Ask and answer

Pat asked an interesting question in the comments of the last entry, and I wanted to expound a bit further on the idea:

My question is: do you find that the fact that you’re a chid abuse survivor turns people off from you? It’s not that I tell people about my past. When I encounter new people I smile and I’m friendly, but the impression that I have, and my husband’s feedback confirms this, is that people just instinctively feel the sadness I have inside, and they don’t understand it because they don’t know me, and they don’t want to get to know me because they don’t understand it, and they prefer happy, “normal” people.

Getting to know new people and how friendships change and develop over a period of time is an interesting thing. I don’t think there’s really any one thing that I can say to answer this question because how people perceive you is completely random. Simply put, the vast majority of people who meet you at any given time are going to make a quick judgment about you, your personality, or your intentions based on their own experiences and world view.

For example, something I’m sure most abuse survivors can relate to, if I meet someone who physically reminds me of the person who abused me, I’m not going to be comfortable or interested in getting to know this person. It has nothing to do with them, but it’s true nonetheless. Assuming that people see you as “sad” and aren’t interested is much too general a statement. You really have no idea what each of those individuals is bringing to the table in a first encounter. They may see a sadness in you, or they may see something else, or maybe they just simply don’t see anything in common to bond over and therefore don’t really pursue any further contact. Most friendships are formed over shared interests, or shared goals, not as a part of a plan. I don’t believe I can count among my friends anyone who I set out to be friends with, they are all people I’ve found a common interest with, or spent time working on a project with.

Now, having said that, there are some other aspects to friendships that I think people really struggle with. One of the biggest is that people change. I’m not the same person I was 9-10 years ago, expecting the friendships I had then to continue to be the same as they were then is fairly ludicris. As I’ve changed over the years, the roles different people have played in my life have changed. People I used to talk to almost daily, I now talk to once a month. We simply don’t have as much in common as we used to and the roles we’ve played in each other’s lives are different. I haven’t stopped caring about them, and I assume they haven’t stopped caring about me, the relationship is just different, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I think you’l find a few things as you make healthier decisions for yourself and work to overcome the abuse in your past. One, you will change, and some of the people you’re currently friends with, won’t change with you. Either they’ll resent the fact that you aren’t the same person they’ve been used to, or you’ll simply move apart in your lives. Either way, there’s nothing for you to do to stop this, it is the natural way of interpersonal relationships.

Secondly, I think as you become a healthier person, you’ll find yourself more likely to have common interests with other healthy people. You’ll simply become more able to be friends with people and have good friendships because you’re taking care of yourself and it will show.

To sum up a very long post, my advice is simple. Get involved in activities, hobbies or other interests and you’ll find yourself alongside people with the same interests, and perhaps most importantly, continue to improve yourself. That’s the one aspect of this that you control. Other people’s views are beyond your ability to control, no sense in trying.

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  1. Thanks for your advice, it makes a lot of sense. What you said about how you’re not comfortable around people who remind you of your abuser made me wonder about what it is that makes me feel uncomfortable, and I think my problem is that people in general frighten me. I know it’s irrational, but I can’t help it. In my mind, I don’t think anything’s wrong with them, but I think subconsciously and in my emotions I just don’t feel safe. So of course I don’t make them feel good. I’m comfortable with people in authority positions (e.g. teachers), probably because as I was growing up it was mainly people in those sorts of roles who were kind to me, but otherwise I grew up in a very cold and sometimes violent family environment, there was sexual abuse both from outside and within the family and I was very isolated. No brothers or sisters and very few visitors to the house apart from kids in the neighbourhood I played with and I never told anyone what was going on. Even as a baby I was aware that I had better watch out and take care of myself since I couldn’t count on any other human being to. I disconnected emotionally very early on to protect myself, and while that led to the development of some of the strengths I have now, I guess that’s the thing that’s so ingrained in me that I instinctively feel afraid of people, often without being aware of it myself at the time – this belief that “I had better watch out and take care of myself since I couldn’t count ON ANY OTHER HUMAN BEING TO”. Wow… I never realised this before. So that’s why I have such a general problem with people. Thanks Mike! 🙂 So now what do I do? I can’t force myself to feel safe if I don’t. I guess I should just try as much as possible to find and create situations for myself where I do feel safe, as well as taking more risks even when I don’t feel safe. It’s going to take so much time and I don’t know how far I will get, but I guess it’s what I have to do to be happier and less lonely.

  2. Pat, I think you’ve got the right idea. You don’t need me to tell you. Just continue to work on finding situations where you feel safe, and continue to work on your healing, which may in turn help you feel safer in more situations.

