When Survivors Dare To Believe They Are Worthy of More

Healing can be a long process, especially from complex trauma. There is an entire lifetime of coping mechanisms that survivors must unravel before they can decide what to keep and what to toss out. The process of becoming who you really are is tough for anyone, but for those who survived childhood abuse, it means learning fundamental aspects of development that were previously denied. When a baby learns that their caretaker is unreliable, it is extremely difficult to expect others to be reliable throughout their whole life. This deficit creates a whole host of coping mechanisms in survivors. Some become combative and antisocial. Others go to the opposite end of the spectrum.

I am the kind of survivor who learned to cope by being extremely self-sufficient. I hid behind the masks of “I’m fine” and “That’s okay.” I never required much from my relationships because it was reinforced enough times for me to know on a visceral level that I would be let down. Instead, I was agreeable. I was as low-maintenance as a person could get. I was pleasant and easy to be around. I made others feel comfortable and I never challenged them. I was soft and gentle around aggression and anger. I made other people look and feel better than they really were.

Well, guess what? The easier I made it for others, the harder I made it on myself. I grew into a lifelong habit of never expecting others to step up, and as a result, I created a self-fulfilling prophecy. I made it easy for others to take advantage of my goodness. I made it easy for others to neglect me.

The point of healing from trauma is to learn how to be in close and trusting relationships with others. My agreeableness might make others feel close to me on the surface, because there is no conflict, but what it is really doing is keeping them away. By never expressing needs or requiring more from others, I became a stranger to myself. As I awaken to who I really am, I can no longer live a life where I deny myself in order to keep the peace. I have decided that the people I love deserve to get to know me better. I long for intimacy. I long to be known. And with intimacy, there’s vulnerability. In order to let others see who I really am, I open myself up for heartbreak. To draw closer, I must ask others for more, and asking for more invites more conflict.

Many years ago when I learned what boundaries were, I made a point to have them. As I grow and heal, more and more boundaries are now necessary. When someone like me tends to diffuse conflict by being agreeable, boundaries can seem counterintuitive. Saying no to others makes people upset, and this conflict is painful, especially when the people around you are not used to hearing “no.” Conflict is a double-edged sword. It is scary because it puts you at the mercy of others, but it is also the very thing that draws you close. Without conflict, people drift apart, and never get to the deeper, more important issues of life.

Right now, I have decided that I am worthy of a life where others are more aware of my needs and desires, and have more opportunities to meet them. I have decided I am worthy of asking for more. I am letting go of being easy and agreeable. Now, in theory, this is a beautiful opportunity to draw closer to the people who really love me. In reality, it feels like the whole world is crashing down, because I don’t know if others love me enough to survive the test.

When someone suddenly puts up a healthy boundary where there previously was none, it is not easy or pleasant for the other person. It is often met with hostility. The other person resists the change because it usually means their easy, unexamined way of life just got challenged. These are necessary growing pains. When one person puts up a healthy boundary, the other person in the relationship must also grow and change with it, or the relationship won’t work.

For someone like me, this is a terrifying but necessary process for survival. I have let go of enough toxic people in my life to know how painful, but important it is to do so. Yet, even more scary than letting go of toxic people is needing to have healthy boundaries with the ones you love. If the one you love does not respond well to new healthy boundaries, you might have to let them go, too. Perhaps they only loved you for the surface-level, agreeable version of you, and not who you really are. I can’t think of anything more heartbreaking than that possibility.

It is especially difficult to confront someone who, like me, avoids conflict, because they never learned how to handle it, either. There is a lot of panic and fear that has to be dealt with before getting to the issue at hand. When two people suck at conflict, a lot of stuff can pile up while they both float through life saying “I’m fine” and “that’s okay.” Resentment builds until one day, the people who seemed to always get along so well are suddenly lost and miserable. They then have to face a choice. They can either both learn healthy boundaries and confrontation together, or they will keep drifting apart.

