The verbal and mental abuse that Matt experienced during his 15 years of marriage was extreme. His wife would yell calling him names and then ignore him for weeks. She badgered him constantly, lied to him about what happened, manipulated the finances, and alienated him from his kids. The last straw was when one of his kids started treating him the same way his wife did. He asked for a divorce.
After a lengthy and equally abusive divorce process, Matt was finally free from the daily assaults. He believed that leaving would be the hardest part of the battle, but it wasn’t. Instead, the worst part happened after the divorce was finalized much to his surprise. He experienced an internal barrage of abusive thoughts and intense emotions which flooded him, especially at night, rendering him shocked and confused.
When alone, Matt would reply to his ex-wife’s harsh words and wondered if she was right in her criticism of him. “You are nothing without me,” was one of her favorite taunts. Now that he was free from her, Matt struggled to be functional at work and was afraid of new relationships, even friendships. She also said, “I can’t live without,” which haunted him to the point of being fearful of every phone call, terrified that he would one day get a call that she killed herself.
Matt came into counseling needing direction. He felt as if he was walking through a fog, unable to see any further than the most immediate present. Even making basic decisions, what to wear, was taking him three times as long as it should. His fears had also escalated to the point that most days he didn’t want to leave home. Here are some of the things he learned through therapy.
Take every thought captive. It was extremely time-consuming at first for Matt to examine each and every thought that popped into his head. At first, he needed to write down his dysfunctional and defeating thoughts until this process became more automatic. He 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 Matt struggled with was, “I can never do anything right.” While he internalized this thought into an underlying belief, he also recognized that it was similar to what his ex-wife would say. Upon further examination, he realized that his mother had also said something similar when he was a child. The similarity was overwhelming.
Examine for truth. Because Matt believed that he could never do anything right, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. So he made a list of all the things he did do right. In the beginning, this was difficult but with practice, it became easier to counteract the negative phrase with the truth. Each destructive thought had to be examined in this manner.
Keep what is good and discard the rest. After doing this exercise for a week, Matt found that most of his thoughts were self-abusive. The new rule for him 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 Matt to feel much healthier.
Identify the paralyzing emotions. Nighttime was particularly difficult for Matt because his anxiety and stress seemed to escalate just before bed. So he tried this exercise to help purge the negative emotions. Lying flat on his back in bed, Matt identified what emotion he was feeling. He then placed his hand over the area of his body where the emotion seemed most intense or where he was feeling some pain. Matt felt anxiety in his stomach, so he placed his hand in that area and took a couple of deep breaths.
Discover the balls of emotion. The movie, “Inside Out,” does an excellent job of explaining just how memory and emotion are connected. For Matt, it helped to think of each emotion as tiny balls that lived inside of him which have attached memories. With his hand on his stomach, Matt asked where the anxiety was coming from. He connected the anxiety with the fear he felt when he would come home to his ex-wife.
Release the emotion. Matt then told himself that he could release the anxiety because he was no longer there and he was safe. He usually had to say this several times before the pain was reduced and then finally released. Taking numerous deep breaths helped this process to move forward. When it was released, he immediately felt better.
Go deeper. Then Matt 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 he experienced when his alcoholic father would come home. He released this emotion as well. After practice, the emotions expanded to other fears of disapproval, rejection, and abandonment. With each release, he felt better and stronger.
After doing these two exercises for a month, Matt felt lighter and was able to think more clearly. The self-abusive thoughts no longer dominated his thinking. And his emotions stopped haunting him.
These two exercises are time-consuming but worth the effort.