I've spent a lot of time dissecting and digesting the first 35 years of my life over the last two years. There has been a lot of time reflecting and remembering and processing. Initially, the new revelations abounded as I rewrote what I thought my life was. But once the major stuff was dealt with, the little stuff remained.
I have these new insights now that aren't frequent, but are still pretty important for my future and my childrens' futures. They aren't generally painful (which I am grateful for) and the end results give me more tools that I can use to live my life with excellence.
These moments remind me of what Christians say regarding the Bible. Every time we read it, the Lord reveals some new application to us. That's the best description I have for these a-ha moments of my past. When I take the time to look back and analyze another piece, I receive new understandings of what actually happened that led me to those abusive situations and to the place I am now.
The last few months I have been focusing specifically on what made me fight for healing two years ago versus why I didn't - or couldn't - 17 years ago. I assumed that there would be several reasons which all combined together, preventing me from pursuing health years ago, but there really isn't. At the core of all of it, there's really just one reason.
Seventeen years ago, I wasn't emotionally safe to deal with the abuse. Two years ago, I was. When I was 20, I didn't have one person in my home who was willing to listen to me talk about what happened without minimizing or discrediting it. Now I have a person who will hear all of the details without hesitation.
My childhood home was not an emotionally safe place. My parents did not create that for us and they did not teach us, as their kids, to be that way for one another. Any time I experienced emotions or thoughts that the family wouldn't like, I knew I had to keep it to myself or it would be scoffed at, disregarded as dramatic or oversensitive, or eventually used as a story to laugh about during a family holiday meal.
We all had to put on masks with one another. Being authentic or genuine about very real emotions or troubles made the household uncomfortable and that was not allowed. We all knew this "rule" of hiding our innermost self with our family and played our part.
Because of that upbringing, though, I made it a point to keep people at a distance during my post traumatic years. I was afraid to have my pains exposed to "outsiders," because I assumed they would use those hurts against me. I went out of my way to intentionally hurt others, lie to them, and manipulate them to protect myself from what I assumed would be ridicule or diminishment. It was my aggressive technique of survival.
Although the worst symptoms dissipated once I was married, so many of my trust issues quietly remained. Matthew never rolled his eyes at me when I mentioned the rapes. He never questioned my story, told me I needed to move on, or treated me as if I was childish. Yet I didn't trust him for years with the whole story of what happened.
It had been ingrained in me that no one wanted to hear me talk about the abuse and I assumed that to be my husband's mentality as well. It took 15 years to get to the place where I believed he would stay if he knew the whole truth. And I had to not only believe he would stay, but also believe that he would support, protect, and value me if he knew everything.
15 years for me to undo all the damage
having no emotional safety had caused.
Once I recognized - and accepted - that I was safe with Matthew, I was able to begin healing. It first took being emotionally safe before anything else could happen. It took having a person who knew how fragile my trust was in this area to walk with me through the process.
Matthew isn't an abuse survivor, so it's not like he had his own experience to relate to. He also had no prior knowledge about this topic. Matthew's entire attitude regarding his role as my support was simple...
"Am I safe?"
If our conversations made him uncomfortable, I rarely knew it. If Matthew ever internally questioned my story, I had no idea. If the things I disclosed to him were infuriating, heartbreaking, or scary, Matthew kept those reactions to himself.
Why? Because he knew I needed him to be completely, 100% emotionally safe if I was going to keep moving towards health and healing. This choice was the difference between my continuing to hide the pain and my fighting to overcome all of the pain. What I didn't have nearly two decades ago, my husband gave to me throughout our marriage and the result was the ability and strength to heal from so much trauma. He chose to be safe for me.
The concept of being a Safe Person is not complicated, but it is difficult.
Many people agree that, as a whole, we need to become better listeners. We need to refrain from offering advise when a hurting person just needs us to be present and listen. I would take this a step further to say we don't need to just become good listeners but we need to become validating listeners.
We need to become good at validating people's emotions and thoughts when we are invited into their vulnerability. We need to get much better at saying the words, "it's ok."
It's ok that you can't get out of bed today.
It's ok that you are struggling with an addiction.
It's ok that you aren't sure you can forgive that person.
Please hear me: I am NOT SAYING we shouldn't want that person to change their thoughts and feelings to be more positive. Of course, we want our loved ones to get out of the dark and harmful places! What I AM saying is that every person is entitled to think and feel however they need to in response to their life circumstances. We are each allowed to feel whatever emotions needed, based on our situations and circumstances, regardless of how uncomfortable others may become.
We all have had experiences that result in negative thoughts, negative feelings, and sometimes negative actions. Our souls are designed to respond to painful and traumatic experiences and often the response looks like anger, sorrow, depression, or fear.
There are times, however, when someone else's normal emotions make us uncomfortable. In those moments, we often choose not to validate that person's emotions. We'll say things like, "Don't think that!" "It's not good that you're still angry," or "I don't like that you feel that way." We'll try to get that hurting person from expressing their soul's normal and entitled response because we don't like how we feel around those emotions. When we say these seemingly harmless statements, we don't validate their right to have a natural human response to difficult circumstances and, therefore, we become emotionally unsafe to them.
We need to practice saying the words "That's ok."
"I cut myself again."
"I want to drink until I stop feeling."
"I want to die, because I hurt so much."
We can encourage a change in behavior once we earn their trust, not before. Before, we need to tell them that it's ok and normal how their soul is responding to their pain.
I know this is hard to wrap our minds around. We don't think we should be telling anyone it's ok to harm themselves. But the alternative - telling them that it's not ok and they should stop - only brings more shame, self-loathing, and hiding.
And when people in pain hide, they don't heal.
We heal when our pain is exposed & flushed out.
Often we don't expose our pain unless we have an emotionally safe person with whom to do that. This particular piece - being safe for others by validating their emotions, thoughts, and even at times actions - is the key to healing hurts.
Seventeen years ago, my thoughts, feelings, and actions were not validated. They were not permitted because they were ugly, messy, and uncomfortable. Two years ago, those same thoughts and feelings were allowed and encouraged. I was heard, seen, and validated and because those emotions were allowed to be expressed, my actions didn't negatively reflect my pain. Meaning, I didn't return to the cutting, lying, and promiscuity that once consumed my PTSD years.
I was safe.
I am still safe.
And more than that, I can now be completely safe for others, something that was impossible for me before. That's the difference between having a safe person and not having one.
I am proof of the difference.
Speak Truth Ministries' vision is to have Safe People (Mentors) for sexual abuse survivors who need someone to validate them in between counseling sessions. To sponsor a Mentor or support STM, please visit our Outreach page.
**You can read my full story of abuse and redemption in Thrive.