As a first step in my recovery from surviving and extricating myself from an abusive, toxic marriage, I immediately set about finding an answer to the pressing question of “How in the f*ck did I let that happen to me?!”, and its logical follow-on of “How do I stop this shit from ever happening again?”.
January 2014 – present
When you seek, you find. I happened upon this article while looking for something else and found it tremendously helpful: http://www.baggagereclaim.co.uk/understanding-the-levels-of-boundaries-and-discomfort-working-your-way-from-low-level-to-dangerous/
I recently discovered the biggest reason or collection of reasons why I ended up in a toxic, abusive marriage is because I have somehow managed to exist for a few decades with absolutely no personal standards or boundaries. I believe that my marriage (and many other unfortunate situations I let myself get into) is/was a symptom of a lifelong habit I have in which I routinely place myself in harm’s way, sort of half-hoping that someone else will rescue me, and by doing so, ascribe value to me since I have no innate sense of self worth, while the disaster that inevitably ensues serves to reconfirm my abiding belief in my own worthlessness. Yes, I know that is really fucked up, and now that I am aware of it, I can change it.
So how did I end up with no standards or boundaries? First of all, let’s clarify something. I DO have standards about certain things, such as the quality of work I do and the condition in which I try to keep my belongings and at least try to treat other people. I just apparently never developed any standards about how I expect to be treated by others. In any case, the answer I came up with is that I had few opportunities to develop any since my life was pretty much a marathon of hoop-jumping in which I was coerced into compliance, leaving me with a sense of “learned helplessness” and a belief that my personal needs and thoughts and feelings had absolutely no value.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not blaming my parents for that. I have a 100% unshakeable belief that it came from a place of total love. They wanted the very best for my brother and me (I am the oldest by two years), so they did their level best to see to it that we would turn out right and stand the best possible chance of being able to succeed in a brutally competitive world while protecting us from harm. Unfortunately in my case this produced a character that digs in its heels and rebels against absolutely everything as a matter of general principle, and I have still to this day never really learned to enjoy anything or think in terms of what would might make me happy.
My life was rigidly scheduled: go to school, get good grades, do homework, practice my instruments, get shuttled from one after-school thing to another (ballet, piano lessons, ensemble lessons, violin lessons, youth orchestra rehearsal, soccer practice, games, recitals, concerts, etc.) It’s not that I regret any of those things or didn’t enjoy aspects of them! It’s just that being happy or enjoying it was never deliberately a part of the equation. Life was one big competition, and all about “this is the stuff you have to do, or else”. Since saying “no” was not acceptable and communicating authentically was seldom if ever rewarded, I learned to deny my feelings and sabotage things instead.
One of my best friends (another violinist) and I share the unfortunate trait of being chronically late to everything. We had a conversation about it one day and speculated that it might be our way of passively-aggressively rebelling against a childhood that was stringently scheduled down to 15 or 30-minute increments with little margin for error. This may also be the genesis of my lousy time management and pathological proclivity to procrastinate and put everything off until the very last minute, again sabotaging the outcomes.
As far as close relationships went, my brother and I were always in competition with each other: who did the best in this subject at school or that one; who performed better at their piano recital or in the soccer match; who had more friends, was more likeable, etc. The idea of male humans being potential friends (let’s not even talk about lovers!) was a strange one to me since in my early experience they were little other than a nuisance and source of unfair competition (he was the Golden Boy and the sun shone out of his ass while I couldn’t do anything right if my life depended on it; and I was astonished to learn not so many years ago through a friend of his that he felt the same way, i.e., that I was the “virtuoso”, and he was the “black sheep”!), which logically resulted in near daily contests of who could beat up who (that got ridiculous about halfway through junior high school when he went through a growth spurt in which he got much bigger and stronger than me practically overnight), who could think up the most vicious, hurtful insults, and on and on.
Boys just became bigger nuisances and more unfairly-leveraged competition (for my few female friends’ time and attention) as I got older since I had never developed the social skills or bullshit filter to be able to cope with the transformation that occurred practically overnight sometime when I was about 17 from being a weird, scrawny, awkward, oddly-dressed little kid that other kids found easier to tease and make fun of than try to figure out how to befriend, into an object of lust.
