The journey to rediscover yourself after a series of abusive and manipulative relationships is a rocky one. For years after my personal experiences, I was left with a lingering feeling of not being good enough. I had lost my sense of personal identity. It takes quite a bit of time to retrain your brain to think positively about yourself without approval from other people and develop personal boundaries. But what are the things that lead people to enter into unhealthy relationships?
A lot of the time it has to do with your surroundings as you grew up, and what behaviors and ideas pass as acceptable in the society around you.
Growing up in a small town full of people with sexist attitudes about gender roles can instill a sense of worthlessness in a person if they don’t fulfill a specific role. I have met a lot of women who have grown up in small towns in Indiana who were raised to believe that their worth stemmed from being in a relationship and getting married by a specific time, and if that’s what you grow up being exposed to, that mentality becomes engrained in the back of your mind. Some people don’t even realize that they are training you to think that way about yourself and end up doing or saying things subconsciously that further instill this antiquated mentality into your own subconscious. For example, during the graduation ceremony for my eighth grade class, the speech made about the valedictorian (a male) included talk of how hard he worked and how smart he was whereas the speech made about the salutatorian (me, a female) merely discussed how nice I was. Not being recognized for an academic achievement from a very young age and instead being reduced to a personality trait had a lasting affect on the ways I thought about myself, and it wasn’t until years later that I truly realized how deeply it had impacted my self-esteem.
Another issue that I and many other people have faced is bullying.
This behavior is all too common in both grade school and high school, and it can further impact the self-esteem of the people who face it. While some people may handle being bullied better than others, it can still lead to a feeling of not belonging or being an outsider even when there are friends around. Sometimes the feeling of not fitting in can lead people to seek love and acceptance from the wrong people who end up manipulating them and taking advantage of their need for acceptance and belonging. Enter the narcissists.
My sophomore year of high school was when I unknowingly entered into my first emotionally abusive relationship.
At first, everything seemed new and exciting, but little did I know that I was in for a whirlwind of pain that would start a vicious cycle. The relationship lasted for six months through a move to a new town and into my junior year of high school. After a while, he had begun to use my moving away as an excuse to ignore me and sneak around, but by that point I was too emotionally invested because he had given me his grandmother’s ring. When the relationship finally ended, I was a wreck and began looking for another relationship to fill the hole that had been created which lead to yet another abusive relationship that was back and forth for five years. This one, and a six month interim relationship in one of the off periods, were both emotionally abusive as well as physically abusive.
To keep the stories straight, I will refer to them as B and D, respectively.
Again, the relationship with B started off wonderfully with a lot of love bombing, but then things started to change, and I found myself having to beg for the smallest amounts of affection. He would seemingly get bored and then regain interest with a cyclical nature and I got sick of it for a while and broke it off. A few weeks later D had come into the picture, and I fell for it yet again. Things with D happened fast, there was a proposal, and then things went downhill and according to him, it was all my fault. I had been kicked with steel toed boots, and after deciding to exercise a boundary and leave to go home, I was pinned against the door and he spat in my face. A few days later, I broke up with him. He told me he hated me, and a few hours later, he called me drunk and high on pills after crashing his car and proceeded to yell at me and tell me it was all my fault and my mom ended up going to find him and take him to the hospital.
So what did I do?
Ran straight back to B and got right back into the cycle, because by that point I had developed Stockholm syndrome and couldn’t see my own worth because these people I had trusted to hold my heart had molded me into their own personal punching bag.
By this point I had stopped doing the things I would normally love to do, but I moved yet again to continue my college education at IU, and after a few months B and I moved into an apartment together in Bloomington. Things seemed to actually be getting better, but it was too good to be true. After living together for a little over a year, the arguments started up again and he quit his job leaving me to carry the bills on my own. B never attempted to get another job while he was living with me, and eventually after another heated argument that ended with me getting thrown into a bookshelf and the cops being called, he moved out. I was very lucky that my parents were able to be there when he came to get his things, because I’m not sure what would have happened had they not been there.
Afterwards, I fell into another relationship with someone who had been a good friend for years, and while it wasn’t nearly as bad as the previous two, there were still some mild forms of manipulation there. However, by this time I had started going to therapy and was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder stemming from relationship abuse and I slowly began to realize that I was getting attached to people so easily because my needs weren’t being met.
It was at this point I realized that having my needs met needed to begin with me.
I needed to learn to put myself first and start maintaining my personal boundaries in relationships, and so I did. I broke off that relationship because he and I were much better as friends than as partners. I started practicing mindfulness, allocating more time to my school work, got my grades up and began to realize that I could do things on my own regardless of whether or not there was someone there beside me to share my successes. Because that’s the thing: they were mine, and I was proud of myself. It took a long time to work myself out of the learned codependent tendencies and to realize that people’s behaviors and thoughts towards me were more of a reflection of how they felt and thought about themselves than actually about me at all.
So I stopped looking for love and began showing myself the love that I had been looking for in other people.
Sometimes as we’re growing up, we don’t truly realize how harmful certain surroundings and circumstances can be until we’re put in a position where we have to face it head on because things aren’t getting better. It’s good to be introspective and mindful about how things have impacted us so that we can make the changes that are necessary for our own personal growth, because at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. Once you regain a sense of personal identity outside of other people and recognize your self-worth, you begin to see things in different and more beautiful ways and are able to identify what no longer suits you. Personally, the most beautiful part of coming back into myself is being able to share my story in hopes of helping others who may be struggling with similar issues. There is always a way out of the cycle to move forward.