Why We Stay In Abusive Situations

30 Sep
September 30, 2010

Picturesque View of Wildlife in Kenya
When working with clients, I see a common theme that crops up all the time, no matter what life issues they are struggling with at the time.  It is the feeling of being trapped, unable to find a way out of a situation.  Whether it is in a relationship, a job situation, or their home life, there is a huge emotional need to create change but also a daunting prospect of what taking steps towards change could entail.  These problems manifest as stresses, confusions, frustrations, worries and conflicts.  The word ‘stuck’ is very apt in these situations, as they struggle internally with wanting things to be different and yet are crippled by thoughts of negative consequences of change.

You may know of a friend or family member who complains about being in an emotionally abusive relationship.  Or a former colleague who still hates his job but can’t seem to find the resources to leave the job.  Or someone who continues to invest in the same business after repeatedly running into disappointments.  Perhaps they are hoping that things will be different this time, while continuing to stay in the same behaviours, or that things will improve on their own.  I call these and similar types of situation ‘abusive situations’ because you are in a position of being abused by others or by yourself (self-abusive).

If you find yourself stuck in an emotionally unhealthy situation, it may be time to honestly examine your motivations and begin breaking apart the energy of stuckness.  This will begin freeing you to move in a more fulfilling direction.  The first step is to commit to looking at your situation with total honesty.  That means owning up to the pain being in this situation is causing you.  What are you sacrificing or not honouring in yourself by being in this situation?

It also means acknowledging that it’s a choice you have made to stay in this situation.  Granted, it may seem that staying is the only option, at least for now.  That may or may not be true.  But the power comes from acknowledging the truth of why you are staying in this situation.  We tend to make excuses to justify a choice or behaviour – in short, we lie to ourselves to make ourselves feel better.  By looking at the real reasons you are still in this situation, you take your power back.  Honesty gives you power, even if the thought of being honest makes you feel weak at the moment.

Start by listing the external factors (e.g. money,  social obligation, a promise made to someone).  Then list the emotional factors (i.e. what are your fears?).  You’re likely to find that listing the emotional factors is more challenging than listing the practical reasons.  In fact, practical reasons are often used to cover up deeper, emotional motivations.  So let’s explore some of these motivations together.

Fear Of Being Judged

Perhaps you’re afraid that others might judge you for having made a mistake.  Again.  If you have an emotional history of having failed before, you may refrain from coming clean with others that things aren’t going all that well for you in the same department.  What transpires then is a painful need to hide what is really going on for you.  In time, you may even be driven to isolate yourself.

The thought of telling someone is too embarassing.  Or maybe you’re afraid that people might worry about you (after all, you’ve worked hard to change your life around after the last ‘failure’).  Were there sceptics around when you had first gone into this situation?  People whom you imagine are dying to find a chance to say to each other, “Well, that’s hardly surprising, is it?”

As real as it may seem, all these things are taking place in your imagination.  The mind has a tendency to blow things out of proportion.  We tend to believe that we are judged by more people and more harshly than in reality.  Accept that some people will judge you, but also acknowledge that some people will be supportive of you.  How we tend to focus entirely on one aspect and magnify it until it is the only thing we see in our reality!  Seek out those who support you rather than those who run you down just because you are about to take a courageous leap.

I’ve found that too few people can admit to having made a mistake.  There is nothing wrong with saying, “Looks like I made a mistake.”  It is honest, simple and humble.  Very few people would be able to pass negative judgements on that for long.

Punishing Yourself

How much of you staying in an abusive situation a way for you to punish yourself?  Perhaps you are harbouring feelings of guilt from your past, and you are now motivated by a need to allay your guilt by putting yourself through pain.  If this rings true for you, look at where this guilt is really coming from.  The true source of this guilt is seldom from a person involved in the current situation; rather, it’s likely to be displaced guilt projected onto the current situation, so that you feel compelled to ‘make up’ for whatever pain you perceive you are causing the person involved now.  A kind of displaced or misplaced loyalty.

In self-destructive acts, this person you are punishing yourself for might be you.  You are perpetrating abusive acts on yourself because you are punishing yourself for something you feel guilty about.  If you did or are doing something that conflicts with your ethical principles, you may take it upon yourself to correct that imbalance by punishing yourself.

Give yourself permission to forgive yourself by reflecting on the lessons you can learn from your mistakes.  How can you become a better person because of the experience?  By focusing on how more whole you are when you incorporate those lessons into who you are from now on, you can stop the self-beating and change your actions from self-abusing to self-loving.  Consciously choose self-loving acts to reinforce moving towards healing and forgiveness.  Ask yourself, “Is this act or thought self-loving or self-abusive?”

Disempowerment and The Fear Of Responsibility

Making empowered choices can be scary.  We fear stepping into our power because we fear the responsibility that comes from exercising our freedom.  If we allowed other people to make decisions for us, we won’t have to be responsible for making a wrong decision.  There may be a link to some deep-seated guilt from your past (see above), which may have made it feel safer for you to take a back seat in life.  Yet if this conflicts with your desire to be in control of your life, it will cause you to be resentful of who you leave the decisions to, as well as yourself for choosing not to honour your power.

