Note: I use past tense for some people who are still currently in my life as I am going to eventually separate myself from them by legal means. This is a process so it takes time but want to clarify that emotionally, I am finally done letting my remaining toxic interpersonal relationships affect me. That being said, you can love someone still and know it is an unhealthy relationship and thus separate yourself from them. This will be another post at a later time but some notes on toxic interpersonal relationships here.
I have made many egregiously bad choices in my life. Among them are selfish and destructive choices I feel rightfully guilty over, such as the long-term and vile harassment of another person online, spurred by insecurity, both self-loathing and conceit, and self-righteousness. Another is blatantly dismissing the testimonial of an abuser’s little sister who had entrusted me with the secret that her older sister had broken her arm. This should not have remained a secret, and she and I both suffered for my denial of a very real problem. Out of more self-righteous thinking and behavior, I have meddled in situations that are not mine, further worsening some people’s circumstances in the process. While I would like to think they were purely well intentioned, I know my self-righteousness and own feelings of victimization have played a huge role in these particular actions, which is a major reason why my approaches to helping have sometimes caused further damage instead. Little works in crises when one is letting their inner (and still-hurting) child lead the way.
These wrongs that I committed hurt and even worse, potentially traumatized or helped traumatize others. My guilt here is justified and teaches me to not commit these sins again. Guilt is a positive emotion when it is about true heartfelt remorse. It is inspired by awareness, both of self and others, accountability, and is more central to ethical behavior than religion or law. The reason for this is that guilt is an internal measurement, and regardless of whether someone is more extroverted feeling, like me, and pays close attention to external rules and cues, or is more of an introverted feeler and pays close attention to internally formed rules and cues, guilt is what betters all of us socially when, like all discomfort and pain, we choose to grow from it.
For someone whose auxiliary function is extroverted feeling, (Fe), I learn too slowly. I effect change too slowly. And when I am unusually sick or stressed, I sometimes fall back on unhealthy and harmful behaviors, often again spurred by self-righteousness and unresolved feelings of victimization. I do recognize the urgent need to stop it, as those behaviors help no one and cause more hurt than resolution. I raise my voice, and when I say “raise my voice,” I mean I yell when I get angry. And I become someone I myself can’t stand because I know I am causing hurt, and for reasons that at the end of the day, conflict with the behavior. I want people to listen and understand because when I yell, I feel hurt and ignored or misunderstood. But I know – when I am thinking rationally – all anyone does when they yell like that is hurt others and themselves. That’s why I have asked people to tell me when I am starting to raise my voice, so I can check myself and quiet myself down. It’s no one’s responsibility but mine, but I lose awareness, the sight of the goal (positive inter & intrapersonal development), and rationale in the heat of the moment and still need external reminders to calm the f*ck down. I have only gotten loud like this in the past three years. I’ve come to realize why but reasons for an unhealthy behavior do not and should not ever be confused with excuses. Still, unlearning this has been hard, and I have made only minimal progress since it was brought to my attention almost a year ago. Guilt, or perhaps the more specific term and meaning — remorse — is powerful and can greatly help to rectify bad behavior, but it is not the lone motivating force. I am making progress however and through identification and an implementation of coping skills, I hope to make this a past behavior more quickly.
Guilt vs shame
There is another feeling many people may relate closely to guilt – I used to too – but I caution strongly against making them so close. I can’t really remember where I first learned of the vital difference of meaning of these two words, but I know that actually proactively learning the difference took a long time even after. I do remember staring at the worksheet/handout in my early teens, trying to sift through events and circumstances in my head while utilizing the words’ very different meanings but having great difficulty in doing so. (Note: TRIGGER WARNING for disordered thoughts, including thoughts related to disordered eating and sexual trauma.)Heavily disordered thoughts like, “But eating too much is an insult to those who don’t have enough when I’m this fat, so that’s guilt, right? Because gluttony is ethically wrong,” (I thought this while restricting/self-starving), “I am a burden to everyone. I make life worse for everyone around me. I should feel guilty for still being alive and causing the people who love me so much stress, and so I do,” (this disordered thought still often haunts me and was a major factor leading to 3 April’s suicide attempt), “I should feel guilty for being a ‘whore’ and wanting companionship, and so I do” (this disordered thought was unfortunately a huge factor to how I saw and treated myself and eventually let others treat me. I want to state now how that word is constructed out of misogyny and fear and need for control and I had identified with that word even throughout childhood when I had yet to develop sexually or sexuality.) “I’m stupid and can’t do well in school in anymore. I should feel guilty for not excelling academically and letting my parents down, and so I do,” “I should feel guilty for wanting or buying things as my mom struggles so much financially, and so I do” and another one of the most pertinent and permeating ones: “I make everyone else sick by being sick. I should feel guilty for feeling sad or upset, because it makes everyone around me worse, and so I do.”
These are somewhat paraphrased but the list of like thoughts went on. It had been going on and continued for years. Some thoughts, like being a burden or making other people sick by struggling with my own sicknesses, are thoughts I continue to deeply struggle with, but the feeling at the heart of all these thoughts is not guilt but shame. What all these thoughts have in common is irrational self-blame, which is not only often unhelpful but completely counterproductive. It stemmed from consistent abuse and trauma, varying from sexual to emotional to verbal and sometimes physical as well. I had developed schemas – which are learned patterns of thoughts or behaviors used to organize and/or “understand” the world around oneself – from my pain, telling me I was “less than” for being imperfect, for having been damaged, and for simply being human. I felt shame for eating anything. “Clean eating,” a phrase that in itself is toxic in nature, did not exist to me how it’s supposed to exist. It existed in the sense that I associated my own eating with being dirty, even though I judged no one else for needing or even “just wanting” food. But I felt shame for even requiring food, for going to the bathroom, for needing to shower, for sweating, for crying, for feeling pain, for doing absolutely normal human things.
