I know what others did to me was out of my control. It was not my fault. I did not cause it. Or that’s what I keep being told. But I can’t help wondering why I stayed so long. How did I allow myself to be put in such a hurtful situation? Why did I go back so many times? How could I let someone who was supposed to love me do some of the things they did to me? And I said some horrible things in response; things I would never normally say. Did I do everything I could have done to save the relationship? Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I just can’t stop these thoughts from circling round and round in my brain. I am so tired from thinking and trying to figure it all out.
There are times in all of our lives when our biggest critic is the voice within our minds telling us we are not enough. As a victim or survivor of abuse, it can be even more challenging to win the incessant thought battle because we have been told it is our fault repeatedly and have been blamed by our abuser for everything. This makes it very difficult to silence the loud, critical voice within. Even years after having left a toxic relationship, the mental recording of all the questions or thoughts of self-blame, shame or guilt spins on auto-replay over and over in our minds. While we can confidently state that abuse is not the fault of the victim, that doesn’t mean we automatically release ourselves from the self-blame we hold onto. But remaining a captive to that self-blame, shame or guilt does not do anyone any good. Instead, it erects a strong barrier to the healing process and robs them of their peace.
When you find you are holding yourself hostage to self-blame, hatred, or criticism, pause, take a deep breath and step back. It’s essential that you try to break the negative thought cycle which is harming you. Having someone tell you “it’s not your fault” certainly helps but it doesn’t always end the battle in your mind. Even if there are valid reasons for your past actions or you didn’t really do anything “wrong” per se, because you are holding yourself hostage to self blame, releasing yourself from it might be difficult for you to do but it is essential. The act of self-forgiveness can help bring you freedom and reclaim your peace.
For some people, the idea that a victim of abuse may need to forgive themself is offensive. The need to forgive often depends on how we perceive a situation, not whether or not it was in fact wrong or the person causing harm intended to harm. As a survivor, it can be hard to hear that you may need to forgive yourself in order to move forward. But remember, the act of “forgiveness is, in part, a willingness to drop the narrative on a particular injustice, to stop telling ourselves over and over again the story of what happened…” (1) It’s a decision to leave what happened in the past in its imperfect place and instead choose to return to the present. Forgiveness “means that we stop the should, coulda, woulda been-s and relinquish the idea that we can create a different (better) past.” The decision to forgive yourself, is a decision to end self-punishment and to set yourself free from the mental bondage your perception of past experiences keeps you in. Although making peace with yourself and moving forward is almost always easier said than done, it is well worth the challenge.
Self-forgiveness is an important act of self-compassion. It acts “to neutralize the poison of shame and remove the toxins created by shame… It acts to soothe our body, mind, and soul from the pain caused by shame, and it facilitates the overall healing process.” (2) . So if you find yourself replaying the recording of shame and guilt which your abuser helped record, ask yourself if you’re ready for a mental detox and a clean break from the jail you have been living in.
If you are, here are some steps to help you forgive yourself after an abusive and toxic relationship:
Recognize That You Did not Understand What Was Happening
Have grace for yourself. Psychological abuse is a confusing and very difficult thing to understand, particularly for the person within the toxic relationship. The subtle, destructive tactics of a covert abuser are nearly impossible to detect, hard to comprehend, and difficult to stop. It may take years before a victim recognizes the conflict in their relationship as abusive. It doesn’t matter how smart a person is. There is no one set of rules to follow, as the abuser consistently rewrites the rules and the expected responses, so it’s nearly impossible to know how to play the game. No matter how hard you tried, the person who caused you harm changed the field you were playing on to fit his or her needs. You are not alone in your challenge to understand and identify what you were experiencing. What’s important is where you are at today and how you will choose to move forward.
Take some time to educate yourself about abuse and the various ways victims commonly respond over time. We all react differently but there are some common threads you will see in abusive relationships. We believe education is the key to clarity and that clarity is the first step in healing. The more you understand, the more you will be able to release yourself from the responsibility for the conflict in the relationship, as well as some of the confusing ways in which you may have responded.
Shut Down the Power of Your Abuser
The reason it is so hard for survivors of abuse to turn off the voice of self-blame often is because their former partner has been blaming them for everything throughout the time they were together. Likely, the abuser also spends considerable time and energy creating a false reputation of the victim within their shared community, making it appear as if the victim is the crazy one and the one to blame for the demise of the relationship. Over time, victims begin believing they are at fault.
The internal voice you are hearing is likely not the voice of reason but instead is the voice of your abuser. Take some time to see if you recognize the things you are telling yourself as the words of your former partner. Remember, they no longer have that power over you and you get to decide to stop listening. Separate yourself from their words for a moment and then reject the condemnation out loud, using the exercise below, and mentally returning their judgment to them during the exercise.
Identify the Source and Release It
Find a time and a place where you can be alone and free from interruptions. First, identify the self-condemning thoughts and name them aloud. For example, perhaps you blame yourself because, “I should have known better than to stay for so long.” It might be a good time to tell yourself that you didn’t know and it’s okay. But don’t leave it at that. Say, “I purpose and choose to forgive myself for not knowing better and staying so long.” Or, “I purpose and choose to forgive myself for cursing at my ex.” Whatever the issue, identify it by speaking it aloud and then (also aloud) purpose and choose to release yourself from whatever item has been weighing you down. This is a very powerful exercise that helps to break off the negative thought cycle. Words spoken out loud affect your brain differently and tend to have a bigger impact than those words quietly kept in your mind.
Another exercise that can be combined with this one is writing on separate little pieces of paper the thoughts and actions you identify. Make sure to do this alongside the former exercise. Don’t exchange the verbal with the written process. Once you write down the item and complete the forgiveness exercise for that issue, crumple the paper up and put it in a small box or bag. Once you have forgiven yourself of all the items, crumpled all the pieces of paper, destroy them somehow. Put them in a fireplace and burn them, rip them up and throw them away. Combining the act of forgiveness with a physical symbol of release is a very powerful process. If you have a friend you can trust, it can be very helpful to have a witness who can hold you accountable to this process and remind you that you are not at fault.
Please know that you may need to do this more than one time. What you will find over time is that the negative thought patterns decrease in number and frequency. Whenever they return, immediately recognize them and stop them in their tracks. “No, I have already forgiven myself for this and am no longer going to live in the present with this issue from my past.”
Practice Love and Self-Compassion
Once you have released yourself from these thoughts, do something to show yourself love and compassion. Take a bubble bath. Get a massage. Sing or dance. Golf. Go for a run. Buy yourself something new. Spend time with a good friend or family member. Laugh.
Be intentional about developing practices that help you to celebrate your life and your journey. You are worth it.
If you are unable to break the cycle of self-blame and condemnation, consider soliciting the help of a qualified therapist to walk you through the process. Many domestic violence shelters and agencies also have therapy services at low or no cost to victims and survivors of abuse. Take advantage of these services in your area. There are also many good podcasts or support groups that can help to walk you through this time.
Whatever you do, please know that you are worth it. Your life is valuable and you deserve to live in peace and walk in freedom.