Invincible: The 10 Lies You Learn Growing Up with Domestic Violence
ALONE TO TRUSTING
Their brain was trained from an early age to assume negative intent. They learn not to trust.
—David Sousa, How the Brain Learns
To look at Eleanor, no one would guess how alone she felt. Beautiful and popular, she’s surrounded by friends; she has a loving boyfriend and even maintains a positive relationship with the parents who raised her, despite having grown up living with domestic violence. She is bright, successful, and accomplished, and yet for most of her life, she’s struggled to let people in.
“It’s not anyone else’s job to worry about me or take care of me, and I know that I can be a lot to deal with. So I try to work through my issues within myself.”
The lie of being alone for some is about not being in an intimate relationship and for some is more about feeling unconnected to others. You don’t have as many good friends as you would like, or those in your circle don’t feel like true friends. Somehow, you always feel separate from the rest of the world. You don’t trust in yourself; you don’t know yourself; so how can you trust others?.
That’s how I felt throughout most of my life. I had dated only two girls until the time I was eighteen, and I wasn’t intimate with either of them. It wasn’t that I didn’t want them; I just couldn’t fathom for the life of me why they would want to be intimate with me. Then, at nineteen, I met my future wife. Things got physical, and I fell madly in love. One night I opened up to her and shared some of the details of my childhood. I knew this was risky. I told her how afraid I was of so many things. How we only have so much time to live. How the idea of dying petrifies me. But she was not comfortable talking about it. So I decided not to speak of it again. Not until twenty years later did we briefly discuss it, and that was with our marriage counselor when we were two weeks away from getting divorced.
How could we not have talked about it? Is it that shameful? How could I not share? How could she not ask? I know if we had talked about it years ago, we would be together today. Not being able to trust enough to share—not knowing then what I know now—is my greatest regret. One of my greatest wishes for you is that you avoid making the same mistake.
• • •
Maybe you don’t feel capable of maintaining a relationship and are uncertain that other people want to be with you. You may even avoid intimacy. There’s a sense of disconnect from others or a suspicion of their motives. Perhaps you simply feel that you are on your own. You had no one to rely on but yourself growing up, and you assume that will always be the case. Either way, you lack trust in yourself and, because of that, find it next to impossible to trust in others.
Eleanor was always an independent spirit. Shortly after she was born, in the Northwest, Eleanor’s mother moved herself and her daughter back to the Midwest to be near family. She’d completely broken off her relationship with Eleanor’s birth father, a military man, to raise her child on her own. But she soon met Johnnie, the man who would become Eleanor’s stepfather, and the only father figure she’d ever known.
Eleanor’s earliest memories of violence occurred when she was three. “It was the middle of the night, and I woke up to this huge commotion in the living room,” she recalls. “I ran in to see what was going on and saw my stepdad viciously beating my mother. Mom yelled at me to get help and for a moment I froze, until my stepdad turned to face me.”
Eleanor, still little more than a toddler, ran to her grandparents’ house a few doors down. She was too embarrassed to explain to them what happened, sensing it was something shameful, but somehow they coaxed it out of her and called 911. The police came and escorted her stepfather away from the house. But of course Johnnie returned and the abuse continued on and off until Eleanor turned seventeen.
Johnnie never put his hands on Eleanor. As is the case for the majority of those who grow up living with domestic violence, she was not the target. Typically, he would get drunk and the fighting would begin, usually in the middle of the night. Eleanor would wake up and try to get her stepfather off her mother, and he would respond by shoving her out of the way and screaming verbal abuse.
“He’d say things to me like, ‘You’re just a fucking nuisance; you’ll never be worth shit.’ He made it clear I was in his way.”
Her stepfather didn’t have to be drunk to turn violent; the anger could erupt anytime. She begged her mother to leave him, and she tried a few times, but she could never let go. “They had this weirdcodependent thing going on. My mother thought he needed her.” Eleanor tried to explain to her mother that she needed her too.
When it got really bad, Eleanor would go to her boyfriend’s house. They knew what was going on but no questions were asked. It wasn’t that they weren’t concerned so much as they knew not to go there. “I was just so embarrassed,” recalls Eleanor. “Like there was something wrong with me.”
