Sometimes, it’s the people who should love and protect you that cause you the most harm.
Potentially traumatizing events, abuse, and neglect can happen at home because you’re more likely to be hurt by those closest to you, literally and figuratively, and because families can pass down generational trauma. This means that people sometimes have no choice but to reckon with the difficult task of living with the ones responsible for their pain. Shae Chisman, a psychotherapist based in Georgia, United States, said that this can be extremely taxing on one’s body and mind.
“It is exhausting to feel triggered and unsafe in your own home and body. When this occurs in childhood before the brain is fully developed, it can lead to lasting mental, emotional, and physical changes,” Chisman said.
Vanessa Pezo, a therapist based in California, said that experiencing familial abuse or trauma likely impacts the way people manage emotions, the way they see themselves, and the way they feel about the future. Often, she said, trauma survivors want to make sense of what happened, to justify it in one way or another. That leads some to blame themselves and take responsibility for the abuse or neglect they endured, as if they caused it in some way. Others may undermine the gravity of what they endured, which could lead them to unhealthy relationships where the abuse or neglect is replicated.
All potentially traumatizing situations are different and leaving as well as healing from them will require unique and personal changes. There are, however, some guidelines for ensuring your immediate safety and long-term mental health.
“If you are stuck living with a family member who hurt you or didn’t take care of you like they should have, your top priority is to ensure your physical and emotional safety,” said Chisman.
According to Pezo, the best thing you can do for yourself is to get away from the situation in order to begin recovery. “Consider what support you have available,” she said, pointing to the possibility of moving in with friends, even temporarily, reaching out to local shelters if they’re available, or filing police reports if one feels safe doing so.
Pezo added that people in these situations should have a plan for preventing abuse if or when possible while preparing to leave. This includes having people or hotlines to call in case of emergencies. Also, consider what you would need in order to leave. This might mean setting aside money, gathering important documents and medications, and packing everything up for when you’re ready to go.
“Getting away from abusive situations is important, but it can be difficult, and involve a great deal of sacrifice. Having a plan can make the process smoother, and help survivors to feel more in control,” Pezo said.
But leaving home is not an option for everybody. For starters, many people might not realize they’re being abused, or consider that leaving an abusive situation is an option. There are also always the questions of money, physical health and safety, and places to go to instead. When that’s the case, there are other ways people can seek mental and emotional reprieve.
“If you are stuck living with a family member who hurt you or didn’t take care of you like they should have, your top priority is to ensure your physical and emotional safety.”
“Take time to learn to recognize your emotions, learn healthy ways of coping, and to learn to give yourself the love, compassion, or protection that you didn’t receive from your family members,” said Pezo.
Talking about the situation may seem difficult, especially when family members are unwilling to take responsibility for their actions, or when talking about trauma is too difficult for the victim to bear. In such cases, you might be worried that bringing up past trauma may aggravate problems instead of helping solve them. But Chisman said that not talking about trauma can make matters even worse in the long run. If the option is available to you, talking about your pain with other family members and even a therapist may be a good way to begin healing.
However, it’s important to remember that family members may or may not take responsibility for their actions. If they don’t, it does not mean your feelings are invalid.
“Sometimes family members will deny what they have done… or say that you are too sensitive or need to get over the past,” said Pezo. “It is important that you give yourself the space to process what was done to you and the impact it has had on you. Your experiences and emotions are valid, and learning to practice self-validation can be an important step in healing.”
In cases like this, Joe Kort, a sex and relationships therapist based in Michigan, said that the most important mindset is to “recognize that you’re going to be doing your own work without their help.” This can be really difficult for some people, but it’s the reality that they have to face.
Another thing people can do is use emotional regulation tools or grounding techniques that help anchor the body in the present moment and make it feel safe.
One coping technique is the “5,4,3,2,1 Activity,” said Chisman. “Identify five things you can see in the room around you, four things you can physically touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.”
“Take time to learn to recognize our emotions, learn healthy ways of coping, and to learn to give yourself the love, compassion, or protection that we didn’t receive from our family members.”
Not being able to move away from home also does not mean having to spend all of your time there. Creating both physical and psychological space between you and the family that caused you trauma can also help. If you don’t spend so much time around people in places that make you feel unsafe, you’ll feel unsafe less often.
Kort advised doing this by getting into hobbies that require you to be out of your home, like sports, music and theater, or outdoor activities. These hobbies can help you find and build a wider support system, which is all the more important when the people meant to love and protect you do the opposite of that.
“Increasing your social support can also be extremely helpful,” said Chisman, who advised connecting with others through communities and support groups.
None of this is meant to force people to forgive those they’re not ready to forgive. But forgiving and healing are different things. According to Chisman, understanding that forgiveness is not a requirement for healing is a sign that one is healing from their trauma.
Kort said one way to test this is to observe your emotions when you speak to the family members who have hurt you or when you talk about what happened. If there is little or less resentment, you’re on the right track.
Remember: “Forgiveness is not required, but acceptance [is],” said Kort.
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