Okay, so much for leaving this a trilogy, but this part will be a little different. I will not be diving anymore into what happened to me specifically. That tale is told and there isn’t much more to say besides abusive relationship was abusive. I have already done a reflection of what happened several months later, as well as writing two just weeks after the occurrence. It is my hope that reading about an emotionally abusive relationship at different stages will help others spot similarities or differences in their own lives, and that my example will be of some benefit. Enough talk has been said about what it feels like to be in an emotionally abusive relationship, however, now let me devote at least one article entirely to talk about the path of healing.
To give some reference: it has only been three months since my last real contact with my abuser. To many, this may not sound like a lot of time – and it’s not. Yet I write this now (as opposed to waiting years) to show what can happen in just three months. To show how quickly healing can take hold of the mind and the body, and to elaborate on what issues continue to be struggles, so that those with frustrations and continued hardship can know: you’re not alone.
Words to Forget
The sad fact is that many of us grew up with phrases (taught by our parents or whomever) that simply were not true. First and foremost is this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
Man oh man, this saying, while a fun little nursery rhyme, is completely wrong. It would be if your parents closed with “Never pancakes and seldom a tart but greasy transfat is good for the heart.” No matter how well it rhymes, it isn’t true. This out of date ditty has caused horrors for those who have suffered from emotional abuse. The idea that, if someone does not physically strike you – they don’t hurt you, has made many victims feel ashamed of their pain. Well never do. Emotional abuse can be just as bad, if not worse, than physical (including horrors like sexual) abuse. Forget the notion that you’re weak if you’re harmed by words. It is just foolish.
“Forgive and forget.”
This one is personal for me. I grew up hearing this saying and, as a result, I always associated forgiving with the act of giving a clean slate. Everything was equal again after forgiving, after all – I had forgiven, and by nature that meant that I was okay with what happened, right? Wrong. Forgiveness is not about being all right with what happened and agreeing to forget the incident entirely. If it was, forgiveness would be nowhere near as powerful as it is. I will get more into this later but for now let me say that – whether you forgive or not is entirely up to you. No one can force you to ever forgive someone for something you don’t want (or are not ready) to forgive.
Adopting a Healing Attitude
How we perceive the world affects our world. I believe I have already spoken about the importance of taking both the negative and the positive in life and how it can influence who you are/your behavior – but let’s take a different approach. Imagine your went through life focusing on the pain, on how much the abuse really hurt you. You would likely define yourself as injured, broken, wrong ,whatever way you choose to express it. A healing attitude does the opposite. Yes, the hurt is real and I am not asking you to invalidate it by pretending it doesn’t exist.
Rather take strength in how much it does exist, and how it has not stopped you from being you. By putting emphasis on how injured you are, you give power to your abuser. Given how most abuse occurs from an abuser taking too much power already, this is something no victim likely ever wants again. In my research and reading, I have found that the best way to obtain this attitude is to perform the “best friend exercise.” Here is how it works:
Write down everything bad that happened to you as a result of the abusive relationship. How your abuser treated you, how it made you feel, everything. Next, write down a list of your best positive qualities. Everything you’ve always liked about yourself. Okay, now pretend that you aren’t the one who wrote down part one (the list of negative things that happened) and instead, your best friend just told you all of that. How would you respond? What would you say to them? With luck, the positives listed in step two will come in real handy in writing your response to your “best friend.” I have found this exercise to be extremely helpful when I am feeling down on myself.
By seeing yourself in a positive and progressive light, you will be that much closer to putting the pain behind you. Remember, while we have been injured, we are not broken. We are healing.
Understand How All Relationships are Connected
Have you ever known someone who just goes from relationship to relationship without ever seeming to be in a healthy one? Have you been that person? Have you ever heard someone say “well last time it wasn’t, but this time it’s real!” only to be subsequently let down and heart-broken again. The sad reality is that many people underestimate exactly how much all of our relationships are intertwined. I’m not just talking about the obvious ones like all the romantic relationships – obviously those all fall in the same group. Yet I know I personally underestimated the role of relationships encountered much earlier on, namely family structure, and how they can dramatically influence all relationship expectations.
The family is the blueprint for emotional reaction. When thought about, it seems obvious. Who do we encounter first in life? Who is literally our whole world for at least the first ten years of our lives? Families, and in particular the relationships within their structure, are everything. A child raised in a family where parents were unfaithful and treated one another with lies and manipulation will think that normal, how could they not? There is no other family blueprint to compare it to. By nature, we all believe we are born into a normal-ish family (unless the behavior is so abusive or jarring as to create the immediate knowledge of bizarreness). To better understand oneself in relationships, I suggest starting with taking an objective and honest look at the family. This can be difficult as it is a challenge to alienate what is so familiar. Yet it is crucial to help stop and prevent abuse. That cycle is brutal. Those who have been abused are far more likely to abuse someone else. Those who grew up with parents who were abusive may well believe (even if only subconsciously) that this is the normal way of life and anything else is foreign or a lie.