To decide that I am worthy of more is perhaps the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do, precisely because it is something I cannot do all on my own. I need to be in relationship with others who agree with me.

When Fireworks Set You Off

I am one of many who struggle with the loud pops and bangs of the Fourth of July. I am not a veteran, but I have been through a domestic war.

The other day my kid was excited to have a new friend over. They were happily playing a hide-and-seek-type game when the child suddenly, out of nowhere, let out a piercing scream. My kids, knowing what loud noises do to me, immediately looked at me to see if I was OK. I wasn’t, but I did manage to very calmly let the child know that we can’t have screaming in this house before I excused myself to my room. I was hyperventilating and my blood pressure was through the roof. I texted the kid’s mom with a half-legitimate excuse for picking her kid up early. What I didn’t tell her was that I have complex PTSD.

I wish my body didn’t freak out like this. I wish my kids didn’t have to look at me with concern whenever I’m surprised by loud noises. I wish I didn’t need to think ahead about having a strategy to survive basic events around holidays. But I do. This is one more thing that I’ve come to accept about the reality of abuse. It shows up in all sorts of inconvenient ways.

As we approach the Fourth of July, memes about being respectful of veterans are surfacing in my social media feeds. I think it’s wonderful that more people are becoming more aware of the long-terms effects of those who have lived through combat. Friends are posting about keeping pets inside, and taking care of their stressed out dogs. What I don’t think many realize is that there are lots of people like me who also struggle.  But what would a meme for me look like? Watch out for your middle-aged mom friend white-knuckling her corn-on-the cob because she experienced complex trauma as a child and wishes she didn’t say yes to your invitation to the BBQ, but is tired of letting her family down because she can’t hold up in loud social situations? Awkward.

Too often, it feels like there’s too much to unpack for me to explain complex trauma to people. It’s not a light conversation, and I often don’t feel I know people well enough to unload what’s really going on with me. Even with people I am comfortable around, I don’t often explain myself. I think it’s just assumed I am quirky and don’t like crowds. But I do like real, authentic, human connection. I just wish it were easier.

Gaslighting Creates A Longing To Be Understood

When I was a child, I had no tools or language to understand the abuse that was happening to me. What I did know was that I was constantly misunderstood. My parents often accused me of doing things I never did and punished me for not doing things that were not mine to be done. I didn’t know what projection was, but I was constantly accused of having malicious intent when there was none. In order to survive, I stuffed my anger and made sure to never even think a cross thought about my abusers. I attempted to be perfect, which is, of course, impossible. I became hypervigilent in anticipating the needs of others. I became the cheerful servant, like Cinderella, daydreaming about a kinder and gentler world. Also like Cinderella, I didn’t understand why, in spite of all my best efforts, my family hated me so much. I thought it was some flaw of mine that I was so misunderstood.

When I grew older, I tried in vain to communicate with my abusers. I honed all the skills to write and speak with clarity and compassion. I made sure to never make assumptions or accusations about their intent (like they did with me) but rather to focus on communicating how their actions made me feel. It didn’t work. Whenever I tried to make my parents understand the effect their actions had on me, they would find some way to turn it around and make it my fault. I was open to trying anything to get through to them. I solicited help from mediators and counselors. All this did was make them double down on their projections. The more I tried to reason with them with grace and compassion, the more they accused me of being spiteful and crazy.

For a while, their projection worked, because I did feel crazy. I was caught in a loop where I would make a statement about their behavior, and they would accuse me of the same behavior. I would then self-reflect and try to figure out why they would say that about me. I was constantly examining my own motives, which was a constant distraction from the issue at hand. I didn’t yet know what gaslighting or projection was, I just knew I was in a insane, futile loop. I developed panic attacks and migraines. It got to a point where whenever I was around my parents, my body would just shut down. When I left, I did not leave because they were abusing me. I left because I knew I could no longer hold on to my own sanity if I didn’t. See how I turned it back onto me? For a long time, I saw myself as “defective” because I couldn’t handle my own parents.