As she got older and stronger and her stepfather became increasingly frail from alcoholism and self-neglect, Eleanor could better protect her mother and wrestle him away from her.
Eleanor was in control; she had to be. Her relationships became subject to stringent standards. Friends had to prove themselves and meet the high bar she set because, as she says, “I would not accept anything less.” She poured herself into her studies and athletic activities. She was captain on every debate and academic team as well as every sports club. Her involvement in extracurricular activities was her escape. She was also determined to do everything she needed to do to have a comfortable life where she could provide for her family and be the opposite of her stepfather.
“I hated him more than anything and anybody when I was growing up. I wanted to be his polar opposite,” says Eleanor. “Even when I was little I declared I would never let my family go through that. I think that’s why I strive so hard to be successful.”
I FEEL ALONE
Eleanor graduated from college and now works as a project engineer in the Southeast, where she also plans to pursue an MBA. She is in a relationship with an understanding and compassionate young man, who is making it much easier for her to be trusting.
It’s not that her adult life has been tragic or dysfunctional. Far from it—she got out and turned herself around in remarkable ways. But as long as she can remember, Eleanor has felt a weight, as if all the joy in her life has been muffled. She is only just beginning to take a step back and see how her childhood has affected her, and in doing so she realizes how many others have experienced what she did.
In relationships, she’s always been giving. When people pass the test and meet her standards—when she’s certain they’re nothing like her stepfather—she loves hard. But until now she hasn’t necessarily allowed herself to trust in love received. Eleanor has even struggled to trust herself. Although her instincts are sharp, she continually questions them, lacking that inner certainty when it comes to relationships that, until recently, were volatile. Eleanor was always too quick to react to a perceived transgression, quick to assume the worst about the intentions of others.
“I always knew the right answer but would second-guess myself anyway,” she says. “I am only just now getting to the point where I can follow my first thought without hesitation.”
Her newfound clarity has helped her see the connection between this lack of certainty and the pain of witnessing her mother—a woman she admires and respects—continually putting herself in a situation in which she was hurt. In every other respect, her mother was the backbone and primary support of the household, an educated and intelligent woman who trained in a medical field and sometimes works as many as three jobs. Eleanor’s mother always told her that this did not have to be her life, and she is constantly apologizing for everything she put her daughter through. But her mother’s self-destructive choices led Eleanor to question everything.
Now, the growing trust she has in herself, and her newfound ability to share, is inspiring her to become the One for others. She’s begun with her own family. Although they are far from friends, Eleanor feels “oddly protective” over her stepfather in his weakened condition. She’s since come to learn that he too was a child of domestic violence.
“My mom comes first, but if my stepfather needs me I am there for him too, which is weird,” she says, second-guessing herself again.
Even last spring, when she went to visit her birth father for the first time, Eleanor felt protective of the family who raised her. It was a happy reunion, and she was glad to meet her half-siblings and see where she came from. As a child she used to look at his photograph and pray that he would come and save her, but she didn’t share the story of her past with him because she didn’t want him to know how badly her mother was doing.
“She was on her own; she did what she could,” she says.
Eleanor has always been the hero and protector in her family. As hard as she has found it to let others in, she is overflowing with compassion for others. She volunteers through her sorority to mentor young girls and help them with their self-esteem. She’s a coach for junior high track and field. At college, she participated in a public service program that identified troubled sixth graders and brought them to campus for mentoring and friendship. It’s work that Eleanor plans to continue.
“I want to be that person I wanted to have in my life and let them know that everything they need they have inside of them,” says Eleanor.
She was that person. Like many who grew up living with domestic violence, Eleanor has always seemed remarkably well adjusted. No one would guess what she’s lived through. And yet she always felt alone, never able to open up or give herself completely, struggling to believe that someone could love and accept her for who she was. She gave, but she could never receive. She was the strong one for others, but never allowed herself to lean on anyone else and kept even those she loved at arm’s length. No one could reach her all the way. But then she found her rock—someone she could truly trust. Her boyfriend and his mother became the Ones for Eleanor. As the family she’d always wanted, they made her feel safe enough to open up and share all that she’d been through. For the first time in her life, she felt a deep connection to another.