This exposé would not be complete without mentioning another six-ton elephant in the living room: that I came of age during the “big hair heavy metal era” centered in L.A. (I grew up a bow-shot south in San Diego, CA), coinciding with the advent of MTV in which girls/women were generally depicted as disposable sex toys with the subtext that we’re supposed to be happy with that, while constantly being bombarded by messages that sex is the be-all and end-all, but not having any conversations at home that would have helped me make sense of it and develop a properly calibrated Shit Detector.
When I left home a few weeks into my first year at university (a major act of rebellion since the U was located about 10 minutes from my parents’ home), I had so little life experience by that point that I was ludicrously unprepared for an unsupervised life as a really pissed off teenager in the adult world, and the result was as expected. Not helping matters was having tested out of practically everything required by my degree programme during the first year or two, and placed in second- or third-year courses that I was similarly woefully underprepared for the rigour of. In fact, my having tested into the 2nd year Comprehensive Musicianship course for my B.Mus. degree as a freshman was unprecedented!
All this digging and dismantling and psychic dissection brought early memories of boundary violations trickling back and I realize that by the time I was about seven or eight years old, my pattern of automatically complying with unreasonable demands of others and allowing my personal boundaries to be mowed flat was entrenched. A couple other things that may have contributed to my excessive, perhaps even pathological tolerance for behaviour that deviates sharply from what would be considered “normal” and “acceptable” by the majority of the population:
- what I refer to as my “artistic curiosity”. Creative inspiration seems to spring from discovery and from adversity. If you never venture outside of what feels safe and comfortable and never push limits, you tend not to have transformational experiences that can (sometimes) lead to spectacular creation; and
- just as I graduated from university I began what was to become my second “relationship” that lasted more than a day or two. Once this man succeeded in “getting” me after relentlessly pursuing me for several months, I often ended up feeling like a houseguest that had overstayed my welcome, or like the army whore in the Rambo movie, or like one of his day labourers. A friend of mine observed from listening to my copious lamentations about that crazymaking liaison that “…he has made his world so small and has everything so tightly controlled that there is no room for anyone else to be in there with him…”. That had a profound impact on me.
After being raised in an oppressively controlled environment followed by a 5-year stint in a similarly oppressively controlling religious cult I got recruited into where I was having all sorts of restrictions and injunctions imposed on me that were not authentically my own (which ironically the man mentioned above played a significant role in liberating me from), I had a lot of lost time and experience deprivation to make up for, and I was determined NOT to end up like that guy I was involved with who frequently bemoaned his inability to connect with other people.
I very recently understood that in my 49 years in this present lifetime, I have experienced only about seven years of being free to make my own decisions and live my life in a way that makes sense for ME. All the rest of those 42 years have been spent under the control and surveillance of others. During the first 19 years I was with my parents. After three years on my own, including a year in Japan as an exchange student and a summer-long trip through several Asian countries, I ended up getting recruited into the religious cult noted above. Three years after breaking free of that, I began dating and eventually married the man I just divorced who tried to monopolize just about every single minute of my life that I was not working at my job or in bed sleeping, and he routinely disrupted those activities as well. Since April 30, 2014 I have had about a year and a half of freedom from him, punctuated by a couple brief reoccupations, but now I have freed myself for good.
Soooo…after all that…here is how I plan on stopping this shit from ever happening to me again:
I think a good place to start would be to build a “safety barrier” for me:
- Start by attending to my own needs (after getting clear about what they are in the first place!) and treating myself with love and respect and consideration.
- Start by honouring commitments I make to myself. To my pets. To my plants. Then move outward to other humans.
- Start by re-training myself in how to plan realistically in terms of time and energy and money.
If I still find myself perpetually overcommitted and stressed out and “running on fumes”, putting everything off to the last minute and just surviving day by day even after Chi is out of the house, then I am not being kind and considerate to me.
Get comfortable with saying “No”.
Make the “Nopetopus” my new constant companion until I get this figured out, or forever after.
Meet my new bff — Nopey!
- Stop taking on commitments I am not in a position or otherwise prepared to honour.
- Stop letting people mistreat me. Just stop. Speak up when someone treats me in a way that I find demeaning or objectionable or that makes me uncomfortable. Start calling people out on their shit and stop putting up with it. Remove such people from my life if that is what it comes to.
- Stop letting people manipulate me by guilt and emotionally blackmail me into doing their bidding.
- Above all, when I find myself being pushed into doing something that gives me *that* feeling, Just. Say. No.
