Cognitive behavioural therapy aims to change negative thought processes and beliefs that lead to problematic behaviour.
After an emotionally abusive relationship, there is commonly a lot of negative self-talk and self-thought, as the tactics used to abuse and wear you down, such as gaslighting, manipulation, blaming and criticism, create and intensify the inner voice of worthlessness and a deep-rooted feeling of not being ‘good enough’.
The abuser teaches you not to trust your own voice, your own judgement or your own perception. This creates difficulties in the healing journey, as there is usually a cycle of self-doubt which leads to anxiety; questioning whether it was really abusive, whether you were the problem, which would mean that the abuser was right in all the things they said about you, leading to anxiety, which feeds into the feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt.
These internalised negative messages about self need to be identified and removed from your self-talk, so that the true and glorious you can shine through and you can say with confidence, ‘I am good enough!’; ‘I am worthy of love and happiness!’.
Working with a good and skilled therapist – who has experience in abuse – will always recommended as they are trained to support you on your journey. However, there are therapy-based exercises you can do from home to support yourself. Here are some exercises from a cognitive behavioural therapy perspective to help combat the self-critical voice and support your healing…
Thought Feeling Behaviour Cycle
The cycle here is that a negative thought creates a feeling, and this feeling leads to an unwanted behaviour, and the unwanted behaviour reinforces the negative thought.
So for example, you think to yourself that you are stupid (maybe you have been told this or made to feel this way), which leads to you feeling your opinion is worth less than others, so you shy away from communicating with people, which reinforces that you don’t have anything worth while to say and the thought that you are therefore stupid.
To break this cycle, you can tackle one element, and here its easiest to look at the negative thoughts. What thoughts are leading to the feelings that are holding you back in your healing? Can you identify them? Where do they come from? Were they always there? Whose voice is it saying these negative things to you?
Once you have identified the negative thought you want to work on, you can work on changing the internal message. Try saying a daily mantra to counter the negative thought, so in the case of ‘I am stupid’, wake up each morning and say to yourself, ‘I am not stupid. My voice matters, my opinion is worthy and I have a right to be heard.’
Identifying What Comes First
An episode of anxiety or panic or self-doubt is made up of several factors: the thought, feeling, behaviour and physical response. If you can identify what the first signs are when you are heading towards a spiral, you can try to use tools to calm the storm.
So, for example, if you notice the first thing is racing thoughts, which leads to a fluttery feeling in your chest, then you can work on trying to calm the thoughts. A good tip here would be mindfulness or meditation (there are several apps now that give short daily exercises for mindfulness that can be really helpful!)
Or if you notice that your breathing is a little quicker and then you start overthinking to make sense of the physical sensation, you can try breathing exercises to slow and calm your breathing. These can be as simple as mindfully breathing in and out slowly, and it can help to repeat a simple word or sentence to help calm yourself, such as ‘I am ok’.
Keeping a Thought Log
Keeping a thought log can be a really good way of bringing clarity to what is going on in your mind and what impact it is having on you.
It can be really simple; you can write in a journal at the end of each day, noticing how you were felt about yourself and how you felt in general. So for example, ‘I felt like I was a good friend today and I was feeling happy and positive.’
You can extend this by trying to identify triggers on the days that you aren’t feeling great, as well as trying to identify positive activities on the days that you are feeling good. This will help you to implement more positive activities into your life and in avoiding your triggers.
Tackling the Always Never Thinking
We need to try and tackle the beast of always and never thinking. This is tough after abuse, as you were likely always blamed for their actions or the condition of the relationship and could (allegedly) never get anything right.
Here, you need to practice self-kindness. After an abusive relationship, we can put so much pressure on ourselves to get absolutely everything right and if the smallest thing doesn’t go to plan we can feel heavy shame and beat ourselves up mercilessly. This is because of the relationship dynamic experienced from the abuse; the expectation that you should be able to read their mind and do and say everything exactly how they expect, and the consequences you have endured when you got it wrong.
It can help to write a list of positive affirmations about yourself and your achievements. This is so, when something doesn’t go to plan, you have a visual of all the things that have worked out lately. So, instead of the one thing not working and thinking, ‘I am a failure; I am useless’, try to take a deep breath and look at the list of things that are great about you and what you have achieved this week.
This can help put into perspective that you don’t always fail, it is just one thing didn’t go to plan. And remember, no one gets it right all the time, that is a myth the abuser told you to cater to their entitlement!
Diary of Enjoyable Activities
Similar to the thought log, you could keep a diary specifically to identify what brings you joy. This can be the smallest of things, to bigger activities, but over time you will build a diary of what brings you enjoyment and happiness.
This is a great way to journal what brings positivity into your life so that you can focus on doing more of it, as well as giving you a crutch of support on those darker days, when you can turn to look at your journal to remember that not all days are dark ones, and that you have it in you to find joy and happiness in these activities.
Remember, Sometimes You Just Have to Ride the Wave
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you do, the anxiety or sadness or trigger will hit you. And that’s ok! There is no shame in feeling like you aren’t coping as well as you were, or spiralling.
Sometimes, you just need to identify that it got to you and it’s going to be ok and you need to sit through it. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t moving forward in your healing. Healing is not linear.
Remind yourself how far you’ve come, and that you are doing an amazing job. Give yourself time and practice being kind and gentle with yourself until you feel yourself coming out on the other side of it. Reach out for support. Then take a deep breath, and be proud of yourself.