My father was abusive to me growing up. Not very frequently was the abuse physical (the verbal variety dominated), but it was enough to instill a fear of him into me that I've never been able to shake. When he got angry, he took it out on me, I assume because I was the only one who would ever speak up when he was being cruel to my mother or sisters.
As a young adult, he used physical violence against me once; that incident alone is etched onto my memory with crystalline precision, and I cringe every time I see a person in the throes of anger. I had thought that now, since I was an adult, he couldn't hurt me anymore, but that experience settled that false assumption. Since that particular episode, I have just zipped my lip around him and kept my opinions to myself.
We do, however, have a decent relationship now---especially given the circumstances---and I have forgiven him, though I never confronted him about it and I’m not sure I ever will.
Now, however, I am going through a period of rather extreme personal change brought about by recovering from addiction. Through all this healing, I've discovered I’m not the person I once was, with the same strictly conservative viewpoints I once shared with my parents. My father especially cares passionately for right-wing politics and strict religious doctrine---it’s a hot button issue for him, and I've gotten frightened just watching him talk about it. So far, I've hidden my new opinions from everyone so as not to make any waves, but I’m getting tired of stifling my thoughts just so they won’t “get back to them” and result in a confrontation. I want to finally be myself without shame or fear.
The thing is, though, I am still afraid. I’m afraid of my father finding out, trying to engage me on this, and me melting down. I’m not necessarily scared he will hit me, but I am afraid of not being able to defend myself against his anger.
Confused and Scared but also Fed Up
Dear Confused and Scared but also Fed Up,
The experience of having the person who helped bring you into the world, the man who represents your origins in many ways, turn on you in violence is something that shakes you to the core of yourself. So my first thought is: though you see yourself as scared, you are actually incredibly brave. Cloak yourself in that bravery like a grown-up security blanket. It's why superheroes wear capes.
You were so brave to stand up to him as a kid, you are so brave to work on yourself through recovery, you are so brave to move beyond the values he clings to and find your own, and you are so brave to want to want to be yourself fully, in front of him and the whole world.
You are fucking awesome.
I hope he knows that. I think he does, and fears it. That's why he attempted to reassert his power over you by being physically abusive to you as an adult, and with the loud tirades about his politics and religion, which I consider spiritual abuse.
People who pontificate about politics and fundamentalist religions in a hostile way that excludes all other viewpoints are really just trying to order their world. They see the world as an out of control place, and all the structure and rules of that way of life help them to make sense in the chaos, and find their place in it.
The thing is, in that world that makes perfect sense, where there are such heavy rights and wrongs, what you lose is love. Love is inherently risky, and folks who are stuck in judgmental worldviews can't risk the rigid walls they've put up to hold everything in place, to love someone who might act in ways they can't control.
Whenever I consider standing up to someone, especially someone with this kind of strict worldview who may not be able to hear me at all, I ask myself this question, "Do they have any real power over me?" If they do, if they are my direct boss or my landlord or the person holding the papers that say whether I graduate or not, then I consider holding my tongue in their presence. However, if they don't, then I feel that it is not only my right, but my duty to be a change agent in their lives. We don't have to wag it in their faces, that we don't believe what they do, but simply and firmly being who we are will be enough.
In fact, it is probably going to enrage your father, to see you asserting yourself, expressing views that are different from his. The whole cycle of abuse is about power and control, so to see you moving off of that wheel and onto your own path is going to rock his whole sense of self and relationship to you.
My question to you is, what have you got to lose? It's not like you will be giving up too much if he turns on you. You say you have a "decent" relationship with him, which sounds to me like you are still in the role of peacemaker in your family. What would happen if you let that down? Your mom and siblings might say, "Why are you stirring things up with Dad?" but you could answer, "Why aren't you? Are we all going to wait until he dies to be our true selves?"
Listen, I'm not suggesting you directly confront your father, provoking his rage. Where I think you should start is with a therapist whom you can practice expressing yourself. Engage in some drama therapy exercises, in which you picture your dad in an empty chair, and tell him what you really think about what he's done to you and your family, and how you truly feel about the world. Then move into the chair and embody him, playing out his rebuttal. Then move back into your chair, and tell him, "You had no right to be violent with me. You have no power over me anymore. I'm going to be myself, and no amount of posturing can stop me."
Then, start simply being your bold self, even if that means you publicly express things that your dad disagrees with. He'll yell, he'll send you crazy forwards, he'll give you the cold shoulder. You'll scoff to yourself, "I've survived worse", and let your bravery blanket flap in the wind. He can’t take anything away from you anymore, because you aren’t under his control, and you know who you are now. And if he cuts you out of his life, that will indeed be very painful, but then again, you'll be free.
Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.