How Do I Heal From Emotional Abuse?

I grew up in a volatile home with a mentally ill mother whose emotions and interactions could swing from fits of giggles to fear-inducing explosions in a matter of minutes. On the surface we were a happy, devoutly religious family that insisted mental illness was a beautiful thing, made us better, and didn’t carry the negative connotation many seemed to share. But the truth is, there was no allowed space to voice any other perspective. Until my early twenties, my mother directed this behavior toward my father and another sibling, though I did witness and experience the heartbreak of it myself. Something changed about a year before I got married, and I found myself the new central target of raging attacks of criticism, insult, and threats of suicide due to my negligence that continued throughout the course of my 10+ years of marriage. I only realized years later how I’d learned to accept this treatment as normal and how easy it still is for me to assume blame (or at least guilt of provocation or general lacking) for these incidents, accusations, and what I’ve finally understood is indeed emotional abuse.  

I’ve spent the last few years distancing myself and my small family from my mother as much as possible, and while I am no longer bombarded by such explosive interactions, I still experience many low days where the past washes over me and I am an emotional wreck, shutting myself in a bathroom to prevent my kids from seeing me break down into tears. I wonder daily if I and my achievements are good enough to counter the mental echo of harsh memories and criticisms, sure of the need to prove my value to I don’t even know who—most likely myself.

I am definitely not an authority or even close to having all the answers on the subject, but for my part I know that the scars of emotional abuse are deep and difficult to heal, largely because they are not visible. The ghosts of past interactions with abusers haunt us daily and taint self view, inner dialogue, and new relationships with negativity, doubt, and mistrust. Old memories can return fresh and become easily gray, confusing, and hard to explain without wondering if we just misunderstood or misremembered the experience. Maybe I was to blame. Maybe I’m not intelligent, strong, kind, lovable, etc. Perhaps I really do deserve what I am feeling. 

While I am far from “arrived,” over the last several years I have found healthy coping strategies from therapists, kindred spirits, and helpful articles that help me counter my negative inner dialogue and work to love and accept myself while building a happy, healthy life with those I love. To any who find themselves the victims of emotional abuse, I hope these ideas help you; while many of us suffer quietly and manage to cover it up with a smile, know you are not alone.  

1. Limit contact with your abuser. While every situation is different and some relationships with abusers may be tricky, commit to yourself to control whatever contact you may have with your abuser. Outside of breaking from the relationship completely, this may look like bringing a buddy to any face-to-face meeting, blocking phone numbers and/or email addresses, having mail opened or disposed of by someone who loves and supports you such as a friend, sibling or spouse, putting phone calls on speaker to keep the abuser aware that others will hear their words, and only reading texts and/or emails with a support person by your side to keep you grounded. While it may be tempting to open a message on your own “to see how bad it is” or tell yourself you should be able to talk to him/her alone, protect yourself from further abuse and the painful feelings that can surface from past abuse. Feel 100% justified in protecting a space for your own healing.  

2. Invest in self care. For those who have been treated as though their worth has to be earned, it can be difficult to justify taking time for self care, but in healing from emotional abuse it is hugely important to make time for it. Prioritize time to do things you love and that make you feel safe, confident, happy, and relaxed. Get a massage, have a regular night out with friends, read great books, eat delicious food, learn how to dance or draw.  Ignore anyone (or any thought) that says this is secondary, and remember that the safer and more cared for you feel, the stronger you will become and the easier it will be to say no to critical thoughts.

3. Be selective in who gets to spend time with you. Some people may have nothing to do with the abuse you have/are experiencing, but there has never been a better time to build a strong circle that LIFTS YOU UP. You have every right to mindfully decide who you choose to spend time with and whose influence you prefer to be exposed to, and you can do so strategically. Feel empowered to discover what and who you need, and to make it happen.

4. Schedule odds and evens. This tactic of scheduling time to both process the negative and actively refill the positive is one of the most effective ways I’ve learned to deal with a constantly resurfacing past of hurts, and it keeps me from spiraling into unhealthy mindsets (or past memories) for days on end. In the midst of emotional trauma, or even after we think we have “moved on” and found distance, it can be defeating to think we found peace only to experience a trigger that knocks some of the muck loose to the surface again. This strategy works like this: odd dates of the month (1st, 3rd, 5th, etc.) are for getting it all out. Maybe you journal the pain and then burn the pages, scream in your car, take up target practice, or weep to a trusted friend. Whatever needs to happen to process past or present pain, let it happen on the odd dates. The even dates (2nd, 4th, 6th, etc.) become a force for positivity and are set aside for refilling your cup: go on a beautiful hike, enjoy a lunch date with a close friend, get a pedicure, spend time playing with your kids. Taking time to process the difficult while making equal time to experience beauty and light—not to mention creating a scheduled break from the emotional weight—helps us to lift up and out, becoming stronger and happier through it all.

5. Empower yourself. While the road of healing from emotional abuse is long and hard and often lonely, remind yourself that you can be the change. We are not defined by our abuse. We are not destined to perpetuate it. We can be different partners, parents, friends, and coworkers than we had ourselves. We can live in a way that shows we value kindness, beauty, compassion, and empathy. All of these qualities begin first with the treatment of ourselves and radiate outward to those in our immediate circle and beyond. The ache you feel does not have to be resolved before you begin building the life and version of yourself you hope for. Start with small goals and stick with them; if you’ve always dreamed of learning a new skill or getting your degree, request a course catalog or create a vision board to remind yourself your ambitions are valuable and real. There will still be struggles, but keep at it. You’ve got this.

It will not always be hard. It will not always be painful. You were intended for incredible things, and even at this moment, no matter where you are or which mistakes you make daily, you are worthy of love. You are worthy of praise and acceptance. You are worthy of every good thing.

Alamo City Moms is written by a collaborative and diverse group of mothers. We strive to provide moms with relevant, timely and fun information about all things mom here in the greater San Antonio area.