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The very core of who you are is what can get compromised when you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. That’s why many victims of emotional abuse say that they became a shell of their former selves when they were exposed to it for too long.

In order to stay as whole as you can, you need to remember who the most important person in your world is and protect that person at all costs.

(The following podcast transcript has been modified for easier readability and to benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing)

I was asked a question in a group that I run (for people in your situation) about when you separate from an emotionally abusive romantic partner, and you decide to go back, how long does it take to reconnect?

This person’s issue was that she was in a relationship for many years, and she left the situation maybe two or three times. She thought, okay, this third time, this has got to be when I call it quits or not. But she has no idea if she can or should reconnect with the person she was with, especially after all that happened in the relationship.

If you are in a similar situation and decided to separate for a while but return to try one more time, how would you reconnect? After so much hurtful behavior, you might feel too guarded to let them back in. If you reconnect, you’re exposing your heart to the person who might crush it again.

This can be with any situation, whether you’re in a romantic relationship, or maybe it’s a relationship with a relative or somebody else that you’ve known for a while. When there’s been emotional abuse or any type of hurtful behavior, and you’ve had enough, and you separate yourself from that person, you will have built an emotional barrier between you and that person.

That barrier consists of something surrounding your heart to protect it. After a toxic relationship with someone, you feel the need to be more protective of the most vulnerable part of you, emotionally speaking.

So you add these layers, these boundaries, so that the other person can’t hurt you. They might still find a way, but you do your best. You develop all these coping mechanisms so that they can’t penetrate your emotional armor.

And when I say “you,” I mean the you who is the deepest part of you who you are at your core.

This is what happens: We get into a relationship, and we build trust, and we think we are safe. Then the other person finds a way to make us feel unsafe. They hurt us. And when they do, it’s a surprise. We think, “What just happened?”

This is very much like the beginning of an emotionally abusive relationship. The hurt appears, then we ask ourselves, “What just happened? I felt so safe. I felt so cared for. I felt supported. I felt loved.” Then there’s hurt.

The hurt begins a series of steps that you go through in order to protect yourself from that hurt. One of those steps is denial, where you explain away the behavior, and you don’t want to believe what you just witnessed. So you try to find a rational explanation for it and hope it doesn’t happen again. You think maybe it was just a fluke.

But if and when it happens again and denial continues, it won’t go away. Your denial puts you in a place of not facing what you need to take care of for your health and well-being. Denial keeps you from talking about it, working through it, and figuring it out, hopefully together. But that isn’t always possible.

Another step we take to protect ourselves from hurt is self-persuasion. This is where we convince ourselves that maybe we didn’t hear them right. We think maybe we didn’t see what they just did right.

This is a part of denial. It is also part of the whole process of trying to see the best in a person or a situation. So you might make the reality of what you think is happening unreal. Meaning, you see a reality you don’t want to believe, so you go into that denial. That is a self-persuasion process that helps to blind you from the truth. If you can convince yourself not to believe what you just witnessed, you will feel protected.

The steps I’m talking about are all part of the mind and body’s way of protecting itself. If the mind and body think what they just saw or heard actually happened, it’ll be too hard to handle. That’s why we can end up minimizing bad behavior, which is also another one of the steps that we take to protect ourselves (coming up shortly).

The next step is developing a higher tolerance for bad behavior. And if you have already developed a higher tolerance for bad behavior in your life, then you are more prone to be emotionally attacked, for lack of a better term, in the relationship because you will not stand up for yourself; You will not honor your boundaries; You will not say “Hey, what you just did was wrong. I won’t tolerate that. I won’t accept it.”

This is what happens as we go through life not standing up for ourselves. Then we get into a relationship where somebody crosses our boundaries, but how do we stand up to them?

We may not know how because we don’t have a reference on how to do that. We don’t have the resources in our tool belt, so we have to figure out what to do next because we were hoping that the person that’s supposed to care about us wouldn’t put us in this situation. But they did.

And when you are in this situation, what can you do about it? When you are being emotionally attacked, developing a higher tolerance is often another coping mechanism to help you tolerate bad behavior.

The more tolerant you are, the more likely you’ll say something like, “Well, at least he or she didn’t give me that look this time.” because your level of toleration rises after the first time you get “that look.” You were hurt, but you raised your tolerance. That way, the next time you got that look, you may make up an excuse. You may say something like, “Oh, that’s just who they are. That’s what they do,” and you may start to normalize it.