Here are some initial criteria I have come up with for screening out toxic people:
- If someone cannot meet the minimum benchmark of at very least being able to pull their own weight economically and in terms of basic self-help skills, then that person has absolutely no business occupying my home. Not negotiable. Never again.
- If someone cannot be arsed to make an appointment or plans with me in advance and honour it/them (i.e., expects me to be “on standby” for whenever they happen to feel like being entertained or have time for me), then that person has no business occupying my timeline.
- If someone has a habit of insulting and humiliating people, vituperating, making others uncomfortable, etc., as a “default setting”, then that person has no business in my life.
- No more constant complainers and excuse-makers. If all someone does is whine and complain and when presented with a solution throw out every excuse in the book as to why it can’t possibly work, and practically everything they say is negative, keep walking!
- Anyone who would deliberately harm me or recklessly endanger my safety in any way has absolutely no place in my life whatsoever. Full stop.
- If someone is not able to conform to my minimum standard of decency in basic housekeeping habits, then that person has no business occupying my home.
- If someone demonstrates a pattern of guilt-tripping me and/or emotionally blackmailing/ extorting me into doing their bidding, then that person has no place in my personal life.
- If someone is routinely going against my wishes and “testing my boundaries”, then that person should not be allowed into my circle of trusted close friends.
- If someone keeps their home and/or personal space in a pestilential, confused pile of shit clogged to the rafters with clutter and junk everywhere, they’re “not okay”, and I should proceed with caution or bail altogether.
- If someone appears to be in a bad place with their life (serious depression/ meltdown, career-threatening irresponsibility/ disciplinary issues, etc.) or displays a proclivity for creating or attracting drama and chaos, that is a major red flag, and getting involved with such a person on any level will do me no good. I have done enough “charity work” (i.e., “being there” for people to use me as their personal 24/7 life support machine, crisis hotline, etc., and all that accomplished was suck up my energy/time/money and derail my life).
- If someone cannot demonstrate that they have at least a reasonable grip on the concept of “work clean”, then that person has no business in my home or my professional life, and quite possibly anywhere in my life at all because they just create way too much unnecessary extra work and ill health.
- No more “high-conflict individuals”! I have had enough of that personality type for the next several lifetimes. Learn to spot them a mile off and start running as fast as I can in the other direction.
- The same applies to “prosecutors”. My mother was really into that, and I am ending a 15-year marriage to another one. I’m done with being interrogated and cross-examined and made to feel like I have to justify and defend every damn thing I do! Same goes for people who second-guess and argue with me about everything. No más!
- Learn to identify “pathological talkers” and avoid them. I have wasted enough of my life being held hostage.
- No more people with substance abuse issues. Been there, done that, so I know what it looks like now and we all know how that turned out. It bears repeating: I have wasted enough of my lifetime being a hostage.
- No more “Cheap Charlies” for me! They cause way more harm with their penny-wise/ pound-foolish behaviour than they’re worth! Being intelligently frugal is one thing. Being not motivated by money is one thing. Being “cheap” is a different thing. I’m done being fobbed off with shoddy, inferior crap or having to do without altogether because “someone” doesn’t want to or won’t allow me to spend money on anything.
- Conversely, if someone disparages me because I have or earn less money than them, then they can just fuck right off. No more smug, self-important assholes for me!
- Avoid spending too much (or any!) time around people who are not interested in listening to me and hearing my truth, preferring to make me wear their assumptions and projections and judgments about me instead. I find these drainers and their carry-on very frustrating, and besides, there are plenty of people around who are perfectly happy to let me be what I am, and whose company I find infinitely more enjoyable.
- Better also steer clear of people who trigger my lifelong pattern of hoop jumping and people pleasing, i.e., make me feel that I am “not good enough”, so I unnecessarily expend a lot of energy contorting myself into a pretzel to try and please them and be whatever I think they want me to be instead of just being authentically *me*.
- If I get an “off” vibe from someone, just don’t engage. It will not likely end in my favour.
For those who pass this screening process, welcome to my new…
One of my biggest takeaways from this debâcle with Chi was this: I was shocked to find out how…well…I would never say it was “easy” given my inveterate non-confrontationalism…but how *possible* it became to exert compliance from a parasitic boundary-buster of Chi’s scale once I began asserting boundaries!