If there is a pattern of emotional abuse in romantic relationships, odds are it began in the family. The good news is that it is a pattern that is easily broken. One cannot change their family, but it is possible change your personal level of family interaction. If you have a family that is always sarcastic and very critical, be genuine and positive with them (for as much as you are able). It will lead to interesting results. View your family as people, flawed people (aren’t we all). By fixing the personal relationship with the family, by learning and admitting that their abuse was wrong – one takes a vital step towards leaving the cycle behind forever. Sample questions to ask:
- Do you feel like you were important to your parents? Was there anything more important to them? How did that make you feel?
- Would you be comfortable going up to your mother/father and hugging them, telling them that you love them and that it’s okay. Why or why not?
- Think of your sibling (if you have one). What memories come to mind first? If they were negative, how do you think that made you feel?
Be Thorough in Your Approach to Healing
The brain is like the body in a lot of ways. Think of emotional abuse as having the same effect as eating nothing but junk food and not moving from your couch/bed ever. It’s not the healthiest way to live. To change it, would you simply stop eating a certain type of candy? No, of course not. Especially if you were serious about getting into shape. Getting the mind/soul into shape after abuse requires this same level of commitment.
For starters, while search engines like Google are a helpful tool, do not simply google “how to heal from emotional abuse,” read the first article and feel like you’ve cracked it. This knowledge I’m writing now did not come solely from online articles. Read books (preferably by those with degrees). Read more than one. To date, I have read two entirely and bits of many others and they have helped so much more than any five-minute article from Buzzfeed. Get informed, get as informed as possible on what has happened to you and how best to heal.
And remember (title time), you’re not alone – and you should not do this alone. While a sad taboo is still associated with therapists, they are a wonderful idea. Think about it, someone whose job it is to help you. Someone who has spent years learning how best to help you deal with problems such as the ones you’re experiencing. That sounds pretty awesome. Seeing a therapist is no admission of weakness. It is a sign of maturity. You are admitting you are not perfect and signaling to all that your happiness is important. Everyone could use someone to listen during their lives. Friends are nice, but friends didn’t go to school and study exactly what to say in that kind of situation. These people did.
And it should not end with a therapist. The sad truth is that emotional abuse can have severe physical repercussions. Emotional abuse can cause physical symptoms like muscle pain, panic attacks, fatigue, and many other wonderfully not fun things. No one is weak for feeling any of these. They are the body’s natural response to a horrific incident. The good news is that professionals exist to help with all of them. Nutritionists, physical therapists, massage therapists, and even regular doctors can help if they are informed. While your abuser may have wanted to see you in pain: not many other people do. Be thorough and take a balanced approach – it will pay off quickly.
Consistency is Key
Imagine someone walked into a room and declared “I am all about peace and being passive” and then punched you in the face. “Diplomacy is awesome” followed by another blow. “I never want to hurt another living thing as long as I live.” Kick to the gut. Odds are you would be confused to say the least.
Actions matter and words matter. One might matter more than the other… but I feel like that is arguing particulars. Point being, many abusers sadly fit this model. They will often declare one thing and do another. Well this can also work the other way too. If you’re someone who enjoys helping others, yet you call yourself worthless: that is the same disconnect. If you say “I have to heal and I’m willing to do whatever it takes” and proceed to go out, get drunk, hook up with someone and start a relationship – that is the disconnect too. It can mean slowing your actions and thoughts down, but you want to be consistent. It may be hard but it is so important. No one likes a hypocrite and this goes into being a person you can like/love.
Respond, Don’t React
This can be one of the most important pieces of advice to remember. Odds are, even if you were the victim in an abusive relationship – you behaved in ways you did not like. You may have snapped, given into an argument, or just not spoken up for yourself when you would have liked to. No one is perfect and it is impossible to be fully healthy in an abusive relationship. Even after the relationship is over, you may find yourself getting angry at anything that reminds you of that dark time – and taking it out on someone in the present. Odds are this makes you feel less than great, and hinders a healthy self-image.
We are creatures of emotion, this is true – but we are also creatures of reason. Take a moment (whenever possible) and simply think. “This is making me sad/happy right now, but is it really this or something else? What is that something else? What can I do about it? How do I ideally want to respond to this situation?” How would the ideal you respond? Think that and try to make it happen. Perfection won’t be achieved, but you’ll likely spend a lot less time committing to actions you will later regret.
