Martha Beck is the bestselling author of The Way of Integrity and host of the podcast Bewildered. This article is part two of a series of three articles, and it first appeared as “The Moment of Truth” in the October 2019 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.


Recently divorced, Erin Hearts admits she has a tendency to seek emotionally unavailable romantic partners. When the 39-year-old decided it was finally time to ask for help with breaking her unhealthy patterns, she called O life coach Martha Beck. In their first conversation, Hearts revealed a long-held secret: Between the ages of 5 and 13, she experienced sexual abuse from a girl her age. “She’d touch me or touch herself in front of me,” said Hearts, who confided that although she was ashamed at the time, she also enjoyed the attention because she felt ignored and lonely at home. Beck gently encouraged her client to have compassion for the vulnerable little girl she’d been and told her she deserves help from a therapist specializing in treating adults who were sexually abused as children. Relieved, Hearts said she was ready for that next step: “It just feels so good to be taken seriously.”

To see how she’s doing, let’s listen in on their second session.

More From
 
preview for Oprah Daily US - Your Best Life Playlist

Martha Beck: Erin, how are you?

Erin Hearts: Lately I’ve been a little sick—I couldn’t even talk for a couple of days, but now I’m getting over it.

MB: I’m glad you’re feeling better. What’s happened since we last met?

EH: Well, I got a therapist.

MB: Good for you!

EH: And I’m reading the book you recommended, The Courage to Heal.

MB: That’s great. It’s an incredible resource for women who have survived childhood sexual abuse.

EH: I decided I want to be open with my parents about what happened. When I tell them, they’ll probably have a lot of questions, though, and I have to be ready for that. Telling the truth is scary.

MB: What’s your worst fear about telling your parents?

EH: That my mom is going to be really upset. She already worries a lot. And I’m afraid my dad will be angry and say, “Why did you do this to your mom?”

The Way of Integrity: Finding the path to your true self
Piatkus The Way of Integrity: Finding the path to your true self
Now 28% Off
$18 at Amazon

MB: It’s interesting that as soon as you decided to speak out, you lost your voice. The patterns you’ve established to avoid the truth are really strong, and they’re saying, No, that’s not how we do this. It’s very understandable. So I’d like to focus on your mom. Imagine telling her about the sexual abuse, and instead of jumping to what you think will happen, I want you to go deep inside yourself and ask, Am I absolutely positive she’s going to break down? Just drop the question into your chest like you’re dropping it into a well, and see what comes up.

EH: I could see her reacting differently.

MB: What can you see?

EH: I think part of her might be glad I’m telling the truth.

MB: Maybe she already feels there’s some secret lurking, even if she isn’t sure what it’s about, and that’s part of her anxiety. The physical body hates to keep secrets.

EH: I know she loves me so much, but I’m feeling some anger toward her.

MB: Could we talk more about that?

EH: When the sexual abuse started happening with my friend, I never once thought of telling my mom. I don’t think I felt safe enough. Reading The Courage to Heal has brought up some things from my childhood—like the idea of physical boundaries. I never heard that it was important for me to respect my own space and not let anybody touch me unless I felt like it. I got the message that it was my job to meet my mom’s needs for affection and attention, not the other way around.

MB: This is a powerful realization, and it makes a lot of sense. You came to me because you wanted to learn how to open up to an intimate relationship. But given this pattern—you don’t defend your boundaries; everything is secret—how can you feel safe going into any relationship?

EH: That’s a good point.

MB: Say an angel came through the ceiling right now and told you, “Erin, you can set whatever kind of boundaries you want with your mom, and nothing is going to hurt her feelings.” How would you relate to her then?

EH: I’d be more comfortable being myself and owning my truth about what happened. And honestly, I’d like to just have some distance right now and see my parents less often. I don’t want to feel pressured to be all huggy with my mother. And sometimes she can be critical of other people, and it hurts my feelings. It’s like she’s criticizing me.

MB: You have basically three options: You can be a servant to the old system, just nodding and letting things go. You can walk away. Or you can speak up and say what’s true for you. Generally, if you speak up, one of two things will happen. The system may change. Your parents may say, “We’re so sorry. We didn’t realize that. Hey, we’re learning—keep giving us feedback.” That’s the ideal, but not many systems are that healthy. Your parents may also say, “If you’re going to talk like that, just don’t come around.” Whatever happens, the one thing I don’t want you to do is stay loyal to a system that’s been hurting you.

EH: Neither do I.

MB: Do you want to speak up, or back away a little? No pressure. You can do this on your own time.

EH: I’ve decided to speak up.

MB: Good for you.

EH: It’s not that I don’t want a relationship with my parents. I do. And I know they feel the same way about me. They’re caring people. I just think learning how to break out of old patterns and communicate in a healthy way is so hard and uncomfortable. I’ve struggled to work through that stuff myself. But I have hope for them.

MB: I think it could be very liberating for both you and your mom if you clarify all of this stuff. When you tell someone the truth and they hear you, that’s what creates intimacy. And if you can create true intimacy with your mother, you’ll be able to do the same thing with other people. If she responds well, it could be very healing for both of you, but even if she doesn’t, speaking your truth is still going to set you free. Have you ever been part of an intervention with someone who’s an alcoholic?

EH: I haven’t.

MB: An intervention follows a specific format that allows you to state the facts without getting carried away by your emotions. I think you need something like that to go into this discussion. It can be helpful to make a list of the things you need to express. First, you’d want to talk about what happened to you as a kid.

EH: Yes.

MB: The second thing they need to know is the way the abuse has affected you. Tell them how it’s harmed your life, what it meant to grow up not feeling safe enough to come forth with this information. Tell them what happened because you weren’t brought up to respect your own needs. And you might want to say: “This experience is still affecting me because I’m not feeling like I can create intimate relationships. I don’t feel heard. I don’t feel understood.” Whatever is the truth for you, okay?

EH: Got it.

MB: The third thing is how you would like your family or your mother’s behavior to change. If you’re not really clear on this, they won’t know what to do. You have to be able to say: “I would like us to see each other only on holidays for a while. I would like to not hug you if I don’t feel like it. I would like to talk about what happened to me as a child, and I would like you to really listen.” Finally, the fourth thing they need to know is what will change if they can’t do what you need them to. I don’t mean saying, “Do what I want or else.” You’re basically saying: “This is my bottom line. This is how I need my life to go, or I won’t be able to function.” Something like, “If you can’t let me have space, if you can’t hear me talk about the abuse, I need to take a few months’ vacation from the family.” Even though you can’t change someone, you have no obligation to stay present with behavior that harms you.

EH: Should I talk to my mom by herself or get my parents together at the same time?

MB: What does your gut tell you?

EH: It’s really my mother I want to talk to most.

MB: Okay, good. When you were little, you didn’t call the shots. But now you get to do whatever suits your comfort level.

EH: I might even tell my mom at my therapist’s office. Then if she’s having trouble with her feelings, it won’t be up to me to take care of her.

MB: I think that’s a fantastic idea. Your instincts are 100 percent healthy. How are you feeling right now?

EH: I have hope that I can speak up. That’s when I get the angriest, when I don’t trust myself or stand up for myself.

MB: Really, the anger isn’t even about the past; it’s about continuing to stay silent and disempowered. That’s why the act of speaking up, no matter how your family reacts, is going to enable you to move forward. No rush—you should have that conversation whenever you’re ready. But before you do, I would strongly recommend that you go through the four intervention steps that we talked about earlier and just write them all out, so you’re very clear.

EH: I will. Thank you.

MB: Thank you, Erin. You are immensely courageous.

This content is imported from OpenWeb. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.