How I Learned To Smile Through Difficulty

I learned to smile through difficulty because I thought that’s what men do. I was right. That is what men do.


Peter Middleton

a year ago | 6 min read

Survival and cultural narrative

I learned to smile through difficulty as a child.

My mum always said that I was such a happy boy. It’s true. I was. On the surface. It was partly survival, partly family expectations and mostly the culture. In fact, family expectations came from culture.

Be nice, be fine, carry on. Boys don’t cry, be a big boy. Or when I’m upset, the response would be: “What’s wrong with you?”

I learned to smile through difficulty because I thought that’s what men do. I was right. That is what men do.

Even now, when I feel angry about something, or I’m facing a challenging situation, I’ll play it off with a laugh, or I’ll catch myself smiling when I feel tension.

The wonders of COVID Zoom culture have highlighted this for me, although I’ve stopped putting my image on the screen because as a trauma survivor, I’m drawn to making sure I look acceptable for others.

The biggest thing I had to smile through was sexual abuse. It was three years, from nine to eleven. I was vulnerable because I didn’t understand healthy boundaries, and I was desperate for a strong male role model.

It’s not my fault; of course, it is his fault. He manipulated me further into the internalised shame spiral that I was already accustomed to.

Going through this period was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. It was a secret that I was forced to bear the weight of, I couldn’t tell anyone, and somewhere deep in my soul I knew that it was violating and wrong.

Every time someone got close to knowing me, I would put up a hundred barriers and then sit there crying inside because I felt so isolated and lonely.

At first, this was an automatic response because I thought I was the person in the wrong; I didn’t want to be found out. I was worried that my community would think me dirty, broken and unworthy of love.

The most challenging aspect of abuse for me has been finding a way to communicate with my family about it. They have known for almost two years, and they can’t face the pain of it, they can’t communicate around it, they need time and courage.

That has been a challenging journey for me. I was finally ready to communicate about this history; to own my story, and I thought that that moment would allow my family and I to regain a closeness that I hadn’t been able to access.

In truth, it exiled me from them further. All the resentments, anger, hatreds, contempts from the past became evident. It’s a natural process I recognise. I wasn’t able to love and trust. Not my fault and I realise that this affected my close relationships.

Misunderstandings were rife, and somewhere along the way, I think my family internalised that I didn’t like them, rather than I needed help.

Going through sexual abuse, I had to smile when I didn’t want to smile. I became a master at faking. It became my identity. I became a master artist at pretending I was O.K. when inside I was twisted and damaged.

The abuse period ended when the abuser carried out a sexual assault on me. I was raped. Time stands still in that space. I’m not sure how long it lasted. I don’t need to.

I have had so much therapy to allow me to embody that memory. Now I know where it took place, how it happened, how I walked behind him knowing that I was being led somewhere dangerous, and the assault itself.

I’ve returned to that site as an adult many times. To process and understand the emotion of going through that. I’ve thanked the forest for witnessing and holding my pain.

Even before I remembered the memory, I was always drawn to walk in that forest and many others. Processing emotions, there was always a heaviness in my feeling that I didn’t understand until now.

I remember the desperation, the way that my body kicked, flailed, fought for my life. I became part animal, part human. He started to strangle me, and I knew that I needed to make a choice. I was eleven. I chose my life.

I think that is why I am so good at choosing life now because I had that seminal moment in my childhood. I chose to live. Curiously I entered a kind of dream state where I saw my older self standing on the pathway through the trees, beckoning me to fight and to choose myself.

I picked up a rock, and I hit the abuser. He was stunned, and I made a break for it.

I can’t remember what happened next, traumatic memory is changeable, one version goes that I ran through the woods in frantic desperation, looking back to see if he followed, he never did.

Another version ends when I get to my older self at the public path, embracing him in complete freedom and love. Another version has the abuser catch up to me at the school gates, and we walk back into public life as if nothing happened.

I still have moments, walking on paths, where I need to look back.

I think all these things are a sign of the different aspects of that experience, processing that experience and emotion.

I haven’t sought out justice for the abuse. I don’t know if he’s still alive or if he committed other offences. The recent series ‘I May Destroy You’ highlights the complexities of the justice process for a person with no evidence but a changeable traumatic memory.

Thank you, whoever made that show. It helped. Especially the parts around learned helplessness and trying to find saviours.

What I do know is that I walked back into the school area where my parents and teachers were looking for me, composed and quiet.

They asked me where I’d been and why I had mud on my knees. I’m not sure what I said, something along the lines of: “I fell over”, to which they replied something like: “boys will be boys!”

I want to challenge this narrative that children will come to adults if they have something wrong. I want to confirm that compliance is one of the most significant factors in a child’s life; teachers, parents, friends, so much of it is a fear of being ostracised, and a fear of being bad.

As a collective, we need to get better at noticing when someone is compliant and not agreeing. We need to lead from behind in curious and authentic questioning.

Throughout my life, I have been in relationship with people who have questioned my integrity because of the half-truths that I share.

My propensity was towards pleasing people rather than truth or authenticity. Now one of my core values is honesty, to myself and others.

After the sexual abuse, it took me eighteen years to remember the traumatic memory. I realise this is quick in many ways.

I was always striving for answers in my life. I lived fast and burned out many times. I started to meditate and trained as a reiki master. When I was strong enough, I remembered. Then I started a journey into psychotherapy.

In many ways, this story is about my inability. I could no longer smile through the pain. The pain cracked me open, and I needed to find a way to heal, I needed to choose life all over again.

Confusing for my family and friends, I no longer had space to hold their feelings and experience, I had to choose myself completely, learn to ask for help.

It continues to this day, and I’m grateful for what it’s teaching me. Least of all that men need to be given a space to be emotionally vulnerable. That it’s a strength that fosters deeper connection and love, not a weakness that ostracises us from our community.

In doing this, I made the switch from learning to survive my way through life; being a victim of my circumstances, to learning how to thrive in the life that I came here to live. It’s a constant learning process, and of course, I sometimes slip back into survival mode, yet I am now pushed by a force of inspiration and excitement that I had never felt.

I thank the smile that helped me to survive, and now I’m reclaiming it as my own, using it where it’s appropriate, to share in love, joy, excitement and awe — sharing all in authenticity.


Created by

Peter Middleton

Peter is a creative coach working to unblock people's authentic creative essence and expression. Using transformational life coaching, meditation and embodiment techniques. He is passionate about mental health, trauma informed practice, spirituality and how to create sustainable cultures that empower in equity.







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