Societal Myths that Retraumatize Victims After Abuse
Thursday, March 14 2019 Kristen Milstead
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.