When I was a freshman in college, my friends and I went to go see the college play. At the end we went backstage to congratulate the actors. The male lead walked over to me, grabbed me, tipped me back and french-kissed me. Then he stood us upright and walked away. For a long time I felt special, honored, extra pretty, and also wondered why he had never asked me out. And then I forgot about it. With the #metoo campaign, I’ve been having all sorts of flashbacks and realizations. That actor didn’t even see me. He felt entitled to stick his tongue down my throat to declare his - what - pride/manhood/power? Does it matter? Was that sexual assault? Does sexual assault depend on how the recipient experiences it? What if my experience of that night has changed? What if, at the time I felt special and now I feel assaulted?
For 13 years I stayed with the same therapist. The damage she did has taken me more than 13 years to undo. I never felt happy when I left her office and every session confirmed that I was broken and unlovable. I had trusted her with my deepest insecurities and she took full advantage and manipulated me like a puppet. I was ‘too sensitive. Too empathetic. Too intense. Why did I wear my hair like that? Didn’t I know that tags on scarves should be cut off?’ Are you wondering why I didn’t leave? Because I didn’t know that wasn’t how therapy should be. I didn't like myself, so why would my therapist? I know now that this was an abusive relationship. I know this because I found a compassionate therapist who helped me see, identify, and release the hurt and devastation.
I had a boss who was passive aggressive. She would be sweet as candy and generous with time off and then suddenly she’d harshly demand that I write out everything I had done since day one. “What do you do all day? What do you do here?” She knew I was working my butt off and doing a good job, but she needed to cut me down. She wanted me to feel afraid and try to please her. I tried, but there was no filling that bucket. It was a black hole. Were her words verbal abuse? Does it require a legal label to be something I no longer want in my life?
I used to have a friend. When I would try to help an old person cross the street, this friend would roll her eyes and shuffle her feet to show her exasperation with my actions. She would criticize my life choices and mock my lipstick colors. All of this was done in a joking manner. For a few years I laughed it off because she was funny and smart and she was a part of my social circle. When I realized I had a stomachache each time I was about to see her, I stopped making an effort and she got the idea. We drifted apart and I missed some things but not the whole of our relationship.
Without question, the top 3 benefits of the #metoo movement are (1) legal ramification for the abusers, (2) healing for the harmed, and (3) accountability across the work world. But the real source of efficacy of any movement is the participants’ ability to retroactively recognize, name, and sit with their truth. This is how change happens. #metoo has led women and men everywhere into recognizing that abuse comes in many forms- subtle, gentle, blatant, and where you’d least expect it. A therapists office?! Now let’s go a bit deeper into the realization that the very act of recognition is powerful. Empowering. Magnificently energizing. My private revelation of minor and major abuse is my launching point of change. Of long lasting recognition of abuse of power in all its forms in my life and my power to walk away from it each and every time. Even if true legislation is passed to hold abusers accountable, we don't need to wait for a label or a court case. We can begin today to recognize abuse as it’s happening and remove ourselves from it. Some situations require legal action and some require getting up and out.
Let me be perfectly clear: if your therapist doesn't help you love yourself as you are, it is an abusive relationship that must be stopped. If you have a question about your therapist, listen to that question. It’s the listening and trusting our deepest knowing that sets us free before we ever walk out the door of that [romantic, work, friend, or therapy] relationship.
We can’t control other people; we can control ourselves. We can limit the amount of abuse we take and heal ourselves. We can model this for our direct reports, peers and supervisors. Our family, friends, and community. One of the most startling realizations I’ve had is that there were many times in my life when I was unaware that what I was experiencing was in fact abusive. This is the most upsetting and empowering realization I’ve had in years. I wasted 13 years of my heart, trust, time and money on someone abusive. I’ll never get that back. But I’ll also never let it happen again.