I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this subject of late. I won’t get into any of the details of why, but suffice it to say, I’ve had a number of conversations and seen stories of people who find themselves in situations, as adults, that from the outside seem easily changeable, yet they don’t do anything to try and change things.
I’m sure you’ve all seen similar stories, whether it be the abused wife who won’t leave, the disgruntled employee who never looks for another job, or the kid who gets bullied even into adulthood. I’ve always considered these situations to be a product of fear, afraid of what worse things might happen as opposed to the hell you know and live with. Lately, however, I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t something deeper behind that fear, especially when it comes to survivors of child abuse. What I see when I dig into that fear motivation, is powerlessness.
Yes, there’s fear of the unknown in changing all of those situations I listed, and many more specific situations that I know we can all relate to, but a big part of that fear seems to come from not having any sense that we actually have the power to say no, or to remove ourselves from a situation. As children, of course, we were taught exactly that. All the while I was being abused as a child, I didn’t have the power to say no, or to remove myself. It was taken away from me, and even now, as an adult, I recognize that there are times I look at circumstances that I could change, but fall right back into feeling like I don’t have the power to do so.
Of course, the interesting part of that, when I look at my own life, is that there are times when I have no problem saying no or making a change. I’m one of the first people to throw out the idea that if you don’t like something about your life, change it. Yet I recognize that there are areas where I avoid doing that, and I can tie those areas directly into my abuse history. For example, I easily do anything I can to avoid conflict, especially if the conflict involves a male who is older than me. (As I grow older that problem should take care of itself, right? *smirk*) I was abused by older males. To this day, almost all of my good friends, and the ones I spend the most time with, are female. I’m comfortable with who my friends are, and don’t necessarily want that to change, but shrinking away from older men, especially men in a power role, isn’t something that’s always good for me, yet it’s something I can tie directly back into my past.
Another example is one that some of you may not want to read, since it involves sex, and sexual abuse, so if that’s going to trouble you, go ahead and stop reading. You’ve gotten the point. 😉
As a sexual abuse victim, I look at some of these correlations between my past, and how I will respond as if I am powerless, even when I’m not, and I wonder if there aren’t some situations that I simply haven’t run in to yet. I’ve always said that, as a husband, I don’t make the decision to be faithful to my wife in the moment when another woman is throwing herself at me. I make it every single day, long before something like that ever happens. My reasoning has always been studies that show how humans, in the midst of sexual excitement, pretty much lose any ability to make good decisions. I didn’t really need a study to tell me that, but I’m glad they’re out there. As such, I don’t wander through life not even thinking about my commitment as a husband until I find myself in this situation, I make the decision to do everything I can to avoid finding myself there in the first place. Since I have mostly female friends and frequently spend time with them without my wife being present, that means I have to be somewhat selective. The friends I spend time with are all women who I know wouldn’t do something like that. They are all either happily married themselves, or just don’t have that type of “aggressive” personality, among other qualities.
Again, my decision to be faithful plays out in the every day choices I make about who I spend time with, and under what circumstances.
Now what does that have to do with my previous point? Maybe nothing, but maybe everything. As I said, I make these decisions to avoid a situation because I don’t want to have to deal with making a decision at that late point, and dealing with the uncomfortable consequences that result even from the correct decision, but I think part of me also makes those decisions because, deep down, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t revert to feeling like a powerless child in the midst of that. Simply put, as someone abused by older males I still have a great deal of difficulty recognizing the power to say no that I have when dealing with men, as someone abused in a sexually aggressive way, would sexual aggression leave me feeling the same way? I think it might, actually, though it’s difficult to know for sure. All examples of someone being sexually aggressive towards me as an adult that I can think of have occurred with women I was involved with, thus I haven’t really wanted to say no. (Or at least I haven’t wanted to say no that badly, but it is possible that I don’t think I can say no. I’m not usually analyzing my motivations at that point.)
Luckily, I’ve made it to this point in my life without being in a situation to really answer this question, and I’m hopeful that will remain the case. On the other hand, it does help me see why survivors I know who are otherwise strong, independent and powerful, find it so difficult to say no, or to make a change in specific areas of their lives. In that moment, they feel like small, powerless children again. But we aren’t and it’s important to remember that.
I am a 29 year old sexual child abuse survivor. My abuser was a removed distant family member. I am looking to make connections with other surviors and specifically other survivors who are writing. I just recently published a Christian Childrens book that aims to give hope back to children whom have had theirs stolen. I have a site with my backstory and info on what I have written. Please check it out and leave me a comment.http://auntloubooks.weebly.com/
Your post really resonates with me.
There has been soooo many times I have felt powerless when I really wasn’t… and it still happens, even though I might be better now at analysing a situation and then push myself.
I wanted to say that I read in a book about depression about an experiment that have been performed with dogs into learned helplessness. I do not recall all the details, but I would check it out if people are interested.
As I remember it they put two dog in two separate cages. form time to time the dogs are given a weak electrical shock. One of the dogs has a leaver in the cage and when he pulls it the shock stops for both.
The conclusion of the experiment is that even though they have been subjected to the same abuse, the dog which had no leaver shows much more deep behaviour problems, tending to sit in a corner and hide. recovery is also much much slower.
the author called this “learned helplessness”. I think, again I would have to check it, but I believe he related this to effects of abuse.
I can really see a link here. as children we don’t really have options, we were powerless, and unfortunately it seems to be something that we carry into adulthood, something we have learned.
I guess the good news is that it can be changed, time, patience and resilience are required but we can get there 🙂