All my life I have behaved like water in relation to others. Liquid, flexible, flowing. My form was determined by the boundaries of the other, rather than those of my own space. Not that I haven’t always been myself. I have a much too strong personality not to be myself. My ‘I’ always seeps through everything, whether I like it or not. But I’m a master at bringing out exactly those parts of myself that someone else needs. Because I feel safe with that. And safety is a luxury I have not always known.
As a child I taught myself not to take up space. To feel and make my needs known. That didn’t feel safe at all in my home. Taking up space and following my own needs, time and again, caused me to get into serious conflicts. Quarrels in which it was explained to me in great detail why my needs not only didn’t matter, but even hurt others. Not because I was born into a nest full of vipers, but into a family full of inherited pain.
Adapt to survive
There was no escaping it. My boundaries didn’t matter. I had to listen to it, until I admitted it was wrong what I was doing, what I felt, what I wanted, what I needed. Until I realized that I made others unhappy because I dared to take up space and because I defended my limits. I felt in everything that it wasn’t right, that what was happening was not okay. I fought like a wildcat for myself. And I lost the fight again and again.
This is too much for a child . A solution had to be found that could protect me and my self-image a little more. And I found that solution in the water. Moving with the other. Not so much sacrificing myself, but adapting. I didn’t claim any more space, I took what I could get. I no longer stood up for my needs, but fulfilled them wherever I saw an opportunity. I no longer marked my boundaries, but overtook them, or raised my walls so high that no one came even remotely close.
What a great solution. I protected my individuality very deep inside. I kept my self-esteem in a treasure chest in my heart. Waiting for opportunities to take good care of myself. To do it right for me. But in safety. Without running the risks that I had unlearned as a child through trial and error. I don’t take up space, I make sure I have enough of what someone else is willing to give me to space. I make do with what’s left for me.
When your system is always on ‘danger’
This is called complex developmental trauma. Adjusting as a child so that you survive in a situation that feels completely unsafe. Children are masters at it. I bow deeply to the child I have been. She has protected herself as best she could and allowed me to be who I am today. Despite everything, I have a good sense of self. I feel free in my body. I love myself. But I’d rather not take up space. I don’t dare yet. I can now learn that.
We often think that people who don’t take up space have low self-esteem. That they have little self-esteem. It doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it’s just that their whole system keeps jumping on ‘danger’ because it’s so ingrained. The insecurity is not that they don’t believe they are worth it, but that they don’t believe in the safety of their environment.
This inevitably leads to manipulation. Because we have needs and desires. And sometimes you just get it from the other person. Just spontaneous. But sometimes not. Because that other person cannot possibly know your needs until you realize them. And then it has to be a detour. It’s not a matter of selfishness, it’s a matter of survival. But with that you are then unsafe for the other.
Healing trauma step by step
If you recognize yourself in my story, then you probably haven’t learned how to do that: take up space. How do you know what you need? And how do you ask for that? With respect for everyone’s boundaries. You can learn it step by step. How to ask openly. In all vulnerability dare to ask. With all the associated risks. The fear is not in the rejection. The fear is that you will get screwed later because you asked for something and the other felt compelled to give it.
You can learn what you need to feel safe with others. By not rejecting your questions, but also by clearly indicating their own limits. They are safe from you by being curious about what lives beneath your desires. And you are safe from them by stating openly and honestly what you would like. Or where something hurts you. By occupying your space and determining your position. And that is sometimes very scary. Because your whole system is still in danger mode. That takes time. And gentle attention. And a lot of tears.
I long for the freedom it gives me. I long to be able to live and love unimpeded. I like so much open and honest and direct. That’s why I am willing to heal my complex developmental trauma. To step over the pain of my childhood and the pain inherited from my family. I step out of the circle of pain and fear. Little by little, little by little. I’ll get there. And you can too.