Have you seen this meme, or at least something along the same lines?
If so, I hope my exploration today will add some nuance and context to what’s being shared here.
**But before we go, please know that this is not a 'call-out' of the person who created/posted this - I don't believe the poster of this meme has ill-intentions nor do I believe that she's the creator of this idea. She is simply one of MANY in the self help/spirituality world that is spreading an idea that on its surface SOUNDS good/reasonable, but when we take a deeper look we're going to find that it's not all it's cracked up to be. This isn't about shaming this individual on any level. It's a mindset that's pervasive and this is only one example on a theme.**
Our Pain Being All Our Fault - A Common Refrain In The World Of 'Self Help'
This is something that sounds so innocent and is passed around the self-help/improvement world SO MUCH - and there's honestly a shit tonne of important nuance that's fully lost in this - which turns it into victim blaming.
So first things first we have to understand - none of us just ‘choose’ to abuse ourselves and thus allow others to abuse us. We’re not consciously creating these patterns we find ourselves in as adults - we can consciously work on them yes, but to start from the foundational understanding that we’re the ‘cause’ of our relationship issues is a dramatic oversimplification that distracts us from CAUSE and thus distracts us from true solution.
As children, we’re essentially told what to believe about ourselves, our value and our place in relationships. What relationships are supposed to look like is modeled to us, we're formed in how to give and receive love, what is and isn't ok, where we have rights and where we don't, what we deserve in terms of respect, space, honoring of needs and even what we’re ALLOWED to want and need - and THIS gives us our relationship filters.
That's phase one.
We don’t determine for ourselves what our boundaries, self esteem and relationship expectations are - we LEARN these things in our childhood.
THIS is how we became the adults that we are.
We can absolutely work to SHIFT these things once we BECOME adults - but no one simply CHOSE to have poor self image, boundaries, expectations and relationship patterns, nor are they simply consciously CHOOSING to continue with those unhealthy patterns.
What we were taught in our childhoods is going to be what our nervous systems are familiar with, and THIS is going to dictate what we are and aren’t attracted to, what we do and don’t accept, and this is going to then reinforce what we already believe.
Until we become aware of these patterns and do real healing work - which is HARD work to do! - we’re going to be in our patterns no matter how ‘aware’ of them we are, because our BODIES are dictating our behaviors more than our conscious mind is.
If we don't value ourselves, we were TAUGHT not to, and that was REINFORCED often over and over and over again within and outside of our families. We don't just decide not to like ourselves... ever. We accept what we do because this is what we KNOW and thus what feels ‘safe’ to us.
Changing what feels SAFE - even if what we have as patterns are deeply unhealthy and the new patterns are genuinely healthier - is still hard work. We will be attracted to what we were raised with until we rewire our internal programs.
This is not a matter of mind over pattern - this is usually deep work done over time.
Second thing, life is complex and abusive patterns don’t start out obviously abusive. Most abusive relationships start out really innocently. There’s love bombing. There’s grooming. There’s a false sense of safety and value created. There’s a slow eating away of someones self esteem and boundaries. There’s a progressive infiltration of what the abused needs to feel safe and secure and a progressive dependence built upon the abuser - either physical, mental or both. We're learning SO much about abusers and how they manipulate, prime and groom their victims into a false sense of security, safety and love before they start showing their true colors. Abuse is often a slow process that leaves us more and more convinced that leaving/putting up boundaries/asking for more is impossible. Sometimes it IS downright dangerous.
Shitty relationship patterns are the same way. Not all terrible relationships are outright abusive - many of them are simply founded on the fact that both people entering the relationship have flawed ways of expressing and meeting needs, flawed perceptions of self and others, flawed communication and filters that all lead to dynamics that aren’t HEALTHY but that are the only way these two people KNOW how to meet their own needs. Flawed again because that's what they LEARNED and how they ADAPTED to the environments they were raised in.
People find partners with compatible dysfunction because again, this is what matches their known experience. We then play off of one another - staying stuck because we’re supporting each other in our dysfunction. Change is hard even when the relationship is just dysfunctional, because it often takes BOTH or ALL participants changing or the relationship has to find a whole new form - and that’s usually really destabilizing for all parties involved.
No one is simply ‘choosing’ to stay in abuse or dysfunction. When we become aware of it, changing it means real world shifts in how we live and get our needs met, how we stabilize and find our security.
It means changing our relationship dynamics which means upsetting people and being rejected and misunderstood.
It means understanding ourselves on levels we have NEVER understood ourselves before, it means working through the shame and guilt we inherited around certain wants and needs, it means learning communication skills we've never had modeled for us, it means becoming AWARE of the water we're swimming in and CHANGING that water.
