Societal Myths that Retraumatize Victims After Abuse
I've come face-to-face with many myths that retraumatize victims of abuse while recovering from an abusive relationship amidst a roller coaster of emotions. For me, it has brought on a lot of guilt and anxiety about how it has impacted my other relationships. It's one thing to write about it so openly, knowing others who have been through the same thing will read it and relate to it. It's another thing to talk about it with people I'm close to who haven't experienced it, unsure of how they will react. I've often found myself at a loss for how to explain or even share what I've been through in those situations. Sometimes, the way people respond to me show how societal myths retraumatize victims of abuse.
I've also learned a lot about some of the other people in my life. I've been disappointed and hurt during this process by people I thought I could trust. The range of harmful ways that some people in my life have responded include making careless or thoughtless statements about the abuse to completely turning their backs on me to further exploiting me when I was at my weakest, before I even realized what was going on.
I've decided that for a lot of reasons, some of what happened is probably unavoidable. Until there is a larger understanding in society of why people end up in abusive relationships and more support for them to exit those relationships when they feel ready, others will say and do things that can't help but further hurt survivors of abuse unnecessarily when they need help the most.
Myths that Retraumatize Victims After Abuse
Here are things that if we believe, implicitly or explicitly, retraumatize the victims of abuse.
- The abuse was our fault or we deserved it. Whether we receive the message implicitly through the questions we are asked about what happened or whether someone explicitly says something to us, it is important to remember that only the abuser is to blame for his or her actions. There are all sorts of uninformed ideas about how dating red flags are obvious or victims should be able to leave sooner or that victims incite the abuse, but these come from a place of ignorance.
- Any and all support we receive is beneficial. It's common for some people to drop out of our lives because they don't understand or don't want to deal with what happened to us. One of the things I realized was that I was so grateful at first the people who stayed around that I didn't notice that some of them didn't have my best interests at heart either. As I began to change during my recovery and build my boundaries again, they weren't so supportive anymore and I realized that I had been blind to the ways that they were also taking advantage of me.
- There's a timetable for recovering. Although there are patterns to abusive relationships and commonalities in the methods of abusive behavior, everyone's experience of abuse is different. Everyone's recovery is different. Furthermore, it's a journey and not a destination. No one can tell you how long it should take you to get "back on your feet" again.
- There's one path to healing. There are different types of therapy and different types of self-care available. Some people withdraw to spend time on their own, and others spend a lot of time with other people because they haven't had much opportunity to develop other relationships outside their abusive relationship. The emotional trajectory toward healing is not linear. On one day we may feel joy and hope and the next day we may feel anxiety and sadness. Just as there is not one timetable, there is not one way you should be "acting" or "healing" as you progress through your recovery journey. It's yours alone.
- All mental healthcare is created equal. Speaking of different types of therapy, just because someone is a mental health professional does not mean that they are trained in working with someone recovering from an abusive relationship or how to treat trauma. Encouraging survivors to accept labels that don't define what happened, to forgive their abusers, to go into therapy with their abusers, or to work on their role in what happened prematurely and without treating the entirety of the trauma that occurred in all parts of our lives can have detrimental and retraumatizing effects. For example, as trauma therapist and speaker Christine Louis de Canonville writes, "Sometimes therapists will ask the client why they stayed in such a dysfunctional relationship for so long. This is not a good thing; it also tells me that the therapist does not understand a process called 'cognitive dissonance.'"1
- All abuse survivors are codependent. For some people, the codependency label and literature fits their circumstances. For others, it does not. If that works for you, please use the information to help you heal. If it doesn't, don't let other people tell you what doesn't describe your circumstances. There are many reasons why people get into abusive relationships and stay in them, such as love-bombing, cognitive dissonance, trauma bonds, and the fear of being seriously harmed or killed if they leave. Furthermore, we know that abusers target people for many reasons and that anyone can be a victim of abuse.2
- We should stay silent and not talk about what happened. Sometimes, I've had people tell me during the course of writing about what I went through that I'm brave. I don't think of myself as brave for talking about what happened to me. I think of myself and all of the survivors I know as brave for having survived the horrible experience of abuse. Staying silent does not feel like an option to me anymore, as it was just another part of the emotional abuse I suffered in the relationship. My ex-boyfriend did everything he could to keep me from even recognizing the abuse and then from talking about it. We have nothing to be ashamed of, and our voices make us stronger and can help us to heal. Silence can make us sick.
