Photograph by Anna Gearhart via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License.
The journey to healing from emotional and/or physical abuse requires us to revolutionize our thinking about relationships, self-love, self-respect and self-compassion. Abusive relationships often serve as the catalyst for incredible change and have the potential to motivate us towards empowerment and strength, should we take advantage of our new agency. Here are ten life-changing truths abuse survivors can embrace to empower themselves along this journey, though it may appear challenging to do so.
1. It was not your fault. Victim-blaming is rampant both in society and even within the mental landscapes of abuse survivors themselves. Recently, the victim-blaming and the mythical “ease” of leaving an abusive relationship has been challenged in the public discourse. Accepting that the pathology of another person and the abuse he or she inflicted upon you is not under your control can be quite challenging when you’ve been told otherwise, by the abuser, the public and even by those close to you who don’t know any better.
Abuse survivors are used to being blamed for not being good enough and the mistreatment they’ve suffered convinces them they are not enough. The truth is, the abuser is the person who is not enough. Only a dysfunctional person would deliberately harm another. You, on the other hand, are enough. Unlike your abuser, you don’t have to abuse anyone else to feel superior or complete. You are already whole, and perfect, in your own imperfect ways.
2. Your love cannot inspire the abuser to change. There was nothing you could have done differently to change the abuser. Repeat this to yourself. Nothing. Abusers have a distorted perspective of the world and their interactions with people are intrinsically disordered. Giving more love and subjugating yourself to the abuser out of fear and out of the hope that he or she would change would’ve only enabled the abuser’s power. You did the right thing (or you will) by stepping away and no longer allowing someone to treat you in such an inhumane manner.
3. Healthy relationships are your birthright and you can achieve them. It is your right to have a healthy, safe, and respectful relationship. It is your right to be free from bodily harm and psychological abuse. It is your right to pursue people who are worthy of your time and energy. Never settle for less than someone who respects you and is considerate towards you. Every human being has this right and you do too. If you are someone who has the ability to respect others and are capable of empathy, you are not any less deserving than anyone else of a relationship that makes you happy.
4. You are not forever damaged by this, even if you feel like you are. Healing and recovery is a challenging process, but it is not an impossible one. You may suffer for a long time from intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and other symptoms as a result of the abuse. You may even enter other unhealthy relationships or reenter the same one. Still, you are not “damaged goods.” You are not forever scarred, although there are scars that may still remain. You are a healer, a warrior, a survivor. You do have choices and agency. You can apply No Contact with your ex-partner, seek counseling, create a stronger support network, engage in better self-care, and you can have better relationships in the future. All hope is not lost.
5. You don’t have to justify to anyone the reasons you didn’t leave right away. The fear, isolation and manipulation that the abuser imposed upon us is legitimate and valid. Studies have proven that trauma can produce changes the brain and can also manifest in PTSD or acute stress disorder. Stockholm syndrome is a syndrome that tethers survivors of trauma and abuse to their abusers in order to survive. Trauma bonds, which are bonds that are formed with another person during intense emotional experiences, can leave us paradoxically seeking support from the source of the abuse.
The connection we have to the abuser is like an addiction to the vicious cycle of hot and cold, of sweet talk and apologies, of wounds and harsh words. Our sense of learned helplessness, a feeling that we are unable to escape the situation, is potent in an abusive situation. So is our cognitive dissonance about who the abuser truly is. Due to the shame we feel about the abuse, we may withdraw from our support network altogether or be forced by our abuser to not interact with others.
This can all interfere with our motivation and means to leave the relationship. Therefore, you never have to justify to anyone why you did not leave right away or blame yourself for not doing so. Someone else’s invalidation should not take away your experience of fear, confusion, shame, numbing and hypervigilance that occurred when and after the abuse took place.
6. Forgiveness of the abuser is a personal choice, not a necessity. Some may tell you that you have to forgive the abuser to move on. Truly, that is a personal choice and not a necessity. Trauma therapists such as Antastasia Pollock warn against pressuring a survivor to forgive, especially prematurely, because it can feel like being re-violated. In, “Why I Don’t Use the Word ‘Forgiveness’ in Trauma Therapy,” Pollock suggests using the word ‘unburdening,’ instead, to accurately describe the gradual letting go of feelings of resentment without forcing her clients to feel anything other than what they truly feel.
As trauma therapist and author of the book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker, also notes:
“There has been a lot of shaming, dangerous and inaccurate “guidance” put out about forgiveness in the last few years, in both the recovery community and in transpersonal circles. Many survivors of dysfunctional families have been injured by the simplistic, black and white advice that decrees that they must embrace a position of being totally and permanently forgiving in order to recover. Unfortunately, those who have taken the advice to forgive abuses that they have not fully grieved, abuses that are still occurring, and/or abuses so heinous they should and could never be forgiven, often find themselves getting nowhere in their recovery process. In fact, the possibility of attaining real feelings of forgiveness is usually lost when there is a premature, cognitive decision to forgive. This is because premature forgiving intentions mimic the defenses of denial and repression. They keep unprocessed feelings of anger and hurt about childhood unfairnesses out of awareness.” – Trauma Therapist Pete Walker, Forgiveness: Begins With The Self
It is not that forgiveness is not healing – some survivors will indeed find it healing – but only if they come to that path out of their own free will rather than pressures from society. Prematurely forcing yourself to forgive before you are willing or ready can actually lead to increased stress and trauma because you have not done the inner work of grieving and honoring the authentic outrage that can come up after the abuse.
