ERP 321: How To Tell The Difference Between An Abusive Relationship & A Toxic Dynamic — An Interview With Dr. Amelia Kelley

By Posted in - Podcast May 24th, 2022 0 Comments

Conflicts are opportunities to learn more about your partner, and depending on how you handle them, they can either bring you closer together or lead to a toxic dynamic, or worse, an abusive relationship. If it’s the latter, how do you determine whether to stay or leave the relationship?

While some people recognize that they should leave an unhealthy relationship early on, others choose to stay. Dr. Amelia Kelley shed some light on why these people aren’t making the same decision. She also discusses warning signs of abuse or potential abuse, as well as how to empower someone in an abusive relationship to stop this dynamic, find support, and heal from trauma.

Dr. Amelia Kelley is a trauma-informed therapist who has conducted research on the effects of exercise on ADHD symptoms as well as the effects of resiliency on PTSD. She is a trained Hypnotherapist, Art therapist, HSP Therapist, EMDR-informed therapist, and meditation and yoga teacher. She is a presenter and writer in the “science-help” field focusing on relationships, Highly Sensitive Persons, trauma, motivation, healthy living, and adult ADHD. She is a guest podcast presenter focusing on women’s issues and coping with the trauma of unhealthy relationships, as well as a coach and trainer for SAS’s Work/Life Program in Cary, NC, and a resident trainer for the NC Art Therapy Institute. Her practice is also currently part of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium at the Kinsey Institute.

In this Episode

5:00 The increased domestic violence during the pandemic.

7:02 Dr. Kelley’s “aha!” moment that got her interested in helping people who have experienced trauma.

9:49 Why do people react differently to trauma?

14:38 Signs of a potentially abusive person.

28:50 Significant reasons why people are unable to confront or exit this situation.

38:52 Why highly sensitive people struggle more with decision making.

42:41 How to discern whether or not you should end the relationship and where someone in an abusive relationship can find support.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Do not accept someone’s abuse just because you understand where they are coming from.
  • Do not hesitate to cut ties with your abusive partner.
  • Practice radio silence from social media, phone calls and texts, and other channels of communication with your abuser.
  • Draw clear limits and boundaries between personal versus strictly co-parenting if you are co-parenting.
  • Always remember that there are people who are willing to help and support you.
  • Seek help from your family, friends, or local community.
  • Disclose only what you feel comfortable disclosing because your story is your story. You do not have to prove anything.
  • Be responsible for your own happiness.


What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Internal Family Systems Model (*Wikipedia)

Connect with Amelia Kelly





Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins






Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 


Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Dr. Amelia Kelley, thank you for joining us today.

Thank you for having me. 

Yes. I am grateful that we’re diving into a topic that I think is increasingly important, just given the stressors that I think so many people are up against and also how trauma lives in our bodies. I know ways in which we might get activated. Right? 

I think I heard something. I don’t know if you would agree with this. I’m just thinking of it now as far as I’m talking, just that the pandemic actually triggered a lot of trauma response for people and obviously, when people are sheltering at home, and I know we’re not doing that as much in this current moment. And the echoes of that, that that can really affect the intimate couple bond. I’m curious if you want to speak to that as we just get started here.

Sure. There was definitely an increase in the amount of domestic violence calls even to some of the hotlines. They were finding people were reaching out for resources, which was a good thing. But on the other hand, it was almost like a pressure cooker. 

I think you have people who were able to dissociate or deflect from these negative relationships, and suddenly, you’re just compressed together. There were even people who were food vulnerable or safety vulnerable in their own homes, and suddenly they were being told to stay at home and be safe. But what if the home is not safe?

No kidding. No kidding. And so, not only is that pressure cooker now happening, but also the other resources that we might have access to are not available. Okay. And I know that we’re now in this current moment, right, April 2022. I mean, COVID is still here with us, but it’s also not in the state of sheltering at home for most, right. 

As we pivot towards the conversation of how perhaps to discern being in a toxic, abusive relationship and perhaps how to even exit that relationship, let’s start to get to know you a little bit better for our listeners who maybe don’t know you and your story. What got you interested in helping people in this arena?

