REPOST: looks like/sounds like/feels like

Re-posting this because Christmas time is ripe with triggers and puts many of us in close quarters with lots of people. If you or someone you love think emotional abuse is happening, this checklist can help you understand it better. Much to love to you all.

xxJ


People have a hard time understanding what emotional abuse is. In fact, I’m going to confidently state that most people really don’t get it.

Like, at all.

Because to most people domestic abuse = physical violence. To most people, domestic abuse is loud and nasty and BIG and leaves bruises and cigarette burns, broken lamps and smashed dishes and holes in walls.

And yes, sometimes (too often) domestic abuse is vociferous and physically violent. But what if I told you that domestic violence isn’t always physical? What if domestic abuse can be subtler? What if it’s relatively inconspicuous? What if the victim is so good at compensating and pretending that EVERYTHING IS OKAY ALRIGHT?! that no one has any idea what’s going on? (Not that I’ve ever done that before…)

I think emotional abuse is usually misunderstood because most people don’t realize that neglect or silence can be just as vicious as a punch in the face.

I  want to try to explain more about what emotional abuse is and how people may experience it, so I’ve drawn upon my past as a teacher and what follows is basically going to be like a kindergarten circle time where we all gather together to talk about what something “looks like/sounds like/feels like”. Except instead of discussing “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” or how a bean seed grows, we’re going to tackle emotional abuse. Decidedly not a kindergarten-appropriate topic (Or maybe it is? I mean, kids are never too young to learn about consent and showing respect!) but I’m hoping you’ll find it insightful.

So, come join me on the carpet. Please sit criss-cross applesauce with your hands in your lap, eyes up, and mouth closed…Ms. J is going to start the lesson…

Emotional abuse looks like:

  • Absence
  • Stifling
  • Codependence
  • Intense control
  • Financial control
  • Manipulation
  • Vindictiveness
  • Pettiness
  • Insecurity
  • Narcissism
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Withholding (affection, money, time, etc.)
  • Lack of consent
  • Isolation
  • Patterns of negative behaviour
  • Idealization
  • Chronic forgetfulness
  • Posturing
  • Grandiose gestures that are out of context or used as leverage
  • Forced affection
  • Saving face
  • Hypervigilance
  • Disdain
  • Perpetual indifference or apathy

Emotional abuse sounds like:

  • Shouting
  • Silence
  • Harsh words
  • Lies
  • Backhanded compliments
  • Gaslighting
  • Indignation
  • Name calling
  • Threats
  • Put downs
  • Reprimands or punishing
  • Criticisms
  • Punitive statements
  • Questioning
  • Comebacks
  • Rationalization of unhealthy things/ideas/behaviours
  • Scapegoating

Emotional abuse feels like:

  • Loneliness
  • Despair
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Craziness
  • Self-loathing
  • Low self-worth
  • Lack of purpose
  • Rigidity
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Needing to be in control
  • Surreal
  • Duress
  • Pain
  • Exhaustion
  • Stress
  • Being overwhelmed
  • Worry

People who exhibit these behaviours (or other similar ones) chronically are perpetrators of abuse. Those who struggle continually because of these feelings and behaviours, are victims of abuse.

My own experience of abuse was insidious and cumulative and I’m tired of feeling like I have to prove that my experience was real.

Emotional abuse looks/feels/sounds real.

Abuse = abuse.

And accepting that helps people like me by letting us know that what we’re going through, or what we’ve been through, is just as real as a punch, kick, or slap.

You can now un-cross your legs and go have free-play time. Just don’t hog the Lego table and remember to use kind words with your friends.

xx J

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Feels like belly rub time for my pup, Kara.

What NOT to Say to A Survivor of Emotional Abuse

I’ve been posting some pretty heavy stuff lately, so think it’s time to lighten things up and bring back some sarcasm. Adding humour to conversations about emotional abuse and mental health is something that’s always kind of “funny-not-funny” but I think we can laugh every now and then and not hurt our cause.

So today I would like to present to you, complete with the witty and charming commentary you’ve all come to love hearing from me,


Number 10: “Well, it takes two…”

Um, excuse me?