Because of all of the life-long programming of my abusers, it took me a long time to accept that there is nothing that I can say or do to make them understand or acknowledge my point of view. They are literally incapable of empathy and understanding. They can not and will not ever see me as a person. They can not and will not ever acknowledge that I have feelings and opinions. They can not and will not ever respect any of my boundaries. In their eyes, I do not exist. To them, I am not a person. I am a funhouse mirror, which fails to reflect their image the way they want to be seen.

Having such early fundamental needs unfulfilled leaves me with a deep longing to be understood. For a long time, I continued to search for any possible way that I could be understood by my parents. There is none. I have since learned to direct my need to be understood toward people who are capable of empathy and understanding. I have since found many people who “get it.” I now know that my communication skills are not flawed, and that I am actually pretty easy to understand. Even so, I don’t think the desire to be understood by those who have hurt me will ever go away completely. I often struggle to share my thoughts on abuse publicly because I am especially sensitive to people who reinforce the same accusations and dismissive attitudes of my abusers. Because of the physiological damage caused by psychological abuse, just one “suck it up” comment from a stranger literally feels like a punch in the gut to me.  This serves as a reminder that I am not immune to toxic behavior and I must limit my exposure.

There will always be some people who choose not to understand, but there are many others who do. Most of all, I understand myself. I hope by the end of my life I can say that the roar of encouragement of those who understand have drowned out the negative messages of those who choose not to.

When The Creepiest Stalkers Are The People Who Raised You

 

When I was thirteen, my father burst into my room while I was doing my homework, and demanded that I follow him outside. He lead me in the dark to the steep, empty hillside behind our house to point out that “some guy” could see right into my bedroom window. He then berated me for half an hour because my shades weren’t drawn. Never mind there was nothing back there. Never mind whoever wanted to spy on me would have to jump a fence, climb a hill, and navigate their way through trees and poison oak in the dark. “Somebody” could potentially do it, and I was in trouble for not preventing it from happening. As per usual, I absorbed the blame. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that the “someone” who would go to all that trouble to watch me through my bedroom window was himself.

My father did many sexually inappropriate things to me and around me for as far back as I can remember. He used to walk around the house naked when my teenage friends spent the night. He almost always slept naked with his bedroom door wide open. When I became a teenager, he obsessed over my “decency” and he acted constantly paranoid about what I was doing or not doing. He was constantly suspicious of me. I realize now that he was projecting all of his own behavior on to me, but this information does not make his shame-based messages and trampling of my boundaries any easier. “And where was my mother,” as my therapist is prone to ask? Enabling him.

Fast forward to today, mother is my stalker. After a dozen years of no contact, she still tracks down every address I move to. She knows the names and birthdates of my children whom she has not met and sends them cards  signed, “Love, Grandma” as if they knew who she was. She has manipulated family members into divulging information about me, causing me to severely limit contact with extended family as well. My mother recently sent my daughter a card detailing how she found pictures of her online, commenting on how she’s grown. My mother had to do some serious digging to find these images. My daughter is a minor and we take care to protect her online privacy as much as possible. I don’t know what creeps me out more- that my own mother would stalk my child or that she would write to my child and nonchalantly mention her stalking as if it were normal.

My entire life, my parents shit all over my boundaries. Even after doing everything I can to distance myself from them, I feel I can never fully escape their toxic behaviors. No one should ever have to explain to another adult, much less their own parent, what a boundary is and why it’s important to respect it. No one should ever worry their own parents are out to get them. No one should ever worry for their child’s safety because of their own parent. And yet, here we are.

Narcs Get It Twisted

Conversations with narcissists often start out like this. You make a statement about something that matters to you. It doesn’t matter what it is exactly, but the fact that it holds some meaning or significance to you is what the narc hones in on. The narc then demeans the thing you care about, through either dismissing it or making excuses why it doesn’t matter. Then they make some unrelated accusation that accuses you of the opposite of your actions and intentions.  Next, they twist what you said to make you wrong, and accuse you of they very thing they are blatantly doing. Fun, huh?