It’s kind of interesting because I originally was going to become a graphic artist. I was offered a job to work in the art department at MTV, which was so random. I worked there as an intern. So, it’s kind of an interesting thing. But actually, 9/11 happened. I saw a documentary about an art therapist working with survivors of trauma. It was like one of those aha moments where you listen to what happens in your body, and you listen to the universe. And I just said, “That’s it. That’s where I’m supposed to be.” 

So fast forward, let’s say, nearly a decade into doing this work. You know, just being alive, you encounter trauma. And so, I encountered my own traumas. And through that, I was reminded of the generational trauma that my family has endured, which kind of all culminated in this incredible interest I had in working with survivors. Survivors of intimate partner violence, survivors of different types of traumas we would more traditionally think maybe, war or abuse, even natural disaster. I just found this was it. That was my passion, my niche. And so, it’s just kind of been evolving from there.

Thank you for sharing that. I just want to say my experience with art therapy. It’s such a great medium to be able to work with the internal sensations and visuals, like things that we might not even have a lot of language for. Even we do maybe have memory and language around that we can get it out and manipulate it and work with it and have the expression of it through art, and that that can be so therapeutic and healing. It sounds like a modality you still reference and utilize.

My master’s is actually in art therapy. I am a registered art therapist and then continued on with my education after that. I have found that art is this physical. I mean, it really is a physical action, no matter what medium you’re using, that allows you to take something that, for a lot of people, is not linear. Trauma does not get stored in this very cut and dry narration. It gets stored as sensations and felt sense in images and flashes. So, I find that art therapy provides this really tangible way to express what is sometimes inexpressible. 

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“Trauma does not get stored as this very cut and dry narration. It gets stored as sensations and felt sense in images and flashes. I find that art therapy provides this really tangible way to express what is sometimes inexpressible.”

Yeah. Yes. Yes. Thank you for just acknowledging how trauma is experienced. It’s usually relived rather than this sequence of intellectual understanding of what we’ve known. Okay. And then, I understand many people have a broader definition in the way of trauma, right? We might refer to the classical senses of big “T”, right? Like you named war, abuse, or being a survivor of natural disaster. Do you also include relational trauma or other types of trauma that we might consider a little “t”? I don’t even know if you like that language, but I’m curious.

I love that language. I used it in my book. 

Okay. Excellent. Excellent.

Well, I love it because trauma really is anything that disrupts your natural flow of life and makes it where your skills are not easily accessible. Your reality is not easily accessible. Even something that we would consider to be a blessing, like buying a new home, can actually be considered a small “t” trauma for some because it’s a huge transition, and it uproots all of your reality for hopefully a short period of time. 

So, I’m not trying to equate buying a home, which is actually in the state of real estate right now, probably is a little traumatizing. So, maybe we’re going into a totally different topic. It’s really when you take your normality, and you disrupt it, and there’s no way to control that disruption.

Yes. And one of the ways that I have understood trauma, too, is when the experience is so overwhelming that it’s difficult to process. Do you also think that?

Well, that’s what I think when it transitions from something that is traumatizing to something that becomes a disorder or a post-trauma response, right? You can have a collection of people go through the same experience, and based on their resilience, some will come out with post-trauma responses or disorders, and some will not. And a lot of time, it has to do with power. 

Did that person have a sense of power? Were they able to mobilize, or were they able to do something about the situation? In that case, it’s less likely that the person will end up with PTSD symptoms. Whereas if someone is, speaking of an abusive relationship, where their abuser specifically manipulates and works really hard to take their power away. That can lead to much more propensity towards PTSD symptoms.

Thank you for spelling that out because the trauma is there but how it gets manifested is very, very different when someone has access to being able to do something. I remember. I don’t know if it was in Peter Levine’s work or where I came across it. The bus. Yes, exactly. You knew what I was saying.

I knew exactly what you were going to say. 

That’s so wild. Do you want to share that? 

Sure. Yeah. So, it’s wild that they were able to even study this. I don’t know if nowadays you would get permission. I believe they’re going on a field trip. There was a bus. This was out in the Midwest. The bus was hijacked by evil people. Tell me if I’m wrong because this story is so wild. It’s almost unbelievable. They took all the children and the bus driver and put them in a living grave, basically, and trapped them in there. 

