As an abuse victim, I was taught from an early age everything was my fault. Everything. Pretty amazing to give so much power to a child. Isn’t it? And it’s a big, fat lie.
I grew up with no values, no principles but one: Stay out of trouble. Do whatever you have to do to be as unobtrusive as possible, almost like you aren’t there. It didn’t take long to learn it was impossible to do. Even if I did precisely as I was told, the rules would be changed or new criteria added. I would be told that I hadn’t heard correctly, even if it meant lying to me about it. No matter what, I was wrong.
I had lived with so many lies for so long, I struggled with distinguishing truth from lies. I became so good at lying I developed my own little mantra, “Everything’s true, from a certain point of view.”
The first value an abuse victim must sacrifice is the most important tool in your toolkit: Truth.
If it’s the most important, then why isn’t it listed as the first tool, you may ask? An abuse survivor’s life is built on lies. It’s often difficult to know what is the truth and what is the lie. A foundation has to be built, and without those first tools I outlined, this one doesn’t mean much.
When I started my third round of therapy, five years ago, it was terribly unsettling to learn that I lied, often and well. It was particularly difficult to accept I was a good liar because I’d been told repeatedly I could be read like a book and I was very transparent. And yet the people telling me this would then prove they didn’t know me at all.
The question begs to be asked, “Why do people lie?” One of my nieces was complaining about people who fake it, and how frustrating it is trying to deal with them. Her thoughts prompted me to explore the myriad of reasons WHY people lie.
Here are a few of the reasons people say things like “I’m fine,” regardless of how they are, and other lies:
1) Remember the mantra FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT? This is a great idea, in theory. Unfortunately, people find themselves not making it, so they’re always faking it. Some people simply don’t know how to make it, so they live in a lie hoping it will be the truth, someday. Yes, there are times when you need to simply put a smile on your face, and you feel better. There are also times when putting that smile on your face feels likes it’s being carved there with a knife. With the way “put on a happy face” is drilled in, it would seem as if the world thinks there’s something wrong with having a bad day or being sad or feeling out of sorts. Too bad for you if you have a headache, your pet is sick, you’re having trouble figuring out how to do exactly what your bosses asked you to do. Paste on the smile because the world expects it. “The world” is the adversary’s domain, not God’s. God is not of the world. Christ admitted to being weary and sad, so it must be all right… Christ is the great Exemplar. Shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”
2) “I’m FINE (Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional or Finally, I’m Not Emotional).” Either I don’t believe you really want to know because a) you don’t have time or b) you really DON’T want to know. Or I don’t really want to share because a) I don’t have time or b) I really don’t want to talk about it, but I can’t simply say nothing.
3) Don’t really know, and really don’t want to figure it out at the moment, either, because a) I don’t want to make time right now or b) I really don’t want to know because if I know then a) I have to do something about it or b) I have to lie to myself, again, and do nothing.
4) Don’t want to hurt feelings.
7) Trust issues (and yes this is different from straight, outright fear). This could probably be a subheading under Fear, but I think it deserves it’s own heading. It’s a much more personal perspective.
8) There’s a reason why the movie Runaway Bride was popular, and it wasn’t simply because of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere (though that didn’t hurt any; like them or hate them, they’re a money draw). Abuse survivors understand this movie all too well. We weren’t allowed to have our own thoughts and opinions. We learned to conform to survive. It’s a great skill to have when dealing with lunatics, but not even remotely helpful in healthy relationships. Blessedly, God helped me find friends, in the last decade, who like me the way I am and are more than happy to let me be me. They’re also enjoying being part of my journey. I’ve lost count of the number of times they’ve arranged for new experiences to help me explore.
9) We lie because we want to fit in. Similar to #8 but not as severe. With this one, you know what you like and don’t like but go along to fit in.
10) And I’ve lied to keep a secret that was not mine to tell, without a shred of guilt.
11) The first lie: TO STAY OUT OF TROUBLE.
At least, these are some of the reasons I lie, though I’m truly endeavoring to recognize the lies and be honest about when and why I use them.
There are times, I believe, when a lie is kinder. My favorite example is an acquaintance eagerly asks you if the hideous dress she just blew all her money on is pretty. She’s thrilled with it; you hate it. Do you tell her the truth or lie? The first thing you have to ask yourself: Is what you’re about to say really the truth or only your opinion? Your opinion is just that an OPINION, not necessarily the TRUTH. So, sometimes it’s best to keep your opinion to yourself and give a feeling-sparing lie, i.e., you’re so happy for her.
