by Christina Enevoldsen
My lifetime of abuse gave me the feeling of being the constant target of a nameless, faceless bully. Unable to conceal my terror or prevent whimpers from escaping, every sign of protest fed his lust for more suffering. He was never satisfied; the more he saw the pain he inflicted, the greater his appetite for more.
My hope for relief seemed to be in pretending I didn’t notice. I desperately wanted to be someone who could say, “Is that all you got?”
I couldn’t have conceived of chasing off my attacker or of defending myself. The only thing I could imagine was coping better by developing tougher skin.
It’s not a mystery to me where I learned to cope. While I was growing up being sexually abused by my dad and emotionally abused by both my parents, I had no voice, no impact. There was no escape from the bullies in my own home and it was unthinkable for my child self to say, “Mom and Dad, the way you treat me really hurts me and I deserve to be valued and respected. If you don’t change, I’m moving out on my own.”
I was at their mercy. The way my parents treated me was what I was stuck with.
My survival strategy was to try to avoid more abuse. Nobody had to tell me to overlook the ways my parents hurt me. Of course I had to “let it go.” It was survival to discount myself and focus on pleasing them so they might finally love me.
As an adult, those lessons of abuse were so engrained that I was still convinced that I didn’t have any other options. When I didn’t overlook insulting or degrading treatment, I was punished. Even weak objections were met with accusations:
“You blew it way out of proportion.”
“You’re too sensitive.”
“There you go again, putting words into my mouth.”
“You’re always thinking the worst.”
“Why do you have to be such a victim?”
“You’re always overreacting. Just let it go!”
The verbal assaults increased when my former husband and I visited my parents. All of them would join together in discounting my objections to abuse.
It was better to trivialize insults than to be ambushed. I didn’t seem to have any other option than to let it go.
In a healthy relationship, vulnerability is wonderful. It leads to increased intimacy and closer bonds. When a healthy person realizes that he or she hurt you, they feel remorse and they make amends. It’s safe to be honest.
With an abuser, vulnerability is dangerous. Showing “weakness” is an invitation for more mistreatment. Abusive people feel a surge of power when they discover a weakness. They exploit it, using it to gain more power. Crying or complaining confirms that they’ve poked you in the right spot. Success!
I’ve been physically, sexually, spiritually, financially, and emotionally abused and the most pain I’ve experienced is from the emotional abuse. The message of my dad’s sexual abuse communicated to me that I wasn’t good for anything except sex, but my mother’s emotional abandonment—treating me like I was invisible—told me that I wasn’t good for anything.
With my mom, I had absolutely no impact. I couldn’t do anything, good or bad, to gain her attention or win her affection. It was like I didn’t exist.
I don’t know any pain worse than that.
One of the ways I coped with the pain of having no impact was by trying to pretend that my abusers had no impact. If I ignored their hurtful behavior, maybe they’d wonder if they had any affect on me.
That gave me a false sense of power instead of having any real power. I convinced myself I was the “bigger person” for letting it go. The truth is, I didn’t overlook cruelty or rudeness out of a sense of personal empowerment, but out of my belief that I was small and insignificant. My experience taught me to avoid feeling even less significant by keeping my mouth shut.
“Letting it go” sounded like a shield against the mistreatment, but that was no protection at all. Ignoring the problem didn’t make it go away. Pretending like it was no big deal didn’t render it benign.
I wasn’t letting anything go. It was all being compacted deep inside of me. While I was telling myself it was all rolling right off my back, it was infecting me, making me feel smaller and smaller.
The only way I’ve taken my life back from my abusers and from the effects of abuse is to embrace the truth. The truth is that the abuse did hurt me. The truth is that in standing up for myself, I don’t have power to change my abusers, but I still have options other than enduring the abuse.
As I’ve healed, I’ve stood up for myself in big and small ways. One of the most significant ways I’ve objected to abuse is when I confronted my dad for sexually abusing me. I knew there wasn’t much chance of any change of heart or action on his part, but just speaking up was liberating. I’ve never felt so empowered in all my life.
I didn’t feel any smaller when my dad refused to apologize or admit his crime. It wasn’t about his response or lack of response. Standing up for myself was an expression of what I already knew about myself—that I matter. I knew that no matter what my dad did or said, it didn’t define me or inform me of my value.
That’s the truth I know today that I didn’t know when I was a child. The way I’m treated doesn’t actually define me. I’m valuable whether or not others recognize that. Knowing that truth empowers me.
Now, I’m free to act independently of other people’s actions. I can afford to acknowledge the impact others have on me since I know I’m empowered with the biggest impact in my own life.
Have you been told to let it go–either by yourself or by someone else? Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments so you can continue to partake in the discussion. If you would like to protect your privacy, you don’t have to use your real name. Email addresses are never made public.
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.