Trigger warning: Abuse
Disclaimer: I have never personally experienced domestic violence, which means I can’t even begin to understand what these women (or men) go through on a day-to-day basis. I hope and pray that anyone who is experiencing, or has experienced, domestic abuse does not take this post as demeaning to your circumstances and experiences. I am not trying to compare my own struggles to yours. It is the concept of a specific thought pattern I am considering.
Anyone who works in emergency medicine or emergency response (ER, fire and EMS, police) can tell you how devastating a mental illness known as Battered Woman Syndrome can be to its sufferers. This form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often seen in women who experience “sustained and serious domestic abuse” (Gotter, 2017). The reason this illness is so devastating for any woman is because of the “learned helplessness that causes her to believe she deserves the abuse and that she can’t get away from it. It many cases, it’s why women don’t report their abuse to police or avoid telling friends and family what’s really going on” (Gotter, 2017). So many women stay with their abusive partner until they end up disabled or dead, despite urgings from family, friends, and often emergency responders and hospital staff. Many people would be quick to judge and say that these women are too weak to leave. I would argue that they have a strength no one else could even begin to fathom. It’s like any mental illness – until you yourself have experienced it, there is no way to truly get it.
I have a paramedic friend who once told me about a woman he ran calls on regularly. Each time, he showed up on scene to find her beaten and bruised in some new and creatively explained way. Each time, he transported her to the hospital and urged her to seek help…to press charges…to get away. Finally, he ran one last call on her and was the one to call a physician for pronouncement and time of death. That woman haunts him to this day. In some way, he feels responsible for her death. He was unable to save her, even though he was technically by her side for each new gruesome injury. The reason he was unable to prevent a very preventable death is because only the woman herself had the power to change her circumstances. Due to her mental illness, she refused to press charges time-and-time again. She always went back to that place of torment.
I see many similarities between the mentality of that woman and my own struggle with anxiety and depression. The difference is, I am my own abuser. If my thoughts could be transformed into physical blows to my body, I too would likely end up with fatal injuries. Human bodies are resilient, but can only sustain so many beatings before the internal damage is just too much. The same applies to the human mind – we can only take so much before sinking into despair and reaching the point of giving up. It just becomes too difficult. Would it be unfair to say we also suffer from a sort of PTSD? From Battered Self Syndrome?
According to Jennifer Rollins, an MSW and LCSW-C, “a variety of factors could contribute to people developing an abusive relationship with themselves. One might be internalizing emotional abuse that you experienced from someone else and unintentionally re-enacting it through your own inner critic. Another might be having an intense fear of judgment from others, so one subconsciously wants to ‘beat them to the punch.’ Additionally, having a trauma history, or struggling with an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, or self-harm can all contribute to developing a very harsh inner critic” (2018).
For me personally, I am certainly my own worst critic (to put it mildly). I take self-criticism to a whole new level. From how I look physically, to the words I speak, to my own internal thoughts and emotions, I have nothing good to say about myself to myself. The more anxious I get, the more cutting my remarks become. As my remarks get uglier and uglier, I in turn become more and more discouraged and continue the vicious loop until I can barely face the world. At that point, I have officially convinced myself that I am worth nothing, can contribute no good in this world, and that I’m better off hiding under my covers like the scared and hurting soul that I am.
Psychologist Brett Steenbarger (2017) describes emotional self-abuse as “something more subtle” than domestic violence that happens between two or more individuals. The reason it is so subtle, he says, is because we often “don’t recognize the emotional violence, the self-abuse. That lack of awareness perpetuates the self-destructive dynamic.”
In the same way that women return to their abusers, we continually cycle back to our malicious thoughts about ourselves. The difficult part is that it is literally impossible to get away from ourselves, even for a few seconds. If we don’t learn to control our negative and degrading self-thoughts, we will push ourselves to the point of hopelessness. Again, much like a battered woman, friends and family can try to help, but it all must ultimately start with us.
