Well, as you can see from my title I have been thinking about denial and what role responsibility and or culpability have to play in it. Some of you may know from reading my posts that my family is quite dysfunctional. Now some will argue that labels aren’t beneficial and there’s too much emphasis on psychologizing certain events. But if trauma and abuse are what happened then who is it benefiting to not label it as such? Am I doing myself any favours when I deny myself validation that certain events took place in my life? Or am I merely making others uncomfortable who don’t wish to take responsibility for things that happened? My counsellor suggests when my family tries to sweep things under the proverbial rug that they are opting out of taking responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof).
Whilst it may seem to some that it’s better to let “sleeping dogs lie”; there are those of us unwilling to live less authentically. Why should I try to convince myself I’m better off not remembering or processing traumas just so others in my family are able to be undisturbed? Perhaps for less traumatic episodes in our lives it makes sense to try to forget or not “dwell” on it but childhood abuse and trauma are not easily forgotten, nor should they be. For when we forget the things that happened to us as children we are more than primed and ready to repeat those things. Alice Miller, the psychoanalyst and author of many psychology books, has referred to this as repetition compulsion. I’m not sure if it is her term but I read it in her books so will attribute it to her for now. Anyhow, my point is when we allow denial to be our coping mechanism for abuses and traumas we suffered as children we’re setting the stage to repeat those abuses on our own children or other vulnerable people. By not facing what happened in the past we are not only unconscious of what happened to us-but we become unaware when we act out the same or similar abuses onto others.
her father. Mom knew she had been abused but developed a heavy wall of dissociation in her conscious awareness to function “normally” day to day. Nobody ever diagnosed my mom as having DID or MPD but it would be more of a shock to me if I were told she *didn’t* have it than did. As a child I recognized when my mother was “someone else”. Sometimes that meant she was unaware of what she was doing and it was useless to try telling her later that she’d done something as she would not remember it. I also developed an ability to dissociate from the things that happened to me and managed to repress the memories for a long time until I felt safe to acknowledge them again. For me, this meant that I was cut off from my sexuality. It was easier to be asexual than put myself through the minefield of sexual/intimate relationships.
I’m 31 now and have never had more than a fairly chaste kiss. In today’s hypersexualized world I am an antiquated dinosaur relic of bygone eras. I could easily join a convent or find myself in a museum as a rare species! Yes, I am poking fun at myself but what I say is not far from the reality. Whilst I’m educated and aware of more than someone would have been in the Victorian era about sex I’m still an oddity in today’s culture. I don’t have religion to explain my oddness either; no, I am not asexual anymore but I’m still abstinate. All this because of my mother sexually abusing me due to her denial of what happened to her through dissociation.
Had my mother’s family not lived so brilliantly in denial my mother might have had a fighting chance at becoming healthy. Instead they shunned her and pretended the problem was her’s alone to deal with. I understand sexual abuse wasn’t dealt with the same way as it is today back in the 1960s but they couldn’t have done worse if they tried! My mother was thrown out into the world an angry,hurt young woman with no support. She managed to find her way as all survivours do but not without mishaps.
Responsibility can be a ‘loaded word’. Some may think we need to accept responsibility for ourselves 100% of the time NO exceptions. Well, I beg to differ. I accept responsibility for myself-yes-no arguments there, BUT we are only responsible for our present feelings/thoughts and actions. Other people’s actions that harmed us in some manner should not be our responsibility. In such cases it would be more appropriate to focus on how we feel in relation to the actions of others and let that be our responsibility. I am responsible for how I act/feel/think at any given moment but not for what others did to me. I can decide to hold onto beliefs and feelings that aren’t serving me in a beneficial manner and that is my responsibility; that is, if I create further suffering for myself by not letting go of feelings/thoughts, etc. that happened in the past due to other people’s actions, then I am responsible. But only for PRESENT conditions. Of course if I behaved badly in the past and caused someone else pain that, too, is my responsibility. What is NOT my responsibility is how other people perceive me. I will never be able to control anyone other than myself. Thus, I can only operate out of the understanding that I create my own suffering based on what I focus on.
The issue of course with responsibility is that other people’s actions do affect us(especially as children) so it is one thing to tell someone to “move on” regarding an event that took place in your adult years, and quite another to say the same thing concerning childhood traumas. People want to treat situations and people in a uniform manner that isn’t taking into consideration other factors. Other factors such as what age you were when the event took place and who the other(s) involved were in relation to you, among other things. Instead, people just jump for the easiest, quickest route to a solution that minimizes *their* discomfort. Never mind the suffering of the individual who endured the abuse/trauma as a child. This is what my mother’s side of the family did and still does. They minimized my mother’s suffering and I have not even shared my own pain/suffering with them because I can foresee their response already and it isn’t a validating one.
