Facing Triggers from Your Past

SOMETIMES THE ABUSE OF YESTERDAY WANTS TO VISIT TODAY | It’s been years since Mocha Girl ended the relationship that was so hurtful for her. She’s married to a good man now and they’re happy. So what’s with the triggers?

In her own words:

“I had a seven year relationship that wasn’t romantic but was not healthy. I didn’t date him because he wasn’t Christian. But we did things couples do from grocery shopping to taking trips together. He was negative and didn’t believe in me. He said he loved me but his actions didn’t show it, I bent over backwards to make our friendship work for a few years. I finally started drawing boundaries and he lashed out,” says Mocha Girl. “I’ve been married 16 years now to a very different man who is kind and loving and encouraging. We are partners. But I still think about Paul and sometimes get defensive with Bruce. Bruce reminds me he’s not that guy. How do I let go of that and accept Bruce’s love and not get defensive and react to negativity from Paul?”

The answer is there, believe it or not, threaded between the lines of her story.

If MG couldn’t see that Bruce isn’t Paul, that he is kind, loving, and encouraging when Paul was not, her relationship with him wouldn’t have lasted at all, let alone almost two decades. All this time she’s been letting Bruce love her. Acceptance doesn’t have to be bigger or more profound than that.

But the triggers still exist because she’s human. She cannot change her past, or the people who shaped it, and so just like a certain song on the radio may bring a soaring nostalgia from yesteryear, moments with an uncomfortable familiarity will bring negative feelings. The human condition is raw, layered, and complicated. We aren’t perfect creatures. Mocha Girl isn’t doing anything wrong.

I also want to point out that it’s not wrong for MG to have less-than-rosy feelings about Paul. He was abusive. She deserved better, and is by no means obligated to change her memories or correct the way he made her feel.

On the other hand, MG is doing something right, and it’s recognizing that she’s reacting to the same old triggers. That’s big, and illustrates progress already made.

True, she wants to let the residue of Paul go, and that’s harder. But it’s possible. It takes practice and patience. Every abuse survivor CAN get to the bottom of a trigger, dig it up, and throw it out.



You start by catching yourself IN THE MOMENT of an emotional reaction. Upon every situational trigger—with your new partner, your boss, a coworker or friend, at the store, after a phone call with customer service—you ask yourself the following questions, and proceed accordingly.

*What do I feel? Name the emotion. (anger, defensiveness, smallness, etc.)
*What was my trigger? Identify it. (he was condescending, no one listened to me, she dismissed me, etc.)
*Why does this bother me so much? (because it’s what my abuser did, because I’m not wrong, etc.)
*Is this a rational or irrational response? Consider if what you feel is truly weighted in this new moment, or borrows from past (even distant) triggers.

Often just finding your awareness in these questions will give you power over your reaction, so that you can deescalate your anxiety, defensiveness, or negativity and move on after barely a blip.

If not, take the next step by determining if there’s something tangible you need to do to work toward repairing this moment that has triggered you.

Schedule a therapy session.
Call your best friend to vent.
Submit a complaint to management.
Confront your coworker about the mishap.
Leave your abuser’s last explosive text or email unanswered and choose silence. Or even delete the message!
Recognize that you overreacted and apologize.

You can train yourself—again, with practice and patience—to take control of your reactions.

Does this mean you’ll never be triggered again? Nope. Remember, we’re human. This is less about eliminating triggers and more about recognizing them for what they are then letting them go. It’s about understanding that we can learn how to address and heal from the history of trauma, and begin to experience our emotions in a healthier way.

Does this mean you’ll handle every trigger perfectly? Also no. Life factors, stressors, that have nothing to do with the abuse we endured can be stacked against us so that we don’t react as well as we want to every given moment. You don’t have to get it right all the time.

Mocha Girl doesn’t have to get it right all the time. Bruce loves her. He knows her triggers, probably as well as she does. And he sticks around, continuing to prove that he is not Paul, because she is worth it.

You’re worth it, too.

To submit your question for analysis and possible publication, email janna@womandetermined.com.

