In the following story, you’ll see a therapy session unfold as we celebrate the progress of a highly sensitive woman who broke away from an abusive relationship. Tiana is a bright, creative and compassionate woman in her mid-fifties. You’d be fortunate to count her among your friends. Like most highly sensitive people, she is kind and thoughtful.
Smart highly sensitive people sometimes unknowingly get drawn into abusive relationships.
How did Tiana end up in an abusive romantic relationship? And what has she learned from it? I want you to keep those questions in mind so you can benefit from her hard-earned wisdom. Please share this with anyone who has been abused so we can stop the cycles of abuse.
Tiana, my client, wrote this introduction. (I changed my client’s name to protect her confidentiality.)
When I met Benita, I was in a seven-year romantic relationship riddled with verbal, emotional and physical abuse. Benita diagnosed me with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).
My relationship with Max had become a trauma bond, and I was addicted to my abuser. I went from being a prosperous creative entrepreneur to having no motivation or energy to work or to take care of myself. My self-worth was nonexistent. I lived in a constant state of fight-or-flight with a deteriorated memory. Brain fog prevented wise decision-making. Deep down, I knew that I needed to get out of that toxic relationship, but didn’t have the courage or strength to do so on my own.
When I searched for a therapist to help me leave, I found Benita. I immediately resonated with her and knew she was the perfect fit for me. Her compassion, knowledge, and intuitive nature allowed me to dig deep and find the root cause of my unhealthy coping strategies.
Through Cognitive behavioral therapy, Brainspotting and Internal Family Systems, Benita helped me process the trauma and heal my core model of self. She taught me about attachment theory and how early childhood bonds (or lack thereof) can leave lifelong ramifications. I learned that my early childhood wounds were the root cause of my unhealthy romantic relationships and lack of self-worth.
I was finally able to extricate myself from the clutches of Max several months ago after he physically abused me. A police officer pressed charges against him when I was too scared to do so. I realized that I could have died.
Benita helped me learn how to ground myself, and I began to heal physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. She helped me realize that I had been brainwashed in childhood and that it had lasted all my life.
A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF A THERAPY SESSION
A dialogue between Tiana and Benita 14 months after therapy began.
Tiana opens with her achievements: I continue to stay in a positive mindset. I can stay more grounded when I think about the abuse from Max.
You helped me realize that I also have been accepting verbal abuse from my sister. When mom’s mean to me, I can remain objective and not take her criticism personally. I told her that it’s not OK to talk unkindly to me. That’s a big step for me. She is a hurt person, and it’s her issue to heal.
I’ve come to see that I need opponents with whom to practice my “black belt skills.” (I was a black belt in karate.) Now I practice being assertive and setting boundaries to take care of myself instead of being nice. I’m using the challenges with abusive people to grow into my Authentic Self. I can’t change others by being nice. I can only change myself, stay in my lane, and stop trying to save others hoping that they will make me feel OK.
I was having terrible dreams. Now I sleep peacefully.
I have forgiven Max 100%, and I’m able to let go of my anger toward him. I genuinely wish him the best. I see him as a wounded person.
The experience of walking and talking with God in our session last month changed me. I see how Jesus looks at Max. I am grateful for the time I spent with Max because I have grown so much from that relationship. I have been praying every day, and the angst has lifted. I thank God for this.
You, BJ (another counselor) and God literally saved my life. There were times I didn’t want to be alive. You carry the gift of healing from your own painful journey. I felt your compassion by the look on your face the first time I met you. You’ve walked in my shoes. You know my pain.
BE: I’m happy to be here for you and to provide a safe harbor for your healing and growth. You might want to listen to Andy Stanley’s September 2022 leadership podcast “From the Vault” where Andy interviewed John Maxwell. He tells us to always keep failure alongside success. When we try new things, we probably won’t be good at them. We need to try them anyway. Learn and grow and risk and reach further. Be open and real and vulnerable. Gain the wisdom from our experience and use it to succeed while remaining humble.
How Tiana broke the pattern of abuse:
I realized that I had to heal my childhood conditioning
in order to change my adult relationships.
The trauma bond with Max wasn’t the only issue. I realized that I formed a trauma bond with my mother when I was young. She was emotionally neglectful, and I rarely received compliments or physical affection. Because I did not receive the nurturing I needed as a child, I felt “less than.”
My childhood coping strategy was: Be the good girl. Help people. I thought, “That’s how I’ll get love.”
I became the peacemaker in my family, or at least I tried. I lived in the HOPE that this childhood formula would work all my life, and I applied it in my abusive relationship with Max. He didn’t change, just like my mother didn’t change. Even though I realized that I could have died, I still didn’t leave. That’s how strong the trauma bond was.
BE: As children, we make up fantasy formulas that we’re sure will work if we do them well enough.
Tiana: Sometimes I did get strokes. Then I tripled my efforts. I NEVER said no, especially to Max. Saying no would be contradicting my coping pattern of pleasing people to get strokes from them.
