How Compassion Helps You Fight Back Against the Hurtful Voices in Your Head

In the third part of this series on learning to love yourself after a violent relationship, I look at how to use compassion to actually change the way your mind works.

As I talked about here and here, abuse disrupts our ability to seek out and provide the warmth and nurture that all mammals need to function. Our response mechanisms short-circuit and we have to relearn how to treat ourselves with gentleness and care.

Plus, when you’ve experienced a trauma like domestic violence, your fight-or-flight reactors go into overdrive as you try to combat the very real external threat.

But the upshot of our traumatic experience is that we’re also under attack from internal threats: pain, despair, loss, heartbreak – intense emotions that hurt and frighten us.

From a psychological perspective, we react the same way to external threats as to internal ones. So, when these feelings rise up, we counter-attack. We self-attack.

We treat the emotions with ridicule, aggression, frustration or disappointment. We try to fight them away.

But these emotions aren’t an external threat that you can simply force into retreat. They are part of you, and fighting with them will hurt you.

When our legitimate distress is met with cruelty and rejection, it makes us feel ashamed. We tell ourselves that we’re weak, stupid, not good enough… that we brought this on ourselves.

One way to tackle this is to imagine the self-attacking voice – the voice that shames you for the way you feel – as a separate person. Try to visualise them. What do they look like? What emotions are they directing at you? What do they want from you?

Then: Do they have your best interests at heart? What would happen if they left you alone? Who gains from them treating you like this?

Why are you scared of standing up to them?

You may find that the person you hear attacking you isn’t your own voice at all. You may find that it sounds suspiciously like the partner that made your life miserable. Or a parent, authority figure or bully that made you feel small. Maybe even someone that made you feel like you weren’t strong enough to stand up to the abuse.

And, if that’s the case, ask yourself: what right, what legitimacy, does that person have to attack you like this? Why do you feel you have to submit to their opinion?

What makes you think that their criticisms are at all valid?

Working out where this voice comes from won’t make it shut up. But that doesn’t mean you have to listen.

Instead, work on developing some empathy for your negative emotions. Remember the compassionate image that you developed? How would they respond to someone feeling your pain?

This is not easy. You’re working against the fight-or-flight instincts that tell you how to handle a threat. You’re talking over the voice that has dominated your emotional defenses for far too long. It will not let you take over without a struggle.

But you have to challenge the authority of that voice. You can’t just accept it – and you certainly can’t just accept it as part of who you are.

Be patient. You may need to try out different ways of handling your negative emotions and showing kindness to yourself before you find a way that works for you. These feelings might take a long time to quiet down.

What’s more, in order to really heal, you have to go beyond self-soothing – you also need to gather positive momentum for the future, setting goals and giving your vulnerable self the motivation and encouragement it needs to succeed.

The important thing is that, however you do it, you’re approaching yourself with compassion. You’re not judging, shaming or attacking the negative emotions. You’re not giving credence to the voice that attacks you.

If you’re struggling to recover from an abusive relationship, I hope that this series has helped you develop the tools you need to be kinder to yourself. If you feel you need more support, please do get in touch. I’ve helped hundreds of people to get through their divorce trauma – if you’d like to hear more, you can book a clarity call here.

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The First Step Domestic Violence Survivors Can Take to Learn to Love Themselves Again

Last week I described how many survivors of domestic violence and abuse get so caught up in beating themselves up that they can’t give themselves the care and compassion they need to heal.

In this post, I’ll explain how to take the first step towards fixing this problem, by building a compassionate image.

If you’ve been a violent relationship, you’ve been deprived of the things that we need the most from those we love, in order to feel psychologically sound and healthy.

Things like kindness, nurture, and a sense of physical and emotional safety.

This can make it hard to picture what a loving persona actually looks like.

We all know what words like kindness and love and compassion mean on an intellectual level – but when we’ve been hurt and betrayed, it’s hard to really feel them.

The purpose of the compassionate image exercise is to start to reconnect with these ideas on an emotional level by creating a fully-formed image of compassion. This gives us an internal reference point that we can keep coming back to.

