I was listening to Brene Brown yesterday because I love her and want to grow up to be her. She was talking about the stories we tell ourselves, or as she likes to call them, ‘shitty first drafts’. If you haven’t read her book Rising Strong which focuses on how we overcome hard things, I highly recommend it. I think I have listened to it twice this year; it’s that important. But back to shitty first drafts. Brene’s – I call her Brene because we’re that close in my mind – premise is that whenever something emotionally difficult happens, our brain goes into storytelling mode. It wants a hero – always the self, and a bad guy- always the other person; a reason and a response. The brain works quickly to assemble these pieces in a moment of emotional crisis because our amygdala is screaming, FIGHT OR FLIGHT, WOMAN! FIGHT OR FLIGHT! It needs an answer and it needs it RIGHT NOW because our lives depend on it.
And this was true, a few million years ago. Life is a bit more nuanced now, if no less dangerous.
But the amygdala doesn’t evolve. We’ve grown a lot more brain around it, intuitive brain, creative brain, emotional brain, amazingly beautiful unfathomable human brain. But when it’s crisis time, it’s the amygdala who controls the shots and she has one job – protect the self. Fight or Flight.
People who live with on-going emotional abuse, develop a twitchy, confused amygdala. She’s almost, always on because the world never feels quite safe enough to let down her guard. She sees everyone and everything as a potential threat. She doesn’t trust. She doesn’t want to be there at all. Her chant is almost always FLIGHT! FLIGHT! FLIGHT! FLIGHT!
Fortunately (or unfortunately in the case of abuse), the rest of the brain also has a say, and these parts have conflicting messages for amygdala. They say things like, it’s not that bad. They don’t really mean it. We can do better. We can be better. We just need to try harder. We can do and say the right things to earn their approval and then we will be safe. We can find a way to belong, to be loved. WE HAVE TO STAY UNTIL WE MAKE IT WORK. No fight. No flight. Stop talking, amygdala.
These parts of the brain cover up and try to placate the amygdala, who never stops kicking and screaming, by the way. She’s like a two-year-old in the throws of the worst emotional overload ever, and she really just needs a time out. But all she hears is danger, danger, danger so she just keeps screaming. And all the while she’s writing a narrative, a shitty first draft of who’s to blame and why this keeps happening.
For awhile, she recognizes the harm being done to her, but the rest of the brain refuses to comply with her fight or flight message. So eventually, she changes the narrative:
I am the problem. I deserve this pain. I am useless. I am worthless. I don’t belong here or anywhere.
She believes what the rest of the brain is telling her about working harder and trying harder and earning the right to finally, finally relax and stop constantly firing the fight or flight message. But the rules keep changing and the pain keeps happening and nothing we do is ever, ever good enough.
And around and around we go, faster and more frantically until we either become numb or explode.
I’ve done both.
There have been a lot of shitty first drafts in my experience with emotional and spiritual abuse, and the longer the abuse went on, the more I believed I was always the villian.
I am not worthy of love because…
I am not good enough to…
I deserve this…
I don’t look right, act right, say the right things, obey the right rules, submit enough, be quiet enough, disappear enough…
I just need to work harder to be perfect. Then I will earn love and approval.
Poor little amygdala. How do you resolve the fight or flight issue, when you are the problem?
However, there’s more to the story than this shitty first draft. True, we can accept that script as the finished story, as the way things are. But we don’t have to. My friend Brene also says this: when we don’t write the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.
There’s no pride in admitting I was a shitty pastor’s wife. I mean, I got us kicked out of church twice! It’s a role I never embraced. I questioned the system, bucked the rules and allowed my mind to be open and accepting. There aren’t many roles in the world I am less suited for.
I should have stopped trying to be something I was never meant for long ago. I should have advocated for myself, believed I deserved better and not cowered and kowtowed before my abusers. I spent far too long trying to be someone that men in authority believed I should be. And honestly, because I didn’t realize this sooner, I am a party to the emotional damage I experienced. This part of the story sucks, but it’s true.
But being a shitty pastor’s wife, doesn’t mean I was a shitty person. And that is where my amygdala would have been better served with some nuance and complexity. Fight or flight is a binary response system which categorizes everything in two ways: good or bad. But life comes with about a million more categories.
Emotional abuse sometimes comes with an isolating component, which my own introversion and response didn’t help. The more I pulled into myself the fewer voices I heard until finally the only ones were the ones reminding me what a shitty soul I was. Those voices often included my own.
It’s been just over a year since I stopped letting the shitty first draft control the narrative. I wish I could give a series of 1-2-3 steps to follow, but we all have our own story to write. I began by becoming vulnerable to other voices, voices which certainly could have echoed the message I had already taken to heart, but they didn’t. And when they didn’t, I started to believe them.
I was all at once surrounded by beautiful, strong, proud, powerful women who didn’t apologize for their being or their voices. They reminded me of another story I was writing about my life, and about the story I wanted to write for my children. Not pastor’s wife, meek and mild, but Woman, bold and wonderful. Their voices reminded me of the woman who survived cancer, and grief and loss and who raised children and stood up for injustice and who gave a damn about people in the margins, and who adored her LGBTQ neighbors, wasn’t afraid to learn new ways of thinking and being, and who thought tradition for tradition’s sake was a pretty lame hill to die on.
She is me. She is my story too.
I wanted that story back. So I started writing it IN ALL CAPS when the voices telling the shitty draft got louder. I started writing because writing is what I do. It’s my super power that I signed away with the contract of silence. If I were a man, the contract would have been so castrating, they wouldn’t have considered it, but because I am a woman, it was simply ‘the right thing to do.’ How shitty an ending would that have been?
I’m rewriting the narrative of my life now. I’m even learning to write some of what I have called the shitty years as good. For a time, church was good to my family and to me. It did take care of us and give us a place to belong. Until it didn’t. Maybe we should have realized sooner that we didn’t belong there. Maybe we should have been braver and walked away. Who knows what the story could have been, But we didn’t. There is plenty we did wrong.
But none of who we are deserves the years of emotional ambushes, power plays and spiritual abuse we endured. Not even simply because we stayed.
I was a shitty pastor’s wife, but that’s not the whole story, it’s not even a whole chapter. I know this, because I’m writing my own story now, and it’s beautiful.