Last month, I began a series on things that people who want to be helpful need to stop saying. There are so many things, so let’s continue:
Let’s “reframe” this bad thing into this good thing
The encouragement from therapists and coaches to reframe thoughts like “I’m a victim” or “I am so alone” is ubiquitous. And, while going overboard with the victim mentality is also ubiquitous, “reframing” thoughts of being a victim should not be universal advice. The reason is that, in some cases, you might actually be a victim, and not admitting that, “reframing” it to something else, is keeping you in a bad and probably dangerous situation.
My former therapist encouraged me for years to “reframe” the pain of deep neglect and verbal, emotional, and financial abuse I was subjecting myself to in my marriage: “if you stop thinking of yourself as a victim,” she would prod me, “what would you be instead?” Instead of “complaining that my ex-partner was stepping on my feet while we were trying to dance,” she said, what if I let her help train me to get my feet out of the way? “This is one way to practice self-care,” she said, in addition to the “mindset work” of not considering myself a victim.
What she was actually doing was encouraging me to enable my abuser to perpetuate his abuse while making me responsible for my abuser’s behavior and calling it self-care. The real way to help me with self-care was to stand up for how terribly I was being treated and empower me to leave. The result of her “helping” me learn “self-care” was that I stayed in a relationship that was actively destroying who I was, my hope for the future, and my ambition to create the life I wanted for myself until I almost didn’t have the drive to get out.
What got me to finally stand up for my heart, my value, and my hopes was no longer “reframing” my thoughts about being a victim. It was being straight with myself and those who actually cared about me and weren’t afraid to stand up for me and to abusers (which, I realized much later, included that couples therapist). I was a victim of abuse. I finally told the truth, which broke me free from the unreasonable burden that therapist had placed me under by trying to dodge my ex-partner’s calculated stomps. Telling the truth that I was being victimized also released me from the lie I was living that, if I just simply tried harder, claimed more power, stopped “feeling sorry for myself,” I could be happy in a partnership that had no genuine care or room for me—a partnership with someone who was unwilling to genuinely take responsibility for the damage he was inflicting.
Reframing can be a useful tool when someone is struggling with making progress on a goal they’ve identified as important to them or maybe when someone is looking for help getting out of a thought pattern that has bothered them for years. Reframing might be useful in certain situations of conflict between people or when trying to come up with solutions to problems that have been perpetually perplexing. But the rampant dispensing of the advice to “reframe” is more damaging than helpful not only because it often turns into victim-blaming, but also because “reframing” can look so much like denial that the two are difficult to distinguish.
It is a tool that worshippers of toxic positivity use to keep out “negative” energy so as not to interfere with their manifesting everything they want for themselves or even simply their good moods. In situations of abuse, reframing is an extension of the abuse, not an antidote to it. It plays the same games the abuser does: obscuring the truth, denying the victim’s experience (thus making them question their own thoughts and feelings), and disempowering the victim by placing an inappropriate amount of responsibility on their shoulders. Therapists, coaches, and others who want to “help” should use this “reframing” tool sparingly, not as a universal response to distress.
When you tell someone to “reframe” their bad experience into a “learning” opportunity, you are really saying, “I don’t want to deal with your uncomfortable feelings and I’m going to make you responsible for fixing that.” Because “reframing” sounds like a helpful thing for someone to do, people can feel like they’re being supportive, and therefore comfort themselves that they’re helping while doing nothing to fix real problems. There is no way to “reframe” abuse to make bruises or emotional scarring go away. “Reframing” doesn’t put more money in someone’s bank account. Reframing may make people feel better, but that’s why it’s so dangerous: I “felt better” for years even as I was continuing to be deprived of anything like a real marriage. All reframing did was waste a decade of my life. People who have their needs met for real, people who are in safe, loving partnerships, people who are genuinely fulfilled in their lives do not need to reframe their situations. They can live in the present reality as it is.
You’re being triggered / Some of this reaction is to the past
My ex used this one a lot to get out of taking responsibility for extremely harmful behavior.
When my now ex-husband said, “I’ve been thinking about divorce for a while” the day he found out I’d nearly died, that was pretty “triggering” for me. He abruptly stopped speaking to me, contacted my therapists (without my permission) and then showed up at a poetry reading I had that night as if nothing was wrong. In other words, to everyone else, he looked like a perfectly supportive partner and I appeared completely unstable and overreactive when I expressed anger. He tried to tell me that the reason I was so volatile was because of how my parents were never there for me emotionally as a child, even though they were physically present at all my performances and recitals. But it doesn’t matter if these incidents poked my childhood wounds; even someone with a perfect childhood deserves to be treated better than this.
But, let’s say they did poke a childhood wound. Let’s say that my father also lacked integrity and regularly failed to keep commitments. How on earth does that disqualify me from being hurt when someone else does it? It may not be another person’s fault that my wound was there, but that person still poked it. That behavior needs to be addressed regardless of the size of the reaction. Maybe someone else would not (outwardly) react negatively to their partner telling them they’d been considering divorce for a while as if they were a hero for not going through it, but I bet they’d still be pretty hurt. Also, we shouldn’t permit shitty behavior just because it might not hurt the people who don’t have those particular buttons.