A collection of children and the bus driver found a way to get out and essentially dug them out. They all got out safely. The really crazy thing, and I’m getting goosebumps talking about the story because it’s so wild. The crazy thing is that they were able to follow all of these children and the bus driver for a longitudinal study to see who ended up with PTSD symptoms and who did not. 

Those who were able to do the physical action of saving everyone and getting out fared much better than those children who weren’t able to physically mobilize. It’s so incredible that they were even able to pinpoint that. And it’s incredible that they survived, like, what a wild story.

No kidding. I got chills, too, as you were describing. Just the power of being able to mobilize, right. And this is where, again, if we’re in that fight or flight and we can mitigate against the threat, that that we can get into the mobilization and the action. When we can’t, we usually go into that dorsal, that shutdown, that freeze. So, okay. This is huge. All right. So, I want to pivot towards couplehood and relationship. 

One of the things that I am interested in is if you would be willing to speak to me. And I think I shared this before we just started that oftentimes couples who are experiencing high conflict or experiencing a lot of distress and even question the relationship or their marriage, and really feel like they’re at their wit’s end, so to speak. With the dynamics and the way that they’re relating to each other and the escalation, the negative downward spiral is toxic and is perhaps abusive.

Particularly, when we look at how people protect themselves, or there are defensive strategies that tend to be hurtful to the other, right? And the behavior is incredibly problematic, and we can look at the cycle of it, and both partners are participating. I want to know if you’d be willing to speak to how this is different or the differences between an abusive relationship where there’s an abuser and someone, as you’re referring to, is experiencing this abuse. 

I think one of the things that come to mind first is intention. If the intention is to strip someone of power and agency over themselves for your own selfish, I will say, or self-centered goals or desire, as some call the narcissistic supply that desires to fill yourself up with praise and adoration in order to make yourself feel better. That is a surefire sign of an abusive relationship. 

Whereas what you were speaking to makes me think a bit of kind of like that Internal Family Systems Approach by Richard Schwartz, where we have these parts of us that come out in response to our life. And oftentimes, we tend to gravitate towards someone that challenges some of the parts. And these exiles in us that we don’t even know are there at times. 

I sometimes joke. A little self-disclosure that an exile of mine is feeling ignored. I don’t like that. But then I married someone who’s slightly hard of hearing and has attention deficit disorder. So, you know, I kind of unwittingly put myself into this situation where I’m challenging a part of me. 

So, it’s a decision. Do you recognize that the parts of you are being triggered by something in your partner? And is that part of the volatile dynamic between the two of you? And it can become just because people don’t want to abuse. Toxicity can happen.

Abuse can happen, right? Because even as you’re talking, it could even be a trauma response that somebody’s in this very activated state, and not intending but is causing harm.

Yes. It’s important to recognize maybe not at the moment when someone is not feeling centered, and they’re not within their body when it’s a safe time as a couple when you’re not in that conflict to recognize, “Okay, so I know your intention is not to take my power away, but that’s what I felt happening in that argument we had or in that conflict.”

I think one of the red flags is if you come to your partner when you’re not in the heat of the moment, and you’re not in a conflict, and you share that, if they’re then willing to talk about it, and work on it, and recognize and maybe even take some responsibility even if they feel some shame around it. That’s a sign that it’s a dynamic issue, or maybe an issue with some toxicity that needs to be worked through because of your shared past traumas. 

But if instead, you go to your partner and say, “When we were in that conflict, I felt like you were trying to take my power away, I felt belittled, for instance.” And they either deny, deflect, put it back on you, tell you you’re irrational, or you’re overthinking it, or you’re too emotional. Those are gaslighting tactics. They’re not taking responsibility, and that’s more of a sign of potential abuse.

What if somebody’s on the receiving end in the current environment is so fraught that they’re feeling attacked or they’re feeling themselves are threatened, and they’re having their own defensive response? Would you say that’s different than what you’re describing? Because it feels like there’s a quality here that I’m trying to see if it can help people who are listening that are discerning between toxic dynamics and perhaps an abusive relationship. I wonder if you have anything to say about that?

