“You are not even fit to polish my son-in-law’s boots!” my father-in-law spat at me. For no particular reason. He was just rude like that.
However, the really interesting part was what happened next.
You see, I was sitting in a room with him, my mother-in-law, my own parents and the then husband.
What happened next was….
Nobody said anything
Nobody said anything. Nobody even batted an eyelid – except me, of course. I fought to avoid a mascara malfunction.
I debated saying something and then decided against. I already knew that my father-in-law was the longstanding Commonwealth Abuse Champion. I would not have stood a chance against him.
So, I kept quiet.
Eventually, the “conversation” resumed. Nobody seemed bothered about what had happened. Except me, of course. I was bothered. But what was I going to do about it? I was invisible, anyway.
What I took from that episode was that my feelings simply did not matter. It was not the first time that I had been given that message, nor would it be the last. The shocking thing – for me – was that my “nearest and dearest” had no precisely no concern for my feelings.
Silly me, for even thinking that they might.
My father-in-law’s outburst reinforced what I already knew – my feelings did not count. I was just too unimportant to take into consideration.
Needless to say, that pulverised any feelings of self-worth I might have had. (Actually, I did not have too many, to start with.)
I’m not saying that your damaging experiences have been the same as mine. What I do know is that your damaging experiences have been – at the very least – as bad as mine. Quite possibly far worse.
However, this is not about comparing and contrasting. It is about understanding. When people who should care about you treat you as if you are unimportant, what do you learn? You learn that you are unimportant. You take their behavior as an indication of your worthlessness. You make their behavior say something about you.
The tragedy of emotionally abusive relationships
That is the tragedy of emotionally abusive relationships. You progressively un-learn your own importance. All of us started out as babies with the not unreasonable assumption that we mattered. The more we became aware of our perceived unimportance, the more we revised our worth downwards.
When my father-in-law uttered his toxic judgement, I did what we all do. I expected to get some support. I expected my parents to react and speak up on my behalf. After all, they were my parents. Surely, they were not going to let those newcomers to the family insult their precious daughter?
I expected the husband to react. After all, he had married me. (Plus, he REALLY disliked his brother-in-law.) Surely, he was not going to take the insult to his beloved, lying down?
I thought my mother-in-law might seize the opportunity to make herself look better than her horrible husband by objecting.
Wrong yet again!
You can’t make people listen to you
I just did not figure on the Important List.
Bigger things were at stake than my feelings.
I could have fought them all, but I was never going to win. You can’t make people listen to you. You can’t make them care about your feelings, if they decide not to care.
So, what did I do?
Nothing constructive. Rather, I ended up,
- Accepting, and
that the fault lay in me. That was the way that they saw it.
The reality is that I was just born and brought up unimportant. That upbringing “conditioned” me to live like Mrs Unimportant throughout my marriage. Since I couldn’t change it, I might as well accept it.
Un-learning that belief in my own unimportance took time. At least, it took time for as long as I believed that I was the only person who was so unworthy as to be deemed totally unimportant to the people who were supposed to love me.
Where the fault really lies
When I started to learn how emotional abuse works, I realised that the fault did NOT lie in me. I would be the first to admit that I have plenty of faults (some of them amuse my lovely partner no end). However, my faults were not to blame for other people’s cruelty.
People are cruel because they are cruel. Chances are, they grew up around cruel people, just like we did. They chose to make themselves feel better through cruel behaviors.
You and I chose NOT to do that. You and I chose to take the hurt on the chin, rather than turn it back on other people.
We made the honourable choice – even if we blamed ourselves for not having the courage to fight back. We made the honourable choice and we did the best we could for everyone except ourselves. Instead, we continued to wear the appalling toxic labels our abusers gave to us. We carried on telling ourselves that we were unimportant and unworthy.
Take a reality check
So, let’s do a quick reality check. For the past 12 or so years, I’ve worked with women who truly believed that they were unimportant and unworthy. Without a single exception, these women were all far, far more than they thought they were. They were all, way
- More engaging and
- More creative.
Abusers tell you that you are the eternal ugly duckling. They do that because they would not know a beautiful swan if it came over and broke their arm with its wing. (Only joking. My father truly believed that swans were the psychopaths of the bird world who only lived to break as many arms as they could.)
“The Ugly Duckling” was always my favorite fairy story – probably because that poor duckling was slow to own her own worth. Nevertheless, she got there in the end. What that ugly duckling could do, you most certainly can, too.
I don’t know how long you have been telling yourself an ugly duckling story. What I do know is that the time has come to focus on the happy ending, rather than the drama that precedes it.