Last night at the AMPAC Women’s Safety Class, Strong Orange Violence Prevention instructor (and writer at The Drawing Board), Rachael Heffernan was putting forms of violence on a spectrum from “bothering” to “life-threatening”. Certain types of violence could fit on multiple places in the spectrum depending on a number of factors, including who is perpetrating the violence. She then brought up the subject of a perpetrator that is all-too-often forgotten: ourselves.
Whenever people take self-defense training or women’s empowerment classes, they are often taught about what to do when you experience violence or harassment from strangers (especially) and, less often, from people you know. Of course, the occurrences of violence (both physical and sexual) are statistically lopsided, meaning that you are much more likely to be violated by someone you know (family, friends, colleagues, mentors), but it still stands that all too many violence prevention courses focus on outward violence and neglect what happens when we internalize violence and direct it at ourselves. Statistics about self-violence (including negative self-talk) simply do not exist.
Before we go there, I want to talk about something else that Rachael brought up because it is an important factor in all of this, especially in “getting home safe” which is the mantra of the class. Very often, our ability to be assertive and stand our ground in the face of external oppression or violence is directly connected to how we value ourselves. Rachael put it best on the car ride home when she said that conceding to anothers’ whims (even if they violate our rights) because we don’t want to “upset them” or because “we can bear the brunt of the pain” is fundamentally flawed logic because it causes or is rooted in self-devaluation. The other person’s worth is deemed to be more than your own.
This is the first instance in which negative self-talk can harm you: in how you deal with harmful situations perpetuated by others. If you are constantly down on yourself, feeling you aren’t worth the time of day for anyone, you are much more likely to put yourself last, even when in life-threatening or dangerous situations. This is a common narrative we hear among victims of sexual assault, particularly when the aggressor is someone they know. Victims can admit that they swallow their pain and just want the whole incident over with, fearing they weren’t “assertive enough” so something like being raped is inherently their fault.
It is never your fault.
And the anxiety and self-rage that comes from feeling like you made a mistake in being assaulted can lead to further self-devaluing and the potential for future vulnerabilities in the face of both external and internal aggressors. This is what we are talking about when we say that people get caught in the cycle of abuse and do not know how to break out.
One place you can start is by stopping violence against yourself first. The way to do this is to recognize it as violence. If you view yourself as an aggressor, you can start to see how violence against yourself also appears on the spectrum from “bothering” to life-threatening. Some specialists recommend viewing your aggressor voice as an adult and your inner self, which it chastises, as a small child. This can help illuminate just how much we bully ourselves.
Bothersome violence might be how you look at yourself in the mirror. Thinking that you have parts that sag or have too much cellulite, or that the body you were given just doesn’t look like every airbrushed magazine or filtered Instagram pic you see online. It could be in how you hear yourself speak in a room full of peers. They are hearing the words flowing out of your mouth and all you hear is how many “ums” and pauses and poor word choices you make and if only you wouldn’t open your mouth in the first place, then you wouldn’t have to worry about it. Or it might be thinking about everything you said and did hours later, or days, or years. At the heart of these ruthless criticisms (which, by the way, we would be very unlikely to accept from anyone but ourselves) is anger.
And anger leads to rage.
And rage leads to more violence.
So much so that you might move along the spectrum from being bothersome to downright dangerous. Negative self-talk gives way to destructive behaviours. It can lead to eating disorders, to binge drinking, to excessive drug use, it can lead to self-medicating with food, it can lead to sex addiction or self-harm like cutting or burning. All of these things are dangerous behaviours that stem from self-rage, that stem from a feeling of anger directed inwards. It might be (and usually is) exacerbated by social isolation – but thinking we aren’t good enough might also cause us to retreat and vice versa.
Dangerous to life-threatening is a slippery slope. These behaviours can easily turn to suicidal ideation or attempts. The slow simmering burn of anger feeds the fires of depression, anxiety and trauma like nothing else.
So, what puts those fires out? How can we stop the violence against ourselves once we recognize it for what it is?
Firstly, realize that this is not intrinsically how your brain works. It has been trained to think this way and it can be trained not to. It is not an easy road, but it is possible and it has to be undertaken to interrupt those negative thoughts and actions while learning to replace them with positive and beneficial ones. It can be an uphill battle with poor self-image messages in society inundating us day after day, but by learning to dampen their voice and raising your own, among other powerful women, we can start to replace those messages.
Getting help is important. Seek out counseling or other mental health-care providers, and do not stop if they tell you that you are fine but you know you still hurt yourself. At my first session on University campus, I told my counselor that I had suicidal ideation in moments of rage which stem from a birth trauma I experienced and she concluded the session by saying that she won’t be seeing me again because I “seem to have it all together”. Another counselor I saw told me I am the highest functioning patient she has ever met and she didn’t know why I needed to see her, even though symptoms of PTSD regularly inhibit my personal joy and daily existence. Do not stop looking for someone to help you. There are problems with the system and how people access it, but continuing to ask for help is a sign that you are healing and removing the obstacle of isolation.
Be holistic in your approach and put your mental health first. Yes, before anything else. Before your family, before your kids, before your job, before your career. None of that matters if you are suffering daily violence and are at risk of hurting yourself. Everything else can wait. Yes, ladies, even your children. Lean on family, on friends, on childcare providers. Get to your appointments, get to the gym, make time to eat well and sleep well. Be shameless about this. These things are just as important for you as they are for your family. Stable mental health creates stable home environments and stability means that your children and spouses won’t ever have to face a day without you on this earth. Do not listen to the lies in your head that everyone is better off without you. That you always screw things up. Your family never, ever, ever wants to see a day on this earth without you. Ever. Just ask them: they will testify to that truth. And if they don’t, or your spouse tells you to jump off a bridge, walk out. You are worth walking out for. You are worth your own safety.
Even though it seems like I am just getting started, I want to conclude with this: be gentle with yourself. Perfection is not an ideal anyone should strive for. Fail and try again. Succeed and try again. Be gentle with yourself as you would expect a kind, loving parent (whom you may have never had) to be with you as a child. Be gentle with yourself as you would expect a respectful spouse (whom you may have never had) to be with you as a lover. Be gentle with yourself as a child intuitively is with their own parents. Be gentle with yourself.
This earth is vast. Its history is long. Its space is immense. Take up your rightful place on this journey and work towards being well. I am with you on that path and I know you are with me too.
This article was written by Nakita Valerio, owner and editor in chief of The Drawing Board. Nakita is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta. Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is also the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco.
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