How to Reduce the Shame Caused by Emotional Abuse
An effective shame-reduction program.
Posted January 27, 2021
As I have shared in my previous posts, I believe that shame is the most damaging aspect of emotional abuse, so much so that I designed a shame reduction program for emotional abuse victims. This proprietary program has been highly successful with my clients. It features six major avenues for reducing or eliminating the shame of emotional abuse. They are:
Emotional abuse de-programming. Like members of a cult, victims of emotional abuse have been brain-washed. Ever so slowly the abuse whittles away at their self-esteem, self-confidence, trust in their own perceptions, and even their sanity. Because of this brain-washing, they need to be de-programmed.
Most victims come to believe that the problems in their relationship are because of them. They are accused of being stupid, lazy, or selfish, of not giving their partner enough sex, no longer being sexually attractive, and numerous other reasons why they are a bad partner or parent. For most victims, it is difficult to avoid believing these multiple complaints, while in reality the problem usually lies in the unreasonable expectations of their partner or in the distorted way their partner views themselves, others, and the world.
Those who are being abused tend to believe that when their partner complains about something, it is because they are, in fact, doing something wrong. It doesn’t occur to them that he is complaining because he has a need to make them feel bad about themselves. They don’t suspect that their partner focuses on their real or imagined faults so he or she won’t have to focus on their own issues. They don’t understand that abusers blame their partner so they don’t have to feel guilty about the things they have done or take responsibility for their own problems, weaknesses, and faults. Most important: They don’t understand that as long as their partner shames them, he or she doesn’t have to feel their own shame.
Because all the above may be true, it is important that you come to believe and understand the following: Most abusers do not criticize you because they have your best interest at heart, nor do they have the best interest of your relationship at heart. They are focused on their own self-interest and unfortunately, they are often focused on making you feel “less than” them. Once you have absorbed this truth, it will be the beginning of you taking on a totally new perspective when it comes to your partner.
Anger expression. Whereas shame depletes our energy, anger does the opposite, it energizes and empowers. It can help restore your sense of power and control over your own life. Expressing your righteous anger about being abused can help you begin to feel less helpless and hopeless and can motivate you to begin making important changes. It can help you become less fearful of your abuser and may even help you to imagine standing up to your abuser. And perhaps most important, it will help you to give the shame you are experiencing back to your abuser. Instead of believing your abuser’s words and continually blaming yourself for the abuse, you can push away his words with your anger.
By allowing yourself to get angry at your abuser, the vital force of anger will be moving in the right direction, outward instead of inward. Internalizing your anger and blame not only causes you to feel shame but can cause you to punish yourself with self-destructive behavior (alcohol or drug abuse, starving yourself, or self-mutilation). Many people are afraid that if they begin to express their righteous anger they will lose control or become like their abuser. For this reason, the shame reduction program I offer in my new book, Escaping Emotional Abuse, provides strategies to help you overcome any fear you have about getting angry and techniques to use to release your anger in healthy and safe ways.
Self-compassion. As it is with most poisons, the toxicity of shame needs to be neutralized by another substance if we are truly going to save the patient. Compassion is the only thing that can neutralize shame. Self-compassion will teach you how to develop an internal compassionate relationship with yourself in order to counter the shame you have experienced due to emotional abuse. Instead of constantly hearing a powerful critical voice inside your head due to the abuser’s constant fault-finding, you can begin to hear a more loving voice that will comfort and support you when you need it the most.
You can also learn specific compassionate attitudes and skills that can reverse your tendency to blame yourself for the abuse and begin to understand that you did nothing to deserve the abuse. Finally, self-compassion will help you to give yourself the nurturance, understanding, and validation you so desperately need in order to feel worthy of care, respect, and acceptance. For all these reasons, practicing self-compassion is a primary strategy for healing shame.
Self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is a powerful way to reduce or even eliminate shame. First and foremost, those who have been shamed or abused need to forgive themselves for the abuse itself. Most victims of any kind of abuse automatically blame themselves for their own victimization. In a strange way, it makes victims feel less helpless. Even small children believe they should have been able to defend themselves and feel terrible shame because they couldn’t.
Second, victims need to forgive themselves for remaining in the relationship. Instead of being critical of themselves for not ending an abusive relationship, victims need to come to a place where they recognize that they have good reasons for not leaving—that it is understandable based on their personal history, as well as their current situation. Victims also need to forgive themselves for the negative behaviors they may have exhibited in response to their abuse experiences—everything from alcohol and drug abuse to the harm they caused their children or others. And finally, victims need to forgive themselves for harm they caused themselves.
Self-kindness. Once you have begun to acknowledge your suffering, you are ready to learn how to provide yourself with self-kindness, an important component of self-compassion. Unfortunately, shame has kept many victims from feeling kind toward themselves or even liking themselves. They may not believe they deserve to be treated with kindness, patience, tenderness, or comfort. Hopefully, with some of their shame dissipated, they will now be more open to believing they deserve these things.
You might not know how to treat yourself with loving-kindness, but if you can come to believe you deserve it, you can learn how to practice it.
- Sit in a comfortable chair, take a deep breath, and place your right hand on your heart. Think about the entirety of everything you have been through with your partner. All the pain, all the suffering. Say to yourself, either out loud or silently to yourself, the words that will be most healing. The words you most long to hear. If you experience difficulty, it might help if you imagine someone who has been kind and loving toward you saying the words. If words don’t come to mind, say things to yourself like: “You didn’t deserve to be treated so poorly. You deserve to be treated with respect and kindness,” or “I’m sending you love to heal your wounded heart,” or “I’m sorry you had to endure all this alone.”
- Put your arms around your shoulders or across your stomach, as if someone is hugging you. Let yourself feel comforted. Get a cup of hot tea and sit quietly, letting it all sink in—all the pain, all the humiliation. Let your tears flow if you feel sad. Know that the way you have been treated is not okay and that you deserve to be respected and loved.
Many of you are afraid to seek counseling—either because you are afraid of being judged, of learning something painful about yourself or your partner, or because you are afraid of your partner finding out. While a self-help book is a great option because you can get answers to your questions and get some help without having to risk being embarrassed or exposed, I do encourage you to reach out for help. Look for a support group in your area (you can even find them online during the pandemic) or, if you can afford it, look for a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma and abuse.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Engel, Beverly (2020). Escaping Emotional Abuse: Healing the Shame You Don't Deserve. Kensington Publishing Corp. New York, N.Y.