How we lose ourselves in a toxic or abusive relationship
March 09, 2022
Ten years ago, if anyone was to ask me what my goals were I wouldn’t have been able to tell them. I couldn’t make small decisions, never mind major life-changing ones. How did I feel about the state of the world? Couldn’t tell you. What were my strengths and qualities? No idea. I could have told you what I used to love and who I was before I became enmeshed in a toxic relationship but by the end of that relationship, I was lost in a thick fog. I had absolutely no idea who I was or where I was heading. Does this resonate?
When we have experienced an abusive or toxic relationship for a long time we are in a constant state of stress and anxiety. It feels as though we are fighting for survival. When we feel as though we are struggling to be heard, belittled, put down and made to feel less than our bodies might enter a state of fight, flight, or freeze (shut down) because we can no longer cope. Life is not ‘normal’. Adrenaline and cortisol are high in readiness to defend ourselves or escape or we withdraw to no longer feel the pain. There is no state of calm. We no longer know who we are or recognise who we have become. This feeling can manifest in low confidence and low self-esteem. We might feel anxious about decision-making. We don’t feel ‘good enough’ to take a new job or college course or to confidently make conversation. We might become socially anxious. Losing your sense of self can lead to anxiety and depression.
What is a toxic relationship?
A toxic relationship is one that is consistently unsupportive and lacks empathy. It can feel detrimental to both partners’ mental well-being. A toxic relationship will create high levels of stress and anxiety. It’s important to differentiate a toxic relationship from an abusive relationship and sometimes there is no clear line between the two. All relationships are different and only the people in that relationship will know what is or is not acceptable behaviour.
In an abusive relationship, one person is always in control whereas, in a toxic relationship, both partners may engage in strong reactive behaviours such as name-calling, shouting, etc. Everything becomes like a competition in a toxic relationship: who has done the most housework, works the hardest, earns the most or who looks after the kids most of the time. There is a total lack of support from either partner, or the goal is one of one-upmanship.
Signs that you might be in an abusive relationship
A toxic relationship might become abusive or there might be elements of abusive behaviour.
Do you feel that you need to explain your every move or justify yourself constantly? Perhaps there is an atmosphere created if you don’t do what the abusive person wants you to do. You might find that it’s easier to just go along with what they want to avoid an atmosphere or explain yourself. An abuser will seek to control all areas of the relationship including finances, sex, behaviour, etc.
If you are questioning yourself all the time then this is a sign of gaslighting. It can feel like you are going crazy. You no longer know what is real. You might be going over discussions in your head trying to make sense of them, “I’m sure I said that, but he/she said I didn’t.”
Manipulation and bullying
The abuser will seek to gain control through manipulation, bullying or harassment.
Do you find yourself avoiding seeing your friends to avoid conflict in your toxic relationship? Maybe your friend or family and the toxic person do not like each other’s company and you feel in the middle. It’s easier not to have friends to avoid conflict. You find yourself increasingly isolated. You are afraid to tell your family about how bad your relationship has become.
Your partner does not bring out the best in you. You might become increasingly paranoid or upset. You no longer feel that you can be your true self around them. They might tell you that you are an angry person or a crazy person who needs help. Yet you have never been angry in previous relationships. When we have experienced this relationship for a long time, we might feel that we are constantly walking on eggshells. We avoid conflict or discussions and become increasingly withdrawn. In this way, we lose a sense of who we are and no longer recognise who we have become.
How do we heal from this?
Disengaging from a toxic relationship can leave behind many emotional wounds. There might be a sense that you have left the relationship behind along with your sense of who you are. Clients say, “I don’t know who I am anymore. Maybe I am crazy. Maybe I am angry and toxic.” After all, if someone tells you that you are something for long enough you start to believe them. Being in a toxic relationship is traumatic. You may have felt that you shut down your emotions in order not to feel the pain. Or you may have gone into fight mode so that you could make yourself heard or seen.
Your nervous system may have been in a state of high arousal for quite some time. Constant stress on the body is detrimental to both physical and mental health. The first step is to begin to learn to soothe your nervous system to come from a state of high arousal to calm. We do this by using breathing and grounding techniques, walking in nature, or moving the body in activities such as yoga. We want to reconnect to the body as best we can.
Breathing exercise - sit in a quiet place for 5-10 minutes each morning. Feel your feet on the ground, close your eyes, and release tension from the face, shoulders, and neck. Begin by taking a breath into the count of 4 and exhale to the count of 6. You will notice that after 5 minutes you will feel calmer and more relaxed. Try to do this as often as you can.
Tell your story – talk to a therapist about your relationship. Share what you are feeling and how the relationship made you feel. Remembering who you were before you lost yourself in the relationship is crucial and a therapist can help you to do this. You can begin to build your confidence and self-esteem by telling your story and having your emotions validated by the therapist. Together you can begin to look towards new goals and a brighter future.
A therapist can also help you to understand boundaries within your relationships. Looking at how you want to be treated and what is not okay in a relationship for you. This will involve learning to be assertive and saying no from time to time.
Look at your values and beliefs. This may take some time as once you have lost your sense of self in a relationship it’s difficult to remember what you value or believe. You can explore this with a good friend or therapist.
Healing can take time but with support, you can become stronger.