not say anything directly to that third individual to his/her face? Why was telling someone they didn’t look good wrong but saying awful things about their dresses or makeup, behind their backs, right? Why was telling and laughing at sexist jokes funny? Why was laughing at the expense of another’s religion, creed, race, faith, status or outlook normal? Why did I feel unsafe around the people that told me they loved me? Why did they use the words ‘love’ or ‘family’ or ‘friends’ or ‘humanity’ and then, abuse me and those around themselves in the most awful way/s? Why was it normal to laugh at or not care for the loss or well-being of someone who wasn’t a friend or family member but expect others to treat you with the love and care you denied them, in their hard times? Why did people marry one another and say cruel things about one another, when either person was out of earshot? Why were the people who said “the world is a cruel place” the very people who were/are cruel? Why was a person’s job what made them worthy of respect? Why was a person’s capacity to care joked about?
None of it made any sense.
Every time I tried to understand this, a part of me tried to help me access my feelings and pain but my brain wouldn’t let me get there. When I’d ask about these feelings or about something/someone that felt wrong, I was always dismissed. When I tried to understand why I felt that way, I couldn’t. Not mentally. The brain does that, you know? It is, like any other organ, made for survival and so, will keep you in circumstances that it feels comfortable with (comfortable and safe are two different things). Comfort is survival and survival is to make do with what you have. The brain gets used to dealing with the pain either by making you forget about the trauma OR by turning you into the kind of person that does to vulnerable people, the same thing that your abuser did to you (or worse). It’s your heart and soul that brings you to a point where you recognize that something needs to change.
I didn’t have the answers in my mind but I knew how I felt well enough to be able to say something about it. I would press my mother to explain why someone was sad or why they were angry. She would find it strange that I knew- even as a child- that something was off with someone and dismiss it by saying “No, nothing was wrong. (Insert name/s of person here) is fine”. Sometimes she would say the same thing about herself. As I grew older, I noticed this in many clients, I trained as a trainer, too.
You can always tell someone who’s living in that sort of environment or has been affected by it. They laugh but there’s no mirth in their laughter. You can tell it in pictures and get-togethers, too, when you see individuals who smile but the light doesn’t go all the way to their eyes. There are those awkward spaces and/or overcompensating hugs but something seems empty about those circumstances. You can sense it in the way they walk. There will always be a slight slouch in their walk- if even to the smallest extent. You can sense it in conversations. When you ask them ‘how are you?’ they answer “I’m good! How are you?” except the answer isn’t a heartfelt one. It’s a reflex because they were never really given the space and permission to feel it’s alright to NOT be in a good place, if even mentally and emotionally.
You can sense it in the way they carry themselves. They space out mid-conversation, all the while looking great (and sometimes not) and if you catch them, while they’re away from social facades and conversations you can see the pain they carry in them in the way they stand or sit or eat or simply position themselves. They’re there physically but mentally and emotionally, they seem to be elsewhere. Their responses and emotions don’t match the event or conversation you might catch them in the midst of.
I also found every single person that I felt unsafe around (from childhood to present times) carried with them a version of an unidentifiable and un-understandable darkness. They didn’t seem that way- because their smiles hid their truth and the people around them supported them (knowingly and unknowingly) and so masked that darkness. The people and system that supported them gave preference to the more superficial aspects of life- money and other versions of wealth, education, ‘looks’, occupation, family name, politics, etc.
Everyone holds some amount of darkness in themselves but there’s something about someone who chooses to participate in their darkness to the extent that they cause pain unto others. You cannot mentally fathom and know how they participate in that darkness and your mind, and other people, might have you believing that the person that has participated in that darkness isn’t really as bad as you know them to be. But when you’re around them, you know, not in your bones or heart but in your soul that you’re in the midst of something that isn’t just ‘bad’ or ‘unfair’ but that you’re in the midst of an entity that is so far off from being human that the only way they know to exist is to go beyond that point of balance between darkness and light (human) and that it is in their nature to be cruel.
You can’t always put your finger on what’s off about them but, in your soul, you know you’ve been touched by the presence of something not exactly out of this world and yet it is something so unfathomably inhuman that they only being that can truly relate to it is someone who participates in that darkness, too. They depend on the blindness and fear of others to mask themselves. They depend on the silence and shame of their victims and they feed on the vulnerabilities of any being, person or object, whom they can use to unleash their cruelty on. They’re evil.
They don’t even have to say anything or take action to prove that they are. They can emulate the kindest people but there’s something in them that won’t let you feel safe or right or good.
It was only after therapy that I recognized what that darkness was- abuse. It was only after I was advised to feel my feelings that I realized how much of it I was surrounded and affected by. These individuals were human beings that carried everything that other people and society and/or religion and faith deems ‘right’ but there’s something deeply damaged and broken in their souls. They lack soul and are willing to, in some way or the other, take advantage of the vulnerable.