Because I've had to learn many of these things in this list the hard way, I'm also at a stage where I'm quietly questioning many relationships in my life. I've had to say good-bye to some of the people I trusted the most, as I was only retraumatizing myself by keeping those people in my life.
- Louis de Canonville, Christine. "Narcissistic Victim Syndrome: What the Heck is That?" Accessed March 13, 2019.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline, "Why Do People Abuse?" Accessed March 13, 2019.
Milstead, K. (2019, March 14). Societal Myths that Retraumatize Victims After Abuse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, November 24 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/verbalabuseinrelationships/2019/3/societal-myths-that-retraumatize-victims-after-abuse
Author: Kristen Milstead
Thank you so much for the articles you take the time to write. I am currently in an abusive marriage with a narcissist and although I have done a lot of reading on the subject, your articles and your website have been the most encouraging and informative due to your own first hand experience. I have struggled with being rejected by my family because I did not leave when they demanded that I leave, and now that I am ready to go for good they cannot be bothered to even speak to me. It's every bit as traumatizing as the abuse is. I wholeheartedly believe that more victims of abuse would (eventually) successfully break free the narcissistic nightmare if people were more educated about the true psychological damage and confusion that victims are blind sided with. We are unwittingly and intentionally groomed from day 1 to keep turning the other cheek and to keep believing that change is on the horizon by the narcissist, and it often times takes years before we finally realize that not only will the nightmare never end but that the nightmare is, and was always intentional. The realization that every single step we took through Hell was premeditated is not only devastating, but it also causes us to question and lose faith in our own ability to make good decisions for ourselves. We become so afraid of making the wrong decision again that we end up freezing and allowing the abuse to continue longer. Then, when we finally do manage to gather the strength and mental fortitude to kick the gates of Hell open and walk out for good, the resources which we are led to believe will be there to help us rebound are very limited, and the people whom we thought we could count on treat us like we are undeserving of respect and compassion because we didn't get out sooner. It's vile, it's incredibly hurtful, and it's unacceptable.
Tammy -- I'm so very sorry about what you're going through, but I'm really glad to hear that you're ready to leave. The way you described what happens while you're in the relationship and how there can be so little support is so right on. It's like being victimized twice--I find people who can find the strength to leave when they have little to no support to be incredibly brave. I am really proud of you for finding this courage. I'm so glad you've found my articles helpful. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. Stay strong! -Kristen
It would be so nice if there were a way to connect with the person/victim you relate to
this is still me, denise,.... I am isolated thru the abuse and also thru where I am located which is near or close to no-one.CONNECTING 1 ON 1WOULD HELP SO MUCH AS MENTALLY I ACTUALLY THINK SOMETIMES IT IS MY OWN FAULT.THE 1 ON 1 SUPPORT WOULD BE SO BENEFICIAL pLEASE THINK ABOUT HOW THIS COULD BE ADDED HERE. tHANK YOU SO MUCH
Hi Denise: I'm so sorry for what you are going through. I can really empathize. The isolation can be very overwhelming at times. While you may not find a way to connect with other survivors here, there are forums across the Internet such as on Facebook where group members can provide one another with support and validation. That has been a big help to me personally. There are also crisis lines available, and even text support. You can text #714714 in the U.S. at any time in a crisis just to have someone to connect with. You may also want to check MeetUp for any face-to-face organizations in your community or reach out to some of the organizations on this website to help connect you to support groups. https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/resources/mental-health-hotline-numbers-and-refer… I know you said the location you're in is pretty isolated, so there may not be much face-to-face peer support available, but I thought I'd offer those possibilities anyway so you could check. But there is a lot of Internet support out there as well. Please stay strong and remember you're not alone. Most definitely the abuse is not your fault. Thank you for reaching out. -Kristen
I lived the same!!. A lot of people instead of helping me made me felt worst, guilty, or seemed to try to help but they were trying to take advantage of my vulnerability.
