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Why do you believe me Yi Shing?

Mel [not her real name] asked, when she first told me what happened in her marriage.
I can still recall that scene: she was in tears, her face contorted with so many emotions, her body hunched over.

She struggled to tell her story, double guessing herself at the same time, fearing she might be making it up.

When she sensed that I was there listening, there with her, and for her, a part of her was surprised and relieved that a professional did not doubt the authenticity of her narrative. That I understood her words and her pain, and affirmed her reality.

Mel would repeat that question several more times in the early days of our work together.

Such expressions in different iterations are common amongst victims of marital emotional abuse. These questions demonstrate the deep anguish and suffering of victims of gaslighting [1][2]. Their reality has been ridiculed and denied by their partners for so long that their sense of self has been mangled through sustained psychological abuse. They are riddled with self-doubt.

Many of these clients of mine were professional women with proven career track records, and were well regarded in their respective fields. At times, such characteristic exacerbates their sense of shame and self-blame, making their traumatic relational experience all the more poignant.

Where the victims have exited the toxic relationship, daily relational distress with their partners would be more contained. They would have more bandwidth to attend to the next phase of their life: healing and recovering from relationship trauma, building and reclaiming their life.

In this 3rd instalment on Gaslighting, I write about

  • setting the stage for rehabilitation and recovery, and
  • the therapy journey to overcome emotional and psychological turmoil resulting from relational abuse, to heal the wounds.

Enlisting professional help to stay on course and to heal

The psychological injury caused by gaslighting varies according to the individuals and their circumstances. At the more dire end of the spectrum, the wounding can be grievous and debilitating. Where harassment by the perpetrator continues or where the victim has little family support, the time required to recover can be prolong, and the road to recovery can be bumpy.

Leaving a toxic relationship is challenging. Sometimes the survivors regress, return to the perpetrator, and then struggle to restart the process of extricating themselves all over again, with untold misery.

Because this can be a difficult journey, it is best you have the support of a psychotherapist or a psychologist experienced in the field of abuse recovery to help you focus on your resolve to move on, and navigate the way forward.

Alternatively, you may seek such help from the groups listed in the Resources & Support.

That said, do have faith that you can recover from the damage of gaslighting.
You can reclaim your life.

Setting the stage for rehabilitation and recovery

1. Prioritise yourself: Care for yourself first

Oftentimes, women prioritise their children first, neglecting their own needs. It is important to remind them that unless they are healthy and strong in body and mind, they have little capacity to support their children through this turbulent passage.

Keep your body healthy and strong, so you can heal your mind. You will then find the strength to deal with everything else: children, job, money etc.

Do what you can to put these fundamentals in place

  • Eat nutritiously, exercise regularly, sleep well.
  • Learn to appreciate quiet time by yourself. It may be a new experience. You will find that you could recharge through
    • Reflection
    • Journaling
    • Reading to understand your experience.
  • Pick up meditation or mindfulness to experience inner calm and clarity
  • Stay very focused on your recovery, wellbeing of you and your kids, your job, your future.

2. Create stability

  • Help yourself and your kids to settle into new accommodation,
  • Arrange for childcare, new schools and routine for your kids,
  • Keep your job, invest in your career and your knowledge: it is a leverage and enabler to build your new life.

3. Restrict your contact with the perpetrator

It may be hard, but you have to keep reminding yourself why you left. Seek the help of therapy or support group to sustain your resolve, and to keep moving forward.

It is important for survivors to know that perpetrators of gaslighting may try various means to get you back into their orbit.

Acknowledge your inner conflicts: that you may feel tempted to go back, you may chide ourself for being so hard and so harsh, after all there were some good times in the past, that living and parenting alone is tough.

You need to remind yourself of the fear and misery that forced you out of the relationship in the first place. Weigh the pros and cons and the consequences of reversing your steps. Seek the support and advice of those who had stood by you and supported you.

If you need to keep contact with the perpetrator for reasons of child support or co-parenting, set clear boundary. Limit such communication to only one platform, and do not engage in subject matters other than essential tasks.