They are emotional, physical, mental, verbal, sexual, spiritual abusers who had, if even in the smallest way, committed an atrocious crime against humanity in abusing and injuring the humanity contained in the people they found vulnerable enough to abuse.
There’s something deeply wrong with the fact that people like that exist in such large numbers that to be un-you is considered normal. There’s something deeply off about the fact that the existence of such individuals in families is not questioned but normalized either by omission of their actions or by creating a facade to hide their truth.
I didn’t even realize the extent of what I had been through. When you go through abuse (of any form) the only thing you know of is the abuse you survived. The abuse- any form of abuse- isn’t something you study or recognize. It’s something you live with, as a survivor. You become a shell of your own truth. The shell, being the pain and the truth being, the person you really are but are too afraid and traumatized to reveal to the world.
I didn’t even know the extent to which my mind had blocked everything out. When I revealed to my therapist all that I’d been through, she would, at certain moment, ‘tsk’ or confirm what I had been through was deeply traumatizing by saying “yes, that was messed up”. She would often ask me how something or someone made me feel. Up until that point I didn’t know, really because my mind preferred to stay where I was than to allow itself to see the extent to which it was affected by abusers, trauma and the pain that I was around and the pain that was inflicted upon me.
When I familiarized myself with my feelings, it took me a while to understand what it was that I was experiencing- a normalization of my inner responses to the pain and trauma that was often inflicted upon me, in various ways.
I didn’t know if what I was feeling was, in fact, WHAT I WAS FEELING, earlier on. Gaslighting and passive aggressive behavior can have that effect on the survivor of abuse. You constantly question yourself, to the extent that even your sense of reality is warped in and by your own mind.
I had to ask my therapist to verify if what I was saying and feeling made sense. It was when I started owning how I felt to the enablers and abusers that I started seeing and understanding something pretty basic about all abusers, in general- their (and their supporters’/enablers’) WORST fear is cutting through the BS, getting straight to the way they wronged you and to drag it out to the center of the stage.
The problem with NOT doing that is that any sense of pain will ALWAYS be hidden behind their illusions of love (not real love), YOUR pain and it is the body, mind and soul that takes the brunt of what you, as a survivor, go through. An abuser cannot love because it is not in their nature to love anyone- even those that do pander to their ways. They only know what it is to enforce and impose themselves on to others.
The PAIN caused by them IS very real, long-lasting and something that a survivor will always carry with themselves. Feeling my feelings and uncovering a lot of the pain, in therapy allowed me to build the vocabulary I needed, around the world of feelings I ALWAYS experienced.
I could, now, call abusers out on what they had done. Feeling my feelings also showed me how much power my silence gave them and how much that silence affected my reality. It was overwhelming to the extent that I was reliving the past with them and they made sure I did, too. In calling them out, I learned something else: an abuser has no fear. It’s unfortunate but it is also true. It’s the survivor who suffers and lives with the shame.
Abusers do what they do and move on, while pretending nothing has ever happened but the survivor always lives with the recognition of the fact that they were wronged in SOME way and yet THEY feel that THEY were/are wrong. They do what they do because they can do it- if even to the smallest extent.
The system they live in allows them to live without any sense of accountability and they will use anything, from society to religion to cover up a basic fact- they abused the person before them because he/she/they were vulnerable and the abuser was/is aware of this fact. It is because of this very reason that they, if even subconsciously, choose to abuse a vulnerable individual or group of people.
After my therapist told me to feel my feelings, I started coming to terms with the ways in which I was abused. I had conversations with other survivors, too. Some of them are survivors of sexual abuse and physical abuse while others are survivors of psychological and emotional abuse. Then, there are those that have faced (or continue to face) all forms of abuse.
These were people who seemed happy but in allowing myself to feel, I found the ability to feel what others felt, too and I would, subconsciously, have conversations about abuse and pain or they would just happen one way or another.
I wondered why no one had ever had these conversations and what it was about the truth that bothered people and found that most people don’t talk about it either because they don’t know how dark their path has been (through no fault of their own) or because they ARE the abusers and enablers of that form of abuse (and therefore, benefit from hiding behind secrets, lies and deception).
It wasn’t until a while after that I found out why that was the case- because the truth is too painful for anyone to accept, which is why, a lot of people choose to not feel their feelings. It is also far too convenient for the abuser and his supporters to ignore the truth than it is for them to own up to it. After all, why would they want to walk away from something that has worked for them and for people like them, when it has enabled them to get what they’ve always wanted?
And the abused are too ashamed, traumatized and, at the same time, dependent on their abusers to know that feeling their feelings would and could save them.