As if it’s not enough to endure trauma and all its cohorts, like anxiety, depression, insomnia and anger, the other emotion that can often show up to this not-fun party is guilt.
Trauma-related guilt often stems from a feeling that a survivor could have done something more or differently during a traumatic event. Could they have prevented it? Stopped it? Fought back? Loved their partner more?
None of these are true, by the way. Abuse is never a survivor’s fault, nor is it in a survivor’s control to stop it. Any advocate will attest that abusers make clear and concise decisions to abuse—how to do it, when to do it and who to do it to. Domestic abuse is not an argument where one person “flies off the handle” unexpectedly. Abuse is a pattern of power and control repeated many times over.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at how trauma-related guilt can lie to you.
It’s Not Your Fault
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Survivors may believe that if they could only “act right,” they’ll be able to keep the peace.
“Many victims believe their abuser when he tells them that they are the cause of the abuse,” says Beverly Engel, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of It Wasn’t Your Fault. “The typical accusation of ‘I wouldn’t hit you if you didn’t…’ is so common that victims come to believe it is their behavior that brings on the feelings of rage in their partner.”
Only, that’s not how a safe, respectful partner should act, obviously. If your partner doesn’t brush off with a laugh you accidentally burning dinner and an offer to get take-out, you have to wonder if you’re with an unsafe person, as therapists Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend describe in their book Safe People.
You Can’t Fix an Abuser
Engel says some survivors take on the problems of their abuser, feeling like they can “fix” them. An abuser may have lived through an abusive or neglectful childhood and, understandably, a survivor feels sympathy.
“She wants to help him, she wants to be the one person in his life who will not turn on him or abandon him. In turn, he may tell her that he can’t live without her or that she is the only one who can save him from alcohol, drugs, etc.,” says Engel. Leaving the abuser, even amidst the devastating effects of physical and mental abuse, can make some survivors feel like they’re abandoning their partner just like his or her parents did.
“It is important for survivors of domestic violence to realize is that they can’t save their partner, he has to save himself and that their responsibility is to themselves and their children,” Engel says.
Your Emotions Won’t Always Make Sense
Sara Stanizai, licensed marriage & family therapist and the owner of Prospect Therapy in Long Beach, Calif., says what she hears most often from survivors is guilt over not having the same angry reaction to the abuser as everyone else around them.
“It is much more confusing for people who are in love with the person who is also controlling them. The inner conflict is perpetuated by that cycle of manipulation, abuse, and apologizing/making up, and it is only exacerbated when outsiders make judgmental statements or talk about how quickly they would leave,” says Stanizai.
Survivors can feel guilty for leaving, but also for not leaving sooner, especially when children witness the abuse. Remember—survivors alone know when the safest time is to separate from an abuser.
To Squash the Guilt
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Trauma-related guilt can weigh heavily on a survivor, resulting in depression, low self-esteem, shame, social anxiety and thoughts of suicide. If you’re feeling these symptoms after leaving an abusive partner, consider reaching out to a trained domestic violence advocate who can help walk you through some of these emotions. In addition, therapy can help to prevent this guilt from turning into it’s more sinister cousin—post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When I work with survivors of domestic violence, I teach them how to practice self-compassion,” says Engel. “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.” Engel says self-compassion encourages survivors to begin to treat themselves and talk to themselves in a kind, caring and compassionate way as opposed to being self-critical.
For more advice on practicing self-compassion, read “13 Ways to Endure Emotional Pain.”
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