Normalizing bad behavior puts us in a downward spiral of allowing others to hurt us. I don’t want you to do that. I know you may have already been hurt, you may be in an unpleasant situation now, but going forward, I want you to remember the steps that you might take to allow people to hurt you. Developing a higher toleration for bad behavior is one of those steps.

Another step I’ve already mentioned is minimizing, and even invalidating, your own wants and needs.

You could be in a relationship, and you might have wants and needs. You might want to feel love and connection, and you might want to see or hear the other person say loving and connecting and supporting and kind things, but they don’t. And when they don’t, that higher tolerance develops and causes you to minimize what happened and make you believe that perhaps your wants and needs don’t matter much at all. 

I need you to be really careful if you’re in this situation and you find that you are minimizing what you deserve, which is kindness and respect. If you find that you’re minimizing those things, then you have already developed a higher tolerance for bad behavior that actually allows that bad behavior to come in. Not that you want it and not that you attracted it. It’s not that you deserve it, but because of the lack of resources and the lack of education in the area of telling people what you will and won’t accept even at the risk of the relationship. 

This is something I’ve said many times on my other show, The Overwhelmed Brain, and I may have said it a few times on this show as well, but I really do believe that when you honor yourself appropriately, then you honoring yourself takes precedence. It overrides any relationship you’re in because you’re talking about core-level stuff. You’re talking about who you are at the deepest level.

That’s who you’re protecting: You at the deepest level.

When somebody comes along and does emotionally harmful behavior on you if you’re not protecting that person you are that you inside, and that person gets compromised, what’s left?

This is why so many people tell me that they are a shell of their former selves after getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship. They are hollowed out from the inside. They’re walking around as the result of many months or years of emotional abuse, and they don’t know who they are anymore because of all these levels or steps of denial and developing a higher tolerance for bad behavior and self invalidation.

And all of this I’m talking about comes along with you building layers around your heart to protect yourself, because what was once an environment to feel safe in, a place you could be yourself and show your vulnerability without fear, has now turned into an ever-increasing toxic environment.

And when that happens, you automatically put on more and more protection. In this case, the protection is adding those layers around your heart because that is where your vulnerability is. Surrounding your heart with these layers is the result of doing all these other steps, especially increasing your level of tolerance.

If I were to look at someone who had a high tolerance for bad behavior, I’m willing to bet they have a lot of emotional armor around their heart. And because of that, it’s harder for them to connect and harder for them to really allow people in at the deepest emotional level because they just don’t want to feel the pain that’s buried in there. They don’t want to feel the hurt.

That’s unfortunate because there are a lot of people out there that don’t hurt others, at least not in this way. And if and when they do, it’s usually unintentional. But sometimes, we get stuck with the wrong person.

Sometimes we get stuck with someone who does behaviors that they don’t even know they’re doing, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

I think when you meet someone who does behaviors like that they have to be told what they’re doing. “Hey, you’re hurting me. You’re doing behavior that is hurtful to me. It makes me cry. It makes me not want to love you. It makes me fear you.”

If somebody told me that I’d have to take a huge step back in my relationships over the years, ask them what they meant. “I’m hurting you?”

“Yes, you’re hurting me. What you’re doing is hurting me. I want you to stop.”

That would have been the smack in the face I needed to change any of my unacceptable behaviors. But this information wasn’t available to me. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, and my partners in life didn’t know what they were supposed to do either. We never shared those words with each other.

This is why I share stuff like this with the world. I want you to know what to do. I want you to know that you need to protect YOU. You at the deepest level. You at your core.

I told the person on the Facebook group that when you separate from someone, it gives you an opportunity to find yourself again. If you can’t find yourself, then it gives you an opportunity to rebuild yourself. It allows you to figure out who you really are so that you can reconnect with you.

It gives you an opportunity to have your brain back and allows you to think on your own without anyone else’s influence or at least the toxic person.

When you’re away from the toxic environment and toxic people, you get your brain back. You get to think without fogginess and process information with clarity.

But it takes a while because when you get out of a toxic situation, you’re usually fuzzy. Your thoughts usually include the other person in some way. Because of that, you’re still not at the point where you’re reconnecting with yourself because you’re considering what the other person may think.

This is why I said earlier that sometimes you have to honor yourself at the risk of losing the relationship. That is the truest and deepest level of honoring yourself. It’s telling YOU way down inside that not only do you matter, but you are important. You never, ever want to lose that person to anyone or allow anyone to hurt you.

That’s what you’re telling the deepest part of you: When you honor yourself to the fullest, even at the risk of losing the relationship, you’re telling the YOU inside of you that you will never let any harm come to them. The people that love and care about you are going to honor that about you. They’re going to want you to do that for yourself.