In addition, the word ‘forgiveness’ can in itself have many traumatizing connotations for the abuse survivor, whose abuser may have conflated forgiveness with reconciliation or spiritually abused them by saying that they had to forgive their transgressions in order to be a “good person.” While forgiveness never has to require reconciliation, there is no doubt that these traumatic associations for survivors can remain. Some survivors may feel more empowered using a different word to describe their feelings of letting go, and others may move onto a sense of indifference towards their abusers while still moving forward with their lives.
You might feel forgiveness of the abuser is necessary in order to move forward, but that does not mean you have to. Survivors may have also experienced physical and sexual abuse in addition to the psychological manipulation. You may have gone through so much trauma that it feels impossible to forgive, and that’s okay. Honor wherever you are right now, and don’t force yourself to feel anything for your abuser that you don’t authentically feel. It’s important to acknowledge, validate and honor all of the complex emotions that are sure to arise.
It is not our job to cater to the abuser’s needs or wants or society’s expectations. It’s not our duty to forgive someone who has deliberately and maliciously harmed us. Our duty lies in taking care of ourselves on the road to healing.
7. Compassion towards yourself is necessary to move forward. Self-forgiveness is a different matter. Although you did nothing wrong (anyone can be the victim of abuse), many survivors struggle with self-blame after the ending of an abusive relationship. Even though you don’t have anything technically to ‘forgive’ yourself for (the abuse was the abuser’s fault, not yours), survivors may judge themselves for not leaving sooner or looking out for their best interests during the relationship. It is encouraged to show compassion towards yourself and be gentle with yourself during times of negative self-talk and self-judgment. These are all things survivors tend to struggle with in the aftermath of an abusive relationship and it can take a while to get to this point.
Remember: You didn’t know what you know now about how the abuser would never change. Even if you had, you were in a situation where many psychological factors made it difficult to leave.
8. You are not the crazy one. During the abusive relationship, you were gaslighted and told that you were the pathological one, that your version of events was untrue, that your feelings were invalid, that you were too sensitive when you reacted to his or her mistreatment of you. You may have even endured a vicious smear campaign in which the charming abuser told everyone else you were “losing it.”
Losing it actually meant that you were tired of being kicked around, tired of being cursed at and debased. Losing it actually meant that you were finally starting to stand up for yourself. The abuser saw that you were recognizing the abuse and wanted to keep you in your place by treating you to cold silence, harsh words, and condescending rumor mongering.
It’s time to get back to reality: you were not the unstable one. The unstable one was the person who was constantly belittling you, controlling your every move, subjecting you to angry outbursts, and using you as an emotional (and even physical) punching bag.
Who are you? You were the person who wanted a good relationship. The one who strove to please your abuser, even at the cost of your mental and physical health. You were the one whose boundaries were broken, whose values were ridiculed, whose strengths were made to look like weaknesses. You attempted to teach a grown person how to behave with respect – often fruitlessly. You were the one who deserved so much better.
9. You do deserve better. No matter what the abuser told you about yourself, there are people out there in healthy relationships. These people are cherished, respected and appreciated on a consistent basis. There is trust in the relationship, not toxic triangulation. There are genuine apologies for mistakes, not hoovering for attention or quick reconciliation.
Consider this: aside from the experience of trauma, these people in healthier relationships are not drastically different from you. In many ways, they are just like you – flawed, imperfect, but worthy of love and respect. There are billions of people in this world, and yes, you can bet there are plenty out there who will treat you better than the way you’ve been treated before. There are people out there who will see your wonderful strengths, talents, and who will love your quirks. These people wouldn’t dream of intentionally hurting you or provoking you. You will find these people – in friendships and in future relationships. Perhaps you already have.
10. It may have seemed this relationship was like a “waste of time” but in changing your perspective, it can also be an incredible learning experience. You now have the agency to create stronger boundaries and learn more about your values as a result of this experience. As a survivor, you’ve seen the dark side of humanity and what people are capable of. You’ve recognized the value of using your time wisely after you’ve exhausted it with someone unworthy. With this newfound knowledge, you are no longer naive to the fact that there are emotional predators out there. Most importantly, you can share your story to help and empower other survivors. I know I did, and you can too.
Copyright © 2015 by Shahida Arabi.
All rights reserved. No part of this entry may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
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About the Author
Shahida Arabi is a graduate of Columbia University graduate school, where she studied the effects of bullying on the life-course trajectory. She also graduated summa cum laude from NYU, where she studied Psychology and English Literature as an undergraduate student. She is the #1 Amazon bestselling author of four books, including Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare, which has been s a #1 Amazon Bestseller in personality disorders for 12 consecutive months. Her interests include psychology, sociology, education, gender studies and mental health advocacy.
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