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Assertiveness as self-validation in dysfunctional relationships

Assertiveness as self-validation in dysfunctional relationships
Adult children and loving partners of highly neglectful and even abusive individuals do not feel felt, heard or seen

As I explain in my blog article “What is a dysfunctional relationship?”, relationships are considered dysfunctional when they do not favour true intimacy, emotional health and personal growth. In practice, this is observed when needs, opinions, feelings and wants are not validated in a democratic manner. Controlling parents or spouses who lack self-awareness and emotional maturity and, therefore, focus almost exclusively on their own needs and feelings create relationship dynamics that are unhealthy for everyone involved. As a result of their (often unconscious) self-centred attitude, they neglect the wellbeing of their children and partners, which has a negative effect on their self-esteem, ability to honour their boundaries and feel confident in relational contexts.

For those who find themselves as the neglected ones, feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, powerlessness and abandonment are commonplace. As adult children and loving partners of highly neglectful and even abusive individuals do not feel felt, heard or seen, they might dedicate great time and effort in communicating their needs in order to make their voices heard in the hope that their assertive behaviour will lead to behavioural change. While some manage to achieve positive outcomes and affect their relationships favourably, others’ attempts tend to fall on deaf ears. For the latter, questioning the point of being assertive in such discouraging scenarios becomes worthy of consideration.

If cutting contact with difficult people or ending dysfunctional relationships that compromise your emotional wellbeing are not options you are willing to contemplate, I suggest sticking with assertiveness, but as your own personal “thing”.  If your father, mother or partner refuses to hear, see or feel you, that does not mean you cannot do all those things yourself and for yourself. As assertiveness is a gift you give to your true self, when you feel unimportant, invisible, incompetent and/or unlovable in their presence, continue to connect with your body and express how they make you feel, regardless of how you think they might respond. You can do that by saying the following, silently or out loud:

“When you _____ (behaviour), I feel _____ (feeling) and think _____ (thought)”.

Example: “When you ignore my opinion, I feel sad/angry and think I do not matter”.

Every time you repeat the above – even when it goes unnoticed by others – you validate your own feelings. By keeping the connection with your own body and reminding yourself of the impact others have on you, you become your own source of validation and empowerment, which also helps you break the cycle of dependency and dysfunction.

Common negative beliefs of C-PTSD sufferers

Common negative beliefs of C-PTSD sufferers
Complex PTSD sufferers struggle to think and feel positively

C-PTSD sufferers display a view of themselves, the world and others through the distorted lens of complex trauma. Complex trauma victims struggle to maintain an objective and neutral perspective due to the negative adverse experiences that shaped their neurobiology and ability to live in the present without an exaggerated need to protect themselves against further hurt. If you believe that to be your case, it is helpful to identify the beliefs that perpetuate a sense of unsafety, hopelessness, powerlessness, disconnection and isolation, such as the ones mentioned below:

I am damaged goods.

I have no control over my emotions.

I am alone in this world.

I cannot trust anyone.

When things seem to be working out for me, I should expect something bad to follow.

If anyone finds out who I truly am, they will leave me.

I am unable to feel okay with whom I am.

I am not safe.

Nobody understands me.

I am cursed.

Intimate relationships are sources of pain, therefore, they should be avoided.

My mental health problem is beyond healing.

I am unable to make relationships work.

I am crazy.

I will never be able to do well in life like other people.

I have no control over my own body.

A few people might like me, but they do not know the real me because if they did, they would not.

I am less than others.

Things are harder for me than for other people.

I must make sure to always avoid people, things and situations that trigger me.

I will never feel free from my abuser(s).

I am powerless against my abuser(s).

I will only overcome my trauma if I manage to distance it from my mind completely.

I will only overcome my trauma if I manage not to feel any emotions related to it completely.

All my dysfunctional behaviours are effects of my trauma.

I cannot manage the effects of my trauma.

I will only feel okay once my abuser(a) is(are) dead.

When things get tough, it is best to move away from the problem.

Others see me differently because of what I went through.

Things will never work out for me.