As a starting point, your compassionate image needs to be built around four essential qualities: warmth, strength, wisdom and non-judgement. Beyond this, it is your own personal ideal and should reflect all the ways in which you want to be loved and cared for.

Find a quiet place where you can close your eyes and breathe deeply and focus without any distractions. Your mind might wander, and that’s ok – just try to guide it gently back to the image you’re creating. You want to feel as relaxed as possible, so don’t try to force anything!

Then, guide your image by asking yourself questions such as:

How would you want your ideal caring-compassionate image to look? Are they human, or is this represented by a particular animal? Or even something else entirely, like sunlight, or the sea? What colours do you associate with them? If they are human, are they male or female? Young or old? Would they look like you?

How would your ideal caring-compassionate image sound? What are their vocal qualities (if they have them)? How does this make you feel?

What other sensory qualities are attached to your ideal caring-compassionate image? Keep in mind the qualities of warmth, strength, wisdom and non-judgment here.

How would you like your ideal caring-compassionate image to relate to you? How would you relate to them?

Perhaps you connect through touch? Laughter? Vocal support? Or perhaps it’s simply an unspoken sense of security?

Try to keep in mind all the time that this image brings you complete compassion.

As you continue in your healing journey, this compassion image will be something you refer back to again and again. You can use it to remind yourself what warmth, strength and love truly look like for you – and can tap back into this ideal when you’re tempted to lash out at yourself and others, or when those around you treat you with less compassion than you need.

It gives you a benchmark for working out what kind of people you genuinely want to have in your life – and the kind of person that you want to be.

In my next post, I’ll explain how, armed with your compassionate image, you can start to use compassion to change the way your mind works, helping you to break out of self-destructive cycles and get on the right road to recovery.

Have you tried the compassionate image exercise? I’d love to hear about your experience – if you feel comfortable, please do let me know in the comments section below.

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Domestic Violence Can Leave You Feeling Like You’re Losing Your Mind. Here’s How to Start Healing

I work with a lot of people who have been in violent relationships. One thing I see time and again is that they continue to beat themselves over what has happened to them.

Mostly it’s guilt. Guilt that they stayed with someone who hurt them. Guilt that they hurt other people by staying. Guilt that they hurt other people by leaving. Guilt for going back. Guilt for not going back. Guilt for standing their ground. Guilt for being weak.

They have absolutely no compassion for themselves.

People on the outside struggle to understand. They wonder why a victim of violence would be so hard on themselves. To them, it makes no sense.

But it does make sense.

Domestic violence isn’t the same as being attacked by a stranger in the street. It’s a betrayal by someone you trusted and loved.

It’s bewildering and incredibly painful to be harmed by someone you love – and it’s natural to try and rationalise it in a way you can understand. There must have been a reason, you tell yourself. I must have done something wrong.

Plus, abusive partners are masters of mind games. They are great at making you feel like you’re going crazy, you’re being over-dramatic or it’s all in your head.

Walking away is the first step, but the confusion and creeping self-doubt remain. Thanks to a phenomenon called hindsight bias, they often get worse.

Hindsight bias (also known as the “knew it all along” effect, or creeping determinism) is an unhelpful habit that humans have of looking back over things that have happened and deciding that we should have seen it coming – even when there’s no reason to think we could.

So strong is the impulse that it can even distort our memories, making us falsely reconstruct the way that something happened to better fit with the outcome.

Hindsight bias is the reason we go over and over events in our minds, berating ourselves for not stepping in to prevent disaster.

You should have been stronger/smarter/better! We scream at ourselves. How could you let this happen?
Do these accusations help? Of course not.

Sometimes they exacerbate our pain to the point that we seek out new drama just to distract ourselves from the trauma and the guilt.

Instead, if you’re struggling with how to leave a violent relationship, to move on and to heal, you need to be gentle with yourself.

Paul Gilbert, developer of compassion-focused therapy (CFT), traces this need back to our earliest experiences as babies. Mammals use gentleness and care to soothe the negative emotions of their infants, calm their threat systems and help them feel safe and secure.