This is much, much easier said than done.
Unhealthy relationship dynamics are inherited, they come from long lines of adaptation and unawareness, they come from being raised by people who also had faulty perceptions and blindspots.
They come from culture, religion, education and government patterns, they come from beliefs around what's right and wrong based on our broader cultural standards and what we have to do and be to 'fit in' and be safe.
We were ALL born into a WORLD that's highly dysfunctional. That still makes certain traits and ways of being unsafe. That's still generally unaware of how to manage emotions. That's still very restrictive. That's still very much set up to favor some at the expense of many. We were all born into a world where healthy expression and safety likely wasn't an option.
We didn't just choose our unhealthy dynamics.
Those were the only dynamics available to us.
Our adult patterns are how we learned to ADAPT.
It's all about the knowledge those who raised us had.
It's a BIG thing.
We don't just choose our dynamics. Our education starts from day one, and we are constantly adapting to the environments we're in to try to keep ourselves safe in the dysfunction we were ALL born into.
Third, we're inherently communal beings who have nervous systems that are wired for connection and feeling that if we get into a situation of being isolated that we will die or won't be able to survive.
Changing in ways that mean we are GOING to be rejected, where we are GOING to lose people, where we’re GOING to upset people - while we’re still trying to sort out what was false conditioning and what was real (and dealing with the rest of life while we're at it because nothing stops while we try to process and change) - is really challenging.
The threat of being alone is often the thing that keeps us trapped.
The illusion that ‘everyone’ is like who we grew up around (because that’s how our filters work - seeking out those who are familiar to our nervous systems and blocking out anyone who isn’t because again, we are attracted to the patterns we grew up with because those are how we feel safe AND because we were most likely taught that anyone not like us was bad/wrong/evil/living a worse life than us) and thus if we change we will be outcast forever is strong. The fact that we were raised to believe that any other way of being is BAD, WRONG, SINFUL or otherwise will lead us to an even WORSE life is going to weigh heavily on us.
Also, humans have evolved living in tribes. We grew up as children being fully dependent upon our caregivers. The fear of being alone isn't just a fear of not having friends. It's a fear wired so deep into our nervous systems that trying to override it and go our own way/face rejection is literally the work of facing our fear of death.
Change is fucking hard.
Most of us genuinely believe that if we change, that if we grow, that if we put up new boundaries and alter our way of relating that we will lose the people around us AND that no one else would ever love us. Martha Beck refers to this as the 'generalized other.' What most of us don't realize is that we've taken the opinions, reactions, ways of being and expectations of the 10 people who were closest to us growing up and we've projected those traits onto 'everyone.' We believe deep in our core that *most* people think, feel and behave like the people we grew up around and our brains and bodies have always been attracted to people who were similar to those we grew up around. Most of us don't realize how insular our culture is - how easy it is to find people who are 'just like you' and then to NEVER go outside of those bounds. Most of us have no idea just how limited our range of human connection is. We only see what we've seen and we've EXPERIENCED that anytime we attempt to change we DO get rejected/misunderstood because everyone *around us* DOES feel and think like those who raised us.
Meaning we all have a tonne of experience based evidence that changing = being outcasted forever.
Getting through the initial stages of losing people/having to be uncomfortable in relationships as we shift how we interact and seeing that either people adjust OR that there really are others out there who are different and can like us for who we really are is HARD. It means facing that fear of being alone - sometimes head on - and getting THROUGH it. Which goes against our base survival needs.
Thus, even when we SEE that we need to change, even when we can intellectually understand on some level that we won't die if we're rejected, even if we *can* see (and most of the time we can't until we do it) that there are others out there who will love and respect us even if we lose the relationships we have now - we're still contending with our survival instincts and programming. Everything in our nervous system will be fighting making these changes.
Last, the instinct to believe that if we just heal ourselves internally, that if we just change how we talk to and relate to ourselves, that if we can simply ‘get rid of’ the parts of ourselves that are leading us to tolerate abuse and shittiness - that THIS will magically transform the way those who are already in our lives treat us is a childhood problem solving tool. The idea that EVERYTHING we experience in relationships is a result of an INTERNAL state would mean that we have total control over how people treat us without having to actually ask for something better, without having to put up boundaries, without having to lose people and without having to rock the boat in our current dynamics.
Telling ourselves that if we shift ourselves inside enough that others will start to reflect that isn’t reality.
Telling ourselves that people treat us poorly ONLY because we are treating ourselves poorly is a lie.