The point is that healthy people care about what triggers those they love. They don’t feel the need to walk on eggshells, but they also don’t use the other person’s buttons to set off alarms they hide their bad treatment behind. This is not to say that you should be allowed to act as mean as you feel like when you’re hurt or upset. It is to say that, even when someone’s present-day actions bring up old injuries from the past, you are allowed to be hurt by what happens in the present and ask for amends for that situation even as you feel the pain from the past, too.
In fact, that’s often how old wounds finally get healed. To dismiss or invalidate hurtful behavior in the present just because it happens to bring up similar pain from the past is to create yet another wound that will, in the future, be what gets “triggered” in interaction with someone else.
Speaking of the size of the reaction, there is no objective bar of “reaction” over which someone can go when triggered. There is no objective measure of “over” reacting; those who claim there is are really saying to you that your emotions make them uncomfortable and they (wrongly) think that’s your responsibility rather than theirs. As I said, this is not a license to be as destructive as you may feel like being when someone hurts you and it brings up past situations where you were hurt in similar ways. But the fact that you were hurt in similar ways in the past does not mean that the present situation has no role at all and that people can be as harmful as they want. There is a reason the trigger is there. But, even if there wasn’t, the unresolved pain of the past does not automatically negate the pain of the present.
You have to love yourself before anyone can love you or you can love anyone else
Unless self-hatred is so extreme that it’s debilitating and paralyzing a person, I just don’t see how these are connected. I’ve never understood the rampant idea that you treat others how you treat yourself. I and most people I know, with a few notable exceptions, treat others much better than they allow themselves to treat themselves. And we’ve probably all heard some example of this when a coach or a therapist or a friend is trying to get us to stop beating ourselves up: “You wouldn’t talk to a friend the way you talk to yourself, would you?” “You wouldn’t let someone talk to you the way you talk to you.” It’s so common to treat others better than ourselves that these questions have intuitive answers; even if we might answer affirmatively ourselves, we instinctively know that the answer “should” be no.
People who fail to treat themselves well fail, presumably, because they don’t have a lot of self-love. Yet, they are able to treat others well, or at least better than they treat themselves, which calls this ostensibly causal link between self-love and loving others into question. This is not to downplay the importance of learning how to truly honor who you are and what you need. You probably can love others better if you also love yourself, but I’ve only seen this alleged link between self-love and loving others asserted rather than proven; and it would need to be proven since there isn’t an inherent logic to the connection. It might seem like there is, but that’s likely because this idea has been repeated so damn much that people either feel like utter failures at loving others because they know how badly they feel about themselves or they take this link as an excuse to stop trying to love others while they “work on themselves.”
It’s also just not true that you have to love yourself in order for anyone to love you. In the first place, I know several women who struggle deeply and daily with self-loathing and never measuring up to their own impossible standards and they have absurdly but genuinely loving partners.
But, more importantly, flip this situation around: are you able to love people who struggle to love themselves? I know I am. Everyone I know struggles to love themselves, which I blame capitalism and psychiatry for, and yet, I love and feel loved by so many of those struggling people. I’ve been told that they feel loved by me even as I’m struggling in the self-love department, too.
Additionally, for all the hype and trendiness of self-care, which I’ve also written about previously, this gives self-care the specious task of “earning” love. If you believe that you have to love yourself before anyone can love you, you might be tempted to work on “loving yourself” in order to get other people to love you. Or, if you believe self-love is a prerequisite for being loved, you might forgo efforts to form relationships until you start loving yourself. I’ve known people who have done both. Neither works. Loving yourself in order to get love from others doesn’t work because you can’t “earn” love and trying to do so is toxic. Avoiding others until you love yourself doesn’t work because human beings actually do need each other.
The human project wasn’t set up for us to love ourselves before someone else could love us. The ideal situation—that is, what’s supposed to happen and what damages people when it doesn’t happen—is exactly the opposite: we come into the world needing co-regulation—a caregiver regulating our infant nervous system with their own adult one—and we learn to love ourselves by, ideally, our caregivers loving us.
The fact that this fails so often is another contributing factor to the number of people struggling with self-love. This failure also illustrates the point exactly: if we weren’t meant to learn self-love from the outside in, it wouldn’t be so destructive to our ability to love ourselves when love doesn’t come in from the outside at all or in the way we need it.
It’s not that no one can love you until you love you, but it might be that you can’t love you (or learn to love you) until you are shown how by someone else. It is the internalizing of external love that is meant to generate self-love for the adult. There is no free lunch; self-love must be created from somewhere and something—more accurately, someone.
It’s possible that those who repeat this idea are attempting to ward off codependency. Even if that’s the case, there are superior ways to do so. The most effective one I can think of is teaching interdependency. As it stands, “you have to love yourself before anyone can love you or you can love anyone else” perpetuates individualism, which is deeply abusive, enables capitalism, and runs against the grain of how human beings grow and thrive. It’s time to retire this incorrect and isolating idea from all “help speech.”
We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover—dismantling help speech in a society dependent upon material, physical, and emotional convenience is no small task—so stay tuned.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.