How to Recover from Abuse
If you are dealing with issues related to your past history of “abuse” and these issues are having a negative (however you define this) impact on your life, please seek professional help. Therapy works. When you need help with your car, you seek out a competent mechanic. When you need help getting your life together, seek out a competent mental health professional.
During my 30 year career as a Psychologist with the California Youth Authority, I treated young women whose history included multiple types of abuse including physical, emotional and sexual. While some of my clients may not have been “abused” over time, many had been raped.
Let me explain that when I talk of abuse, I am referring to inappropriate interactions with parents, siblings and caretakers which occurred repeatedly and over time. While the offense of rape may only have occurred on a single occasion, the distinction I make between abuse and rape in no way implies that one type of mistreatment is worse than or more difficult to deal with than the other as this is not the case. Rather, I am attempting to include all victims of these abusive victimizing interactions as the way to recover from theses traumatic events is basically the same whether the abusive was perpetrated over time or occurred as a single event.
One caveat before I describe for you how you can recover from “abuse”.
While it is relatively “easy” to describe the recovery process, it is by no means easy for a victim to go through this process on her (or his) way to recovery. The recovery process is often painful time-consuming and difficult (but not impossible) to do alone.
How past abuse keeps impacting you in the present.
Maybe, you’ve had the experience of sharing your history with someone who says to you (or you have said to yourself) something along the lines of “That (event) happened long ago. Let it go and move on.”
Okay, maybe they were a little more caring than that. But the idea that something that took place so long ago continues to impact you is often difficult to comprehend.
The reason that your past continues to bug you (and may even feel as if it happened yesterday) has to do with the relationship between your past and your present.
The best way to understand this was offered by Albert Ellis in his description of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).
I explained REBT to my clients this way using the “formula” E-T=>F. In this formula, E stands for the event(s) you experienced, T stands for your Thoughts about the event(s) and F stands for the feelings which follow from those thoughts. This is a simplification of REBT but it works to understand Dr. Ellis’s approach.
By the way, just about everything you ever wanted to know about feelings can be learned by visiting my blog (TheEmotionsDoctor.com).
Dr. Ellis was one of the first psychologists to emphasize the connection between your thoughts and your feelings. It is your feelings in the here and now about the event which keep that event current in your life. When someone says that the event was in the past, they are correct about the actual physical event (or events). And, it is factually the case that the past can’t physically impact the present. However, the actual facts are not important here as we are talking about your psychological reality wherein your feelings about the past are in the present and they can (and do) significantly impact you in the here and now.
The important insight offered by REBT (which, by the way is one type of cognitive therapy) is that your feelings are elicited by your thoughts. The good news here is that you can change your thoughts.
And, when you change your thoughts, you change your feelings. Changing your feelings allows you to move beyond your past and recover from your abuse.
Your Problematic Thoughts
There are three “elements” which define your abuse.
1. The abusive event (or events): What you actually experienced and your perception of what took place.
2. Your perpetrator: That person or people who victimized you.
3. You: How you view yourself through the lens of your abuse, what you think about your “involvement” in your abuse, and your view of yourself post-event.
Now, I need to point out that while these three elements are, indeed, separate, psychologically, they may be experienced as interconnected in the same way that a red, a blue and a white strand of rope, while initially separate, become intertwined when we braid them together. Ultimately, you can learn to separate these elements, as I will discuss them below, so you can change your thoughts about each and move on.
What happened to you is burned into your brain. Your “recollection” of these events may be very vivid (like it happened yesterday), detailed, or fuzzy. What you remember may be accurate (in the details) or may not match a video (if one existed).
None of the above matters!
The reason for this is that your thoughts (memories) are real to you and combine to create the feelings which are problematic and which negatively impact your life.
I am assuming that some sort of victimizing event or events occurred and, as we are dealing with the “court” of your psychology and not a Court of Law, the “facts” are not critical.
The way to move beyond your past can be summarized in the acronym IWBNI which stands for (I) It (W) Would (B) Be (N) Nice (I) If.
Here is a link to an article I wrote on IWBNI - 'IWBNI’.
Again, let me emphasize that the process I am laying out is easy to describe but challenging to complete.
To put it another way….IT MAY BE DIFFICULT, BUT IT IS DOABLE!
As you think about your past, you probably tell yourself something like:
• It isn’t right or fair
• It never should have happened
You are, of course, right on both counts. But, it did happen.
So, IWBNI allows you to acknowledge both that it happened and that it is behind you. When you tell yourself that it would be nice if it had never occurred, you are acknowledging that it did take place and that it is over.
This is the first step and begins the process of moving on. You can always, if you choose, revisit your past.
Please note that using IWBNI does not excuse, diminish or pardon the past. It only acknowledges it and begins the process of separating you in the present from your past.
These are the bad people (sometimes male and sometimes female) who victimized you.
Most likely, what you feel toward them is anger and hate. You might want to hurt them.
Or, equally as likely (but more difficult to comprehend), you might feel love toward them and want to defend them.
Or, you might feel some other combination of feelings.
I can’t, in this space, provide an explanation of these feelings but I do provide this information on my website (TheEmotionsDoctor.com)
The key to dealing with your abuse through the lens of your perpetrators is forgiveness.
Yes, you will need to forgive those who hurt you. But, before you cuss me out and stop reading, let me explain that…
what you think forgiving means is very different from what I am suggesting you do.
Here is a link to an article I wrote on forgiveness.
Most people think that to forgive is to exonerate someone of any responsibility for their behavior. This is what I call a biblical understanding as when Jesus forgave someone and they were born again.
Your perpetrator did what he, she or they did and probably do not deserve to be exonerated.
But, whether they do or do not deserve exoneration is not the issue here.
When you hold on to your (totally understandable) animosity toward your perpetrator, you bind yourself to them psychologically. Wherever you go, they go with you. This is the reason that your recovery is difficult. You are tightly bound psychologically to those who victimized you.
Forgiveness involves separating yourself from these bad people who hurt you.
Forgiveness says, “I hope you burn in hell (emphasis added) but I am done with you. You no longer have any power or influence over me. What you did will never be okay but I am moving on.”
Forgiveness is an act taken for you. It has nothing at all to do with your perpetrator!
The third and final element is you.
Wait a minute, you say, I’m the victim. How am I an “element” in recovering from my abuse?
A fair question!
While it may not be the case for you, many victims often blame themselves in part or completely for their victimization.
I worked with a young woman who was raped when she took a shortcut home to her grandmother’s house. Grandma had told her not to take the short cut as it was dangerous. She was in a hurry, took the shortcut and was raped.
She reasoned that she was responsible for the rape because she had been warned, disregarded the warning, and suffered the consequences.
While it is true that she would not have been raped if she had listened to grandma, it is not true that she is responsible for the rape. She is “guilty” of poor judgment. The rapist is totally responsible for the rape.
Self-blame occurs for at least two reasons:
• The victim is trying to make sense of an unreasonable event and focuses on themselves because the actions of the perpetrator are incomprehensible.
• The perpetrator has told the victim the abuse is their fault. “If you hadn’t done XYZ, I wouldn’t have beat you!” or “If you weren’t so attractive, I wouldn’t have…”.
The “reason” why you might blame yourself is not critical here. What is important is that you “forgive” yourself.
Forgiveness here means that whatever actions you might have taken which appear to connect you to the event did not cause or give your perpetrator permission to commit the abuse. You are acknowledging any action you might have done and separating it from the event.
To get a great deal more info on emotions and other topics, please visit my blog (TheEmotionsDoctor.com).
I hope this has been helpful and that it starts your process of recovery and gives you a roadmap to getting the help (professional or otherwise) you require.