It is widespread for survivors of psychological abuse to blame themselves. The abuser blamed all the relationship issues on the survivor, and it is very easy to come into agreement with a false narrative about ourselves. When someone berates us by highlighting our character defects, and we know we are a flawed human being, it is easy to slowly begin taking the blame and letting the abuser entirely off the hook for their toxic behaviors.
What does it look like when a survivor of abuse blames themselves? They say things like, “I did make mistakes in the relationship” or “I know I am not easy to get along with.” These statements might be accurate, but we have to look at the context and environment of the relationship.
Abusers push their targets to behave in ways that are abnormal to the target’s personality.
In the case of childhood abuse, toxic parents push children and teens to an emotional and physical breaking point. As adults, the same goes for toxic partners, family members, co-workers, and religious leaders.
Each abuser revels in their ability to get the target to fall apart or lash out.
When a survivor has either of these emotional responses and everything in between, the abuser feels validated in their complaints against the victim. The spotlight of responsibility has shifted, and it lands squarely on the survivor.
Blaming ourselves is a normal stage that I believe all survivors must address at some point in their recovery. Telling ourselves how stupid we were for falling for a toxic person doesn’t help our healing. Words are powerful, and our inner dialogue will either help or hinder our recovery progress.
As tempting as it is to want to focus on what you did wrong in the relationship, I am going to ask that we hold off on that discussion until you’ve reached Stage Five: Restoration in my book Healing from Hidden Abuse.
Looking at your part too early in the recovery journey is harmful to your healing. That may seem counterintuitive, but trust me when I say that early in the process, any self-reflection is going to be tainted by the abuser’s voice, words, judgments of you, and their lies about your value. In my counseling practice as a trauma therapist, I have seen this play out time and time again. My clients know that I push this particular self-reflection conversation away from our early work and leave it for later in the healing process. I do this so any false guilt and shame from the abuser have already been adequately addressed and deprogrammed.
To recap, victims of psychological abuse blame themselves because the abuser pushed all responsibility onto the victim, and it’s easy to take on lies about ourselves when it’s directed at us by someone we once trusted.
Keep Dreaming Big!
One of the most common misconceptions I see online in the abuse recovery community are people posting that psychological abusers are just wounded people who don’t know any better. Victims to their childhood abuse who went on to hurt people similarly. You know the saying, “wounded people, wound people.” As a certified trauma therapist, I find this assumption to be false about psychological abusers and would like to unpack the topic a little more than can be done in an Instagram comment section.
I want to make it clear that both forms of abuse, emotional and psychological, are damaging to the victims, create life chaos, and are unacceptable in any relationship whether that be in a family, romantic relationship, among peers, at work, or in a place of worship.
The driving motivations behind emotional and psychological abuse are where the two topics split from one another and victims need to be well-versed in the underlying reason for the behaviors.
Can someone be both an emotional and psychological abuser? For me, the clinical answer is no. It is one or the other and depends on why the individual is behaving in harmful ways.
Let’s look at the differences.
Emotional abusers react out of their core wounds that have never been healed. They can trace back where they learned maladaptive coping skills and are continuing to hold on to them into adulthood.
Emotional abusers are authentically remorseful for their actions. They know something is wrong in the way they react to every day stressful situations. They are truly embarrassed by their behaviors.
It’s not that emotional abusers don’t know any better. They don’t know how to do any better. There is a huge difference between these two.
Emotional abusers hold a deep sense of shame about their brokenness and how it manifests in their life and those who are close to them. They know they are perhaps repeating verbal abuse patterns they loathed while growing up in an unstable home.
Emotional abusers may have an untreated, or poorly regulated, mental health diagnoses that can make maintaining stable moods a true challenge. I do not include personality disorders in this criteria. Diagnoses such as bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, or major depressive disorder can cause someone to have unregulated emotions that can cross over into unintentional emotionally abusive behaviors.
Emotional abuse is a common byproduct of addiction and chemical dependency. The addict’s life focus is on feeding their addiction and can become incredibly emotionally abusive in the singular pursuit of their drug of choice.
Emotional abusers often have chaos in many areas of life functioning. Maintaining a stable, calm existence is a challenge for many people who are also emotionally abusive.
Emotional abusers can change.
They can learn new coping skills that give them the tools to stop themselves before lashing out verbally. They can go to addiction treatment and live a peaceful life, clean and sober. They can do the daily work to maintain their mental health in a way that keeps them emotionally stable and regulated. I will say it again for emphasis, emotional abusers can and do permanently change for the better.
Psychological abusers never change.