In reality, YES it does matter what we think of ourselves because of COURSE this will have an effect on what we do and don’t tolerate in our relationships. The more self esteem we have the less we’re going to be able to be manipulated. The less we’re going to allow people to step on our boundaries. The less we will put up with being treated poorly.
But the reality is, when we want to change our relationship dynamics, that internal shift is only the FIRST step.
People aren’t going to automatically ‘sense’ that we respect ourselves more and then start treating us differently (thus disturbing their own patterns of safety that you play a role in in your current less than self loving form). Rather, this internal shift will give us the POWER to set new boundaries, have the tough conversations, enter the conflicts, to ride the waves of people being upset with us, to see ourselves through the scary reality of being rejected and abandoned - and THIS is real reality. We don’t get to skip the often tumultuous step of dismantling and re-establishing relationship dynamics. No matter how self loving we are, people around us aren’t going to change until we ask them to/we change in our way of being externally. We don’t get to skip that step.
Most importantly, we're going to come to realize that sometimes it doesn’t matter how self loving we are, how respectful we are of ourselves, how much we have changed - sometimes people are just going to treat us like shit because of THEIR stuff. Sometimes we're going to come to see that we simply have to cut some people out of our lives or dramatically change how we interact with certain people because THEY aren’t willing to heal. Sometimes we are going to realize that there are certain people in our lives that we have to interact with for some reason (family members, coworkers, acquaintances that we can’t cut out of our lives) that have no ability to be different - no matter how different we become.
We’re going to realize that not everything is about us, because of us, or dictated by us.
Sometimes we don’t have control.
Sometimes we’re stuck in a shitty situation with a person who can’t grow right now and that has NOTHING to do with our internal state.
We can’t self love our way into perfect relationships where we don’t have to face the challenge of the restructuring phase and we can’t self love our way into a state where no one every treats us poorly ever again.
Not everything is within our control and not everything is because of us. That is something we have to learn as adults - a childhood perspective that must be shifted.
Not everything is because of us. Not everything is a response to us. Not everything can be changed via an internal shift. Everyone around us isn’t just responding to US - they are their own separate people with their own reasons for doing things.
How we treat ourselves and what we tolerate in relationships IS important - but this kind of thing over simplifies the complexity of adult relationships.
Sometimes when we shift how we feel about ourselves the shifts in our relationships are easier to make. Sometimes when we shift how we feel about ourselves we will realize that how we were PERCEIVING the behavior of others was off, and it isn't actually as harmful as we thought or harmful at all. Sometimes when we shift how we feel about ourselves we will be able to break ourselves out of the patterns of accepting disrespect and abuse. Sometimes. Other times we will have to do hard things externally and they will be hard. Period. Sometimes we will be rejected. Sometimes we will have to remove ourselves. Sometimes we will realize how we were/are being treated isn't about us at all.
Not many of us were trained how to communicate needs, how to have empathy for others as well as ourselves and how to navigate that, how to feel secure in ourselves so we don't feel like we 'need' others, many of us didn't have the CIRCUMSTANCES to be able to avoid negative relationships and so on. Many of us learned that codependency was the only way to be safe and thus entered our adulthood with flawed dynamics that were programmed into us as ‘normal’ - and this takes a LOT of work to even SEE let alone be able to CHANGE.
Society isn't fair and vulnerability is often SYSTEMIC not a personal choice/failing.
Wether we're talking 'abuse' in the new age term meaning we're just in unhealthy dynamics or ACTUAL abuse - we are never in these situations because we are choosing to treat ourselves like shit for no reason and thus letting others do so. Nor are we in them due to not having changed our internal dialogue as the ONLY factor.
We have power, we can change these patterns, we can learn to value ourselves and we can learn how to put up boundaries.
We can slowly extract ourselves (oftentimes with help) from really terrible situations.
We can learn self awareness and communication.
We can learn to see ourselves as valuable even when those around us don't treat us this way.
We can learn to see ourselves through the storm of changing relationship dynamics.
We can face that fear of isolation and do it anyway.
But this is often REALLY hard work and it goes against our primary programming a lot of the time, and it often goes against what REALITY appears to be showing us.
This kind of messaging is just way too simple, in my opinion.
Systems. Patterns. Family lines. Childhoods. People just being assholes. Being manipulated. Not always having the ABILITY to get out due to the systems we're in.
THESE are just SOME of the reasons we can be in unhealthy dynamics. This exploration doesn't cover everything. Because again, this is incredibly nuanced and detailed.
Just choosing to not value ourselves for no reason isn't a thing.
We must start with compassion, then allow for an exploration and a process.