After abuse, the trauma you’re left with is like a gaping hole on the roof of your house. You can either cover it with a cheap plastic tarp—a fast and easy, though only temporary, solution—or you can begin the slightly more time-intensive work of building a stronger roof that you feel safe underneath. Learning healthy coping strategies will not only help you feel stronger mentally and emotionally, but can also lessen your chances of being deceived by another abuser in the future (yay, boundaries!).
Unhealthy Coping Strategies
- Ignoring Your Feelings. It’s not unusual for survivors to deny they were abused or to avoid talking about it all together, either while it’s still going on or after they’ve left the abuser. This may be the fallout of the social stigma that surrounds abuse, or it could be the result of psychological mind tricks by the abuser.
“Anything that leads to you not being able to admit the full scale of what occurred is going to be a barrier to your healing,” says Nickia Lowery, licensed professional counselor and CEO at Optimum Purpose Counseling and Education in Atlanta.
When you’re ready, talk to a domestic violence advocate, counselor or a good friend. Just being able to say it out loud—this is what happened to me—is going to jumpstart your healing, and possibly be the impetus for your escape.
- Taking on Guilt and Shame. In the midst of abuse, survivors may think: Maybe I did do something to cause this. Afterwar, it’s, Why didn’t I see the signs? How did I get so far into it? What you need to remember is trauma-related guilt is a liar. “When I work with survivors … I teach them to practice self-compassion,” says Beverly Engel, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of It Wasn’t Your Fault. “If they can turn their attention from the abuser to themselves and emotionally connect with their own suffering, they soon discover that their trauma-related guilt subsides.”
- A Codependent Relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean a romantic relationship. A survivor may latch on to a parent in an unhealthy way because they’re looking for security. And sometimes it is jumping right back into a relationship with a partner, and not always a safe one either. Survivors may think that just because they found someone “nice,” they’re good to go.
“Everyone you date, you should expect them to be nice. So the fact that they’re nice to you does not mean you’re compatible,” says Lowery, who advises against survivors dating right after leaving an abuser. The marker for being ready to date again? Ask yourself if you’re ready to face the things you’ve been through. Are you ready to talk about it with someone new?
Healthier Coping Strategies
- Setting Loud and Clear Boundaries
Here’s a simple example: Say you tell a new partner you’re busy Tuesday night and can’t see them. They come over to your house anyhow and ring the bell. They’re not respecting your boundaries or your personal space. “What’s next if you allow that?” asks Lowery. Setting boundaries means being able to self-advocate, being able to clearly communicate your needs, and calling out red flags.
- Cleaning Out “the Closet”
Mindfulness activities means being alone with you, your mind and nothing else. This could look like journaling, meditating, drawing, practicing yoga or prayer. It’s healing to give your thoughts, memories and feelings a space of their own. Think of it like organizing a cluttered closet. Lay everything out so you can see it clearly and go from there.
- Rebuilding Relationships
There’s nothing an abuser hates more than their victim having relationships with supportive people. Most likely, abuse burned a few bridges with people in your life, but it’s never too late to try and rebuild them. Don’t be surprised if you’re met with a bit of cautious skepticism though, says Lowery. Support persons may have heard you promise before that it was over, only to painfully watch you return to someone they knew was hurting you.
- Forgiving Yourself
It wasn’t your fault. Remember when Robin Williams repeats over and over to Matt Damon in Goodwill Hunting after Damon tells him about being abused by his father? Eventually, Damon breaks down in tears, finally believing it to be true. Channel Robin Williams. It’s not your fault you were targeted by an abuser. “They’re not just perpetrators, they’re predators,” says Lowery. “They thought this out, they knew exactly what they were doing.” Allow yourself the same grace you’d give to a best friend who disclosed abuse—it wasn’t your fault.
Amanda Kippert is an award-winning journalist, domestic violence advocate, freelance investigative reporter for the HuffPost and editorial director of the national nonprofit DomesticShelters.org where 4 million people a year seek help and information regarding domestic violence.