Psychological abusers believe their assessment of you, and everyone else around them, is correct. They are not open to learning new coping skills and why would they? In their assessments, they are as close to perfect as someone can be and it is everyone else who needs the help.
Psychological abusers will pretend to be remorseful for some of their abusive behaviors, but no lasting change ever comes. They always return to their toxic baseline. Their “regret” is a façade to keep the victim in the relationship and available for more abuse.
Psychological abuses blame other people for their actions. They rarely give an authentic apology for being abusive because to do so would be to admit they are flawed just like everyone else.
Psychological abusers enjoy the game of making people frustrated. They create chaos on purpose because they find it entertaining to watch those around them react.
Psychological abuse is rooted in power and control of those around them.
Psychological abusers do not have other true mental health or addiction issues that could be the cause of some of their abusive behaviors. They choose to harm out of their free-will. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not the same diagnosis category as bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, or major depressive disorder. NPD is not a true mental health, biochemically-based, condition. It is a personality disorder. I believe NPD is not a brain-based malfunction, but repeatedly choosing not to express empathy for others. If trauma can change brain function, not living in an empathetic manner could, and does, as well.
Psychological abusers know when to turn on and off their abusive behaviors. They are always trying to fly under the radar so no one can pinpoint their actions and accurately accuse them of being an abuser.
Psychological abusers are in control of their actions. Their lives tend to be high-functioning, or at least normal functioning. They can manipulate people around them into meeting their needs, while selfishly not being concerned by the needs of others.
These are but just a few of the differences between emotional and psychological abuse. The motivation of behaviors should help victims better understand what they are facing and make life choices that are right for them.
There are no excuses for any abusive behaviors going untreated or unchanged.
Remember, keep dreaming big!
For those of us who live with the daily task of recovering from trauma, there are a few realities that we must authentically acknowledge and even embrace. Post-trauma life can be amazing, but we cannot afford to be in any denial about how our life experiences have changed us and our daily life. Trauma survivors in recovery know the importance of being truthful with ourselves and those around us.
Some people cannot be in our inner circle.
When we’ve experienced trauma, we don’t have the luxury of having high-conflict people in our life. There are some individuals who enjoy snarky dialogue or pushing buttons just for the purpose of creating tension. Trauma survivors cannot emotionally or physically afford to allow these people to come close. Our body and mind already have been on adrenaline and cortisol overload. High-conflict people cause us to go on a roller coaster ride that has very negative consequences for our well-being.
Be prepared for extra body pain.
Trauma survivors often experience symptoms of chronic body pain, headaches, poor digestion, and an array of other stress-induced physical symptoms. We must be prepared for flare-ups and have a trusted regimen to help bring down the intensity of a body reaction to living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What works for one person, may not for another. For example, ice may help a trauma survivor with muscle soreness, but can cause a flare-up for another person. Through a trial and error process, people will be able to create a trusted go-to list for when trauma shows more intensely within their body.
We rebound slower from everyday stress.
Even though it feels offensive, and even unfair, life continues after we’ve experienced a traumatic event or continuous trauma in the case of relational abuse. We will have days or weeks where we are exhausted from demands at work or a string of tough parenting days when a little one refuses to sleep all through the night. Normal life happens around us and to us; even when we don’t believe we have the capacity to face life challenges in a healthy way.
We must maintain a gentle self-awareness that normal life stress will impact trauma survivors more intensely. It is not because we are weaker or less capable. It’s because our entire system has already been at full capacity because of the trauma we experienced, and additional stress will cause a new surge of overload.
Before everyday stress begins to take its toll, it’s important to be proactive in our recovery. When we have a big deadline at work, let’s create extra recharge time to help us get through. We cannot expect ourselves to throttle at full speed without some kickback in our wellness. Planning ahead for a dip in our energy will keep us from falling into a trigger slump that could potentially cause a pocket of situational depression to creep in.
Tough days will come, but they also fade out.
Those of us living in trauma recovery know that some days you open your eyes in the morning and can just feel something is off. Nothing new happened to create a shift in our recovery path. We may have even recently reached new healing milestones, so waking up to an unannounced bad day feels like our mind and body is revolting against us. It can be extremely confusing.
Why do tough days happen in an unprovoked way for trauma survivors? At times, our subconscious may have been processing uncomfortable aspects of our life experiences while we were sleeping. Other times, stress in our lives could have been building over the previous several days, or weeks, but we didn’t notice it until the tension landed heavy on our emotions and body.
