Do you know when you are being mistreated or disrespected? It seems like a strange question, but my experience tells me that most of us don’t actually feel it in the moment, or we do sense something is amiss but we gloss over it. Then it wakes us up in the middle of the night. Even then, we may question our feelings, and be uncertain about whether we should do something about it. Mostly, we do not act on behalf of ourselves, and find ourselves simply adjusting to the bad treatment. In popular parlance we “swallow” it.
“Forgive and forget” is another internal adjustment strategy. It’s reinforced as the way to go among religious and new age spiritual communities. Forgiveness has its place of course. But as a go-to default strategy I don’t trust it. To be precise, my take is that forgiveness has its place at the end of an intentional process of working through the insult with the insulter. Afterwards, we may or may not choose forgiveness. But too often it’s a premature “flight to transcendence”. It’s an ideal, and like all ideals, forgiveness does not take seriously enough the insult, the insulted, or even the insulter. As such it’s little more than our personal collusion in our own mistreatment.
Another strategy is to instinctively rationalize the mistreatment or our first impulse is to try to understand the motivations of the person or community who have mistreated us. You know, “guess he was having a bad day”, or “she didn’t mean to, I’m sure”.
But where did we learn to capitulate, take the high road, fly off to the land of ideals, swallow our anger, or enact premature forgiveness?
I wonder if these strategies are little more than childhood survival tactics transposed to adult situations. When we were helpless and dependent, in the face of mistreatment we have limited options, but all of them were in the service of survival. Initially, we would have protested by crying and making a serious fuss. This is the natural response. But when we discover that this is futile, or worse, provokes more mistreatment, Plan B kicks in.
One of the first things we do is travel north, away from our feelings and into our thoughts. This happens automatically or instinctively. We need to control the instinct in our body to lash out, the throat wants to scream, the hips and legs want to get, the arms want to flail. We cannot tolerate the experience or the idea that the ones who are supposed to be taking care of us are negligent. We cannot be motherless or fatherless in other words.
So, we form a belief that they aren’t doing something wrong. It’s “me” that is the problem. I am bad. This belief gets formed at the deepest layer of our unconscious, and then gets acted out in all kinds of ways, in our adult life.
When we are mistreated as adults, this belief ensures that our first thought when we’ve been mistreated is: “I must have done something to deserve it”. Otherwise life is unbearably unpredictable, fickle, cruel. We “grin and bear it”. In doing so we are reenacting an early childhood strategy that brought order to a chaotic existence. Your badness, your “deserving it” is the solution to intolerable chaos and cruelty. Over time, it is possible that we simply do not feel the insult to our integrity and self-worth when it occurs at work, at home, or with friends.
It’s sobering the day we realize that we actually participate in the construction of situations in which we’ll be mistreated. Freud called it “repetition compulsion”. My theory on repetition compulsion is that it’s not merely neurotic. It has a redemptive purpose. We do it so that one day we might actually see ourselves doing it, and wake up out of the trance of the survivor.
In the meantime, all the rage, all the hatred, all the resentment doesn’t just disappear. It goes underground. It is repressed. But this is not merely a psychic, or mental process. The repression is held in our body. My own set of repressed feelings went into my hips and ass. It took almost six decades for the tightness to start to interfere with my functioning. But it can just as easily show up in any of our internal organs. We get sick. But if we take this to a conventional doctor, s/he won’t even touch the source, only the symptoms. All these repressed feelings need to come out if we are going to regain health.
Standing up and “doing bloody battle” (as Andrew Feldmar puts it) on behalf of oneself is a sign of the recovery of the true self. With the boss, with siblings, with friends, with mother, with father, with anybody who crosses the line.
My own feeling is that most of us gloss over our mistreatment because this is the way we were forced to deal it when we were very young. If I’m accustomed to being put down, ignored, avoided, beaten up, or used in some fashion or another, then it’s quite possible that I’ve actually lost the capacity to feel offended or disrespected. At first we felt it, and then repressed it. Then developed an unconscious defence system to guard against it happening again. Eventually we deny that it ever happened. We are “grateful” for being given life. As a result, I might not even feel it as an adult, because I learned very early that feeling it only exacerbates the problem. If I actually felt it and fought for myself, say by getting angry or protesting in some fashion, I learned that this either made it worse, or had zero impact. And if I feel it as an adult, then what do I do with my offenders?
Over time, my anger, and more importantly my capacity to trust that I’ve actually been offended is lost to me. This ability to trust the feeling that “oh, I am actually being wronged in this moment. It’s happening now. I can trust my body, my anger, my feelings of shame. If you are feeling shame for example, it is because somebody is making you feel shame. Trust it. There really is something happening to me that requires me to step up and consciously defend myself or take action of some sort to preserve my dignity. Because it’s self-dignity that is at stake, make no mistake. When we lose this, then we become living doormats.
Nobody else is going to stand up for us, and nobody else should be standing up for us. This is our battle to fight.