Part 1: How practicing self-compassion can help heal emotional abuse.
- Self-compassion is a powerful tool for those who experience emotional abuse.
- Those experiencing emotional abuse seldom offer themselves compassion.
- Self-compassion can help you develop more self-acceptance.
If you have been a victim of emotional or physical abuse, you are probably very good at putting yourself in your partner’s position and imagining how they feel. And you no doubt have a great deal of compassion for how difficult your partner’s life has been and what struggles and challenges he faces every day. But I doubt that you offer yourself the same compassion.
Instead of being concerned about your own life and your struggles, you probably tend to ignore these things. Instead of acknowledging how much you suffer from your partner’s disrespectful, hurtful, and abusive behavior, you probably minimize and deny it. Instead of offering yourself self-understanding for how you have had to learn to cope with the abuse, you are likely extremely self-critical.
There is a way to turn this dynamic around, and it is for you to learn to become as compassionate toward yourself as you are toward others—especially your partner. In this article, I will introduce you to the concept and practice of self-compassion and explain how it can aid you in healing from the emotional abuse you have experienced and help you gain the courage, strength, and determination to end an abusive relationship.
Whereas compassion is the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of another human being, self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with your suffering. More specifically, for our purposes, self-compassion is the act of extending compassion to yourself in instances of suffering or perceived inadequacy and failure.
Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is the leading researcher in the growing field of self-compassion. In her ground-breaking book, Self-Compassion (2011), she defined self-compassion as:
Being open to and moved by one’s suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.
Providing yourself with self-compassion is going to be the most healing thing you can do for yourself. Primarily, it will help you be less critical and impatient with yourself—a habit you undoubtedly have taken on due to the amount of criticism you have heard from your partner. It will help you judge yourself less harshly and move you toward more self-acceptance—something you desperately need.
Think of yourself as a cactus that lives in the harshest conditions—little water, extreme heat, few nutrients from the sand you are planted in. Even under these sparse conditions, you have managed to survive, but certainly not to thrive. I want you to thrive. I want you to be one of those cacti that bloom beautiful pink flowers.
The way for you to do this is with self-compassion. Providing yourself with self-compassion will be like having a soft rain trickle down upon you, satisfying your thirsty soul. It will be like a gentle wind coming up to cool your parched skin. And most important, it will be like precious nutrients sinking into your hungry spirit.
Self-compassion begins with acknowledging your suffering. If you don’t do this, you can’t expect yourself to heal from the multitude of wounds you have experienced. If you are like most people, you’ve become accustomed to ignoring your pain and suffering. You believe you need to “grin and bear it.”
But now, you need to stop and address your suffering because you can’t heal what you don’t acknowledge.
Write About Your Pain
Begin by making a list of all the ways your partner has been abusive to you. It may take some time to create this list. Once you have completed it, you will need to go one step further: Identify and connect with the pain attached to each type of emotional abuse or each incident of emotional abuse. Here are some examples of what I am talking about:
“When my husband criticizes me I feel pain in the following ways____________________.”
“When my wife makes fun of me in front of others it affects me in the following ways___________”
“When my partner accuses me of things I didn’t do I feel hurt because________________.”
While you no doubt feel other emotions such as shame and fear, and anger, for now, focus on your pain. Write about the pain you feel due to your partner’s treatment of you.
Here is an example of what one client wrote:
When my partner criticizes me, I feel this intense pain. It feels like I’m being burnt with a hot iron or a hot branding tool. The hot pain pierces my skin, my organs, down to my very core. I feel mortally wounded. The pain is so bad I can’t believe I can survive it.
And here is another client example:
When my husband starts in on me, I feel like I’m drowning. As he barrages me with one criticism after another, I feel like I’m sinking deeper and deeper. I can’t breathe, and I can’t stop myself from sinking. I feel helpless and hopeless.
Notice how these images and writings give us a real sense of what it feels like to be emotionally abused. While the feeling can be different from person to person, the overall idea is the same. The pain is almost unbearable, and it has a visceral effect—a felt sense.
Your pain doesn’t go away because you ignore it. Unexpressed emotions tend to fester and grow. Offering yourself self-compassion involves first acknowledging your pain and suffering and then comforting yourself.
Exercise: Talking to Your Pain and Suffering
- Sit quietly with no distractions around you.
- Take some deep breaths.
- See if you can find your pain by either visualizing it or noticing it in your body. You can imagine it to be an object, a color, or a shape.
- Imagine you are reaching inside and pulling out your pain.
- Imagine placing your pain in the palm of your hand and lifting your palm to your lips.
- Whisper these words to your pain and suffering:
“I see you.”
“I hear you.”
“I’m so sorry you have suffered.”
Once you have begun to acknowledge your pain and suffering, you have taken the first step toward offering yourself self-compassion. Most victims of emotional abuse have received very little compassion or empathy for the suffering they have endured due to emotional abuse. Emotional abusers are notorious for lacking the ability to have empathy or compassion for others.
Since most abusers are bent on blaming their partner and trying to make them feel bad about themselves, they aren’t likely to express any feelings of concern, caring, or understanding of their partner’s feelings. They are more likely to try to talk their partners out of their feelings, accuse them of exaggerating, trying to get attention, or expecting too much.
On the other hand, victims are so busy blaming and shaming themselves that they seldom, if ever, experience compassion for themselves. And victims seldom tell anyone about the fact that they are being abused, so they miss opportunities for others to provide them with empathy and compassion.
Having self-compassion, connecting to one’s suffering, is a way of validating yourself, your feelings, perception, and experience. The emotional abuse you have experienced has damaged your self-esteem and self-confidence. It has made you feel so bad about yourself that you have begun to feel unworthy and unlovable. It probably has caused you to question your perceptions and even your sanity. These and other consequences of emotional abuse are some of the ways you have suffered at the hands of your partner. It would help if you acknowledged these wounds to heal them. If, on the other hand, you continue to minimize or deny how your partner has harmed you, not only will you not have the opportunity to heal your wounds, but you will be adding to them day after day.
Let It Sink In
Take time now to let in pain you are faced with every day. Allow yourself to feel compassion for what you have endured and for what you will likely continue to endure. Acknowledge how hard it has been to be constantly criticized, threatened, yelled at, lied to, blamed, ignored, and dismissed.
Exercise: Your Experiences of Abuse
Use the same list you created of how your partner for this exercise has abused you.
- Read through your list carefully, taking time to take in the fact that you suffered from each type of emotional abuse. Now read each item and take a deep breath. This will allow you to absorb the fact that you suffered from this form of abuse. If at all possible, do this with each and every item on your list.
- Allow yourself to experience whatever feelings arise in you. Don’t hold back. Remember, acknowledging your feelings is a significant part of addressing your suffering and a beginning step toward offering yourself self-compassion.
If you don’t stop to acknowledge just how bad it is, you risk normalizing your partner’s abusive behavior. It would be best to acknowledge how much the criticism, the gaslighting, the unreasonable expectations, the constant blaming, shaming and humiliation, damages you daily. It would help if you admitted the truth—that all of it is bad and that you don’t deserve any of it.
To come to believe that you deserve to be treated with respect by others, particularly your partner, you need to learn how to recognize and then tend to your suffering. And before you can teach others to treat you with kindness and respect, you will need to learn to treat yourself with kindness and respect. This brings us to the next step. In Part II of this series, I will focus on self-kindness, an important aspect of self-compassion.
Engel, Beverly (2021). Escaping Emotional Abuse: Healing the Shame You Don’t Deserve. New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp.