I wanted to write about this topic because it’s another area of life that isn’t usually talked about directly.
Before we begin, I need to say that if you need to reach out to a therapist for help with any issues that come up, please do so.
Trigger warning: If the subject of bullying or abuse is too triggering for you right now, skip this article.
OK, with that said, let’s start with me giving you an example, because I know this concept may seem vague.
Let’s say you were bullied in school by someone who loved a certain band. In fact, you used to like that band too, but the association with the bully ruined it for you. Years later you could be driving along and one of their songs comes on and you’re right back to feeling angry and insecure.
The interesting thing about this to me is that it appears that the bully has more power. They have, in a way, claimed the band for their own, perhaps even intentionally ruining your love of them. Because bullies are (acting like) £$%holes.
But let’s say you grow up and one day meet the band and realise they’re great people. They wouldn’t even like the bully or want to be associated with that person in any way. In fact, they would think they were an £$%hole too.
So all these years, the association of the bully has stood between you and your love for a band, even though that person has no more power than you. In fact, they’re weaker because their personal power is so low they have to try and steal it from others. And the band isn’t associated with them at all and if they were, wouldn’t like them.
This kind of pattern can apply to almost anything:
- Hobbies like cooking, painting, dancing.
- Smells of any kind you associate with someone you dislike, colours and sounds.
- Places, restaurants, entire countries or nationalities – perhaps even races and in extreme cases genders.
- Aspects of life including: self-care, intimacy, exercise, healthy diet
- Names (you wouldn’t name your child after your school bully!)
- Entertainment such as books, movies
- Sports, games
- Style choices, brands
The list is endless!
I currently have a negative association with a certain smell and right now I have something very similar melting in my wax burner. As the smell is released, I’m sitting here and trying, with an open mind, to rediscover what that my relationship to that smell is, without interference from the memory of the other person. I’m finding, as is often the case, that I’m detangling my true self and experience of life from that person’s pain and poor behaviour.
This isn’t like the process of desensitisation that therapists will take you through when you have a phobia (although if the thing triggers you strongly, perhaps you should reach out to a therapist). It is about finding how you relate to that specific thing in a genuine way.
And this is important, because I believe when you get disconnected from something because of a person or an association (such as a negative event) – you haven’t only lost your connection to that thing. You have lost connection to a part of yourself.
The part of yourself that enjoys that band, that colour, that hobby. That smell.
It isn’t always so easy to reclaim something when it triggers difficult emotions. But it can be a wonderful way to start working through those emotions. It may take you a long time, you may need to take baby steps and spread your efforts out over time. I think the key thing is not to try bypass your emotions or take back your power by convincing yourself you’re OK (which is really common when you feel someone has taken your power away and you want to get it back as quickly as possible by pretending you’re OK). As you reclaim that part you will also get more of your power back naturally.
Whatever you are reclaiming for yourself, it is your birthright. No one can dictate your relationship to yourself or the world around you – there shouldn’t be another person stuck in there (or their “stuff”).
Here is my crude diagram of that:
Unfortunately abusive people are often trying to insert themselves where they don’t belong, so if you have suffered from that, reclaiming this space can take a bit more effort. You have to separate who you are from how they want you to react, from who they actually are and from how they want to appear and other issues. It gets a bit tangly and messy.
So take your time, follow your instincts, and just remember that any time you sense someone else has come between you and your relationship to something (or someone) and it no longer feels genuine, that you can always reclaim that for yourself.
I have done another basic diagram where I labelled the person who ruined something for you a “boundary breaker”. Of course, you might have a negative association with someone who didn’t even do anything wrong, but it’s a bit less common.
As you can see in step 1, your relationship to a thing (I’ve labelled it “anything specific”) gets a bit weird when someone interferes with it by crossing a boundary into the space between you and that thing, where it should just be you and your personality.
In number 2, part of you splits off from the rest of you, showing that when your genuine connection to something is damaged, it can also damage a part of your connection to yourself, usually a specific aspect of yourself. The boundary breaker is shown as having that thing (and part of you) in a net – because that’s how it feels, not because they could actually ever take that thing from you.
And in 3 you’ve reclaimed that part and by doing so you are more integrated within yourself. Your relationship to that thing is your own again. The boundary breaker is less relevant and you no longer give them as much power.
That is a topic for another day, but it’s important to mention that although the title of this article is about other people doing something to you, to a certain extent we have also allowed them to do it to us. This can feel very triggering – especially if someone was abusive and even more if they were in a position of power. It is not to say your experience is not real. It is more a sense of shifting our own power back to our centre, and knowing we are the masters of our own inner experience.
It’s not easy to do. I often fail. I often feel like people are taking advantage, or doing something to me. And to a certain extent, they are. But we mustn’t overestimate the power of weak people, or spend too much of our time or energy on them. This also extends to not allowing weak people to dictate our inner sense of ourselves and our relationship to the world around us, as I’ve spoken about here.
And “weak people” isn’t the kindest term. I really mean people who aren’t currently acting out of their best selves. But it is accurate in terms of what they are often putting out into the world.
If you’re an HSP (highly sensitive person) like me, you may attract, and be affected by, more than your fair share. However, it is something we all have to deal with on some level.
So if you want to try an exercise I just wrote for this, I’ve put that below. I hope you get to enjoy that smell, eat that pizza, listen to that song, wear that colour or any other thing you’ve been avoiding!
Let me know how it goes and what you’re reclaiming.
And as always, take care!
Exercise for Reclaiming What’s Yours
Have a think about the people who you dislike and/or who treated you badly and just wonder with an open mind – is there anything they ruined for me?
And now try really clearly telling yourself that they don’t own that thing. (It may help to imagine the thing as really big and the person as really small).
Finally, see if you can ask yourself with an open mind, how you can reclaim that thing back for yourself? And maybe also wonder what that would mean to you.