One of the most common things I hear from survivors of psychological abuse is their confusion about why they didn’t notice the red flags sooner in the relationship. It doesn’t matter if the toxic person is a parent, co-worker, friend or love interest, almost all survivors seriously doubt themselves for not seeing the toxicity earlier. Once a survivor’s eyes are opened to the abuse they have endured, they wonder why they didn’t set better boundaries before they found themselves in a world of hurt from the psychological games. Survivors of this type of abuse have their lives completely rocked and thrown into chaos. The common question is “how did I let this happen to me?”
The truth is that this form of abuse is difficult to specifically pinpoint and that’s what makes it so insidious. The abuser works hard to hide their true motives so they lie and shift the blame onto the survivor. In order for the pattern of abuse to be really seen, it takes a survivor many episodes that leave them deeply hurt. It is not a one-and-done type of abuse.
Psychological abuse is a pervasive pattern of covertly harming another person. I often relate the process that survivors go through as collecting pebbles. One pebble represents a negative encounter with a psychological abuser.
In the early stages of a relationship or an awareness that something isn’t right, a survivor will have a few pebbles in their metaphorical bag. The bag isn’t very heavy and only carries a couple weird or hurtful moments with an abuser. Certainly not enough evidence of abuse to cut a family member out of your life, quit your job, break up with a boyfriend/girlfriend and most definitely not enough to end a marriage. It’s only a few negative moments, right? At this point, survivors will rationalize that nobody is perfect, everyone has character defects and good days/bad days. It is human nature to not take too seriously one or two or three or four unpleasant moments with people. We often shrug it off and move on.
However, after time of collecting “pebbles,” the bag becomes very heavy. Too heavy to carry anymore and many survivors describe being crushed under the weight of the abuse and chronic dysfunction of the abuser. Survivors experience physical and emotional issues due to the weight of the bag of pebbles and toxicity of the environment. Some survivors share their During and After the abuse pictures and it is stunning to see how each and every one of them looked overwhelmed and exhausted during the abuse. The After pictures are extremely encouraging that recovery can be complete and permanent.
Are you collecting pebbles of odd or outright abusive encounters with a toxic person? How heavy is your bag right now? If there are just a few pebbles, take note of any patterns of behaviors that are starting to emerge. Be prepared to set boundaries if or when the pebbles start to pile up.
What do you do if your bag of pebbles is so heavy you can’t even lift it anymore and feel suffocated by the bag? First, breathe. Take a minute and pause. You are not crazy. You more than likely have been spun into such a chaotic state that you’re not sure which way is up anymore. Taking care of yourself physically is a great first step towards recovery from psychological abuse. Going to bed earlier, getting enough exercise and eating a little healthier are all helpful towards finding your way out of a dark pit. There are different aspect to being in recovery and each survivor has to figure out what is right for them and their specific situation. Finding a therapist or online support group that specializes in healing from psychological abuse is often vital for people to begin the healing process.
I wish that no one needed to be on the lookout for pebbles of abuse but the reality is that toxic people exist and trying to get a survivor to not notice the pattern is part of the dysfunction. Collecting pebbles helps gather the moments in one place so the true weight of the situation can be recognized.
Keep dreaming big!