Bethany Hendrickson is a mental health therapist practicing in Seattle, WA. Among her clients are people who have survived abuse and trauma. She is a counseling affiliate of Northwest Family Life, and also leads State Certified groups for perpetrators of domestic violence.

Could you talk with us about the intersection between survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence?

The cycle of domestic violence continues until it is broken, and for many people it begins in childhood – witnessing violence between their parents, being targeted for abuse within the family, or even just experiencing an environment of control and disrespect. We learn how to treat others, and how to treat ourselves, first from our parents and families. We see our parents experience emotions and then we see them choose to act, either violently in anger, or respectfully in love. People who grow up seeing and experiencing violence are far more likely to either choose a partner who abuses them, or to abuse their own loved ones.

What are unbearable emotions?

In our domestic violence groups at NWFL we talk a lot about unbearable emotions. What we mean by “unbearable” is simply an emotion that you *hate* to feel. We all have a top few unbearable emotions; emotions that hit us right in the gut and cut through our defenses. It might be loneliness, helplessness, feeling unheard, dismissed, or disregarded – whatever negative emotion just sends you over the edge – that is one of your unbearable emotions.

How can a person deal with unbearable emotions without letting them escalate to explosion?

The key is to take a break from any situation in which you notice tension building (red face, raised voice, heart palpitating, ruminating thoughts, etc.) In our groups people learn to tune in to their body and emotional selves to notice early on when they are feeling upset. This gives them time to calmly take a break, and come back to the situation/conversation/interaction after they have had the chance to calm their mind and body.

What are some de-escalation tools?

Anything that helps calm you down! Non-aggressive physical activity like walking, biking, or yoga, music, art, reading, praying, talking to a friend (probably about something other than what you are upset about). It’s not time to go over and over the event and figure out how to convince the other person that you are right, it is a time to disconnect from anger and reconnect with your inner desires, and your most raw feelings and needs.

How can a person shift their unconscious responses and interrupt the cycle of abuse?

The most important factor is a desire to change. Anyone can learn how to take a break, calm down, speak more respectfully, but it’s hard work to shift abusive responses. It’s hard work to feel our true feelings (the feelings underneath all of that anger and rage). It’s takes courage to face ourselves, and bravery to be vulnerable and to admit wrongdoing. In order to change you have to be willing to release old patterns that you’ve been relying on, and make space for new patterns that will feel odd and uncomfortable at first.

How might someone use their body as a guiding and important signpost?

Our bodies are where our emotions live. When we feel anxious our heart pounds, when we feel sad we have a pit in our stomach. Our bodies experience tension and it shows up in our drumming fingers, bouncing knees, red face, throbbing veins, rising voice. Tension in your body is a sign to tune in to your emotions and take care of yourself by calming down.

What does a “Time Out Contract” look like?

Think through your own triggers/red flags, unbearable emotions that come up, and what you need in order to calm down when you experience these things. It should be a detailed plan that you share with trusted loved ones, so that you can all be on the same page and agree to give each other time to calm down when needed. Taking a “time out” isn’t an excuse to storm away and abandon your partner – it’s a premeditated, structured break.

Could you talk about developing a personalized crisis plan?

A crisis plan is a great document to have, both for people who are experiencing /or have experienced abuse, and for people who are attempting to become safe and change their abusive patterns. A crisis plan should have an “A” plan and a “B” plan (for when plan A doesn’t work out). Think through likely crisis situations that might come up: where are your exits? What will you need? Who will need to come with you? Who will you call? Where will you go? How much money will you need and will you have access to that money? Ask the question: what will keep me, and the people around me, safe in this situation?

You say that survivors struggle to ‘be’ in the world as they want to ‘be.’ How can people become more self-actualized?

The real answer to this question is that it’s a journey. When the world has been an unsafe place it can be difficult to establish safe habits, safe relationships, and the expectation that you will be treated with respect. Survivors can often benefit from similar de-escalation skills as perpetrators – the difference being that the goal for the survivor is to exit the unsafe situation, whereas the goal for a perpetrator is to take responsibility for one’s own actions and create safe space for others. Anyone can get caught in a fight/flight/freeze amygdala response. Creating a self-care/time-out plan to notice early on that your needs aren’t being met can help point the way toward healing and helpful interventions.

How do victims of abuse get stuck in absorbing blame, and how might they shift that?

Like I said, the goal for perpetrators is to take full responsibility for their own emotions and actions. One thing that perpetrators do really well is blame others. People who have experienced abuse are often very familiar with what it feels like to be blamed, and sometimes they even believe that they are to blame for the other person’s actions. Healing for survivors is often a process of sorting through events and taking responsibility only for their own actions, their own emotions – and refusing to take responsibility for what the other person did or said. If each person is in charge of the sidewalk on their side of the street, we need to only be sweeping our own sidewalk. We cannot sweep the other person’s sidewalk – that is their job.

Who has a say as to what can change in a person’s life?

We are all only in control of ourselves! We can only change what we do. We have no control over what anyone else says or does or thinks.

How can people care for their own emotions?

Think holistically: body, mind, spirit. Our bodies need good sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Our minds need a balance of stimulation and rest. Our spirits need connection, community, and a sense of purpose. Once you can tune in to what your body is telling you about your own emotions, you can begin the process of thinking through what that means for you.

Bethany has a book in the works, with positive, accessible info specifically written for perpetrators of domestic violence. We look forward to sharing it with you when it’s released. You can connect with her here.

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