Eliza McBride, MS, NCC
Helping Clients Rebuild Identity After an Abusive Relationship
Identity is comprised of so many factors—some of the basic aspects (what I refer to as the “inner layer”) can include gender identity, body image that includes race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and identity within a family (i.e. parent, child, sibling, etc.) The “second layer” involves social aspects and can include religious and spiritual practices, education level, professional identity, hobbies and interests. Survivors of abuse are often stripped of their “second layer” of identity. Past clients have reported that they were prevented from getting a job and were not allowed to handle, or even be involved with, financial decisions in their abusive relationship; their ex-partner also controlled who they were allowed to socialize with, what they read, where they went and what activities they were allowed to do—all indicative of the “isolation” piece included in the Power and Control Wheel. Survivors mentioned that they spent all of their time and energy serving and appeasing their past abuser that once they finally left the abusive relationship they had no idea who they were any more as an individual.
It can be strange to think that someone may not know who they are, but it’s more common than we think. Imagine your life immersed in completely serving another person, leaving no time for yourself or opportunities for growing personal interests. This is magnified in abusive relationships because the survivor literally has no choice—they are physically and emotionally trapped, their lives are controlled and decisions are made for them by their abuser. Identity loss doesn’t happen overnight, it occurs very slowly over time—similarly, it takes time to slowly rebuild identity. Survivors who are able to find employment again, or complete educational/training opportunities to pursue a profession, are able to regain that aspect of their identity. But we know that professional life can’t be one’s main identity—this can lead to burnout and general life dissatisfaction. Having interests outside of family and professional responsibilities can help an individual feel happier and more fulfilled. Trying to narrow down how to rebuild that “second layer” of identity is challenging, but there are three areas that I’ve observed past clients engage in when rebuilding identity—1) arts, 2) athletics and 3) academics.
Growing an artistic identity involves creating something or enjoying another person's creations. Painting, knitting, gardening, or playing a musical instrument are great self-nurturing skills to learn and cultivate, but clients can also spend time in museums and learn about art, enjoy novels and comic books, or attend concerts and plays. At times it can be challenging to get clients involved with activities. I recall one client sharing that they felt like these were luxuries of time and money, even if they now had the time and financial means to participate. We processed feelings of guilt associated with taking an art class, and how it stemmed from their abuser’s frequent put-downs about their abilities, emotional abuse and being made to feel like a financial burden. Another challenge is overcoming the isolation they had become accustomed to—if clients aren’t comfortable jumping into the activity with other people, I encourage them to ease into it by engaging in the activity individually at first, and then gradually becoming involved in communities with people who share their interests. An example would be buying a watercolor set and trying it out at home first, and then looking up a community art class; another example can include watching YouTube videos about board games, and then looking up groups on websites like Meetup to find people to play with. Even if the artistic activity is a solitary one, like knitting, I encourage clients to engage in spaces with other knitters, even if they don’t interact with each other or just interact once in a while.
For individuals interested in athletics, it’s important to remind clients that the activity is meant to be enjoyed. I tend to be careful with how I navigate this with clients, as many survivors were often ridiculed for their weight or physical appearance by their abuser. Some survivors of sexual abuse have also reported gaining weight as a protective factor from further abuse or using food as a means of coping with distress. I make sure to emphasize that athletics does not equal sports, which can feel intimidating because of the competitive aspect that may activate a survivor’s trauma history of never being “enough” for their abusive partner. Sports can be a fun way to get involved in a community when the client feels ready to engage, but I tell clients that athletics is anything that focuses on moving your body—walks, yoga, hiking or gardening (which also incorporates artistic aspects of creating.) I also emphasize that athletics does not need to involve dieting or having to adjust what or how much we eat. It involves mindfully moving your body, which can be a helpful way of processing trauma stored in the body. Finding a hiking group is a good way to cut back on isolation, but if clients prefer solo activities like yoga or running, I also encourage them to take a class or workshop where they can be around people but not necessarily feel pressure to interact with others.
As for rebuilding identity associated with academics, I feel that this is fairly open-ended and doesn’t necessarily need to involve formal education. In my opinion, returning to school and pursuing educational opportunities after years in an abusive relationship is one of the best ways survivors can ease back into social settings, build self-esteem, and cultivate talents that can help them pursue a professional identity and/or life skills. Learning any new information is also fun, and integrating learned information into one’s everyday life can help increase self-awareness and feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment. Libraries and other community organizations sometimes have classes, forums and seminars that are often free to the public. Academics can include studying any subject and finding a community that cares about that subject as well. With academics, there’s usually a lot of cross-over with arts and athletics because it can involve learning something in those areas. Survivors of abuse often experienced limited access to information, so being able to grow intellectually can feel liberating. I have observed several clients who, after leaving an abusive relationship, studied domestic or intimate partner violence and became interested in educating others, reminding me of the Toni Morrison quote that “…if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
Rebuilding identity after an abusive relationship is a nuanced process that takes time, patience and self-compassion. It can involve trying something new, learning that you don’t like it, and then having the courage to try something else. It has been a privilege getting to observe clients, some who spent decades in an abusive relationship, discover or rediscover their love for something and be reminded that they are capable and can continue to progress. It has been extremely rewarding to hear clients express self-compassion, self-awareness and self-assurance because they know who they are, feel comfortable with who they are, love who they are and who they are becoming.
Power and Control Wheel: http://www.ncdsv.org/images/PowerControlwheelNOSHADING.pdf
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: https://ncadv.org/learn-more
This article was originally published on LinkedIn. Original source can be found here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/helping-clients-rebuild-identity-after-abusive-eliza-mcbride/