12 Steps to Freedom
from Emotional and Verbal Abuse
First published in 1989, Violent Voices has inspired and helped over 10,000 women break the chains of verbal and emotional abuse and of codependency. The timeless wisdom it contains is now available in a print friendly PDF version that includes an updated For Further Reading section. (147 pages)
If you are enmeshed in an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship, you need to read this book.
Violent Voices Table of Contents
Women enmeshed with verbally and emotionally abusive partners suffer deep wounds. Because our injuries aren’t readily visible to the eye, we endure our private agony in silence. Mistrusting our perceptions, we often deny to ourselves and to others the existence of our very real pain. Read the complete introduction.
Is Your Relationship Hazardous to Your Mental Health?
Before we can begin our healing journey, we need to become familiar with the problem that plagues us. Verbal violence, mental cruelty, emotional abuse are difficult terms to define. Every woman, no matter what her upbringing was or who her partner is, sometimes feels put upon. Rarely do real-live relationships match romantic fantasies. Given the added stress of living in a culture where male and female roles are in a state of flux, we may at times feel confused and angry with our partners for not living up to our expectations. Read the complete chapter.
The Insidious Nature of Verbal Abuse: Why We Tolerate It
Sticks and stones may break our bones, we were told as children, but words can never hurt us. They can. They do. Sharp tongues wound. Language is the symbolic representation of our innermost feelings and beliefs, and potent words call up a host of vivid associations, either positive or negative. Angry, damning words heard over and over again tend to be believed. When we deny the process and potency of put downs, condemnations and sharp criticisms, we are unable to counter the negative spell they cast over us. Even though we live in the Twenty-First Century, none of us is immune from the almost magical power of words. They can hurt us. They can help to heal us.
The first step we take in any new endeavor is often the most difficult because with that step be begin to break old habits and form unfamiliar patterns. The new is always unknown and can be a bit frightening. As we look back at our emotional ups and downs, at the pain we’ve endured in a psychologically abusive relationship, we may loathe the way we’re lived, but it’s a well-traveled path. With this First Step, admitting that we have no power over the emotional batterings, we start our journey away from hurt and toward healing.
Before we can admit that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity, we need to go beyond viewing our lives as simply unmanageable and confess to ourselves that our lives and our way of thinking have become insane. Having built our perceptions about our relationships on a foundation of denial, such an admission is an extremely difficult one to make. We’re often afraid that by acknowledging the craziness of our lives, our marriages will crumble. In truth, whether we care to admit it or not, emotionally abusive relationships are constructed on shifting sands of negative emotions. We can deny all we want, but that doesn’t change the fact that love, respect and trust, the essentials for any healthy relationship, are cracked and eroded – perhaps beyond repair.
Many women involved in emotionally abusive relationships feel Step Three, detaching from the desires and fears that hold us in bondage, is like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Our lives have taught us that we can trust no one, and we often cling desperately to illusions of complete self-control as the solution to our problems.
Step Four – Part I
Step Four requires that we take a look at what’s happening inside of ourselves and at how those internal states affect us and the other people we encounter. To examine our emotions and attitudes and how we act them out in our daily lives, we can use our intuition (inner-teaching), the small still voice that resides in every one of us. We need to take quiet time alone, time when we are relaxed and can calmly focus in on ourselves without external distractions. In order to hear, we need to listen.
Step Four – Part II
When we allow our worldview to be colored by an excess of any emotion, be it euphoria or depression, anger or fear, shame or vanity, we attend to only that which contributes to our predominant emotion. If we get up on the wrong side of the bed, we’ll be irritated by circumstances and remarks we’d not otherwise notice were we in a good mood. The days and months we feel the saddest seem to generate an unlimited number of occasions for failure. We lose objectivity along with our emotional balance.
So far our change and growth have an individual process conducted in the solitude of our own hearts and minds. We have not needed other people to help us as we progressed up to this point. In fact, the people around us may not have known what we were up to unless we chose to tell them. Step Five presents us with another challenge, moving us out of our solitary circle of transformation, asking that we practice openness and honesty first with our Higher Power and with ourselves, then finally expanding that practice with another human being.
Before we can let go of them, we must assess our attachment to each of our shortcomings as honestly as we assessed the shortcomings themselves. Some of us are more willing to let go of our defenses and maladaptive ways of coping than others are. We are ready to release some shortcomings faster than others. Working the Sixth Step requires taking the time we need to see how attached we are to each of our defense mechanisms and imbalances, evaluating the possible consequence of change in our lives, then setting up the mental conditions so that we can feel completely ready to wave goodbye to our old habits. It’s a process that doesn’t happen overnight.
When we ask our Higher Power to remove our defects, instead of striving to eradicate them ourselves, we aren’t giving up on becoming better people – we are admitting that we can’t do it on our own. Our most tenacious efforts alone cannot make the deep and lasting changes we need in our lives. Too often when we attempt to live differently without the help of a Power outside of ourselves, the entirety of our energy is consumed in rooting up our defects and frantically trying to destroy them, only to find they’ve taken root again as fast as we can pull them up. We have little or no energy left with which to nurture ourselves and fill the empty spaces left by our weeding.
Everybody makes mistakes, but women enmeshed in verbally and emotionally violent relationships tend to forget that important fact of life. Emotionally abusive relationships are based on blame and shame. Our verbally abusing partners transform their own shame or lack of self-acceptance into rage and heave it at us. We in turn accept their shame and add it to our already large burden of self-loathing.
When we worked Step Eight, we assessed the nature and the depth of our shame and guilt. We were able to rid ourselves of the shameful feelings we did not deserve. In Step Nine we take action to set our misdeeds straight and to set our relationships with others on a new course. In the process we can put much of our guilt behind us. Although we can never undo the past, we can make every attempt to make amends, thereby putting our former misdeeds where they belong – in the past. Once we can view them as lessons, we can stop obsessing over them.
The process of self-healing we began when we started the Twelve-Step Program is a continuous one. If we are to keep growing, our forward motion doesn’t halt next Tuesday or next Christmas or even five years from today. We will stretch and transform and overcome throughout the remaining time we have on this earth. Our self-discovery and struggles are what keep us emotionally alive and moving. They provide a fertile field for deep friendships with others on the healing journey and they keep us in touch with who we are inside.
Step Eleven encourages us to build on the relationship we’ve already begun to establish with our Higher Power, expanding our spiritual development a step further into the realm of the irrevocable responsibility and limitless resources of God. When we improve our conscious contact with our Higher Power, that means we’re doing nothing more esoteric and complex than deliberately and actively improving our communication. We do this in two ways, through prayer, or talking to God/Goddess and through meditation, or listening to Mother/Father God. Our Higher power is always there for us, ready to listen and ready to help us live our lives if only we are willing to ask for direction and be receptive to taking it.
The spiritual awakening so important in Step Twelve can occur in many ways, each different from, but not necessarily better than the others. Some women awaken by gentle stages, experiencing a dawning consciousness, then drifting back to the sleep or old patterns for a time before they revive again, each time rousing further. Others become conscious at once as if an alarm had gone off. They are immediately and fully alert, ready to begin the work ahead.