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Emotional and behavioral carryover from abusive relationship

  • Asks ...

    I spent 25 years living with a man who abused me verbally and emotionally on pretty much a daily basis. He died last year after a short battle with cancer and although a part of me still loved him, another part of me is sort of relieved that he is gone – and I didn’t even know that I would feel like that until he wasn’t around all the time and I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. The way I learned to cope with his abuse is by shutting down whenever he got started on it. I mastered looking like I was in the present but having my mind a million miles away, or more often, just having my mind go kind of blank. It was a defense mechanism that I think saved my life but now I can’t seem to shut it off.

    I am back at work after a long time not working but I am having trouble coping with it. I work as a sales clerk in a busy clothing store and most days it’s OK, but on a lot of days I’ll get a difficult customer or just someone who acts kind of rude and I’ll find myself just shutting down inside like I used to with my husband. It used to work OK with him when all I had to do was sit there and take it and he didn’t really want me to say or do too much when he got started, but when I am dealing with customers and I go kind of blank and vacant whenever there is a problem it doesn’t really work very well. There have been a couple of complaints and my manager has encouraged me to be a little more proactive in dealing with difficult customers. I guess I just look really bored and like I don’t care when things get intense. I can’t really tell her what is going on inside me and I understand that she has to have people on the floor who can do the job and satisfy the demands of the customers.

    I don’t need to do this anymore. How can I stop myself from going into like never never land all the time.

  • Art Matthews Says ...
    Art Matthews

    The reaction you describe is not uncommon for many people who have escaped abusive relationships with parents or partners. You developed this method of coping because it protected you from harm; real or imagined, physical or emotional. After a while, it became not just second nature but perhaps a conditioned response. There are two types of conditioning: Operant and Classical.

    Operant Conditioning involves the development of a learned response based on rewards and punishments. Your behavior when your husband became abusive determined if you were "rewarded" or "punished" based on the level of abuse you experienced each time. Eventually you "learned" to dissociate, to remove yourself emotionally and mentally from what was happening to you.

    Classical Conditioning is what happened with Old Pavlov's dog. Pavlov, a Russian scientist, conditioned the dog to salivate to the sound of a bell. Salivation is an automatic response that animals and people have when they see or smell food. Pavlov discovered that the dog could be conditioned to a stimulus other than food by associating the sound of the bell with food and then removing the food. Eventually the dog would salivate to a bell without being presented with food.

    What does that have to do with you? Well, there may be both types of conditioning at play here. You may have been conditioned through your husband's abuse to respond in a very passive way out of a protection need. Eventually you didn't have to think about how you would respond, your body did it for you and you "shut down."

    Now when something looks or sounds like the signs or signals your husband put out before abusing you, your body instinctively reacts in a protective manner and you check out. In Post Traumatic Stress research, this is called Fear Conditioning. Being from the South, I call it the 'possum response. You emotionally roll over and play dead until the threat passes.

    I would suggest that you consider working with a therapist trained in working with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and abuse-survivors, and look into something called EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming. You can read more about EMDR here: That link will also allow you to find an EMDR therapist in your area. These types of therapists are specially trained to help clients with post traumatic responses such as yours and will help you to take control of your body's natural protective response that has gotten out of control. You can extinguish or "unlearn" this response and engage in life in a less defensive and protective manner. EMDR has been researched heavily and in some studies is suggested to show rapid response in relatively few sessions.

    On the job front, I would challenge your supervisor to 1) clarify your role in handling disputes and 2) initiate training on handling difficult customers. Ask what the policy and procedure for handling dissatisfied customers is and when you should escalate a situation to management. A clerk should not have to bare the brunt of a disgruntled customer's ire just because they work there. Management should be there to support employees and step in when a situation is above the employee's comfort level. Knowing what you are allowed to do to make the customer happy as well as when you should be handling it -- and when it should be escalated -- can give you the confidence to begin handling the low escalation cases more directly. Have your manager set up role-playing activities where you can observe others and participate in handling mock situations until you are more comfortable. There will also be a therapeutic value to this as you will be exposing yourself to stimuli that would set you into a dissociative reaction. It's a part of extinguishing that response.

    You came to be who you are honestly, out of a need to protect yourself. Don't judge your response but love yourself for having cared for yourself in this manner. Your learned response was beneficial. It got you to this point. What your body and your brain have not yet realized is that you don't always need that level of protection.

    There is help for you and there are people ready to help.

    Best to you and yours.


    By Art Matthews, MA LPC, Licensed Professional Counselor

    AZ Body-Mind Counseling

    Mesa, AZ

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