Let’s take a look at an example of this. You say you love kittens, and hope to foster them someday. Not too controversial, right? Just a statement about something you care about. A narcissist says kittens are stupid, and there’s too many of them anyway. Then they tell you you’re just encouraging all those losers that don’t neuter their pets. You’re probably going out there breeding cats on purpose just so you can play with kittens. You’re so selfish. Don’t you ever think about how your actions impact others?

Narcs love to get it twisted, and are true masters at gaslighting and doublespeak. For the rest of us, it’s mind-numbing. It can be extremely disorienting, especially if we aren’t aware of what’s going on. The multi-step process of devaluation and accusation puts us on the defense, while our brains are trying to sort out their nonsensical reasoning. Because we are distracted, it is easy to miss the obvious. Narcs say these things on purpose, with an intent to harm. Narcissists by definition lack empathy, so when you bring up something you care about, they must attack it like a virus.

Those who spend their time drinking narc Kool-aid will often repeat this nonsensical pattern. Anyone who enables this form of psychological abuse is just as toxic as the original abuser. In some cases, “normal” people who enable narcissistic behavior are more harmful than narcissists themselves. Because most are capable of empathy and understanding, it hurts more when a non-narc chooses an abusive response instead of a loving one.

I have been exposed to so much of this toxic behavior, I get migraines around doublespeak and gaslighting. I simply cannot be around it. It triggers a physiological stress response in me that takes days to recover. While I have come a long way in debunking the narcissists’ lies, I am not immune to their effects. Survivors of this form of insidious abuse must first realize what is happening, and then take whatever steps are necessary to remove themselves from people who get it twisted.

Narcissists Are Not Nearly As Interesting As Their Survivors

Narcissistic abuse is a strange phenomenon to experience. Because of the very nature of the abuse, victims get sucked in gradually and often have a hard time putting their finger on what’s going on. Many experience “waking up” to the realization that their parent, boss, or partner is a narcissist. Initially it can feel like the navigating the Twilight Zone as they step into a new world of insight and understanding. People who have experienced this form of abuse are often motivated to learn everything they can about narcissists to better understand what happened and why they got sucked in. This is good information to know, and there are so many great resources for survivors to understand the predatory nature of narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths. However, there is something that all survivors need to understand about narcissists: they aren’t nearly as interesting as you.

You were groomed by the narcissist because you are interesting. You have empathy, which is something they lack. You have interest in values and ideals greater than yourself, while they only have interest in their own image. You have the ability to create, and they can only destroy. Because you are connected to all that is universally good, beautiful, and true, you are infinitely more powerful than they in your ability to love, heal, and grow. That is why you were a target. That is why they will do anything to divert your attention away from your own power.

Because the targets of narcissists are naturally good at listening and validating others, these traits are hijacked and exploited by the narcissist. Eventually, all of the attention goes to the narcissist, but is never reciprocated. Because the survivor is already in such a habit of putting the needs and whims of others before their own, it can be difficult to break this habit, even in recovery. Many survivors have been so eroded by the relationship, they no longer know who they are. They struggle to put their own needs first because they’ve forgotten they have needs. Additionally, they were likely groomed to believe that caring for themselves is “selfish,” while focusing solely on the narcissist is “good.” This is why it is common for those in recovery to soak up everything they can about understanding the narcissist, but fall short when it comes to understanding themselves.

If you find yourself putting more energy into “understanding” the narc than you do cultivating your own beautiful, loving, complex personality, give yourself permission to stop. There is a limited amount of information to know about such a stunted person, but there is an infinite well to discover about what makes you uniquely you. Make sure your recovery time is really spent on the one who really matters. You.

Tearing People Down is not ‘Real World’ Training

I mentor a group of young adults, and was recently handling a situation where another mentor systematically tore down much of the esteem I had spent several weeks helping them build up. Her reasoning for doing this was to “toughen them up” and get them ready for “the real world.” When asked her why she would purposely disparage young people just starting to grasp on to their own ideas, her response was, “Well, that’s just the way the world is.”

