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Unraveling the Chains: Strategies for Healing from Emotional Abuse

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

Healing from emotional abuse is an arduous process, mainly because there are so many differing effects in so many areas – a million moving parts to account for. As hard as it is to de-code however, it is vital to address if you find yourself facing that unresolved trauma on a daily-basis – it can integrate into your habits, grow into your social patterns, and fundamentally shift the outlook you have on life.

If you’re at the stage where you’re starting to question things: wondering why the self-doubt won’t leave, why the exhaustion doesn’t end, why it feels so hard to maintain important relationships – if you’re at the starting line where you know you feel discontent but not why, then trauma-informed therapy will be extremely helpful to you. It could offer a small respite from the fear and anxiety that tends to attach itself to those who’ve been forced to monitor themselves.

When you’ve felt like you’re constantly being watched for a mistake, waiting for the next barrage of character-destroying insults, or looking out for traps intentionally set to make you feel stupid or gullible, you quickly adapt to make that environment run as smoothly as possible. Trauma-informed therapy is specifically focused on singling out these adaptions and figuring out what their use was, putting the pieces together so you can see exactly why and how your trauma has affected you.

If you already know your patterns and how your trauma has impacted you, if you’re like me and have multiple lists hidden away detailing exactly what those effects are, then trauma-informed therapy may feel too repetitive for you. Why would you want to sit with a professional for an extended period of time going over something you already know? CBT (Cognitive-behavioural therapy - a form of therapy you’re probably already familiar with) may be a better choice for you. Instead of rehashing the reasons why you feel and act the way you do, it is solely focused on negative or harmful behaviour patterns and how to change them. NO time spent on re-living or re-processing trauma, just effort placed into un-learning the things that harm you.

It can be especially helpful if you find yourself struggling with people – isolation can be caused for so many reasons in the aftermath of emotional abuse. Maybe it comes from the perception everyone will be like your abuser, or perhaps a central part of the abuse was demonising other people to ensure you felt dependant – it could even simply come from the avoidance of effort needed to socialise in the way you’ve ben told and taught is ‘right’. No matter where it comes from it can limit you, leave you feeling alone, and even if you tell yourself it’s better that way deep down we all know it isn’t. CBT would aid with creating safety in socialising, re-learning the skills you need to feel fulfilled, and reducing the fear associated with the maintenance and vulnerability realistically needed to maintain important relationships.

If you feel like you fit into both of these categories, like you’ve gone over it all a thousand times but are still being pulled around, then perhaps DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy) would be a better choice. It’s essentially a mixture of trauma-informed therapy and CBT – focused on decoding trauma and its aftereffects as a first step, then using that knowledge to figure out the best way to regulate emotional distress. It does not remove the trauma, nothing can do that, but it helps you live with it. Dealing with emotional abusers leaves you feeling like a chunk of yourself is missing – one that’s hard to identify but feels incredibly important. It’s a job keeping them content enough to fly by without being degraded for the day, and you learn to live with a certain level of activity going at all times - scanning for the next problem you’ll be required to solve or the next bullet to dodge. It’s exhausting, its stressful, and it sticks with you. DBT may offer a balm for this: laying out the pieces of your past experiences, figuring out how it has grown with you, and then carving out the person you were always meant to be.

Depending on what stage of recovery you’re already at, the therapy or mechanisms you would use can differ wildly. Figuring out what works for you is unfortunately part of the process, like trialling different types of medication until you find the one that works best for you. The only solid advice I can really offer to you is do as much research as possible (you’ve definitely heard this before but sadly it’s true), especially if you’re like me and can’t afford to trial 8 different types of therapy to see if they would work. You can do this alone – find one that fits for you or mix and match methods if you need to, take parts from different therapies and mash them together (it’ll take extra effort without help, but it IS doable). You could also do this with non-professional help, especially if that makes you feel more comfortable (bad therapy experiences are their own thing to recover from). However, the real perk of professional aid is having a research middle-person, someone to look into the different methods and present you with the range of options rather than finding them yourself. It can be extremely helpful to have a non-biased ear, one contractually obligated to keep your secrets and give you advice, one that will guide you through the process of healing and ensure you don’t feel so alone.

No matter how you choose to heal, it is worth it. They don’t deserve to win, especially when it comes to remembering that you’ve already earned the space you inhabit, and that it isn’t your job to be perfect and likeable

Just keep on living, slowly chip away at the things they left behind – its enough, and so are you.

Sofia is a senior researcher & contributor working with Jimi Katsis. They have a wide range of experience, specialising in emotional / psychological trauma with an emphasis on childhood trauma & CPTSD (complex post traumatic stress disorder)

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