Monday Mantra: I will not become the perpetrator
Today’s post is in response to a recent email I received where the person had heard me on the Do It Scared podcast talking about my fears in becoming a mother. Mainly, that I’d repeat the cycle, and this person had some shared fears. So today, I’m talking about how victims can end up becoming perpetrators and ways to break the cycle.
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“All victims become perpetrators”
About a month or two after my twentieth birthday, I started an internship at a co-occuring mental health and substance abuse facilitator. Here is where I met one of my first truly impactful career mentors. She was a counselor specializing in trauma and unlike anyone I had ever met before. I could go into a million different lessons I learned from this woman, but one of the phrases she taught me is what today is all about and that is, “all victims become perpetrators.”
Now of course it isn’t quite that black and white. If we do the work and heal the odds of this go down. But at the end of the day, as a victim, there is a certain amount of unconscious learned behavior that gets tucked away into our psyche. This behavior can lie dormant throughout our lives, or something can trigger it and lead us to act exactly like the very person we swore we’d never become – with or without realizing it.
It’s why we so often see generational curses or patterns. Families making the same mistakes over and over – with slightly different faces. Sometimes it’s glaringly obvious, other times we are so caught up in our own stuff we don’t see it at all and if someone points it out to us, our defenses kick in and we reach a level of denial that others may have thought was once impossible or looks insane. After all, it’s easier to believe we are the victim, instead of the perpetrator.
For me, one of the earliest instances of this goes back to childhood; as it does for us all. You see before the age of seven our brains are doing amazing things. Things that science still hasn’t fully uncovered. I’ll share a rough version here to the best of my ability, but definitely do your own research if you’re interested in more.
Understanding the brain waves
Basically there are five known brain waves to date: the delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma. As adults we move through all five brain waves at different parts of our day.
But before the age of two, we all of our time in our delta frequency.
Between two and six, the brain switches between the delta and theta state, with majority of time in the theta state.
These are considered two of the “lowest” frequencies of the brain. When I say lowest, I don’t mean they are worse than the others, but rather they are the states that we typically only access when we are in deep meditation or sleeping. They are below our everyday consciousness. These are the frequencies of our subconscious mind. The theta state in particular, is where hypnotherapists guide their patients to so they can download new behaviors into the subconscious mind.
In other words…
Before the age of seven, we are basically walking around in a hypnotic trance, downloading everything and programming everything into our subconscious mind. So when people say, “oh they won’t remember that trip to Disney!” Well they’re right in the sense that we don’t remember our dreams every night, but they are wrong in the sense that the experience is impacting the child. It’s like when you wake up from a good or bad dream, you can’t remember what happened, but you can feel it. That’s what the first six years of a child’s life are like.
How I realized I’d become the perpetrator
So bringing this back around to my childhood and the victim becoming the perpetrator. This came to light while I was getting my master’s in counseling. I had volunteered to be the test patient in front of the class for an exercise. The teacher asked me what my earliest childhood memory was. Without even thinking I recalled a time when I was 4 years old, hiding behind this kind of half wall that seperated the garage entrance and laundry room from our family room kitchen area. In the family room, my biological father sat on the couch. My mom was in the kitchen. They were screaming about something when my mom grabbed a butcher knife from the kitchen and walked across the room screaming, and eventually threw the knife on the floor and walked over it. That’s where the memory ends.
I have a slew of other memories similar to this. It’s no secret that physical, emotional, and verbal abuse existed in my home growing up. Everything from hearing that I was stupid because I was left handed, to much worse.
How the delta/theta imprinting began to play out in my life
So it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone when I got into my first fight around five years old. Five years old is when we slowly begin to move to the next brain wave frequency, alpha. The alpha brain wave is the start of our analytical mind forming, where we draw our own conclusions about the world.
The fights didn’t stop at five year. I got my first referral just before I turned seven years old for a fight in the cafeteria and by fifth grade my way of playing soccer (a sport that I learned to play under abusive circumstances), I often tripped and kicked the other players while they were down.
Even flash forward to my personal life, at the same time I was sitting in that master’s classroom in my early twenties, my then boyfriend, now husband, had told me I needed to stop getting physical with him because our fights would start off as play fights, but then something would come over me and I’d actually go to hurt him. It was unexplainable, almost like a blackout and it scared me.
The victim becomes the perpetrator… and realizes it.
Victims become perpetrators rang through my head as he pointed this out to me about our fights. He knew I wasn’t being malicious, but it was like a switch would go off. At the time, I didn’t understand all of this stuff about programming the mind before seven.
With the awareness of all of this, it’s probably no secret that I was afraid of having kids and creating my own little perpetrators.
When I learned I was pregnant, my first words I think were, “WTF.” Yes, I was excited, I always wanted to be a mom, but I was also afraid. At the time, I felt like I hadn’t healed myself enough to not end up like my mom. And let me just say this loud and clear: we can do all of the work in the world in healing ourselves, and we will still mess up our kids in someway.
There is no such thing as perfectly healed
There is no perfect parent. I wholeheartedly believe our children choose us to be their parents for a reason. Whatever the outcome may be, we all signed up for this karmic experience, so drop the idea of perfectionism and recognize that the experience is exactly what it’s destined to be for a reason, even if that reason isn’t clear.
I want to kind of break off into two tangents here:
First, tips on healing the parts of you that are a victim to reduce the instances of being the perpetrator.
Second, the construct I put in place to break the maternal patterns I’ve seen play out under the “victim becomes the perpetrator” insight.