Whoever says this manages to both undermine the legitimacy of your experience and place responsibility for that experience on you, the victim. OBVIOUSLY relationships involve more than one person BUT only the abuser is responsible for their abusive actions. I’ve said it before and I will keep saying it: you are only responsible for yourself, no one else! You are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings, behaviour, or choices. Emotional abusers use tactics like gaslighting and playing the victim to convince you that everything is your fault and not theirs. There may be two of you in your relationship, and neither of you are perfect, but when you are being abused emotionally, you cannot be blamed for it.

Number 9: “No one’s life is perfect, so why are you complaining?”

Ugh. This one. The worst! Okay, well, one of the worst.

Saying this to someone is like when you were 6-years-old and refusing to eat your Brussels sprouts and your parents said, “There are starving children in Africa who would love to eat those” in an effort to guilt you into consuming what you’ve come to understand is a vile vegetable. (My adult-self now loves Brussels sprouts, for the record.)

Actually, it’s worse than that. Clearly anyone who says this has no understanding of what it feels like to be abused emotionally. When you come to someone and confide in them that you are experiencing abuse, there is no place for shaming. Yes, we all experience stress and hardship in our lives, but ABUSE IS NOT NORMAL STRESS OR HARDSHIP and therefore, it can’t be treated as such.

Number 8: “Couldn’t you just try harder?”

Wow. Okay, again, what a shitty thing to say to someone! When I was in abusive relationships, I worked my ass off to change them into healthy ones. I sacrificed and struggled and exhausted myself putting effort into making things work.

If your abuser isn’t putting equal effort in, or, if the effort they are putting in is narcissistic and hurtful, then it won’t matter how hard you try; your relationship will still remain abusive.

I think it is safe to assume that anyone who comes forward and says that they are being abused has spent an incredible amount of time and energy trying to avoid coming to that conclusion. So don’t say shit like this to them.

Number 7: “But how can you leave them? You have children together.”

There are probably lots of people who will disagree with me on this one and I’m betting some of those people have made the decision to “work through things” with their partner “for the sake of the children.”

I’m calling bullshit on that.

Who in their right mind thinks it’s better for kids to live in a dysfunctional home where one parent is being abused? What kind of model is this setting for those children? And why is it considered selfish to try to stop being abused?

Leaving an abusive partner when you share children is incredibly difficult; I know that firsthand. It’s not the kids’ fault and yet they have to endure the struggles of managing the breakup of their family. Some days I feel insanely guilty about putting my kids through a divorce, but then I return to the little mantra I made for myself: I would always rather explain why I left, than why I didn’t.

‘Nuff said.

Number 6: “But if you leave [insert name here], you’ll be all alone. Do you really want to be [insert age] years old and single??”

Fuck, it sucks to be a single divorcée! It especially sucks to be a single parent! Do you know what sucks worse, though? Being in an emotionally abusive relationship. As hard as it is to be alone, I would never EVER go back to my previous partners.

As if being single is someone’s primary concern when they come to you and admit that they are being abused! Please don’t say this to someone who comes to you looking for support. Just don’t.

Number 5: “Well, there are plenty of other fish in the sea…”

This one’s kind of the opposite of Number 6, isn’t it?

So someone’s just come and told you that they think they are being abused. Now is not the time to offer clichéd dating adages. Also, if someone has experienced emotional abuse with a partner, there is so, so much that they need to work through before they can feel safe and secure enough to trust somebody new. I’m not saying survivors don’t get into rebound relationships or go looking for another “fish” too quickly (yep, guilty of that!); I’m saying that to suggest that there are other, better fish out there in the sea, at a time when the fish this person had chosen has let them down and fucked them up monumentally, is completely inappropriate.

Number 4: “Suck it up; just get over it.”

In the most significant relationship of my life so far, I spent the majority of my time “sucking it up” and since ending that relationship, I’ve done everything in my power to “just get over it.” There is no magic way to recover from emotional abuse. There may not be physical reminders of a survivor’s experience, but emotional scars run incredibly deep and they have their own timeline for healing. Advising someone to “suck it up” is a callous and insensitive thing to say, no matter what they’re telling you about.

Number 3: “They didn’t actually hurt you, so it’s not abuse.”

Oh my goodness, this one drives me absolutely crazy! People don’t usually put it to words so clearly, but often there is a strong implication that emotional abuse doesn’t count because it wasn’t physical (something I argue against here).

