If you are on the receiving end of toxicity and find it incredibly difficult to leave, that’s normal. Abuse victims regularly stay in the hope that their abuser will change and finally validate them. Or if they leave, they still feel compelled to go back or find closure.
But here’s another way of looking at the situation: there is an ‘abuser’ inside the victim’s brain that is holding them back. That abusive part of the brain is telling them that it is a “good” idea to seek validation from their abuser. The brain illogically tells the victim that they did something wrong to “cause” the abuse or that they were abused because they are worthless. Even after the victim leaves or the abusive person dies, the abusive brain can still live on and disrupt the victim’s life.
How we are traumatized by our own minds
It is perfectly normal for our brain to form illogical connections as a result of unpleasant experiences. When we go through the education system, we are exposed repeatedly to the unpleasantness of doing homework. Many of us will develop a procrastination problem, where our brain tells us that procrastination “protects” us from unpleasant tasks and “provides immediate relief”. Unfortunately, procrastination is a terrible habit that makes unpleasant tasks more unpleasant than they otherwise would be. As we are all prone to developing mental hangups when we are exposed repeatedly to negative experiences, there should be no shame when we develop mental problems. Please do not blame yourself for your mental problems as everybody develops them.
Learned connections can be unlearned
We are all prone to developing phobias or intense fears that are illogical. Some of us will develop fears of needles, bees, insects, social interactions, etc. However, these same fears can be unlearned through exposure therapy. We do something very similar to exposure therapy when we learn to overcome our fear of riding on roller coasters. We typically overcome our fear by going on the less intense rides first until they become less scary. As we experience such rides, our brains learn that the falling sensation does not mean that we are about to die or to be seriously injured. The brain gradually learns that there is nothing to be afraid of. Once that happens, we can go on the more intense rides and overcome our fears of them too. By starting small and gradually working our way up, we can learn to overcome our fears of even the most intense roller coasters.
Overcoming your mental hangups doesn’t have to be complicated. If you suffer from the abuser living inside your brain, here’s how you can overcome it.
- Recognize what’s logical. Abuse is about control. The abuser wants to control their victim through whatever means necessary. Sometimes that means pretending to love the victim so that they can be lured back into the abuser’s web. Sometimes that means attacking the victim’s sense of self-worth, getting them to doubt their own reality, making the victim financially dependent, pushing the victim into social isolation, etc. Once you see through the gimmicks and manipulation tactics, you can realize that the abuse isn’t about you. Toxic people abuse those closest to them and it has nothing to do with their victims’ value as people. They need to control and hurt others to feel safe. They often destroy their closest friendships and leave a trail of destruction behind. Your self-worth and actions are not responsible for the abuse.
- Play through scenarios and memories in your head. Start with the scenarios/memories that are slightly traumatic but not overly so. As you imagine the scenario/memory playing out, have a conversation with your brain. As you feel negative emotions and thoughts, tell your brain that those emotions and thoughts aren’t logical. “Hey brain, thank you for telling me that I should feel like I’ve done something wrong when my abuser criticizes me. But this is just one of my abuser’s gimmicks. There’s no need for me to doubt myself or to question my self-worth.” As you repeat the process, the scenarios and memories should become less triggering as your brain starts to relearn the correct responses.
- Slowly make the jump to real world situations. Do not go out and seek abuse. Instead, work on real world situations where the abuser in your head is holding you back. If the abuse has left you with fears of situations that vaguely resemble abuse (e.g. people touching you, social anxiety, etc.) then ease yourself into those situations and start overcoming your fears. If you normally feel guilt when acting ‘against’ your abuser, start documenting your abuse and realizing that the guilty feelings don’t make sense. When interacting with your abuser, try to be mindful of your thoughts. Actively tell yourself what you logically should be feeling and thinking instead of any illogical nonsense going on inside of your head. You can think of it like moving to another country and learning to drive on the other side of the road- everything will seem weird and you really have to put in the mental effort to think about what you should be doing. Don’t leave your mind on autopilot.
- Make a list. Make a list of several fears/hangups that affect your life and then rank them based on how traumatizing they are. Start by eliminating the easiest item on your list and then work your way up. If the easiest item on your list is too difficult, then that’s ok. Add some easier items to the list and work on those first.
- You don’t need coping mechanisms. If you have anxiety from situations that superficially resemble your abuse, you may find that coping mechanisms such as breathing exercises and relaxation help reduce anxiety. While it’s fine to use coping mechanisms, you should work on realizing that you don’t need them at all because the underlying fears are illogical. It’s illogical to feel anxiety in the first place when you know that a situation logically isn’t dangerous.
Exposure therapy is effective
You can also go on Youtube and watch videos on how exposure therapy has effectively treated phobias:
- This video shows a woman who had an intense fear of confined spaces. She was unable to take public transportation or ride elevators because of it. She is extremely happy and relieved with being able to live a more normal life.
- A clinical psychologist from Venezuela overcomes her intense fear of snakes with exposure therapy. At the beginning of the session, she is losing her mind at the sight of a snake. By the end of the session, she is holding a snake.
- Bees? Bees! Dr. Ali Mattu describes his experience with using self-therapy for reducing his fear of bees.
- Dr. Ali Mattu describes how he beat his social anxiety with the help of his teacher who was doing something similar to exposure therapy.
Change yourself instead of trying to change others
To free yourself from a toxic situation, all you need to do is to simply change yourself. That’s it. Once you free your mind, you can simply walk away from toxicity. Leave. Don’t look back. Don’t stay in contact. Move on.
Your life doesn’t need to be complicated. Getting to that point will take work and it won’t happen right away. Your brain doesn’t naturally unlearn things unless you guide it into undoing its illogical connections. But it can be done and you can truly “change your abuser”.
- Schneider AJ, Mataix-Cols D, Marks IM, Bachofen M. Internet-guided self-help with or without exposure therapy for phobic and panic disorders. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics. 2005;74(3):154-64.
- Ghosh A, Marks IM. Self-treatment of agoraphobia by exposure. Behavior therapy. 1987 Dec 1;18(1):3-16.
- Ito LM, De Araujo LA, Tess VL, de Barros-Neto TP, Asbahr FR, Marks I. Self-exposure therapy for panic disorder with agoraphobia: randomised controlled study of external v. interoceptive self-exposure. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2001 Apr;178(4):331-6.