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Self-Compassion: An Essential Step in the Recovery and Healing Process

Survivors are often critical of themselves. After I ended an emotionally abusive relationship, I gave myself a hard time, telling myself things like, “I should have known better”, and “What does this say about me”? I questioned why I didn’t walk away sooner and why I struggled to stay away. (For more about the shame a survivor may feel, please see this previous post.)

In an article from Psychology Today, the author shares, “Eventually, as a recipient of coercive abuse, you will no longer feel like yourself. You can become anxiousdepressed, feel incompetent, lose the capacity to trust your own perception and blame yourself for problems in the relationship”.

After the relationship was over while walking my dog, a conversation we had or a statement my ex made while we were dating would come to mind. In the relationship, in the middle of the manipulative tactics and guilt trips it had been hard to see his intentions. But as these memories popped up and I thought through them, I was able to see some of the tactics he used. As I had time to think through them slowly, I was able to see them clearer, validate how I was feeling, and recognize how he was manipulating me.

Reflection, thinking about the things that hurt you, is a good tool for processing and healing from the trauma you’ve endured. (Note: we often think of trauma as something catastrophic. I.e. a serious illness or injury, the loss of a loved one, what a soldier sees or experiences in war, etc. But a person in an abusive relationship – whether it’s emotional, verbal, sexual, financial, spiritual, and/or physical – also endures trauma).

Reflection can be tricky as it opens painful memories.  As we think about the things that hurt us, it’s important to feel and acknowledge the pain. Similar to when a child gets an injury and says, “It hurts”, we need to allow ourselves to do the same about the things we experienced. It’s also important to take breaks as needed.

Self-compassion is a critical part of this process.

Dr. Kristin Neff, co-founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, defines self-compassion as “being supportive when you’re facing a life challenge, feel inadequate, or make a mistake. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality or getting carried away by your negative thoughts and emotions, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”

Below are some of the ways that self-compassion can be practiced.

Be Kind to Yourself - Often an abuser will put down, make fun of, or speak in a derogatory way to their partner. Over time, we may pick up these statements and turn them on ourselves (I’m so stupid, I’m clumsy, I can’t do anything right, I should have known better, etc.). We need to talk to ourselves the way we’d talk to a friend. Or think of the nicest person you know, then think about the kind things they say to others, and talk to yourself that way. Have empathy for yourself.

Remember You’re Not Alone –Often we blame ourselves or get stuck in a place of self-pity/why me? We can put so much focus on our situation we feel like we’re the only one this happened to. Unfortunately, others have also endured harmful relationships. It’s important to pause and remember you’re not alone.

Take care of yourself – Practicing self-care is important, especially as you’re healing. It can be as simple as washing your face or brushing your teeth twice a day, to enjoying a cup of coffee or tea outside in the morning or at the end of the day. Taking care of yourself helps you feel better, important, and valued.

Tips for self-reflection

Start small – if you haven’t practiced self-reflection previously, start with 2, 5, or 10 minutes and gradually build.

Ask yourself questions – “How do I feel about”…(it can be something such as, “How do I feel about when he/she did X”. It can also be about a conversation you had with your ex.)

Pause periodically. Pause to breathe deeply. Or practice some of the tips we shared in the post about healing after an abusive relationship.

Pay attention to how you’re feeling. Self-reflection can be challenging. It can bring up hard feelings. We can be upset with ourselves, the other person, etc. As you reflect, pay attention to how you’re feeling. Ask yourself questions such as: Does my body feel relaxed or tense? Am I holding any part of myself with tension (shoulders, etc.) Do I have a headache? Stomach ache? Anything else?

Take breaks. If you notice you’re tense, have a headache, or your stomach hurts, decide if you should take a break or if you want to do something to relax, then continue. Breaks can be a few minutes, a few days, a week, or longer. Some of your feelings will be intense and difficult. It’s important to listen to your body and not try to push through. By giving yourself some time off, you’ll gain perspective, relax and regroup.

Find Balance. Reflecting, processing, learning, and healing is a process that will take weeks, months, or even longer. It won’t all happen in a set number of hours or days. When you need a break, it’s important to take it. Spend time doing something you enjoy. Spend time with friends and family.

Be Patient – As much as we want to be healed, it’s a process that takes time. 

Talk with a safe friend or counselor – talking with someone else may also be helpful.

Taking the time to learn to practice self-compassion and reflection leads to validating yourself, seeing what happened wasn’t right and wasn’t your fault. You gain insights that are helpful moving forward and you rebuild your self-esteem.


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