If you tell an emotional abuse survivor that their experience wasn’t real, you continue the cycle of abuse by gaslighting them into believing your own misinformed perspective. I still struggle with accepting the legitimacy of my experience because I assume that since a) my former partners don’t recognize the abuse, and b) I have no police report, hospital stay, or physical reminders to show that I was abused, it must not count.

How messed up is that? I am literally writing a blog about my experience of emotional abuse and I continue to question my experience! No one who has gone through something like what I did should have to justify it with corporeal proof.

Number 2: “But he/she/they seem like such a nice person…”

Wow, gee, yeah…I guess since you think he’s such a nice guy, I must be totally wrong! Thanks so much for helping me see that!

I have heard this so many times in the last few years and it is infuriating.

Do you think an emotional abuser isn’t capable of “playing nice” outside of the home or wherever they proliferate their abuse? In my experience, emotional abusers are exceedingly talented at manipulating others, so they can seem “nice” when it serves them to do so. I was once told that my story couldn’t be true because my former partner was “so handsome and charming.” I think I threw up a little in my mouth when I heard that and it definitely set me back a few counselling sessions too.

Ugh. Let’s move on to number 1…

Number 1: “I don’t care. I don’t believe you.”

Clearly, this is the WORST thing you could ever say to a survivor of emotional abuse. I don’t think I need to say much more about it; survivors need to know that we have the love and support from the people we confide in. A much better response when someone tells you that they are being abused is to say, “How can I help and what do you need right now?”


Helpful? Not helpful? Fuck, I don’t know all the shitty things people say to each other! But I do know that there are lots of ways to mess up supporting someone who needs loving kindness after recognizing a pattern of abuse in their life. (If you think you need a better understanding of what emotional abuse looks like, check out my post “Looks Like/Sounds Like/Feels Like”.) 

I hope you laughed a little; I hope you thought more about what you could say to someone in need. I mean, no one’s perfect (see number 10) but we can all try to show compassion to those who come looking for support.

Emotional abuse = abuse. Period.

xxJ

Emotional Abuse = Physical Abuse

It turns out that my abusers didn’t have to lay a finger on me in order to fuck up my body. 

Yes, I’ve been posting about the incredible changes and improvements I’ve experienced with my body in the last few months, but I want to backtrack a little bit and talk about why I’ve celebrated those changes as much as I have and why I now cherish every bit of my energy, focus, and strength.

The emotionally abusive men I’ve been with were never physically violent with me. Yes, there were times when I felt scared of them and yes, they touched me when I didn’t want them to and yes, they used their physical presence to intimidate me…but not once was I hit, pushed, slapped, scratched, bitten, or otherwise physically abused by them.

Although my body is now healing and I am feeling healthier, I still remember what it felt like when I was in the trenches of my emotionally abusive landscape. I still have a long way to go to regain my strength and dispel the lies about my body that I adopted as truth.

The body suffers when the mind is suffering, and chronic stress takes an enormous toll on your body...

Recurring emotional trauma takes a toll on your body.

Having no sense of self-worth takes a toll on your body.

Being fed lies about your body and adopting those lies as true takes a toll on your body.

Being in a chronic state of survival mode takes a toll on your body.

Doing the bulk of the work in a household or relationship takes a toll on your body.

Being depressed and anxious all the time takes a toll on your body.

Being or feeling used for sex or sexual acts takes a toll on your body.

Emotional abusers still take shots at your body, they just don’t make contact.


These are some of the ways emotional abuse affected my body:

Number 1: Living in a state of chronic stress and experiencing ongoing trauma kept my body in survival mode for a very long time. The hormones and reactions triggered in my body as a result of this stress should only be released on rare occasions when I am in actual life or death danger. (Think, charging rhino or being chased by Jason Voorhees.) My body shouldn’t be getting flooded with adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine on the regular. When I was with my abusers, it was normal for me to feel scared, overwhelmed, angry, distraught, or unsure and my body maintained a constant state of vigilance to try and protect me.

Number 2: My abusers devalued and debased me regularly and I adopted these attitudes as true. I learned to believe that I was ugly/fat/stupid/weak/worthless and I felt these things physically. As a result of this, the amount of work I have to put into learning to love and accept my body feels infinite. I remain painfully aware of all my flaws and deeply insecure about my body. I hold myself to a ridiculous standard that I haven’t yet been able to overcome, although in recent months, I’ve made significant strides towards better health and a better self-image.

