It Started with A Question

drawing of woman talking with herself aka her brain about revisiting the pastMy husband recently asked me how I seemingly did not continue the dysfunction and abuse cycle that I grew up in my future relationships. It was and still is an excellent question. Why indeed? I thought for a moment and gave the answer that I thought was the most accurate in the short time I had been processing the question.

My answer? My self-awareness is what kept me from following the same patterns. Self-awareness is an interesting theory to consider one’s self, which is the definition of self-awareness. I thought about my answer to the question that my husband asked me for days after that.

Was it really that I had developed such a self-awareness level that I did not fall into continuing the cycles of abuse and dysfunction from my childhood? Could it be that simple? By the way, remember simple does not equal easy. Even though the definitions would make you think it means the same thing, it does not. Self-awareness sounds simple. Sure, we all do that. To a certain extent, yes, we do.

Self-Awareness Practical Theories

Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund (1972) developed the theory of self-awareness.1 It is the capacity to think about oneself objectively. They also theorized that people could focus either internally, on themselves, or externally, on their environment. I was very internally focused when I look back on my childhood and adolescence.

When I focused outwardly on my environment, it increased my anxiety, anger, and frustration. I had no control of the outside. That lack of control leads to feelings of deep depression and suicide. That day, my last attempt to end my life was the first day on my internally focused journey. I determined that something needed to change. But what? I could not control my external world. And so, I focused on my inner world.   

The more I focused on myself, the more chaotic the outside world became. I gladly retreated into the world that I could control. The deeper I withdrew, the more self-aware I became. That fairly intense self-awareness gave me a maturity that was beyond my years at the time. 

It was that self-awareness that kept me from continuing that cycle. But did it? I am not sure now that I have had the time to ponder that question and my initial answer. Much like the insidious nature of the emotional abuse I endured, my dysfunction and abuse cycle was subtle. Or, which I now realized, maybe what I was doing all along, I ignored it.

“Self-awareness is the capacity to take oneself as the object of thought—people can think, act, and experience, and they can also think about what they are thinking, doing, and experiencing. In social psychology, the study of self-awareness is traced to Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund’s (1972) landmark theory of self-awareness. Duval and Wicklund proposed that, at a given moment, people can focus attention on the self or on the external environment. Focusing on the self enables self-evaluation. When self-focused, people compare the self with standards of correctness that specify how the self ought to think, feel, and behave. The process of comparing the self with standards allows people to change their behavior and to experience pride and dissatisfaction with the self. Self-awareness is thus a major mechanism of self-control.”1

Escaping Ignoring the Cycles of Dysfunction & Abuse

Looking back on those years, I don’t think I escaped unscathed from breaking free of the cycle of abuse and dysfunction. I thought I had, but I hadn’t. I still sought it out, just in different and subtle ways. A few examples were being in relationships with people who were older than I. There was no real future there, and so for me, the relationship was safe because it was so short-lived. 

They would never get to know the real me, the one that I was protecting under my armor. The person they saw, and so many of them resented me for was not the real me. How interesting that they hated me for who they thought I was, and my mother hated me for who she thought I was as well. And what my boyfriend’s saw and what she saw were two very different outward projections.   

Who escaped the cycles of dysfunction and abuse? Not me. I didn’t see it then. Trauma survivors, hell, any person, is more likely to continue with something that is familiar2 than go off and do something completely different. When things change, it causes every person a certain level of anxiety. For people with trauma in their backgrounds, that anxiety is off the charts.

Familiar Trauma

I think our anxiety increases in part because our brains have developed differently because of the trauma. Our traumatized brains struggle more with the new and unknown. They want to keep that familiarity because that is how our brains kept us safe.  And what is safe is what is known. Even if, in reality, it is not safe at all. 

For me, I found a different way to keep the anxiety of new things at bay. I was still seeking out those things that were similar, but not in the same context. I did that to keep the sense of self intact that I had created to withstand the abuse.  I clung with desperation to the idea of myself as someone who wasn’t going to perpetuate those cycles.

I could not let go of that idea of myself that I created long enough to see that I was doing what I was trying not to do. I had to see myself as better, as different, as worth something, and most importantly, too smart to perpetuate those damn cycles. Even though I was involved with dysfunctional, and at times, emotionally abusive relationships, I could not admit that to myself. Because then I would have had to admit that I did not escape, and not only that, I was keeping myself stuck.

And so, no, I didn’t escape that trap. And looking back, that was okay. I went as far as I was able to back then. And that is where I remained until recently. And now, I am turning that self-awareness spotlight on myself once again and learning to move forward.

Sources Cited

  1. Self-Awareness Theory .” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . com.16 Oct. 2020 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>
  1. Robert T Muller, Ph.D. “Trauma Survivors at Risk for Future Abusive Relationships” Psychology Today. January 8, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/201601/trauma-survivors-risk-future-abusive-relationships October 22, 2020

Not Cited Directly

  1. Duval, Shelley, and Robert A. Wicklund. 1972. A Theory of Objective Self AwarenessNew York: Academic Press.
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