by Christina Enevoldsen
Several years ago, I had a friend whose husband wasn’t treating her right and she wavered between leaving him and staying. Some days, she’d had enough and other days, she wanted to give him another chance. I knew better than to try to give any advice. My role as her friend was to listen to her and to cry with her. I could share from my experience, but I couldn’t tell her what to do. Still, I struggled to stay on the sidelines.
Having escaped from an abusive twenty-one year marriage years earlier, I knew that it was hard to leave. My friends had told me the same things I was itching to tell my friend—he didn’t deserve another chance; I could do better. But I was the one who would have to live with my choices so it had to be my decision. I knew that about my friend’s situation. I knew that leaving her abusive husband would only be the right choice for her if she was the one making it. But still, I felt myself wanting to shout “Leave that *#*@*!”
There was such force in my desire to tell her what to do that I knew there was something unhealthy behind it. It was as though I was in a life or death struggle. I couldn’t let it go. I realized that I wasn’t trying to help my friend; I was trying to help the ME from my past. I wanted to scream to my younger self, “Get away from that man! He’s no good for you. Every minute you stay, he drains more life from you!”
There wasn’t anything I could do to change that. I stayed with my ex-husband far too long, but I left as soon as I was able to. My friend’s situation didn’t have anything to do with my own. Even if I could convince her to leave her husband, that didn’t change the fact that I stayed with mine. My past wouldn’t be undone by “helping” someone else. I had to deal with the pain and grief within my own heart; resolution couldn’t be found in someone else’s life.
That lesson has been hard to hang onto. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, one of my biggest challenges of my healing process has been to remain focused on me.
I had coped with my childhood abuse by separating from myself—from my body and from my emotions. There was no way to escape the situation, but I could escape from me. I lived outside of myself, watching as a spectator, not truly connected. As an adult, I was still disconnected from myself and lived “outside of myself”. I wasn’t in touch with my feelings, thoughts, needs and desires, but I was hyper-aware of everyone else’s. Taking care of others was a way for me to continue to cope.
My dysfunctional incest family groomed me to take care of everyone else’s emotional, sexual and physical needs. Boundaries were blurred or smashed to smithereens. I didn’t know where my being stopped and another began. I believed it was selfish to take care of my own needs. Since my needs had been discounted, I felt ashamed for even having needs. But the abuse also taught me to hope that if I was compliant enough, eventually someone would notice my needs and meet them. I was trained to be a people-pleaser because that was the only hope of getting anything from anyone. I didn’t feel I had value simply for existing; I had to earn my space on the planet through serving others.
Most of the time I really didn’t mind serving. There was a certain high that went with it. I felt powerful—like a superhero. I didn’t feel empowered to help myself, but it felt good to help other people. It was like a drug. Easing the pain of a friend helped me to avoid my own pain. But my pain always came back and I needed to serve and serve and serve so I could keep feeling better. I thought I was so loving, but I was really just running from pain. I wasn’t even loving myself.
Throughout my healing process, I’ve dealt with layers of these issues. I’ve found the reasons I learned to value others above myself and I’ve developed healthier boundaries. I thought I was doing very well. But little things would leak through. One day last year, I was very tired and I heard myself wish for someone to take care of me. In the past, I would have hoped that someone else really would take care of me—that all my hard work would be recognized and someone would designate “my turn”. But on that day, I realized that it’s my job to take care of me. I was talking to myself, asking to be taken care of. I was designating “my turn”.
So I got a massage and took a day off. I resolved to eat healthier and spend more time with friends and less time working. I thought that was enough. That had to be enough since I had a long line of people waiting for me to be finished helping myself so I could help them.
I heard the impatience in my thoughts and feelings while I was doing things for me as though I was waiting outside of myself, tapping my foot, rushing myself through whatever I was doing. I caught myself thinking, “More important people are waiting for you.”
It seemed like a huge hassle to care for myself: Even when I did pleasant things for myself, it was a chore to complete. The things that most people enjoyed were a burden to me—I was a burden. That was a familiar feeling. That was the same attitude my mother had about children, about me. She took care of my physical needs, but she resented it and acted as though she had more important things to do.
Just as my mother never found joy in caring for me, I never did either. I was repeating the same cycle of emotional abandonment that I learned in childhood. When I served others before me or considered them more important than me, I was abandoning myself.
It really made me sad that I couldn’t find pleasure in doing nice things for myself. I grieved for how my mother treated me and how I’d learned to treat myself. When I looked at how I learned to see myself as a burden, I saw the truth about my value. I finally saw myself as the deserving and lovable child who was forgotten. I couldn’t change the way my mother had treated me, but I could change the way I was treating myself.
My life is completely different now. I used to fit in time for myself between everything else and now I fit in everything else after I’ve taken care of me. By serving others first, I was doing a disservice to myself. Now that I put my needs first, I’m better equipped to help others in a healthy way.
Now that you’ve heard my experience and thoughts about this, I’d love to hear yours. Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments so you can continue to partake in the discussion.
How Can I “Be Myself” If I Don’t Know Who That Is?
How to Help Others Without Hurting Yourself
Finding My Lost Childhood After Sexual Abuse
Stand-in or Star: Taking Center Stage in Your Healing
My Fear of Being Alone
Rebuilding Boundaries After Abuse
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.