“It feels as if a fire had been rekindled, like I have more oxygen. My light is shining just a little bit brighter now that I’ve learned I don’t have to carry all that baggage around.”
• • •
As someone who lived with domestic violence, the seeds of trust, the desire to let others in, were what ultimately drove her. Buried underneath the lie is always the truth. Her recognition that she could allow herself to be vulnerable because she was vulnerable as a child for so long and successfully came through it—came through it stronger—became her secret weapon. It taught her just how important it was to be trustworthy and trusting. She now sees how allowing herself to be vulnerable is a key to trust.
KEEPING OTHERS AT A DISTANCE FEELS SAFER
Eleanor is a highly successful individual, a model of strength and courage who never saw herself as a victim, but even she was holding herself back from truly connecting with others. Some of the lies still plague her. She’d spent so many years striving to be the opposite of what she experienced growing up, putting all her energy into loving and protecting those she cared about most, and yet she suffered from one of the most pervasive lies among children of domestic violence: that they are and will be fundamentally alone.
All of the lies that we’ve already explored are often closely intertwined with a profound sense of social isolation. Sometimes, it’s self-inflicted. These children and adults just don’t feel safe with others, and understandably so. When the person on whom their entire lives depend is under attack or behaves unpredictably and sometimes cruelly, their own emotional world is thrown into turmoil, and it’s hard to feel safe with anyone.
Children of domestic violence grow up believing the lie that it’s safer to be alone. Studies clearly show that they have fewer relationships than others and far more difficulty as adults in achieving intimacy.1 They find it difficult to make strong emotional connections. They learn that life is easier and better when they keep people at a distance and their feelings locked away. As childhood trauma expert Bruce Perry says, “The most traumatic aspects of all disasters involves the shattering of human connections.”2
Brain expert David Sousa reports that many children rescued from extremely violent homes and placed into foster homes immediately retreat into a shell. They don’t have the ability to appreciate other people’s good intentions because their experience taught them to see everyone as a potential threat. Their mirror neuron system was never given the chance to develop, so they see every adult as an enemy, as a potential antagonist.
“Might this set them up to assume a negative intent?” Sousa asks. “Will every stimuli received from this person be viewed through this lens? It’s how their brains perceived an environment it was never designed for in the first place,” he told me.
The irony is that when these individuals do place their trust in others, they can actually find great happiness and fulfillment in their lives.
It took me a long time to arrive at this truth. Growing up, I had friends, of course, although I never thought of them as especially close. They’d come over to whatever rental house we were in at the moment, but I was never comfortable with it. At one level, I was just too ashamed of how different our house was to them. We were poor, our house was a wreck, and I never knew if Keith might be around.
Instead, my friendships were conducted often near their homes. If I was lucky, sometimes I might get myself invited over to someone’s house for dinner, where I always tried to leave a good impression, so I could get invited back again. But truth be told, I never really had close friends as a kid.
I admired the kids who were lucky enough to say they had a best friend because I could never imagine anyone liking me that much. I never dared call someone else my best friend for fear that he would make fun of me for saying so. I simply had trouble trusting, and out of fear of being rejected, I pushed people away and spent a lot of time alone.
At the time, I rationalized my isolation. If I didn’t have many friends, I told myself it was because I was the loner type. If I had to fend for myself at home because Mom was at work or just lying in bed, I would tell myself that I was more independent and responsible than other kids. But as night fell, and I put myself to bed, I felt miserable.
IF YOU DON’T TRUST, HOW CAN YOU EVER KNOW YOURSELF?
There are several factors behind the isolation that people feel when they grow up living with domestic violence. Families isolate themselves for fear of the consequences; they hide the abuse to protect the family structure, despite its dysfunction. At an individual level, children are often emotionally overwhelmed by what they’ve experienced, so they are often socially challenged. The stress of witnessing the violence damages a child’s capacity to adapt, causing emotional trauma and extremes of social behavior—withdrawal or aggressiveness—that become core dimensions of that child’s character.
