I hear it often from my clients. “I’m quiet.” “I’ve always been an introvert.” “I just don’t have much to say.” “I used to talk too much but I matured, and I don’t do that anymore.” There seems to be a general acceptance among survivors of trauma that their tendency not to express is coming from their inherent personality. Or at least, they believe it is a choice they are making. But I have trouble believing that. I have an introverted daughter and she is never short on words. Sure, she recharges with her alone time (with cats of course), but I’m an extrovert, and I do that too. Sure, she likes to think about things before she speaks. But when she speaks, it is prolific. She can even give a pretty awesome middle school presentation when she has no other choice. So I think we have been told a big fat lie. And I think I know why.
There is nothing that scares an oppressor more than a “talker”. And they are on the lookout for them. They are born with a certain something. I can see it when I meet a very young child who has not been oppressed yet. They have so much to say. They are curious beyond measure. They are creative. They don’t care how the world has always done it. They don’t know what it means to conform. And for an abusive person, they are a tough nut to crack. They are a danger to a family who needs to keep a huge secret. And to be honest, there is jealousy. There may be something in this child that others have lost in their own traumatic experiences. I can see the intolerance in people. They say, “Wow. She’s going to be trouble. You are going to struggle to contain this one.”
And that’s just it. The problem isn’t with this child. The problem is with the containment. Why the hell are we attempt to contain them? Well, I knew the answer to that one before I asked it. So what do abusive families need to do with children like this? They need to program them, brainwash them, gaslight them and confuse them. And they need to do it with more fervor and consistency than with other children. They may even need to do it well into adulthood (but often in subtler ways). So they start to build a story about who the child is. And this can go in two directions.
First, they may choose to gaslight the child to believe they are entirely different than they are. They will constantly shut down their expression with invalidation and aggression. Then they will tell them they are a quiet child. They will say they are introverted. They will keep reiterating how they really don’t say much. They use this often with outsiders to try to explain the oppression happening beneath the surface. Eventually, the child will come to see themselves this way even if it doesn’t make any sense. They lose the ability to express and stand up for themselves. But they excuse it as a personality trait. Deep down, they will know the truth. And they hate themselves for it.
Second, the family may go in the opposite direction. They will acknowledge the tendency to talk, but never in a positive way. Strong emotions will be labeled as volatile and unstable, even demonic. If the child stands up for themselves, they will be labeled as difficult and less “good” than other children. They will be compared to other children in negative ways. “Why can’t you be more like this other child who is quiet and conforming?” If the child talks often, they will be labeled as talkative and unruly and difficult to tolerate. Abusers will tell others how the child talks nonsense too. “They can’t be believed. They are not credible.” In the end, they will be shamed repeatedly because of who they are. While the child still may acknowledge their outgoing nature, they will acknowledge it with shame and humiliation. And they hate themselves for it.
That’s how they want it. They want to take the biggest threats and destroy their self worth. They want the outgoing, the optimistic, and the world-changers to feel shameful and hopeless. This has nothing to do with extroversion or introversion. It is about children who refuse to accept the lies. If they are full of shame and hopelessness about who they are, they will never rise up. They will never say, “Enough is enough!” They will never tell others about what is happening to them. If the world stays the same, the oppressors stay in charge.
One of the biggest questions survivors ask is “Why did this happen to me?” And I get it. We have to ask the question even though there is no real answer to it. There is nothing we can know with absolute assuredness. We can discuss the generational trauma. We can talk about what that does to mental health. We can discuss how it is not our fault. It definitely isn’t. But what would happen if we turned the story upside down? What if we could respond to our intense shame with a different question? For a long time we have asked, “What is wrong with me?” But take a minute to consider another perspective, a more empowering question.
“What intimidates them about me?”
“How do I scare them?”