by Carmen Renee Berry
As is so often the case, the flash of insight that changed my life happened almost accidently. Certainly unexpectedly. While packing to attend a specialized training for urban ministry a few years ago, I threw in a copy of a book that a friend had recommended. I don’t know why I even brought the book along; my frantic work style as a social worker specializing in child abuse recovery left no time for casual reading. I usually worked on the plane, worked in my hotel room, and worked at the conferences I attended. But this time, I found myself reaching into my bag during the flight and pulling out the book. It was Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, and I had not read very many pages before I completely forgot about my work.
Peck describes people who fit the “passive dependent” profile. These are adults who did not receive adequate “affection, attention and care during their childhood.” These children grow into adults with “an inner sense of insecurity, a feeling of ‘I don’t have enough’ and a sense that the world is unpredictable and un-giving.” Peck goes on to say that it is no accident that one of the most common characteristics of passive dependent people is their dependency on drugs and alcohol. “Theirs,” Peck says, “is the addictive personality.”1
I knew he was describing me, and I felt shocked and a little sick. I may not have been an alcoholic, but I knew I’d worked hard all my life to hide my passivity and powerlessness behind a facade of excessive activity and relentless caregiving. In my more honest moments, I recognized that I was only a step away from flameout and complete collapse. I had adopted as my “life verse” Jesus’ admonition in Luke 6:31: “…just as you want men to treat you, treat them in the same way.” But in my distorted theology, I had turned the verse on its head. I had thought that if I sacrificially took care of everyone around me, that somehow, magically, everyone around me would take care of me! But now, Peck’s words had stripped the facade away from my life and revealed the truth. I wasn’t independent, self-sufficient, and fulfilled; I was passive, dependent and burned out. In all my years of caregiving to others, I hadn’t learned the first thing about how to care for myself.
That flash of insight that day was followed by a series of slow, painful steps toward recovery . I remember the first time I walked into my therapist’s office. I sat down and promptly started to cry. I was overwhelmed by feelings of shame as I acknowledged that I needed help. It was so much easier being the one dispensing the help, the wise insights, the caring support, the empathetic responses. Reaching out my hands to another, not as a caregiver, but as one needing assistance, was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life. But once I did, and I felt the kind, firm hold of another’s hand, I began to learn a new level of trust and safety.
For me, the key to my recovery as an adult has been to learn that I do have choices; I do have power. But it has not been easy. I have found that in order to make room for a new set of healthy, life-giving attitudes inside me, I have needed to discard several old, unhealthy ones. Here are three steps in that process that I believe are crucial.
1. Relinquishing Our Role as Victim
I have struggled for years to acknowledge the losses, deprivation and abuse I experienced as a child from a variety of adults and other children in my life. However, I am coming to recognize how easily I get stuck in the pain, seeing myself as a Victim, rather than as a competent, talented, and vivacious person who has survived some difficult situations.
When we become stuck in the Victim role, we actually multiply our losses. We not only have to deal with the original losses, but also with those losses we perpetuate by our self-imposed helplessness. We are unable to play because we are too busy remembering lost play times . We rarely laugh because as Victims we are unable to see anything funny. Life becomes a pervasively sad story as we unconsciously gravitate toward its dark and defeating parts. Unable to be spontaneous, we are rigid and worried about the next abusive episode. We fall asleep at night, counting our losses, not our blessings.
Perhaps the most damaging aspect of taking on the role of Victim is the rage we generate, which is rarely channeled in helpful ways. We fume, we fret, we store anger in our bodies and make ourselves sick rather than channel it for self-protection. Instead of viewing our relationships as opportunities for intimacy, fun and pleasure, we weight them down with our pain, rage and unrealistic expectations. We want them to make up for what we didn’t get before, but they can’t do that. They just can’t.
The need to relinquish our role as Victim and move on to health and happiness is absolutely essential, whether the abuse we endured happened in our childhood or when we were adults.
Several years ago, I was assaulted. Even though I was a mental health professional and an expert on victimization issues, I responded like any other victim. First, I pretended it didn’t happen, then I wondered if I weren’t somehow responsible, and finally, for several years, I felt fearful and unsafe no matter where I might be.
