How to cope after surviving abuse
Recently, I inadvertently made a friend of mine angry. I said something that I intended to be affectionate teasing. But teasing can be risky business, and my friend, unbeknown to me, was not amused.
When I received an email from her about how upset she was, I was stunned. I never considered that she might take offense at my comment. Since I care a lot about the person and the friendship, I was horrified to think I had caused a conflict between us.
I immediately sent an effusively apologetic email. Then, shortly afterward, I sent an equally apologetic follow-up email.
I started feeling jittery. Should I call? Was the friendship over? Was this person I cared about going to hate me forever? I ruminated about it for hours, preoccupied with plans about how to fix the situation and thoughts I was a terrible person.
My feeling of urgency grew until it reached a fever pitch.
That’s when I came to the realization that, having a conflict with someone I cared about was naturally unpleasant, but the intensity of my reaction was excessive. The situation was uncomfortable and unfortunate, but it was not catastrophic.
So why was I reacting this way? I realized it was because the experience of someone being angry with me had triggered thoughts and feelings left over from an abusive relationship.
Many survivors of partner abuse learn to fear other people’s anger, and for good reason. Unlike those in nonabusive relationships, who (ideally) learn conflict can be navigated and survived, abuse survivors learn very different lessons about anger. We learn, for instance, that:
- Anger comes without warning and with terrifying intensity.
- Anger means you will be punished.
- Anger means you will be treated as if you are unlikable and unlovable.
- Anger means you’ll be abandoned.
- Anger means your well-being depends on you taking the position of being one down, in the doghouse, deserving of scorn.
Obviously, those kinds of beliefs about anger will not serve us well in our relationships. But, how do we begin to let go of those old beliefs once we’ve left an abusive relationship behind? This is a question I have grappled with and one I have tried to help numerous clients with as well.
The following four-step process can help survivors of abuse handle conflict. Entire books have been written about each one; this is just an overview. The basic steps are:
- Practice mindfulness. Know what your thoughts, feelings, and body are telling you at any given time.
- Recognize your triggers. Become familiar with the things that tend to remind you of previous abuse, as well as the things that happen to you when you are reminded.
- Apply a coping skill (or two or 10). Do anything nondestructive that helps you feel better in the moment or navigate the current situation well.
- Identify nonhelpful beliefs, and consciously replace them with new ideas.
These steps sound easier than they actually are. When I found out my friend was angry with me, I was not mindful at first. Instead, I was guilt-ridden and panicky, trying to fix things.
When I realized how anxious I felt, though, I was able to sort out my thoughts and feelings enough to recognize I’d been triggered by the realization of someone’s anger. At that point, I used several coping skills, including putting the situation aside temporarily until I felt less distressed; taking slow, deep breaths; and reminding myself of positive things about myself and my friend to counteract my worst-case-scenario thinking.
I figured out that the nonhelpful belief fueling my anxiety was the belief that I had done something unforgivable that had cost me an important friendship. I counteracted the belief by telling myself that there was no evidence that the friendship had ended, that I hadn’t meant to offend my friend, and that my friend and I were both pretty forgiving people, so it was at least possible that this would all work out.
Indeed, by the end of the day, my friend had emailed. She said that she had “probably deserved” my original teasing comment and that she cared about me. I wrote back and said that she certainly did not deserve to feel hurt and that I was very glad she accepted my apology. With that exchange, our friendship carried on.
Abuse can damage its victims in both obvious and subtle ways. The effects of abuse can linger, sometimes cropping up when we least expect it and when we think we’re “over it.” If we know and expect that, we can be compassionate with ourselves and others. Still, those throwbacks from our past do not have to control us, nor do they have to poison our relationships with people who can navigate conflict peacefully.
Over time, we can open ourselves more and more to new learning. We can be ourselves and relax within relationships that nurture and heal.
Photo credit: Shutterstock.com
Susan Lemere is a Solo Mom of two, as well as a therapist, a writer, and an artist coach.
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