Research studies show that children who grow up living with domestic violence are regularly ranked by their peers as among the least popular in class.3 These children often reach the same conclusions about themselves as their classmates: They decide they’re socially incompetent. They keep to themselves or they act out aggressively and inappropriately to get attention, because they think that’s how life works. As a consequence, they are often isolated from others by teachers, counselors, and other adults.
Daniel Schechter, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, has shown that mothers who are in domestically violent relationships tend to misinterpret and misunderstand the emotional needs of their own children.4 These women often fail to teach important lessons to their kids, which leaves the children socially dysfunctional, to some degree.
Julia was one of six kids whose mother was so emotionally traumatized and overwhelmed that she raised her children in an oppressive, tyrannical fashion. Julia grew up in the Caribbean until they moved to the United States when she was eight.
“I never had a real life when I got to America,” she recalls. “My mother was very protective and strict; she got married so young that she never had her own childhood. That was just how it was for women back home. So we could not leave the house. We could only go to school and back.
“My father was an angry man and treated her badly. He was always with other women. When he was home, he would hurt my mother.”
As a result of a fire in their Brooklyn apartment building, the family was split across the five boroughs. “My mom and two sisters ended up in a welfare hotel in Manhattan. I had to stay with my oldest brother at my uncle’s place in Queens. I felt completely alone.
“Not long after that, on my sixteenth birthday, I went to a party. This was one of the first parties I had ever been to alone. I was allowed to go only because I was with my older sister. While I was there, I met this guy and then, that was it. He was freedom for me. He was eighteen and going gambling all the time and running wild, and I wanted to do that. So I left. I just ran away from home.”
Her mother pressed charges for kidnapping, and Julia and her boyfriend fled to New Orleans. That’s when the abuse began. For two years they lived underground and when Julia turned eighteen they moved back to New York and soon got married.
For the rest of their twenty-year marriage, Julia found herself in the cycle of verbal and physical violence that she’d witnessed as a child. She couldn’t leave the house or drive without her husband’s permission. She was not allowed to visit her own mother who lived just a block away.
Despite her prison-like conditions, she did her best to maintain the appearances of a normal life. She shared small talk with parents during school pickups, but in reality, she was completely isolated.
It took her husband’s increasingly erratic behavior and his purchase of a handgun for her to make the decision to leave, fearing mostly for her children’s safety. She filed for divorce and took an apartment, though in retrospect, she says that it was already “much too late. The real damage was already done.”
Soon after the divorce, and just as she was starting to rebuild a new life free of violence, Julia’s son was stabbed in a fight outside a bodega. At nineteen, he had already shown signs of following his father’s example of being violent and abusive to his girlfriends, which is a common theme among men who grew up living with domestic violence. “I know that if I had left my husband earlier, my son would be alive today,” Julia reflects sadly.
For months, Julia mourned in almost total isolation. She viewed her son’s death as her fault, another failure in an increasingly tragic life. She felt ashamed and alone. But then when her daughter, Grace, came home covered in bruises she realized she wasn’t the only one in this situation. At just sixteen, Grace was repeating the pattern with a boyfriend, who hit her when she tried to go out one evening on her own. Seeing her own daughter slipping into a similar depression—a third generation of women in her family who might continue the cycle of guilt, resentfulness, sadness, and isolation—something new surfaced in Julia’s spirit, and she found the will to change.
After years of silence and isolation, she began to rebuild her connections with the outside world, talking with her extended family again and reaching out to her neighbors. She surrounded herself with a network of friends and social workers, who provided the sense of stability and security she had always lacked.
Julia already had the equipment she needed to make that transition from alone to trusting. Lacking a meaningful support network in her youth heightened her sense of isolation, a state she became desperate to change as soon as she realized how it was affecting her own child. That loneliness she’d experienced throughout most of her life also taught her to appreciate the value of community and the comfort of being able to share with others. Her hidden strength lay in knowing when to ask for help, and where and how to find it.
