Being in a relationship with someone who is alternately cruel and loving can be incredibly confusing.
Abuse often manifests as an experience of a loved one as being repeatedly critical, demeaning, controlling and cruel. Sometimes they are physically or sexually aggressive or violent, but not always.
You are often blamed for the problems in the relationship; for example, you may be told that you are ‘crazy’, ‘oversensitive’ or that you have an ‘anger problem’ as a way to invalidate your normal, human response to being treated badly.
Obviously, those around us are human, and may do and say hurtful things every so often. Emotional abuse is different; it is a consistent pattern of behaviour, and it can usually be understood as instrumental (which is not necessarily the same as conscious). This means that it is often an attempt to gain and maintain a position of power or invulnerability in the relationship.
Any kind of abuse can have profound and far-reaching effects. It often not only disrupts our relationship with ourselves, but emotional abuse in a past relationship can also affect how we experience our non-abusive relationships in the present. It can leave us mistrustful, hearing criticism when none was intended, confused, isolated, or simply not showing our authentic self to others.
The first step towards recovery is often realising that, no matter what we may have been told, we are not the problem.
As well as this, healing frequently seems to happen in relationship with another. A friend, therapist, a new partner, an internet group; we are simply treated better and we internalise this. Treating ourselves lovingly also has a deep and profound healing effect, as we internalise the kindnesses that we show to ourselves too.
If you are struggling to work out whether a relationship was abusive, it can help to have a skilled, trained professional unpick the experience with you. And if you find that you are struggling to cope with a difficult relationship, or heal from a difficult experience, therapy and counselling may well help you move forward or regain your balance.
I have extensive experience in unpicking abusive dynamics and supporting women in healing from toxic and traumatic relationships with friends, families, and intimate partners.
If you would like to book a session to talk more, please do get in touch.
An almost universal response to being abused is to turn the blame and sense of responsibility inwards. Sometimes, we internalise the abuser’s words, the names that we are called, the negative qualities that are attributed to us. Or we may feel responsible as a way of giving ourselves back some control over a situation that we may have little or no control in.
This happens in two ways; we develop ways of relating with the world and ourselves that cause us problems in our lives, and/or we can develop pockets of trauma or shame that we find it hard to look at. I’ll look at both of these separately, and also look at how you can help your own healing from self-blame if you have been in, or still are in, an abusve relationship.
The abuser blames the other; “it’s your fault, you made me do this”. We may hear this either said explicitly or it may be subtler; implied instead of spoken. The look, the sigh, the eye roll. In my experience, even if you can see this happening, it still has an effect on you (although not as big an effect as if you are not aware of it).
The abuser takes our healthy, pro-social process of taking responsibilty for ourselves, and turns it into a way of gaining and maintaining control over us.
We then start to believe that we are responsible for the feelings and actions of others; we actually start to relate to other people in the way that we relate to the abuser.
You may not even be conscious of blaming yourself; this is the tricky bit, you may feel that you are actually at fault. It may even feel wrong to not hold yourself responsible in this way.
Triggered into shame
Another way that we continue to be hurt by an abusive relationship is by being triggered; something will happen, someone will say something, and we will find ourselves right back into that excrutiating morass of shame, self-hatred and guilt.
A useful process for unpicking this is:
What was the trigger? See if you can separate the past from the present, sometimes this is enough to allow you to respond appropriately in the moment.
Take a moment, breathe deeply, steady yourself if you can, or excuse yourself if you need to. Give yourself some choices about how you respond.
Let yourself off the hook if you weren’t able to respond in the moment as you would have wished; being triggered can make it really hard. Your body kicks into a trauma/survival response that is beyond your conscious control (fight / flight / freeze)
Write about it / talk it through with a safe friend or therapist. If you’re writing about it, see if you can call to mind a compassionate other and let yourself open to their compassion and understanding. (Even if you feel nothing, or feel sad, or angry, that’s fine; breathe, sit with it, allow it to flow through you. What’s important is that you are changing your internal script.)
