An emotionally abusive or toxic relationship can make you feel trapped, small, and deficient. It can feel like an anchor weighing you down, suffocating you.
People who grew up in dysfunctional, chaotic, or unsafe families, develop a set of coping skills that helped them deal with the chaos and dysfunction in their families. Although these coping skills helped us get through difficult childhood experiences, they can make it hard for us to manage our emotions and prioritize our needs.
In adulthood, we tend to suppress our feelings, get into relationships with needy or dysfunctional people, and sacrifice our well-being to take care of others. Our lives may be consumed with anxiety, efforts to please people who are never satisfied, and feelings of shame and self-blame.
Breaking free from emotional abuse
Abusive and toxic relationships are notoriously hard to break free from. Despite how harmful these types of relationships are, they can feel familiar, if you grew up in a dysfunctional family.
In addition, people with toxic behaviors are very skilled at keeping us attached. Whenever we try to pull away, they heap blame, guilt, and abusive behaviors that keep us dependent and erode our self-esteem.
Eventually, we learn that people with toxic behaviors aren’t interested in changing. They’d rather blame, judge, and make demands of others.
So, it falls on us to figure out how to untangle our lives and emotions from dysfunctional people. For some people this can be accomplished with stronger boundaries, learning to detach, and limiting contact. For others, going “no contact” or ending the relationship is the only path to emotional freedom.
I don’t know what’s right for you or when you’ll be ready to make a change. As a therapist, I’ve worked with many people who have decided to end relationships with people who continually mistreat them. These relationships damage their mental and physical health, happiness, productivity, and other relationships. And, although I don’t know anyone who’s regretted their decision, we all have to choose what’s right for us.
Ending or limiting a relationship with a friend or family member is a big decision and involves loss – even if it was a terribly dysfunctional relationship. However, there is much to be gained. Distancing yourself from emotional abuse allows you to reclaim your emotional freedom and find a path back to yourself.
Healing from emotional abuse and toxic relationships
As you heal from emotional abuse, you’ll experience what I call emotional freedom — the freedom to be yourself and the ability to manage your own feelings rather than letting your feelings control you.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the components of emotional freedom.
Feeling and tolerating your feelings
- You stop absorbing other people’s feelings and have your own. You experience your feelings as separate from other people’s, so even if they are upset, you don’t have to be. As a result, your feelings start to make sense and be helpful.
- You have a whole range of feelings – not just two or three. You’re no longer avoiding your feelings or afraid of them. You’re not relying on food, alcohol, drugs, overworking, and other distractions to numb your feelings. You allow yourself to feel them, you invite them in rather than pushing them away.
- Guilt and shame don’t dominate your emotions. Because you’re rebuilding your self-esteem, you’re no longer willing to accept the blame for everything that goes wrong. You take responsibility for your actions, but you’re not going to be a scapegoat. And you’re breaking down shame by sharing your story with trustworthy people.
- You’re no longer tethered to someone else’s feelings. Your feelings and life are your own. And you don’t need others to approve of or understand your choices.
- You respond rather than react. In the past, your feelings felt out of control and you reacted to every little annoyance or criticism, but now you know how to tolerate and process your emotions so they can help you rather than get in your way.
- You sense that you’re becoming your “real self”.
- You feel connected to yourself. You know who you are – and you like yourself. You have a deeper understanding of why you do things, what you want, and what matters to you.
- You no longer see yourself as broken or damaged. You’re no longer looking for someone else to “complete you” or show you that you’re lovable and worthy. You know that you’re worthy and feel it deep inside.
- You give yourself permission to be happy.
- You trust yourself.
- You take better care of yourself. You prioritize self-care and don’t feel guilty about it.
- You enjoy your own company.
Making your own choices
- You see choices that you never saw before. You’re no longer limited by other people’s expectations and demands.
- You can do what’s right for you and explore all the world has to offer.
- You have the strength to say “no” and to tolerate criticism and conflict.
- You feel emotionally strong and confident and feel capable of dealing with whatever happens.
- Because you set limits and boundaries, you’re not drained by other people’s drama and negativity.
- Your energy is renewed because you allow yourself to rest, play, and pursue creative outlets.
- Having healthy relationships starts to seem possible. You feel hopeful about connecting with emotionally healthy people.
- You’re interested in connecting with others, but you don’t feel desperate or needy.
- You take new relationships slowly.
- You set boundaries and trust your instincts.
I hope this description of healing from emotional abuse and toxic relationships is hopeful. Healing is possible!
What does emotional freedom look like for you? As you heal from emotional abuse and rediscover yourself, you may want to create your own definition of emotional freedom. And please remember that healing isn’t all-or-nothing. Be gentle and kind to yourself along the journey.
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©2023 Dr. Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.