When the abuser is you

As I hinted at yesterday, this week has been filled with all kinds of philosophical musings about what exactly I thought I was hoping for in my Buy No Clothes in 2021 Challenge. What exactly was my goal?

Obviously, the first goal was to buy no clothes in 2021. But why?

This was the little phrase that got me started:

You need to stop throwing money at your self-worth problems.

The voice of reason, December 2020

That’s right. When I started this challenge, it was because I was having some self-worth problems. It was very easy for me to slip into self-loathing because I hadn’t gotten everything on my to-do list done. It was easier for me to mumble some gobbledygook angry nonsense to myself about how I was incapable of getting anything done, rather than sit down and start figuring out ways to accomplish my goals.

Being angry with myself because I wasn’t getting things done, then meant that I felt a need, at some point, to buy back my own good graces. That “urge” to buy something new very often happened at that moment right there. Apparently, one of the love-languages I speak to myself is to give gifts. So the offending party (me) bought a gift to give to the offended party (me) to apologize.

Those love languages again

The love languages creep into every facet of our lives, don’t they?

I am mystified by people who enjoy loud, tense debate. I don’t like conflict, or anything that looks or sounds like conflict. Yet one person I know who loves to get into loud tense conflicts told me once that what they enjoy in this kind of discussion is simply the fact that he and his sparring partner are present, together, at the same time, giving the same energy. They are together. This person shows and experiences love by spending quality time.

This question of giving and receiving gifts is an interesting one. There are some people who are completely disinterested in receiving gifts. Some people are uncomfortable receiving gifts. Others (my children, for example) are bottomless pits of wonder and excitement when they think that a gift might be coming their way.

But this idea of giving gifts as a way to make up for an offense… this intrigued me. When a person is wronged and the offending party gives a gift, the person who is wronged could, even potentially rightly, believe that they are being manipulated. A gift doesn’t mean that the offense didn’t happen.

The gift giver’s intent itself might just be a complicated thing, too. Are they hoping to blow smoke so that the receiver forgets? Or is it a heartfelt token of remorse? Or, is it some complicated mix of both of the these?

An abusive relationship with oneself

If we were in a relationship in which we were subjected to emotionally or verbal abuse, and then the abuser showed up with a gift expecting us to forget the abuse ever happened, we would be wary.

It might work a few times. But in the end, we would come to see the gift as a manipulation.

Well, that is exactly what I was doing to myself. When the voice of reason said to me you need to stop throwing money at your self-worth problems, it was because the voice of reason knew how I spoke to myself.

A long time ago, when I was pursuing help for my vaginismus, we were told to write a letter to ourselves. I wish I remember what the topic was exactly of the letter, but the purpose of the letter was to address some shortcoming. I wrote that letter. In our session, we were told to read that letter out loud. I remember feeling pretty smug as I read it. It was well written. It was a clear and unflinchingly honest look at my failures.

Then, that letter was taken from me and handed to someone else, who then read it to me. Aloud.

My reaction to hearing my own words read to me by another voice was to break down and sob. The realization was swift: if anyone in my life spoke to me the way I spoke to myself, it would be abuse.

That exercise took place more than six years ago.

Taking away the abuser’s mechanism

For five years, I was aware of how devastating that kind of self-talk was. I had gone through various attempts to try to speak more nicely to myself. But inevitably, this cycle of harsh self talk would lead back to a new cycle of speaking harshly and berating myself for failing, and then, in order to “apologize” to myself, going out and buying something new to blow smoke in my own eyes…to make myself feel better.

You need to stop throwing money at your self-worth problems. When that thought came to me, fully formed in December, and I knew that thought didn’t originate with me, I instinctively understood that there would be growth that would happen as a result.

By not buying any clothes or accessories in 2021, I was removing the mechanism by which the “abuser” me would seek forgiveness from “abused me.”

I had two choices as an abuser: Keep abusing and feel miserable about it because I had no way to “buy back” favor, or stop abusing.

I had two choices as an abused person: Accept the abuse or learn to speak to myself differently.

The sacrifice problem

At about the same time as all this was percolating in my brain, I came across this verse in my Bible reading:

I don’t want your sacrifices—I want your love; I don’t want your offerings—I want you to know me.

Hosea 6:6

This is God, talking to his people, but it could very easily have been the “abused me” talking to “abuser me”. This cycle of trying to cover up for a wrong was not satisfying. I needed to put an end to the “sacrificial system” and learn to live in grace.

The grace problem

When you take away the mechanism by which you have always dealt with your own shortcomings and errors, there comes a moment at which the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

That was this week. I was faced with myself, faced with the collective shortcomings of the last six and a half months. In many ways, because I had agreed to give up shopping, and I instinctively knew that I wouldn’t have a way to buy back my own good graces, I have been lax about dealing with my shortcomings, failures, errors, mistakes and, let’s be honest, intentional sins.

Oh, I knew they were happening. But because I didn’t know how to deal with them without speaking harshly to myself, I just let them pile up. Let God deal with them. But God wasn’t dealing with them for me, either. I guess he was standing there, like a gym buddy, watching me try to lift more than I am capable of.

Eventually, though, I was going to get stuck under that barbell.

That’s when grace stepped in.

The benefit of keeping close

It was in the quiet moments of this week, prompted by all those philosophical musings about what I had been hoping for from the beginning of this challenge, that I realized that I needed grace. Being in a cycle of self-condemnation wasn’t healthy, but ignoring the things I was doing wrong wasn’t a solution either.

So that’s where I was this week: sitting in the middle of the floor with a my suitcase full of wrong thoughts, wrong actions, taking them out, one by one and handing them over to God. He’s not berating me about them, he’s not judging me for them. He’s also not interested in listening to my justifications or excuses.

God is just taking each thing out of my hand, as if it were some kind of contraband I was travelling with, calmly removing it.

A new phase in the challenge

Now that I’ve dealt with the collected, undealt-with mountain of intentional and unintentional sins, I need to pay much closer attention to my heart. I don’t want to have to do this major unpacking thing again. I need to learn to deal with each individual thought and desire as it creeps up and start handing it over immediately, rather than waiting.

My negative self-talk is not a “sacrifice” that is pleasing to God. He just wants me to love him. He’s not interested in my offering my berating, chest thumping. He just wants me to know him.

You know, I thought I knew how to do this. I thought that what I was doing: the self-berating and negative talk, I thought it was how to deal with my sin problem. Apparently, I didn’t know how to deal with it. I desperately need grace.

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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