They’re going to support you, supporting yourself.
They’re going to love you, loving yourself.
They’re going to honor you, honoring yourself.

This is the kind of support that you deserve in life. When you value YOU, and you’re with someone who doesn’t value you and especially that YOU deep down inside, then you may need to stand up for yourself.

I say pick your battles wisely at the beginning of every episode because sometimes standing up for yourself means getting out of a situation, not necessarily yelling or fighting back. Some people could be dangerous so there’s no reason to stand up to them. Sometimes you do just have to get away from the danger.

Pick your battles wisely. Know when it’s time to stand up to someone and when it’s not. And know when it’s time to move on.

The person in the Facebook Group asked me how she could reconnect with her partner after returning to the relationship after all the years of emotionally abusive behavior. She says he’s working on himself and seems to be improving. She’s going to give it that one final chance in hopes that things will change and maybe she can salvage this relationship.

Kudos! I think that’s a great thing. If you give somebody one more chance then you can look back after it’s all over and say “You know what? I tried every possible route. I did everything I possibly could. I exhausted all my resources and tried to make it work that way.”

If returning works and you’ve been able to heal and reconnect, you can be glad you did it. If it doesn’t work, you can realize that you did everything you could to make it work.

That’s closure. When you go through these steps, that’s closure.

I’m not saying everyone should do this. Sometimes, if it’s time to leave, it’s time to leave. And sometimes you have second thoughts and you see improvements and think to yourself that maybe there’s a chance.

You just have to know yourself well enough and love yourself well enough to protect yourself and care for yourself and support yourself when the other person doesn’t.

I told the person in the Facebook group that when you separate in an emotionally abusive relationship, it is that opportunity to reconnect with and find yourself so that you know yourself so well that nobody will ever be able to take who you are away from you ever again.

That’s what you should do during a separation. Get to know yourself so well that you love that person, and you will never, ever let any harm come to that person again. Never. Because when you return, if you fall into that same old cycle and you repeat those old steps of denial and developing a higher tolerance and you’re minimizing bad behavior and persuading yourself that things aren’t as bad as they seem, you’re going to be right back in a situation that you don’t like and those emotional barriers will never go away. It’ll be really hard to connect with them, let alone yourself.

For the person who reached out to me, if she goes back into the relationship, I believe she should have such a strong connection with herself that if any harm came her way, she would be ready to say, “No way. I’m not going to accept that behavior. What you’re doing right now is hurtful, and it is harmful to me. It is harmful to the relationship. And if you ever do it again, I’m leaving. Period.”

I know that’s easy for me to say, but this is how well you have to know yourself and how much you have to love yourself.

I hope this helps you. If you’re in a similar situation, or if you’ve been contemplating what to do next in a relationship that you’re thinking about, just remember YOU, at the deepest level, are the most important person in the world. And when you know that through and through, you’ll never let any harm come to that person. And if anyone does try to harm YOU, you’ll know exactly what to do.

I had to learn all this stuff. I had to learn personal boundaries and what it takes to respect myself to the point that nothing else was more important than ME. I know that sounds egoistic but it’s not. If you are caring toward yourself and loving others, that’s self-compassion. It’s self-care in the presence of toxic behavior because you’d never think this way if someone wasn’t mistreating you. You’re not going to think that you need to protect the core of who you are around healthier people.

It’s not about being egoistic or egotistical, it’s about self-compassion and showing others that when they misbehave, that’s when you have to focus on the most important person in your world. And when that person feels safe, loved, comforted, and protected, you’re going to love everyone else just as much. You’re going to feel compassion for them. You’re going to want to support them. You’re going to want to see them happy because they want to see you happy.

It’s when there’s hurtful behavior coming toward you where you have to step in and be your own protector and show yourself compassion and love, kindness, and respect so that you don’t have to wrap those protective layers around your heart so tight that you can’t even connect with yourself anymore.

This is what it’s all about really. It’s keeping that connection open with yourself so that you can allow all this self-love and self-compassion and self-care to flourish inside you. You don’t want people taking that away from you. When you have to wrap those protective layers around your heart, it’s almost like the other person is saying “Not only do I want you to feel unsafe around me, but I also don’t want you to feel safe inside yourself.”

If you’re in this type of relationship, you know exactly what that feels like. I want you to connect with yourself or at least reconnect with yourself. If you haven’t done that in a long time, now is a great time to start.

There might be many big obstacles in the way, but every step you take to let information like this sink in is a step in the right direction.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Host of Love and Abuse and The Overwhelmed Brain

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