Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Breaking Free from Generations of Abuse
*trigger warning: domestic abuse and emotional abuse
Emotional and domestic abuse can be difficult to identify in brown communities. No one speaks these words out loud, and we’re trained that this is what love looks like. What may feel right also hurts, and we carry guilt that we are the cause of that hurt.
My story is an example of how relationship standards can be transmitted from generation to generation — subconsciously. Growing up with conflicting messages of what a healthy relationship looks like can blur the lines around control, jealousy, negative criticism, manipulation and isolation making them seem like a typical side effect of love. These messages are instilled in us from an early age and can manifest in various forms in adulthood.
When my mom was divorced from my dad, I was six years old, so theoretically I had limited exposure to him and their relationship. It wasn’t until I was 19, and found myself in my third consecutive abusive relationship. It was then that my mom brought the red flags to my attention I had been blind to my entire life. She made direct parallels to my dad that led me to the jarring realization that abuse isn’t just physical, but emotional, and I unknowingly was seeking men who were like my dad.
I then found myself in four consecutive abusive relationships by the age of 22, one that continued on and off for over 10 years between the ages of 14-26. When I started working in the mental health field that I started recognizing how these relationships had impacted me. Having positive male role models in my family didn’t prevent me from falling into abusive cycles. Innately, I felt as though I didn’t have a voice watching my mom be silenced by society my whole life. She was never truly able to make decisions for herself, between being born and raised in America in the ’60s by strict parents to going into an emotionally abusive marriage, then returning to my grandparents home post-divorce.
Just because your environment and experiences involved abuse, doesn’t mean you can’t break free, heal and have healthy meaningful relationships. Be patient with the process and allow yourself the time to heal. I want to share what I’ve learned working with people who have experienced abuse and from my own experiences.
Listen to your loved ones, I was often told that people couldn’t read me, I wasn’t happy, and didn’t express my feelings. The walls I protected myself with were REAL, my body was protecting me from vulnerability and possible danger. I didn’t know how to react to niceness, and everything I knew I deserved. After five years of therapy, I learned to open up to my close friends, who didn’t know what I experienced until a recently and made it a habit to reach out when I needed support. I practiced mindfulness to catch myself in moments where I felt disconnected or was restricting myself from being vulnerable.
Abusive relationships can often result in a diminished sense of self and self-esteem. Allow yourself the time and space to reconnect with yourself and find your voice. I had become a submissive woman who couldn’t connect with her voice, or get gas for her car alone. I still catch myself saying “I don’t know” or “whatever you want” and learning how to handle certain tasks I was used to having done for me. I truly felt that I couldn’t make decisions, or handle life’s bumps without the support of my ex as he led me to believe. It took two years of soul searching and dating men who were the complete opposite of him to recognize that my perspective on dating was flawed and work through my trigger responses.
It is common to be extremely reactive to triggers such as people, places, words, things, smells, acts/actions related to abusive experiences or the abuser. Some of these triggers may result in automatic reactions such as physical startle responses, panic attacks, rage and shutting down. Once you become aware of your own triggers and responses, you can learn how to cope with and eventually extinguish them. Take your time to notice the themes in your reactions, find healthy coping skills you enjoy doing (mindfulness, relaxation, distractions) and communicate with those around you. I found it helpful to expose myself to my triggers intentionally with my close friends and allow myself to feel every emotion that surfaced, then create a new fun memory in that space. Communicate your triggers when dating a new person and allow space for conversation around how to make you feel safe.
Make lists and check them thrice! Make lists of the unhealthy aspects of your abusive relationship, characteristics in that partner you wish to avoid, and lists of what you would like in a healthy relationship and partnership. These help us stay accountable and set a new standard for ourselves. Everyone deserves a healthy, loving, respectful relationship. Create affirmations weekly or daily to help remind yourself that you are enough, you are safe, you are love.
Are you or someone you love living in an abusive relationship?
Abuse includes physical, sexual and emotional harm. Abusive relationships are cyclical in nature and have patterns; they can stem from dysfunction and unrealistic/irrational ideas about what it means to love. Physical abuse includes hitting, aggressive pushing, grabbing, or any unwanted or aggressive physical contact including sexual violence.
Emotional abuse can be more difficult to detect and heal from. Signs of emotional abuse include control, guilt, and manipulation. Creating dependence on the point of self-doubt. Isolation for extended periods of time causing the person to be without contact for days to weeks which often leads to guilt, anxiety, and depression. Other indicators include name calling, put downs, extreme and negative criticism that encourage self-hate. This behavior can stem from the abuser’s personal history of trauma, jealousy, and insecurity.
It’s healthy to seek help, go to therapy, and allow yourself to heal and break the generational cycles of abuse. There is a life after living through abuse, everyone’s journey is unique. Be patient with your journey, you’re not alone.
This article was originally published on BrownGirlMagazine.com. If you suspect you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, please see the list of South Asian organizations available for assistance on BrownGirlMagazine.com.