I’m the worst leaver.
Like really, the worst.
I probably come by some of this naturally,, having grown up in the South…where exiting from a family or community gathering is an event in itself, usually culminating in an hour of chatting by someone’s car, with at least one car door opened for that entire time. Sometimes this extends even further….with passengers finally all in the car, but leaning out rolled down windows to chat for just “one more minute”, car engine running.
If the extent of my leaving problem was just about being reluctant to leave a good time, it wouldn’t really be an issue. But it’s a problem because I struggle hard with leaving the situations that aren’t serving me and the people that hurt me. Fortunately, I’m not the only person that wrestles with these things, and I have some good friends who have been journeying with me over the last several years to face our fears, figure out what is making us stay when we shouldn’t, and learn this Everest climb to pursue what is best for us will not, in fact, kill us like we often think it will.
The trigger that made me really decide to dig furiously into this struggle of mine was the process of trying to extricate myself from a year-and-a-half-long relationship with a full-blown narcissist alcoholic. Looking back now, I seriously cannot believe why in the hell I ever went on a second date with that man, much less let him treat me cruelly as he did for so long. But at the time, walking away felt like an insurmountable feat, and it took alot of good friends, a fantastic therapist, and alot of ignoring my gut-wrenching despair to get out.
When I finally escaped that relationship, I was determined to figure out how I got into it in the first place, and learn to never abandon myself like that EVER again. Well, the shadow work involved in unearthing all the reasons why is about as gut-wrenching as being in the terrible relationship itself. And, I’ve learned that you never just stop abandoning yourself cold-turkey. It’s a matter of taking baby steps, and making small choices that start leading you in new directions, and none of it comes easy.
I’ve have grown so much in the last several years, and while I still have a long way to go in learning to be true to myself, and no longer apologizing for what I want and need, I have stockpiled many lessons that explain so much of the trajectory of my life and help me offer myself a little bit of grace for not always walking away right when I should have.
I know just enough about trauma theory to get myself into trouble, and I”m not a therapist. And sometimes I suck at taking my own advice. But these lessons ring true with me, and are helping me carve out and curate the life that I want.
Before I jump straight into my list of lessons, I have to give a little background on my understanding of how childhood trauma can set you up for failure in adult relationships, as best as I understand it and based on my own personal experiences.
When you’re a kid, and trying to figure out the world and how it works, you defer to the grownups in your life and assume, for at least a while, that they know what the hell they’re doing and have a general grasp on reality. But then, if you have adults in your lives that neglect you or abuse you in some way, then as a child you’re faced with what can feel like an irreconcilable conundrum: either the adults have to be “bad” or “wrong”, or you do. (I’m oversimplying what I’m talking about to make a point, so just go with it). When kids are faced with this conundrum, I think there are two general directions they feel like they can go. Either one, they decide the adults in their lives are dumbasses or nuts or whatever, and they rebel in some way. Or, the kids make the leap in their minds that adults have more life experience, are “supposed to be loving and good” and, and thus conclude that they [the kids] are wrong, or bad, or the problem.
The latter was the leap I took in my mind, from a very young age. I think, looking back, that it occurred when I was about five, based on my memories, and it had a dramatic impact on my life. My understanding of reality came to be that if someone was angry or upset with me, it was because I did something wrong. In order to restore relationships and be OK, I had to do the work to fix things. I learned very quickly that with certain people I was constantly being punished when I had no clue what I had done wrong, and so I learned to be uber viliglant with people’s non-verbal cues and to read their vibes as a means of self-protection and to preemptively stave off any surprise attacks.
The thing about being in volatile or unsafe situations as a child is that you can’t just leave. You depend on the grownups in your life for your every need, and so ultimately, you have to develop copning mechanisms that help you survive toxic situations and keep the peace. You learn to apologize for everything you do, you settle and learn to become ecstatic about receiving crumbs, you start to create a worldview that helps you be OK with the situation you’re in, and you somehow limp along until you reach adulthood, telling yourself this is all normal….and you tell yourself if you could ever just get your shit together and stop being a bad or unworthy person, people would treat you better.