Number 3: My emotional abusers expected me to do the bulk of the work in our lives. During my marriage this meant that I carried and birthed two children in less than two years. I then cared for those children on a full-time basis, day and night. I looked after our house, yard, and car. I did all the cooking and clean up. I looked after everything for birthdays and holidays. I cared for our pets. I managed everyone’s schedules. I did all of our errands. I did all the driving. I completed my ECE diploma online while still parenting full-time and offering part-time child care from my home. If I was sitting down, I was nursing a baby or folding the laundry. If I was out on my own, I was buying our groceries. If I was sleeping, it was because I had finally passed out, although I was likely to be woken up within a few hours by a distraught toddler, a baby who needed nursing, a snoring husband, or a nightmare.

Number 4: As a result of my experience, I developed anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue. I’ve had weeks and months where I ate voraciously because I was super anxious and then I would starve myself for weeks because I was so depressed. My sleep is poor and I dream restlessly. I suffer from panic attacks and sugar crashes. I have brain fog and issues keeping my focus. I get migraines and I clench my teeth. In the past, I had tremors and nervous ticks like tapping my fingers or biting my tongue. In an effort to treat these issues I’ve tried what feels like a million different medications, supplements, exercises, diets, and therapies—it’s like I’ve been living as a science experiment with a constant onslaught of mind- and mood-altering drugs coursing through my veins. I am finally feeling hopeful that I may be making progress towards wellness, but it will take years to replenish my body after becoming so depleted.


This broken body…at least, it has often felt broken to me…that I’m working to restore is a testament to the strength I had to have in order to survive.

If you relate to this conversation at all, then I commend you for being so strong and for fighting through whatever pain you’ve experienced at the hands of an emotionally abusive person.

I’m sorry.

I hope you’re okay.

You are worthy of love and your body is an amazing and strong entity—don’t let the abusers fuck it up anymore.

xxJ

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I’m reclaiming my body and taking steps towards wellness everyday.

Speaking My Truth is What Saved Me

It wasn’t therapy. It wasn’t psychiatric medication. It wasn’t my divorce. It wasn’t moving to the country… Authenticity is what saved me.

I’m betting we’ve all met some truly authentic people. You know, those people whose self-awareness and confidence is palpable. They always seem grounded and honest—they carry themselves with an assurance that belies a solid understanding of who they are and what they’re doing. They’re the people who start movements, who pursue their passions, who have a glowing energy, and who seem legitimately happy in their lives, despite their struggles and stresses. They are the people we want to be around and the people we want to emulate.

I think deep down we all know who our authentic self is. Deep down, we know what’s true about ourselves. And deep down, we’re aware of what we need and what we want and why, but we rarely act on this knowledge or understanding.

Why do so many of us sacrifice our authentic selves? Why do we hide our authenticity and keep our needs and wants private? Why have so many of us lost the ability to recognize and act on what we really need in order to be fulfilled?

I can’t speak for other people. I mean, I can guess at things, but really I have no idea how other people think and what they need in order to be happy; those things are going to be different for everybody.

I can tell you this, though: speaking my truth absolutely saved me.

My parents tell stories of me as a toddler where it’s clear that in my youngest years I had no problem communicating what I wanted. I’m pretty sure I just bit whoever wouldn’t listen and smacked other kids if I didn’t get my way. I was an adorable child, to be sure.

Something changed as I got older, though—I learned to turn that energy inward. I learned that it was unacceptable to lose my temper, or to bite and hit (kudos Mom and Dad!).

Unfortunately, my self-regulation skills morphed into a practice of self-sacrifice and passivity. I learned to deny my needs for the sake of keeping the peace and to focus solely on making sure that the other people around me were happy instead of myself. This skill for self-deprecation, that I honed in my childhood and my youth, led me into some really damaging relationships. In not speaking up, in not having the language or the tools to make my authentic-self known, I lost touch with my needs and I let other people take advantage of me. I developed a deep sense of insecurity, anxiety, depression, self-hatred, and despair.