As rigid beliefs like the ones listed above fail to make justice to our complexity, as well as our ability to manage vulnerabilities and live a fulfilling life, I would highly recommend you to take time challenging the ones that resonate, somehow, with your own thinking. If you need help to understand why they are dysfunctional and how to refer to them as such, click here to access my list of cognitive errors.

Regulating fear of abandonment: a closer look at the role of shame

Regulating fear of abandonment, a closer look at the role of shame
Fear of abandonment is felt when expression of the authentic self leads to feelings of inadequacy

Developmental/childhood trauma victims often struggle with fear of abandonment.  Fear of abandonment is felt in relational contexts when expression of the authentic self leads to feelings of inadequacy. Genuine self-expression, on the other hand, is experienced when thinking, feelings and behaviours occur in a congruent manner. When one is in the process of grieving a recent loss, for instance, and feels sad, looks subdued and avoids social contact, there is consistency between how he or she thinks, feels and behaves. Emotionally neglectful and abusive parents, however, do not foster a healthy connection with emotions, especially when negative. This is observed when they consistently criticise, blame and even punish their children for having and expressing emotions such as anger and sadness. Children exposed to this maladaptive parental attitude towards negative emotions, then learn how to associate their expression to feelings of rejection, shame and loss of affection.

If parental love is conditional and, therefore, not available when children feel frustrated and sad, make a mistake, or fail to fulfil expectations, their shame triggers a sense of unsafety. This mechanism is not only at play when they are young, however, but also throughout their adult years. In practice, this tendency is easily observed in adults’ emotionally dependant behaviours such as people pleasing and denial of individual needs to secure a partnership. The urge to be liked by everyone through repression of negative emotions and wants is highly motivated by a fear of the drastic consequences that would supposedly follow their emotional freedom and acts of self-assertion, namely, loss of love and attachment.

Since the link between shame and fear of abandonment is so intimate and detrimental to mental health, it is vital to highlight its influence on people’s ability to create functional relationships that allow them to be themselves and build strong emotional connections. If you do not feel good enough to connect with your own body, understand and honour your needs because you are afraid of the effect that that might have on others, I highly recommend to challenge the dysfunctional beliefs that are feeding your fear of abandonment. First, it is not your duty to make others’ existence free of emotional discomfort. Secondly, would you like to keep a relationship with someone who only validates their own interests, needs and wants? And finally, do you not think yourself worthy of your own? If you do believe to be good enough for you, practice tolerating the shame that arises from acting in an authentic way until it becomes a trait from a much more confident, happier you.

Grieving 2020’s losses

Grieving 2020s losses
When we do not process significant losses, we struggle to move on

Most people would agree that 2020 was a challenging year. Some might even express their discontent more strongly and state that it was “a terrible year”, or “the worst year ever”. Referring to the year just gone in such a negative fashion unavoidably leads to high expectations for 2021. But what if the changes we are anxiously expecting do not materialise as soon as we would have liked? Are we emotionally prepared to accept the circumstances in a more patient, centred manner?

For the majority, the answer is no.  That is because most of us have not grieved 2020’s losses yet. When we do not process significant losses, we struggle to move on. If the concept of grieving last year’s losses feels too abstract to you, imagine 2020 as a life changing event such as moving in with someone you love. Before the move, both of you plan everything together, excitingly. You envision a cosy and beautiful place you have created together. You see friends coming over for dinner and having a wonderful time. Then, as you are getting ready for the big move, one of you loses their job and the other gets diagnosed with a serious illness. Suddenly, you are forced to put everything on hold. And, what is worse, you have no means of predicting when things will get better or if you will ever be able to make that dream come true any time soon.

Such losses make us very sad and very, very angry. Because we were raised in a culture of emotional neglect, however, neither of these emotions are addressed and dealt with in a healthy fashion. Despite not connecting and processing them adequately, we do feel them, make no mistake. Even though emotion phobia is so prevalent, the sadness and anger we carry remain stored in our bodies, which tends to damage not only our emotional, but also our physical health. With regards to relationships, life dissatisfaction and built-up anger are usually projected onto others, an unconscious process which also damages their quality.