The hardest part for me goes back to that hateful task of recognizing that I have worth. I deserve to be loved, both by myself and by other people. I recently participated in a core value exercise with a large group of work colleagues. We started with a giant list of character traits and behaviors, then did various processes to narrow that list down to the top five traits that drive us. My core values are listed below:
- Act with compassion
- React with empathy
- Offer loyalty
- Seek ways to make a difference
- Radiate open-mindedness
I was proud of this list! It really encompasses the way I try to behave towards others. But then the lady asked for volunteers to read a couple of their values. Everyone else had values related to other people (such as my “react with empathy”) and at least one or two related to self (“find joy in…” or “seek peace by…”). I realized that I created my core value list with 100% of my focus on other people, leaving no room for valuing myself. Yes, each point can be turned inward, but that was not intentional. Instead of reinforcing my core values, this exercise reinforced how little regard I have for my own heart, mind, and soul. Naturally, instead of being a positive source of enlightenment, I started to beat myself up for not loving myself enough.
From time to time I think about something a church small group leader said to me twenty years ago (Linda, if you are reading this – your words will be with me forever!). I remember that I made some disparaging comment about myself and she actually snapped at me! “Don’t talk about my friend like that, young lady!” It completely caught me off guard. At first I thought she didn’t realize I was talking about myself and that I had made a rude comment about another individual. But then she explained, “I wouldn’t let anyone else talk about you like that. I’m not going to let you talk about yourself like that either.”
What a simple concept, yet it blows my mind every time I think about it. If I would never in my wildest dreams tell someone else the things I tell myself on a daily basis, why do I find it appropriate to talk that way to myself? Here’s the thing, though – we usually don’t have someone else championing that cause. 99.9% of my self-abuse is all internal. No one else hears it, which means no one else can protect me from myself. The only way to protect me from myself is to practice self-compassion and self-kindness.
Dr. Kristin Neff, as quoted by Brown (2010), defines self-kindness as “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism” (p. 59). Right. Easier said than done. I know I’m not just going to wake up tomorrow and stop emotionally abusing myself. It’s BATTERED SELF SYNDROME, people. It wouldn’t be such a problem if it was easy to reform my way of thinking about myself. Jennifer Rollins says, “If your current emotional default setting is harsh self-criticism, it will take some time to rewire your neural pathways to make the self-compassion response feel more natural” (2018). I’m trying to break a lifelong, learned behavior. Breaking bad habits is no walk in the park. But it is a worthy undertaking. Robert Taibbi, another wise LCSW, reminds us that “it will take time for the new brain connects to kick in, for the old brain-firings to calm down, for new patterns to replace the old. Don’t beat yourself up for slip-ups or use them as rationales for quitting. Take it one day at a time” (2017).
In closing, I think it’s important to note that breaking myself out of this cycle of self-abuse will not only improve my own emotional and mental health, it will also have a ripple affect – “when we’re kind to ourselves, we create a reservoir of compassion that we can extend to others” (Brown, 2010, p. 61). If I truly want to love others, I must first love myself.
So what say you? Would you like to join me in my battle to overcome Battered Self Syndrome? Only I can do it for me. Only you can do it for you. But together, we can make it happen.
Brown, Brene. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.
Gotter, Ana. (2017). Battered Woman Syndrome. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/battered-woman-syndrome
Rollins, Jennifer. (2018). Are You Emotionally Abusing Yourself? You can learn how to treat yourself more kindly. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-musings/201803/are-you-emotionally-abusing-yourself
Steenbarger, Brett. (2017). When Frustration Becomes Self-Abuse: How we can undercut – and rebuild – our own success. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/brettsteenbarger/2017/03/26/when-frustration-becomes-self-abuse-how-we-can-undercut-and-rebuild-our-own-success/#792b118e30b5
Taibbi, Robert. (2017). How to Break Bad Habits. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fixing-families/201712/how-break-bad-habits
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