Well, it’s interesting. It makes me think of a question a client of mine asked yesterday, and she was asking me, “How do I know if I’m the toxic one?” She is a survivor of intimate partner violence. And so, the thing of it is that a trauma response can also create a toxic response. So, when we feel, and we experience a trauma response, even at the moment with that particular person, or if it’s more based on a past experience, we can become more volatile in a way to protect ourselves. That fight, flight, freeze, fawn. If that’s not a tongue twister, I don’t know what is.

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“A trauma response can also create a toxic response. When we feel and experience a trauma response, even at the moment with that particular person, or if it’s more based on a past experience, we can become more volatile in a way to protect ourselves.”

I interviewed Terry Real earlier. He also says “fix” is another. I don’t know that that’s how one of those, but I know how many “F” can we come up with.

I know. It’s funny that you say fix because today I was talking with a client about fixing. She keeps calling herself a fixer. And I said, “Isn’t it interesting when you think of a trauma response that fixing is almost a synonym for controlling.” I feel like sometimes the need to control a situation or control our environment is why we get into that fixing mode.

Okay, sorry, I didn’t want to derail. So, the client was asking you yesterday, “What if I’m the abuser?” 

Now, I would say, you know, just from reflecting on her dynamic. She is not the one who initially wanted to gain power, but I think that she actually became more abusive in response to her situation. And that can happen, unfortunately,

Yeah. That makes perfect sense because if somebody’s protesting against what feels belittling, or gaslighting, and really perhaps even abusive, then we can up the ante, and that’s when we’re in that extremely volatile. Okay. So, the intent, and the sense of power are two indicators. Is there anything else you want to say that you want people to be aware of that can be some red flags or things to really discern?

Well, as I was mentioning before, there is also the unwillingness to admit wrongs or to show remorse. A lack of remorse is a huge red flag. We can feel embarrassed or shameful when we need to admit we’re wrong, but if we’re willing to at least do it, that is a sign of a willingness to change and reflect. So, if your partner is not ever wrong, that doesn’t mean that you’re always wrong. That means something is dynamically wrong, and there is abuse happening because no one can be perfect. 

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“A lack of remorse is a huge red flag. We can feel embarrassed or shameful when we need to admit we’re wrong, but if we’re willing to at least do it, that is a sign of a willingness to change and reflect. If your partner is not ever wrong, that doesn’t mean that you’re always wrong. That means something is dynamically wrong, and there is abuse happening because no one can be perfect.”

No. I’m almost getting, Amelia, as you’re talking. It’s almost as if I can’t reach my partner. If they’re abusing, it’s almost like they’ve insulated themselves, and they’re in this place of power. It’s almost as if I can’t influence them. I can’t reach them. I can’t feel empathy with them. I can’t feel a sense of shared understanding, I can’t reach them in this way. Would you agree?

I think that could certainly be an experience. It makes me think of stonewalling, for instance. If someone’s just trying to manipulate and abuse their partner by not talking to them, or maybe even not even acknowledging that they exist. When something feels unreachable, it can be so much more exciting when we reach them. And that’s where that abuse cycle continues. That’s where the hormonal surges of joy and love and excitement can happen where that, I guess, you could almost say like a Stockholm Syndrome can happen.

The anticipation and all the things. Okay, so let’s pivot towards that. So, I also just am thinking one thought here that someone might be questioning and trying to discern if this relationship is abusive, and what am I going to do about it, that it’s also likely even if it is the dynamics, it might be very abusive, and it’s still worth exiting the relationship because while the person might not be intending to manipulate or have power over or seems responsive at times or is willing to take ownership at times, that the dynamics are so fraud, that it is harmful to both and abuse is happening. That that is really worth looking at and maybe having an exit plan around. Is that right?

