It’s been more years than I care to remember since I found myself on the wrong end of my father’s back hand or the crisp sting of his leather belt. There are no scars anywhere on my body to mark the times he made me bleed. The physical wounds healed quickly. The other wounds, the true wounds whose marks have remained indelible for all the years since, these are the ones that haunt me still, the ones that still manifest today in the decisions and choices I make. I like to think I’ve recovered but the solution isn’t so simple.
In the past two years, I found myself in an abusive situation at work. But why not? My core belief is that work, like anything else, should be painful. If I wasn’t giving blood, if I wasn’t sacrificing who I was in exchange for my paycheck, then that would be too easy. No, to give everything when it wasn’t nearly enough, to be belittled and scolded in front of my peers, that meant I was accomplishing something. So I took it “like a man” as my father would say to my adolescent self over and over again, as they mentally whipped me and humiliated me over and over. The abuse gave me a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. “They can’t break me” became my soul’s mantra. I scoffed at the idea that I should leave my toxic work environment. Why? Why would I allow them to win? If I left it would just mean I wasn’t up to the challenge, I wasn’t “man enough.” I saw my father laughing in what should have been my corner.
I stayed far too long at this job. I worked 60 to 65 hours per week. I ignored my family every weekend while I sat hunched over a laptop for hours at a time. Yet it WAS NOT ENOUGH. The harder I worked the greater the abuse became. And I received no positive reinforcement or coaching which would help me succeed. All I was ever told is what I was doing wrong. Words like “inadequate” and “failure” were used in conversation with me on a weekly basis. The more they threw at me the firmer my resolve became. They would not break me!!
I finally left this environment when a better offer with an entirely different work culture presented itself. It’s eerie now; I feel “more than enough” for my new employer, and am told on a daily basis what positive contributions I am providing. I AM THE SAME PERSON. How could this be? I am puzzled that an employer could heap such abuse upon its employees. I am puzzled further about what is going on inside me that would allow me to continue so long in a place I didn’t belong.
The answer is I have always been afraid to stand up for myself. Whether it was the fear of my father’s words or physical punishment, I believed that if I stood up for myself it would just worsen the level of punishment. At some point I learned to manage my actions and reactions in an effort to avoid being abused, OR accept that I was somehow deserving of the abuse. In my adult life I haven’t acted much differently in my relationships with romantic partners and employers. However, I recognize what I’ve been doing and know it is time to break the chain.
To change who I am, to really change how I see the world and my reactions to it, has been an effort that has taken years. I’m still a work in progress. I can tell you that it is never to late to advocate for yourself. I’ve long envied those who could and I understand the internal hurdles which I must navigate. I know now that fear of other’s reactions has made the difference between my path in life and those of others. I’m committed to learn from my past as I make a pact with myself to never go down the same road twice. As I cannot relive my past or undo anything that’s been done, that’s really all any of us can ever do when faced with the lessons of our past.