And so, with that really quick background setup, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned, and am still learning about how to leave anything as a grownup.
************************************************************************************************************************1. Stop adoring people.
Oh man, this is something that my therapist jumps on every time with me. Periodically, I will tell her I ADORE “so and so”, and she’ll get this very specific look on her face and ask me “Why? Why do you adore so and so?” Then, she will sit and wait for me to list all the reasons why I adore that person. I hate this. Because, she will inevitably point out some flaw in my thinking, such as how the person I adore was just doing something that a decent person would do…it was nothing exceeptional like I had made it out in my head to be.
There are basically two problems with adoring people, my therapist has told me. The first is that that kind of thinking sets up a hierarchy where you view that other person as better than yourself. And when you start viewing someone as better than yourself, you are in danger of losing your own sense of worthiness and are much more likely to settle for that person exploiting you or treating you in ways that are less than you deserve.
The second problem with putting people on pedestals, is that once you wake up and realize that you’re just as good as the other person, they will often resist strongly and throw a fit when you want to renegotiate your relationship contract….whatever kind of relationship you’re in. People love being adored, and alot of those people don’t like it when boundaries suddenly show up that weren’t there before.
Value people, observe and appreciate their talents, gifts, and unique offerings to the world, but stop adoring them.
2. You can walk away from beautiful people.
This lesson is very closely related to the last one about not adoring people. I have this tendency to stumble across people in my life that I just think are freaking beautiful. They don’t even have to have their shit together. They can be floundering and trying to figure things out and not have any clue which way is up, and yet I look at them and am mesmerized by “the beautiful” in them. (I’m never melodramatic about anything). I’m not just talking about physical looks….it’s some quality that certain people have that I have the darndest time walking away from. For all of you reading that and mumbling “trauma-bonding, much?” under your breath, I good naturedly lift my middle finger to you. I stand by what I said. Some people are just beautiful and that’s all I know.
And who doesn’t want to stay right smack dab next to what feels beautiful? Except….sometimes just because someone is beautiful doesn’t mean that they are good to be in relationship with. There’s a saying that comes to mind, related to consumerism, but I think it applies here: You can admire it, without having to acquire it.
If someone is beautiful, but being with that person is hurting you or you are getting too caught up in self-abandoning adoration, sometimes you just have to love that beautiful person from afar. That doesn’t make your love for them any less meaningful. It just means that you get to love them without getting hurt. Maybe things will change and you only have to distance yourself for a while. Or, maybe you will have to distance yourself forever. But you yourself are also too beautiful to endure hurt all the time in the effort to love someone who can’t love you back.
3. You don’t have to demonize someone to leave them.
I had a HUGE epiphany a few weeks ago, when I was thinking about the various relationships in my life that I finally was able to walk away from or to at least erect significant boundaries. This was related to me wondering why it takes me so long to walk away from people when I had a good feeling I should have left long before.
Don’t gag, but it goes back to those coping mechanisms and childhood trauma responses. I suddenly realized that one of the primary reasons it takes me forever to walk away from people, or situations, or institutions when I should is….that I have to figure out a way to make THEM bad, so that I don’t have to be the bad party. And since, historically speaking, I haven’t always held the highest opinion of myself, I have to wait for something pretty wretched and unforgivable to appear so that I can confidently feel I’m justified in walking away and don’t have to potentially carry all the fault within myself.
This is a terrible way of doing things, ya’ll!!! I’ve eventually walked away from alot of people using that way of thinking, but by the time i had left some terrible things had been done and said to me. Furthermore, where does that leave me when a situation just isn’t serving me but isn’t necessarily abusive or cruel….and I end up hanging out in ambivalence for the rest of my life, unable to move on to something better because I feel extreme guilt?
Now, some people that i have walked away from were legitiamtely demonized in my mind….they had tangibly and intentionally wronged me…..and I needed to finally step up and name what had been done and flat out called it the abuse that it was, and place the fault firmly on them where it belonged. But not all relationships need to end because one of the parties is a horrible person. Sometimes the timing isn’t right, or the people involved want incompatible things, or a myriad of other reasons.