I know where these thoughts came from. Even though I had always been thin, I remember my father telling me how “chubby” I was getting and that I should “start dieting” when I was in that awkward physical stage of childhood when little girls’ have slight but totally normal “pouches” – I was eight years old and hadn’t seen my father in a year. My mother was often on a paid diet plan and always struggled with her self-image because of her own mother’s abuse, and it was quite clear, but I would more often hear how fat I was getting and how I should not eat so much rather than the echo of her own shame regarding her eating habits. I often heard though how inadequate she felt about not being financially stable and independent or how she felt shame for not housekeeping appropriately, and I always tried to comfort her because of this. None of these things really mattered to me in terms of her character – our financial struggle, the clutter around us – because to me, those have never been indicative of someone’s worth as a person. To this day, I am not angry at her for not having the wealth she once had or even for her bad housekeeping. I’m bad at housekeeping too right now and I know that is partially due to having physical limitations she also had, such as severe chronic pain. I defended her greatly throughout childhood until therapists began bringing up the true toxic nature of our relationship. In sessions together, she would cry instead of me, as I learned not to cry when she cried “so I wouldn’t make her feel worse,” and at a certain point, I was told by one therapist that we needed our therapy sessions to be focused on my recovery, “as opposed to her hurt.”
There were other things that hurt me that she did. My pain, concerns, and feelings were often dismissed or worse, I was often told that my negativity would make our cats sick. When they did get sick, (as old cats do), I blamed myself. After our cat, Lena, died in my arms, I had nightmares for months that I brought her back to life only to do something that ended up killing her. I always equated this to the fact that in her last two weeks, she went from a healthy cat to totally gone from us, and my mother refused to take her to the vet. She was already 18, and her kidneys had failed so it was probably true that there was nothing more we could do than be with her in her last days. She chose me to visit before she died. She chose my arms to be in. And I know that never sat well with my mother. I know it was grief, as she loved Lena very much. We all did. But I had nightmares for months, thinking it was my fault she was dead. Perhaps Lena truly visited me that night just to assure me that it was ultimately old age and no one’s fault. But I felt shame over her death for years, even after the nightmares stopped. The only time my mother ever acknowledged my disordered eating was when she told me my cat Twinkle stopped eating “because” I “stopped eating.” These events and words drastically affected me until recently even when I realized how all the cats I have lived with have lived happily to over 18 years of age.
Another note: I thought my mother had changed when I was 16 and she had started attending regular therapy sessions but ultimately, she still relied on toxic behaviors that she saw as self-preservation. I realize I am worth more than she has told me I am and am learning and acknowledging the truth about myself, my pain, and the pain I have caused, a total image that is very different than the one she painted for me. I am actively learning to be myself, love myself, and improve myself, and while I am open to listening to constructive input, that has to be independent of who anyone tells me who I am using their own pain as the judge.
Sexual trauma in childhood, shame for my corporeal being, and directly (and some indirectly) related struggles with sexuality accounted for the feelings of “being a ‘whore.'” I saw no one during my school years and was raped again at 16. I internalized this situation, telling no one it was rape, because I felt it was completely my fault for “being a ‘whore'” and “leading him on.” I was 16, and he was 27. After he raped me, he kicked me out of the apartment without my sweater, called me a whore, and told me to leave. Years later, he recontacted me on facebook and told me he wanted me to come back to Pennsylvania to “bear his children.”
This experience was a contributing factor to my tubal ligation at 21, as I had known already all my life I never wanted to birth children, and was terrified of situations like coerced reproduction.
There were many other contributors to the development of some of the same schemas, e.g. the girl whose little sister I mentioned in the first paragraph sent me sites that encouraged disordered eating, “how-to” guides for hiding disordered habits from others, and verbally, emotionally, and sometimes physically abused and attacked me. “Friends” I had made often left or spread rumors about me, reinforcing the belief that I made everyone around me feel bad and sick by feeling bad and sick myself. But despite all of these contributors, they are in the past, and it is my responsibility now to heal from the damage that was done.
So, schemas often come from somewhere and are not necessarily trauma-related but are generally always incomplete or inaccurate and largely learned in childhood. Schemas can include stereotypes and/or prejudice as well. Point is, they are generally always incomplete or inaccurate, and I personally feel objectivity – or at least the pursuit of it as no true objectivity really exists – gives greater room for healing than subjectivity, especially subjectivity of such a misinformed nature. This very trait, however – that they come from a place of deep-seated subjectivity, often based on what we are taught or shown – makes them difficult to identify and even more difficult to change.
But it’s still possible to do so.
These people all had their own pain, stressors, minds, and lives. For a long time since identifying many of my schemas, I was stuck in that victimization period. As I have said, that feeling of having been victimized still comes out during times of hard duress, but I am working dutifully to move on from that because I know, consciously, that being a victim of my past prevents me from creating a better future for myself. That is a hard lesson to fully realize and actualize, but I am getting there. I feel the remorse for letting shame influence so much of my behavior towards people – including myself. I have tried many times to destroy my body. I have acted out, acted rashly, detrimentally, and immaturely, and that is no one’s fault or responsibility but mine. While the way people treated me was not my fault, my reaction to my pain is, and I need to take accountability for that, especially when I continuously repeat those reactions.
So I commit to the future by learning from my past, no longer resenting it or feeling shame because of it. The symptoms that I manifested are not who I really am, even though they consumed so much of my life to this point. I have the resources, insight, and fortitude to progress and will choose to do so, as I am not my disease(s) and have a responsibility to both others and myself to be the best version of myself possible.
That being said, I am looking forward to the future.