I would agree with that. Especially because I hear quite a few individuals I work with, say things along the lines of, “Well, I’m just abandoning them.” or “I’m just giving up hope.” or “I’m just is not trying hard enough.” I have to remind folks often that it is not your responsibility to fix someone else. It is not your responsibility to make someone better. And if anything, that energy put into trying to change and help improve, and the thing I hear the most, I wish they would just understand. I wish they would just see. If only they would see what they’re doing. It’s such an unhealthy thinking pattern. And first of all, it’s not really possible when you’re engaging with someone who either has a personality disorder or is abusive or manipulative. 

I tell individuals, it’s almost like they speak a different language. They’re not seeing the dynamics between the two of you the same way that you are. People who feel deeply who are deeply conscientious, I was mentioning to you, highly sensitive folks are empaths, especially. We tend to, and I say we being in the HSP crowd, we tend to project our moral compass on to others where we expect, “Well, I would feel deeply about this. And I would feel bad about this. So, you have to feel bad about this.” 

Always an abusive person will not. Often someone who is really struggling and not willing to work on their own stuff, they also are going to have a completely different perspective on what’s going on between the two of you. 

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“I have to remind folks often that it is not your responsibility to fix someone else. It is not your responsibility to make someone better. I tell individuals that it’s almost like they speak a different language. They’re not seeing the dynamics between the two of you the same way that you are.”

Yes, thank you. Well said. I think that’s part of what I was feeling is I can’t reach you, right? This wanting to have understanding or wanting there to be clarity and empathy and just feeling like there’s no way to access that. And as you said, with the person that is abusing, that never happens. 

And you know, something I see also, when you think about attachment styles, where we tend to and this is the really unique thing about attachment is that it’s not static, it’s not something that is unchanging. That birds of a feather who flock together can really be thought of when it comes to romantic relationships as well. Because if you’re with someone who is insecurely attached or avoidant, you’re going to tend towards either that kind of balance to that. If they’re insecure, you may become avoidant. If they’re avoidant, you may become insecure. 

So, if let’s say someone you’re with has their own baggage that is not mixing well with your baggage, there’s this very common fear I hear people bring up about, “Well, I’ve done all this work to help them see the light, so to speak, and now they’re going to leave and have a better relationship with someone else.”

I’ve heard that too.

But here’s the thing. Even if you’ve done all this legwork, they leave. Both of you are healthier apart. It doesn’t matter if you rejoin with the healthy version of them, you both will most likely morphed back into the dynamic of who you were when you were together, because you still have the same histories.

And that really just helps kind of counteract some of that maybe hopeful thinking or that fantasy of what the work can provide. You’re seeing the way that the constitutions fit and how they interact, especially when it’s personal growth work with maybe perhaps not with somebody that’s like they’re getting trained help and professional help. 

Okay. So, let’s pivot towards how do you help people? I mean, what are you seeing around how people are able to make this decision, this exit plan? What’s happening when they’re not making it? That’s what I was hearing you about to go to. There can be some really significant reasons why people won’t confront this or can’t confront this. 

Well. So, there’s going to be the more obvious reasons first, that we might think of things like safety or financial stability. A lot of it can be expectations of people that know you in your life. We have a lot of shared history once we’re with someone for a period of time. So, that investment can be really hard for some people to give up. But on the other hand, there is this really interesting thing that’s happening in our brains, not our minds, our actual brains, when we get together with someone that is toxic for us or abusive. 

This is so wild. I just read this. When you are falling in love, your serotonin levels drop dramatically, which is very wild to think of. And then, your cortisol and some of those things that kind of keep you elevated and the adrenaline increase. So, we would think, why would serotonin drop when we first get together with someone? Because isn’t this supposed to be the thing that helps us feel mentally healthy? Isn’t that the thing all of our medication is working on? It’s because when serotonin drops, it creates an obsessiveness in our brain. So, it helps to bond us to the person. How wild is that?

I mean, I knew all the neurochemicals that were supporting that phase and the dopamine and all of that. I did not know that the decrease of serotonin, how it impacts the brain so that allows that fantasy. We all are just like, projections.

So wild. It’s so wild. So, you take that in a healthy relationship. And that’s what we call the honeymoon phase. That’s the beginning where nothing you do could be wrong, and you’re just lovely. All the things that attracted me to you initially that now annoy me 10 years later, or a year and a half later. And actually, that’s an interesting thing to point out that it can be, I think research has shown somewhere around that nine-month mark or so give or take a few months where these hormones start to balance out and we come out of the fog and we’re like, “Who’s here?” 

