The tolls of emotional trauma in an abusive relationship leave the abused feeling everything is their fault, they are crazy and wrong and even evil. Everyone reacts differently to emotional trauma depending on their life history and the extent the abuse. Getting over the scars of emotional trauma from one or more abusive relationships takes time and work. It isn’t easy, but there is hope.
It was a bad day. I sat in my therapist’s office, wanting to cry but the tears just wouldn’t stream. I wanted to talk, but I really felt what I had to say was dumb. My mind raced through the pages and pages he wrote in our divorce declarations accusing me of just about anything and everything you could. He’s a seasoned litigator; he understood how to present a case. None of it was true, yet it sounded like it was simple fact and I found myself wondering if it really was me.
“Narcissists are masters at making you feel nuts. It’s crazy making. They feed on it.” Those words woke me up.
I hadn’t ever defined my ex as a narcissist. Quite frankly, I had never thought about what a narcissist was or did. But what she said hit a nerve deep inside. We were months into what would be a two-year divorce for a marriage that barely hit the two-year mark. When I left, I couldn’t have even told you that my favorite color was purple.
I was a mess and it scared me because I had to pull things together to provide for my son, to protect him. But there was a ton of work I’d need to do in getting over the emotional trauma. Sadly, I wasn’t alone.
What Is Emotional Trauma
Emotional trauma is defined as the result of experiencing extremely stressful events in which you have little, if any, control over. Those who experience emotional trauma may feel helpless having lost a sense of security in the normal day-to-day life experiences.
An abusive relationship, whether a domestic violence situation or long-drawn-out emotional abuse, shatter egos and create traumatized shells of the people we once were. Even removed from the situation, the emotional pain and scars linger through many aspects of life. The brain and body remember even when we aren’t thinking about it. Healing isn’t easily achieved.
Signs of Narcissistic Abuse and Emotional Trauma
After that day at my therapist’s office, I started to research more about the patterns of a narcissist. My story sounded so much like that of other women, afraid to leave, convinced they were worthless.
Signs of emotional abuse from a narcissist include:
- Verbal abuse: This ranges from belittling, sarcastic remarks, undermining, threatening and ordering demands. While this is common in many relationships, it is significantly apparent in abusive relationships with narcissists.
- Manipulation: This is covert aggression. It is disguised in the cloak of something nice to later alter it. It can also be “moving the goal posts” meaning you do one thing to get my affection and once it is accomplished, there is a list of others.
- Gaslighting: This is extremely common in narcissistic relationships where you are meant to feel that your sense of reality isn’t correct and you are mentally incompetent.
- Emotional blackmail: Many refer to this as the “fog” of shutting down after threats, warnings, intimidation and punishments for non-compliance.
- Sabotage: Sabotage often happens with other relationships in your life or trying to build your career or other self-improvements.
- Lying: Lying and thinking there is no consequence for it. Sometimes as blatant as changing answers within a few sentences.
- Withholding: Keeping money, sex, affection, and other things from you to push you into more compliance.
- Negative contrasting: Comparing you to others to put you down or comparing themselves against others to build themselves up.
I’d read the list over and over. Incident after incident fit.
- Verbal abuse: One of the most notorious was saying “I looked like I was one step above Goodwill and one step below the maid” in referring to me wearing sweats after giving birth to our son.
- Manipulation: So many examples. Telling me we had to get rid of one my dogs because we couldn’t have four and mine was a problem only to later find out that one of his was his ex-wife’s who still had the right to claim him at any time.
- Gaslighting: Did I say I didn’t know my favorite color?
- Emotional blackmail: During our honeymoon period when we were supposed to be happy with a new baby, he would say he was going to retire and “he didn’t know what I was going to do cause I needed to earn my keep.”
- Sabotage: We opened a business for film production on our (his) ranch. When I marketed it and got the first client, suddenly they were not allowed to film where they had contracted to film, making me look like an idiot and killing the deal. (Of course, I was the reason the business failed.)
- Lying: We were broke despite the Bel Air home, a weekend ranch, his 4 cars, horses, fine art and a thousand other playthings. No, we couldn’t afford $100 for me to get my hair done.
- Withholding: He canceled the one credit card he gave me because I bought a pair of pants. My mom had to send money for me to buy formula for our son.
- Negative contrasting: Didn’t matter if he knew the person or not, the perception of success was what mattered. Like when we were driving in traffic and the Range Rover mom with a child in the back had to be balancing a $500,000 career, making dinner, taking care of the kid and having tons of energy for sex too. Maybe we should have stopped to ask her what her life was really like.
How did I get there?
Even understanding all the signs that lead to emotional trauma, I found little solace. My head still spun with every decision I made, wondering if I was a good person, smart, capable. Most of all, I questioned whether or not I was a good mother, the one thing most important to me. My son was everything I was fighting for.
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The Effects of Emotional Abuse
The effects of emotional trauma resulting from an abusive relationship with a narcissist are widespread. Survivors tend to shut down and don’t have the ability to cope with conflict. It takes healing time to trust in relationships again and pull out from being withdrawn. Depression is common with behaviors triggered easily by similar events or conversations.
