Step-by-Step Guide to Healing from Emotional Abuse

Once upon a time, on a mountain top, deep in my studentship, about five years and eight notebooks into the most serious spiritual journey of my life, I am mid-class in a week-long training that will change everything. My dear teacher bends down in front of my mat, picks up my pen and writes a few words in my treasured blue Clairfontaine notebook. 

I’ve never shared this.  

As soon as I see the ink forming the words, I realize I’m shaking. As a “good student,” I never want to disappoint this person, and I can’t believe I’ll have to. All of this happens as I’m watching a short poem unfurling on the page, inviting me to this person’s private quarters; clearly a sexual invitation. I’m horrified, confused, frustrated, lost. Mostly lost.

And in my utter humanity, a part of me wants to say yes, to please, to be chosen. Which simultaneously disgusts me.

Step One: Acknowledge the Abuse 

Afraid to disappoint my teacher and wondering if my first extended training will now become the abrupt end to my long-awaited studies, I ask this person to meet me outside, just after class, in full view of other people. Step one of healing emotional abuse is to name it and acknowledge it.

Emotional abuse is any attempt to use highly charged emotions to control the actions of another person.

After this unexpected act of spiritual and emotional abuse, this frighteningly tantalizing power grab that smacks of #metoo before that was even a thing, I have an awful feeling in my belly that feels like I’ve just been punched–and whomever has punched me won’t stop punching. Still shaking, afraid, I name aloud that I will most definitely not be entering any private quarters with anyone on this mountain.  have my mom to thank for giving me the gumption to stand up for myself back there. 

Emotional abusers create an unstable environment in order to maintain their perceived power over you. 

And somehow at the end of this conversation, I still say “thank you” to this person. This interaction marks the beginning of the end of any proper student-teacher relation; the attention, care and guidance that I’d once been offered as the dutiful student soon disappears. 

Emotional blackmail is a form of emotional abuse; when the abuser uses your choices and values against you as justification to withhold love, attention or care. 

It will take several years; I will tell at least two gigantic lies on this person’s behalf, and I’ll endure one more untoward advance before I finally release myself from the misguided assumption that this teacher is the only path forward. And several more years to confirm that I don’t need to hand my power over to any teacher in order to offer my gifts to the world. 

Emotional abuse is real, factual and can impact us for many years, mostly without our understanding. 

For the subsequent decade, insidiously doubtful thought patterns will creep into my being to dominate and destroy my inner world and my relationship to myself. I’ll numb myself almost daily with weed, nicotine and busy work (with a sober break for three years when I meet my husband-to-be and focus attentively to start our family). 

What I don’t know at that time is that our teacher will use my initial “no” against me, years later, publicly shaming me in the company of over one hundred of my peers. 

Emotional abusers will often shame, blame and publicly attack the subject of their abuse.

But at that time, when it happens, I don’t have the words or tools to usher myself through this, so I just keep getting high. Again and again, day after day, so I don’t have to feel the betrayal and the shame. I keep doing my best to show up, to keep learning. But the moments of being high become the only time I feel like I can connect to myself, the singular way I can sense the promise of my future and be in relationship with my intuitive knowing. During these years I lose confidence, pretending that I believe in myself, making choices based on when I could get high again. And on that shaky, unstable foundation, I build a business, not realizing that as the unhealed victim of emotional abuse, I will likely continue the cycle, without my awareness. 

With doubt and self-disdain at my core, aiming to serve other people, I become a twenty something year-old woman in a position of some leadership, finding myself in situations for which I’m not trained nor stable enough to really help. Looking back now, I see an entire decade of struggling to identify myself, to locate empathy and kind communication within, to slowly distance myself from this teacher’s community without blaming. Eventually I’ll close the doors on that first business creation in order to make space for other, healthier ways. I make many mistakes. I learn that hurt people hurt people. Later I’ll learn that this is why we need to grow our empathy for all people.