But what happens in an abusive relationship during that time is that love bombing, which is an over exertion of that honeymoon phase, it’s just the too much. It’s way too much of that courting that makes you almost feel uncentered. It makes you feel like this person is everything becomes the foundation that you continue to go back to and you continue to pined for and seek for and almost go through withdrawals from when an abuser is violent or aggressive or nasty toward you. 

This is the other wild thing. Let’s say you are around someone and things are going great all the time. Your dopamine, the dopamine that makes you feel good gives you that reward is actually going to start reducing. When we are always getting something good. I mean, I know I remember on my honeymoon by the like seventh day I was like if I go to one more all-inclusive restaurant and eat more than I need I just lost interest. So, that’s the thing. When we have something too much of it. We become what some people say bored in the relationship. 


Desensitized, right. Exactly. When something is intermittent, and we don’t know when it’s going to come and it comes, we get a bigger spike of dopamine. So, imagine this. You start with this drop in serotonin so you’re becoming obsessed, then the love bombing makes you think, “Wow, this person is everything.” And then you get into the dangerous cycle of abuse that always makes you wonder, “Will I get that back? Will I get that love back? That dream person back? The person who made me feel like I was everything?” It’s just too rewarding.

Yes, that’s the highest reward. Thank you. Because this is where casinos and certain things are developed on is this intermittent reinforcement. 

Yes. Yes, absolutely. And so, that’s why the only way that people can really truly cut off a relationship is practicing things like radio silence. And by radio silence, I mean, everything. Social media, phone, text. This can be really tricky, though, if you have, for instance, children, you’re co-parenting. So, in those situations, a lot of times I will explore with clients that how can we use the part of you that is the co-parent, and you are going to come up with a plan and a way to communicate just from that part. And then be able to cut off and practice radio silence in other areas. 

That is so key to be able to really draw some clear limits and boundaries and what’s personal and what’s emotional versus what’s strictly co-parenting. And that can feel like a journey to figure that out, I’m sure, but there’s clarity there. 

Yes, there’s so many dynamics to it just kind of on a mind level. One other thing I should add. to the first group A was almost like those baseline skills we need for life and safety and security, like financial security, for instance. This is just my opinion. I think our culture of “Why didn’t you leave?” needs to be shifted to “What did the abuser do to make you stay?” 

And furthermore, what are we at large, even as a society and in the way that our legal system deals with this, what are we doing to equip those who leave? Those who do try to leave sometimes just the sheer experience of trying to get a DVPO, a Domestic Violence Protection Order, is you’re having to reenact and retell your story so many times, it’s so common that at some point along the way, you back out. I do feel like there should be some reform or some shifts on how that’s taken care of. 

Yes, or even some advocate that can help around how to negotiate the system without having to reactivate all the trauma, especially when somebody’s still not even stabilized.

Right, which I do think some agencies, communities, counties do have that. I mean, that’s kind of on a local level. And that would be a great place to start. I know where I’m located in Raleigh interact is wonderful, as far as providing that. So, looking at your local area agencies and seeing what kind of resources there are out there because doing it alone, or trying to do it alone cannot only be dangerous, but it’s less likely that you’ll follow through. 

What would you say as somebody who’s developing kind of this exit plan? What would you say about friends and community and family members? It seems as though that can be very tricky, and if anything could even hinder the process.

It’s crucial to have at least one person that you’re willing to seek some support from. And like I was saying, if you don’t feel comfortable going to friends or family, you know, I know, my co-author had gone to a coworker, and spoken to them, had shared, or maybe I think she had shared the protection order after the fact. That’s how that had gone for her. 

So, whether it be a therapist, someone in the area, but navigating friends and family, I would love for people to realize that they do want to hear from you, though. I think if for any reason you feel like the people in your life don’t want to support you, that’s very likely a result of your abuser isolating you, and gaslighting you into thinking that others are against you. 