If I said no, it was like cutting off my air supply. I did that for 58 years.
I didn’t know I was in a trance. I was brainwashed.
When you are brainwashed, you don’t know you are brainwashed.
I just kept doing my same fantasy formula.
BE: Until the pattern gets bad enough, we keep doing it.
You said, “Let’s come up with a plan to keep you safe.” My plan was to get out in 3 months. You kept me accountable.
Tiana: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to leave soon enough. My eyes were barely cracked open when Max physically abused me. The police pressed charges because I had marks on my body. I didn’t want to press charges because Max threatened to kill me. He beat me up. When I talked to the officer, he said that he had to press charges. Someone else had to take charge because I was still in a trance from my childhood. I couldn’t advocate for myself.
I was worried about hurting Max if I said no or set boundaries. This attitude kept me in that violent situation. He pushed me, threw chairs at me, slapped me and verbally abused me. I was more concerned about HIM than me getting hurt. 1000%. I would rather be hurt and have Max kill me than hurt him.
Now I have a guardian to take care of me. I turn to Archangel Michael, Jesus, and God. I know that it’s OK to say no.
Right now, I can talk about the trauma without getting emotionally triggered too much. Now I’m at a level 5 activation where 10 is high. I can objectively observe myself and my pattern. The activation hits me and then subsides. It’s already gone down to level 1.5.
BE: Good. Part of your old pattern was to not tell the truth about what you were feeling.
Tiana: I didn’t know how I felt.
BE: You were aware of yourself only on the outer layers of the onion.
Tiana: I couldn’t feel because I had my emotions stifled for so long. This past year, I’ve felt A LOT. I dissected it and prayed about it … all the way back to childhood. It’s been a lot of hard work this year. I’m in such a better place now. I’m human. I’m at level zero activation now. Before, I would have to stop talking about the abuse and self-soothe.
A securely attached relationship with God
replaced my need to seek attachment
from familiar abusive people.
Now, I’ve got God. I’ve got you to help me. There will still be bumpy roads. I can control my reactions. I can stay in my lane … meaning that I recognize and take responsibility for my feelings and reactions. I go to my Spirit-Led-Self, Jesus and Archangel Michael.That’s where I pull my strength from. Before, I pulled my strength from other people.
BE: That behavior was a replay of pulling strength from your mother, your caregiver who didn’t meet your needs.
Tiana: I had to learn that I was OK being alone with myself and God, that I don’t need approval from anyone else. I was looking for approval from people who abused me.
BE: Diane Poole Heller, a trainer for trauma therapists, says that 90% of our adult relationships are replays of our childhood. We bond with our caregivers, and when we don’t get our core needs met, we try to figure out how to get them met. It’s a natural survival skill.
Sometimes as adults, it’s hard to recognize that
we’ve regressed into a child state of consciousness.
We must heal the wounds on an emotional,
subconscious level to get free.
Tiana: I wouldn’t know what to do with a healthy relationship. If a guy was too nice, I was not interested. I went for bad boys. When I was with Max, the trauma bond was so strong, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I told a friend, “If I’m dead, you’ll know who did it.”
I think God will throw me some more tests, but right now it’s not possible because I don’t want to date. I can sniff out bad guys, and my respect for myself is greater than my need for love from a guy.
I was addicted to Max. I didn’t need just any man to make me happy. I was addicted to Max in particular. He activated all my unconscious dynamics.
I’m still working on getting past the thought and feeling that I am “less than” or “not loved” when I get triggered. I’ve made good progress and I am so grateful for your help.
Tiana: Before therapy, I didn’t have a sense of Self. I was outwardly focused, trying to help others, hoping I would receive appreciation back. It rarely worked. I never loved myself before, and I never felt unconditionally loved by anyone.
I learned how to heal my core model of self.
I now see myself as God sees me. I have a new sense of identity.
I went deep into the darkness and now I am coming into the light. I really appreciate the healing. I thank God every day. I am finally getting to the joy of what the darkness was meant for.
My greatest growth came from this trauma. Max was my greatest teacher and my greatest karate opponent. I will never put myself in a situation like that again.
I am happily single and happily loving myself. Through therapy and God, I got here. I go within now. I don’t need a mother’s love to feel complete, and I don’t need love from anyone. I have God’s love, Jesus and Archangel Michael. That’s all I need. Everything else is the cherry on the cake.
If you would like help to transform limiting patterns in your life, please complete the questionnaire on the Contact Page. Read about my life coaching, spiritual counseling, and retreats for Highly Sensitive Introverts.
Benita A. Esposito, MA is the author of the bestseller, The Gifted Highly Sensitive Introvert: Wisdom for Emotional Healing and Expressing Your Radiant Authentic Self available on Amazon.
As a highly sensitive person herself, Benita can easily understand highly sensitive people, your challenges and your beautiful gifts. Zoom videoconferences are available worldwide.
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