Recovering from the Lasting Shame of Emotional Abuse
After escaping an emotionally abusive relationship, shame needs to be healed.
- For victims of emotional abuse, shame causes damage to their perceptions of themselves, ongoing disgust and humiliation, and self-criticism for putting up with the abuse.
- Working to reduce shame is an important part of the healing process.
- Changing one’s posture, such as sitting up straighter and expanding one’s chest, can help eliminate shame and make people feel more empowered.
- Practicing self-compassion can also help as it releases oxytocin, which increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness.
- Validating yourself, for instance by writing yourself a letter, and having others validate your experience of abuse can help heal shame too.
Even those who have managed to escape an emotionally abusive relationship need to continue to heal their shame. This is because shame carves deep scars in people who have endured emotional abuse. These scars include:
- Damage to your core perception of yourself and your identity;
- Continuing to be overwhelmed with feelings of disgust and humiliation;
- Continuing to chastise yourself for putting up with the abuse.
You, like many former victims, may be haunted by the realization that you put up with the abuse for too long, the shame of having kept the secret from friends and family, and the continuing tendency to question whether the failure of the relationship was somehow your fault. If this isn’t enough, shame can poison your belief in yourself, including your belief that you can make it on your own; your belief that anyone will ever love you again; the belief that you are capable of choosing a healthy, safe partner in the future.
All this shame needs to be healed. It needs to be addressed head-on and banished from your body, mind, and spirit. In a previous blog post, I discussed my shame reduction program. In this post, I will offer more ways for you to continue to heal your shame, including learning more specific compassionate attitudes and skills that can reverse your tendency to view yourself in blaming, condemning, and self-critical ways.
Changing Your Posture to Heal Shame
Our body communicates to ourselves and to others how we feel about ourselves. For example, our posture lets us and others know how we perceive ourselves. Working with body posture has proven effective in helping clients to eliminate shame and begin to feel more empowered. Case in point, recently, trauma experts such as Peter Levine and Bessel van der Kolk have been working with clients on helping them change their posture from the typical shame posture of slumping their shoulders, curling their chest in, and head down to a more empowering one of head up, chest out and shoulders back.
The following body exercise will help you begin to change your posture, which in turn can help you change your emotions and your mind.
Exercise: Taking the Shame Out of Your Posture
- Sit in a chair the way you normally do. If you can sit in front of a mirror, that is ideal but it isn’t necessary. Notice your posture. Are you slumped over or are you sitting straight? Are your shoulders pulled back or are they slumped forward, almost as if they are protecting your chest area?
- Notice how your posture makes you feel? Do you feel low energy? Do you feel passive?
- Now pull your shoulders back and sit up straighter. Imagine that there is an imaginary string attached to your head and that someone is pulling on the string and making your head lift. Take a deep breath and expand your chest, almost like you are Tarzan pounding your chest. With each deep breath notice how your chest feels like it is opening up.
- Notice how you feel now. Do you sense any difference in how you feel emotionally when you sit up straighter, when you expand your chest? If you are sitting near a mirror notice how your appearance has changed.
Practice Self-Compassion to Increase Positive Feelings
Continuing to practice self-compassion is the most powerful way for you to heal your shame. In addition to self-compassion being the antidote to shame, it can also act as an antidote to self-criticism—a major tendency of those who experience intense shame. Research has found that self-compassion is a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness.
Self-criticism, on the other hand, has a very different effect on our bodies. The amygdala, the oldest part of the brain, is designed to quickly detect threats in the environment. When we experience a threatening situation, the fight-or-flight response is triggered and the amygdala sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol, mobilizing the strength and energy we need to confront or avoid the threat. Although our bodies created this system to deal with physical attacks, it is activated just as readily by emotional attacks—from within and without. Over time, increased cortisol levels lead to depression because they deplete the various neurotransmitters that allow us to experience pleasure.
One of the many benefits of practicing self-compassion is that it releases oxytocin into our body. The following exercise will show you ways to utilize this oxytocin.
Exercise: Utilizing Oxytocin
Bring to mind someone you love. This can be a dear friend, a beloved child or pet, or someone who has offered you love and support, such as a therapist.
- Feel the love you feel for this person (or pet) in your body. Notice how it feels. Sense the flow of love from you to them.
- After you’ve connected to this feeling of love, put your inner self into this flow of love. Continue to feel the empathy and love you felt for your loved one. Let it flow to yourself.
- If you can, let yourself receive this love and empathy; receive the care, the feeling of being loved and cared for by yourself.
The Importance of Validation from Yourself and from Others
There is still another benefit that comes from self-compassion: validation. Put simply, to validate is to confirm. Validation is the recognition and acceptance of another person’s internal experience as mattering. When someone validates another’s experience, the message they send is, “Your feelings make sense. Not only do I hear you, I also understand why you feel as you do. You are not bad or wrong or crazy for feeling the way you do.”
On the other hand, to invalidate means to attack or question the foundation or reality of a person’s feelings. This can be done through denying, ridiculing, ignoring, or judging another person’s feelings. Regardless of the method, the effect is clear: The person feels “wrong.” Because of what you have been through, it is vitally important that your perceptions and your feelings are validated today. Having self-compassion, connecting to one’s own suffering, is a way of validating yourself, your feelings, your perception, and your experience.
It is often a lack of validation that contributes to the development of feelings of guilt and shame as a reaction to negative experiences. For example, if you are like most victims of emotional abuse, you likely have not told anyone about the abuse. Because of this, your experience of the abuse itself has likely never been validated. In order to heal from the abuse and the shame surrounding it, it is important that you receive validation now—from yourself and others.
Self-compassion will help you give yourself the nurturance, understanding, and validation you so desperately need in order to heal your shame and begin to feel worthy of care and acceptance.
Exercise: The Compassionate Letter
Write a “compassionate letter” to yourself in which you offer yourself compassion for all you’ve suffered as a result of the emotional abuse you experienced with your partner. Your letter might start with the following:
“I am so sorry you suffered so much in your marriage. I know it was almost unbearable to put up with that abuse for so many years. I know you felt so trapped and so alone. I know you were afraid to tell anyone what was happening to you because you were afraid they wouldn’t believe you or they would reject you. And since you loved your husband and he was a good father and a good provider, I know you felt guilty just thinking about leaving him. Your husband did so many terrible things to you and said such horrible things to you and I wish this wouldn’t have happened to you. And I wish there had been someone there to comfort you after each and every one of these traumas. You suffered from depression and self-blame afterwards and you became more and more numb. You didn’t deserve to be treated like this.”
Two researchers, Leah B. Shapira and Myriam Mongrain, found in one study they conducted that adults who wrote a compassionate letter to themselves once a day for a week about the distressing events they had experienced showed significant reductions in depression over three months and significant increases in happiness over six months, compared with a control group that was asked to write about early memories.
In addition to validating yourself, you need to be validated by others. I encourage you to tell someone you trust about the fact that you have been emotionally abused. I know it is scary. You may have tried this before and found that the person didn’t believe you or tried to talk you out of trusting your own experience. But you are stronger now and you don’t need someone else believing you in order to know what reality is. You do, however, need to step out of your isolation and discover whether there are those around you who will believe and support you. One of the best places to receive this support is a group for people who are being emotionally abused. Find out if such a group exists in your community.
Engel, Beverly. (2020). Escaping Emotional Abuse: Healing the Shame You Don’t Deserve. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp.