The other day, one of my Facebook friends, who happens to also be a famous author, said something about women that made me shake my head. She had mentioned the often-endorsed idea of mean girls and then said that she found that it was quite rare–that, for every mean girl she encountered, there were several women there to lift her up.
The timing of her post was incredible, mostly because I had just ended a day where I was reeling from being thrown under the bus by two women I loved and respected. In that moment, I was grieving because I knew my idea of friendship had been broken and that I would never see them in the same way again.
I have a hard time letting go of people. It’s never easy for me. It’s violent, and it leaves gaping holes in my life–which I then have to mend. So, right now, I’m mending.
I was happy for her experience–happy that others within her community felt the same way. But I couldn’t have felt more different, in that moment, and it made me wonder why. It made me wonder why some women have positive interactions with each other and some don’t. Is it luck? Is it their personalities? Is it their choices? All of the above?
I spent most of yesterday licking my wounds, and I still don’t have any answers. Just one more hole and the question–why wasn’t I worth protecting?
I’ve been angry at women for a long time. I don’t connect to many women. I have many as acquaintances, but I rarely trust them. Which is unfortunate because I’ve always wanted sisters–have always wanted to be one of those women who has girlfriends. And I’ve worked hard to be accepted by women. But, mostly, I have found myself in friendships with women where I’m often betrayed. I have an easier time accepting this behavior when it comes from a man. Perhaps, because it’s harder for me to see–because I’m used to it. But I’m slowly seeing that it’s not just women. That it’s not just other people. Maybe the problem’s me.
I read somewhere once that our ability to bond with other people is completely determined by our early relationships with our parents. But that bonding experience is traumatic. We are totally dependent on our parents for love, support, and basic survival. Parents, no matter how amazing they are, fail. The telephone rings when they’re changing your diaper. The lights go out, and you’re afraid. Your parents argue over how best to raise you. No one’s perfect. But, still–these things…no matter how understandable…lead to trauma because there’s a gap between what is needed and what is delivered. The expectation and its failure to be met is damaging. In your little, developing brain, you don’t quite understand. Everything is brand new to you. Your life is what informs what you understand, and all you really know is what doesn’t feel good. What’s scary. What’s cold. What’s unpleasant. You associate specific things with those emotions.
As a little human, your brain conditions you to believe that the world is good. That your parents are good. That those unpleasant things are separate from them. Because you need the world. You need your parents. It’s a matter of survival. But there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance to deal with here. There’s still that horrible feeling that something isn’t right. And your brain, all too often, finds a scapegoat: you. So, instead of thinking the world is evil and chaotic and untrustworthy–you start thinking you’re bad or deserving of the crap that exists in the world. And that creates entire sets of expectations that change who you become in that world.
It’s what happened to me. My Mama was a good Mama, but my father decidedly failed on many levels. He was either absent, drunk, or untrustworthy. I have scars on my body still, from his neglect–from rolling my head on his fallen, lit cigarette. A pink bump on my hip from the giant safety pin he stabbed me with when changing my diaper. Those are the visible ones.
Unfortunately, my father took care of me a lot when I was an infant. My Mama worked nights and had no support. He was all there was. And, as much as he loved me, he wasn’t trustworthy. Eventually, Mama quit her job–plunging us into even more poverty–because I was unsafe, and she was afraid they’d take me away.
I suppose, my Mama overcompensated for his physical and emotional neglect. Most days, she watched me like a hawk. She made sure I had everything I needed to be happy. And my father did this, too, sporadically. I learned that I could only count on my Mama. I learned that my father’s attention had to be earned–that I had to be perfect and sweet at all times. But my father’s attention came at a high price, and eventually, our interactions would end with me screaming I hated him.
So, I suppose, in the end, I learned not to trust people. I learned that I had to manipulate people to get my needs met. I learned that I often had to do things myself. But I also learned to have high expectations for the people who were there for me.
I’ve seen this pattern play out, time and time again, in my life. Not just in my experience of other people, but in their experience of me. I hold myself to impossible standards when it comes to other people. Which is why I often give myself away. Which is why I blamed myself for not saving my parents. Which is why I blamed myself for a friend’s suicide. I’m supposed to be SuperWoman. I’m supposed to love and support people more than anyone–never asking for anything in return. My needs don’t matter. And, if you dare to love me–to be there for me–I expect that you’ll either leave me or neglect me. I expect to suffer. I will reward you for punishing me by obsessing over your motives and trying to get you to love me and care for me–to meet my needs. And, if–somehow–you don’t do those things–if you treat me well and are kind to me–I expect you to act as I would. I demand excellence, selflessness, and loyalty. And, as a reward for that, I will promptly take you for granted. I will forget to say thank you. I will test you. I will make it hard to love me.
Which means I tend to attract people to me who abuse people–sometimes consciously, sometimes not. I put myself in impossible situations where I’m used and where I’m treated terribly. I also tend to attract people who are like me–who need to love people, but don’t love themselves.
There are lots of women who fall into both of these camps. And since I’m hardest on the ones who are like me, I tend to push them away. They never meet my expectations, and I’m usually the one who ends up isolating myself from them. So, the ones I’m left with are the ones who will stab me repeatedly before I finally understand I’m bleeding.