This blog is the product of my experience of emotional abuse and me coming to terms with the unhealthy habits I formed that led to the unhealthy relationships I experienced. A few years ago, my life felt like a prison. I remember resolving myself to face at least 40 more years of unhappiness because of the commitment I felt to my partner and the life we had together. I remember wanting to completely disappear; to evaporate, to dissolve, to press my body up against a wall and seep into the paint and become nothing.

It was a very dark time in my life.

And then something changed: my marriage hit a breaking point and I saw an opportunity for escape. Something happened that made me feel justified in leaving my life as I knew it and moving on, despite how scary and foreign the future looked. I finally spoke up and it saved me.

Authenticity saved my sanity. It gave me strength and courage; it bolstered support from the people around me who cared to listen. It got me medical help. It brought me to my counsellors. It secured a healthier future for me and my children. It saved me from other harmful relationships. It allowed me to find meaningful, engaging work. It got my creative juices flowing again, it led me to make more music, to write this blog, and to self-publish my poetry!

Authenticity saved my life!

It was a catalyst for all the positive changes I’ve experienced these last two years. Sure, I’ve had an intense amount of counselling and therapy. I’ve started and followed a strict mental health treatment plan that includes mood-stabilizing drugs. I’ve moved to a beautiful, rural home, I’ve been exercising and eating better, I’ve got a dog and some cats, and my kids are a couple of years older and more independent now… Sure, all of those things have happened! But they wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t being authentic.

So I want to ask you, what do you need? What do you want? Who the hell are you and what does your authenticity look like?

I can pretty much guarantee that you will feel happier and healthier living authentically. Although, I can also guarantee that it’s not a magic cure for what ails you. There’s no lifestyle change, no medicine, no treatment, no herbal beverage, mantra, yoga flow, detox diet, religion, or amount of money that will stop stress from being in your life. But you will feel better and everyone around you will notice when you start to live your truth. Even the most selfish of us should want that!

Authenticity doesn’t have to be poetic. It doesn’t need to be earth-shattering or beautiful or eloquent: it just needs to be real. That’s the key.

And now I’m done sounding like a cheesy motivational article from a teen magazine…“10 Steps to Finding the REAL you! Plus, 10 Cool Outfits to Let Your Personality Shine!” Ugh, gag me! Bleh.

I just want to tell you that authenticity is the key to life, and I’ll swear by that. Literally: it’s the fucking bomb. Authenticity is where it is AT and you can fucking quote me on that. It saved my life. It can save yours. And then we can meet up and have a delicious fucking potluck and bask in the authentic glow of our gorgeous, real selves being exactly who we need to be and doing exactly what we need to do.

I’ll bring the casserole, you just bring an appetite for authenticity.

xxJ

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Take it from my 7-year-old: your beautiful, authentic self is in within you. Pinky-promise.

Can We Talk About Loneliness?

“Hear that lonesome whipporwill, he sounds too blue to fly…”

Do you know how hard it is to be alone? Do you know how hard it is to feel alone?

Loneliness isn’t just longing for a friend. In unhealthy relationships, it manifests as the result of being neglected, isolated, or unable to count on your partner.

Do you know what it’s like to be ignored by your spouse? Is your safety or your sanity at risk when your significant other is around? Has your partner isolated you from you friends and family? Do you have to cultivate and maintain your own self-worth and sense of security because you don’t have a loving partner to support you? Have you left an abusive relationship and experienced the double-edged sensation of having been lonely within that relationship and then finding yourself alone after it’s ended?

When you have a healthy level of interaction with others, you generally don’t feel lonely. When you have a partner or a spouse who is present and attuned most of the time, you don’t feel alone. Even if, within that relationship, you have times when you are physically on your own, you still have the knowledge that someone is watching out for you and cares about what happens. Your partner is your baseline and you are theirs. You can feel secure and know that there is someone around to listen and give you feedback and share the load of getting through life.

I don’t know what that feels like.

But I do know what it feels like to be lonely. I know what it feels like to long for partnership and equal investment from that partner. I know what it takes to get through life without having someone there to shoot the shit at the end of the day and help me get the laundry done. I know what’s it like to be with a partner who doesn’t know me and doesn’t care to, or isn’t capable of knowing me.

