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Healing from Shame

Couple intimidation

I should have known better.”

It’s something I’ve told myself and something I’ve heard other survivors say.

It’s natural, but it holds us in a place of shame.

Whether it’s after unhealthy traits begin to show and become harmful, after the relationship is over, or even years or decades later we can be upset with ourselves for:

  • Not recognizing warning signs earlier,

  • Dismissing potential warning signs

  • Hoping it would get better,

  • Feeling foolish for falling for their deceptions

  • Time we wasted in an unhealthy relationship,

  • Things we set aside for the relationship,

  • Other hardships the relationship caused (tension with friends or family, lost job, etc.)

We also have conflicting emotions. Usually, the relationship isn’t all bad and even has many healthy traits. We genuinely care for the other person and believe they care about us. We may do fun things together and share special moments. So it’s difficult to discern the good from the bad.

If we’re in a harmful relationship as an adult, we may blame ourselves even more. But at any age unhealthy traits and harmful traits can be hard to identify.

Often, it’s hard to talk about because those outside the relationship don’t understand the dynamics. When we do open up, in an effort to help, friends and family may inadvertently add more shame by responding to the victim with comments such as:

  • He/She is manipulating you.

  • I can’t believe you put up with that.

  • He/She always seems so nice to me. It’s hard to imagine He/She treating you like that. (Often an abuser is very personable with those outside the relationship)

  • What were you wearing?/You should dress differently (response to sexual coercion/violence)

  • You’re not going to talk to him anymore, are you?

As survivors, we feel regret and blame ourselves. But we shouldn’t.

The truth is, abusers – whether emotionally, verbally, sexually, or physically – don’t show abusive behavior in the beginning. Instead, they’re charming, they give us compliments and open doors for us. They send sweet text messages saying, “Good morning, I just wanted to say Hi” or “I’m thinking of you”. Maybe they send gifts or give flowers for no reason.

As the relationship continues, slowly their true self begins to break through. We see a subtle warning sign, but in light of everything else that seems good, it’s easy to dismiss.

The abuser plays a game of deception. Maybe it’s laying on compliments while subtly tearing us down.

Part of healing is to recognize:

It’s hard to discern from inside the relationship. We grew to care for the other person and they subtly started to use manipulation, lies, false flattery, deception, and other unhealthy traits. It’s like being in a fun house of mirrors. We don’t know what to believe.

An abuser thinks and acts differently than others. They operate from a place of wanting to control and manipulate the other person. They may not even know that’s how they operate, but the result is the same. They do or say something for a desired action rather than valuing the other person’s ideas, thoughts, beliefs, or values. What they want matters more than respecting the other person.

We also need to give ourselves credit. When things started to feel “off”, an unkind comment was made, or we felt pushed to do something we didn’t want to, we said something. Our partner may have responded by telling us we were wrong or dismissing our comment. But, we stood up for ourselves. If we’re the ones that broke up, it’s important to remember we walked away.

We need to learn and move on. It’s normal to dwell on past mistakes. And it’s healthy to think them through and learn from our mistakes. But continuing to blame ourselves or dwelling on hurtful things others have said only holds us in shame and guilt. At some point, we have to let go and move on.

We need to forgive ourselves. This is hard. And often one of the last steps in healing. But if we continue to blame ourselves, we never truly heal. We need to be as kind to ourselves as we would be to a friend that hurt our feelings and apologized. We’d forgive them and move on. We need to treat ourselves with the same compassion.  

If you’re outside the relationship and want to help, some positive comments you can respond with are:

  • I’m so glad you told me about….

  • How can I help?

  • I know this can be really hard to talk about.

  • I care about you.

Responses to avoid:

  • Stay away from judging your friend or family.

  • Talking negatively about the abuser.

For additional information on how to help, see this post.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on healing.


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