Despite the fact that novelty will draw your attention, consistency is what your brain craves. It hates change. Once your mind has settled into a pattern, breaking that pattern is very difficult. The beliefs fed to you by your abuser is just such a pattern.
Your brain is not great at distinguishing between what is good for you and what is bad for you. Repetition will convince your mind that something is true regardless of how awful it is. Regardless of how it hurts you. If you hear a negative judgment of yourself often enough, you internalize it as part of who you are.
If you had a parent or lover who called you stupid or worthless or any other harmful abusive thing, after a while, your mind accepted that. Those of us who had abusive parents had no chance to develop positive self-regard. Those of you who had an abusive partner may have had a positive self-image before getting involved with them, but over time their abuse broke that image down and replaced it with the negative one that they thought would give them more control over you.
When you finally gather your strength to break free from the abuse, be prepared for a fight. Not only will your abuser object to losing you (or being forced to change if you decide to go that route), but your own mind will work against you at first. It will take time and persistence to reprogram yourself and heal the damage that has been inflicted on you.
Cognitive dissonance is when you have two conflicting thoughts or beliefs and you feel internal discomfort over them. Cognitive dissonance can also result from you behaving in a way that seemingly conflicts with your beliefs. If you do something awful, but believe you are a good person, your mind will rush to find excuses for your behavior. Justifications for why it does not violate your belief in your own goodness.
It sounds fairly innocuous, but it can cause some really bizarre results. Very often when you witness someone engaging in extreme mental gymnastics to justify their behavior or belief, it is the result of cognitive dissonance. Their mind will not allow them to make the logical conclusion that what they did or believe is bad and should change.
We see this every day when someone is caught saying or doing horrible racist things, yet when confronted they will swear up and down that they are not racist. They probably actually believe that. Their belief is clearly wrong, but they don’t want to confront that and so convince themselves that their awful behavior was some kind of anomaly. That they were stressed or provoked or whatever it is that they tell themselves to make themselves feel better. They will not accept that what they have inside is what came out.
This cognitive dissonance is going to make your healing difficult. If you spent your childhood hearing about how stupid and worthless you are, you have internalized those ideas. When you start trying to repair the damage your mind will fight you. When you show signs that you are not stupid — -like doing something smart or finishing your college degree — your mind will try to convince you that it is a fluke. You just got lucky. You are not actually smart. One way my mind messes with me is in making me feel like my master's degree is not enough. If I were really smart, I’d have a Ph.D.
If you try to list your positive attributes or contributions to the world or your family, your mind will find fault with all of them. Or act like they are not a big deal because “everyone” does that.
Persistence and Tenacity
The fact that cognitive dissonance is going to fight you on your healing means you will need to cultivate and practice extreme persistence. It took a long time for your abuser to convince you of your inferiority. It will take a long time for you to reprogram your brain into something more positive.
If you have supportive people in your life, you can enlist them to help you with your tenacity. Ask them to call you out if they hear you repeating the abuser's claims about yourself. If you can accept their compliments, solicit them. Those don’t work for me because if I have to ask someone for positive things about myself, I feel like they are lying. That they would have offered them unsolicited if they had been true. But I know most people don’t have that response, so ask away if that suits you.
If you lack support, as many of us do because the damage the abuser did makes it difficult for us to let others in, you will have to find ways to encourage yourself to persist.
Set up a reward system for treating yourself well. If you enjoy positive sayings, sign up for a mailing list that sends you daily quotations. If you can, get a pet. Their unconditional positive regard will go a long way toward soothing your inner pain. A dog’s love is very obvious and frequently slobbery. But if you are a cat person, like I am, don’t let their coolness fool you. The vast majority of the time my chonky boy is where he can keep an eye on me. If I leave the room for too long, he will come looking for me and resettle wherever I am.
In the same way that chemo will make you sicker before you begin to heal from cancer, your mind will hurt you more before you can begin to heal from the abuse. The strength it takes to push through and continue toward healing will serve you well when you are back on a solid footing.