Step Two: Evolve Negative Thought Patterns

October 2011. My marriage has ended relatively amicably, and I’m finally getting comfortable with myself, with some professional help. Friends help me see the insidious, subtle emotional abuse I’ve endured, and I’m finally feeling more courageous. My mother’s cancer returns.

I remember the moment of reckoning: sitting next to my mom in the ICU, post-stem-cell treatment, all the machines beeping, rubbing her feet, practicing just being with her. Coming to terms with her mortality, I realize right there and then that I need to remove myself from this destructive negativity and get some distance from the years of emotional abuse, spiritual abuse and power dynamics that served none of us. Other more salacious accusations are surfacing, and I’m ready to prioritize myself. 

In that hospital room, I craft my formal resignation letter. A few colleagues align with me; detractors and supporters emerge in equal measure. I’m done. Which is precisely when I reluctantly begin to find forgiveness, and start the slow road to recovery from my addictions. 

After the hospital that night, letter written, fourth joint in, I recognize that I have a problem. Pot smoking shouldn’t be addictive, but for me, at this time, it is. I begin asking for help, I try to smoke less. I begin a morning meditation practice that holds me steady while I figure out who I am outside of this. It’ll take three more years until I quit. 

In the words of Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, “A silent justice speaks.” And by this time, I’m slowly learning how to listen for it. 

Step Three: Engage in Self Care

A pivotal moment arrives a year later: I finally say yes to a business that has the potential to support my family well into the future, a home-based sales business that is scary and new to me. A support system emerges, along with a vision for how to grow in different ways, opening doors that will change my life in ways I cannot fathom just yet. In fits and starts, I begin learning what self care means, from establishing a budget and savings, to consciously cultivating lifetime friendships. 

My meditation practice continues to provide a soft landing for my heart, and I begin prioritizing sleep, real rest, my own practice, a new sense of innate fullness. I engage in therapy, and learn a great deal about that abusive period of my life, the harm I’ve endured and what typically happens in the face of such control. I realize I’m not alone. I begin writing again, listening for the heart of all things, a book of poems that will come to fruition in several years, when I enter my fifties. Softening Time. 

And in October 2014 I finally summon the courage to quit numbing myself with substances and begin feeling my feelings. I start seeing who I might be without this disappointing story of my prior failures, and I let people reach me, touch me, care about me. My mother recovers and will live another few years; she will get to know her adult daughter as a sober person, one of the finest gifts of all of this. Healing becomes more nuanced and enriching as I stop fleeing my life and step in.

Step Four: Set Good Boundaries

In the aftermath of emotional and/or spiritual abuse, boundaries might be the most elusive and vital facet of a healthy future. Some of the boundaries I’ll set around this time will become the most important; these choices will be fundamental for my personal and professional growth for the rest of my life. I also learn that I cannot please everyone; that I don’t need to be liked. As I come to understand the defining characteristics of mental illness, I see that we all carry certain tendencies. And that I need help just to love myself and tend to myself, if I’m to be of true service. So I keep assiduously seeking that help. 

In almost a decade from this tender time, I’ll learn from folks I’d hurt when I’d tried to serve from that unhealed trauma. And despite my best efforts to apologize, to make things right, my words won’t be received. As a survivor of emotional and spiritual abuse, I have to keep healing despite this breach. I must refuse to stay stagnant or bitter. So I continue to write, to make altars to silence, to forgive and forgive again. 

Healing arrives when I remember and accept my own humanity, that of my perpetrator, anyone I’ve hurt from my pain, and anyone who chooses to harm me. I see each of us clearly. 

As I grow older, my work is to allow these currents of forgiveness in all directions. To release the holding around the heart, to let go of vengeful, angry thoughts toward others, toward myself.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel offers these elegant, supportive words of thankfulness in her book, The Deepest Peace.

“I give thanks to all those who call me teacher, because they’ve trusted me. They have shared their souls. They have ‘grown’ me. Through them, I’m more conscious of the ways I harm and invite harm into my life. I’m more patient, less rageful and more open to listening despite ideas of who I would like others to be.”

The Ho’oponopono prayer forever holds true; I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.

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