Figure and Ground: The Importance of Seeing Light and Dark

“I don’t want people to feel bad for treating me like crap.”

I was startled by my own words in my last therapy session. I’d already acknowledged that I harbored a belief I must be “good” so people wouldn’t treat me like crap but this was on another level. Not only did I could affect how people treated me but I also believed I needed to protect people from feeling bad about treating me poorly.


Boundaries are learned and developed over time–children who are abused learn their boundaries are useless and may as well not even exist. Those whose boundaries are repeatedly violated are essentially sent into the world with faulty immune systems. We are unable to absorb the nutrients and nourishing things people have to offer while we are simultaneously unable to defend against future abuse and mistreatment. (Incidentally, child abuse/trauma survivors are much more likely to suffer from autoimmune disorders as well.)

In addition to our faulty immune systems, we suffer from a type of blindness which prevents us from seeing the world as it truly is. Like many survivors of abuse, I struggle to recognize my own virtues and often fail to see the wickedness inherent in others. This type of blindness is reinforced over time by people who benefit from it thus making it very difficult to recover from.

Not until my most recent relationship was I able to acknowledge the depravity that exists in others. I was raised to see only the good in others and no doubt my partner benefited from that. It was only when I learned that sociopathic behavior was not limited to serial killers and the sensationalized monsters presented by the media that I was able to see my partner for who he truly was.

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Many people are reticent to acknowledge the harm that people are capable of inflicting on others. Oftentimes, it seems we are more comfortable heaping blame and shame on victims than placing it where it belongs. Victims fall into this same mindset and fail to see their own virtues while succumbing to the belief that they can change their abuser’s behavior if they are only good enough, thereby accepting blame for the abuse.

In the course of my abusive relationship I all but forgot the person I truly was: empathic, sensitive, curious and understanding. Even once I acknowledged I still possessed these qualities, I saw them as weaknesses or reasons I was abused. Likewise, I felt the need to protect my abuser from accepting the blame for his callous, degrading and monstrous behavior.

The truth of it is, being sensitive, open, empathic and understanding are wonderful qualities that should be treasured and cherished. Average, feeling individuals who encounter these qualities in others will not exploit them no matter what. Horrific as it is, there are also people walking this earth who are devoid of empathy and unable to truly feel or care for others. Their relationships are based on deception and the insatiable thirst for dominance and control. They fly under the radar with most people and often present as charming and affable, never letting on that they are missing something essentially human.

I have only just begun to separate figure from ground: seeing my wonderful qualities for what they are, realizing they had nothing to do with why I was abused and moving toward placing sole responsibility with my perpetrator. Separating these things out can feel like sifting grains of rice from sand: impossible. But it’s worth it — worth it to see the light that lives inside me. Indeed, sometimes we must acknowledge the dark that exists in others in order to recognize our own light.

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Thank you for listening with an open heart.


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