Skeletons - Why rationalizing toxic behavior kills you
This year has been a difficult one. Then again, so was the year before. Oh, and don't forget the year before that.
As I sat on the metro, I was thinking, when is it just going to come to me? When is life going to flow naturally and not be a struggle? When can my existence and simply waking up in the morning not feel painful? I have been looking for these answers for a while. I find myself saying often, "this year was a hard year for me ", and that is the excuse for the sorrow I feel. That becomes the excuse for why I am dysfunctional, unhappy or in pain. But the truth is that the "hard year" started a long time ago and never ended.
It started when I began ignoring injustices and silencing my inner voice. Each time someone said something cruel to someone else and I didn't say anything, a skeleton formed. A skeleton of my voice, of my beliefs, was thrown in a closet and forgotten. Silence is toxic because it often gives injustice power. Silence speaks volumes to oppressors and to ourselves. Every time I saw someone in my family say/do something hurtful and I justified it, a skeleton formed. The strong desire to avoid confrontation was worth subjecting myself to abusive or controlling behavior. My own self respect dies a little when I let people who love me treat others or myself badly. Hence, skeletons.
I get what some of you may be thinking, "That's life. We pick our battles and others wrong us. Sometimes we don't have the time or energy to confront it". The problem is that habit of rationalizing toxic behavior leads to apathy and silence. It opens us up to accepting the intolerable and perpetuating harmful beliefs and behaviors in our society. The case in point came to fruition this year.
When I just started middle school, I had an encounter of sexual abuse by a family member who did not regularly live with us. The first time it occurred, I was unsure about whether or not it was wrong. I was paralyzed and confused about what had happened. So I had decided not to confront the individual, and my rationale was that, because they love me it could not possibly be wrong, since it was not malicious. I created a skeleton of the incident, buried it and continued moving on with life and had never voiced a concern to anyone. Then, this year, a female family member younger than me, refused to attend a family event if the same individual was going to be present. It turns out she had been abused by them as well. I could not help thinking that if I had spoken up that the behavior might have stopped and it would not have happened to someone else.
Now, maybe my childhood self wasn’t responsible for putting herself in a vulnerable position for the sake of speaking up. Maybe the risk of being shut down, ostracized, alienated or labeled a liar would not be worth it, since I depend on my family for survival. I don’t think a child has a responsibility to say something. Rather, they have the right to speak and to be taken seriously. The real responsibility relies on the adults, making sure they closely observe the actions of the people around them and refuse to make excuses for toxic behavior.
Good people can do bad things. That’s the faulty logic that created this particular skeleton for me. “Well, I know this family member loves me and would not hurt me on purpose, so this cannot possibly be a real problem.” However, as an adult, I completely do have that responsibility to prevent harm and toxicity to spread to others. The rationalizing and shoving that skeleton in the closet caused me to forget about that incident almost entirely. This rationalizing continued on into adulthood. Silence is toxic. There are only so many skeletons that can accumulate before you start to lose your soul. You start to stop living. You become the walking dead. A bundle of working organs attached to a beating heart that doesn't inhale a moment of honesty or sincerity. You aren't alive because you have killed your own soul due to silencing yourself for so long.
I haven't been able to summon the strength to look in my closet and address the needs of those skeletons. Before long, the skeletons starting popping out on their own. They showed up in the daylight through random crying, mental breakdowns in public, screaming at someone that triggered a traumatic memory, having delusions of people being out to get me, and a plethora of various self destructive behaviors. Keeping all those skeletons in the closet all this time since childhood has come to this.
Speaking of closets, I actually went through my own childhood room closet during my visit to my parents' house. I was in the process of cleaning and stumbled upon some old notebooks and journals. I found an entry from 7th grade. In that entry , I talked about a friend that had wanted to commit suicide. She wanted to kill herself because she did not see the point in being alive. In this same journal, I had written that I had felt the same way before. I was 12 and I wrote that. 12 years old. I had no recollection of feeling that way at this age, even though I had experienced it in the past few years. That's when I realized putting skeletons in the closet, suppressing these memories of silencing yourself in moments of injustice, caused me to forget, but my subconscious mind had not.
