Learning to trust yourself after an emotionally abusive relationship

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One of the hardest things about emotional abuse, I think, is that the campaign of blame, undermining, criticism and gaslighting causes you lose trust in your own self.

This is true even if you are aware of what is happening. I have met many people who were aware of the tactics their other was using, but because of the drip, drip effect of emotional and psychological abuse (and the isolation that often co-exists with an experience of abuse) it affected their relationship with themselves in deep and profound ways.

In this article, I am going to unpick how the power dynamic of an abusive relationship damages our relationship with ourselves. (Of course, it also damages our relationships with others, but that’s a post for another day). I will also look at some ways you can learn to trust yourself again.

Abusers dominate. They control. Often emotional abuse is supported by other kinds of abuse, like physical, or sexual, but it does not need to be to have a profound and disturbing effect on us. Where other kinds of abuse are present, emotional abuse always, always is.

In many ways, emotional abuse can be more complicated to heal from because you can’t see the bruises. I frequently hear people saying; ‘but it seems so petty’. But they are not hurting because their loved one said or did something awful once (which would be enough), emotional abuse is a sustained and relentless campaign of awful things, over and over again, until you can no longer believe that this is not normal. It is a pattern. Not an event.

The pattern of abuse does something profound to us; it alienates us from ourselves; we are social creatures who are excellent at adjusting ourselves in order to relate with lots of different people, in lots of different ways, all of whom will be different in their personality, background, and culture. We need to be good at this to move about in the world with any kind of ease.

In an abusive relationship, we do what we do well; we adjust, but then we adjust again, and again, and again… until we entirely lose ourselves.

You might see this manifest in a few key ways:  

  • You lose trust in your feelings and perceptions, 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 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.

Regaining trust in yourself

We move through the world using information from those around us, as well as our own inner sensing. When we’ve been dominated, controlled, belittled and dismissed, this balance can become disrupted, leaving us either overly reliant on others (either other’s perception of us, or we think they know best), or reliant only on ourselves (because it seems that nobody else will ever reliably be there). Or we may switch between the two, stuck between a shame filled rock and a lonely hard place.

In my experience, healing happens in two stages: We learn to hear our inner wisdom, and then we learn to trust it. Below I explore some things that might help. As you go through, I invite you to listen to your body wisdom; which ones speak to you?

Get creative

A private, creative space – however that looks for you – can be the perfect way of learning to trust that wise, inner voice. Draw, write, collage, sew, sing. It doesn’t matter how it looks, what matters is the leap into the unknown. You can’t fail at this.

Get to know what it’s like to be in your body

Feelings are in our bodies, so reconnecting with our bodies can help strengthen and stabilise us. If you’ve learned to disconnect / dissociate this can be enormously challenging.* Therefore, go slowly, ease yourself in.

Start with kindness, good sensations. A hot shower or bath, exercise (however that looks for you), a soft jumper, a good pair of socks, running your hands through your hair, ice cream, the wind on your face, an ice cube on your tongue on a hot day… whatever feels good for you in your body will help you reconnect. And when we reconnect through one avenue, we deepen our whole connection with ourselves.

Experiment! Be playful, and creative.

* A note about trauma; if you find yourself becoming flooded or overwhelmed, or if you begin to dissociate, stop, regroup, and steady yourself as a priority.

Trust yourself in the ‘small things’

Start by making what feel like small decisions, but really listen for what you want. It might be just asking yourself what you would like for dinner, or whether you would like to read a book or watch TV in this next moment. Then, when you think you have an answer, try it out.

Watch your process. Do you feel scared to commit yourself to the decision in case it is ‘wrong’, or that judgement will rain down on you for it? Or does it feel unbearably vulnerable, or do you feel guilty, ashamed, or do you second guess yourself. Practice breathing through the feelings, letting them wash over you. Sometimes it can help to speak reassuringly to yourself as you would a small child; ‘it’s okay sweetheart’, ‘it’s fine to do x or choose y’, ‘whatever you choose will be right’ or ‘you can’t do this wrong’.

Let yourself experiment. It’s about getting to know yourself as a decision maker, how you like to make decisions, and what it brings up for you. And it gets easier with practice, I promise.

Cultivate non-abusive relationships

Wherever you can find them, cultivate relationships with people that listen to you and want to know what you feel and what you like. People who treat you as an equal. We ‘take in’ how we are treated, so if we surround ourselves with people that treat us as an equal, who don’t judge, criticize, undermine or gaslight us, then we internalise – on a deep, implicit level – that we are worth listening to. We heal by osmosis.

This can be where therapy is particularly useful, as it gives us a chance to practice in a safe relationship. One where we are (hopefully) in charge, listened to, where it matters what we think and feel. And we can work through all the feelings, the grief and the anger and the everything, that this brings up, as we go, in the safety of the therapeutic relationship. (For guidance on how to choose a counsellor when dealing with issues of abuse, please see my post here.)

If you can’t afford therapy, there are often low cost services that will be able to help.

Finally

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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