My Italian husband sounds angry when he is passionate about something. I know the difference between passionate conversation and anger but Lucky the rescue dog doesn’t.
When my husband rants about the new grass dying or bugs eating his basil, Lucky’s tail and ears go down. He backs up and watches, keeping his distance. But the instant Nick calls to him or bends down to show him some love, Lucky's tail pops up and starts wagging and his ears spring to attention. He runs to Nick, eager for acceptance and approval.
This is a pretty accurate example of how survivors of abandonment and abuse who have been rescued by someone react to their rescuer. When the person who rescued us loves and accepts us, we’re good. When they don’t, we’re not.
When approval is withdrawn, we automatically revert to the survival skills that helped us survive abandonment and abuse in the past. We try to be good. We try to make them happy. We work hard to try to please our rescuer to earn back their favor.
It's easy to see how this can be a very toxic cycle if the person who rescued the survivor isn't well intended. When the rescuer is controlling, abusive or is engaged in criminal behavior, such as with drugs or human trafficking, the survivor will never be able to keep that person happy. They will never be able to do enough or be enough to stay in favor with the person they consider their rescuer. The result of this kind of relationship is to constantly be striving to "be enough" and knowing that you never will.
Abusive people use others. Those of us who have survived childhood trauma are exceptionally vulnerable to getting caught up in relationships with this type of person because we are so eager to be wanted and to belong and to be accepted. Toxic people dole out acceptance when they want something, and they withhold it to get the survivor within their influence to perform...something like a dog performing for a treat. It's a toxic cycle, and it's no way to live.
The problem is that giving our rescuer control over our worth and value is far too much control to give anyone. Even when the rescuer is a genuinely good person, they’re still human and they have their own ups and downs. Humans are prone to making self serving decisions, and when they do, us survivors can feel like a wounded boxer on the ropes, having been boxed around until we’re bruised and bloody.
The good news is that we survivors are not dogs who have no choice but to rely on the benevolence of the person who controls the food and the treats. We can and should become self reliant. We can get to the place where we mentally know that we’re with our rescuer because we choose to be, not because we need to be. From that place we can begin to make healthy choices that help us stand on our own and thrive.
The good rescuers will cheer us on and be proud of us when we make progress. They want us to be happy and healthy. These are the people who are committed to loving us into wholeness by staying with us through the good times and bad. They look beyond our rough exterior to the wounded person within, and show us love when we least deserve it. The consistent love of a good person heals our wounds so that eventually, we're able to love others into wholeness. When a good rescuer sticks with us, the cycles of abuse are broken.
Unfortunately, some rescuers don't celebrate our progress. When we begin to feel better and do better, some people feel threatened because their worth and value is tied up in their self image as a rescuer.
For those who have made a “project” out of us, they may adjust to the stronger you, or they may fall away. Whatever they choose to do, you must keep moving toward the best version of you. Keep communication open so that they can come around. But if they don’t, that’s ok. Let them go rescue the next person.
Some rescuers will grow tired of trying to keep us fixed and seek other relationships. When they do, we crumble. Our worth and value was tied up with being important to that person, so when that person leaves, our identity leaves with them. We revert to being the inadequate loser we thought we were before the rescue. In these cases, the best we can do for ourselves and for the future of the relationship (if there is one), is to become the strong, resilient people we can be. Our strength, determination, and perseverance will attract the right people into our lives and enable us to create healthy relationships.
For those who have been in or have seen an abusive relationship and for those who care about human trafficking, it's easy to see the reason why those who are in an abusive relationship or who are being trafficked often defend, stay with, or return to, their abuser or trafficker. Many of these people were victims of abuse as children, often by people who treated them worse than the trafficker does. That’s what they know—it’s normal to them. Sadly, they believe that their worth and value is found in being used by others. Often they aren't even aware that they're being used and abused. We can see why many people in these types of situations truly believe that their abuser is their rescuer.
There’s a fairly easy test we can do to determine if our relationships are healthy or not. Simply begin to take a step toward self-improvement. Read a book, listen to a podcast, sign up for a class, attend an event, etc., and pay attention to the reactions. (If you’re afraid to do any of these things for fear of the reaction, there’s your answer.)
Even in a healthy relationship, there may be a time of adjustment as you grow because humans (even including the good rescuers) don’t usually like change. But real love will adapt and celebrate the positive growth in you.
Here’s to you, from one successful survivor to another!
Nick Sciortino is a rescuer of Lucky the Rescue Dog and Rhonda Sciortino, founder of Successful Survivors Foundation. He saw good in Rhonda before she saw it in herself, and he refused to give up until she did. He's one of the good ones.
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