By Joyce Alexander RNP (Retired)
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation — just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer — we are challenged to change ourselves.
Dr. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I spent so much of my life trying to change others that it almost became a way of life for me. I was never very successful at changing others, but I never gave up trying. I have tenacity in great abundance and have succeeded in many endeavors, so I just knew if I kept on trying harder, trying different techniques, loved more, was more selfless and caring, that I could change the way others treated me. I could make them see just how much I loved them and was willing to sacrifice myself for them and they would treat me better because of that.
What I have come to understand, though, as I have started to heal from the wounds I allowed to be inflicted on me by those personality-disordered people in my life—people I loved very much, people I would have died for—is that the only person I can change is myself.
I had left my home, because my physical safety was no longer secure there, and was living in a recreational vehicle parked on some land by a lake that was owned by a friend. I felt very alone, lonely, wounded and destitute of all that mattered to me. During that time I had plenty of time for reflection, and it was also during that time that I found Lovefraud. I sat at my computer reading and weeping for 16 or more hours a day, and realized I was not alone in my pain, not alone in my woundedness, and that I wasn’t the only one in the world who was a smart, successful person who had come upon a situation I could not fix.
Man’s Search for Meaning
By chance I found Dr. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he had written after his years in a Nazi concentration camp, during which time he lost everything and everyone in this world which had meaning to him, except his very life. The book was not only about the horrors that he experienced and saw, but about his and other’s emotional responses to this horror. He realized that there was nothing he could do about his situation, but find meaning in the most awful of events. He saw that some people in the camps just gave up and sat down and died, and that others became cruel and bitter, and still others found meaning and altruism in helping their fellow prisoners.
Compared to what Dr. Frankl had lost, I had actually lost very little, as I had enough to eat, no one was beating me, etc., and I began to feel guilty for being in so much pain, but then I read his explanation of how pain “works” in us. He explained that pain acts like a “gas.” If you put a small bit of a gas into an empty container, the gas expands to fill the container completely, or if you put in a large amount of gas into a small container it compresses and still fills the container completely. So my pain was just as “total” as his was, it filled me entirely. I had no reason to feel guilty for being in such emotional pain. Like Dr. Frankl, though, I had no way to change the people who were hurting me. I had no control over what they did. No matter how nice Dr. Frankl would have been to his captors, they would still not have loved him or been compassionate to him or caring.
Out of my control
I realized that the situation with others is, and always has been, out of my control. My ideas that if I just treated others well, did loving things to and for them, that they would love me back were totally false. Not only did I not have the power to control others’ behavior or thinking, my own idea that I could do so was keeping me from taking care of myself.
Fortunately, unlike Dr. Frankl, I had the option of getting away from those who would have harmed me. I could run away. It was only when my very life was threatened that I finally did run away, literally in the middle of the night. Sometimes it takes a hard “wake up call” to get us to see that we cannot change others, that we do not have the power to make someone love us, no matter how well we treat them, or what we give them, or what we do for them.
As a mother, I thought that if I were good to my children, and taught them “right from wrong,” that they would respect me and adhere to these principles of doing good. In effect, they would develop a “moral compass” and have empathy and compassion. The truth is, though, that everyone has a choice about how they think, what they feel and what they choose to do. Other than brute force, none of us can “control” another person’s behavior, and no one can control another’s thinking except by “trauma bonding” or “brainwashing.” So instead of controlling, I ended up being controlled, being manipulated, and used by the people I loved.
Starting to heal
About the time I read Dr. Frankl’s book, and started reading Lovefraud, I also started to heal. I started to realize that as painful as it was to realize that those I loved, truly loved, and wanted to love me, did not love me, which was proven by the way they treated me. I started to redefine even the word “love” as an action verb, not a noun. I started to see that I could not control anyone else’s thinking or behavior, but that I deserved to be treated as well as I treated others.
Knowledge truly is power! Knowing that we cannot change them, accepting that we cannot change them, and then changing our responses to their behavior is our salvation. Starting with “No Contact,” which gets us out of their emotional influence long enough that we can start to think rationally and logically rather than emotionally, we begin to heal. We start to change our own thinking and our own behaviors. We learn to set boundaries for what we will tolerate and allow, not only with the psychopaths and how they treat us, but for how we treat ourselves. We realize that we deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. We deserve to have compassion for ourselves, rather than waste it on those who will not change. We can’t change the world, we can’t change others, but we can and must change ourselves.