I found myself thinking, "what could I possibly be feeling or what could I have gone through at that point in my middle-class life that, as a pre-teen, I had felt that way routinely?" But then I realized the same reasons, the same negativity that surrounded me now (anxiety, depression , nightmares, abuse, bullying) also surrounded me then. Those skeletons have a way of tugging on you and make you question what the point is? Why me? Why live when I already feel dead?
Let's continue to make self destructive decisions because that's what we are comfortable with. And, as I continued to read this journal entry, I was trying to figure out who the friend was who had told me she wanted to commit suicide. The reality is it could have been any of them. My best friend in middle school lost her mom to a heart condition, without warning, could have been her. My best friend in 5th grade lost her parents to a homicide - suicide case. And my other best friend was being neglected and had run away from home 2-3 times. None of my childhood friend have committed suicide, so I know that friend is still alive. I know voicing how she felt may have likely been a preventative measure for taking those thoughts further (into an action).
I wrote in the journal about encouraging her and opening up that I had felt the same way, too. Skeletons show up when you pretend everything is OK even when it is not. When you go through something bad, awful, or traumatizing, you desperately want to normalize it. I understand now that even though it is appealing to pretend as if all is perfect when it isn't -that it is much for harmful in the long run. We can still be positive without being in denial and avoiding the truth.
The past 2 years forced me to face some skeletons I thought I had already cleared but they resurfaced in different ways. This year I found myself engaging in multiple self destructive behaviors that I believe arose from silencing myself. I was not able to sleep most nights, which affected my performance at work and my overall health. I have been battling chronic anxiety and my difficulty with trusting people. The heavy cloud and chain of depression was around me a lot these past 2 years and most of the time I felt alone. It was not because I wasn’t around people or I did not have fun things to do. I realized this depression came from silencing my inner truths, past emotions that I had wanted to share but the words were swallowed instead. Those things are in my core, in my DNA, like a virus.
I had ultimately silenced myself for the sake of other people’s peace, happiness, safety etc. And this created the living walking zombie. It was not really me anymore. I had given away all the organs because I stood by and watched and did not claim them. I was not prepared to find out about my other family member experiencing the same abuse. It forced me to visit that time, to think back to exactly what happened, to say it out loud and make it real. Doing so was extremely difficult! I ended up feeling defeated and disparaged and in a lot of emotional pain. The silver lining is, that was the push that I needed to realize I cannot remain silent anymore, I cannot rationalize toxic behavior or it will cause future disasters.
I am making a commitment to myself not to allow any more skeletons. We deserve better than to carry around that baggage. Yes, it requires bravery, courage, and strength in such a way that many of us feel that we do not have. The alternative in my mind is simply unacceptable (“If it costs you your peace, then it is too expensive” ). I have made self care a priority.
In my self care, I include daily affirmations which I say out loud and repeat like a mantra: “I am able to create and maintain healthy boundaries. I stand up for myself and people respect my point of view. I can love myself and others.” Every day, I also journal my thoughts and progress on my assertiveness, voice, and how I am honestly feeling. It is a fun free write, because I do not judge or try to refine the writing. I just let it come and be completely raw. When I am finished journaling, I decide what action steps need to be done to address any of the negative feelings. If there is a necessary difficult conversation to be had with another person, I write it down and plan what I will say. Then I mentally prepare myself for the multiple possible reactions that may come. I have learned to embrace the quote “people will only meet you as deeply as they have met themselves”, so that if I receive a negative response I know not to internalize their anger or sadness as my fault.
I will not silence myself or engage in disrespectful behaviors towards myself. Your bones are meant to carry you; not bring you down. I am keeping the closet clear. If that thought is scary to you, share some storage space with a friend.
Sahar A is an educator, writer and singer. Originally from the Chicago area, she has lived in 5 states and enjoys traveling. She is a self-proclaimed nocturnal person and loves going out dancing and fighting social stigmas. :)