She finally understood that she could not continue to live with the lie she had inherited from childhood. She could not survive in a world of isolation, never taking a risk to extend herself and form an emotional connection. She learned to set aside her fears about being hurt or disappointed, and began to embrace the truth that she could place her trust in others. She took small steps toward restoring her faith in people, knowing that, as Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
“Now, I feel emotionally protected,” she said. “I have a whole group of friends that I can turn to. A lot of them grew up living with domestic violence too. That’s something we all have in common. It’s hard to relate to other people who haven’t been through it. But when you meet someone who grew up like I did, you just know. And that’s a real connection.”
As a sign of her growing self-confidence, she has gone even further, and took the remarkable step of visiting her son’s accused murderer in jail, who himself was a child of domestic violence, to better understand what happened. Julia also began volunteering at the prison, where she started a reading group with inmates and visits every week, offering advice and a nonjudgmental ear for these troubled young men, many of whom also spent their early lives in violent homes. She has not only ended the isolation for herself, she’s making it her life’s mission to let others facing domestic violence know that they are not alone.
HOW IS THIS PERSON TRYING TO HURT ME?
As both Julia and Eleanor discovered, true transformation occurs when we break through the isolation. It can be hard to expose our feelings when the world has treated us so badly. But by taking small steps to rebuild our trust in others, and assuming their intent is good, we can begin rebuilding a bridge to the outside world.
Of course, the instinct to withdraw is understandable when those you should have been able to trust the most have let you down. Trusting others is a risk. It is more natural for you to assume negative intent. Your first assumption may be that no one understands or that everyone is trying to hurt you. You often overreact. You get upset easily. It feels like you can’t control your emotions. So the safest path is to just withdraw from everyone and keep your feelings a secret. But that just makes you feel more alone and misunderstood.
Your suspicions of the motives of others are a survival technique you learned from childhood. It’s a pattern imprinted on your brain. It’s also a lie that you live every day through the most mundane of human interactions. As Sousa said in our interview:
When a stranger is approaching you, say someone you’re meeting in your line of work whom you know little about, you start making judgments as soon as you see this person walking towards you. The emotional system in your brain goes to work long before your rational system gives a damn, and it’s saying, Look at the guy, the way he’s walking, his facial expressions. What do you think is behind that face? How is he trying to hurt me? Is this a friend or a foe; competition or a colleague? All these thoughts are running long before the rational brain has had a chance to collect any unbiased facts about this person.
This kind of thinking automatically creates an emotional distance between you and others. Your self-imposed isolation may not even be obvious to the rest of the world as you put up a front and hide that vulnerable inner core. You could be surrounded by people every day and never make a real connection.
KNOWING YOURSELF LEADS TO TRUSTING OTHERS
Trusting yourself is a key to trusting others, but in order to do that, you have to know yourself. I don’t mean your hunch as to who you are; I mean really understanding your personality—who you truly are. It’s not always easy to see beyond the lies, but the latest research in human analytics has helped millions understand themselves. And it will help you too.
In 2009, I took a personality assessment for the first time. I had always thought that these were a waste of time—a diversion with no more validity than the newspaper’s daily horoscope. I was trying to figure out what I might do next in my career when a friend suggested a particular online survey that would tell me what I was naturally great at. It was what is known as a personality assessment, and my friend said it was one of the best in the world and was remarkably accurate.
When I read the results, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The description of who I was, was who I wished I could be, not who I believed I was. But I kept reading it. And it got me curious, and increasingly I began to identify with who it said I was. Sometimes, deep down, we have an inkling of our true nature but this assessment gave me a better sense of myself, of what I am capable of. This tool in essence became another One for me. Showing me the truths about me that I could not see for myself.
When you know yourself, you can trust that you have true value. By taking action and reading this book you now already know yourself far better because you understand how your childhood has impacted your life. Only once you know yourself are you then able to trust others.
THE GATEWAY TO TRUST
Indra Nooyi is the CEO of PepsiCo and one of the most powerful executives in the world. A native of Tamil Nadu, India, she has engineered the doubling of profits since she first joined the company in 2000 and is praised throughout the world for her innovative and effective leadership skills.