Image Credit to Min An from Pexels.

Survivor Healing Cannot Begin with the Abuser at the Helm

UNITY FOLLOWING ABUSE IS NOT POSSIBLE | When a woman leaves her abusive partner — that is, truly leaves after however many prior attempts, and has finally made it clear she will not return to the relationship — he will try, with his arsenal of tactics, to shift what was labeled “romantic” into a friendship. This serves at least two purposes if he is successful. One is that it allows him to maintain infiltration in her life so that his power and control will continue, even if it looks different. Two is that if he can create any sense of unity or lasting connection between them, his narrative that he’s a good guy, never did anything wrong, has a platform.

Read my full essay on Medium.

Widow Misses Dead Abuser

WHEN YOUR ABUSER DIES | It was a long marriage that included physical violence, infidelity, and financial abuse — along with the standard psychological tactics, like love bombing, gaslighting, and manipulation. So given everything her husband put her through, and the destructive aftermath he’s responsible for, Wondering Widow has one question.

“Why do I miss him?”

But it was clear by my exchange with her that she already knows the answer.

“I think I miss the illusion he created about himself,” says Wondering Widow. [Statement edited slightly for clarity.] And she’s right. She doesn’t miss who he was as her abuser.

She misses the man he only pretended to be, and who he should have been.

Is it possible there are positive memories an abuse survivor looks back on with nostalgia? Yes. And that’s okay. It’s also possible that what we miss is the hope we used to cling to—that, somehow, he would change and the relationship would become something with more frequent positive experiences.

Over time we come to believe the myth our abuser perpetuates through psychological ambush: That he is good, that what we’re experiencing is normal [and we’re at fault for what is not], that we are happy and receiving legitimate love. Further, we tend to focus on the good or potential in others—a detail abusers exploit—and therefore we subconsciously minimize or excuse away the less attractive parts of the relationship. We view it and our partner, then, through a rosy, superficial lens that pads against the hurt of living with less than we deserve. (This feeds some of the explanation why women can’t or don’t leave their abuser.) Which means survivors miss not just the embellished memory of their partner, but also that rosy, superficial lens as a means of comfort and self-protection.

Additionally, Wondering Widow says, “I miss the illusion of my future.” This makes sense, too.

As unstable as an abusive marriage is, the instability of being thrust into a new life post-abuse creates its own challenges. Financial landscapes change. Homes change. Jobs change. Other relationships change. We’re forced into navigation of an independence we may be new to, and the entire trajectory of our future now relies on decisions that require adjusted thinking, and that will render outcomes we never considered before. While even an abusive relationship offers familiarity, and some semblance — albeit it often false — of security, starting over makes life unfamiliar and feels pretty damn shaky at times.

All this said, it’s completely acceptable if you don’t miss your abuser; if you have no positive memories in the nostalgia vault. Not every survivor does. And you are not obligated to sugar coat your experience.

Wondering Widow’s myriad and contradicting emotions are not unique. Every point discussed applies whether you were widowed like WW, were in some other way abandoned by your abuser, or chose to leave the relationship to start over.

What’s important to remember is that regardless of the details, the road to understanding your abuse and then healing from it is complicated. Hold space with your warring emotions when you need to. Try to make sense of them if you need to. And be patient with yourself.

But most of all, know that you’re not alone as a survivor of domestic abuse.

To submit your question for analysis and possible publication, email janna@womandetermined.com.

Image Credit to Felipe Cespedes from Pexels.

The Old Me Would Have Been a Trump Supporter

MINDSET THAT LEADS TO TRUMPISM | And why I cannot accept a world where Trump reigns

[As published on Medium… full essay linked below the excerpt.]

As we near the end of Donald Trump’s single-term presidency, only one thing is more clear to me than how much I detest all he represents. It’s the fact that once upon a time I would have voted for him. Me. A fiercely independent and progressive feminist, outspoken social justice ally, and long-single mom who regularly disagrees with Republicans and conservative policy on the whole.

Twenty years ago, maybe even ten, I would have supported Trump and never thought twice about it.