I blamed this experience for problems I was having in my relationships. When men became “confrontive” or aggressive, I would nearly faint in fear. No longer confident in my own ability to fight back, I became excessively compliant with anyone who I felt might overpower me. Without consciously choosing, I took on the identity of Victim.
Changing the Meaning of the Past
Finally, last year, I decided to turn that horror into something else, anything else. I realized that I couldn’t change the past, but I could change the meaning of the past. One way I chose to change the meaning of my experience was by taking a self-defense class. I remember the night of my first class. We introduced ourselves and started to practice the moves the instructor had demonstrated. Mark, our padded instructor, showed us how to deliver a strike to the head. It was my turn to practice, so I nervously walked onto the mat. “Take your elbow,” he instructed, “and strike me in the head.” I feebly popped his face mask with my elbow. “Hit me!” he yelled, so I knocked him harder. “Carmen!” he bellowed, “Hit me hard!” “But I’m afraid I’ll hurt you!” I said, dropping my hands to my side.
I was so wedded to my identity as Victim, I was unable to even “practice” protecting myself in a controlled setting. Week after week, I struggled to love myself enough to fight for myself. Some weeks I would cry. Some weeks I would rage. Through the various scenarios we enacted, I emotionally relived my victimizing experience. By the time I graduated from the program, I had relinquished my identity as Victim and redefined myself as fighter.
Because of the assault, my life has forever been changed. Nothing can erase that night from my past, nor can I somehow declare myself unaffected. I am a different person, a different woman, because of that experience. But the assault no longer defines who I am. I have taken that power back into my own hands. While those who hurt us must be held accountable for the damage done, we only hurt ourselves when we hold on to blame. A key step for me was being willing to forgive. And an important element in forgiveness is giving up what we will never get from those who hurt us. Some of us may want an apology. Others may want revenge. Rarely, if ever, do we get what we want from those who caused the damage. Until we are able to release false expectations, we are still under the influence of fear and unable to enjoy the passion of living.
In his excellent book, Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes counsels, “If you cannot free people from their wrongs and see them as the needy people they are, you enslave yourself to your own painful past, and by fastening yourself to the past, you let your hate become your future.”2 One of those satisfying changes is taking responsibility for your own recovery so that you can finally feel safe enough to enjoy life!
2. Giving Up Our Fear of Abandonment
A workshop I was leading not long ago divided into several small groups to discuss how to bring more enjoyment into their lives. As I walked around the room, one woman motioned to me. “The way I see it,” she said, “taking responsibility for myself means giving up any hope I have of being nurtured by anyone else. If I don’t believe that my husband, my kids, my friends, or my co-workers can make me happy, then what else do I have? I see myself being all alone, trying to give myself something I don’t have to begin with.” The group murmured and nodded their agreement, as if they all feared this lonely, hopeless state.
This fear is based on a misunderstanding of what it means to take responsibility for yourself. To those of us raised in dysfunctional homes, it means being abandoned. It means being left all alone to navigate because no one else is capable or interested in helping. This fear actually reflects a perverted view of independence – an independence that is not based in positive self-regard and a sense that others are supportive and available. Instead, we secretly believe that taking responsibility for ourselves will lead to desperation, deprivation and disappointment.
But taking responsibility for our own happiness is not like that at all. We still need people, and cherish the gift of friendship. But we no longer cling to those around us, nor do we demand that only one person meet all of our needs.
Developing Support Systems
I remember sitting with a close friend of mine, feeling the need to talk through a problem. She was a good listener and I thoroughly enjoyed having her pay attention to me. However, after about an hour, long before I was through talking about my problem, I noticed her losing interest. I realized I had a decision to make.
I knew I needed more time, attention and nurturance than she was willing to give me. I was tempted to feel rejected and to let her know how hurt I was that she didn’t stay with me through the entire process. Instead, I decided to feel grateful for the hour she had given me, and locate another friend who was willing to pick up where we left off.
That has been an important lesson for me, since we each have different levels and different kinds of needs. For example, when I need a couple of hours to process a problem, I may receive one hour from my girl friend, half an hour from a close male friend and an additional hour from my therapist. By developing a support system comprised of a number of people, I am able to get my needs met without taxing one particular person.
