The verbal and mental abuse that Michelle experienced during her 15 years of marriage was extreme.
After a drawn out divorce, Michelle was finally free from the daily assaults. She believed that leaving would be the hardest part of the battle, but it wasn’t. A constant barrage of abusive thoughts and intense emotions still flooded her; rendering her shocked and confused.
Alone at night, she would reply her ex-husband’s harsh words and wondered if he was right in his criticism. “You are nothing without me,” was one of his favorite taunts. Now that she was free from him, she struggled to be functional at work and was afraid of new relationships, even friendships. He also said, “I can’t live with out,” which haunted her to the point of being fearful of every phone call, terrified that she would one day get a call that he killed himself.
Michelle came into counseling needing direction. She felt as if she was walking through a fog, unable to see any further than the most immediate present. Even making basic decisions, what to wear, was taking her three times as long as it should. Her fears had also escalated to the point that most days she didn’t want to leave her home. Here are the some of things she learned though therapy.
- Take every thought captive. It was extremely time consuming at first for Michelle to examine each and every thought that popped into her head. At first, she needed to write down her thoughts until this process became more automatic. She would then pick a couple of phrases at a time and work through the next steps.
- Recognize where the thought comes from. One of the thoughts Michelle struggled with was, “I can never do anything right.” While she internalized this thought into an underlying belief, she also recognized that it was similar to what her ex-husband would say. Upon further examination, she realized that her mother had also said something similar.
- Examine for truth. Because Michelle believed that she could never do anything right, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. So she made a list of all the things she did do right. In the beginning this was difficult but with practice it became easier to counteract the negative phrase with the truth.
- Keep what is good and discard the rest. After doing this exercise for a week, Michelle found that most of her thoughts were self-abusive. The new rule for her was: if you won’t say it to a friend, you don’t say it to yourself. Clearing up the negative thoughts freed up so much time and energy leaving Michelle to feel much healthier.
- Identify the paralyzingly emotions. Nighttime was particularly difficult for Michelle because her anxiety and stress seemed to escalate just before bed. So she tried this exercise to help purge the negative emotions. Lying flat on her back in bed, Michelle identified what emotion she was feeling. She then placed her hand over the area of her body where the emotion seemed most intense or where she was feeling some pain. Michelle felt anxiety in her stomach, so she placed her hand in that area.
- Discover the balls of emotion. The movie, “Inside Out,” does an excellent job of explaining just how memory and emotion are connected. For Michelle, it helped to think of each emotion as tiny balls that lived inside of her which have attached memories. With her hand on her stomach, Michelle asked where the anxiety was coming from. She connected the anxiety with the fear she felt when she would come home to her ex-husband.
- Release the emotion. Michelle then told herself that she could release the anxiety because he was no longer there and she was safe. She usually had to say this several times before the pain was released. But when it was, she immediately felt better.
- Go deeper. Then Michelle repeated the exercise by asking what other memory was attached to the same area. The answer came quickly: it was the same level of anxiety and fear she experienced when her alcoholic father would come home. She released this emotion as well. After practice, the emotions expanded to other fears of disapproval, rejection, and abandonment. With each release, she felt better and stronger.
After doing these two exercises for a month, Michelle felt lighter and was able to think more clearly. The self-abusive thoughts no longer dominated her thinking. And her emotions stopped haunting her.
These two exercises are time consuming but worth the effort.