Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Steve Becker, LCSW, CH.T, who has a private psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and clinical consulting practice in New Jersey, USA. For more information, visit his website, powercommunicating.com.
You really need to admire yourself for surviving an exploitative relationship. I say this very seriously, not flippantly. We all, of course, hope to minimize our involvement with exploitative individuals. But in the course of life, as we know, that’s not always possible. It is vital, therefore, if you’ve been victimized by and/or are recovering from involvement with an exploiter, to fully, genuinely appreciate (and remind yourself constantly) that you are indeed strong, impressively strong, because only the strong survive exploitation.
Many clients with whom I work (really, most people, I think) tend to see personal strength and insecurity; personal strength and low self-esteem, as incompatible. They balk at the idea that you can be a very strong person and insecure at the same time; that you can be a very strong person even with low self-esteem. For instance, when someone violates you (especially chronically) and you don’t defend yourself properly, the tendency is to attribute your failure at self-protection to “personal weakness.” The thought is something like, “If I was a strong person, I wouldn’t have let that abuse occur. I’d have asserted myself, defended myself, drawn the line.”
But it’s not personal weakness that explains the failure to protect your boundaries; it’s more often a lack of clarity, in knowing precisely what your boundaries are, and precisely what constitutes an unacceptable violation of them. Victims of sustained exploitation/abuse aren’t personally weak, quite the contrary. My experience has affirmed again and again how remarkably strong and resourceful most of them are. What they lack, however, often is a clear, secure sense of their boundaries; this insecurity of boundaries leaves them vulnerable to compromising themselves. After all, you can’t assert and/or protect your boundaries unless and until you’ve established them very clearly and securely (in your mind).
This explains what for many can seem so confusing and dichotomous: how a victim of sustained exploitation/abuse can, on the one hand, lobby so effectively for others’ interests, while, with respect to her/his own, appear stuck in circumstances he or she would counsel anyone else to reject and escape.
But I restate: You can’t protect your interests if they aren’t, in the first place, clearly defined. And you can’t defend your boundaries if, on any level, you’re uncertain, or ambivalent about, what they are. This disadvantaged position helps explain how an otherwise strong, resourceful adult can find her/himself tolerating and enduring the meanness and nonsense of a defective partner.
When my clients who have been in exploitative relationships discover confidently their boundaries, they often feel sad, on one hand, not to have done so sooner; but thrilled on the other to find themselves, as if miraculously, just as skilled at protecting their own interests as they’ve always been at protecting others’.
It’s a kind of bittersweet discovery. The bitter part, if grieved properly, is usually short-lived; the sweet aspect is long-lasting.