Sometimes I suspect that I’ve idealized romantic partnerships in my mind (haven’t we all? Thanks, Hollywood!), but I forgive myself for that because there’s a difference between romance and partnership. Unfortunately, my romantic relationships haven’t been partnerships. They haven’t been reciprocal, or secure, or healthy. They’ve been the opposite, in fact.

I’m a 33-year-old single mother whose friends and family are all in committed, long-term relationships. I have to admit that it’s a struggle to be surrounded by couples who have grown together as they’ve moved forward in their lives. (I think that was the most polite way I could have said that…) I have friends and family who care about me, but I know that regardless of how much they love me, or how much they want to help me, their partner takes precedence. Always.

Let’s be clear: I don’t hold this against them. I just want it for myself.

I know that no relationship is perfect and that is not at all what I’m seeking—compromise is part of any relationship! Ohhhhh, but I envy my friends and family! I envy those of them who have real, authentic partnerships. I envy them for having someone to make dinner with. I envy them for having someone to miss them while they’re gone. I envy them for the arguments they have with their spouses that don’t come from a place of fear, but instead come from a place of security, because the baseline of love and trust is so firm that the conflict doesn’t rattle it.

#tbh The people who have solid relationships kind of annoy the shit out of me sometimes, but it’s because I want what they have!

I want it! I want it! I want it! *cue adorable pouty face/pathetic foot stomping/obnoxious whining/arms folded over chest

Fine, I’m being ridiculous and dramatic on purpose. But I’m also being honest. And the feelings I’m trying to convey here come from a place of deep disappointment and frustration. I was promised partnership…it was promised to me quite a few times. And I jumped into those promises with both feet. I was there. I was with them. I was invested.

And they weren’t.

I had the rug pulled out from under me every goddamn time. Point fingers at me if you want, because yes, it takes two to make a marriage or a partnership work. I accept my role in those relationships. but I also know that I put everything I had into them. I was honest and present and giving and affectionate and resilient and reliable… I made my partners feel secure, but they didn’t do the same for me.

I really want to shout a battle cry here—“I’m a strong and independent person and I don’t need anyone!”—or something like that. But you know what? It fucking sucks to be alone.

If you are alone, if you can relate to what I’ve been talking about, then what I really want to say is that I understand. I understand the feelings of sadness, anger, resentment and fear. I understand. And it fucking sucks, but it’s okay because you keep feeling those feelings, and I keep feeling them too, and yet we keep getting through the day. We keep facing the nights. We keep going. And every step builds resilience. Every moment brings independence. Every feeling teaches us something about ourselves.

There’s no magic way I can help you stop feeling lonely, but shared understanding brings some comfort, at least. I hope I’ve done that for you if you’re struggling with loneliness, and I hope you’ll do it for someone else if you’re not.

xxJ

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Climbing up or falling down, all I have is me. It might be lonely, but it makes me strong.

Now You Are Lost

Rediscovering your identity after abuse.

Emotional abusers make you into whoever they want you to be, so whatever identity you have is the product of the screwed up environment you’ve been in and the screwed up messages you’ve received. When you leave that toxic person and that toxic environment, you lose whatever person you were. You lose the identity you abuser gave you; when you leave your abusive partner, you leave yourself behind too.

I lost myself in every significant relationship I’ve ever been in. In each of them, I fulfilled my partner’s needs and wants to my own detriment. I took on, or was given, roles and responsibilities that I didn’t want. I was told and shown that I was worthless and stupid and wrong all the time, and that everything was always, always, always my fault!

I ended up believing that was who I am.

And when I found myself alone two and a half years ago (How has it been that long already?!) I realized that the only identity I had was the one I let other people make for me. And I came to understand that I had absorbed, most especially, the identity my abusers had given to me.

It was the worst kind of personal epiphany.

It was so hard to recognize how little I knew about myself; it felt shitty to see that I was screwed up and feel so completely unsure about myself.

As time has passed, though, and my life has settled a bit, I‘ve had time to learn more about my authentic self and I’ve gained a few nuggets of wisdom about rediscovering an identity after abuse.

Actually, I’ve worked really fucking hard to figure it out, so I want to share it with you. (Because caring is sharing, right?) Here’s the head/strong guide to finding yourself post-abuse, in six [not so] easy steps.

Enjoy.

