Adults who have not recovered from complex childhood trauma usually relate to others in one of two ways. They either relate to others as a victim by underestimating their power in a situation or they seek out power over others. I wish I could say that each person chooses one or the other. It would be easy to spot the victims and the bullies if that was the case. Unfortunately, it is usually a combination. While they probably have a favorite style, they may fall somewhere on the continuum between a full-fledged bully and powerless victim. And it may be inconsistent within each relationship.
Before my recovery work, my personal choice was that of the victim, but I have bullied. And honestly, I still have to work hard every day to avoid playing these roles. I write often about my struggles with my internal oppressor and how living as a victim is dysfunctional at best. However, the inner bully is just as important to address.
Bullies show up in so many ways. They may be obvious with a very aggressive approach to others. When I worked in the corporate world, these folks were everywhere and they usually fared well in that environment. It is unfortunate that our society rewards such aggressive behavior. We like to refer to them as “go-getters who know what they want”. But in reality, they are suffering from trauma that has left them insecure and seeking power.
Bullies may have children and continue the cycle of abuse. This may not come as a surprise, but I believe these are the worst of the bullies, and honestly, the wimpiest.
But then there are the bullies that disguise themselves as helpers. They may join movements against child abuse or trafficking. They act as though they want the best for the victims, but what they really want is to tell the victims what to do. They want to save the victim instead of saving themselves. And they want the victim to act and respond as they do. And when the victim chooses a different path, the judgment comes fast and furious. And it works well. The powerless are already wired for these relationships, so they may not realize they have moved from one oppressive situation to another.
I am not trying to be negative about advocates. I have met many fantastic advocates. However, I have had personal experiences with advocates who were entrenched in their own stories of trauma, whether they knew it or not. I have been told how I should act as a survivor. I have been told that I have to tell my story. I have been told not to tell my story. I have been told which laws I should support and which laws I should not. I have been told how to recover. I have even been told that my recovery must include certain elements to be a full recovery.
And I have learned that my own system is perfectly wired for interacting with these people. My fight, flight or freeze mentality automatically picks a response for each experience. Flight is my favorite. I will isolate. I will remove myself from the situation. I will be tempted to remove myself from the entire world if the difficult relationship gets bad enough.
My fight response initially seems like a step in the right direction but it’s not. This is not an empowered fight response. This is a reactive fight response. My fight response will only kick in when the oppression has gone too far for too long. When that happens, my fight response is an over-reaction to the particular incident that was the proverbial “straw on the camel’s back”. It never ends well. It usually leaves the relationship in ruins which was probably the point. Who wants a relationship with a bully? But take it from me, it’s not a good way to end relationships.
My freeze response is a paralysis that can continue for hours or days or weeks. And during this time, I accomplish very little. This doesn’t mean I stay in bed all day. I still look like I am functioning, but productivity is at a bare minimum. I will only do the smallest amount of work to keep everything running. When I come out of this mode, I usually have a lot of work to do.
While it might seem like a good goal to remove all bullies from the world, it is a bit unrealistic. I am reminded of the AA prayer about serenity, courage and wisdom. I have painfully learned that the only thing I have the ability to change is my reaction. Unfortunately, this is hard. It requires rewiring my brain to respond to these bullies in an empowered way. Of course, I don’t know how to be empowered. I was never taught that as a child.
And so I struggle every day to speak my mind and adjust how I view the power of others. Even when the others have made it clear that they are extremely powerful, I work to understand that I have power too. I try to come to the realization that I can love myself with or without the love of others. They may not like what I have to say. They may tell me that. But if I do what I feel is right in my heart and soul, the opinions of others have to take a back seat. And I will have to be strong enough to know that is ok. And that is not easy for a survivor who has only been taught to be powerless because our inner strength is not powerless.
Our inner strength is the only power we need.
Note: For those who work with adult survivors of childhood trauma, please understand that it is not your job to tell a survivor how to recover or how to represent themselves during recovery. You do not know more about them than they do. It is your job to show them what a supportive and unconditional relationship looks like. It is the unconditional relationship that will help them heal. It is the only thing that will.