No. That’s the way narcissistic abuse is.

Fear-based tactics do not work, and they especially have no place in any sort of system where one person holds authority over another. When a mentor shoots down the ideas of a mentee, it creates a false dependence on the mentor’s “right” ideas. The mentee then feels a false insecurity about their own “wrong” ideas. Not only is this terrible teaching, this is extremely dangerous territory for anyone who has experienced narcissistic abuse. It reinforces the message that the abuser has more power over their destiny than they do.

Only a narcissist would create a situation where everyone around them has to look to them for the “right” answers. Narcissists love to exploit others by pretending to be experts with black and white answers. At first, their victims feel excited and relieved to have such a strong and charismatic leader tell them with such conviction and assurance what to do and where to go.  At last, somebody knows something. What victims don’t realize is that in exchange for this (false) assurance, they give up all of their own rights. They trade their very own identity and critical thinking skills. In order to have these answers, they discard everything about themselves that makes them uniquely human. By the time the narcissist’s “answers” don’t pan out they way they promised, it’s often too late for the victim. They are already caught up in a loop of having to defend the narcissist or make excuses. It becomes extremely difficult to reclaim one’s own thoughts and ideas, because they were forgotten long ago.

Disentangling oneself from a narcissist and reclaiming one’s own identity is possible, but it’s a long road of recovery. It requires the victim to have to retrace steps and figure out where they bought into the lies of their abuser. Usually it can be traced back to situations like what my colleague set up. People who claim to have the “right” answers can be extremely alluring.

“The Real World” is not narcissistic. Those who claim that people need a “tough skin” in order to make it in the real world are grooming others for narcissistic abuse. It’s a form of gaslighting. Skin, by design, is meant to filter and absorb. It’s not impermeable. Abusers like to use the “toughen up” criticism because it denies the other’s experience. If an abuser hurts someone, they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions if the other is “too weak to take it.”

Young adults are particularly at high risk for narcissistic abuse situations. Because they are still figuring out who they are, it’s easy to fall into the narcissist’s trap. Most don’t have the life experience to call bullshit on someone who uses the “real world” line on them. If they are driven by perfectionism, they might try win the abuser’s approval. If they are driven by fear, they might give up on themselves before they even get a chance.

Beware of any authority figure who doesn’t help you see the value of your own ideas.  Even if that idea has a long way to go in order for it to work, it has value because it uniquely belongs to you.

Hello Dissociation, My Old Friend

I’ve always been a daydreamer. As a kid, I spent hours in my own created worlds, whether it was swirling around in an inner tube on the lake, or staring out the car window, lost in some internal medieval landscape with fairies and unicorns. In fact, all of my “good” memories of my childhood are the dreamy ones. As an adult, I formed a career around the those worlds I created. Most of my friends are creative types who live in their own worlds, too. When I need to unwind from a long day, I can get lost for hours thinking about what it’s like to live in other places and times. When I’m driving, I’m never actually on the freeway. I’m composing stories to be written until somehow I arrive at home. You could say I have an active imagination. You could say I live a creative life. You could also say that I dissociate.

Dissociation is a coping mechanism, common among abuse survivors. When someone experiences an intense threat, the brain splits off from traumatized areas as a form of protection. It’s especially common among those who were psychologically or sexually abused as children. The brain can’t reconcile the event, so it shuts a door on the memory or related experiences. This is why so many trauma survivors retrieve memories later on in recovery.

There is a wide range of dissociative responses, from  simple daydreaming to developing multiple personalities. In extreme cases, dissociative people will black out and those personalities will take over. But before you get too spooked, hold up. It’s important to understand that for those with Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously called Multiple Personality Disorder) this is actually a very smart way for the brain to manage trauma. Usually there is a “strong” identity which handles the big stuff, and there is an “angry” identity which is allowed to express an emotion that is off-limits to the “good” persona. The goal in treatment is to integrate these different parts into one whole identity that feels safe to express a full range of emotions. The experience is usually not as dramatic as, say, a certain Hitchcock movie, but it does require professional help.