I don’t do any of this consciously. I never go into a relationship of any kind thinking it’s unhealthy in any way. I don’t take relationships lightly. I’m quite careful, especially nowadays, about who I let into my life. I’ve learned the hard way to create boundaries. I’ve learned to keep my distance until trust has been earned. And I’ve learned to suspend my own expectations of other people. But, sometimes, I forget. Healthy behaviors aren’t normal to me.
It’s incredibly hard, and it’s something I work to overcome every single day–in terms of how I receive love, how I give love, and who I choose to interact with/how. I am better now than I’ve ever been. But, every so often, I let the wrong people in. Every so often, I’m less than loving. And people get hurt. I get hurt.
The idea that there are tiers of people–on different levels–that I described a few weeks back–has really helped me with these struggles. It’s helped me keep my own expectations in check–to realize when I’m being unkind or taking people for granted. But it’s also helped me see how I do it to myself. How I put myself in situations where people will abuse me.
As I’m cleaning up my own act, I’m starting to see the bad decisions I’ve made. And sometimes, correcting my choices means I deal with violent outcomes. That’s what happened Monday.
Late last fall, I was in a situation where I was repeating my pattern. It’s my comfort zone. It’s where I feel loved. When I am achieving. When I am people-pleasing. When I’m throwing myself under a bus. I was in what I considered a good situation. I was in a situation where I was valued and stable. The only way it could change was if I messed it up. So, when people called me horrible names or sexually harassed me or violated my ethics or expected I work 40 hours extra each week to carry the entire team–I put up with it and accepted it as something that was good for me. Character building. Self-sacrificing. I was earning my place in Heaven. Nevermind that I was losing my mind because I was exhausted. Eighty hours a week while doing grad school? Sure, no problem. I broke records for productivity–the kind that wins people vacations. And I took a whole lot of pride in it and invested all of my self-worth in that situation.
Until one day, I realized I was back on the merry-go-round. In my rush to be Alma–to be the girl I was before my Mama died–I had done what old, long-suffering Alma did. And now, I was in a crisis. I knew better. So, I called a time-out. And this was hard for me–because I was taught to take whatever I could get. That if I hesitated, the thing I wanted would disappear. To shut up and not feel. To keep going, no matter the price.
But I found the courage to do it. I knew I’d be okay financially. I knew I was supported by friends. It was hard for me, though, because it meant disappointing people–one person in particular who I considered a mother figure–someone who had been there for me and had been my biggest cheerleader. When I talked to her about it, she urged me to take care of myself and to contact her when I was ready to return.
I was so proud of myself. Putting myself first. Doing what was right for me. I always intended to go back. I was loyal. I loved them. They were good to me. So, when I felt stronger and better, I reached out and was welcomed back. But things were different. I was told things that weren’t true. I was pushed into things because of what a particular client wanted–not what I wanted. And because of that, I felt betrayed. But I was still loyal, so I’d do her the favor because I loved her. I’d bide some time and then make a move that would suit me better. I knew I was in a precarious situation. I didn’t like it. I was no longer the golden child. There were small slights here and there. I kept having to be a bit of a pushy person to get things done. Coming back, I had conditions. If I was going to be in this situation, it would be on my terms. I wasn’t going to put myself in bad situations anymore. I wasn’t going to deal with things that were unacceptable. I wasn’t going to be used.
But I knew it was a wrong move. I just hoped I could hold out long enough to change it. Right before all of this happened, I found myself in an interesting position–one that gave me hope that something new was coming. It took longer than expected, and then I felt conflicted. As things got worse and worse with the other situation, I thought about leaping–taking a chance and just doing what was best for me. But that loyalty part of me made me stay, against my better judgment.
On Monday, what I feared would happen happened. Certain people don’t change. I always knew that. I knew they were abusers because they had abused me before. I went back because I thought I’d be protected. And I wasn’t. It was just another business transaction. One that could have cost me dearly if I was naive enough to trust them. I wasn’t, and I’m not. So, I didn’t care much about what happened. It was a shitty situation, sure…but not unexpected. I knew I’d bounce back. I have options.
But the how and the who parts? That’s what made me twitch.
I had convinced myself that these people–these women–were part of my soul tribe. That they loved me. That they honored me. That they’d look out or me and protect me. That I mattered to them. But, really, they were situational friends. They loved me only as much as I was useful to them. The unfortunate situation was delivered by someone other than the person who should have delivered it–someone who still hasn’t returned calls or emails. And I get that she’s busy, but you make time when it matters. And it does here.
I won’t mistake her for my Mama ever again. It hurts. A lot. It is helpful to know what I should expect from her. It’s helpful to know who I should be with her. But it makes me feel bad for investing in her and trusting her when I shouldn’t have.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to restore our friendship. Mostly because I don’t think she’ll ever apologize the way I need to hear it. Part of that’s on her. Part of it is on me.
I wish that was the only story I had of women treating me poorly, but it’s probably the most benign. And like I said, I think part of it is mine–because of who I am and the situations I allow myself to tolerate. I’m learning, though, and changing–always. I think that makes it easier, somehow.