The Power of “I love you,” “I forgive you,” and “I’m sorry”
As we have recently discussed: words have power. Some words have more power than others. I personally believe that the three sayings highlighted above may be among the most powerful words out there. The emotional weight attached to each of them is staggering. “I love you” is self-explanatory. When spoken with genuine emotion, there is little these words can’t do. Yet that is the catch with all three – it has to be genuine. This also goes back to consistency. If an abuser says “I love you” followed by a slap, a lie, or a cheat – then the words become a lie. This is horrible, and one of the greatest things to watch out for. Never say “I love you,” “I’m sorry,” or “I forgive you” without meaning it. Such an act will undo all the power of the word and turn it into one of the most damaging forms of emotional abuse there is.
What Does it Mean to Forgive
Really, you should decide this for yourself. I mentioned above that I don’t believe forgiveness should be associated with forgetfulness and I stand by that. When you forgive someone (or when someone forgives you) that is not an admission that what happened in the past was okay. While I have been recovering, this was something I struggled with. A part of me did not want to forgive my abuser because I was scared that doing so negated the abuse. In the past, I had been abused whenever I tried to bring up past abuse after forgiveness (usually to compare it to current abuse) because I had forgiven her. I forgive – so it doesn’t exist anymore, right? Wrong.
Forgiveness is not wiping the slate clean, it is not an admission that, whatever happened, you have decided to be okay with it. Abuse is never okay and no act of forgiveness and erase wrongs. What I feel forgiveness is, is the ability to look past what happened, acknowledge the pain, but find it within yourself to still say “there is something more to you, something worth my continued investment, openness, and caring.” That is powerful and takes a lot of personal strength. Again: no one can ever force you to forgive.
I will say that forgiving an abuser is not dangerous, but forgiving and letting them back into your life can be. It is important to never forget who that person is. Forgiveness is not a clean slate in that regard either – it doesn’t change who they are.
When Compassion Becomes Enabling
One thing I realized very quickly after my last run in with emotional abuse was that it wasn’t going to affect just that relationship. I shared several friends with this person. When you’re a friend, it can be very hard to know how to react. I learned this because, a short time before my abuse happened, I watched similar events transpire between two friends: one whom I was very close to, the other whom I was only fairly close with. In this case, the one I was closer to was the abuser.
I wanted to confide in my friend, wanted to talk and understand, but I realized I wasn’t helping them. Frequently, emotional abusers are high-level narcissists and giving them attention does nothing except fuel their need for validation. My old friend talked about change, talked about improving their life and becoming someone who they could love. This friend had been as quick to condemn Sinda as they were to follow in her actions. I don’t hate my friend for this, but I knew that I (wanting to change my life and heal) could no longer be part of their inner circle.
I caution against judging from a perch, as I have written before – the line between abuser and victim is slim, but escaping the cycle means escaping it entirely. I could not champion this cause against my own emotional abuse without condemning every act of it. Were I to say “that’s horrible” to what happened to me but only “I understand” elsewhere, not only would I be a hypocrite but much worse – I would be validating a wrong act. Emotional abuse is incredibly harmful, being friends with an emotional abuser (without confronting them about their problem) is very similar to being friends with a rapist or a molester. Compassion can be a wonderful emotion or a crippling enabler – try to know when is when. It was horrible to confront my friend and tell them I could no longer be there, but it has helped in my healing.
Maintain Balance Between the Emotional and the Logical
As has been strongly hinted at by now, pretty much all of these improvements require the ability to detach and view your personal life through an objective lens, as devoid of emotion as possible. Without the ability to objectively look back at past actions, it is very difficult to make any sort of change. That said, do not abandon emotion. Our emotions are a powerful and natural part of who we are. They define us as surely as our ability to reason and reflect. Abandoning emotion can lead to severe problems with intimacy and will ultimately hurt any attempt at a future relationship (of any kind). Human beings are social creatures, we evolved that way. It wasn’t solitary skill that propelled us to the dominant race on the planet. I’m not saying go be the life of the party every night, but try to keep at least a couple of souls you can be truly honest with. On the same token – do not let your emotions run free… that way is no good either.
Being Drunk and Being Angry
Have you ever had someone say “well I was drunk” as an excuse? Have you ever had someone say “you were angry, you meant that”? Were they the same person? There is a lot of debate as to whether we are more truthful when we are angry. Personally I have always said no (well, more no than yes). Anger lowers inhibition, this is true. You are more likely to just say what you’re thinking when angry… but you’re also angry when you’re angry. Anger is a passionate emotion that has to burn and looks for fuel constantly to stay alive (that is why thinking about something in the past can make you angry in the present). It is also an emotional response to sorrow, as human beings prefer to be angry than sad or emotionally hurt. It is a defense mechanism, meaning your guard is up. How honest are we at that point – I don’t think very, but we will say what is on our mind.