(When I first wrote the above I’d made it your best friend asking. I’ve since come to understand that if it’s you’re best friend, then you need to be honest, though you also need to be kind. Friendship is based in trust, and honesty is a part of trust. An acquaintance is not someone you know well enough to be able to determine if they truly want your opinion or simply want you to be happy for them. Error on the side of kindness and be happy for them.)
At complete odds with my philosophy to always tell the truth, though I didn’t, is that, over the years, if anyone lied to me, it was grounds for ending a relationship and meant distrust forever. I hated lying. I hated it when I caught myself lying, and I hated it when others lied to me. To me, lying was a huge sin because it is woven in with every other sin.
It was a huge discovery to me to learn to recognize the difference between the truth and an opinion. Like many abuse survivors, I grew up being taught that the opinion of the abuser is the truth, so if you don’t share their opinion, then you are the liar.
I was lied to, repeatedly, to control me, shame me, and sometimes simply as a means to contradict me. Guilt trips were a particularly favorite whip. “Why do you hate me?”
Compliments repelled me because I could see the hook buried within the morsel. “You’re so pretty, if you would only lose weight/dress better/have plastic surgery/exercise more…”
I was told I was loved, and would quietly chant to myself, “Don’t tell me; show me.” It wasn’t until recently that I finally realized that my definition of love did not coincide with that of my abusers. So their avowals of love always felt like a lie because to me they were lies.
One of my favorite scriptures is “… ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” John 8:32.
Barry Stevens, born Mildred Fox, said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” It’s certainly been true for me.
Imagine my horror when I finally realized and admitted how much I lied. At first, I excused myself because I used the lies to help me survive. And I did. That being said, once I realized what I was doing, I had to admit God had helped me see the truth because I was finally ready to accept the truth.
I lied. A lot. About everything. Mostly out of habit. I lied so often so well I usually didn’t even realize I was doing it. But once it was made clear to me, I knew I had to change.
I had to stop lying to everyone, but I could only do that if I stopped lying to myself first.
When you lie that much you don’t know what “no” really means. Lying that much, I didn’t really know what “no” meant. In fact, “no” was pretty much meaningless. What was the point in saying “no” when those with whom I was interacting were going to do what they wanted to do regardless of what I said?
Nor did I know what it was to truly choose for myself, except in the most superficial ways. I’d be “defiant” and pat myself on the back for standing up for me, but I didn’t stand up for me in the things that really mattered.
I certainly couldn’t acknowledge my real emotions. Frankly, they were pretty scary. The few times I had flashes of emotions they were incredibly intense. It was easier to pretend they weren’t there.
However, in order to stop lying, I needed to know what my other options are. That sounds a little odd, I know. After all, wouldn’t the other option be the truth? Well, yes, but what good is that if you don’t know what the truth is?
The truth I’d been taught wasn’t. It was easier to grasp the concept I needed to learn if I simplified it by calling it other options besides lies. Hey, you do what you have to when you’re fighting for your life. This worked for me. Just for the record, with time and effort, I have worked up to searching for the truth. I know the difference now.
Looking back, over the years, I remember how vehement I could be about being honest. Now, I find it a little puzzling because lying had been essential for survival. Again, I was so good at it I didn’t even realize when I lied to myself. And I keep saying this to remind myself of how far I’ve come. One of my biggest struggles of the last few years has been learning to be completely honest with myself about the things I do wrong AND the things I do right.
I well remember having long conversations with others, and suddenly I’d realize that everything I’d said was what was expected of me, without an ounce of truth from me, and no one knew. How I felt, what I thought, what I believed.
An innocuous example is someone would tell me how much he/she loved a particular music group. We’d talk for thirty minutes, and I’d be agreeing and seeming to be on the same wavelength. The person would think they’d made a new friend. I’d walk away realizing that I hated the group and thought the music horrendous and how could I possibly face that person again when everything I’d said had nothing at all to do with what I thought or felt?
I also remember people setting up blind dates for me, and all they’d accomplished was to prove how much they didn’t know me. But then, I didn’t let them know me. How could I when I didn’t know myself?
Sometimes, the hardest thing about being a survivor is telling the truth, especially to yourself.
For me, choosing God meant choosing to allow Him to etch His countenance on my soul, so that when others see me, they see His light reflected there. Lies are dark things, and snuff out light, so the lies must go.
