In his April 17th post, (Resist, Resent, Revenge – Part 1/2 – Golden Age of Gaia) , Steve Beckow courageously shared his experiences of a painful childhood and the struggles of processing the difficult emotions that we all may carry with us as we move forward through our lives – resistance, resentment and revenge seeking behaviors.
It appears as though most, if not all, of us have incurred some degree of trauma in our lives – leaving us with varying degrees of residual anger, resentment, fear, sadness and helplessness. As a social psychologist, I may be able to shed some light on these issues and illustrate that, with understanding, mindfulness, and most importantly, self love, we can transform resistance, resentment and revenge into rejuvenation. Let me explain…
Self-Disclosure vs. Self-Presentation
The first point that Steve makes is that we develop strategies for a control agenda in order to manipulate and control others. He describes this process as egoistic and self-serving – to obtain our own desired outcomes and personal rewards.
What Steve is describing is known as “self-presentation”. At any given moment, we all the choice of how to engage others in our social, personal and professional interactions. We can either engage in “self-disclosure” or “self-presentation”.
When we self-disclose, we are communicating our true, genuine and authentic selves to others – the good, the bad and the ugly. We are honest, direct and lay all our cards on the table. We are willing to reap whatever consequences might arise in terms of how others may respond to us. We don’t “change colors”, like a chameleon, based on our social contexts and exhibit a consistent personality regardless of condition or circumstance. But engaging in the self-disclose our sincere thoughts, feelings and behaviors necessitates a secure self-concept, positive self-esteem and, not least of all, strength of character.
On the other hand, when we self-present – we are showing others a constructed image of ourselves – a mask and pretense of what we want others to see. We are concealing our true selves and hiding behind a manufactured social face – much like an actor playing a role.
There are essentially two primary reasons why we engage in self-presentation. The first, as Steve describes, is out of our desire to control and manipulate others. We “pretend” to be something that we are not in order to win approval and trust from others – but, with the hidden agenda of shaping others to do our bidding. This is a deceitful and insidious enterprise and one that has been made into an art form by many unscrupulous politicians, religious leaders, advertisers, and individuals who lull others into a false sense of security in order to take advantage of them. In essence – wolves in sheep’s clothing.
But there’s another, less insidious, reason why people self-present. Many engage in self-presentation out of an effort to mask low self-esteem and internalized self-degradation and shame. Sometimes, we pretend to be something other than what we truly are because we fear that our “true” selves won’t be acceptable, lovable, valuable or appreciated. In order to gain social approval and acceptance, we change our colors to be in line with what, we believe, others desire or expect. This doesn’t have a malicious intent. The agenda in these cases is to protect our scars, hide our skeletons deep inside our closets and bury our sense of shame from the light of day and the scrutiny of others.
When we experience physical and emotional abuse, neglect and trauma as children, we internalize these experiences as painful reminders that our “true selves” are not lovable or acceptable. We learn to expect that the repetitive pattern of rejection experienced in our homes as children will continue and generalize to all social relationships we engage in as we mature. In short – we learn that love is “conditional” and therefore, self-present ourselves in alignment with whatever “conditions” dictate.
The Cycle of Abuse
In his post, Steve describes the pattern of family dynamics that he experienced as a child. He recalled repeated cycles of inflicted pain – followed by the opposite extremes of exciting vacations and family outings.
What Steve has described is well documented and has been labeled the “Cycle of Abuse”. It’s the classic, textbook scenario that abusive relationships tend to follow. The abuser (parent, partner, family member, spouse, etc.) undergoes a repetitive pattern that cycles between 3 phases: tension building, abuse, and what’s been described as the “honeymoon period“. Once the honeymoon period comes to close – the patterns begins again with tension building and what results is an endless, vicious cycle.
The tension building phase is characterized by increased irritability, short fuses and irrational judgments. The abuser appears to be increasingly short tempered and can be set off by the most minor of incidents (dinner isn’t ready on time, a child’s toy is on the floor, etc.). These minor, daily annoyances turn up the heat on the abuser’s pressure cooker until it reaches a boiling point – and then – BAM! The abuser lashes out – hurting those who are closest (and weakest).
Following the abuse, the abuser experiences a temporary moment of regret and remorse. Not because he/she is empathetic for the victim – but because he/she does not want the victim to leave – thereby preventing future opportunities to exert control. That’s where the honeymoon period comes in. In an effort to lure the victim back into the lair – the abuser engages in lavish and exaggerated expressions of profuse apologies, promises that it will never happen again, and over-the-top gifts, surprises and commitments to seek help and change their ways.
The victims, hungry for love and acceptance, take the bait – and the cycle continues and typically worsens, becoming more severe over time.
Lack of Accountability
Steve discusses that those who attempt to control others lack personal accountability for their actions. This trait is also a classic, textbook characteristic of abusive individuals and groups. It’s only during the “honeymoon period” that false statements of taking responsibility come into play. On a grander scale – this is what political campaign season really is – a time to lure voters into the lair – but once there – all the promises go out the window.
Those that abuse others rarely take responsibility for their actions – hence the reference Steve cited in “See What You Made Me Do?”. No-one wants to see themselves in a negative light – so rather than acknowledging personal short-comings, wrong-doings and weaknesses – the abusers cast blame away from themselves. This is the primary reason why the cycle continues and the result is two fold: 1) it allows them to derogate their victim to validate future acts of abuse, and 2) it prevents the abuser from undergoing any concrete change for the better.
We’ve All Been Traumatized
The vast majority of people on Earth have been victims of trauma. From domestic abuse and violence to bullying, military duty and prejudice, most of us carry physical, emotional and spiritual scars inflicted by others.
Even in the rare cases of those who had loving homes, positive peer and intimate relationship and have never encountered discrimination – mass media fills in the blanks. Watching television, movies, video games, and especially daily news reports is enough to trigger feelings of fear, anger, hatred, resentment and feelings of wanting to “lash out” against the “enemy”.
Studies show that a large number of American children suffer from classic symptoms of abuse and post traumatic stress simply by watching violent television programming – whether fictional entertainment or graphic depictions of violence and unrest on the nightly news.
Reflect, Recognize, Rejuvenate
So, in light of such a bleak picture of the human condition – where do we go from here?
It’s important to remember that, despite the overwhelming exposure to social abuse, we still have free will – and therefore, a choice of how we wish to live our lives. Naturally, it is perfectly normal to harbor feelings of resistance, resentment and revenge. But these feelings to do NOT define who we are. In order to turn the tables in a more positive direction, we must do three things: reflect, recognize and rejuvenate.
As painful as it may be, the first step is to reflect on the abuses you have experienced in your life and allow yourself to feel the full measure of it’s impact. Pull those skeletons out of the closet and lay them out before you – making them transparent in the full light of day. Feel their pain and suffering – your pain and suffering. Cry, meditate, pray, scream – whatever it takes. But know that without facing your inner demons – they will continue to grow in strength, magnitude and power over your lives.
The word “recognition” is worth examining. The word “cognition” refers to :”thought” – so to re-cognize is to “re-think” the notions you’ve adopted about yourself and the world.
Recognize that the “Great Powerful Oz” – who has been such an intimidating presence in your life – is really nothing more than a little man behind a curtain pulling switches and leavers. Pull back the curtain on the illusion of power and control that you’ve been led to believe tethers you to victimization. Recognize that you are not the person that your abuser has insisted you are. Recognize the spiritual aspect of your existence – why you are here – who you really are. Recognize that the abusers (whoever they are) are probably victims themselves – and struggling, no matter how destructively, to cope with their own inherent fears. Recognize that it’s not your fault. The blame, shame and accusations perpetuated by the abusers lack of accountability was their mechanism to control you and avoid themselves – not a reflection of who you are. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, recognize that power is not something people “hold” over you – it is something that is “given” to them by us. Once you recognize that you are in the driver seat of your own destiny – you can then begin to charter your course to the destination you choose.
One of the beautiful bi-products of abuse (yes, I said beautiful), is that abuse has the power to manifest empathy. We can define empathy as our ability to recognize and experience what others are feeling. When we live a secure and sheltered life, we may fail to understand the abuses that others are undergoing. We lack a concrete awareness of what it’s like to be victimized. When we’ve experienced abuse, we can say that “we’ve been there and done that”. It fosters greater sensitivity, compassion and understanding – attributes that are the breeding ground of peace and social justice.
I lost my father to suicide as young and only child. I was raised by an abusive, alcoholic mother and left home at 15 to get away from her. I entered a relationship with man who I believed would be my “knight in shining armor” only to find that, he too, was an abusive alcoholic who proceeded to beat me for the next 5 years of my life. My extended family was murdered in Nazi concentration camps, and the story goes on and on.
Once into adulthood, I realized that I had a choice. I could wallow in self-pity, lick my wounds and curse a cruel world – or – I could reconstruct my perceptions of self and others and turn my life’s trauma into a beautiful thing – rejuvenation! I could use my experiences to teach and empower others. I could become fully “self-disclosing” and tell my stories to others so that they too, can rise like the Phoenix from the ashes of despair and go on to “pay it forward”.
I went from a terribly injured and traumatized high-school drop out to a Ph.D. holding Applied Social Psychologist and educator. I give seminars on domestic violence and present my research on social justice. And why? Because of empathy. Because I know how it feels. Because I don’t want others to go through what I had. Because I was able to empathize with the victims of injustice in terms of racism, violence against women, hatred and the abuse of power and control. Because I care.
So when you are in the process of rejuvenating yourself – consider the Native American fable about the two wolves which reads:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.
“One is Evil – It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
“The other is Good – It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The choice is yours….which one will you feed?