Imagine how you might successfully respond to being triggered, then let it go. Just imagining yourself navigating it well can begin to strengthen different neural pathways, as the brain doesn’t really differentiate between internal and external experiences. This will give you a better chance at dealing with it in a way you can feel okay about next time.
If you find yourself consistently being triggered and aren’t able to navigate it yourself, therapy might be useful.
Other ways to help yourself heal
Knowledge is power
Read about emotional abuse, how it happens, what it looks like. If you know what is happening, you can at least begin to unpick it. There are lots of amazing resources out there; books, articles, podcasts, internet forums.
When we are in an abusive relationship, their perspective tends to dominate; it is a process similar to that seen in cults, for example. You usually have access to limited information, so as well as researching abuse, you could start talking to safe friends, or a therapist, or a helpline, or an internet support group about what is happening in your relationship. Try and allow yourself to consider these other perspectives, and see if you can figure out what you think too (if you don’t already know).
Give the responsibility for the abuse back
You can give the abuser back the responsibilty for their actions, and you can understand your reactions (at least in part) as a response to living in a confusing, frightening and sometimes dangerous situation.
Humans are wired to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli; there’s nothing wrong with you for responding however you did; whether that was to fight back, to argue, to use emotionally abusive tactics yourself, to dissociate, or however else you protected your vulnerable spot.
This also means that you can look for where your choices are; what is actually in your power to do and change.
Try and access some self-compassion
Watch how you talk to yourself; would you talk to a friend like that? How can you understand your feelings and actions in a gentle, non-blaming, non-shaming way?
Sharing with a safe other can really help. If you are feeling particularly ashamed or churned up, therapy can be really useful as a way of gaining insight into yourself, your responses and your actions. The increased understanding of yourself often aids self-acceptance, if you can allow yourself to take it in.
Tool: if you struggle with this, try and list three things that you did today that you did well, or that someone else would think you did well. If you can’t find anything today, go back a week, a month, a year if you need to! This can be useful when practiced on a regular basis.
Set boundaries / take appropriate responsibility for yourself
People who have been bullied, shamed or coerced in abusive relationships often really struggle to stand up for themselves; they either go into fight or people please mode. So you might want to work on becoming more assertive and less passive, aggressive, or passive aggressive. (These are all responses to not being able to state your wishes, feelings, thoughts and needs openly and having to hide or fight for these things.)
If you are still in your abusive relationship, do be thoughtful about setting boundaries in this relationship. Often abusers will escalate their abusive behaviour in order to regain control. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make changes if you want to, more that you might want to make sure you are prepared for a difficult road if you do, and get enough internal and external resources to support you.
Note: If your relationship is physically abusive – or you fear it might become so – please do seek specialist advice. It can be very dangerous to challenge a violent or potentially violent abuser.
I put this at the end, not because it is the least important, but because it is the most important part of your journey. Treat yourself as valuable, use your time wisely or watch terrible TV if that’s what you need. Move your body in a way that makes you feel good, invest in relationships that make you feel good, take care of yourself in relationships that don’t. Follow your dreams, pay your bills, take care of your responsibilities or let go of the responsibilities that you have picked up unnecessarily. Say yes more or say no more, be more present for your loved ones or be more present for yourself. Grieve. Laugh. Take up a hobby, let one drop. Let yourself off the hook.
Sometimes simply to survive is all we can do, sometimes we will feel like we can reach the moon. Only you will know what self-care looks like in any given moment for you. And what looks like self-care for one person can be the opposite for another.
And last but not least: Build yourself a network
Everyone needs a network. As social creatures, I think that we all need to feel rooted in some way, so deepen (or find) your tribe, in person, online, a support group, and connect with them in a way that suits you. It will help you not only feel grounded, but also gives you more opportunity to ‘take in the good’ of other people’s kindness, to allow yourself to feel loved and valued and safe in relationships, and safe and held in the world.