For a survivor co-parenting, the road will be long and difficult. Every interaction, text and email is an opportunity for conflict. For the narcissist, this is what they thrive on. For the survivor, this sets off traumatic memories and a visceral reaction. That reaction goes right back to the crazy making. Forcing yourself to stop interacting and reacting to the situation is hard, but the only path to sanity.
Years later when our son refused to go to his father’s anymore, we entered into group family therapy. This was the last place I wanted to be on a Thursday evening. But for the sake of my son, I did. I will say that no matter how far removed I am from my ex and how much stronger I have gotten in my healing, it doesn’t take much to be in a room and get triggered from something.
It never occurred to me that post-traumatic stress disorder was something that could happen to people not involved in a physically traumatic event like an accident or incident. My troubles couldn’t possibly compare to the experiences of a soldier coming back from Iraq. They have a right to claim post-traumatic stress disorder.
Over the years, I have realized that each of us has a path and our perceptions are based on our own realities. I’ve seen more and more women (and men) talk about the negative emotions, flashbacks and emotional pain – all of which meet the description of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sure, that is my Bachelors of Psychology, Google degree speaking. I’m not a professional. But it seems to fit for many.
Symptoms of Emotional Trauma Survivors
Emotional trauma leaves both mental and physical scars. The symptoms are sometimes hard to recognize. Plus someone may have had physical trauma or experienced domestic violence on top of it that can increase symptoms and reactions. Left untreated, symptoms remain for the course of your life. Survivors can live without healing or can choose to rebuild their egos, self-worth and overall happiness.
Physical symptoms of emotional trauma include low energy and chronic fatigue. Survivors experience insomnia, nightmares and even night terrors. A physical response to trauma is being on edge and easily startles. They hold a ton of tension in their muscles, always waiting to react. Survivors also experience a racing heartbeat, aches and pains and difficulty concentrating.
Mental / Emotional Symptoms
The mental and emotional symptoms of surviving an emotionally abusive relationship include depression, mood swings and anxiety. Often survivors state they feel helpless and worthless. They are easily confused and don’t trust others or themselves. Often, they are riddled with guilt and shame, feeling like they should have known better. Many become disconnected with the world around them, withdrawing from normal social and emotional interactions.
I could certainly relate to many of the symptoms. It was inconceivable to friends and family that I ever became involved with the man. Many confiding in me years later that they didn’t like him but didn’t want to ruin my happiness. Truth was, I was never happy with him. But once I was sucked in, I really never knew how to get out.
Reaching out for help was even more difficult. How could I? I was a strong, successful woman who screwed everything up with one relationship. My choices led to years of misery.
The thing is you can own your choices and even your mistakes and not be 100% responsible for the end result. Forgiving yourself can be the most difficult thing, but necessary. It’s the only way to find happiness again – that is the only way to beat the narcissist.
Coping with Emotional Trauma from Abusive Relationships
People’s response to trauma is different. We all have our own ways to cope and deal with anxiety and stress.
Here are three negative ways survivors seems to cope:
- Withdrawal from People
- Substance Abuse
- Sexual Promiscuity
As for me, withdrawing from others was the easiest. The stories being told about me to our common relationships made were enraging and embarrassing. My sense of shame and guilt within my own circles made me want to hide under the covers.
The only thing that brought me out was my son. He needed a social life and that was my entrance back into society. From MOMS Club to PTA and playdates, the friends I made saved my life. They’ll never know how deeply their kindness over the years to me and my son have impacted my life. Accepting me as a hot mess, hugging me and reassuring me that I wasn’t nuts.
It’s the little things in life that mean a lot – like the simple phrase, “I want to see you happy,” can mean so much.
Getting Over Emotional Trauma
Recovering from trauma takes time. I’ve thought a lot about why women (and men) remain in abusive relationships. The only conclusion I have is that the unknown is scarier than the known. Part of it is the buy-in to what the abuser is saying. Part of it is the shame of feeling like you failed yourself and your child.
To get over emotional trauma and escape the patterns of an abusive relationship, you have to step outside your comfort zone.
Here are some tips for recovering from emotional trauma:
- Find your tribe. We have a great safe space in our group, Single Mommy Tribe.
- Force yourself to be with people. Join a club, volunteer or just call old friends.
- Learn to exercise in a way that helps you focus on your body and control anxiety like yoga, weight training or rock climbing.
- Limit drinking. It’s a temporary solution that leads to other problems.
- Eat well and fuel your body with food that strengthens you to fight fatigue.
- Find someone you can talk to and relate to or go into therapy to work through things with a professional.
Getting over emotional trauma is important in finding fulfilling relationships and being the best parent you possibly can be. Remember that you might always get triggered if you are co-parenting. Set boundaries, use tools like email and co-parenting apps to limit contact.
Becoming emotionally healthy makes you a better parent. Your kids are worth it and so are you!
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