Healing the victim within:
I’ve talked about it before, but I’ll say it again, everything starts with awareness. Knowing there is a problem, being honest with yourself, asking for external feedback. In episode 28 with Al Goldman where we talk about our challenges with our mother’s she mentions a book, Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. One of the things I love about that book is the checklist in the beginning to see if your mother qualifies. Now I personally love this checklist because it’s a guide to identify not your mother’s behaviors, but your own. Because remember, for everything you check about your parent in that checklist, you have likely learned or imprinted that same behavior into your schema thanks to those delta and theta brain waves. Which leads me to my second point after awareness which is…
Ownership to heal
Having awareness is great, but if we don’t do anything with that awareness it’s useless. It’s like having hurricane shutters but not putting them up and then wondering why your windows shattered in the storm. We have to own that this is part of us and accept it.
Too often, I see people taking their awareness then using it to feed their victim mentality. For instance, “oh I’m sorry I lashed out at you, it’s just because I’m an adult child of an alcoholic and don’t trust relationships.” Cool, cool. That’s great, but are you owning that as an excuse for your behavior in your life? Or are you owning it so you can heal from it and do something differently? Most people, without realizing, are using there self awareness to stay in their victim/perpetrator pattern while falsely bolstering their ego.
How to stop responding as the perpetrator
Someone who is owning something to heal, will take the time to realize what triggered them to lash out in this way. They’ll ask themselves what they can do differently so they either aren’t in a position to lash out at all, or have a moment to pause and choose a different response.
Going back to the play fighting turned real fighting example, I ended up deciding to stop play fighting altogether. I chose to remove the stimulus (the play fight) in order to not put myself in a position where I’d potentially lash out. Once I got strong enough in my own healing – meaning I spent a lot of time letting my inner child out to cry over the abuse I endured and witnessed – I allowed myself to be more physically playful again and would choose to stop before I got to that point of feeling out of control. Because that’s what it felt like.
I’d equate it to a four year old who hasn’t learned cause and effect or consequences for their actions and then gets into hot of water because they can’t help themselves. Even though I was 23 years old, I shared this same stunted view of the world until I healed it and was able to respond differently.
Letting your inner child out
Which to summarize the last point in this, come up with a path forward that allows your inner child to get whatever it needs. Whether that’s a chances to grieve, get their questions answered, cry, play, or heal in whatever way suits them. It can be through therapy, role playing with toys, art, whatever resonates with you.
Also identify what healed and healthy looks like to you and how you are going to choose that response moving forward and what actions or environments can you put in place to support you in that. For me, it was not rough housing for a while and then being able to do it in a way that was respectful to what my husband was saying about stopping or easing up.
When it comes to replacing perpetrator behaviors with healthy ones…
Make sure the actions you choose are solely dependent on you. For instance, don’t rely on the person you’re rough housing with to not start a play fight. Rely on yourself to say I’m not doing this at the moment. All actions should be within your control.
So onto the second part:
The construct I put in place to break the maternal patterns I’ve seen play out under the “victim becomes the perpetrator” insight.
This kind of builds and acts as a deeper example to the framework I just laid out, so if you aren’t a parent you can use it as a running example from above.
Basically at a certain point, I recognized that my mom wasn’t superwoman, but she was human with her own trauma and pain. Trauma and pain that was being taken out on me. Despite my best efforts to set boundaries, things just kind of getting away from me and would leave us both in tears, and hurting one another. Being around her brought out one of my uglier sides and I didn’t like who I was.
My game plan for healing the victim/perpetrator mentality
I won’t go into all of the stories because we’d be here all week, but the key things you need to know about this: I made my decisions based on healing myself, not our relationship. For me, my decisions while pregnant and since my daughter has been born have been simple: do I feel calm and unconditionally loving/loved in this situation or am I feeling unsafe and anxious? If it’s the latter, I remove myself from the situation. It’s not that I’m avoiding things in my life either, it’s simply because I understand that delta state my daughter is in – yes, that includes while they are in the womb!! – and I don’t want her imprinting that unsafe energy and picking up more of those ancestral wounds.
What I encourage myself to do regularly
Now I do have emotional healing conversations now that my mom is back in my life. It’s not to say I run away from conflict at all. I just listen to my body during those moments. Emotions are good and healthy and those are important for my daughter to see and learn how to process through. What I don’t want is to pretend everything is okay, when my energy clearly is telling her it isn’t. So basically to summarize that: I make sure that my actions, words, emotions, and energy are all aligned in whatever situation I’m in to the best of my ability.
I allow myself to be selfish in a way I never had before pregnancy. In the past, if I was in an uncomfortable or displeasing situation, I’d suck it up and power through it because I thought that’s what would make everyone around me happy. Then I’d lash out, become resentful, and feel exhausted all of the time. Today, my focus is keeping my glass full because when my glass is full and I’m focusing on things that bring me joy, I keep those perpetrator qualities in a dormant state.
It’s not just doing the opposite
The idea that, “I will not become the perpetrator” is not as simple as doing the extreme opposite of what you’re swearing off… because when we do the polar opposite, we are usually still doing the underlying preparatory behaviors we are swearing off – just dressed up differently, which is probably an entire podcast in itself. I will not become the perpetrator means that we will take an active role in our healing, owning that all the qualities we hate we likely embody, and that’s okay. Just as we feel like wounded children, the person who did whatever it is to us feels that way too. It’s our job to forgive them, not because it’s the “right” thing to do, but because it allows us to accept and forgive those parts of ourselves and that’s where we can begin to find a healthy middle ground.