Therefore, if you want to face 2021 with a fresh attitude and protect the health of your relationships, I highly recommend fully grieving 2020’s losses, such as the missed opportunities of moving and interacting with others freely, travelling, meeting up with friends and family, socialising with colleagues and neighbours, dating, meeting new people and making new friends, finding a new job, moving and all the other activities and events that colour our existence. If you need help processing any type of loss, please keep on reading the following articles:

How to process emotional pain

5 self-soothing techniques for healthy grief processing

Is it your shame you are carrying?

Is it your shame you are carrying
Emotions like shame are highly contagious

Shame, as the other core negative emotions (sadness, anger, fear, shock and disgust), might become toxic if not identified and dealt with mindfully and proactively. Toxic shame is particularly detrimental to emotional wellbeing because it is experienced cognitively and physically in a great variety of ways, which makes it difficult to identify it. While you might underestimate how low you feel when comparing yourself to others, for instance, and fail to connect the attitude to shame, the feeling feeds off your inadequacy. Like a virus that takes over your body without your awareness, shame finds its way into your system and weakens your self-esteem and healthy sense of self.

Since emotions are highly contagious, they move from one body to another swiftly. When we consider that shame is mainly there to create discomfort when we fail to confirm to social norms and makes us aware of a threat to our group status, it can easily lead to a great fear of rejection and abandonment. As social beings who thrive in groups, feelings of wrongness and exclusion triggered by shame have the potential to stop us from behaving in an authentic fashion. A false sense of self is then created to secure membership, regulate the inadequacy and re-establish an inner sense of safety.

Therefore, catching yourself when affected by shame is key to protect self-esteem and nurture the authentic, autonomous self. You can achieve that by asking yourself “Does this shame belong to me?” when feeling inadequate, less than, unappreciated, criticised, judged or not good enough. Like anger, shame is easily projected as a dysfunctional means to emotional regulation. Despite the harm it causes to those who are directly or indirectly affected by that process, it is repeated in a highly unconscious manner, damaging not only our ability to love and accept ourselves unconditionally but the quality of our relationships. If you find your shame not to be congruent with the beliefs of your free and confident self, give it back to whom it belongs. You can do that by moving your hands as if you were throwing a shame ball back to its owner, or tell yourself, silently, that the shame you feel is not yours to keep. Use your creativity and have fun with it. For challenging negative thinking that leads to shame feelings, I also recommend filling out a Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts during periods of vulnerability.

For healthy healing: what types of loss can cause grief?

For healthy healing what types of loss can cause grief
Realisation of traumatic events and their effects may cause grief

Our ability to deal and overcome the losses we experience relies greatly on our willingness to tolerate and accept grief. As most of us were raised in a culture of emotional neglect, grief tends to be ignored, repressed or even strongly dismissed depending on the context from which arises. As grieving is a biological healing process with might result from any type of loss, the deeper our understanding of what is meant by “loss”, the better our awareness of our need to grieve. To help you expand your knowledge on the meaning of loss and connect with your grief in a healthier way, here are 17 types loss that can cause grief beyond the stereotype:

  • Moving to a new house/flat, city or country
  • Losing body parts, be it due to accident or surgery for health reasons
  • End of loving relationships of any kind
  • End of friendships
  • Death of family members, loved ones, pets, colleagues, neighbours and/or acquaintances
  • Loss of material goods which have impact on quality of life
  • Loss of power to make decisions or sense of empowerment and autonomy
  • Change in professional situation, such as promotion, demotion or retirement
  • Being fired or made redundant
  • Realisation of lack or even inexistent sources of emotional, financial and/or social support
  • Loss of self-esteem, be it through traumatic events (abuse, neglect) or significant change in life circumstances (academic, professional and/or social/relational)
  • Loss of identity, be it through psychological, emotional and/or physical changes
  • Loss of money or change in financial situation
  • Realisation of traumatic events and their effects
  • Cutting contact with family members or significant others
  • Radical change in life routine, such as the ones experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Change in health, as through chronic illness diagnoses, for instance

Because true healing from losses such as the ones mentioned above tend not to materialise without conscious and healthy grieving, changing the way you view and experience grief is a key element to processing it fully and wholeheartedly. Even when those around you are not able to understand your need to grieve, grant yourself the right to grieve. Trust your body as your wisest guide to connect with painful feelings such as anger, shame, guilt and sadness and embrace them autonomously and without judgement.