12 steps to rebuild your life after domestic abuse
Survivors of domestic abuse can find themselves in a weird space: some have described it as a limbo, others as a no-man’s land, stuck in an unending stretch of grey. Some have felt like they are lost in wilderness of confusion, uncertainty and doubt.
The situation is that they are no longer in the abusive relationship. However, their experiences in the relationship have so impacted them that they are not where they were before the abusive relationship. Indeed, they might even feel that they are no longer who they were as a person, before they got entangled in the relationship.
Furthermore, they may have no idea where they would like to be. Many struggle with feeling lost in themselves, in addition to the loss of everything that was familiar, everything that was apparently constant – however toxic, disabling and disempowering that relationship might have been.
So, can a survivor rebuild their life after experiencing domestic abuse? Yes, of course. With patience, self-compassion and the right kind of support, survivors can heal and recover from domestic abuse, and even experience post-traumatic growth. Studies have indicated that sometimes trauma survivors experience exponential growth as a consequence of their recovery from their trauma.
If you find yourself lost in that wilderness of doubt and uncertainty, below are some steps that many survivors have taken which have helped them to rebuild their lives after the trauma of domestic abuse. See which resonates with you… and only do what feels right for you, when it feels right for you.
1. Discover the dynamics of domestic abuse
Learn how it works, what it does, what its underpinning philosophy seems to be. Then take a step back to review your own experiences: try to understand what happened to you. The reason this step is important is that when we understand a phenomenon, and we can acknowledge it for what it is, the grip of confusion loosens, as does the stuckness that goes with it. In a sense it’s like turning on the light in a dark room. When light comes in, however dim, darkness disappears.
2. Discover yourself, your story, your blind spots
Ask yourself difficult questions, for instance, “how did I get hooked?”. This sort of enquiry is different from blaming yourself for your partner’s abusive behaviour. Here you are trying to get an understanding of how you got caught in that situation – naivety maybe? Or was it that a desperation to be with somebody meant that you overlooked red flags? Was there external pressure, including from your abusive partner? This can be a difficult process. It might be beneficial to explore this process with a professional counsellor/psychotherapist.
3. Discover your limiting beliefs and mental blocks and work towards dissolving them
What do you believe about yourself and/or your situation that is keeping you stuck? So, for example, if you catch yourself saying something like, “I’m too old to learn new skills”, that is a limiting belief. It will keep you from doing what you need or want to do to improve yourself. You might wish to find inspirational stories of others who may have done what it is you’re aspiring to, who may have overcome barriers that are similar to yours. But, what if you don’t find any? Well, you could choose to try to dig deep to find your inner resources to overcome your barriers so you could be that inspiration for somebody else, in the way you would have wanted someone to be for you.
4. Reassess your values
What is important to you today? What makes you tick in this season? You may have lost a sense of your values in your abusive relationship. Now is an opportunity to figure out for yourself what is important to you, not anybody else, but you. Why not pause now and have a little moment of reflection on that question - ask yourself: “what is important to me in this moment?” What came up for you? You may want to take note of it somewhere and revisit the question from time to time.
5. Understand your self-care needs and prioritise them
What is it that you need? Quiet time to reflect? Space to spread out and chill? Time and space to play? To get in touch with your creativity, just for the sake of it? Ways to gain financial independence? What is it that you need? How can you give yourself what you need? Will you give yourself permission to attend to your own needs?
6. Befriend your boundaries
Your boundaries would have been severely undermined in your abusive relationship. Now that you are out of that relationship, you are in a position to figure out what your boundaries are, communicate them, maintain them in a way that is authentic to you. An important prioritisation of your own boundaries will help your process of recovery.
7. Create a vision for you future
Your past experience does not have to mean that you cannot live a fulfilling life. Get in touch with your goals/desires/intentions. Spend time visualising a beautiful future for yourself. As this vision grows in you, the desire to take the necessary steps will also begin to take place in you. You may wish to create an action plan for those steps and share with an accountability buddy to help you keep motivated.
8. Revisit your strengths, qualities, skills and abilities
That you endured and survived domestic abuse indicates that you are strong, much stronger than you might feel or recognise. You may have had your positive qualities, great skills and abilities maligned by your abuser. They lied to you. Stop looking at yourself through your abuser’s lenses. Look at yourself through your own lenses and the evidence that speaks volumes of your great resources.
9. Reach out and engage with healthy social networks
This step can be difficult especially as you may have become isolated in your domestic abusive experience. You may not have been believed or supported. You may have had your trust shattered over and again. Take your time and trust your intuition, and you will find your safe people to hang out with.
10. Seek out new opportunities for growth and development – both personally and professionally
Revisit previous interests and hobbies that may have fallen by the wayside while you were struggling in your abusive relationship. Try out new interests and hobbies – remember, you are free to rediscover yourself and what you enjoy.
11. Recognise that you do have a choice in your life
Of course, they are aspects of our lives that we have little to no choice over, for instance when and to whom we are born; when, where and how we may die. However, there is a lot in the in-between where we do have a choice. In the areas that you can, what would you choose for yourself today?
12. Practice self-compassion
This step is very important because you may have learnt to be very hard on yourself, beating yourself up for any perceived failures and finding it difficult to be gracious to yourself. The practice of self-compassion can help with reducing levels of anxiety and depression while increasing a feeling of contentment and equanimity. Isn’t that a great place to be?
Quite a few questions to ponder, right? Some people have found journaling their reflections helpful. If writing isn’t your thing, speaking into a recording device is an option. There are no hard and fast rules - experiment and see what suits you best.
You can have a rich, satisfying life after the trauma of domestic abuse. Many survivors have. Learning about your domestic abuse experience, learning what healthy relationships look and feel like, seeking appropriate professional support where necessary and most importantly, giving yourself credit for what you have overcome already, will all help with the healing, recovery and rebuilding process.
Which step are you going to start with today?