It is very important that we are compassionate with ourselves when the tough days jump out at us. These are the hours when we take one step at a time. We make a true must-do list that consists of only those items that are critical to that specific day and nothing more. On these tough days, it’s perfectly okay to let family and close friends know that we’re having an off day and are needing their support.
Bad days in our recovery journey are not permanent set-backs. They are days when we get to exercise gentleness and work our recovery program with even more purpose. It helps to not make hard days a catastrophe.
Trauma can whisper that rough days are signs that we are not “really healed” but that is a lie. Tough days come and they go. Our attitude will help to move past them quicker.
We will have a heightened awareness of our surroundings.
PTSD can create sensory sensitivity that causes us to live in prickly awareness of our environment. The extra jarring car ride can feel overwhelming. The scent of cologne or perfume worn by a co-worker will bring on a headache or nausea. Our skin can feel like it’s on fire. Layered environmental noises can cause an anxiety attack to creep up. We live in a world of overwhelming sights, sounds, smells, touch, and that’s before experiencing trauma. Post-trauma life can bring us to a saturation level.
When we find ourselves in a sensory overload, it’s critical that we first acknowledge that we are overwhelmed, take a few cleansing deep breaths, and begin to turn down the sensory overload. Stepping away from our phones, turning off the car radio, using foam earplugs to create a quiet space, turning down the volume on the television, softening the room lighting or other ways that work to create gentleness help in reducing trauma-induced sensory overload.
Living a post-trauma life has it challenges, and we must be committed to finding a quality of life that works for our particular situation. Being aware of specific ways to reduce trauma triggers and a recovery program that works are both vital to living a vibrant life with PTSD.
Keep Dreaming Big!
As a therapist, I work with people on a variety of topics that can range anywhere on the intensity spectrum. Some individuals want to work on setting and reaching personal development goals, while others seek me out because I’m a certified trauma therapist and they’ve walked through the searing fire of life-altering experiences. Even though the spectrum of counseling is wide, there are several common themes that may be present, such as a wave of grief that often accompanies reaching new levels of healing and growth.
As the therapeutic process continues, people begin to see a transformation happen within themselves. They can point to tangible evidence that shows they’re getting healthier and feel themselves coming to life from achieving their goals. Each person who reaches this place of growth expresses heartfelt gratitude, but can also be surprised that the other emotion they’re now feeling is grief. This grief centers around the years lost and wasted moments that feel unredeemable. Often, this grief can turn into self-blame for feeling like you could’ve done things differently or not waited so long to begin making healthy choices.
With all growth, whether after trauma or personal development, there comes a wave of grief. It sounds like, “Why didn’t I do this sooner? Why did I let myself live like that for so long? How could I have wasted so much time? How could I have been so blinded by what was happening?”
While we don’t expect sadness to accompany reaching a milestone in our growth, it’s a common experience. Once we’ve tasted the goodness of restoration in an area of life, we kick ourselves for not having made the changes sooner. In order to fully enjoy our growth, we must address this new grief.
The good news is that the bouts of sadness that come with growth are often short-term. It’s not the sort of grief that lingers and drains your soul. If addressed properly, growth grief should only last a few weeks. Once acknowledged, this grief dissipates rather quickly because regret isn’t the same as a fresh trauma experience or remaining stuck without hope for change. It’s sadness for what could’ve been sooner.
I believe the grief would linger longer if growth wasn’t the catalyst. In other words, if change hadn’t already taken place, the sadness would be a present issue, not looking back at lost days. The sadness would be about being stagnant, not having already overcome. This helps move the growth grief needle along quickly and for that, I’m grateful. It would be terrible to work hard at making lasting changes only to get trapped in a box of shame for what could’ve been sooner. What a complete waste of time and effort towards growth.
Radical acceptance is at the heart of moving past any grieving experience that’s associated with personal development. Once we feel regret settling in, we can move forward by acknowledging exactly what’s been lost during the years of stagnation or trauma wounds. This form of acceptance doesn’t mean we force ourselves to be okay with the harm done. Not at all. Radical acceptance means that we face our sadness, regret and feelings head-on and that might be confusing after reaching a positive milestone.
Any personal growth we experience must be celebrated because it’s not easy to change our habits and hang-ups. As the saying goes, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. All we need to do is look around to see plenty of people who aren’t putting in the hard work to change themselves for the better or find true healing post-trauma. If you’ve been confronted with the unsettling emotions of regret and sadness after the high of personal growth, be gentle with yourself. You worked hard to achieve the healing, so don’t allow this new season to get bogged down by unnecessary shame or regret. Change happened when you were ready, so enjoy and embrace every moment.
Keep Dreaming Big!