So many people come to therapy full of judgements and criticisms about themselves, ranging from shame and a squirmy discomfort with parts of the self, to out and out self-loathing.
If this resonates, there will likely be very good reasons why you find parts, or all, of yourself unacceptable. Usually it is a family legacy; some families don’t do sadness, or are shamebound, and obviously some are abusive which has its own complicated legacy.
While it is often important in therapy to go into those vulnerable, painful places, the practice of healthy self-love (not the self-aggrandisement of narcissism) can be an valuable tool as well. Sitting with the good in us can be as important as sitting with the painful stuff.
What would happen if you could not only drop the judgements, but if you could see yourself as a loved one sees you? (Past or present.) Maybe it’s your lover, your mother, your friend, your therapist. Maybe it’s your God, if you have one.
Can you allow yourself to step into their skin and see yourself through their eyes. Not just the tally of your best assets, but the particular constellation of things that makes you uniquely you. Can you allow yourself to see the very best in you?
If this is too sweeping and vague, try to find just one thing from the last week that you have done that you like, or that someone else might pick out. See if you can appreciate yourself for whatever it was. Don’t discount it; try not to sweep away the positive with rationalisations or reasons why parts of you (or all of you) is not acceptable.
Let it in. Like the sun on a summer’s day, bathe in it, soak in it, let it sink into all the corners of your being. It may feel strange, uncomfortable, maybe even wrong, but that’s okay. Give it time. You’re worth it.
Common characteristics of people who go on to become abusive to their partners
I have compiled a list of the common characteristics of people who go on to become abusive to their partners. It is not exhaustive; please do feel free to add your own experiences to your personal list. It is also worth noting that not everyone who displays these characteristics will become abusive.
Showing signs of early or severe possessiveness and jealousy. Questioning your motives for going out, trying to control what you wear, becoming suspicious of you talking to members of your preferred sexual preference. They may tell you that it’s only because they love you so much.
Speeding into a relationship, not giving you time to catch your breath. Wanting to move in quickly or making you feel bad if you don’t want to go as quickly as they do.
Are they charming? This is different from authentically kind; charm is superficial and can hide an underlying narcissism.
Love-bombing: this is a technique that cults use to recruit; you will feel special like you are their whole world.
Something similar happens in a healthy relationship too. When you fall in love it is normal to idealise your partner somewhat, the difference is the extent and the fall from grace. In an ordinary, loving relationship, your connection will deepen and strengthen as your relationship matures, however with an abusive relationship you will experience a confusing alternation between idealisation and devaluation.
Idealisation or denigration of previous partners
Obviously, most of us have been in relationships where we were unhappy, but do they have a string of ‘crazy’ exes? Are they critical, denigrative, and undermining? Or at the opposite extreme, are their ex-partner’s perfect; incredible, amazing individuals who can do no wrong and who you feel you can never live up to? A non-abusive person should have a coherent and balanced narrative that generally includes empathy for the other and also takes responsibility for themselves.
Do they take charge of the decisions, seek to control your actions, where you go, what you do, and who you see? What you wear? What you eat? How you speak? Abuse is all about power and control.
Emotional and physical violence
Do they call you names in an argument?
Have they ever been accused of domestic violence in the past?
Have they hit you?
Have they broken your possessions or threatened to?
Have they been cruel or abusive to animals or children?
Do they take responsibility for themselves and their lives, or is everything everyone else’s fault?
Can they admit their part? Can they see where they are at fault if you have a disagreement, and do they make appropriate amends?
It is common for people who are abusive to apologise, sometimes excessively, after they have been abusive. In a healthy relationship, you should expect someone to make an amend – they might change their behaviour to take into account your feelings, without expecting you to be excessively grateful, or they might suggest something else that they could to in order to rectify their mistake, or for you to both be able to reconnect.
Hearing your boundaries
Can they hear you say no without them undermining it with persuasion, force or with flattery? Do they make you feel bad when you do say no or express feelings that are different to theirs, maybe even framing it as something wrong with you?
Do they abuse alcohol or other substances? Many people who do are not abusive, but alcohol and drugs can loosen inhibitions in people who have the potential to be abusive making it more likely that they will become abusive. Moreover, it is common for people who become abusive under the influence to blame the substance for the abuse. Don’t be taken in; if they cannot drink safely then they have a responsibility to either not drink or, if that is not possible, to get help with their drinking.
They might begin to speak badly about your friends and family, undermining your relationship with them in that way, or punish you (either subtly or overtly) for seeing them, or expecting to see you all the time. Do you feel under pressure not to work, or pursue education?
Coercive or forceful sex
Forceful or unwanted sex (maybe when you are ill, tired or asleep); manipulating you by sulking or anger if you don’t do what they want.
Where do I go from here?
You have some good tools at your disposal that will help to keep you safe:
Analyse the past
If you have been in an abusive relationship before, how did the abuse develop then? It can be useful to analyse what happened and what information you might have discounted about your ex that you would understand differently now (that’s not to say you could have done any differently at the time, it is just that it can be helpful to look again at our experience with the benefit of hindsight).
Do you feel uneasy?
Having looked at the above list, can you see any warning signs that he might become abusive? When did you notice them?
What rationalisations do you use after the abuse; e.g. he loves me, he’s not like that all the time, she said sorry and she’ll never do it again (note how close your story is to their version).
Your internal guidance system
The following are indicators that something might be amiss in your relationship and you would be wise to slow down and analyse where these feelings are coming from.
Do you feel:
Guilty without quite knowing why?
