Learning to trust yourself after an emotionally abusive relationship

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One of the hardest things about emotional abuse is that, through a campaign of blame, undermining, criticism and gaslighting, it can cause you to lose trust in yourself.

This is true even if you are aware of what is happening. I have met many people who were aware of some (although usually not all) of the tactics their partner was using, but because of the drip, drip effect of emotional abuse (and the isolation that often co-exists with an experience of abuse) it affected them anyway.

This manifests in a few key ways:  

  • You may not trust your feelings, because they have been so frequently invalidated or dismissed. Equally, it may actually have been dangerous (emotionally or physically) to express certain feelings, such as anger.
  • You may not trust your perceptions: gaslighting is key here, when the other has control of what reality is (e.g. says they said / did something when they didn’t and blames you for being crazy / wrong / bad, frames reality in a way that doesn’t allow for you to have your own perspective), then you learn that you cannot trust your own mind, what you see and experience, as real.
  • You may feel overly guilty / responsible: this is because you have been blamed so often for things that you couldn’t reasonably be held accountable for.
  • You internalise the idea that you are ‘less than’ other people, and automatically take the ‘one down’ position in relationships.
  • You may focus more on making sure everyone else is okay / happy before yourself: this is often learned as a way of keeping you safe, but can cause you to lose touch with what you want and need.

In this short article, there are a few things listed that might help. It is by no means exhaustive, so feel free to do your own research too!

Spotting emotionally abusive tactics

One vital tool in your tool box is to know what emotional abuse looks like, both in general and in how it manifests itself in the particular relationship/s you are in. Knowledge is power. There are many great books and articles on the topic that can teach you about the tactics and dynamics of abuse.

Surround yourself with non-abusive relationships

This will have a threefold benefit; it will increase your support system for dealing with any abusive relationships that you might still be in or dealing with, and being treated well (when we can allow this in) is in itself enormously healing. Plus it will also give you plenty of examples of how non-abusive relationships work, which you may internalise on a deep level as well as on a cognitive one.

You might want to try some or all of the following: find a support group, prioritise and nurture friendships or relationships that you have that are non-abusive, go to therapy, spend time in nature or with animals or join an internet support group (or anything else that you can think of!)

Look at your individual vulnerabilities

We all have our own particular ways of experiencing and living in the world, and in the same vein as the point above; knowledge is power.

When we know how we are repeatedly hooked, we begin to be able to unhook ourselves.

It may be that we have a fierce need to explain our side of the story, and get hooked into defending ourselves, or we like to look after others and get hooked back in via care-taking. You will have your own subtle and particular experience. Get to know it, see if you can begin to deal in a different way with the abuse. *

This is not a way of holding you accountable for the abuse; we develop ways of relating that absolutely make sense, and have probably kept you emotionally (and potentially physically) safe, but there usually comes a point where these defence mechanisms cause us to lose more than we gain. Then, it might be time to look at whether we have other options, too.

Get back in touch with your boundaries

It is painful to have a boundary that is repeatedly violated, so it is common to simply become numb. Plus, your anger and discomfort have likely been ignored and/or invalidated. You may also struggle to set boundaries in other, non-abusive relationships.

An important part of healing is often to touch in with how it feels when we are treated in a way that we don’t like, and to think strategically how we can deal with it in a way that honours our feelings. Here are some things that might help:

  • Play around with boundaries in your imagination for a little while, think about what you might like to say, how you might say it and how that might feel.
  • Plan what you may need to increase your skill at setting boundaries: read books about boundaries, look for people who deal skilfully with other and see what they do. Try on their way of relating, see how it fits.
  • If you’d like to, when you’re ready, you can start with the easy relationships, the ones that feel safest. Work on this, and increase your levels of difficulty slowly. Even if you need to start by saying ‘no’ in the supermarket, every boundary is a win. Or, start with what hurts most. Whichever makes sense for you.
  • When it doesn’t work out how you wanted it to, evaluate what went wrong, learn what you need to learn and move on.
  • Celebrate your achievements! It takes enormous courage to change old patterns, particularly ones developed in such difficult situations. You are doing amazingly just to engage in the process.

Setting boundaries with people who do not listen can be infuriating, saddening and crazy-making, so it is fine to find this challenging and also to reach out for support if you need it. Particularly with people who use abusive tactics or tend to respond defensively, it’s not necessarily that helpful to judge your boundary by their reaction.

Dealing with shame

A common experience when you’ve been in an abusive relationship is to feel frequently ashamed and guilty / overly responsible. Shame can be hard to look at and stay with, but it is best healed by showing it to the light of safe, non-judgemental relationship.

Honouring what feels good

For me, this is as important as getting in touch with what is uncomfortable. This might be physical; exercise can often be important to healing, or wearing clothes that feel good; either your favourite pair of pyjamas after a rubbish day, or a clean shirt; whatever feels right. Eat as well and as nourishingly as your budget and time constraints allow. Read a book, watch something good (or terrible but enjoyable!) on television. See people that nourish you. Spend time in nature.

Allow yourself to treat yourself well. Explore any internal blocks to this, and see if you can move through them.

You are valuable simply because you exist.

Finally

If there are any areas that you are particularly struggling with, there is plenty of support out there. If you can’t afford therapy, there are often low cost services that will be able to help.

* It is important to note that if you are in a dangerous situation or relationship, please act in the way that best ensures your safety. There are places that can offer you specialist support to deal with what you’re experiencing, or help you to find a way out if you want that: please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

Author: A Space to Reflect

Psychotherapeutic Counsellor specialising in women, and women’s issues.

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