That was before I became empowered…


To submit a topic or question for analysis and possible publication, email janna@womandetermined.com.

Image Credit to Ivandrei Pretorius from Pexels.

Caseworker Mistreatment

A DV CASEWORKER MISTREATS A CLIENT | Mama M from Kentucky says, “My question is in regard to staying in a domestic violence shelter. What do you do when you’re mistreated by one of the caseworkers? They mocked me and played psychological warfare to just get rid of me. Management was on their employee’s side, so I tried reporting it to my state’s DV coalition but they didn’t seem to care either. Some of us are completely without help, so when the shelter does not work out, we’re completely screwed…” [Question edited some for clarity.]

Mama M was right to report the caseworker to their supervisor, then the coalition at state-level. One of the important initial lessons of survival after abuse is becoming our own advocate. We do this by first identifying any scenario in which we’re not getting what we need and deserve, then by approaching someone who should be able to help.

But yet this didn’t benefit Mama M. Why? Unfortunately, the simple answer is that even at institutions and organizations which are in place for those facing vulnerable life situations, bad people exist. (It’s also true that many organizations of this nature are overwhelmed and, while their hearts are in the right place, they are limited in their ability to help.)

It’s crucial to note here that even as we begin to take back control of our own lives, survivors cannot control who others will be, and what kind of role they’ll play in our journey.

Mama M has a few other options, though, and it’s up to her to determine what — if any — is the best course of action.

She could reach out to a national coalition. (Compare this to how you work upward through the chain for customer service when your billing is wrong, etc.) While it’s true that most national organizations don’t provide direct service at the individual level, they are part of a massive network of resources. They know who helps where, and how to contact the proper people. (Plus, sometimes just being heard alleviates the stress of a negative experience, and it is never wrong to speak up for ourselves.)

She could ask for legal advice. Each of our states here in America has law offices — usually called, simply, “Legal Aid” — and on staff are attorneys who specialize in DV cases. Mama M could call the office in her area for a consultation, wherein she could learn the proper (and locally legal) way to report and/or hold accountable the shelter who treated her wrong.

A different direction for taking action is filing a complaint with the government entity who oversees the shelter, which is a nonprofit whose funding is directly affected by state dollars. Visit your state’s website. Each one navigates differently, but there will be a list of agencies. Find the one most appropriate — my guess is to start with the Department of Health and Human Services — and contact accordingly. If they’re not the right office, they’ll tell you who is.

Will a single voice, a single compliant, make a difference? There is no way to be sure. But not only are we creating (or adding to an existing) record, we’re taking steps to advocate for ourselves. Remember how important that is.

Or go to your county’s website. Check out the officials (both elected and appointed) who are seated for civil service to the county, and what departments exist. Make contact. Share your cause. Tell them what you know. Maybe they will take the reins on your behalf. (This applies to your city’s officials, too.)

Call the local news source. (Remember, it may be important to withhold your identity/ask for anonymity for your own safety and security.) Share your story. Ask them to write or go on air about it so the community is made aware of how the shelter treats those its meant to serve. An alternate to this is to write an editorial for submission to the local newspaper.

Mama M — and any other survivor in this predicament — could also conclude that assistance from the DV shelter, for whatever reason, isn’t meant to be part of her healing journey in the way she expected. Instead she can check into therapy (note: not every therapist is a good fit, and sometimes it takes trying a few different professionals before finding a match), join local or virtual support groups, study the kinds of abuses she endured, journal, ask a local school or church or family division office about what help exists, rely on trusted friends, work on self, etc. The avenues to a better life are many.

The path to healing, not easy to begin with, can be made all the more difficult by people who don’t help like they’re supposed to. Sister survivors, this too offers a takeaway in our journey. That is, sometimes our growth is forced through situations that go the opposite direction of our expectation, because in this we cultivate a new, better system of tools that will empower us in ways of greater impact.

To submit your question for analysis and possible publication, email janna@womandetermined.com.

Image Credit to Polina Zimmerman from Pexels.