The hard part of healing is that we have to change the old patterns that feel normal to patterns that don’t. To move forward, we have to live in a new way, embracing new beliefs and behaviors. This is not easy to do. We have internalized trauma memory (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD).
Athletes, musicians and artists depend on muscle memory. Figure skaters practice for hours to perfect a jump. They come to the point where they quit making it happen and let their body do what it has been trained to do. When a female skater goes through puberty, her physical changes require her to re-teach her muscles how to do a jump or spin. This means a lot more practice to replace the former muscle memories with the new ones.
It’s a much bigger job to put internalized trauma to rest and replace it with feelings of wellbeing. Some of us never lived within a relationship that was nurturing and gave us a sense of safety, self-value, and self-respect. We repeatedly pick partners who abuse because the chaotic atmosphere feels “normal”. The change we must make isn’t a minor adjustment, we are replacing a way of life with a whole new set of beliefs and behaviors.
While we lived with abuse, we became hyper-vigilant. Our bodies responded to our partners’ every tightened muscle, piercing look, and change in demeanor with the fight or flight response. Cortisol, the stress hormone, surged in our bodies. Over the years, the trauma has lodged in our esophagus, squeezed our hearts, and filled our heads with fear-sodden thoughts. So it’s not surprising that when we see or feel something that even slightly resembles one of those danger indicators, our bodies and minds automatically catapult us into our terror response.
It will take time—a lot of time—and courage to change things. We need to be kind to ourselves when we fall back into those old behaviors or find the disparaging self-talk has taken over our brain again. I assure you, this will happen with less frequency as time goes on and we relax into a sense of calm and wellbeing.
We’ve spent a lot of years hiding our vulnerability, knowing that it would be exploited if uncovered. To have a truly intimate relationship, we have to be willing to face this fear, and share our feelings. This requires speaking openly, asking our partners for clarification of their actions or comments that felt hurtful to us. When we share how it impacted us, we help our partners understand what we are dealing with and that we are doing our best to not react in the old ways. They need to know that our healing requires their help and patience.
Our partners’ reactions can be a real litmus test of their character. Do they respect that we are taking the lead in our own recovery and their job is to run along side us, cheer us on and follow our lead? Do they use our vulnerability against us? Do they try to take control and to “fix” us? We understand that this process can be frustrating for them. But, if their reaction is, “Just get over it,” we have all the data we need to know about our partners’ intentions.
Most important, we have to trust ourselves. Be strong enough to walk away if we realize that this partner isn’t empathetic, doesn’t see us as an equal and isn’t willing to work with us to build a solid relationship that meets both of our needs. We were brave enough to leave our violent partners, now we need to be brave enough to speak up and create the life we’ve always wanted.