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.