For the six darkest months of the relationship, there was me, and then there was shadow me. She walked beside me, an image of myself if every action and motivation were filtered through the least flattering lens. Her generosity was self-serving; her love was patronizing; her promises were false. In those months, she trailed me so tightly that sometimes, when I glanced at my image in the mirror, I couldn’t tell which self I really was.
It took me years to realize that shadow self was not me; that instead, she was what months of gaslighting and emotional abuse had made me believe about myself. Yet in that process of reflection, I confronted a more nuanced truth. Parts of this shadow self did represent qualities I had, but I didn’t need to condemn myself for these flaws or tolerate negative treatment from partners. Instead, I could compassionately confront these aspects of myself, learn from them, and grow.
This acceptance is key to developing healthier relationships with ourselves and others, according to Jadelynn St. Dre, MA, LMFT. “We do a really bad job culturally—and I’m thinking specifically about the U.S. right now—allowing space for people who have caused harm,” she says. St. Dre is a therapist and accountability coach, with an emphasis on helping marginalized people have healthier relationships. She, like me, credits abolitionist feminists and transformative justice practitioners with much of the values behind her work.