- Breaking up is hard. Breaking up with someone who has abused you is even harder.
- You will feel confused and traumatised for some time.
- It’s not all terrible though – distance will make you realise you’re stronger.
- Trauma doesn’t stay with you forever, and there are actually several positives from what you went through – even if you’re still hurting.
A common misconception about moving on from an abusive relationship is that the trauma stays with you for life. Even if you end up in a great relationship, you may still be lost in your old one, unable to fully let go.
In reality, this is usually simply a sign you haven’t moved on yet. Breaking up with an abusive person is hard, and it can take people months, or even years, to fully recover. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Perpetua Neo, a doctor of psychology and expert who works with women who are healing from damaging, toxic relationships, said if you sort through your pain, work out what demons you have that resulted in you being attracted to a bad person in the first place, then the magic begins.
“The narcissist didn’t want you to gain anything from being with them, but actually you ended up taking everything and becoming stronger,” she told Business Insider. “One thing people I’ve worked with find is that they gain a fuller, more whole version of themselves after leaving the narcissistic ex.”
You will probably be in agony for a while, because your body has essentially been addicted to the intermittent love the abuser gave you. But in time, you will realise that you are so much stronger, resilient, and capable of finding someone who isn’t going to discard you for being you.
Here are seven lessons you can take away from the traumatic experience of loving a toxic person – and the strengths you gain from moving on:
1. Using empathy as a superpower
Empathy can be both a gift and your kryptonite. Neo said if you have too much empathy for others, it can mean you start to honour someone else’s story over your own. If you do this all the time, it can lead to an “empathy burnout,” meaning you give and give, but begin to lose any care for yourself.
“We forget that we need to nourish ourselves first and foremost before we can nourish somebody else,” Neo said. “So in this sense, after the break-up, people start to use empathy as a superpower, and think of empathy as this burden, like: ‘Why do I go for people who tell me their sob stories?’ Then after that you realise you don’t need to take on everybody else’s energy.”
2. Boundaries are healthy
The more time that passes, the more you will realise how troubling the way you were treated was. Becoming very clear about your boundaries means you have a better idea of the kind of person you really are. You also know what you are willing to tolerate, and you will be better at realising who will and won’t respect you.
“Boundaries are the ‘hell nos’ in our life, and sometimes we don’t feel like we have permission to say ‘hell no,'” Neo said. “Once we are really clear about what our boundaries are, and we stop seeing them as bad things, we actually get very clear about what is unacceptable. From then I can trust myself to have as much fun as possible, because I’ve communicated my line already.”
3. Gain a new perspective
In life, we are all subjected to ideas of how we are supposed to act. Some people will be more influenced by them than others. For example, films often clearly convey some of the power dynamics we are exposed to.
In “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel falls in love with a prince and, in order to be with him, she grows legs and gives up her voice. In “Star Wars,” Han Solo grabs Princess Leia inappropriately. In James Bond films, notorious for their misogyny, Bond forces himself on female characters such as Pussy Galore.
“What does that say to girls watching films like that?” Neo said. “When we keep watching this stuff about inappropriate behaviour, we stop understanding what acceptable behaviour is.”
Coming out of an abusive relationship can give you a new perspective about what you might have looked over in the past while you thought you’d met the love of your life. If you run into a person in the future who you think might hurt you, or acts in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you’ll find you’re more able to take a stand, Neo said.
4. Dealing with difficult people gets easier
Realising your own boundaries in romantic relationships helps you out in other walks of life too. You’ll be able to say “here’s my line, do not cross it” to people in your family, friendship group, and even at work.
“Our voice is our sense of autonomy – if you can’t express what you want more of and what you want less of, or nothing of, then you’re not going to build a sense of solidity,” Neo said.
“Maybe your boss isn’t a narcissist, but they’re a bit selfish and caught up with their own world. And then if you’re an over-giver, you’re going to give more than your colleagues – so you’ll get burned out and exhausted by it.
“So once you are very clear about all this and you practise your boundaries, you will find you have a lot more energy.”
5. You become more resilient
Being with a toxic, abusive person can make you feel like you are being mentally broken over and over again, Neo said, because they always move the goal posts and demand more and more from you. She said living that sort of life will show you just how resilient you really are, and bring forward the strengths you never knew you had.
“You know he tried to break you once and you’re not going to break again,” Neo said. “It’s this ability to bounce back from adversity or difficult events. When it comes to trauma sometimes people believe that it’s going to stay in your for the rest of your life, and nothing is going to shift. But you bounce back and recover and become a stronger version of yourself.”
A traumatic experience like an abusive relationship will change you, Neo said, and you will feel totally broken for quite a while. But once the fog starts to lift, and you see it for what it really was, you fix yourself so you’re indestructible.
6. The urge to help others increases
Neo said once your energy stops being completely focused on your pain, you’ll begin to realise that you are not alone. You’re not the first person to be taken advantage of, and you won’t be the last, as these sorts of people seek out new victims time and time again.
When you understand this, you won’t be able to let it go. Neo said many of her clients have gone on to help at women’s shelters and written about their experiences on blogs.
Instead of being insular and sad, you will get a new lease of life, Neo said, and want to spread your message. You’ll realise just how important your story is to people who might be going through the same thing. You might even be able to prevent it from happening to someone else.
It’s incredibly difficult to notice the signs of a narcissist, or an abuser. This is because they are highly skilled masters of smoke and mirrors. Only when you have hindsight will you be able to see through the mask.
By having the gift of hindsight you can help others you think might be in trouble, even if that is just by being someone they can talk to.
7. You can identify the red flags
There are a number of red flags that someone isn’t a good person to be around. It may be something obvious, such as rude behaviour, but a lot of the time the signs are pretty subtle.
Looking back and gaining perspective on a damaging relationship helps you identify the traits that drew you towards that person in the first place. Perhaps they were mysterious and captivating, and they ended up being a narcissist. Meeting someone else who makes you feel the same way your abuser did at the beginning is a code red.
“That’s your body’s way of telling you someone is bad for you,” Neo said. “As you become stronger and much wiser you become discerning, and that’s not a negative. Then you can own the fact you are discerning, that makes you pretty damn formidable.”
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