Remembered feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and submission can be some of the most painful parts of healing from abuse. We are taught to believe that defeat, failure, and weakness are causes for shame. Instead, perpetrating abuse is the shameful act.
Surrender is a crucial survival tool. Like the physical freeze response, psychological surrender is our best attempt to reduce our suffering in an uneven battle. Your painfully remembered surrender was a successful strategy to survive into this present moment.
Failure is universal
Defeat and failure are universal experiences as we take risks, learn new skills, and venture into the unknown. We may feel terribly alone when we feel blocked, trapped or stuck, but those feelings are part of life around the world, throughout time.
Weakness is relative
As children, we are weaker than the adults around us. As adults in a hierarchical world, we might have less power than:
- Men who cat-call our womanly figures on the street
- White restaurant hosts who turn away from our brown faces
- Teammates who taunt us for “acting gay”
- Anyone who provides a survival need, such as a paycheck or a place to live.
In each interaction, we choose among many options, including to speak up, to avoid conflict, or to surrender. It is not shameful to be weaker than some and stronger than others. Self-care includes giving ourselves room to be vulnerable, to lack the energy to fight, and to choose actions that preserve our safety, including compliance.
Waiting is an action
During a short-term assault or long-term abusive situation, waiting for an opportunity to escape is an important, undervalued survival skill. Waiting is a temporary surrender while gathering information and resources for future movement.
Healing after surrender
Surrender can be emotionally expensive, damaging pride, dignity, and self-esteem. Surrender often involves forced compliance with boundary violations, leaving behind not only injured boundaries, but also misplaced shame for giving in.
To heal from surrender, take some time to say hello to the painful feelings that surround its memory. Create a space for them to speak, and keep them company with compassion. As you listen over time, the wider story around the need for surrender emerges, opening the way for self-forgiveness.
When we are forced to surrender too many times or for too long, we absorb the lesson that we are always helpless. We surrender our hope that someday we will escape, grow, change, and heal. Even when the external trap is gone, the internal limits remain in place.
One solution for learned helplessness is to pay attention to your effective actions in the present. Absorb each success, no matter how tiny, and allow it to gradually counteract the old lesson of helplessness. Give yourself credit for the daily maintenance of living. Instead of looking beyond success to your failing edge, look beyond failure to your successful core skills. Imagine your three-year-old self watching your adult abilities with awe.
Another solution for learned helplessness is to reach into the past before the events that caused surrender. Perhaps your three-year-old self carries buoyancy, hope, and confidence that your adult self has lost. Look inside for a spark of faith in your power to survive and create change.
Surrender into healing
Instead of humiliation, some surrenders bring relief and forward motion. Tightly-held muscles finally surrender into support. A shield of denial is surrendered into deeper contact with our truth. Surrender to a long-fought obstacle allows movement in a new direction. These inner surrenders happen when the time is right, and cannot be forced.
Can you find relief in past surrenders, or pride in your survival? Where in your life have you chosen to wait while you gather information and resources? When you consider surrender as a valid option, do you see a current situation in a new light?
Martin Seligman writes about his classic experiments on learned helplessness in his book Learned Optimisim.