5 Steps to Heal From Emotional Abuse

8 min read

Emotional abuse is the intentional devaluing of one person by another in order to elevate themselves. Emotional abuse and its negative messages are false, keeping you from finding and understanding the truth of who you are.

The message of emotional abuse is often “You never do anything right.” The reverberations of this message may cause you to set the bar too high on what counts as progress in recovering from the effects of emotional abuse.

Healing isn’t a task you have to be perfect at, nor a race that only has one finish line. Emotional injuries can be like physical injuries; they take time to heal. With this in mind, here are five steps to begin healing from emotional abuse.

1. Moving Beyond Blame

When the truth of emotional abuse finally comes out, it hurts. And when we hurt, we search for the reason; we look for someone to blame.

Most people were emotionally abused by someone who meant better than what they did, tried less than they should, or chose not to know better. Sometimes, an emotionally abusive pattern is perpetuated because those are the behaviors the abuser knows. Other times, it occurs because the abuser is simply weak. They know they should act and speak differently but they don’t have the strength, courage, or motivation to do so. When you are in a relationship with these types of people, you desperately want them to overcome their weakness so they can love you like they should. But they don’t and that hurts.

When we’re in pain, we seek to know why, what, and who is responsible. I’ve found when a person who has suffered emotional abuse works through the temptation to blame him or herself, the next stop on the blame train is the abuser. Understanding why, what, and who is responsible for emotional abuse is a valuable destination. Staying stuck in blame is not. Blame doesn’t stick. These situations leave the person who is recovering from emotional abuse unsatisfied and empty.

Instead of seeking blame, I encourage people to seek understanding. If your abuser acted out of faulty parenting patterns, you can come to understand such lack of awareness. If your abuser was tired, overwhelmed, stressed, distracted, or moody, then you can understand their weakness.

Understanding can shift the causes of the emotional abuse away from you and onto the other person without leaving you stuck in a toxic pool of blame. Blame continues to fan the fires of anger, bitterness, and resentment, but too often you’re the one burned. Understanding can provide you with a protective barrier of insight.

2. Granting Forgiveness

An emotional abuser seeks to crush your spirit so you will be more compliant and easier to control. Once that control is established, it is difficult to loosen the grip.

So often, people think that forgiveness is a gift given only to the person who did wrong. But, forgiveness is also a gift to the person who was wronged. When you say, “I forgive you,” what you are saying is, “I acknowledge you wronged me and need forgiveness. I choose to forgive you and, by doing so, I take back control over my part of our relationship.”

When you fail to grant forgiveness, you chain yourself to that act or pattern of pain. You allow that pain to continue to hurt you. I’ve known people who spent decades of their lives angry and bitter over wrongs done to them in the past. In many cases, the person who intentionally or even inadvertently hurt them moved on with their lives and the only one still stuck was the victim.

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean forgetting what that person did. Forgiveness shows your willingness to create the possibility of a fresh start.


Woman recovering from emotional abuse


3. Reclaiming Your Personal Power

Emotional abuse is a practice designed to convince you with words, actions, and ideas that you are powerless and without rights. This is a lie; you have both rights and power. You have the right not to be emotionally abused. You have the power to say no if someone threatens to hurt you. You have the right to get on with your life, free from abusive relationships. You have the power to forgive those who hurt you.

If you’ve suffered from emotional abuse, you may doubt your ability to make good decisions. Reclaiming your personal power means learning to love and trust yourself. Reclaiming your personal power, however, isn’t just finding a way to say “yes” to the things you really want. It is also finding a way to say “no” to the things other people really want from or for you, even if those things are good.

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Many emotional abusers will try to force you into a black-and-white world of stark decisions, where their opinion is “great” and yours is “horrible.” A great many decisions in life aren’t between the great and the horrible; they lie somewhere in between. Don’t fall for that trap. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own choices and actions.

4. Avoiding Conflicts

Being in a relationship with an emotionally abusive person means you are constantly engaged in a battle of wills at some level. These battles invariably involve conflict. For the most severely abusive people, the only way to avoid conflict may be to exit the relationship completely. Emotionally abusive people are toxic; they poison relationships with their need for control, their negativity, and their lack of respect. Limiting contact can reduce your toxic exposure.

Often the relationships that cause the most tension are in the family—parent to child, child to parent, sibling to sibling. What do you do when contact happens at events like family gatherings, weddings, birthdays, and holidays? I suggest that you designate a trusted individual to act as an emotional buffer. An emotional buffer is someone who understands the dynamics of the relationship and agrees to step in to offer support in certain circumstances. Another way to shield yourself from potential conflicts is by calling on the phone, sending cards, or meeting in public places.

Being intentional about reducing conflicts is not capitulating or giving in. Rather, it is proactively managing the relationship and protecting your boundaries. In this way, you show love and affection to the other person without sacrificing yourself.

5. Addressing Hurts

When dealing with an offense, keep the offense in the present, not in the past. A harsh comment by a coworker today is not a validation of harsh comments experienced in your past. That coworker doesn’t know about your past and is not intentionally trying to add to it. Maybe he had a bad day. Maybe she’s worried about something that has nothing to do with you. Learn to separate what is happening now from what happened then.

  • Resist reacting with hostility. If someone does or says something that hurts you, explain how you felt. Reacting with hostility not only escalates the conflict but can compromise your ability to remain in control of yourself.
  • Give up the need to be right. You may view something they did as hurtful, but they may not. When differences of opinion arise, recognize the most you may achieve is an agreement to disagree.
  • Take responsibility for yourself. You oversee your own thoughts and actions. Avoid the temptation of blaming others for “making” you do something. Part of reclaiming your personal power is understanding that it includes the power to make your own decisions, even your own mistakes.
  • Respond instead of reacting. Reactions tend to be immediate and on “autopilot.” Emotional abuse may have made your autopilot extremely sensitive. If you feel yourself immediately reacting, slow down, and take a deep breath. Think before you act—that is the essence of intentional response.
  • Try to build a bridge, not burn one. Even though you may be hurt or dismayed by what the person said or did, you can still respond to that person, at the least, in a polite manner. Be open to the possibility you misunderstood and seek to clarify their intent.
  • Recognize the difference between the target and the source. Some people, when they are angry, spread that anger out at everyone and everything they can find. You may be the target of that anger, but you are not the source. Be alert so that you don’t accept false guilt from others.
  • Know your limits. You have a right to set personal boundaries and to limit what you will accept from others. You have a right to communicate those boundaries and expect them to be respected.
  • Retain your personal happiness. If someone hurts you, this doesn’t mean you must give over your personal happiness. If the hurt was unintentional, you can use this as a reminder that people make mistakes, including yourself. If the hurt was intentional, you can limit future dealings with this person. Either way, don’t hang on to the hurt.

Love and find joy in who you are, live at peace with yourself, exercise restraint, and give yourself the gift of self-control. When you can treat yourself this way, you will be able to recognize these traits in others. You will be able to give others the same gifts you give to yourself.

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