Several 'friends' called me to help me to find a job or they offered me their house and they only had sex in mind...several awful situations!.
It was doubly hard trying to get out of the abuses, accepted that I needed help, asked for it, and saw you fleeing from the aid workers and abusers at the same time, like a pshicological thriller film.
It makes you strong, I thought that I was not going to survive that stage, but when you only have yourself you find a strength that you did not know before in order to get up.
I cleaned up false friends and now, although I am more alone, I have never felt better because I accept to say goodbye to everything that is not the highest respect for me. I have myself and that's great after the learned helplessness!!!.
Thank you very much for such a good quality information!. Best regards from Spain!!..Spanish speaking people don't have still much information and understand english it is fantastic because you are the crazy one here when you talk about these abuses and their consecuences..also with professionals!!. The more I read the less validation of others I need to close that awful experiences!. Thank yooouuuu!!! Good high impact positive work for a lot of survivors!!!
Hi Ana: I'm sorry to hear about what happened in your life with your friends. It's sad that this seems to be so common, but I'm inspired by how you wrote about moving past it to a new stage in your life where you have removed everything and everyone that does not show you the respect that you deserve. Have you thought yourself about being a voice in Spain for others, since you said there is so little Spanish-language material? Beyond that I honestly think stories like this are an inspiration to everyone. Thank you for sharing. I wish you peace and light on your continued journey to recovery. -Kristen
My now older husband is having age related Narcism, acting like a toddler when stressed, and has a very low self esteem due to - brain damage from heart attack and other health related problems.
So the selfish bully comes out. Every comment is an attack to them.
The sister in laws and other people only see - remember the fun carefree person and think I am deranged. Thanks for speaking out about this problem.
There is nothing written for older couples who deal with all the issues of narcism. He was once a much nicer person. Stress has taken its toll and he is struggling with age related changes. So am I. LOL Bless You
This happened to me too. After a difficult surgery where he told me ‘he died’, everything changed. He became super sensitive, nothing was his fault, it was his way or the highway, and I was not doing enough to help him/make him happy, etc. 18 months later he ended our 28 year marriage saying he wanted to find someone who would meet his needs. This was followed by 6 years of impossible divorce and despair on my part.
I wish I had taken more precautions to protect myself financially and emotionally. But I didn’t know about narcissism and what they are capable of doing once their true self is exposed.
Unfortunately, narcissists do not go back to the charming self they made you fall in love with, unless it is to try to get something more out of you.
Keep educating yourself and protect yourself.
I feel for you.
Hi Sheryl: That sounds so very painful to deal with, and you have been through so much. There is some very interesting research about brain injuries and what they can tell us about empathy and narcissism. Brain injuries can also cause symptoms that look very similar to NPD symptoms, but don't necessarily qualify someone as having NPD--which doesn't make much of a difference to the people who are harmed by their actions, does it? Meaning, we don't care about the cause if the effect is the same! But I would encourage you to do a little research about brain injuries and narcissism and read about changes in the brain and what you can expect. You may also find others who have gone through something similar who can help support you through the experience. Thank you for sharing your story. Stay strong! -Kristen
Oh my dear, I can so relate to what you said. My husband and I are an older couple (in our early sixties). In 2009 he became disabled after a lifetime of being a strong, capable worker. From that time to now he has become exactly the same as how you describe yours, short tempered, acting like a toddler having a temper tantrum, etc. It's so hard because he used to be so calm and even tempered. And I know it's because of his declining health issues as well as his inability to work anymore....but knowing where it comes from and living with it now are two completely different things. He had gone into a depression not long after he quit working and sought out a therapist but he stopped going after several months. I really think he should of continued going. I myself am seeing one so at least I have a good, safe place to vent about it. I wish you all good things on your journey....