This morning I woke up from a disturbing dream. We were at a political/religious group meeting. Others were around us telling us what to think and believe. Some were loud and boisterous. Others were more sincere looking to us to wholeheartedly believe like they did. I could feel the pressure to conform in my chest and stomach. I got so upset I walked outside trying to figure out where I could hide while waiting for my husband who was still in the meeting. A female member of the group followed me outside. She introduced herself and invited my husband and me over to have a meal with her family. She said their group was committed to inviting us to 49 meals. I could not imagine one meal with these people, much less 49. I struggled with my words, but managed to say that we were not very social people. The lady looked at me like I had three heads. She was appalled that I had indicated that we were not willing to participate. Then my husband walked out with another woman smiling and looking towards me. He told me that we were having dinner with these people 49 times. I felt my heart sink and fear overwhelm my body. I woke up feeling overwhelmed with these emotions.
It’s so strange how dreams can bring to life our worst fears and play them like a high definition movie in our minds. I have found that it is important to pay attention to our dreams, especially when there is a strong emotional response.
This morning as I thought about this dream, it was clear to me how threatening that it was to feel like others were pressuring me to believe like they did. When my husband became a part of this group in the dream, I was scared to death of being left all alone if I didn’t comply. However, it was clear to me in the dream that there was no way I would comply even if it meant having World War III with him. I was determined not to go back ever into an environment where others told me how to think.
Since I awakened from the dream before I could tell my husband how I felt about the 49 dinners bring planned for us, I found comfort in imagining telling him with a firm no that I would not plan to attend with him. Even as I visualized telling him no, I felt a deep sense of fear that I might lose him for not going along, but still I said no.
I spent some time reading and writing about the pressures in my life right now. Why do I feel so much fear around disappointing others? Why do I often feel a sense of dislike for myself ?
I recognize even as I write the words that the codependency I learned as a child to survive is still very much there triggering a trauma response. Fight, flight, freeze or fawn. When the predator is closing in on me, what can I do to protect myself?
For most of my life, it was to give my abusive father what he wanted. If I pretended like everything was fine, then I could at least be left alone to lick my wounds after the abuse ended. When I argued with my father as a teenager over my decision to call and try to make peace with a boyfriend that I had finally broken up with, my father got so upset he put the gun on the coffee table and threatened to shoot him if he showed up at our house. My mom got so upset, she left in tears leaving me all alone at home with him. My father began screaming at me to look at all I’d done to upset my mother. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of having brought so much suffering on everyone because I had not agreed. I screamed and threatened to kill myself, and my father said go ahead.
Thankfully, I chose to stay alive. I called my cousin who came and let me stay at her house until the storm passed. After a couple of days, things went back to normal. I came back home apologizing for going against their wishes concerning the ex-boyfriend and never called him again. I learned through that experience it was just best to go along and keep my feelings to myself.
This pattern is a worn down pathway in my brain. One that became a well traveled road that made it difficult for me to see any other way to deal with conflict. When an abusive pastor and church system entered into my life, I was unfortunately an easy target for being abused.
I heard Brian Peck, LCSW say in a recent interview about religious trauma and abuse that those who are often abused in religious environments are those who are the most committed. They are the ones who take the work and the vision of the church most seriously. This was definitely the case with me. I so desperately longed to belong to something that I jumped in without having any idea how toxic the environment was.
When the pastor, who I believed cared about me like the father I always wanted, confessed to me that he desired me in other ways, I felt like the same little girl who needed to keep her father happy. I knew to contradict him would result in more suffering. I also believed that once again there was something wrong with me that caused him to feel the way he did. So I traveled the well worn road I always had; the path of least resistance that kept me being abused.
This morning after a troubling dream, I imagined what it would have felt like to have actually been empowered to say no to the abusive pastor. I visualized myself as an adult, who wasn’t afraid to look her abuser in the eye and say it with firmness and walk away. NO. After having done a lot of work around understanding abuse, I know that feeling regret or shame over not saying no will only keep me on a destructive path. As I look towards the less traveled pathway it must be with self compassion. Only then, am I able to continue to move into what feels like uncharted territory.
Even though saying the word no feels like a step into the unknown, thinking about saying it brings a tremendous amount of relief. If I had said no then and walked away I would in all likelihood not been abused. While I cannot change the past, I can acknowledge that I cannot blame myself for what I did not know about him or my own trauma that caused me to be vulnerable to his abuse. I can also acknowledge that his choice to abuse was all about him and not me. But the power I have now, is I do know there is another way even though it can feel scary and unfamiliar. I can say no. I can begin to create a new path of going where I know is best for me.
Is there a situation in your life that you feel pressured to say yes?
How does it make you feel to imagine saying no?
Sometimes “no” can be the hardest thing to say, but can make all the difference in empowering us in who God made us to be.