When someone has been through trauma, an important part of recovery is feeling validated.
With that in mind, it’s fair to say that emotional abuse is outright cruel. Emotional abuse awareness is steadily growing in society, but the problem remains that many survivors feel alone and that their experience is misunderstood or minimised, not just by other people, but also by themselves.
It is not uncommon for people who have been emotionally abused to develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), due to the many psychological tactics used by the abuser to wear down the victim's sense of self and sense of reality. Whilst living with the abuser, the victim is in a constant state of high alert: fear of further condemnation, fear of the silent treatment, further threats, further rages, or further belittlement. The fear of isolation, the threat of physical abuse, the reality of losing more choices, more of their voice, more of their self. Or it’s something in the relationship that the victim can't verbalise but its making them feel increasingly hollow (because it's covert abuse). The list goes on. And the effects can linger long past the end of the relationship. Cruelly, the lack of recognition of these traumatic experiences can make the survivor feel like they don't even deserve to be traumatised.
So why is it so hard to feel validated after emotional abuse?
It’s not obviously visible.
Emotional abuse doesn't have that Wham! naked to the eye clarity. There are no visible bruises. And its lacking the shock factor that resonates with people and helps others and survivors to identify, 'yes, that was abuse'.
But it does have serious consequences on mental and physical health. Emotional abuse can cause self-harm and even suicide, as well as mental health issues, such as alcohol addiction, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression.
Sadly however, these serious health issues are often seen as originating in the victim of the abuse, rather than being a direct result of the abuse.
Even the most 'obvious' emotional abuse can be difficult for the victim to identify, due to the tactics adopted by the abuser. Gaslighting, crazy-making, projection. All these things can work to make the victim second guess their own judgement and make them question whether they view things (that their partner is abusive) correctly.
But, most of the time, it’s even less clear; in fact, it’s extremely subtle. It’s designed to be that way so that there is no clear evidence of abusive behaviour. Emotional abuse can be so subtle that it can be hard to put your finger on. It can manifest in every interaction: mannerisms, words, gestures. The words may not be overtly bad, but when the victim hears these certain words, they know they have done something wrong, and it sends panic down their spine.
Trying to explain this to others can be devastatingly deflating, and can cause a sense of re-traumatisation. As isolated incidents, these behaviours might seem like nothing at all, or well-meaning friends may say, 'oh my boyfriend does that too...' and the victim is left feeling completely invalidated in the trauma they now experience.
With emotional abuse, it’s the systematic pattern of these subtle behaviours that makes it so devastating.
It’s important to acknowledge that validation should not primarily come from others accepting that the relationship was abusive, but that it should be in the form of self-validation.
Unfortunately, this is where it's cruel. The fundamental goal of emotional abuse is to erode away at the victim's self-esteem until they have none so as to facilitate the abuser's need for control. It’s the reason it works! It’s the reason they stay! It’s the reason why survivors look endlessly for outside validation.
Survivors of emotional abuse may not even trust their choice of what to watch on T.V, let alone trust their perception of an intrinsically abusive relationship where psychological tactics were deployed to cloud their reality. They don't trust their own feelings anymore. Instead, after the initial feeling of exaltation of leaving the relationship, they begin to feel alone, confused, traumatised and invalidated, and often not even sure if it was abuse at all.
But, there is hope (thank goodness!)
Recovery is a long journey. There are a lot of ups and downs. But there are a few key points that can help a survivor to feel validated in their experience and move forward with recovery.
There's a lot of accessible information out there and this would be a good time to make use of it. Get informed about emotional abuse, what it is and how it makes you feel. It will give a survivor the reassurance that their feelings are a normal part of the recovery process, as well as the evidence they need to gradually build confidence in the fact that the experiences they have had were abusive.
Get to know yourself.
Ideally, through therapy. When you have been stripped down by emotional abuse, you need to be built back up. Therapy will help with this process, help to build self-esteem, and help to re-establish a sense of identity. Practice good self-care, even if it’s just starting a hobby or relaxing in a bath. Dedicate time to you. Survivors of emotional abuse will have spent little or no time considering their own needs whilst in the abusive relationship, and taking baby steps towards prioritising themselves will help to build confidence and ultimately, build trust in their perception of the experiences they have had.
Get to know others.
Specifically, get to know others who have experienced emotionally abusive relationships. The support from someone who has had similar experiences can be invaluable. It can be reassuring to connect with someone who is further along the recovery process, similarly it can be encouraging to offer support to someone who is not as far along. Maybe a friend has experienced emotional abuse, but there are also online and local communities to connect with and help survivors to see that they are not alone.
And lastly... go no contact!
If it is possible to no longer communicate with the abuser, then it is absolutely crucial to do so. Any interaction with the abuser will cause old emotions and traumas to resurface and will dramatically hinder recovery, plus there is the real likelihood that the abuser will continue to be subtly abusive.
Unfortunately, many people are connected to the abuser in ways that do not allow for no contact. If this is the case, then limit contact as much as possible. Keep communication non-emotive, try not be drawn in to reacting to the abuser's emotional baiting. It’s hard, the abuser wants to cause a reaction, and it will probably feel like an emotional yo-yo at times.
Concentrate on building up self-worth, connecting with people who understand what you're going through or who care about you and establishing a life away from the abuser, and with time it is possible to find validation in your experience of emotional abuse, and more poignantly, the understanding that you are powerful and strong for surviving it.