After abuse, the trauma you’re left with is like a gaping hole in the roof of your house. You can either cover it with a cheap plastic tarp—a fast and easy, though only temporary, solution—or you can begin the slightly more time-intensive work of building a stronger roof that you feel safe underneath.
Learning healthy coping strategies will not only help you feel stronger mentally and emotionally after abuse, but can also lessen your chances of being deceived by another abuser in the future (yay, boundaries!). Below, Nickia Lowery, licensed professional counselor and CEO at Optimum Purpose Counseling and Education in Atlanta, walks us through some not-so-healthy ways we may cope, and some better options we may want to consider instead.
Unhealthy Coping Strategies
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1. Ignoring Your Feelings. It’s not unusual for survivors to deny they were abused or to avoid talking about it all together, either while it’s still going on or after they’ve left the abuser. This may be the fallout of the social stigma that surrounds abuse, or it could be the result of psychological mind tricks by the abuser, who often minimizes the abuse.
“Anything that leads to you not being able to admit the full scale of what occurred is going to be a barrier to your healing,” says Lowery. “If you find yourself minimizing, denying, avoiding [an abuser’s behavior], that’s a red flag right there.”
When you’re ready, talk to an advocate, counselor or a good friend. Just being able to say it out loud—this is what happened to me—is going to jumpstart your healing, and possibly be the impetus for your escape.
2. Guilt and Shame. “A lot of times, when they’re in the midst of abuse, [survivors] can make excuses for their partner,” says Lowery. “There’s also a gaslighting component. ‘Maybe I did do something to cause this.’ Afterward, it’s ‘Why didn’t I see the signs? How did I get so far into it?’” What you need to remember is trauma-related guilt is a liar. “When I work with survivors … I teach them to practice self-compassion,” says Beverly Engel, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of It Wasn’t Your Fault. “If they can turn their attention from the abuser to themselves and emotionally connect with their own suffering, they soon discover that their trauma-related guilt subsides.”
3. Drugs and Alcohol. One or both these substances may seem like the way to drown out all those uncomfortable feelings that come along with surviving trauma, but they’re really just a temporary barrier. Once the effects wear off, the trauma will still be there, waiting to be dealt with. They can also impair your judgement, possibly resulting in you thinking it’s a good idea to go back to an abuser. When you’re ready, think about getting help to stop.
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4. A Codependent Relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean a romantic relationship, says Lowery. A survivor may latch on to a parent in an unhealthy way because they’re looking for that security. And sometimes it is jumping right back into a relationship with a partner, and not always a safe one either. Survivors may think that just because they found someone “nice,” they’re good to go.
“Everyone you date, you should expect them to be nice. So the fact that they’re nice to you does not mean you’re compatible,” says Lowery, who advises against survivors dating right after leaving an abuser.
“After you’ve left something abusive … you run the danger of being codependent, or you may be settling. Or, you’re trying to self-sabotage.” The marker for being ready to date again? Lowery says, ask yourself if you’re OK with being alone. Are you ready to face the things you’ve been through? Are you ready to talk about it? “If you can’t answer yes to those… the probability of being in another [relationship with an abuser] skyrockets. It’s time for you to work on you.”
Healthier Coping Strategies
- Setting Loud and Clear Boundaries.
Here’s a simple example: “Say you’re dating someone new and they start tickling you,” says Lowery. If you say “stop” and they keep doing it, “that’s an issue—they’re not respecting your space or your body,” she says. “What’s next if you allow that?” Setting boundaries means being able to self-advocate, being able to clearly communicate your needs, and being able to recognize a partner like that from the get-go, and seeing those red flags before you get in too deep.
- Cleaning Out “the Closet”
Mindfulness activities means being alone with you, your mind and nothing else. This could look like journaling, meditating, practicing yoga or prayer. This might mean picking up a paintbrush and painting a picture of what you’re feeling, or just scribbling madly to get your energy out. It’s healing to give those thoughts, memories, feelings, anger, sadness, regrets or confusion a space of their own. Think of it like organizing a cluttered closet. Lay everything out so you can see it clearly and go from there.
- Rebuilding Relationships
There’s nothing an abuser hates more than their victim having relationships with supportive people. Most likely, abuse burned a few bridges with people in your life, but it’s never too late to try and rebuild them. Don’t be surprised if you’re met with a bit of cautious skepticism though, says Lowery. Support persons may have heard you promise before that it was over, only to painfully watch you return to someone they knew was hurting you. “There was a point where my mother turned her back on me,” says Lowery, also a survivor. “It was either that or she was not going to be able to function. I can’t imagine not knowing day-to-day if you’re going to get the call that your daughter is dead. But now I understand. That was her way of surviving.” Your family members have gone through trauma as well. Recognize that rebuilding that broken relationship is going to be a process, but it’s a process you’ll be glad you started now.
- Forgiving Yourself
It wasn’t your fault. Remember when Robin Williams repeats over and over to Matt Damon in Goodwill Hunting after Damon tells him about being abused by his father? Eventually, Damon breaks down in tears, finally believing it to be true. Channel Robin Williams. It’s not your fault you were targeted by an abuser. “They’re not just perpetrators, they’re predators,” says Lowery. “They thought this out, they knew exactly what they were doing.” Allow yourself the same grace you’d give to a best friend who disclosed abuse—it wasn’t your fault.
For more ways survivors have coped after abuse, read “Is Closure Possible After Abuse?”
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