Nobody deserves to be abused especially children. I am sick of attitudes that reinforce shame for the survivours of abuse and praise or valorize the abuser(s). Okay, perhaps praise and valorization are not the common responses but it can feel that way if you’re the survivour. My family talk of my dead mom as some sort of hero that completely ignores any of her shortcomings. Of course we all have shortcomings and there is a tendency in Christian believers to not wish to talk ill of the dead. I understand that but it doesn’t make one feel very good when you have to hear nothing but praise for the person who abused you as a child. It feels downright horrible and makes one (well me anyhow) feel worthless in comparison to the abuser. No, my mother wasn’t abusive 100% of the time but it doesn’t mean I am going to whitewash her in my memory either to suit my family. My family, who incidentally, are filled with uneasy feelings of guilt over not doing what they should have when they had the ability to; such as offer support to my mother and actually believe her when she told them about the abuse she suffered growing up. Instead, they have retreated to their favourite vacation spot Denial. In fact, I’d wager a bet and suggest they vacation in Denial more than they live in Responsibility.
Am I being uncharitable with my family? They are, after all, family. But I never chose them (unless I chose them before I incarnated in my present form). Allegedly, my pedophile maternal grandfather wanted children and my mother also wanted children (badly). Was this because they both knew they wanted control and power over smaller, helpless individuals subject to their whims? I doubt it. That would have meant they held some consciousness over their predilection for wielding sexual power over children. Due to never knowing my maternal grandfather I can’t comment on what was the case for him; but my mother, I believe, had no *conscious* awareness she would end up sexually abusing her children, nor did she even recognize when she was doing it. That is the level of denial she had around sexual abuse. She told me that only men sexually abused children so I am imagining in her mind she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Sexual abuse, to my mother, had a very distinct phenotype and she didn’t resemble it (in her mind). Thus, whatever she did to my sister and I was all Kosher (in her mind). Amazing what we can convince ourselves of when we’re in denial, isn’t it? (that’s a rhetorical question).
We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge, right? So being or staying in denial is detrimental to one’s personal growth. Depending on what it is we are in denial about it can have devastating consequences for not just us but possibly countless others. In sexual abuse, in particular, if it is denied then you are almost certainly going to end up either repeating the abuse or becoming shut down sexually. Of course therapy can help remedy these issues but you first need to become conscious enough of the problem to want to work on it.
I don’t expect my family will change anytime soon. As far as I know I am the only one in therapy apart from an aunt whom I don’t have much contact with. Her and my mom had a “falling out” over something decades ago and never managed to resolve it so the only time I met this aunt was at my mom’s funeral. She seems to be more conscious of the abuse that occurred than the others are willing to admit though from what I know of her. I felt like she was the most authentic one out of my mom’s siblings. Aside from her the rest don’t seem likely to change their ways dramatically. In fairness to them they aren’t horrible people just ones refusing to process a very painful past. I can’t blame them for that. They don’t have to take responsibility for acknowledging abuse happened but I also can’t be comfortable around them either; that is until or unless they are willing to concede abuse happened and it was traumatic for those involved (the survivours not the abusers).
My grandmother is now close to death and I suspect it may make for a difficult month for me because my mother also died this month five years ago. I would like to be able to forgive my grandmother like I forgave my mom but that took me years to do. I’m not sure what kind of benefit there would be to forgiving my grandmother anyhow. My only feelings for her are largely ambivalence or indifference; otherwise I don’t really think about her a lot. Perhaps this has to do with never developing an emotional attachment to the grandmother in the first place; thus, there are no actual deep seated feelings awaiting my recognition and healing. What is there to forgive when you have a connection to someone at a primarily intellectual or cognitive level? Sure, I am angry about what she did to my mother but I don’t feel this has impacted me on a regular basis in any sort of negative manner. Or, I could just be in denial.
What’s your take on denial and/or responsibility concerning child abuse or trauma?
©Natalya Lyubov, 2012-2013.
- 20 Wrong Things To Say To Sexual Abuse Survivors (projecteve.com)
- Child abuse trial guidelines issued (bbc.co.uk)
- DENIAL draft (pakobianco.wordpress.com)