SURVIVOR SERIES: FORGIVING YOURSELF FOR THE “SHOULD HAVES”
"Why didn’t you just leave?"
This is a question our survivors hear a lot. Unfortunately, loved ones, strangers, and even professionals don’t always understand the complexities of abuse and trauma. It's not something you can easily walk away from and it can happen to ANYONE. One survivor shares her perspective:
I was a certified domestic violence advocate when I found myself in an abusive relationship. Even with all my training and experience, I couldn't identify what I was experiencing as abuse. I didn't know I was being abused until I was out of the situation. How could that be? I started beating myself up, thinking I should have known better. Why couldn't I see all the red flags?
Afterward, I came across an analogy that really helped me.
If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. If you put a frog in warm water and gradually turn up the heat until the water is boiling, the frog stays there until it dies. That's exactly what an abusive relationship is like. It doesn't happen all at once. And sometimes you don't realize what's going on until you're being boiled alive.
In my situation (and in many abusive relationships), the abuse was gradual. It started small and wasn't consistent. Between the gaslighting*, silent treatments, and blame-shifting, there was love bombing**. He would make me feel so special and loved that I made excuses for the other behaviors. In the moment, I didn’t see these as excuses. I genuinely believed that his childhood trauma, broken relationships with his parents, and previous divorce were to blame for his behavior towards me. I believed with therapy he would change. During the love bombing phases, I thought things were better. I thought I saw change and growth. But we always ended up back at square one.
During the year and a half that I experienced emotional abuse, I was also working on myself. I educated myself on healthy relationships and healing and went to therapy weekly. I had grown so much as an individual that I was able to establish personal boundaries and confidence. After a year, I knew I had the strength to finally leave. When I was away from my abuser and able to look back, it was clear to me that what I had experienced was emotional abuse. This helped me process what I had endured, but it also made me disappointed in myself. How could I have missed the signs? How could someone in my field not recognize that behavior?
I thought back to the analogy of the frog. It wasn't my fault that he turned the heat (the abuse) up so gradually. It wasn't my fault that I believed the best of him. It wasn't my fault that I wanted my marriage to work out. I knew I had to practice forgiveness. Not towards my abuser, but towards myself. The following are personal statements I practiced:
I forgive myself for not knowing any better at the time.
I forgive myself for giving away my power.
I forgive myself for the survival traits and patterns I picked up while enduring trauma.
I forgive myself for being who I needed to be at the time.
When I felt attacked by guilt, I went back to those statements. When I questioned myself and my actions, I said them again. It was a gradual process, but eventually, I started to let go of the shame and regret. Forgiving myself was a huge, vital step in my recovery from the abuse. It allowed me to move on from the disappointment of staying as long as I did. The disappointment of not being able to recognize it as emotional abuse. And the disappointment of allowing someone else to take my power. It gave me the freedom to live again. To smile, to laugh. To believe that life can be better than it was. To believe that I am a beautiful, capable, lovable, and valuable woman.
Leaving was a HUGE step, but learning to forgive myself took just as much work. Physical freedom came when I left my abusive husband. Emotional and spiritual freedom came when I learned to forgive myself.
* Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group secretly targets an individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often causing them to experience internal conflict and low self-esteem.
** Love bombing is when a manipulative person tries to win over their victim with excessive flattery, gifts, and affection.
If you relate to this survivor's story, please know that you are not alone. There is hope for healing and freedom. You can reach out to us at any time to talk to an advocate about your journey. No matter where you are or what you've been through, we are here for you.
Call 1.800.382.5603 or text "IOWAHELP" to 20121.