An unexpectedly dark moment in my life was when my counselor assigned me the book Toxic Parents by Dr. Susan Forward. Dr. Forward includes a questionnaire at the beginning of her book. Like many such questionnaires it is based on the premise that if you answer yes to a certain number of questions then you may benefit from reading the book. In this case, there were twenty-seven total questions. I remember thinking it shouldn’t be difficult.
The first question asks: “Did your parents tell you you were bad or worthless? Did they call you insulting names? Did they constantly criticize you?”
To this day, I remember my instant answer: Oh, no, that never happened in our family. We weren’t allowed to use words like dummy and stupid.
I also remember my instant mortification following on the heels of that answer. I had been seeing my counselor for a year, and I still lied to myself first! Memories flooded my head of being criticized, belittled, bullied. Then I thought briefly that at least I wasn’t called dummy or stupid.
No, indeed. Before I was a year old I had been given the nickname “Crabby Appleton, rotten to the core.” Before I was a year old, I was taught that I wasn’t just a dummy or stupid, I was rotten, through and through. There was nothing good about me. If there was nothing good, then I was evil, down to the bone. As I grew up, all they had to say was, “Hey, Crabby,” or “Why are you being so crabby?” and instantly the rest of the phrase, like a freight train, chugged through my brain.
I put the book away for six months, unable to bear even picking it up. I was forty-four years old, on my third counselor, whom I’d been seeing a year, and I still lied to myself first. How could I hope to heal if I still wasn’t honest with myself?
All the lies must stop.
At Thanksgiving time, I was listening to K-LOVE, a faith-based radio station, and they asked, “What is your earliest food memory?”
It wasn’t difficult for me to recall. Sharing the family dog’s food. I also remember feeling terribly guilty for sometimes giving her only one kibble while I took two. I also learned marshmallows and crackers were easy to steal because there were so many in a bag, but I had to be careful not to be greedy, because the evidence of missing food would be noticed. I was hungry, but if I took any food other than what was offered at mealtime, then I was stealing food from the mouths of the other family members, regardless of the fact that my brothers were laughingly allowed to eat whatever they wanted. They were, after all, growing boys.
My next earliest food memory was being forced to eat cooked oatmeal, despite the fact that after only one or two spoonfuls I’d vomit. I didn’t want to make a mess, so I’d vomit into the bowl. I was given another bowl, with the same result, until I had gone through every clean bowl in the house. Fortunately, most of the bowls were in the dishwasher, so I only went through two or three, though it might have been four. Finally, a mixing bowl was used, and this time it was fed to me, like I was a baby. Since I wasn’t holding the bowl, let alone the spoon, I vomited again all over the other person, the floor, the walls. I was miserable, humiliated, terrified. It was the oatmeal or nothing. I learned to do without.
Had I been asked the above question ten years ago, or even five years ago, I would have talked about the taffy pulling or coffee cake, that were occasional treats. Not that I wouldn’t remember the others; I simply would have pushed them back into a “box,” and pretended those ugly memories didn’t matter.
For years, I’ve been struggling to learn to tell the truth. I’m doing much better. I’ve learned to stop and think about what I’m saying and double check if I truly believe it or am saying what I think is expected. With a lot of work, fortunately, I’m truly learning to speak from my heart and not the past habit.
I’m learning to stop covering up the past, i.e., trying to make everything rosy when it wasn’t, projecting a life of ease and smooth sailing, when there was nothing but turmoil.
I’ve also had to learn to curb the temptation to spill everything. Sometimes I hold back when I should share. Like everything else in life it’s about learning to recognize what’s appropriate when, where, and with whom. Life is a giant learning experience. The choices are to grumble about it, ignore it, or embrace it and explore. I’m enjoying the adventure more and more.
I must remind myself that pulling off the scab of an infected wound, thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting, and making sure it heals properly is painful, but necessary to healthy healing. Whereas picking at a properly healing scab will only create unnecessary scars.
God is the Great Healer. His hand is stretched out still, waiting for me to trust Him, and it doesn’t have to be all at once or everything all in. He knows it’s difficult. He knows my struggle, and He’s ready and willing to wait and guide as much as I will allow Him.
It’s vital to learn and remember that as long as you start with a lie, it will be a lie no matter how much truth you pile on top of it. So start by throwing out the lies, and stop lying.
© 2010 The Project: The Tools I Wish I’d Known About Sooner / My Abuse Survivor’s Basic Toolkit by Judy