Dealing with past abuse, triggers and healing

One of the most disconcerting realities of trying to get past old wounds is that emotional abuse leaves behind hidden, abandoned land mines. Like a soldier in peace time can hear a car backfire, and suddenly be overwhelmed by memories and feelings from being bombed in war zones, very often the response to certain words or situations can evoke a reaction completely out of proportion to the actual present incident. Instead of responding to the real event, one receives and reacts to some long forgotten interactions, very often completely unaware that this is happening. This can be debilitating, because apart from the actual emotional toll it might take, it creates ongoing stress and negative reactions in the people around one, and creates a real sense of failure about any healing or growth past the abuse.

Here are steps I have recognized in the process of healing:

1. Recognize the abuse
2. Limit your exposure
3. Practice self compassion
4. Create a safe spaces
5. Articulate a path forward
6. Recognize the wins
7. Arm yourself

1. Recognize the abuse: long term emotional abuse carries with it the default assumptions that a)you have accepted you deserve it b)you are in some way predisposed to it. “Normal” supported loved people do NOT stay in emotionally abusive situations. When people tell me their friend is continuing in a long term emotionally abusive relationship “even though” she/he has a supportive family, I know there is a fallacy in there. Families are very good about hiding their dysfunction. And family pressure is very strong in its effect. Most targets of emotional abuse do NOT recognize themselves as victims. In fact, most targets are convinced their own behavior is to blame. And chances are, there are trusted enablers confirming that to the target.

2. Limit your exposure: the way long term abuse works is by exploiting some innate guilt or shame or negative belief about oneself, about the way one looks, or eats or talks. These tiny hooks are very intrinsic to one’s character and it is very very difficult to remove them. Much like a person brought up to be a vegetarian may starve before eating meat because they are convinced they would not be able to swallow it even though they are aware a large portion of the world does eat meat. Logic has nothing to do with it, really. The only real option, to even begin the process of healing, is to limit one’s exposure to the trigger. Taking a vegetarian to a slaughterhouse is not going to help change his mind.

3. Practice self compassion: an emotionally abused person has to come to terms with the fact that people they loved and bonded with were deliberately (not always consciously) abusing them for their own purposes. Also, that protesting will cause major reactions from the closest relationships in their lives. Walking away from abuse will involve renegotiating those relationships and very often, no credit will be given or no blame will be taken for the past. There is no justice, no fairness in the process. There is no court which will adequately ever compensate one for the harm done, or effort invested. Even worse, one might be held responsible for perpetuating the abuse by tolerating it. One might be considered weak or self harming. So practice self compassion actively. Targets are schooled to soldier on despite abuse, so this habit is tough to encourage. Perhaps the toughest!!! But it also is the most healing.

4. Create and seek safe spaces: a survivor WILL need safe spaces to analyze and heal. Places of compassion and acceptance. Most people don’t understand the effects and pathology of emotional abuse. Even when they are ready to help, it’s hard if not impossible for them to comprehend the lack of support, the creation of ongoing shame and responsibility, the subtle erosion of self respect. It would be like trying to make a color blind person understand the difference between pink and red. It’s just not possible. So one has to find spaces where there are others who can at least understand one’s language.

5. Articulate a path forward: since undoing the effects of abuse will take patience and time, the same way a bone injury will take time to heal, one needs to start putting together a positive set of goals. It’s easy to get lost in the why and how and discussions of reparations. That is the danger of victimhood. Yes, injustice was done, and yes, it may not be fully recognized. However, without a path forward, one may lose out on what life is left. The whole point of escaping from abuse is that one believes there is more that was desired and deserved. Since no one is going to hand that deserved life to one, one has to decide for oneself to get whatever is possible. By the way, targets discover a few things about themselves at this point. There is a reluctance to specify clear attainable goals. Sometimes there is a lack of disciplined effort or a risk aversion which often leaves a decision vacuum in their lives. This is dangerous because the easiest thing to happen is to chance upon yet another controlling person who happily fills that decision vacuum.

6. Recognize the wins: there are two kinds. One kind is the mildly euphoric feeling that one gets when abuse is removed (like the high one feels when pain from a persistent headache or toothache is removed). One feels capable of bounding high mountains and achieving amazing goals. This is very often temporary and fragile. It’s good though, and pretty intoxicating. The second kind is the hard won, tiny steps forward that one takes in life. Taking back control over financials, legal, health, personal spaces is so difficult but so worth it. Emotional abuse is almost always accompanied by loss of independence of various kinds. Getting them back and owning them are precious and long lasting wins. They are the real power in breaking the cycle of emotional abuse. Targets may find themselves falling back into bad habits, and it feels like nothing has changed. There is deep humiliation in that but understand that is part of healing. Keep walking towards the articulated positives. Minor lapses will pass. Abuse will not return because one made a mistake.

7. Arm yourself: recognize your weaknesses. Emotional abuse continues because targets are prone to idealization, self deception, trusting people who have done nothing to deserve trust. There is no blame or shame in this. It’s just a fact. It would be like a short person accepting they can’t always reach the top shelf. Accepting reality means you can then look for tools to help. It’s inconvenient, and perhaps not fair that a short person is burdened with the need to use stepstools or ladders much more than others. And it isn’t something that will disappear in time if the short person works really really hard. It’s just a fact. And without burdening it with shame or resentment, one has to arm oneself. If one slips, shrug and move on. There is not much more that can be done if one wants to move on.

As someone walking this path, I will confess most of these steps require immense courage and support. I marvel at those who do it alone, because I can’t see how they survive the negativity. Sometimes I feel I stand in the litter of what used to be me, and my life and am faced with an impossible task of putting it together in some coherent way. If you are in a similar place, give yourself credit for not giving up. By breaking the cycle of abuse, you have already taken the toughest step.

I love the AA prayer.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;