    It will take awhile and be hard, there are no shortcuts, but the end results are worth it.

  3. Here’s my take. I have unrealistic expecatations of friends following all my childhood experiences (abuse, abortion and parental divorce). I expect them to be totally loyal and there for me all the time, like I am for them. However, I’ve slowly realised that it is human nature for people to be unreliable every now and then or just too damn busy to worry about your latest crisis.

    Since 2003, when I fell out with my father spectacularly and nearly spiralled into the blackest pit going, I realised that friends can only really help you so much. In fact what I preferred and when I was happiest was when enjoying a social situation with friends where we talked about everything else other than my Dallas of a life. Talking about other stuff meant I have fun.

    I think being an abuse suvivor can make you far too analytical and retrospective. You are thinking everyone is as critical of you as you are. IN your head you think you don’t deserve good mates or that you are worthy to talk to because you have been conditioned that way. You have to try and talk yourself out of that. Once you feel you have something to offer, other people will recognise that straight away.

    Once I had my daughter, I met a lot of people in my town. Some of which I have a lot in common and some of which just the parenting role in common. In a way I like having a big group of friends that know nothing about my past life. I have quite a lot of old friends who know it all and that’s enough for me. I don’t think anyone who would meet me would know my past. In fact, the blog I’ve been writing has been a shock to many of my friends.

    I definitely think when you are happier in yourself you draw more people towards you.

  4. Hi Emily,

    I can relate to the bit where you say that “I think being an abuse suvivor can make you far too analytical and retrospective. You are thinking everyone is as critical of you as you are. IN your head you think you don’t deserve good mates or that you are worthy to talk to because you have been conditioned that way.” Since I left university, my self-confidence has gone down and I find myself thinking thoughts that no one likes me and there’s something wrong with me – thoughts I didn’t use to have so much before. All the new people I’ve met since I’ve been married are through my husband (not an abuse survivor and a very relaxed, secure person), and they are all “normal” (I know I’m over-generalising here) people who I think find me confusing because they’re just not used to my type. When I was single and in university, I tended to meet more people who I clicked more with (not necessarily abuse survivors) and who could understand me and they didn’t find me strange (without having to even talk about the past) so I was more relaxed. I’m just very different emotionally from the kind of people I tend to meet now, so we connect less, and my self-esteem isn’t very secure, so I can be very sensitive to people who look at me like they find me weird. I should just try to be more tolerant I suppose.

    I can also relate to what you said in your first paragraph. I also used to have very high expectations of close friends in this way in the past, but then I realised that (in my case anyway) they were functioning sort of like a substitute family, and the thing is, friends are friends and can never be family. They might be able to fulfil this need for a while, but not forever, (they will get tired of it, become too busy with other things or you grow apart, etc.) while family is always family (for good or bad). I am now concentrating on building the love and trust in my new family that I never had in my first one, and am seeing friends as “just” friends. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try to get very close if the relationship goes that way, but in general I try to keep it lighter and I make a very clear distinction now between friends and family.

  5. Emily’s words resonate here as well.

    I’ve come to realise just how scared and wary of people I am these days; I’ve noticed more and more my body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, inflection and so on, and the thing is, I’ve only just realised I’m doing it, so yeah, I’d have to say people are going to be seeing this and respond accordingly, probably all subliminal, in the first 3 seconds or whatever it is that we judge people by.

    Though we have similar reactions to the world, our abuse was obviously unique to us, so our coping mechanisms will allow us to try to operate as normally as we can, given our past. Self healing, moving on or being able to function in life is a process that takes place in a time scale that we can’t guess at.

    In my case, I was initially diagnosed with PTSD and then, after uncovering the child abuse, I have exteme hypervigilance, something which has become second nature for me, instinctual, even. Breaking out of that mindset, after 30 years isn’t going to happen immediately, nor will insight to knowing about it make is suddenly go away.

    That’s what makes reading about healing and making friends and achieving things hard to swallow, all because my experiences are different from everyone else, my ability to heal, mend, get over, come to terms with and integrate what happened to me into someone who is at peace with themselves. I can’t say that I am yet.

    Sorry for the long waffle, I did have a point, but it got buried in the text somewhere. I guess that my experiences and past have a profound affect on me and that along with how people perceive me will go hand in hand until I’m moving on, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get over being able to trust people because of what happened – I’m still reacting to the world as a five year old child.