Most people who experience dissociative traits do not develop multiple personalities, and very few are actually diagnosed with DID. However, when I catch myself escaping into hours of “what would life be like if…” thoughts, I’ve learned to recognize that’s my “check engine” light. I need to get grounded and put my thoughts in the present. As someone who works professionally with all sorts of fictional stories, I am finding I need to take more breaks from those worlds in order to remind myself of the here and now. The potential problem with creating any kind of fictional story is that the brain experiences those worlds as if they were real. This is why actors, directors, and writers in particular are at risk for dissociative traits.

While I don’t experience multiple personalities, I do experience that different aspects of my personality show up for different people in my life. My in-charge, “professional” self goes to work. My vulnerable, “abuse survivor” self writes the blogs. My therapist sees much of the hurt “child” me. My silly, “wacky” self is the friend, wife, and mom, and so on. While everyone wears different hats to some degree, I find that I tend to protect myself by allowing some people to see a limited side. Very few people have experienced the wide range of who I really am, and it’s by design. While it is important to be guarded around some people, it’s equally important for me to integrate more around those who’ve earned my trust.

Being present, and being intentional about being wholly me sounds easier than it is. Thankfully, I live in the kind of home environment that is safe to be present in, though everyday experiences, such as kids quarreling, or too much noise, can set me off.  Usually what I find once I’m present is that there is, indeed, some sort of emotional pain I’m avoiding. Usually it’s something from my past recently unearthed from therapy that is needing to be felt and released. Retrieving these locked away parts of myself is exhausting, but important work. It’s no wonder my brain needs a break from the work and wanders off from the task.

Healing from trauma is a daily, intentional commitment. It’s a worthy commitment. It can also be an exhausting commitment. I’ve learned to have more compassion for why and how I daydream. And while it can be a useful tool in the short term, I know it cannot be a constant way of life. It’s a security blanket, which I am learning to use occasionally.

Why You Can’t Be in a Narcissistic Relationship ‘Just A Little Bit’

 

Ending a relationship of any kind can be tough, but when someone tries to disentangle themselves from a narcissist, sociopath, or psychopath, the experience is a special kind of hell. From the beginning, partners are groomed to cater to the needs of the narc while denying all of their own. It’s an insidious process of devaluation that happens so gradually, few recognize what’s happening until it’s too late. Eventually, the partner of a narcissist will feel guilty for having any needs or boundaries at all. The narc’s constant requirement to be the center of attention at all times ensures that no one else can exist in that space. In the world of a narcissist, they are always right and everyone else is always wrong. If you don’t go along with their program, they are always the victim and you are always the perp.  Anyone who does not feed the insatiable ego of a narc at all times will be punished, and narcs are experts at dreaming up ways to be particularly and intentionally cruel.

The rules require 100% enforcement, which is why it is impossible to be in a relationship “just a little bit” with a narcissist. If you are in a relationship with them of any kind, you are required to go along with their plan to abuse you. Those who understand the rules but must interact with a narc, say for the sake of shared custody of children, can go gray rock.  Gray rock can be effective as a short term solution, but it doesn’t prevent one from being abused. It simply prevents a reaction to the abuse which is what the narcissist looks for to escalate even more harm.

There are a few factors which make it extremely difficult to get away from a narcissist. First and foremost, if you leave, the narc will play every trick they know to suck you back in. And they know a lot of tricks. They have been studying you and grooming you since day one. They picked you because you are kind, understanding, and empathetic, which are all the traits that they lack. They will play to your sense of goodness and decency. They will beg you for another chance. They will love bomb you and will use all the ways they know to appeal to your weaknesses. Narcs know they have a good deal going with you, and they will fight like hell to ensure their narcissistic supply doesn’t leave. It’s not you they want, it’s your kindness and empathy, which they intend to drain out of you. They are true vampires.