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“If for any reason you feel like the people in your life don’t want to support you, that’s very likely a result of your abuser isolating you, and gaslighting you into thinking that others are against you. That’s really just them not wanting you to have a community and not wanting you to be able to reflect on what they’re doing to you.”

Very often, even an abuser will gaslight you into thinking that therapy won’t work or that it means you’re crazy if you want to go and seek help. That’s really just them not wanting you to have a community and not wanting you to be able to reflect on what they’re doing to you.

Yes, thank you for saying that. Because part of where I was thinking behind that question. If one is wobbly, and the abuse has not been really that visible, then parents or family could be like, “Really? Are you sure?” But when the decision is clear, and you can really share what’s been happening and the abuse, you’re saying more often than not that that can be very supportive? 

Yes. It’s not a bad way to start by saying, “You may not know all of this because I have withdrawn. I have pulled myself away because of what’s been happening.” The other part is that your story is your story. You do not have to share everything that happened, you have nothing to prove. You are totally welcome to disclose what you feel comfortable disclosing. And maybe starting with someone you find to be highly supportive, who you do trust as that first sounding board will just reinforce how therapeutic it can be to reach out to people and to talk to them.

And Amelia, would you be willing to speak to someone who does identify as a highly sensitive person or is empathic? Is there anything that you will want to voice around this exit plan or how to negotiate an abusive relationship in the way that we’ve been talking about?

Especially when it comes to the exit plan, those who are highly sensitive or empaths are generally going to be so deeply conscientious. That’s how their world operates around them, how they absorb the world, that oftentimes HSPs (highly sensitive persons) take longer to make a decision. It’s not because they struggle with decision-making. It’s because they have so many more layers to read through in order to get there. 

That is unfortunately why abusers and narcissists may target people who are more highly sensitive or empaths because of the fact that they have that deep empathy. So, permitting or rationalizing why the person is being abusive is unfortunately a skill that can be detrimental to someone who’s highly sensitive. You don’t have to accept someone’s abuse just because as an empath, you understand why they’re being abusive. 

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“You don’t have to accept someone’s abuse just because as an empath, you understand why they’re being abusive.”

I’m loving the fact that that resonated so much, because I think if we could all take responsibility for our own joy first, we would be able to set healthier boundaries when we deserve to, which is really the very beginning of a relationship not even as a reaction. It’s almost like preventative medicine, for the relationship.

Yes, I couldn’t underscore that enough. And this is hard to do. It’s easier said than done, right? That we will put forth something that matters to us. If we are concerned, it’s not going to be lovable, or we’re not super proud of it but it’s real. That’s real relationship is somebody is relating to us and what matters, but sometimes we don’t bring that forth for whatever reason, and try to negotiate it later. And like you said, that can be really difficult. It’s really best done in the beginning stages. 

I’m curious with the HSP and empaths. One of the things I understand about HSPs is it’s likely that they’re going to feel more deeply. They’re absorbing so much more in the world. And that means that they’re going to feel moved and touched and inspired by art, and a sunset, or nature, or something beautiful. They’re also perhaps going to feel pain, and the depths of sorrow and grief and abuse in this way more. Would you say that you see that?

Absolutely. I’ve noticed that with those who are highly sensitive, it’s very hard to imagine ending a relationship versus taking a break from a relationship. I’ve seen that quite a bit with highly sensitive individuals that I’ve seen, and even I can reflect personally. I think it’s because it just feels so catastrophic to imagine that this person could have mattered so much to you. And then, you’re just going to completely cut them out of your life. It can be really hard to imagine that in the moment. I read this phenomenal article in Psychology Today about how flu like symptoms can actually show up during a breakup. I mean, our bodies can actually become sick. 

Yes. And so, what do you recommend? Is that one of the recommendations is to imagine taking a break versus ending it entirely, or how do you help support people?

Well, in all honesty, I think, unfortunately, with an abusive relationship, the addictive properties of it are too dangerous and potent to just kind of take a break or something. So, maybe in your internal mind, in your heart, you may say, I’m going to compartmentalize this relationship, put it in a container and place it to the side for now. And then, I’ll let myself fully process through that when I’m ready. Doing that as an internal kind of soul process, I think is completely appropriate and helpful. 