  6. Dear emily,

    I have lived my live with MPD/DID. Basically, that means my grey matter is shared by many different people aging from childhood to old age. All of my life, people have judged keepers (the name I have for my system of alters.) and condemned us for being different. Eventually, keepers learned to just live our lives and not let it any one else’s opinion of us have any more than a passing power over us. It does not really matter at all what anybody thinks as long as you are in a good relationship with yourself.

    peace and blessings,


  7. Andy

    I don’t think you ever fully trust anyone again. You have to accept that part of healing is giving yourself to people (family, friends, partners, coworkers and even people you meet through blogs) and some are going to blow you out of the water again. But this is where, I think personally, dealing with the effects of the abuse come into play. We are not unique in having trust broken. Many people experience betrayal and broken trust in a variety of guises. What makes us different from those people is we think we deserved it and we find it hard to get over the hurt. The other people move on and see it as part of life.

    For example before I met my husband I lived with this guy and I loved him totally. He was a bit of an arse but just in the way 22-year-olds are. He dumped me and I found out he had been unfaithful. My first thought, if I am honest, was: “How could he do that to me when he knows everything I’ve been through.” By that I mean, how could he shatter the trust I so willingly gave him?

    But, if I was a non-abuse survivor, I would also have been devastated. But me reacted was twinged with the victim stance of “Oh no! It’s happening again and I told him everything about me too. Will anyone ever be just nice and reliable?”

    The answer here is no. Not really. No one is perfect. Even my husband, who loves me deeply and I him, can be a berk. And, more to the point, I can be too. We are just human and we have faults like everyone else.

    I guess my point of coming to terms with everything (and I was never aware of a single point of “YEAH! I AM OK NOW!”) was when I stopped thinking everyone should treat me different, be kinder, nicer and protect me from harm. What I needed was to deal with the hard knocks every other person deals with (shit jobs, being skint, being dumped, friends being crap, etc) and learning that it is ok to be fed up when these things happen. I also stopped trying so hard. I tried to be the best friend you could ever have, the person who would drop everything to help and who tried ultra hard at work. These days I do things I like and mostly for myself and my family. If I meet people along the way who want to hitch on the ride that is cool. If not, well, it’s really is ok too.

    Interestingly, the only time I became aware that I was “better” was when I came close to actually harming myself in 2003. That’s when I thought: “NO! Mr X is not worth my life and nor is anything else thrown at me. I want to see what happens if I let go of it all and just accept what happened but also accept that I am a completely different person now.”

    I don’t mean to rub it in by saying I am the happiest now than I ever have been, but wish to give you hope in a, hopefully, non-patronising way.

    I wish most of all for you to find your own happy path in life. While you find it, at least you have met some other survivors who are here to listen and help if you need it.

  8. Dear John and keepers

    Exactly. It’s all about stop worrying that you are different and how people judge you. People are always going to judge you on meeting you anyway.

    It all got better once I stopped trying so hard to make people like me. I did things for myself that I liked and made me feel good.

    I really hope Pat and Andy reach that place and I hope they know I am rooting for them, and everyone else going through abuse survival

  9. Thanks so much for this wonderful discussion. Pat, thanks so much for speaking up. I am so thrilled to find someone else asking the same intensely uncomfortable questions that I’ve been asking. I think it takes guts to speak up and make yourself so vulnerable before an audience.
    Thanks for this website Mike.
    I think for a child abuse survivor, the scariest thing in the world is to have to face the fact that one is not as loathsome and weird and despicable as one thinks. The sense of shame and disbelief and horror at the past reality and the disparity between past and present is too much. And the feeling of having one’s imaginary faults hanging out for all to see is overwhelming. Maybe because that underlines how bad the abuse was because the survivor didn’t deserve it. And maybe because the survivor really needs to embrace oneself a lot more and that others are really not that perfect at all. All these are incredibly terrifying ideas. Is there anything worse than being persecuted repeatedly in a demeaning and disgusting way FOR NO REASON AT ALL especially when one is a child and therefore most vulnerable?
    The sense of injustice and the realization of the randomness of the world is too much for the human mind which needs a sense of cause and consequence, predictability and orderliness to function normally.
    The idea of so much random evil being out there is something we ALL reserve for other people: Jewish holocaust survivors, serial killer victims, other women whose husbands beat them. Not us.
    If we got hurt, then in the interests of preserving our world-view, we tell ourselves that we deserved it.
    I think the fear of building up hope, optimism and faith in oneself, only to have it shot down and demolished, as it was hundreds of time during childhood, is very powerful.
    Sorry for the long comment.

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