Overcoming blame, shame, fear and denial - The Handy Guide

Overcoming blame, shame, fear and denial

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Summary information

Blame, shame, fear and denial are all very common reactions for women who have experienced forms of relationship abuse. They exist, they are real and they come from both women themselves, those close to them and the general community.

Feel familiar? While you can’t change the reaction of others, you can become aware of these responses in yourself; know that they are a natural response; and also know you can work towards limiting negative self-talk.

Denial and blame

Denial and blame are common for individuals who have experienced forms of relationship abuse, and are also common at a population level.

In certain circumstances, denial can be a protective behaviour that minimises threats and reduces initial emotional investment. Each day we receive hundreds of messages from our environment about threats we are facing. These can be personal, economic, environmental and even political. Denial can be a healthy instinct that protects us from being paralysed by all of these potential threats. But denial can also be unhealthy when the threat is real and immediate, or when the threat has long term effects.

Denial is a common reaction to domestic violence. Denial can come from people close to you and from the community generally, and sometimes from yourself. Sadly, it can take a tragic incident for people to recognise the signs of abuse that may have been overlooked for long periods of time.

Women often blame themselves, or internalise blame, from an abusive partner by searching out ways they can change that might improve the relationship and stop the abuse.

Sadly, it is also still common for some people to blame women for abuse, which is incredibly hurtful. Women can also feel guilty for staying in an abusive environment. Responses like “What did she do for that to happen?” and “Why don’t or didn’t they just leave?” are often still seen when instances of abuse, assault or domestic murder get media attention.

Women are also acutely aware of how abuse impacts on their children. This can be yet another layer of blame.

Watch: What about us? Perspectives of the children of domestic violence

Fact Sheet

The effects of domestic and family violence on children and young people

Fear and shame

Fear and shame are also common responses when relationships deteriorate.

If your fear is based on your immediate safety, then you need to act now, get out and seek help. If your fears are around the future, recognise that this is a very natural reaction – and one that you can do a lot about.

Shame takes many forms. Shame can cause humiliation or distress about something you feel responsible for. You can also fear potential shame if your situation becomes known to your friends, family and community, and you may feel that you cannot trust those around you.

You may feel that you need to or want to manage the situation yourself; the cost of leaving is too great; you cannot trust anyone with your concerns; and could not bear the shame of being the subject of gossip within your family and community. If this is you, remember there are many online resources that can help and many services that will ensure your confidentiality and privacy and respect your choices.

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How to reduce the shame caused by emotional abuse

All of these reactions are normal and common. Click here for information and services that will help affirm these normal reactions and support you with advice and assistance.

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The many facets of shame in intimate partner sexual violence

Be careful of ‘love bombing’. Love bombing is an attempt to influence a person by demonstrations of attention and affection. It can be used in different ways and for either positive or negative purposes. Psychologists have identified love bombing as a possible part of a cycle of abuse and have warned against it.

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9 signs that you’re getting love bombed, according to relationship experts

Understand what a narcissist is, and learn to spot their behaviours. A narcissist is an extremely self-centred person who has an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Abuse from a narcissist can range from mild putdowns to severe, life-threatening violence. A narcissist will feel threatened if you feel confident and powerful and will try and take away your power.

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Managing your feelings

Think about times when you felt relaxed, and your relationship was as you wanted it. Where were you living and what sorts of things were you doing? For example, were you working or studying? What season was it? What did you do for fun? Tap into these moments in your life.

How will you feel if you leave?

When you have been with someone who is controlling you or making you feel bad, it can leave you with what is called a ‘trauma bond’. It can be difficult to untangle this bond and it’s helpful to be prepared for this. Here are some ideas on what to do:

  • Reach out for help. Talk to a trusted friend or family member who won’t side with the toxic person in question. Ask your GP for a referral to a therapist, talk to a school counsellor, find a service that offers counselling, or call your local domestic violence shelter to speak to an advocate who’s trained in knowing the signs of abuse and knows what works and what doesn’t. You don’t need to be seeking emergency shelter to call a domestic violence hotline.

  • If it is safe for you to do so, start a journal. Write down details of the incidents, and how they made you feel. It can help if you notice the frequency of harmful incidents more clearly and also spot signs that it’s escalating. Take care that only you can see this journal – put a password on the file, or keep your journal at work or with a trusted friend.

  • Take a break. Even if you’re not ready to cut off the relationship for good, take a few days or weeks away from the person. Ask them not to contact you, or just turn off your phone. This separation may help you clear your mind and allow you to more clearly see a path forward.

  • Practice drawing boundaries. List five types of boundaries you should be making for yourself. This starts with saying “no” and having that be the entire sentence. A toxic person may try to make you feel guilty for walking away.

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10 ways to build and preserve better boundaries

You may have experienced gaslighting. Gaslighting happens when an abuser tries to control you by twisting your sense of reality. An example of gaslighting would be a partner doing something abusive and then denying it happened. People who ‘gaslight’ may also convince you that you are mentally unfit, not as ‘good’ as you used to be, or too sensitive.

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that often occurs in abusive relationships. It is a covert type of emotional abuse where the bully or abuser misleads you, creating a false narrative and making you question your judgments and reality.

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How to survive gaslighting

Some simple exercises to help you stay buoyant when you move on

When you leave the relationship you may have mixed feelings. Here are some ideas to keep yourself feeling confident and focussed on your own future.

  • Create a mantra or a one-line slogan that helps to bring your thoughts to a more positive mindset. For example, try telling yourself, “I was loved, but not in a way that was healthy for me.”

  • Keep the whole story in mind. Recognise that the earliest memories of the relationship can be strong (these are often the positive memories, when it’s most likely you were showered with love, gifts and attention). It’s normal for your mind to return to those times. Gently remind yourself that these memories don’t tell the whole story.

  • Maintain distance. Exposure to the abuser can confuse you and make you question your decision. If you can’t avoid the abuser because you share custody or visitation, keep your interactions brief and cordial. Don’t respond to aggression or hurtful comments. Use these comments as a trigger to remind you to do something for yourself that you really enjoy.

  • Practice mindfulness so you can focus on the present, and not on what happened in the past, or on negative things that might possibly happen in the future.

  • Be kind, especially be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. Acknowledge that a part of you wants to hold onto some happy memories, and that’s okay.

  • Create new happy memories. Spend time by yourself and with the friends and family members who love and support you, and do things that you can cherish going forward.