For many survivors who live with violent and manipulative people, any inch of freedom is a privilege one had to earn. This control can limit survivors’ physical activities in the most obvious ways: From how trans and nonbinary survivors can present or publically identify, to where they can go, and with whom. These knots get smaller and tighter as time goes on, honeymoon respites growing paler and farther between. Sometimes survivors will find themselves in extreme situations where they aren’t allowed to leave their perpetrator’s line of sight even to go to the bathroom unless they “earned” it.
As many trans and nonbinary survivors know, though, tactics of control and manipulation sink their teeth not only into the survivor’s physical activities and reality but also into their emotional and mental landscapes. It’s through the psychological torments of control that survivors’ dreams, desires, and cognitions all seemed, somehow, to be cordoned by these people they may often love. Numbness and profound apathy/learned helplessness override passion and curiosity in the wake of such control and manipulation. As an agender/nonbinary survivor of deeply controlling violence myself, I have been ensnared by the emotional deadening that comes with this kind of vice grip. And I have also experienced the sweet and surprising resilience that pours forth in survivorship when we discover, through healing relationship and reclaiming the capacity to feel the full spectrum of emotions, that what is human and magnificent in us was never lost or damaged.
I don’t really want to write about being controlled today. It taught me a tremendous deal about how victorious and subversive the human spirit can be, which I like to live out every time I dye my hair in neon hues with the support of a compassionate hairdresser, but the details aren’t for here and now. Instead, I want to write about a shadow of control that I see show up in my and many other survivors’ language, especially when relating to close partners and friends. You know, those relationships that conjure that terrifying “intimacy” word!
The unconscious language that we embody, from our abusers or living through abuse, often translates into the language of being “allowed” to do things. It can sound like:
- “Thanks for letting me go to bed/sleep in.”
- “I know we were supposed to go on a date, but I don’t feel well. Am I allowed to go to the doctor instead?”
- “Can I wear this today?” or, “What should I wear today?”
- “Are you sure it’s okay if I cry during therapy now that it’s on telehealth in the next room?”
- “Sorry, can I go to the bathroom?”
When it’s particularly polite, as survivors who favor a fawn response often learn to be, the language of earning freedom and being “allowed” to do things dresses itself up in “Do you mind if we…” including the other person in the request even if it would ostensibly be an independent activity. This pattern emerges out of fear that setting boundaries of differentiation would trigger more violence rather than a response that will get the survivor’s needs and desires met.
Regardless of the style or content of the ask, trans and nonbinary survivors can embrace that they are adults with agency and autonomy and don’t actually need to be given permission to dress, nourish, care for, or move their bodies. After experiencing control and manipulation, it’s okay if this is a truth that folks find absolutely astounding in early healing and still get mystified by on occasion! Freedom can be navigated imperfectly, in real time. Freedom of movement, emotion, thought, and expression is a birthright that many trans and nonbinary survivors could barely imagine while they were being controlled. It can be empowering to choose language that centers their own autonomy in healing so that they don’t accidentally trigger old feelings of fear, rage, and shame with our loved ones and themselves in the here and now.
One of the easiest (and it’s still not easy!) ways that survivors can practice using autonomy-centered language is by changing how they thank people who have done something that has helped them feel better in their bodyminds, especially focusing on how they interact with any intimate, romantic, or sexual partners. Many survivors have grown adept at using gratitude as a practiced fawning skill; they would desperately attempt to ward off violence by expressing overdone gratitude for every scrap of kindness given to them so people wouldn’t change their minds or escalate the situation. Unfortunately, this leads to a very distorted view of what gratitude is, what it feels like in the body, and what it means to genuinely share it with another person. Part of my healing has also meant healing my relationship to gratitude (I’m profoundly grateful my Rabbi pointed this out!). As I’ve gotten better at that, I’ve gotten to start these challenging discussions with other trans and nonbinary survivors about how gratitude tends to function as a way of thanking people, especially people they deeply trust, for “allowing” them to do things that are pleasurable or sustain life. These conversations create space for trans and nonbinary survivors to explore in community the many different ways we can transition to a language of freedom and autonomy instead of control.
If you feel safe doing so, check inside: How do you relate? What would you contribute to these conversations from your own life?
Simply put, the practice is for survivors to transition from thanking someone for “letting” them go to the park when they want to, to thanking them for supporting them in doing that same thing. It is a small but powerful linguistic tweak that, with repetition, helps the shadows of old control fall away from dominating their present relationships. When survivors thank the people they love for supporting them in doing activities that enrich or sustain their lives, having thoughts that excite and expand them, and feeling the full spectrum of human emotions as messily as is necessary, survivors disrupt imaginary, internalized power dynamics and bring that person in closer. True gratitude creates a real moment of mutuality and trust where survivors and their loved ones can both appreciate how they support each other.
Consistently altering language to focus on personal autonomy and support also lets survivors see more clearly where maybe the power dynamic wasn’t imaginary, as is the case when survivors enter other controlling or manipulative relationships. Rather than being stuck and needing permission to act, survivors get to check in with themselves and decide what they want to do about harmful relationship patterns now, even if they weren’t able to make those decisions in the past. It’s important to notice that when survivors no longer suspect power imbalances and threat everywhere, they can engage from a greater place of mutual support in healthy relationships. And, when healthy, mutually supportive relationships become the norm throughout the healing process, survivors become better equipped to identify and respond proactively when situations arise where control and power imbalances threaten their physical or emotional safety and integrity.
Control’s shadow insists that partners and friends are tasked with deciding the parameters for how trans and nonbinary survivors live their lives, express their identities and emotions, nurture their bodies, and experience pleasure and joy. Shifting the focus instead on how survivors can tap into agency, true gratitude, and mutual support in healing relationships is the language of holistic freedom. This freedom is available to every trans and nonbinary survivor to explore in every moment of healing.