I grew up with an emotionally manipulative parent. It took years for me to understand that the reason I was so good in a crisis situation and so good at helping others was because I’d learned to help my parent (and, more truthfully, my family members who were also dealing with that parent) in emotionally charged situations. Emotional charge felt ‘normal’ to me, because I’d been through it so often, and therefore I could function efficiently and effectively in it when others couldn’t.
These situations also taught me to be kind and supportive and love people unconditionally, because I didn’t receive those things in a way that I felt them easily. (Which is to say, parents can give love in many ways, but kids don’t always receive it. Know your kids, their personalities, and their love languages.) From early on, I had a drive to get out of my house. I have a drawing from second grade that says, “Someday I will…get married so I can live in my own house.” (Six year-old me wasn’t a feminist yet.)
Growing up inside emotional manipulation also helped me become as straightforward and honest with people as I possibly could be. I know the pain and damage manipulators can cause, so I try not to be one. I try to be as honest with myself about what’s going on, what I feel, what I need, and what I want so that I can express that thoughtfully to others (with care and clean edges). There is no hidden meaning behind what I say or ask for- hidden agendas just cause confusion and pain.
And yet, I am sure I still emotionally manipulate people sometimes. I know I do because there are times when I revisit a conversation (which I do about 10,000 times because I’m an INFJ) and realize I did something emotionally manipulative. I read and edit my emails several times so that I’m not being emotionally manipulative (and yet, I’m sure some things still get through). I feel like an asshole when it happens and always try to do better.
One of the strange things is, though, that I still don’t necessarily see or hear emotional manipulation when it’s coming from others. To this day, my partner has to say, “Don’t let this [situation or person] emotionally manipulate you.” And sometimes I still don’t know what that looks or sounds like. It’s very much as if he’s saying, “Look, that’s a foreign language that we don’t speak,” but to me it is native tongue and so easy to speak I don’t even recognize it as foreign. Unlearning this language is tough business.
I wonder if it is like this for all who suffer trauma.
Does this ‘foreign’ language get so ingrained – because of young age or simple repetition – that we see it as ‘normal?’ I think, probably, yes.
And when we find a way out, when we begin to realize that other emotional, non-traumatic languages exist, it is like moving to another country. I keenly remember the first few times I felt unconditionally loved and safe- it felt like a party in my heart, a healing, a joy. It was a language I wanted to speak and found that I could. Which was both strange and beautiful.
The thing about learning this new language (what others know as ‘normal’) – and sorry to switch metaphors- is that it’s like the fish who realizes it breathes water, and that it is evolving into something that breathes air. That is what I have felt like for years now. That ‘water’ is my native tongue- the emotional manipulation and the life that creates- and that I am evolving to breathe air. But still, water is easy to breathe and I have to be reminded of what it is, of who I am and what I want, so that I do not fall back into the water language of emotional manipulation.
Maybe it’s not trauma that is our native language, but the form of abuse (whether large or small) that causes the trauma which itself feels normal. Abuse is what is done to us, trauma is our response. And when that abuse is repeated, it begins to be habit, and habit is what constitutes ‘normal’ (at any age, pretty much).
Despite my Master’s in Social Work, I’m not sure about this theory. (Actually, I’m sure there’s piles of research and it probably has a name, I just didn’t take the time to go research it.) What I do know is that I’m watching myself and many other people wake up and figure out that something from their past is broken, broken inside them. And as they begin to deal with this wound, they learn that they have been speaking a foreign language for some part of their life. It is only with patience and awareness, forgiveness and soothing, that they begin to speak the language beyond trauma.
Do we ever lose that native tongue entirely? I’m not sure. But I think we can refuse to speak it as much as possible and continue to dig after each root as it shows itself. And perhaps, as we tend to the growth of our healed self, the old language, the trauma language, will lay quietly. Not dead, but no longer bothersome.