Same with being drunk. Being drunk lowers the inhibitions and allows us to say whatever we’re thinking, but there is no correlation between inebriation and honesty. It is the same distorted state, simply distorted in a different way. Before of any decisions or actions in these states, as most people are not fully themselves. Our inhibitions exist for a reason – we need that logical part of the brain.
See the Good and the Bad in Life – but Focus on the Good
Over the years many people have tried to simplify life. Life is like a box of chocolates, life sucks, life rules – there’s a million “life is…” statements out there. I have found that life is life. An entity completely independent from us in a way. It has existed before we were born and will very likely continue long after we’re gone. Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans.
Anyway, there is good and bad in life, but the importance is to focus on the good. This harkens back to the healing attitude. This absolutely does not mean downplay the bad – noooooo. Pretending the negative does not exist can be a very dangerous idea. Imagine breaking your arm and just going about your day. You never get treatment, you never even get any over the counter pills. It’s not a big deal, right? You have two arms.
People behave that way a lot when it comes to emotional damage. Yes they cheated but it’s fine – it happens. No. That is a completely wrong way to look at it. Like an unchecked broken bone, the pain will go away, but the healing will be nowhere near as complete. Allow the pain in, but look for the silver lining. I believe that there is a positive in every situation, even when I look back on what happened with Sinda. This does not validate her hurting me, it just means that I choose to take what strength I can from the pain, rather than simply surrender to it.
It Will Never Be Simple
(Update 9/4/15) In my first write-through of this, I missed an important lesson. It will never be simple, your feelings toward your abuser. Some people will tell you “it’s okay to hate” or “you should forgive” but really, odds are you will be doing both for a long time. This can lead to problems when you tell yourself “how can I miss him/her after all they did?” or “am I stupid for still caring?” The answer to this lies in a wonderful part in our being: the proof that we are governed by both logic and emotion. It is natural to miss someone you love, but it is logical and rational to understand what they did and resent/feel negativity towards it. Too much emotion and everything is forgiven: who cares? Too much logic without compassion is they are horrible – a horrible, inhuman monster: f*ck them! Neither one of these is a truly healthy view, regardless of how good or right they might feel in the moment.
I am a firm believer in that there is no such thing as simple as a “bad person.” The abuser wasn’t all bad, or else you never would have fallen for him/her… but they clearly were far from all good or else the abuse would not have happened. It is okay to remember the different layers and shades of the relationship. Your feelings never have to fit into one clean definition. Just don’t let it consume you, don’t think about it too much.
On Future Relationships
A question has been asked since I left my abusive relationship: when will I start my next one? There is no time table, nor should there be. I will use an analogy to make my point. Going for a relationship can be like going food shopping: never do it when you’re hungry. You inevitably come home with at least one thing you don’t want. Loneliness is like sadness: we hate it. We hate feeling it. Sometimes, we can hate it so much that we will do anything to change it. Yet loneliness should never be the primary reason (or really a reason at all) to start a relationship. Most healthy relationships are born out of a desire to share, and a trust that you can be fully open with another person. The problem with loneliness, in addition to being an emotion we try naturally to get rid of, is that it is selfish. You’re beginning a relationship, involving another human being, just to make yourself feel better.
In my time healing, I have had many nights where the desire is strong to go out and find someone, anyone, just to distract me from what I’m feeling – but feeling is part of healing. It really is. Time, and attention devoted to equalizing the parts of life (job, hobby, passion) will help far more in the long run than hopping from relationship to relationship. That is akin to opening a wound every day. Sometimes things need to heal. There are other ways to relieve the primal needs to loneliness, ones that don’t involve other lives.
The day you should enter the next relationship is the day you have found someone you feel truly open with, and want to share something.
Well, that will do it for sagely advice for now. Again, most of this came from much wiser people than I – and I advise you to seek those people out, whether it be through written word, counseling, support group, or whatever method you take. Perhaps I shall write an update in a year and report on how healing has changed. I hope that this series has been helpful to you so far. My goal was to give writings at every stage, from the immediacy of the next day to the reflection of months down the road. Who only knows what new lessons will turn up in the next year.
I hope you continue to heal. It is a hard journey, and sadly not one everyone makes. There are those who never recover from abuse and their lives appear controlled by solely the negative of what life has to offer. You’re worth more than that. Every soul on this planet is. I will leave you with one last exercise idea. Write down what matters to you and who you want to be. Look at what you have written. Say it out loud, say it as confidently as possible. Were there parts where your voice faltered? Right down what can be done to fix those weak spots.
Move forward. Move slowly. The road is long and full, but so is life. Take your time, you are worth it. You’re not alone.