If this care is cut off, we lose the ability to tap into the response systems that handle our negative emotions and painful memories.

We struggle to regulate our emotions, become overwhelmed by self-criticism and shame, and read rejection and hostility into the behaviour of people around us.

Worse, when others do attempt to be caring, we panic. We no longer know how to respond.
This means that the impact of domestic violence goes far beyond the physical harm done to a person. Essentially, it short-circuits their emotional response systems.

Living with a violent partner cuts a person off from the care system that they need to feel secure and to process negative emotions. They may have forgotten how to seek the care they need. They may be distrustful or hostile to any gestures of care that they are offered.

To heal, they need to re-learn how to give and receive care, starting by treating themselves with the compassion they so desperately need.

In the coming weeks, I’ll explain in depth how to care for yourself when cruelty has made you forget how this works. I’ll show you how to model a compassionate image and to use compassion to change the way your mind works.

If you’re trying to rebuild your life after a violent relationship, you don’t have to beat yourself up over the way you feel. Your emotional coping mechanisms have taken a pummelling, but together, we’re going to work out how to heal.

Hang in there – and I’ll see you next week.

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Are You A Giver Or A Taker In Your Relationships?

6956173-girl-hands-daisy-flowers-summer-moodSome people live life being just on the take – looking at what they can get out of every situation. They’re also not interested in doing something unless they get something in return.

In some way none of us will do anything unless we get something out of it but true joy in life comes from giving without a guarantee of receiving anything in return. Like unconditional love.

If you find yourself being conditional in the gifts you give people i.e. I gave you x, you owe me y then your gift was not given unconditionally.

From taker to dictator

I think self-centered people often wind up taking the Dictator role in relationships. Especially if they’re paired with a giver. This is where `who gets what and how much` is always determined by the taker, the other partner gets whatever the taker decides they’ll get. And that’s that.

This inevitably leads to unhappiness for the taker’s partner. And a failing relationship.

You can’t take and win

This fascinating study ‘Reciprocity is Not Give and Take’ illustrates a powerful reason why takers kill relationships. With a series of experiments, a team at the University of Chicago found that when it comes to social relationships, including intimate relationships, when one side gives, the other side can give equally and both parties feel satisfied.

But when one side takes, and then in return the other side takes the same or receives something of equal value, then the dictator (sorry I mean the taker) is the only happy one left. The other party who was initially taken from is still not happy. It’s just human nature.

So to sum this up, the only relationship that can work and flourish is two givers. But watch out, there are still ways being a giver can be bad for you.

Be a giver, not a record-keeping matcher

Make sure you’re a giver, and not a matcher – someone who remembers every little thing they gave and expects the equal amount in return, or they’re just not happy. This Psychology Today article explains the matcher nicely.

Very often such matchers don’t even express all the things they feel the other party owes them and they become martyrs – always giving, giving, giving and feeling sad and frustrated because the world just isn’t giving back. See my earlier post on martyrs here. Don’t become one!

Givers can be taken advantage of

In any relationship the giver is the happiest and also potentially the unhappiest.

Just make sure you’re with another giver, not a taker or a matcher. And the best way to be is always strive to give unconditionally, expecting nothing in return. Except perhaps that warm feeling of giving to someone you love.

Give from the heart because you want to. I think you’ll agree that’s true love and the foundation of something beautiful.

How to know you’re receiving unconditional love

And at the same time respect yourself, don’t be taken disadvantage of and make sure you’re receiving unconditional love too. Not in a tit-for-tat way. But just be aware of it.

When you’re conscious of this you’ll know if your partner is playing the role of a taker and dictator. And you can communicate it to them if they are, because they’re probably unaware of it.

When your partner gives love and is happy, regardless, you know it’s no strings attached giving. And when you mess up, make poor choices, get in your partner’s way, take a wrong turn or sabotage your own happiness and you’re partner’s not disappointed or irritated. And stays right with you, without judging or punishing. That’s another sign you’re not with a taker.

So, are you a taker or a giver in your relationships?

Share your thoughts!

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