We choose the route of disempowerment because we see getting empowered as hard work, that it’s too far a destination for us to reach.  Truth is, empowerment is our natural state.  It takes more resources to move away from empowerment than it does to move away from disempowerment.  We have to sacrifice our integrity, dishonour ourselves, compromise our values to become disempowered – and we suffer the pain of moving in such an unnatural direction away from our authentic self.  By reversing all those choices – by staying in integrity, honouring our truth, living in line with our values – we immediately return to an empowered state.

Low Self-Worth

Perhaps you suffer from low self-worth and you believe that being in abusive situations is what you deserve.  Even though you profess to want to change things, deep down you don’t believe that you deserve better than the situation you are in right now.  If you don’t work on improving your self-worth, you may forever devalue yourself in an attempt to fit in with your perception of yourself.

Holding yourself in poor light makes you feel unworthy of a better job, career, relationship, home, lifestyle, etc.  You may wonder at times why you still choose to move back to this and similar situations, thus perpetuating a cycle of self-abuse.  Raise the value of yourself in your eyes.  That is the only way out of this cycle.  If you don’t heal your relationship with yourself, you will eventually find yourself in the same situation.  Even if you take conscious actions to move into healthier situations, if the source of your low self-worth is not examined and healed, the results will only be fleeting.

If this seems too big a task for you to go through on your own, seek the help of a therapist.  There are also lots of effective techniques available in the self-help sector.  The technique is less important than your willingness and openness to healing and growing.  It may takes years of healing but every step is a progress in healing.  That journey can be a joyful adventure as you discover more and more beautiful aspects of yourself.

The Allure Of Staying Imprisoned

Sometimes, we choose to stay in helpless situations because we carry unresolved anger from our past.  Staying in abusive situations gives us an excuse to be angry.  It provides us with an outlet to express our sense of injustice.  Our past indignation becomes an unfinished business which allows us to feel justified in voicing that anger about being mistreated.  So we stay trapped by choosing to imprison ourselves, even when we really do have the resources to get out of it.  We focus on why we can’t get out of it, instead of why we can and must.

Sift through what’s right and wrong in this situation: same anger, rightful anger, but wrong context.  Put the anger back to where it belongs and deal with the anger in its appropriate context.  Knowing that you might have been motivated by a need to feel angry by putting yourself in this situation gives you the power to choose something better.

Along with the need to feel angry is the need to show others that you are being mistreated.  You may be waiting for a saviour because your saviour never came to your rescue last time and you still feel the unfairness of it.  By staying helpless, you ‘prove’ to others how wrong it all is – for someone to say, “Yes, this is unfair,” and maybe extend their love and support to you.

The saviour is you.  This time, there will be no saviour outside of you.  That is not to say that you should close the door to people who offer love and support to you.  It simply means that you take it upon yourself to step into your power and own up to your deeper, emotional motivation in this situation.  When you call it for what it is and deal with your emotions in their appropriate contexts, you relate to your world differently – a world where people are kind, compassionate, loving and supportive.

The Illusion Of Scarcity

If you’re buying into the illusion that the world is a place of scarcity – that resources and opportunities are in short supply – you would feel more fearful about getting out of your situation or “rocking the boat” in any way.  Fear of losing what you have, even if it’s shit.

The fear of running out of resources is such an intense emotional investment that it traps a person in awful situations.  It is a crippling fear that renders you stunned, incapacitated as your spirit withers away.  For all the awfulness that you go through by being in that situation, you put up with it because it is better than nothing.

Are you certain that you’ll be left with nothing?  What is nothing?  Money, house, friends?  How depleted is it really?  Is it really down to nothing?  Tell the truth about it.  Some money to last you a month is not nothing.  A less luxurious house is not nothing.  Two supportive friends is not nothing.  What about the things you will gain?  Having more integrity, self-honour, freedom, happiness, joy, peace is not nothing.  Where you lose out, you will gain in other aspects.  This is a given is you’re being true to yourself.

Trusting that the Right Thing Will Be Delivered

If being in this situation is causing you huge conflicts, start exploring whether you can make any changes while preserving the relationship, job, business, etc.  In other words, is it salvageable?  It may be a case of you learning to stand up for yourself and saying no to abusive people.  Do you have a pattern of people-pleasing?  How might you assert yourself and draw your boundaries to protect yourself from being abused?  Even if you invite unpleasant reactions when you say, “No more!” you come out of it with more dignity and self-respect.

If you are trying to preserve what isn’t working anymore, you risk running into great mental turmoils and eventually destroying yourself.  Maybe you have already been racking your brains and found very little hope for improvement within that context.  Walk away from the situation.  At least you get to clear your conscience with yourself.  What about the fear of leaving someone feeling hurt, abandoned, betrayed?  If you can’t stay in the same situation without removing the resentment, then your choice to stay is a continued choice to be resentful to others.  Your self-sacrifice, your voluntary imprisonment in that situation, will continue to generate anger and resentment and renders both of you joyless.

Things rarely improve on their own under these circumstances.  By staying in the situation, you will become stagnant or things will get worse.  When you cut your ties with that situation and break an unhealthy pattern of allowing yourself to be abused, you trust that in time things will move in your favour.  When you do the right thing by you, your direction will be revealed to you.  I have witnessed many times how giving up something brings in something better which we never imagined before.  This is the gift when we open up to trust.

Why We Stay in Abusive Situations

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