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.
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.