For those who have lived through the trauma of an abusive or violent partner, they may expect an instant sense of relief once they’ve escaped, a calming peace after they shut the door on that chapter of their lives.
Instead, what they can experience is sometimes completely different. Instead of tranquility, they may feel anxious. Instead of joy, they may feel guilt.
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Or, they may feel nothing at all.
This, say therapists, is normal. They are emotions that come with the stages of recovery after trauma.
“Trauma recovery looks different for everyone,” says relationship therapist Amie Piekarz, LSW. “Sometimes, clients feel like there is something wrong with them, or that they are ‘failing’ at recovery because they read books and can’t relate to how others have coped.”
The Three Stages Might Look Like This
A French pioneering psychologist, Pierre Janet, outlined what many believe is the first framework for trauma recovery in the late 1800s. In 1992, psychologist Judith Herman transformed Janet’s initial ideas into a three-stage approach to understanding trauma.
Phase One: Safety and Stabilization. Trauma survivors tend to feel unsafe in their bodies and in relationships with others. They may struggle with regulating their everyday emotions, which they may not associate directly with the trauma. It may take months or even years to regain a sense of safety.
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Phase Two: Remembrance and Mourning. This is when survivors may begin to process the trauma, assigning words and emotions to it to help make meaning of it. This process is best undertaken with a trained counselor or therapist. It’s important to mourn the losses associated with the trauma and give oneself space to grieve and express emotions.
Phase Three: Reconnection and Integration. Here, survivors recognize the impact of the victimization they experienced, yet begin to believe that trauma is no longer a defining principle in their life. They begin to redefine themselves in the context of meaningful relationships, create a new sense of self and create a new future. In some instances, they may find a mission through which they can heal and grow, such as mentoring or becoming an advocate for others.
If Self-Blame Is One of Your Stages
Piekarz says many domestic violence survivors she counsels come in “emotionally beaten down,” with overwhelming amounts of self-blame and confusion about who is “at fault” in the relationship.
“I think frustration more accurately describes what they are feeling,” she says. “In my most depressed clients, there is a deep sense of resignation—‘This is my life,’ ‘I don’t know how I ended up here but I did,’ etc.”
Survivors are often conditioned to be passive by their abusers—showing anger could literally put their life at risk. So to have anger over what happened isn’t a natural emotion for many survivors. Piekarz says reclaiming their voice and learning how to not be afraid of their emotions is a significant part of her work with survivors.
Remember, Recovery Takes Time
Unfortunately, healing from trauma—no matter if the abuse lasted a few months or a few decades—is not an overnight process. In fact, "getting over it" may never be a part of a survivor's recovery. Abuse can have a lifelong impact, but the severity of its effects can be lessened by getting help.
“I have had many, many clients tell me in our first session, ‘I just want to be over this and move on as fast as possible,’” says Piekarz. “While I understand, recovery just doesn’t work that way.”
If a survivor tries to rush the recovery process and not really “do the work” so to speak, they may end up continuing to deal with issues from the trauma—anxiety, depression and an increased risk of being a target for an abuser again, among them. Piekarz says there can be a lot of self-judgment about how long the process of recovery takes, so she works on validating every survivor’s unique experience.
“What’s amazing to witness is that ultimately, everyone truly does have what they need inside of them to recover, it just may take a bit of help to get there.”
Looking for a therapist? You may want to consider virtual therapy that allows you to talk to someone without ever leaving home. If financial concerns make therapy seem impossible, read our Ask Amanda column, “How Do I Get Therapy If I Can’t Afford It?”
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