Emotional Abuse and Autonomy
“You need to have more kids, especially with how beautiful all your girls are.” My mother-in-law tells me for the hundredth time. Inside I’m seething, as I have to wonder why it is anybody’s business how many kids I have, especially my mother-in-laws when she knows how difficult my pregnancies are as well as the deliveries. She only has three kids, so who is she to tell me to have more kids, anyway? Why is it anybody’s business? I hate it when people tell me how many kids to have. I’m overwhelmed as it is, and this only makes me feel more overwhelmed.
“I’m going to take you to Africa and swing you from the trees.” Joe, an acquaintance tells me in a flirting manner. I feel so uncomfortable, I don’t know what to say, what kind of come-on is that anyway? How completely inappropriate. I never know how to handle this, so I answer with a soft no, “I’ll just build a tree house and hide from you in its safety.” My soft no doesn’t work, as it often doesn’t, as he persists; “I’ll just build a ladder and come into your tree house.” I walk away at this point because I’m so disgusted. My guy friends tell me it’s my fault for not giving him a strong no by just telling him to fuck off. I contend that a soft no would be respected by any person who respects boundaries.
“Your behavior is so juvenile, you need to stop acting so silly.” I’m told this on the internet by someone who doesn’t like my sense of humor. Why do I need to stop acting silly, I ask myself, I’m not hurting anyone, if it bothers them, why don’t they go somewhere else where it isn’t bothering them? If my behavior isn’t harming them, why do they feel compelled to tell me I must act according to what they want?
I’m tired, I want to go to bed.” John then tells me it would offend him if I didn’t stay up and watch a movie with him. The next day, I could hardly make it through my work day, I was so tired and then I resented him for making me too tired to make it through the day.
“I think this is funny!”
“That’s not funny, that’s stupid, and anyone who thinks that’s funny is stupid.” Says my friend. Well, now I just feel ashamed.
“I’m so angry at Randy!”
“How dare you…anger is of the devil, you need to repent.”
“I’m sorry, was just expressing how upset I was that Randy raped me. Now what do I do with all these conflicting emotions?”
“Stop texting and listen to the speaker!”
“But it’s boring.”
“I don’t care.”
Now I’m bored and frustrated.
As I left a controlling church, I realized how much I was told how to think: your thoughts will condemn you, your bad thoughts lead to sinful actions, sexual thoughts are evil, etc. I was told what to feel: anger is wrong, jealousy is wrong, sadness is wrong, be happy all the time. I was told how to behave: wear modest clothing, attend church every Sunday, do your church calling, listen to uplifting music, etc. As I look back on this, I realize that very little of these things had to do with harming others, but more with controlling me.
I began to learn to set clear boundaries and take control over my own emotions, thoughts and behavior. This has been a big learning curve for me. I have had to learn from others how to do a lot of this. I have been taught that my thoughts, feelings and behaviors aren’t really mine, but in the control of patriarchy as well as authority. I have had to learn assertive communication skills in order to take back my personal power.
I remember listening to some women who were going through marriage counseling and how they were being told they could not control the behavior of their spouse, they could tell their spouse what bothered them, but their spouse was in complete control of their own behavior and could then choose to change their own behavior or choose to not change it. This was very difficult for me to understand at first. What if that behavior was damaging to the relationship? Wasn’t the spouse obligated to change? Could they be compelled to change? I have come to understand that we cannot compel others to change, not if we want a healthy relationship with them. We can assertively ask for what we need in a relationship, then after that, we have a choice; we can accept, compromise or walk away. This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn.
Sulking, giving the silent treatment, yelling, or name calling are not healthy ways of communicating our wants and needs. We can ask for what we need, but the other person can choose to accept, reject or compromise. We become manipulative and lose ground if we use passive aggressive or aggressive tactics.
There are behaviors that are harmful, such as abuse, name calling, withholding money to control, etc. that should not be tolerated and if the person does not change, walking away is the best option. But I’ve often wondered about lots of other behaviors that are annoying but not harmful. How do we deal with the annoying behaviors of others? I have learned we do the same. We can ask people to change, but they are still in charge of themselves and if they choose to not change, we choose to ignore or walk away.
Walking away can look like a lot of things. We can go into the another room, we can leave a party where someone is being obnoxious, put on head phones so we don’t have to listen to annoying sounds, etc.
As the years wane, I began to ponder why people think it is their right to tell other people how to act when it isn’t harming them. I wonder why people think they must tell others how to dress (mostly modestly) how to think (it isn’t okay to think about sex) or how to feel (it isn’t okay to feel anger, jealousy or sadness).
I run a support group and this is always a point of contention within the group, as people attempt to control others by telling them what behavior and feelings are acceptable and which ones are not. This causes the most contention within the group than anything else. I have learned a lot over the years as I had to moderate the group. I have learned this; that people have a right to their own self-determination over their own thoughts, feelings and behavior as long as they are not harming others.
It is when others attempt to control our thoughts, behavior or emotions that causes the greatest amount of friction in relationships. We seek autonomy. I see other’s attempt to control us through passive words, behavior, ideas as well as through aggressive words, behavior and ideas. People are not separate from their behavior, and to say their behavior is bad, wrong or in error, but they are not is the same as calling them bad, wrong or in error.
Such things as sulking, the silent treatment, yelling, or name calling are just a few ways people use to attempt to control other people’s behavior, emotions or thoughts. Why is it so difficult to allow other people the autonomy to self-determination?
The definition of emotional abuse includes this: verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth."
So, when a person attempts to assert control over others, it is a form of emotional abuse. Each person needs to be able to determine for themselves, from the very small things, to the very large things. We can choose our sexual partners, when we are tired and need to rest. We get to choose how many children we are capable of having (or none at all), as well as which emotions we are feeling, from sadness to frustration to anxiety to anger to happiness. We get to choose our clothes, and even our laugh and sense of humor. We choose our thoughts and ideas as well.