More than ten years ago, I was in a series of unhealthy relationships. These men abused me physically, emotionally, and sexually. Ironically, during all of this, I was helping people find safety away from their abusive partners. I had several friends who were being hurt by their significant others, and I gave them lots of advice and a safe place to stay in my home.
I knew all the right things to say and do for someone else, but when I was in the same situation myself, I didn’t heed my own advice. I didn’t follow what my good sense was telling me. I made excuses for love while knowing in the deepest part of me that love shouldn’t be so painful and hard.
This has been the greatest shame of my life. I never wanted my friends to know, and to this day, I have never told them. I got through it, I survived. But I feel like I am hiding this broken part of myself from the people who love me the most and know everything else there is to know about me.
I am the single mother of a beautiful daughter who is now growing into a woman herself. I know that my most important job is to empower her, to help her become a confident person who clearly sees her own worth and value. I want her to understand what real respect looks like in a relationship, but I feel like a fraud.
How do I forgive myself for mistakes I’ve made? How do I keep these painful experiences from crippling me as I try to instill a sense of truth and strength in my daughter?
A few months after my then husband moved out of the home we shared together, I attended my first Al-Anon meeting. He wasn’t an alcoholic, and I didn’t know anyone who was. But a friend had recommended that I go because of the help she’d found in her codependence with others. And I was definitely mired in codependent patterns, in thinking and action.
If I’m being honest, I was terrified. Afraid of being judged or gawked at. Scared of being misunderstood or told that I didn’t belong.
I sat in a circle of about eight or nine people and listened as they recited the serenity prayer to open the meeting… “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Tears streamed down my face the entire hour as I listened to those in attendance share their stories and welcome me into the fold. I entered that room a broken, ashamed woman and left a woman with hope.
One of the things I learned at that meeting was the difference between shame and guilt. I learned that guilt is the voice inside us that says “I just did something bad.” Guilt can be a helpful emotion because it alerts us to a situation that needs our attention. When I raise my voice at my children, the guilt I feel spurs me to look them in the eyes and talk about what happened. It encourages me to own my mistake and ask my sons for forgiveness.
Shame, on the other hand, is a voice inside us that says “I am something bad.” Shame is paralyzing and suffocating and isolating. It makes us feel unworthy of love and community and hope. And no matter who you are or what you’ve done, shame is a lie.
The shame that you feel, though, is something that really resonates with me. I hid the pain of my first marriage for a really long time. In fact, it wasn’t until just before we separated that I told my closest family members and friends about what our relationship had looked like for more than six years. I hid because I believed the lies shame repeated in my head over and over again.
The truth I want to first speak to you, Hiding, is that shame thrives in isolation. Once I broke my heart wide open and allowed people to see my pain, I felt less and less ashamed. Their understanding and compassion and willingness to sit with me in my hurt helped me see that none of it was my fault to begin with.
It is not your fault that people you loved and trusted abused you. We all have the freedom to handle our experiences in the way that is truest and best for us in that moment. The fact that you could not give words to your struggle at the time does not diminish your strength or your voice. You were doing what you could to survive, just like millions of women in the same situation have done.
The second truth I want to speak to you is that you are worthy. Of being known, of being loved, of being accepted just as you are.
You are worthy.
You are worthy.
You are worthy.
You ask how you can forgive yourself for mistakes you’ve made. My one true answer to that is that things take time. Just as forgiving others is a process, we must go through the same steps in forgiving ourselves. If you haven’t been in counseling to help you work through your experiences, I would encourage you to do that. Getting into therapy is truly the most life-giving, loving thing I have ever done (and continue to do) for myself. A qualified counselor will give you tools and help you down the path of forgiveness. It requires effort and work, but I can’t think of anything more important. With the peace that accompanies self-forgiveness comes the ability to grow and live a full life.
Regarding your daughter, it sounds to me like you are already doing the important work of modeling what it means to be a strong woman who sees her value and is willing to fight for what is right. Helping your daughter grow these same traits within herself will empower her to become a woman of strength and truth.
As she grows, especially in her “tween” and teenage years, you will be charged with talking openly and bravely with your daughter about consent and using her voice and letting people walk with her in life. Sharing parts of your story and your experiences with her will probably be difficult, but they will bond you in ways you could never imagine. If you haven’t started conversations about these things, I would encourage you to begin. Even starting small with the idea that “yes means yes and no means no” can open up a conversation that will hopefully continue for the rest of your lives.
After I told my parents some of the deepest secrets of my first marriage, I braced myself for their reactions. I was afraid that they would accuse me of exaggerating or be angry with me for withholding the truth from them for so long. But here’s what happened instead: my daddy stretched his arms across their dining room table, took my hands in his, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Your Momma and I don’t know what this journey will look like, but we will walk with you every step.”
In that moment, for maybe the first time in my entire life, I felt entirely and completely known and loved. And looking back several years later, I can tell you that they kept their promise. They attended every court hearing, held me close every lonely holiday that I didn’t have my children, and they haven’t stopped walking with me.
Hiding, I am so sorry for your pain and for what I’m sure has been a very lonely journey over the past several years. From your letter, I can tell that you have a beautiful, shining heart. You came to the realization that leaving an abusive relationship is the most loving thing you could do for yourself and your abuser, and that is one of the hardest truths to understand and live out.
Know that you are not alone, and the people who truly care for you will draw you into their chests and sit with you as you share the truth of your life. I promise you it will be worth it.
If you want to reach out to Ellie, you can contact her here.