This is my life story, and the story of the events that shaped my view of who I am and define the kind of work I do. This short story shows how I came to be passionate about the issues of relationships, waging conflicts and resolving them. I had three basic questions keeping me awake at night:
Why were women and girls not equal to men and boys?
Why was there so much unfairness in relationships?
How do I survive violence at home and be able to trust and love people?
Ever since I was a child, I wanted to know why there was so much injustice in the world. Why do people abuse the ones they “love”?
Let me tell you a bit about myself. I grew up in the fifties, in a working class neighborhood in Mar del Plata, Argentina with my family: my mother, my father, and my younger brother. There was no TV, I had only radio, school, church, and some other girls around the neighborhood. In this town, there was also a group of young boys who would hang around us. For their amusement, they would tease and taunt me and the other girls. I liked to play outside, but each time I went out, there were the boys, ready to begin their nasty games.
Playing with the boys was a no-no, but just ignoring the boys didn’t work. And there weren’t enough girls my age to form our own larger group, so I only could dream of ways of fighting back. I had this enormous sense of helplessness. When I complained to my mother, she said, “Why don’t you defend yourself?” So, confusion was added to my helplessness: how could I defend myself if I was not allowed to hit back, because I was a girl?
How was I supposed to defend myself, under such contradictory mandates? I was in the dark. There were no clear rules to manage violence between people, no other examples to follow; my own mother would beat me down herself when I did something against her mandate, like hitting my younger brother.
Unable to engage in tit-for-tat fraternal combat, I grew up dreaming of being powerful enough and strong enough to return slap for slap, punch for punch, whipping for whipping. I nurtured my imagination with action movies where the hero would impart much needed justice. My greatest dream was to be the female heroine leader of a pack of good boys that would beat the bad boys down. I was quite willing to join that aggressive game, if only I could figure out how.
But the sad fact was that, whether outside with the boys or inside with my parents and their whippings, brute force was a currency over which, as a child, I had no control or defense. I was helpless in conflict and could not learn more effective self-defense methods. Dreaming, withdrawing into school work and silencing my own comments were the only ways I had of coping, and those ways were very ineffective for teaching me how to engage in conflict and defend my own needs/interests!
When I was young, it was so easy to believe mother. I could see myself as the ugly, stupid girl, the one with asthma and eczema scars on my face. The self-blame narrative was ready and waiting, but I knew that wasn’t the only narrative at my disposal. I kept dreaming of a different one.
How I viewed myself changed magically when I was ten years old. I was a good student, a regular at the library where I read everything in sight, and my mind always asked the right questions in class. One day, my fourth grade teacher called a parent-teacher conference. My parents arrived ready to respond to my teacher’s behavioral complaints, ready with a well-worn, leather-based disciplinary plan.
Instead, they were astonished to hear about the magazine I had written and illustrated for the class, and the poem I had authored about the fading rose whose soft petals had given such pleasure to people, copied by the whole class. When they heard the teacher say that I was smarter than anybody in the classroom, my parents were shocked. How could they reconcile the “unruly, disobedient girl” image they had of me, with this new image of an “intelligent child”? It took a little work on their part!
By praising my intelligence, my teacher allowed me to see myself in a new light, and everything now made perfect sense. It seemed to me then, very clearly, that all my problems were coming from the fact that I could see the world in different ways, more open-minded than my parents!
This is how I began to understand how formative your parent’s perceptions of you are when you are a child: what someone thinks about you, what they say about you frames the whole of your childhood experience! When my teacher framed me as a “bright student who needs to be appreciated/understood,” she influenced me to see myself that way – just as I been influenced to see myself the way my parents saw me before! Being under their negative views of me was hurting me big time, leaving me helpless and unappreciated.
A positive framing saved my life and rescued my young self from the grief of not knowing my own value as a person. The insight that we can unconsciously see ourselves as others see us, even when this image is not the one we perceive ourselves to be, carried me through many of my life situations ahead, when I began to deal with the thousand ways humans make sense of events and construct their life stories.
This is my story of feeling a helpless child, of not knowing how to defend myself against other people’s violence or their negative framing of me. Out of this story is another story: my years researching human conflict and why people either support or hurt each other.
I began to study psychology, working in both the field (a psychiatric hospital) and academia, witnessing the various ways that we punch each other around in the family, the military, the asylum, the church, and the workplace. A common thread was developing through all those different interactions: a thread of humans connecting either to help or control each other, where “love” and “violence” were sometimes indistinguishable. Now, as a grown up, I can more clearly see how my previous situations and experiences knit together. Now, I understand how people work to oppress each other and hide their own humiliation by pushing it onto others.
I am now more confident using a larger map of human conflict, always developing, which includes issues like:
how our emotional needs are always crying for attention and satisfaction;
how we need to develop a positive self-image to be able to thrive and be happy;
how many of our experiences are shaped by pain and how we respond to pain;
how, by responding to pain, we can learn basic life lessons;
how we help each other grow or destroy self-esteem based on hidden rules.
As a child, I could only dream of action-movie ways of pursuing recognition, justice and self-development, as means of rising against the power of brute force. As a grown up, I accept the deeper needs for acceptance and recognition moving our human world.
I have learned to heal myself, and I now know how to heal and reconcile others, so that at some level my clients learn to stop hurting themselves and others so deeply.
Today, this is the main interest moving Creative Conflict Resolutions ahead. We provide technology, ideas and support for those individuals and groups who are willing to transcend their pain and humiliation by doing creative conflict transformation rather than destructive responses.
By learning more about conflict, like I did, and using the strategies I’ve created, it is my hope that my clients will stop making enemies and defending from them, and instead starting using their energy for building a better world for themselves and those around them.
Nora Femenia, Ph.D.