Emotional abuse is one of those categories that has an incredibly broad spectrum of narrative variety. Therapeutically, you will find as many kinds of emotional abuse as there are patients. They often follow similar themes of parental neglect or denigration, but because we are all wired differently, the impact on us is quite varied.
One person may suffer cutting judgments from a parent and somehow understand they are wrong, and retain a good emotional structure, while another with similar treatment turns inward into self-loathing and despondency, or outward into feeling one down and rage. Our internal structure is a combination of our innate wiring coupled with our responses to traumatic experiences.
How We are Wired
When we are born, we have no sense of self. We experience our mother literally as a breast, the source of our sustenance. When we first experience that we cannot have that breast on demand, we begin to learn that we are not a god, and want to destroy this source of nourishment since we can’t have it when we want it.
As we grow and develop, we begin to understand that the breast is attached to a mother, whose gaze we want to capture, and that this mother can leave us but she always comes back. We need to be seen, known and loved well; to be able to capture the gaze of our mother, but be able to escape it as well when it is too much. If we have a mother who is engaged with us but gives us room to pull away, we gradually develop a healthy sense of self that is independent of our mother.
All other relationships are secondary, but an abusive relationship – someone yelling, threatening, or denigrating, or sneering on a regular basis – can take our healthy emotional structure and twist it into something painful and damaging, depending on how much we internalize these negative impressions.
What is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse is any behavior by a person in our life that has a damaging effect on our self-image – what we believe about ourselves. It may be a common occurrence, like a parent who says with disdain, “you’ll never amount to anything,” or “we only like happy faces,” or “you are a stupid, stupid child,” or any of a host of other denigrating statements. It can be a look of disgust, or lust, or disdain over and over, or a jeering, shaming observation, “I warned you about junk food. Of course, your pants don’t fit.”
Anything designed to make us feel fearful, dirty, or crazy, or one down, like we don’t matter, like we will never measure up, that there is something wrong with us, or has any other negative impact on our self-image, qualifies as emotional abuse.
When we begin to realize that the effect of the abuse has had a significant negative impact on us, it is time to find a mental health professional to begin to undo the damage caused by the people in our trauma narratives.
Malignant narcissists are brilliant at cutting people down emotionally, keeping them off balance, making them question their sanity. There’s a term “gaslighting” which refers to a person twisting facts and, when possible, evidence to make the target question whether or not they actually saw or heard what they thought they did. This is why it is so important to see a counselor if you believe you may be suffering from this kind of emotional abuse.
Effects of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse can have significant impacts on us, both emotionally and physically. Because we hold stress, anxiety, and anger in our bodies, emotional abuse can have long-term health effects.
When we are traumatized as youngsters, we literally lack the brain to process it. Our neocortex is not developed enough to think properly about abuse, to resist it, and to not accept blame for it.
Unprocessed trauma can lead to a long list of disease-like symptoms, from aches and pains to neurological events. Some people with these symptoms find that they subside after they are able to release the trauma they have stored in their body through therapeutic movement with a trained trauma professional, or through long-term psychotherapy.
Emotional abuse can damage our ability to trust others, to enjoy others, to feel good about ourselves, to make friends, to enjoy food, to believe we are lovable or deserve good things.
Without ever laying a finger on us, an abuser can manipulate us into a position where we create defensive structures that at first allow us to survive, but later make it difficult to enjoy our loved ones, our friends, or our work, and we can end up leading lives of quiet desperation, putting on a good face while no one knows we are miserable.
Take, for example, a boy who is raised by a father who is distant and unfeeling. When he is grown, he may love his children, but feel constantly nervous that he’s going to do it wrong.
He may feel responsible for every outcome in his children’s lives and be paralyzed when he has to make important decisions about their well-being. This is why, if the abuse is ongoing, it has to be stopped, and why if you want to get better, enlisting the services of a mental health professional is so important.
Stopping Emotional Abuse
Even with a moderate to severe trauma narrative, we can make it into adulthood still in a relationship with our abusers. Often times it is a parent, or sibling, or possibly someone outside the family. A victim of abuse often has had to shove down their feelings of pain, fear, sadness, or anger because it was expected in the family system, becoming codependently enmeshed with his or her abuser.
This means it is assumed to be the victim’s responsibility to conform to the emotional needs of the abuser, in a perpetual state of harm whenever they are together. The victim may feel trapped, that there is no way to stand up against the abuse without losing the relationship altogether or feel a deep-seated, ingrained sense of responsibility for the “normal” function of the relationship.