A friend of mine works for Pepsi, and he was invited to Nooyi’s home for dinner with several other executives. He asked her, “What’s the greatest lesson you ever learned?”
Without hesitation she replied, “Assume positive intent.” Even though it wasn’t in her nature to be so trusting she discovered whenever she approached new situations or met new people, accepting that other people’s motives were good changed everything. Suddenly her world opened up, and countless opportunities came her way, because she wasn’t shutting the door before she could see what was on the other side.
People assume positive intent when they drive a car, otherwise no one would ever take to the road! All that separates you from another is a yellow line. Trusting others is a risk, and so is assuming positive intent. The lie you’ve lived has conditioned you to avoid the unknown and quickly choose the path that helped you survive. You had to deal with so much risk when you were young, so now you seek the exact opposite and avoid intimacy at every turn for fear of being hurt. Yet the secret to dealing with risk and uncertainty is to recognize it and embrace it. Recognize that you have handled uncertainty when you were a mere child with no security or safety net. As an adult you have so many other resources on which you can rely.
But first, you have to get to know your true nature. You’ve unconsciously coded so many lies growing up, you can’t even trust yourself. Even those who haven’t lived with domestic violence struggle with understanding who they are. But you have an extra set of challenges to deal with because you grew up living with domestic violence. As psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky explains, “We are better off if we are able to construct a life narrative of how we became who we are today and how our future will unfold.”5
THE KEYS TO TRUST
As David Sousa told me, trust is “a basic moral value that we have as a society; if you don’t have that, you will have a very difficult time reaching your full potential.” So you were not trained to trust, you were trained to be alone. Up until now, this has held you back. But that’s not who you really are. Taking risks, facing fear and uncertainty, are natural to you. You took many risks to get where you are; you had to—you had no choice. Calculated risk taking is inherent in your nature.
And now you know you are not alone. You never were. There are more than a billion people alive today who grew up living with domestic violence. You are part of a special tribe, a group that, as Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, says, “Owns their past, which allows them to own their future.”6
You now have compassion for others. All that you have lived through and overcome gives you the potential for an extraordinary level of empathy and understanding. Build your trust in others by giving them a chance. Make others feel appreciated and worthy by asking them questions and listening to their answers. Engage, make eye contact, and cultivate your curiosity about others. Trust in yourself enough to trust in others. All of these small actions will lead to deeper connections.
When you discover your true nature you develop the confidence to assume positive intent. When you do that, you will own your future and never feel alone.
From the Lie to the Truth
You are alone and it was meant to be that way; no one could truly deep down understand or connect with you and that is just as well because they can’t be trusted and you will push them away. You had no one else to rely on growing up, so you might as well assume that will always be the case. You may have people around you, but in the end, you will be alone.
When the people on whom your entire life depends are under attack or behave unpredictably and sometimes cruelly, your emotional world is thrown into chaos, and it’s hard to feel safe or to trust anyone.
I am trusting. I assume positive intent. With each interaction I have, I assume another’s intent is positive. I listen first, without judging.
I know to trust is to take a risk, but I had to take many chances when I was a child, so I am comfortable doing so and have a hidden talent that allows me to take intelligent risks. Trusting someone initially may be threatening but that does not compare to the risks I had to take as a child to get to where I am today.
Now it is easier for me to trust others because now I truly trust myself. I now know myself better than I ever have. I will remind myself of my natural gifts. Now I trust myself fully knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am as worthy as another.
1. When you interact with others, instead of initially questioning their intent, adopt a mind-set to assume positive intent. Remind yourself, “I assume their intent is positive.”
2. Because it takes courage to trust others, remind yourself of the courage you already demonstrated, the risks you took. The courage it takes to trust another pales in comparison to the courage you displayed early in life.
3. Trust in others comes so much more naturally when you learn to trust yourself. Know what you are good at and what you love to do; this will build trust in yourself.
4. So how are you to know your true nature? Who was there to tell you? Take the survey at cdv.org to learn more and use the code chapter five for free access. Your contact information will never be shared. Only you will see the results.