Like you can’t get anything right?
That you’re walking on eggshells?
As though your world is getting smaller?
The stronger and more in touch you are with yourself, the more likely you are to trust your internal warning system and act on it. The more content you are with your life, the less likely you are to compromise and enter a relationship that is unhealthy or unsafe.
If you are still experiencing the after effects of an abusive relationship, or are struggling to heal, it can be a good idea to enlist some specialist support.
If you are currently in an abusive relationship and want help, please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247. They will be able to direct you to your local services.
We know from a number of studies that the right therapeutic relationship is vital to healing in counselling. This means that it is important to find the right person, both in terms of personality fit and relevant experience.
All the usual sensible guidelines for choosing a counsellor apply; you should look for someone that is non-judgemental, appropriately challenging, deals with you fairly and ethically and is upfront and clear in dealing with any questions or concerns that you might have.
In addition to this, you may also want to consider the following areas. There are some things that you may want to question your therapist about at the beginning, and others to simply think about for yourself.
The dynamics of abuse
Coercive control is at the heart of all abusive relationships and abusive systems. Your therapist should understand abuse as a way of gaining and maintaining a position of power and control within intimate relationships.
Are you believed?
Do you feel believed and supported when you talk about the abuse that you have sustained? Or do your experienced feel minimised, invalidated, judged, or not trusted?
It is fine to test out your therapist too; you can share less tender experiences to start with, and move into the more sensitive stuff when you have gained a sense of them and whether they will respond in a way that feels helpful to you.
Can you be honest?
Shame and self-blame are very common responses to abuse, and an important part of healing is often to expose these dark corners of ourselves to the light of compassion and understanding.
We can only do this in a relationship where we can see ourselves being able to be deeply, truly honest – even if you can’t right now, just the possibility for the future is enough. Take all the time you need to build trust in your therapist.
Blame and responsibility
Who does the therapist hold as responsible for the abuse?
Spoiler: the abuser is responsible for their own actions and choices.
You did not ‘provoke’ it, ‘trigger’ it, and it was not a response to your actions. Even if you have cheated on your spouse (for example), they still have a choice about how they deal with their feelings.
Watch your therapist’s language: they should use language that holds the abuser accountable and not divert responsibility onto you or other external factors.
If you are an adult in an abusive relationship
As and when you’re ready, it may be fruitful to explore what made you vulnerable to entering into an abusive relationship in the first place. This certainly doesn’t mean that you asked for it, deserved it or created it, but is simply to help you avoid similar relationships in the future.
If it is a mutually abusive relationship, it may be useful for your therapist to appropriately support you to find non-abusive alternatives to conflict resolution. After all, you may well want to have a healthy, satisfying, and loving relationship in the future, and it is important that you are able to relate to others in a way that makes this possible for you.
Do note though that in adult relationships, we often see a ‘primary’ perpetrator; one partner is often more scared or more controlled than the other. If you are scared of your partner, you are almost certainly not the primary perpetrator. Your actions can potentially therefore be understood in part as a response to living in a coercive, abusive and maybe even dangerous environment.
Understanding and unpicking your reactions should increase your ability to choose these responses, which is an important part of creating the life that you want to live.
Should I stay or should I go?
Often this is presented as a binary choice. However, for some there will be choices about different levels of contact that can be worked towards, or contact with different boundaries. Equally, for others it truly will be as black and white as stay or go.
Whatever choices life has presented you with, I feel that these are decisions that, ultimately, only you can make.
That doesn’t mean that your therapist won’t have their opinions, but therapy should be a ‘safe-enough’ environment for you to explore all your options and to take the time that you need to make that choice.
If you want to figure out strategies (for dealing with distress, or with people in your life), are they comfortable and happy to work them out with you?
Does your therapist leave you feeling bad?
Therapy can be challenging, and there will undoubtedly be times where you leave feeling churned up or in distress. This is not unusual and can even be a sign of progress. It is not uncommon for this to particularly happen when you first access unexpressed feelings and experiences that are very painful or raw.
However, you should experience relief too, and connection, and feelings of being understood. So, if you do leave your therapist feeling bad about yourself, or needing something that you’re not getting, you can use this as a good opportunity to talk to them about what you would like from them.
Exploration such as this can be an incredibly fruitful exercise in terms of deepening your relationship with your therapist, and also for what it can illuminate about your own trauma and relational patterns.
However, if it happens repeatedly and there feels like there’s no resolution, it might be worth thinking about whether this relationship is the right one for you. Sometimes a therapist’s style of relating is not compatible with yours, and you would do better with another style of relating.
If you do decide to change therapists, do think about what it was that felt triggering or difficult for you, and talk to your new therapist about how they might approach this in a way that feels more helpful for you.
(Although on a slight side note, if you do find yourself moving from therapist to therapist, it may be worth sticking with a ‘good enough’ therapist to see if you can get a little closer to what this is about for you. As someone once said to me, “twice can be coincidence, but three times is likely to be a pattern.”)
Trust your gut; even if the therapist has all the qualifications and training you could possibly want, if it doesn’t feel right, absolutely trust that.
Keep looking until you find someone that you feel you can talk to.
Developed in 2003 by David Grand, Ph.D, Brainspotting (BSP) makes use of eye positions to access and process unresolved trauma and difficult emotions held in the body and in the brain. While the process cannot ever erase the troubling events and situations, it can make them less distressing and change your response to them.
Sometimes used in conjunction with musical bilateral stimulation, this can be a powerful and effective way of processing distressing memories or feelings.