HOW TO FIND YOUR IDENTITY AGAIN
(After Leaving That Shit-For-Brains Piece Of Slime Who Treated You Like Crap For So Long That You Learned To Believe It)

Step 1: Get the hell away from anyone who isn’t treating you well.

If you feel like crap around them, stop engaging with them! Or, if that’s not possible, get help establishing and maintaining some firm boundaries to protect yourself around them. Hopefully you have someone you can trust and call on at this time. If not, seek someone out at a shelter, hospital, doctor’s office, counsellor’s office, or mental health program. There is always someone to talk to, but you do need to be willing to ask.

Step 2: Make your home a sanctuary.

Or your room. Or wherever you spend the most time. You don’t need to hire a designer and bring in tasteful accents to make your space feel like an oasis, you only need to make it feel safe—whatever that means to you, whatever that looks like to you, whatever you can afford.

For me, having photos of my daughters and I, and our friends and family, up on the walls of my house was really important in asserting my identity as a mother and a single-parent. Getting a new bed and having comfortable bedding was also a priority for me, especially since anxiety often robs me of sleep. I love bright, rich colours, so the art and furnishings I‘ve found for my space reflect this (I also love me some secondhand treasure-hunting! A go-to for decorating on a budget). I need music in my life that reflects my moods, so having speakers and a personalized digital music library was an essential addition to my space. I also established very early on that all pick-ups and drop-offs with my children would happen in a neutral place or out on my driveway, so that the sanctity of my space was maintained.

There are so many ways you can manifest your sanctuary: colours, scents, sounds, art, food, furniture… As much as possible, be intentional with what you put in your space.  

Step 3: Surround yourself with people who are authentic and who bring you up instead of down.

It’s time to weed out the baddies. This part SUUUUUUUCKS and it takes some time, but it is massively important to revitalizing your identity.

You already took the courageous step of leaving your abuser/s (you’re such a legit badass!!) now make sure that everyone else in your life supports, loves, and nourishes you because you will be fragile at this time. You will be scattered and scared and messy, so the ones who show up and who leave you feeling better than when they arrived, those are the ones to keep around. Anyone who leaves you feeling worse than when they got there needs to be shown the door (good-bye!). We can’t avoid all annoying people (if only, eh?!), but we can control who we let into our inner-sanctum both literally (see Step 2) and emotionally/figuratively.

Step 4: Do something that you love.

Find something that you enjoy and just fucking do it! It does NOT have to cost a lot of money. It does NOT have to take up a big chunk of your time. It just needs to be something you can do reliably and regularly.

I returned to writing when my “Life 1.0” ended. I returned to making music at the same time. I began reading again. I gardened. I went out and started rock climbing with a friend. My life as a single mom means that I have limited free time, a limited budget, and a limited amount of energy to put towards things, so I found activities that were easily accessible to me and slowly increased the amount I time I spent on them. Regardless of budget or lifestyle, you can find a hobby you like to do. The only criteria is that it has to make you feel good.

Step 5: Put effort into rediscovering your identity.

Duh. That’s what this blog post is all about! And Steps 1-4 lay out some clear ideas for ways you can work on finding yourself after abuse. But Step 5 is here because the previous four steps don’t talk about the emotional work that needs to go into rediscovering identity.

Counselling, if it’s available to you, is hugely helpful with this step. Keeping a journal, doing monthly check-ins, picking up an inspiring and motivational self-help book, joining a support group, or participating in a mental health day program like the one I went to, can all be super-duper helpful in maneuvering the path towards self discovery post-abuse. You need to tune in and acknowledge yourself: your needs, your wants, your skills, and your faults (see my previous post for how to identify healthy self-beliefs). You need to take sometime and figure out not “who am I?” but, “who am I right now and where do I want to go from here?”

Step 6: Repeat steps 1-5, as needed.

Rinse and repeat, people! Check in with how you’re feeling and adjust as necessary. This is an ongoing process. The definition of yourself can change. In fact, it already did when you left your abuser! But when you craft your OWN identity, these changes happen fluidly, which means they’re a hell of a lot more manageable and you stay in control of how things flow and who you are.

Your abuser(s) may have handed you a shitty deal, but you now have the opportunity to trade some cards in and get a royal flush. Jackpot!

