Josie wants to cut off contact with a family friend. He sexually assaulted her long ago. Even though he has behaved courteously since then, she has never felt comfortable around him. She wrestles with how to tell her partner and son, preemptively arguing with expected objections. Her partner is usually supportive, but their 15-year old son, like his grandparents, frames everything in terms of how it will affect him. Josie struggles with old defensive patterns with him.
Josie’s parents were emotionally abusive. Rather than support and celebrate her individual self, they narcissistically expected her to echo their opinions. When she stood up for herself, they responded with cruelty and contempt. Josie learned to dissociate from her viewpoint in favor of the opponent’s side in the name of being “objective.”
We internalize opposing viewpoints in order to counter them, or to understand how to fit in. While that can be a useful survival skill, it diverts energy and momentum away from what we want to accomplish. Instead of advocating fully for ourselves, we divide our energy between ourselves and our internalized opponents.
Not so objective
Calm, rational, scientific statements are often considered superior to emotional personal opinions. People with power and privilege are more likely to be calm because they are not feeling threatened, and their opinions are more likely to be supported by the majority.
While it is respectful to consider others’ viewpoints, it is not objective to abandon internal experience and intuition, even when many others disagree. Even a scientifically “objective” viewpoint is subject to the cultural biases of the scientists performing the experiments. When cis white heterosexual men are the default, seemingly objective results reflect their experiences.
Not subject to a vote
It is healthy to value your own viewpoint, no matter how personal and emotional. No one will value it as much as you do. “Everyone else thinks…” is not a reason to change your story. Your perceptions are not subject to a vote.
Listen inside for your story
Josie pauses to separate the past from the present. She listens to the young part of her that believes she does not matter as much as the people around her. She listens to the part that always believes she matters, who has fought for her even when it would be more convenient to keep a low profile and escape notice. Her gut announces with certainty that she is done hanging out with Evan as if nothing happened. She remembers times her partner has responded well when she takes a stand. She realizes that her son will adapt and learn from her strength.
Josie speaks clearly from her truth, making space for others to speak without assuming what they will say. “I no longer want to see our friend Evan or invite him to our house. He hurt me a long time ago, and I’ve never felt comfortable around him. Let’s talk about how this can work for all of us.”
Centered and stable
When she stands in her own story, others can speak from their stories without knocking her off center. When her partner brings up Evan’s feelings, she answers, “I’ve protected his feelings long enough. Now I’m protecting mine.”
One of the responses Josie feared is, “But he’s kind to me!” When she stands in her own story, she can recognize this as a separate story. “I’m glad he’s kind to you. That doesn’t change how I feel.”
As she expected, her son brings up the passage of time and the redemption narrative. “It’s been so long. Just let it go. Evan has changed.” Josie responds, “I hear that you’d prefer this wasn’t an issue. It still is for me. This is my story, not Evan’s.” As a family they discuss that forgiveness is a private process that cannot be forced. Without an apology and amends, forgiveness might include not wanting to see him.
Resolving her internal conflicts helped Josie give her family an opportunity to hear her. In addition, her family cares enough about her well-being to listen. The conversation had room for everyone’s stories.
No room for other stories
If she had been speaking with narcissists, she might have heard, subtly or overtly, “How dare you say anything? You are so selfish, wanting something to be about you (instead of about us).” No amount of preparation can force others to listen with respect rather than bullying us into agreement.
Another common bullying technique is “You shouldn’t feel that way,” or the tone argument, “You’re too emotional.” Emotions are personal, private, and get to be how they are for as long as they are. Emotions remind us about our stories when we have suppressed them for so long we forgot they existed.
When there is no room for our stories, we begin to wonder if we really are taking up too much space, or if we need to improve our communication skills, or if our story is valid at all. Abusers take advantage of this confusion and use gaslighting to cover for abuse.
- “That doesn’t hurt.”
- “You’re imagining things.”
- “You had an orgasm so you wanted it.”
A physiological reaction does not imply consent. Our body’s experience belongs exclusively to our own story. It is a boundary violation for someone to claim they know more about it than we do. When someone overrides our story, we might feel angry, resentful, dissociated, or less connected. We might notice tightness and contraction, or a need to physically take up more space.
Each story is valid
Each viewpoint and story is valid, including those that are uncertain, unsure, or conflicted. We can take all the time we need to form our own conclusions. It can feel risky, even life-threatening, to take a stand in our story if it led to punishment in the past. When each person owns their story in a conversation, we can feel open, centered, stable, relieved. Where and how do you already stand in your story?
Karla McLaren’s book The Language of Emotions contains deep understanding and practical tips about how emotions support us in our stories.