If you don’t give them what they want, narcs will switch love bombing tactics on a dime, and try to steamroll you into submission. Chances are, you’ve already experienced this, which is why you are trying to leave. It’s common for the victim of narcissistic abuse to feel extremely guilty about this. It’s part of the grooming. It’s common for the victim of narcissistic abuse to feel addicted to the narc. It’s part of the grooming. It’s common for the victim of narcissistic abuse to feel like they can “handle” the narc, especially in the love bombing stage. It’s part of the grooming. Once they learn to have better boundaries, it’s common for a victim of narcissistic abuse to feel like they can be in a relationship with a narc “just a little bit.” It’s part of the grooming.

Narcissists are not like other people. There is no such thing as “just a little bit.” It’s all or nothing. The only kind of boundary that works with a narc is a permanent, impermeable one, such as no contact. This is a difficult concept for most reasonable people because we are accustomed to human beings who are capable of being more dynamic than that. It is exactly because we don’t see the world in black and white terms that make us susceptible to narcissistic abuse. We project our own goodness, kindness, and common decency onto narcs when they have none. Our own self-preservation then sounds selfish and cruel, and we are suckered back into the abuse.

If you find yourself tempted to check in on the narc, or extend some kindness to them if they are going through a difficult time, be warned. It may not happen all at once, but the eventual cost of offering any part of yourself to a narcissist is your identity, self-esteem, and personhood. Your desire to be kind and compassionate is far better spent on your own healing.

 

Why I Never Keep Secrets

My mother had a knack for triangulating people through toxic secrets. She learned the behavior from her mother. She would start out by dropping some heavy piece of information that as a child I had no business knowing, and then say, “Don’t tell your (dad, brother, teacher, grandma, etc.) because I don’t wan’t to upset them.”

Essentially,  this meant I was screwed. Not only was the information itself a source of stress, but I also had to worry that whatever it was didn’t leak out. Even if it didn’t say anything, if the person found out, I would be blamed and deemed “untrustworthy.” On top of all that was an ethical dilemma. The person my mother was keeping secrets from had a right to know. When they inevitably would find out that I kept the information from them, they would be upset with me, not my mom. The stress piled up, and I suffocated under its toxic weight.

Because of toxic secrets in my family, I was psychologically and sexually abused. Because of toxic secrets in my family, I was alienated from all emotional support. Because of toxic secrets in my family, I am an orphan by choice.

Today, I adamantly refuse to keep toxic secrets. I will stay mum about birthday surprises and Christmas presents, but I will not be silent about someone’s dysfunctional behavior. Most toxic people have been relinquished from my inner circle, but it’s impossible to fully insulate from everyone.  Sometimes their poor choices will leak over to me and affect me by proxy. I realize this issue of secret-keeping effects me more than most. It’s the fallout of complex trauma. Just like a recovering alcoholic needs to avoid situations with social drinking, I need to avoid “every day” toxic situations, especially anything that starts out with, “Don’t tell so-and-so, but…”

The thing is, whatever the secret is that the toxic person is keeping from others is usually minimal compared to the drama they create by preventing it from airing out naturally. Toxic people never seem to trust that other people can handle plain, naked truth. It’s a weird, back-handed, co-dependent, passive-aggressive maneuver designed to control and manipulate others. It inevitably backfires, and when it does, it destroys relationships. It’s a compulsion to protect themselves from consequences. It’s a compulsion to put a buffer between them and reality. A toxic person will fight to keep their secret, when all that energy would be put to much better use toward finding a solution.

Secrets by design keep other people at an arm’s length when relationally, they most need to be drawn in. Telling the truth requires strength of character and vulnerability. It means risking intimacy. When someone is surrounded by dysfunction, it’s easy to see why secret-keeping looks like the better choice. But keeping secrets doesn’t make problems go away. It makes healthy people go away.

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