If you have been in an abusive relationship in the past, memories of that relationship will likely stay with you for the rest of your life. Experiencing abuse is not something that is easy to process, and it can take time for you to fully recognise the impact of what has happened.
People will cope with trauma in different ways, but there are a few key things you can do to help you process and recover from what has happened to you. Chances are that mentally revisiting the abuse you have experienced will always be painful in some way, but there are things you can do to stop this pain encroaching on your everyday life. Living a life free from abuse does not mean that all your problems will be magically sorted; but there are steps you can take to adapt and help yourself to process the trauma you have experienced.
Try to acknowledge what has happened
Sometimes it is difficult for survivors to fully accept the extent to which they have been abused. Though you know something bad has happened to you, and you know what that person did was wrong, it can be hard to confront the reality of abuse. This is made doubly difficult by the fact that leaving an abusive partner does not automatically make you stop loving or caring for them. Worse still, the narcissistic traits of many abusers lead them to shirk responsibility for the harm they have caused or become angry when confronted with evidence of their negative behaviour. This can mean that survivors have to unlearn habits of never blaming their abuser for anything before they can fully acknowledge the fact of their abuse.
Acknowledging what has happened is not the same as replaying abuse over and over again in one’s head. Dwelling internally and repeatedly on abuse is not healthy, but it is important to open yourself up to the fact that you have indeed been abused. As abuse is sadly stigmatised in society, it can be harder for survivors to admit to themselves that they have been abused, and so survivors should remember never to feel ashamed of their experiences. If you feel shame, you are less likely to be honest with yourself about how badly you have been treated. And besides, the only shame for abuse lies with the abuser themselves.
Talk about how you feel with someone you trust and/or with a counsellor/DV professional
Talking about how you feel with someone else is really important. If you’re not ready to share the details of your experiences that’s okay, and if you are, that’s okay too. If you have someone you trust, like a parent, friend or even new partner, open up to them. Don’t underestimate how helpful this can be.
For many abuse survivors, our feelings and memories stay internalised in our own heads for quite some time before we let others know about them. The mental strain of keeping such information and emotional trauma all to yourself can be far too great to bear and it can be genuinely freeing to tell someone else how you feel.
As a survivor, you may feel confused or guilty for what has happened to you; you may feel that you should have done x or y and are constantly telling yourself these things. Speaking to someone else can help you to put these thoughts in perspective. While the knowledge of the abuse and/or how you feel remains yours alone, it is easy for you to be harsh on yourself with no reprieve from self-deprecating thoughts. Sharing how you feel with others can help you to both mitigate the impact of these thoughts and even reduce their intensity and frequency as you begin to realise that you have nothing to berate yourself for.
Of course, don’t feel you have to speak to someone before you are ready. These things take time and you should be allowing yourself time to think, speak and simply take a break. Don’t underestimate that you need to be kind to yourself and only do things you feel comfortable with.
Do ‘normal’ things
If you feel able to, try doing ‘normal’ things, either to distract yourself or give yourself something to look forward to.
In a controlling relationship, many abusive partners make their victims feel guilty for doing ‘normal’ things like seeing friends, going shopping or chatting to their families. It may be that you still have some residual guilt from being in that abusive relationship and so it may feel even tougher to do those little things that mark out normality.
However, doing these things is nothing to feel ashamed or guilty about. You can even try to mentally reframe doing these things as a positive action that challenges and tests the hold of the abuse you were subjected to.
Doing ‘normal’ things helps you to build a sense of routine and reconnect with the world around you – an important thing especially if your partner has isolated you.
Get involved in support groups
There are plenty of support groups for survivors of abusive relationships to get involved with. RISE runs peer-to-peer groups which can really help as they allow you to interact with others in similar situations. This can be really helpful for processing the wrongs perpetrated against you. When you consider another person’s story, and recognise that they were ill-treated, it becomes easier to identify the ill-treatment you have been subjected to.
Many groups follow specific programmes which can help you to come to terms with your trauma; they also offer a community space which allows you to forge new and meaningful connections and develop a support network. Many abusers seek to dismantle support networks; you can build yours up once more with the help of a group like this.
Let yourself feel the way you feel and don’t judge or dismiss your emotions
Allow yourself to feel and be emotional. You may have processed that you have been abused, but that won’t necessarily stop you from grieving for what can essentially feel like the loss of a loved one. Even if you no longer feel love for your abusive (former) partner, you may grieve for the fact of having lost that feeling of love and even being loved.
And if you feel hatred for your partner that is ok too – and there is no need to feel guilty.
Accepting your emotions and allowing yourself to feel them without guilt or shame is a vital step towards processing your experiences.
Please note that the information in this article is intended to be used as a guide and not as medical advice.