I’m finally learning to stop and ask myself…..what is best for ME right now? And I get to be OK with making a choice that feels right for me, no matter how much it pisses someone off, or how much they might want to throw the blame back on me. Or, even in circumstances that aren’t volatile at all, I can choose to go in a direction that I want, simply because that is my perogrative, and it doesn’t have to mean anything about my character, or whether or not I care about other people. I know this is a really simplistic train of thought, but depending on how your brain was molded in childhood, it really can be a completely novel concept.
4. You might have to leave in baby steps…and that’s OK.
It took me FOREVER to work up the chutzpah to leave my ex-husband. Like, years. And when I finally did leave, it was more of a situation where I sort of fell off the proverbial cliff rather than confidently striding over the edge. I was able to do just enough work with just enough bravery to gain the momentum needed to finish the deal. There were a few times during the process that I lost my nerve and wanted to stop, but by then, the train had left the station and so I had to stay on for the ride. It ended up being the absolute best decision I’ve ever made as an adult, but it was by far the scariest one, too.
To my own chagrin, I am way too often a very black and white person. I fight against this constantly, but it’s my default mode. And so, when I can’t make a change cold turkey, or instantly cement a new habit within myself, or just immediately walk away from a person or situation, I feel like I’ve failed. For anyone who has ever tried to leave a relationship, especially if it’s toxic and you have a trauma background, you’ll know how defeating and shaming it can feel when people around you just throw out platitutdes and get impatient or even angry with you for struggling and not being able to make a decisive, clean cut. People who don’t get it are the ones who so callously ask questions like “why would that woman go back to her abusive husband?” or “Doesn’t she know deserves more than that jackass? Why does she keep settling?”
People that have grown up in families with secure, healthy attachments don’t realize that for those of us who didn’t, changing our coping mechanisms and belief systems feels like a literal, physical battle within our minds. And honestly, it is. We have to carve new neural grooves and pathways in our brains to be able to think in new ways and draw new conclusions. We have to do the hard task of facing the terrorizing fear that if we choose a new path, the other shoe could drop and we could really be screwed. We have to reconcile the fact that often what feels normal and familiar is in fact, not OK or safe, and have to learn to trust that the things that often scare us the most might ultimately be good and safe and healthy.
You can’t change your brain and habits and beliefs and fears overnight. It takes facing this one small fear, and then resting, and then trying this one new thing, and then resting, and maybe taking several steps backwards before you ever see progress. That’s OK. There are no rules for how you personally need to heal what feels like broken places within you. And the same goes with people….you can leave people how you need to leave them. If it takes you a few tries, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. (Within reason, people….please don’t read into this ridiculous notions like staying in something where you or your kids are in iminent danger. That’s not what i”m talking about).
Take however freaking many baby steps you need to, to find your way back to yourself. And don’t apologize for them.
5. You can save yourself now, and walking away isn’t always final.
Per my statement about being a black and white person so often….I can’t stand finality. I always want to leave the door open for hope. I still believe in miracles and magic. On one hand, this tendency gets me into trouble alot because I often stay in relationship with people based on the potential I see. (This is another thing my therapist harps on….”Look at reality, Julie. What is staring you in the face? Stop thinking about ‘what could be’ all the time.” My therapist can be annoying sometimes. And I wouldn’t trade her for a million dollars.
Here’s another throwback to traumatic childhoods: When reality is too difficult to bear, but you know you’re stuck, there are basically two options for how to deal. 1). You do whatever you can to fix the situation and make it better, even if you are putting in all the work to make it better. 2). You zone out into fantasies, imagining what could be or imagining some glorious future where someone will come and save you.
When you carry this “fix-it’ mentality into adulthood, it is way easier to stay in relationships for WAY longer than you should, expending way more energy than you should. And while there’s nothing wrong with hoping for good things in the future, living in a fantasy world about how great things will be if you can finally just get this one thing fixed, just sets you up for disaster. Especially if the other person isn’t interested in investing in fixing anything with you.
Something I learned about myself way too late was that I have the power and freedom to walk away from things; I DON’T HAVE to try and fix them if I don’t want to. But this requires another one of those neural groove pathway carvings in the brain I mentioned earlier. It’s hard to actually believe this for the first time when it goes directly against what you’ve believed your entire life. I have this analogy in my head that illustrates the way I approached life as an adult for way too long. For whatever reason, I accidently touch a hot burner on a stove. So, I scream in pain and cry and beg for the person next to me to come turn off the burner, or I wait for someone to come save me and pull my hand off the stove. When really, all I have to do is pick up my hand…MYSELF. This is all so juvenile, but if you grow up with a mindset of being trapped and always hoping for a savior that never comes, it is REALLY hard to suddenly change your perspective and realize that you can save yourself now.
But back to the finality part…I don’t like to leave people. I get attached to people quickly and easily, and I tend to be overly loyal. And I’m always afraid that when I walk away, that it means forever. For some people that are so very important to me, that thought of forever feels viscerally painful and unbearable to me. This is the important thing, though: with some people, that walking away will be forever, and that will be the healthy thing. But for others, it might just mean a walking away for right now. A walking away until we can both do the work we need to do on ourselves. A walking away so we can find each other down the road in a new capacity. When I despair about walking away from someone I care about, assuming that everything is final, that is me once again arguing with reality and living in a fantasy. I have no clue how the story will end….and the goal is to remain curious in that not knowing.
I hate leaving people, even those necessary endings. I hate having to lay down loyalty to relationships and organizations or institutions that I have valued for a long time. But now, finally, at age 42…I’m realizing that I’m tired of staying in things that feel painful, when I don’t have to. I’m not a little kid anymore. I don’t have to rely on anyone for surivival. I can walk away from things, even when it’s hard, and I’ll be OK, and it’s through walking away from the hurtful things that room is left for the good and healthy things to enter.
Please, remember me happily
By the rosebush laughing
With bruises on my chin
The time when we counted every black car passing
Your house beneath the hill and up until
Someone caught us in the kitchen
With maps, a mountain range, a piggy bank
A vision too removed to mention
But please, remember me fondly
I heard from someone you’re still pretty
And then they went on to say that the pearly gates
Had some eloquent graffiti
Like “We’ll meet again” and “Fuck the man”
And “Tell my mother not to worry”
And angels with their gray handshakes
Were always done in such a hurry
And please, remember me at Halloween
Making fools of all the neighbors
Our faces painted white by midnight
We’d forgotten one another
And when the morning came, I was ashamed
Only now it seems so silly
That season left the world and then returned
But now you’re lit up by the city
So please, remember me mistakenly
In the window of the tallest tower call
Then pass us by but much too high
To see the empty road at happy hour
Gleam and resonate just like the gates
Around the holy kingdom
With words like “Lost and found” and “Don’t look down”
And “Someone save temptation”
And please, remember me as in the dream
We had as rug-burned babies
Among the fallen trees and fast asleep
Beside the lions and the ladies
That called you what you like and even might
Give a gift for your behavior
A fleeting chance to see a trapeze
Swinger high as any savior
But please, remember me, my misery
And how it lost me all I wanted
Those dogs that love the rain and chasing trains
The colored birds above their running
In circles ’round the well and where it spells
On the wall behind St. Peter’s
So bright on cinder gray and spray paint
“Who the hell can see forever?”
And please, remember me seldomly
In the car behind the carnival
My hand between your knees, you turn from me
And said the trapeze act was wonderful
But never meant to last, the clowns that passed
Saw me just come up with anger
When it filled with circus dogs, the parking lot
Had an element of danger
So please, remember me, finally
And all my uphill clawing, my dear
But if I make the pearly gates
Do my best to make a drawing
Of God and Lucifer, a boy and girl
An angel kissing on a sinner
A monkey and a man, a marching band
All around the frightened trapeze swingers”