As I continue to take responsibility for my own recovery, I am able to develop a variety of strategies, not just one, to get my needs met. For example, rather than feeling deprived of nurturance through touch, I now take the responsibility for receiving weekly professional massages. While a professional massage does not replace the unique nurturance through the caress of a lover, the massage does nurture me in ways that make me feel less needy.
Instead of relying solely on my friends to help me sort out my problems, I now take responsibility for seeing a therapist regularly. While paying a therapist to meet with me does not replace the unique support possible through friendship, receiving this form of professional support nurtures me and makes me feel less needy.
While I used to wonder why God wasn’t sorting everything out for me, I now regularly schedule weekend spiritual retreats where I rest and reflect on the nature of my spiritual life. I can’t say that at the end of these weekend getaways I have discovered all truth or uncovered the ultimate answers to the meaning of life. But taking responsibility for spending time with God has, again, made me feel less needy.
I still need my friends and family. Receiving positive feedback from colleagues is important to me, but not to the same extent that I once needed it. I once craved affirmation and support like a little child, overwhelmed by a big and scary world. As I take responsibility for my inner child and address her legitimate childlike needs, I am better able to approach my exterior support system with my legitimate adult needs.
3. Letting Go of “Giving to Get”
A primary reason we have difficulty taking responsibility for our own lives is that many of us engage in manipulative thinking: “If you give, you will receive.” This kind of “Prosperity Gospel” is sometimes even preached from the pulpit. I know that is certainly what I was told, and since I wanted to receive, I started to give. I didn’t give because I wanted to give. I gave for the specific purpose of receiving. The problem with this formula – besides it being unbiblical – is that it simply doesn’t work. I gave, and gave, and gave some more. I worked extra hours and expected my employer to take care of me. I nurtured the men in my life and expected them to love me. Always available to my friends, I expected them to banish my fears and make my life complete. But it didn’t happen the way I planned. What little I had, I gave away and then had even less than before. This form of manipulative thinking underlies most addictive processes.
Learning When To Give Up
I no longer believe “If I give, I’ll receive.” But, I do believe “If I give up I’ll receive!” I have found that when I give up trying to manipulate others and focus instead on openly addressing my needs, I am more likely to receive what I desire. When I cease trying to make my friends give me what I need, at times they have surprised me by nurturing me in wonderful ways I never expected. If I give up giving as a form of manipulation and instead give to others out of a clear expression of caring, often people spontaneously give back out of genuine gratitude. Is this a magic formula? Am I proposing that you now use this approach as a new method of controlling or manipulating others? No, not at all. In fact, if you use giving up as another form of manipulation, those you are trying to control will continue to thwart your schemes. Genuine recovery has no gimmicks and no guarantees. For us to accept responsibility for ourselves we have to genuinely give up our attempts to control others. We must also cease taking responsibility for the well-being of others. Taking responsibility for ourselves means coming out of the cave of passive dependency, giving up blaming others for our miseries in life, and beginning to create a life that is truly satisfying and full of joy.This journey toward joy will stretch us as we have never before been stretched. It’s part of that same process of “growing up” that the Apostle Paul describes in the fourth chapter of Ephesians: that “we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves,” but are “to grow up in all aspects into Christ.” The result, Paul says, is that the whole body of Christ will be “built up in love.”3
That’s the paradox of grace. As we grow toward maturity in Christ, learning how to care for and nurture ourselves, only then will we find within us that deep well of joy that can become a source of nourishment to others. My life is still filled with ministry to others. But I’ve finally begun to put myself on the agenda, too. And I’m finding life to be richer and more satisfying than I ever thought possible.
1. M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, Simon and Schuster, 1978, p.44. 2. Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, Harper, 1984, p.29. 3. Ephesians 4:13-16
This article is adapted with permission from her latest book Are You Having Fun Yet? How to Bring the Art of Play Into Your Recovery, Thomas Nelson Publishers, © 1992.
Reproduction in any form without the express written permission of the author is prohibited.