4. Set clear boundary with family and friends

You need friends and family you can trust, and who can support and nurture you.

You may distance yourself from people who are only interested in fodder for their idle gossips. You would also realise that conversation with naysayers who criticise your decision to leave will only cause you grief and confusion. You don’t need additional pain right now.

Journey of recovery through psychotherapy

Survivors have taken the mammoth step to leave their toxic relationship. But the wound is still raw, and they continue to experience emotional and psychological turmoil.

Psychotherapy will support and meet different psychological needs of the survivor on this path.

Issues arising from new living arrangements

From time to time, we have to tackle “practical issues of living”. They range from issues of single-parenting, finance, to managing retributions and blame from family and perpetrator. These are often presented with underlying psychological obstacles arising from her recent trauma.

Building psychological resources and coping skills

Survivor often suffers from poor sleep or have nightmares about the past or the future.
She may experience crying spells, irritability, body aches and pain. Her work performance and her social relationship may suffer as a result.

Learning the skills of self-soothing through breath work, mindfulness and relaxation practice, skills of emotional regulations, is the first steps towards calming her frayed nerves.

It is also helpful to learn self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Accept and embrace who she is. Accept that she had done her best, and is doing her best on a daily basis. Accept that abuse happened to her in her relationship, and learn to tell herself she did not cause it and did not deserve it. Exercise compassion for herself, and affirm herself for her efforts to survive and keep safe.

Together, these will begin to stabilise her emotions, and in turn introduce greater serenity to her relationship with her children.

Collectively these will place the survivor in a steadier frame of mind to undergo trauma treatment.

Trauma-focused treatment

The therapeutic treatment required varies according to each individual’s conditions and circumstances. Whatever are the symptoms, the focus is on repairing and healing her sense of self, nurturing her confidence and self-worth, reclaiming her power, so that she could move forth and grow in her new life.

Major attention is devoted to resolving the trauma origins of symptoms such as the survivor’s exaggerated negative views of the self, intrusive thoughts, emotional dysregulations.

Some common negative self-beliefs of the survivors include:

  • self-doubt
    • maybe I am really a liar
  •  self-blame
    • it’s my fault
    • I caused it
    • I am responsible for what happened
    • I am a failure
    • I am not good enough
    • I should have known better
    • I have let down my parents and children
  • shame
    • how can I be so weak and stupid to let him ride roughshod all over me
    • my clients and my fellow professionals would be shocked by how pathetic I am
    • my subordinates and staff would not believe how useless I am.

The survivor may grieve over the loss of marriage, the marital status, the “normal or ideal nuclear family”. They worry about the impact on their children.

She may experience many emotions including anger, anxiety, fear, loneliness. She may also struggle with the stigma of divorce, whether real or imaginary.

In addition, the survivor may re-experience (“flashback”) episodes of marital conflicts and confrontations; moments of fear, distress and anguish; images or thoughts about the past popping into her mind, upsetting her balance.

In some cases, a survivor may find her distress so intolerable that she resorts to numbing her pain through alcohol or substance abuse, or the distraction of over-spending, for instance.

These symptoms are mostly trauma-related. Whether or not the symptoms are sufficiently serious to warrant a diagnosis as PTSD [posttrauamatic stress disorder], resolving the root cause of the distressing symptoms is the key to rehabilitation and recovery.

Outcome of trauma resolution

When trauma memories are progressively processed, the survivor will experience a strengthening of her sense of self and agency. Positive view of herself will emerge to replace her erstwhile negative beliefs. These are sure signs of recovery in progress. 

However terrible had been your experience, the trauma can be resolved through appropriate therapy (What is EMDR + Emotional wellbeing with EMDR). 

The wound will heal. 

You will regain your sense of self. 

You will reclaim your life, and go on to live a healthier, happier and more productive life.

If you are, or someone you know is, suffering from ramifications of relationship abuse, please contact us.

Check out in Musings from Clinical Notebook:

Gaslighting 1: How do you know?
Gaslighting 2: What can you do?
Resources & Support