Okay, I know honestly know shit-all about poker, but you get the point, right? Your abuser was (is) an asshole, but you’re not (I’m assuming) and you don’t have to let that jerk control your life anymore. You get to rediscover who you are after abuse. You get to decide what your identity looks like. Confident, crafty, gritty, humble, kind, tough, simple, fancy…whatever! You can find your identity after leaving your abuser, you just need the right steps to follow and the right supports to climb them.

xxJ

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This cheery reminder hangs in my living room for my daughters and I to see every day. Artist credit: Becca Cahan for Society6

Turning Paper Into Diamonds

Or, “I Bet You Look Cute in that Emotional Tool Belt”

After my divorce, I spent some time working with an abuse counsellor named Alanna. She was one of the last stops on my roundabout tour of finding caring, knowledgeable support when I was at my lowest point and needed help getting up from rock-bottom. The partner abuse program she facilitated ended up moving to a different agency and she ended up moving elsewhere as well, but the months I spent attending sessions with her had a profound effect on my daily life.

The biggest take-away from my time with her has been a single piece of paper that I keep taped up above my writing desk. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at this flimsy, white sheet and felt stronger because of it.

Good counsellors offer a wealth of helpful and insightful information, but great counsellors listen closely to their clients and offer little gems of wisdom that hit just the right note at just the right time and give the people they work with exactly what they need in that moment.

I bet you most of the time my counsellors do this and then giggle to themselves as they watch me unfold my understanding, thinking that I’ve come to some great realization all by myself, when really it’s because of their sly influence.

Damn they’re good!

Alright, I won’t keep you on tenterhooks (how’s that for a word of the day, eh?) any longer. Obviously you’re all dying to know what the hell is on this glorious, life-changing piece of paper.

Shit…now I’ve built it up too much! Ugh. Okay, it doesn’t matter, because even if you think it’s lame, it was/is totally the exact right thing I needed from this counsellor and she fucking nailed it.

Here it is, in all it’s simple glory:

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Pretty fucking awesome, right?

Okay, fine. It’s just a piece of paper with a some lines and a few very important words that suggest one simple idea: think about what your stupid, anxiety-ridden/depressed brain is telling you and then call yourself out on that bullshit and use objective proof to throw it the fuck out the window!

Or in different terms: figure out your self-critical belief, use that to identify what’s really true (your new, positive belief), and then prove to yourself that the new/positive belief is real by coming up with examples that support it.

It’s gotten to the point where I can just glance at this paper and be reminded that I’m not crazy. It reminds me that I can handle my shit. That what my abusers have told me isn’t the divine truth. That my mental illness doesn’t have to stop me from living well. That I can fucking DO THIS.

Feel free to borrow it.

Print it out, or draw your own fancy version, or scrawl the words onto a Post It and stick that shit up somewhere you’ll see it.

You’ll find that you’ll catch yourself glancing at it and thinking about its message, whether you have anxiety, or depression, or not. Whether you’re an abuse survivor or not. No matter your circumstance, you can use this tool to improve your life.

I like to think about techniques like this as tools that I keep in an emotional tool belt (a metaphor gifted to me by my other kick-ass counsellor, Daniel). My emotional tool belt used to be filled with rusty, dented, useless objects that caused me more pain and confusion than I ever needed in my life. I’ve been slowly scrapping those old, dysfunctional tools and refilling my tool belt with useful shit like this worksheet. I keep it next to my #2 Robbie (screw you Phillips screwdrivers!), a copy of Rupi Kaur’s “milk and honey”, my “DIVORCED AF” tank top, and the same stainless steel water bottle I’ve been slurping from for years (gotta stay hydrated!). I keep it with my dearest, most important possessions, but I know it’s better to share, so it’s yours to borrow now.

Use it to remember: you are more than your mental health diagnosis.

You are more than what your abusers say you are.

You are capable and smart and strong and brilliant.

You can change and you can get better tools to put in that cute-ass emotional tool belt of yours.

This paper may as well be made out of diamonds, because it’s become completely priceless to me. And I’ll keep it on my wall until it yellows and fades. I’ll keep it until I don’t need a daily reminder to re-frame my thinking, because I’ve got practices like this to grab from my cute-ass tool belt at any moment.

xxJ

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This is also usually found near my writing desk. It doesn’t fit well into my tool belt though…