Breaking Free

I was recently in communication with a friend who is reading my book. He is going through some upsetting experiences at work and we have discussed how traumatic bonding operates, not only at an inter-personal level, but at the organisational and structural levels. Any relationship can become toxic and taking the first steps towards freedom often involves the realisation that we have lost our sense of self and sacrificed our uniqueness and independence on the altar of a relationship which could never work. To free ourselves we need to re-discover our true and vibrant essence, re-connect with our cherished values and beliefs and treat ourselves with kindness. Once we know who we are, we will recognise what we deserve and take action to protect ourselves.

My friend said he had been inspired by the following phrase in the introduction to my book:

‘...we always have a choice to break free, recognise our self worth and make clearer and more insightful decisions about our lives’

I have never pretended this is easy and I want to share some thoughts prompted my friend’s comments. My personal story is a graphic illustration of how hard it can be to break away; even as a successful professional with the means to support myself I was constantly beset with distorted thinking and overwhelmed by fear, which almost prevented me from leaving my abusive relationship. Even now, 17 years after that relationship ended, my pattern can rear its head. Recently I devoted several months of my life to a futile struggle with an organisation which once again prevented me from living in the present and expressing my true self. I am still recovering but know that this was an important lesson and part of my journey. I am in the privileged position of having an independent income and a range of choices, but others are not so lucky. I will move on by protecting and showing compassion towards myself so that I can better support others to do the same. The experience challenged me deeply, but I know I have the support and resources to recover.

It is undoubtedly true that, in the western world, we are often able to make choices about many aspects of our lives, usually with the help of others, through facilities such as domestic abuse agencies, counselling and mental health support, coaching and mentoring, trades unions and political organisations. In other parts of the world this is often not the case, and it is important to acknowledge this inequality of access and opportunity. Though I believe it is right, indeed essential, to encourage individuals to take action to protect themselves where they are able to do so, it is important to recognise that the wider structural and institutional context makes such choices much harder for many.

As this blog is written, the backdrop of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan has brought these issues starkly into view. I wrote my personal story firstly as a means of processing emotions for myself, then as a resource to support and inspire people in similar circumstances. I’m now working on a book about creating compassionate organisations, which includes political systems. Our relationship with politicians and ruling elites can result in fear, entrapment and trauma-even in so-called liberal democracies. So is it still true that we always have a choice to break free? The answer has to be, to varying degrees, dependent upon our life circumstances and relative advantage.

In my book I acknowledge that, as a child, I had no power to break free of relationships which were undoubtedly emotionally abusive; these set the pattern for my life experience. As an adult, for me the opportunity to move in a different direction was always there, the constraints I felt were to do with the psychological impact of my pattern and though I found it immensely difficult it was always possible, and within my power, to change my life. Others are far less privileged and far more constrained by circumstance-so what can be done to help them to become safe and to exercise choice over their own lives?

All relationships between human beings are based on power dynamics. Watching the desperate plight of the Afghan people, it is hard to justify my statement that we always, as individuals, have a choice to break free from abusive relationships. So many people are left helpless at the mercy of harsh regimes over which they have no power. The same applies to those entrapped by war, famine, disease and the effects of climate change. This is the case all through the spectrum of human interactions, from the inter-personal to the structural. Our degrees of freedom are determined, for example, by ideology, personal independence, wealth, poverty, the needs of others who depend on us and the actions of politicians which have a profound impact on our lives, even if we did not vote for them.

Everything is therefore about inter-dependence. If our difficulties, from the most trivial to the catastrophic, are products of our relative power and dependence on each other, then so are the solutions to our suffering. It seems to me that the greater the powerlessness we see in others, the greater the obligation we have to work with those who share compassionate values and beliefs to counter this imbalance. Those with the greatest power have the highest obligation. Where individuals are helpless and oppressed, only the compassion and support of others can change their plight. As we have seen in relation to the international effort in Afghanistan, desperate people wished to exercise their choice to leave, but could never have done so alone, and many more still remain to be helped. Only by remembering that our future survival and wellbeing as human beings is a collective responsibility can we work towards alleviating suffering.

The task may feel overwhelming, but by choosing to connect with our sense of humanity and live by compassionate values we can make an impact which far exceeds our individual contribution. Slowly our actions will enhance the freedom and power of others and they will acquire the opportunity to exercise personal choice. Our unique talents will allow us to make contributions in many different ways, all equally worthy. Taking time to pause, care for ourselves and ensure that we focus on what we can achieve rather than what we can’t, will help us to remain committed.

An aid worker supporting newly arrived refugees from Afghanistan recently said:

‘I have never seen such human dignity and resilience, they were so gracious, so patient, so stoical-unfailingly so. I didn’t experience a raised voice throughout the week-just incredible people’

Few of us can have watched the terrible events in Afghanistan unfolding without imagining ourselves in a similar position, hence the outpouring of support and desire to help, because this could so easily have been us. We will all face our tragedies and losses, and when we do, it is to other human beings, probably strangers from all walks of life, we will turn for help.

So what can be done? My question to you is: what’s your unique contribution? It could be anything, cooking, mending, gardening, driving, medical skills, teaching a language or just listening to others’ stories and being there for them.

For me, what I love the most and can do well is communicate with people through writing, teaching and leadership, support others to find their true nature and to have compassion first for themselves, then encourage them to make the most of their talents and skills to help others. Along the way I can do my bit to alleviate suffering by campaigning, donating and collaborating. We can all individually do a little, which collectively will grow into so much.

We are all one soul.

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