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Why shame after an abusive relationship is so problematic... and how we help.

Dealing with the shame, of a past abusive relationship.

In this article, I address the shame of past abuse, the three main ways it hinders recovery and three ways we support people to overcome shame.


Note: this article is written for both therapists / advisors and people recovering from abusive relationships.


Shame

I've addressed shame in great detail, both in the book and the digital programme. As a summary here, it is worth recognising that shame is a common experience for people who are in abusive relationships and for those who have left. It's reported as one of the most common reasons people don't seek help, to escape and/or to recover. I say this here, to validate this emotion for you the reader, and also to reassure you that the experience is common - it is an outcome of abuse, rather than a failing in you - which is hard to believe... but bear with me.


Shame comes from false beliefs we have about ourselves - what we have done wrong, how we have failed... the common theme is that we are to blame. This theme of blame is directly rooted in abusive relationships, where blame and failure are projected on victims - who in essence learn to feel like they are getting it wrong often. Humans are equipped to feel ashamed, when they are guilty of a thing. Shame therefore follows self-blame, for victims.


Of course, it's totally ridiculous that victims deserve this shame - but the feeling is incredibly difficult to overcome, as I will explain.


The consequences of shame.


I've summarised the consequences into three themes:


1. Retraction from others


Shame is a powerful emotion, it has likely evolved in us as a tribal species to push us to behave well. When we are guilty of a crime, we feel bad and this bad feeling pushes us to behave well next time and/or to repair the situation. Shame (or embarrassment) are so central to our biological being that we wear it on our skin, we blush/turn red when we feel this emotion and the feeling is overwhelming in that it pulls us away from sight, until a repair is made and the shame has passed.


This carries through to our social world when we feel constant and escalating shame both about the reality of our life (abuse) and who is to blame for it (us). This is a bad outcome for us, as we fail to access the support we need and we fail to hear people justify that our shame is not justified. The withdrawal serves to maintain that we are to blame and keeps us away from people who may help us escape or support recovery.


A 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among female domestic violence victims who did not seek help, the most common reasons were fear of the abuser (38%), belief that the abuse was not serious enough (26%), and shame or embarrassment (22%). I'd argue that the belief that the abuse was not serious enough, is also partially a form of shame, having worked with many people who feel undeserving of support even after they get access to it.


2. Retraction from self


We can grow to feel repulsed by ourselves, or the ways we act. To see ourselves being abused, being the cause of the abuse, revealing distress to others, letting others down, keeping our children in abuse... alongside being repeatedly told how awful and underserving we are (by an abuser).


A deep shame can surface that pushes us away from looking at ourselves, as when we do - we see these many failings that trigger guilt and then the awful overwhelming arrival of shame. It's something I've seen many times in people, during recovery - a deep sense of regret in relation to who they were in their past.


This shame directed inward, it blocks us from looking at what we need and deserve as worthy people. It puts the focus on meeting the needs of others (such as an abusive partner) as a way to end the guilt, by getting it right. It's futile of course, as the source of the shame is the relationship - but we are blind to it. So here, we find ourselves struggling to put ourselves first as it feels so wrong... and this feeling doesn't just disappear when we leave, it hangs around and needs help to leave.


3. Repair not reflection


The combination of withdrawing from others and from ourselves is that we are left only with the dominant explanation of what is going on - we are the blame of all the pain. For many people, this causes a repair strategy - where the focus is on rescuing others, being the best partner, being the best friend, being the best parent... being all things to others, and usually very little to ourselves.


With this outward focus, reflection on what is going on now for us and what do we need to recover is not in view. We reject the idea as we have learned that it is wrong and shameful. We work so very hard to repair by serving others, rather than by reflecting and discovering what needs in ourselves need our work and repair. Shame plays a large part in being unable to do this (alongside fear and obligation).


I hope that it is becoming clear that we need to address shame, to liberate ourselves towards recovery.


Three ways we support recovery from shame.


1. We not 'you'

In all of our writing and programmes, we use the word we. This is not tokenistic, the programme was developed by a Clinical Psychologist with lived experience of domestic abuse, and many of the supporters, contributors and specialists involved have had similar experiences. We represent people who felt this shame and have overcome it, now shining a light for others who are still in the fogs.


There is a real reason to connect with this 'we' concept, as it softly challenges the 'retraction from others' reaction to shame. We bring you in to the programme, we talk about shame and we normalise it. We make shame the work that we all share, not something special to just you.


It's a symptom of abuse, and it takes time to realise it.


2. Privacy first


For some of us, it didn't feel safe or right to declare our past experiences to others. For some of us, we never have. This is a choice and it can be driven by shame, but also it can be driven by privacy as a value we might have. Not all recovery requires an announcement from the clifftops to the masses or a conversation with a stranger we don't yet trust. For those of us who haven't got that trust yet, or feel the tremendous restraint of shame - we built our Get Out Get Love programme.


A place where you can address your past, enter recovery and soothe fear, obligation, guilt and shame - without needing to disclose your story to a stranger. For some, it opens them up to therapy and for others, it's enough on its own.


This isn't a failure against a battle we should be having with shame, this is a choice. It's one we made for ourselves, it's what led us to create this platform.


It's your choice too.


3. We empower you to soothe shame


Shame, it is really the consequence of being misinformed about yourself and your role in your past relationship. It comes out of the abuse, the power dynamic, the cycle of drama... the confusion that emerges and how our brains change to cope with it all.


We educate you on all of this, as the story of abuse is shame-busting... it's what we call an 'Aha' moment, where you realise, 'Aha, that's what's going on inside my head".


We then educate you on how to tackle the guilt and shame you feel, using evidence-based approaches from trauma-informed therapy. Approaches you can use yourself, with the support of the programme and Psychologist designed exercises.


The outcome, shame is reframed as a need in you that you learn how to meet. Shame becomes quieter over time and your awareness of your needs becomes louder. When shame fades, freedom emerges.


Summary


We have learned that shame is more than just an emotion, it is a barrier to escape and recovery.

The Get Out Get Love programme supports us through this by connecting us to others in our minds, removing the need to talk about our story to get access to recovery and empowering us to transform shame into a deep awareness of our own needs.


Pause and ask yourself what resonates.


Then act towards self-care, despite the shame.

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