On a global level, it’s really important to cut ties. It’s even more important, I think, for a highly sensitive person, because of the fact that we can have such a somatic response to things more so than 80% of the population. So, when we see someone or even read a text from someone. 

I have a client I’ve been working with who is definitely a highly sensitive person and working through a breakup, and she was saving all the text messages. And so, we had to have a session where she erased them. She needed that visceral connection cut off. So, for an HSP it’s even more important to have that dead space between.

Thank you. And I’m just curious, I know we’re not going to dive into this as we’re winding down here. I’m just curious as it relates to trauma and recovery. Do you find that people who are highly sensitive people might feel more trauma is that a thing?

It is a thing. There’s actually quite a bit out there examining children, for instance. The dandelion versus orchids studies, looking at non HSPs as dandelions. They’re pretty resilient in any area. You mow them, they come back. But you know, they’re also beautiful and they have medicinal properties. So, they’re wonderful. 

Orchids on the other hand, you know, one captivates the room. That’s all it takes. I mean, they can really flourish, but they need that perfect environment. I mean, I would kill them basically. I do not have a green thumb. That is an actual kind of a metaphor for what happens with HSPs is that HSPs are more negatively impacted by negative childhoods. They are more negatively impacted by trauma. But they are also more positively impacted by positive or good enough childhoods and they are more positively impacted by coping strategies. 

This is something that creates a lot of hope for HSPs I work with. Just because the relationship you were in created this catastrophic response for you and this somatic response and it’s affecting all areas of your life. When you sit down for a therapy session, or you sit down and do yoga or art, you actually gain more from it. So, it’s kind of like a best of both worlds type of thing.

Wow, thank you for sharing that. Well, Amelia, this has been so rich and so helpful. I want to invite you to help people know if they’re experiencing some of what we’ve talked about here today and want to utilize your resources and what you have to offer. What would you invite people to connect with? 

They could definitely go to my website, Kelley is with an E-Y. I always have to preface that. On Instagram, I’m @DrAmeliaKelley. And on there, I love answering questions and answers. I offer little quotes from really great sessions I have when there’s these wonderful aha moments. And just some fun things in addition to that. And also, on Insight Timer. I offer the HSP Happy Hour on there, which is a really fun place for highly sensitive people that come together, do yoga, meditation. I’m pretty sure all of that can be found on Facebook as well @DrAmeliaKelley. 

Oh, wonderful. So, the Insight Timer, there’s a specific group that you host? 

Yes. Yep. So, if you look through the courses, it’s shown up in there under the events. I have a channel on there with some of my meditations. All of those links can be found on my website as well. So, people can find me on there. 

Wonderful. And what else might people find on your website? 

I also have resources for going and doing your own assessments as far as finding out if you’re a highly sensitive person. I have a blog on there where I will reflect on different things happening in our kind of current world that may impact sensitivity and also how to stay and be in a healthy relationship. And then, links to a number of articles that I’ve been able to contribute to and write and some videos with some question and answers. So, it’s just kind of a fun place to explore.

And it sounds like you work with clients. Is that in North Carolina? Or do you also do some version of coaching or workshops?

I teach for the North Carolina Art Therapy Institute, a number of different trainings and also for the Black Girl Health Foundation. I have partnered with them and been teaching with them. But I do have a private practice in Cary, North Carolina. I do offer telehealth. Now, it gets a little tricky if people want to use insurance across state lines. That’s not always an option. But as far as coaching goes, that can be a completely different arena if someone wanted to reach out to me. 

I also have a number of fabulous clinicians that work with me as well that I’ve handpicked to have kind of the same whole body integrative approach and mission. And then shortly I will be having a blog that’s going to get started on psychology today as well. So, I’m excited about that.

Oh, all great things. I will make sure to have all of these links on today’s show notes. Dr. Amelia Kelley, thank you for joining us today.

Thank you so much for having me. This was such a wonderful conversation. 


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Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication.

Stop the criticism loop, learn new ways to communicate
and strengthen the connection with your partner.


Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching