By far the hardest thing to manage after you have escaped abuse and gone No Contact is your own mental boundaries. By that I mean, we are so accustomed to the noise of the abuser, the constant narrative being put forth about who and what we are, that we manage to continue it long after that person is no longer present. In many cases, we even hear the abuser’s voice in our heads, repeating the lies that helped him/her control our every move.
Conditioning is a funny thing. Repetition of something put forth as fact, whether true or not, will somehow make it an accepted idea.
A famous historical example of this phenomenon is Joseph Goebbels, who was the lead propagandist for Hitler’s Nazi regime. Goebbels worked to separate the masses from reality by creating alternate statements and putting them forth as fact. Below are two famous quotes from Goebbels that illustrate the techniques used by an abuser to shape your reality to his/her liking:
“A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”
(Abuser: I’m going to make you believe something about yourself simply by repeating it over and over.)
“Christ could not possibly have been a Jew. It is not necessary to prove that scientifically – it is a fact. I do not need to prove this with science or scholarship. It is so!”
(Abuser: I don’t have to prove that I’m right, I’m going to say I’m right and take away your ability to challenge me.)
These are the tools by which an abuser takes over your self-image and your very thoughts. This is also why it is so difficult and takes so much work to undo these thought patterns to live a healthier, happier life post-abuse.
There are likely many ways to achieve retraining your thoughts, but I found four that were very successful for me to put up and keep healthy mental boundaries when the abuser’s voice began its ugly noise.
#1 Learn to Treat Yourself as Your Own Friend
If you heard someone spewing forth lies and demeaning a friend of yours, what would you do? What would you say to that person degrading your friend? Hopefully, you would speak up and say, “Do not speak about my friend that way.”
Challenge your own thinking by demanding that you treat yourself with the same respect and decency with which you would treat any friend.
#2 Ask People You Trust to Help You With a New Narrative
I actually did this as a Facebook project. I posted to my friends that I was not fishing for compliments but rather asking others to help me learn to override the years of negative messaging. I told them I wanted to learn how others see me and not how my abuser wanted me to see myself. The comments I got back were beautiful. I wrote them all down, including who made each one, and I keep it in a safe place I can refer to whenever I need the truth.
Do we all have faults and shortcomings? Of course! But the people who actually cared about me helped me to see how skewed my thinking was and even offered evidence to back it up!
# 3 Begin and Keep a Never-Ending List of Triumphs and Achievements
These do not have to be big, lofty achievements by anyone else’s standard but your own. I’m not joking, sometimes my entry on a day when I barely could get out of bed was, “I got up, I showered, I changed clothes, and I ate something healthy.” These achievements are not based on anything other than where you are right in that moment.
Honor yourself for each hurdle you clear, whether big or small.
# 4 Start a Love Journal
In keeping with the triumphs and achievements list, I began mine about 2 years after my escape. I realized I fantasized a lot about what I wanted from a lover. Even though the man I was with then was very attentive and loving, it occurred to me that I wasn’t fulfilled. I realized that in the process of learning to forgive myself, I needed to partner that with treating myself in the way I wished to be treated by a man who loved me. I began to write love letters to myself in the spirit of what I would like to receive.
This was the hardest of the four tools I’ve listed, but it was also the most impactful. I had to address myself in the way someone who really loved me would. It forced me to focus on all those things about myself that I had either forgotten or had come to disbelieve. This also works if your abuser was a parent or other authority figure. How would you want to be spoken to or nurtured as a child? Parent yourself by writing letters to the child you were.
The Bottom Line
Erasing those tapes in your head can be a daunting task, but the bottom line is this: you looked to the abuser for validation, love, and confirmation of who you were as a person. This is human nature. Whether your abuser was parent, partner, spiritual leader, coach, sibling, boss, or peer, your brain requires the same type of reorganization to heal.
Use the empathy that made you such a great target in the first place, to treat yourself with the love and respect that you didn’t receive from them.
It is a long process, but I promise you that you will get really good at it and easily fight off those negative messages!