The sense may take on a religious flavor, based on some rigid understanding of “Honor your father and mother,” so the victim may believe that silently enduring the abuse is somehow a calling. Everything I’ve read in the Bible leads me to believe God hates emotional abuse and the wreckage caused by it.
If God hates it, but a person’s silently enduring it perpetuates it, doesn’t it make sense that a person in that position might be being called out of it, into growth and health? This is the work that a victim of emotional abuse can do with a mental health professional.
Stopping the abuse can be easier said than done, however. Consider these examples:
Cheryl is a 24-year-old mother of one child, married three years. Her mother Fran lives in town and is critical and controlling, often verbally abusing Cheryl to the point of tears. She and her husband Tom would have put a stop to it, but her parents have been helping with the mortgage for the past couple of years, and they’re not sure they can keep their current place without their help.
She’s starting to get chest pains and palpitations, which the doctor assures her are not a sign of something dangerous. Last month, Fran left town for two weeks and most of Cheryl’s symptoms subsided.
This is a tough one. Cheryl and Tom have to decide how much Cheryl’s emotional health is worth. They may need to find a smaller place they can afford on their own, before addressing the main issue, which is Fran’s abuse of Cheryl.
When the time comes, they need to sit down with her and say as calmly and in as few words as possible, the nature of Fran’s abuse, that it has to stop, and the consequences if it doesn’t, i.e. we will break relationship with you and you will not see your grandson again.
These are good things to talk over with a therapist before actually doing them. It may seem harsh at first, but by allowing Fran to roll over her unopposed, Cheryl offers no impetus for her mom to ever change. The threat of a broken relationship may be enough for Fran to reform her behavior, in which case the problem begins working itself out.
Fran may leave in a rage and never speak to them again, at which point Cheryl has to do the work of accepting that it wasn’t much of a relationship to begin with, and mourn the lost fantasy that her mom was ever going to come for her.
Mike is 32-years-old, married ten years, with two kids, a boy (13) and a girl (10). Recently, when his dad was visiting, he overheard his dad say to the boy, “You need to toughen up. Tears are for sissies.”
At that moment, Mike was transported back 20 years to numerous occasions when his dad said something similar to him, always with the same disdainful sneer. At the moment, he was frozen and all he could do was take his son aside privately and tell him he gets to have his tears and he can cry when he wants to.
In the moment, Mike was frozen by the trauma of his father’s callous disregard for his deeply felt and valid feelings. If he had processed these feelings with a counselor before the incident between his father and his son, he might have been able to intervene. He might have been able to say firmly to his father, “Don’t talk to my son that way. We believe that tears are a normal part of sadness, and he gets to be sad.”
His dad gets to have whatever reaction he has to that, up to and including breaking relationship, but it is much more important to protect our loved ones from abuse than it is to preserve peace at all costs. Here again, a therapist can help us make room for that kind of strength in our emotional grid, by helping us process past trauma so we aren’t stuck in young ways of relating.
Clearly, these are only two examples out of literally millions. Your story may be much worse. Whatever your story, if you are willing to face it with the help of a good therapist, growth and healing are possible.
Healing from Emotional Abuse
There are many different approaches to emotional healing on all fronts of the human experience, mind, body, soul, spirit. You should feel free to use any method you think will be helpful to you.
Though you will likely experience breakthrough realizations from time to time, it can be the work of years, and you have to be in it for the long haul. A tiny sampling of options is listed below. Others are easily researched online, or even better, in consultation with a mental health professional.
Psychodynamic Psychotherapy – This is the kind of therapy where the therapist talks to you and listens to you in order to get a better understanding of your trauma narrative and defenses, helping you better understand your part in your story and what you have made up about who you are in that context. Properly processed traumatic experiences mean more harmony internally and in our important relationships.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – This is an approach that deals symptomatically with negative thoughts. Essentially, you identify negative loops running in your mind, understand what triggers them, and develop positive thoughts to counter them. Learning to rehearse new thoughts over time (stuffing truth in the mouth of the lie, if you will) literally rewires your brain, creating new and more healthy neural pathways.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – This is a physical protocol, where the therapist takes a history, verifies the client is a good candidate for the protocol, and then leads the client through it as a means to alleviate stress around trauma. Originally applied to soldiers with PTSD with remarkable success, practitioners discovered it relieved distress for civilians suffering from a host of past traumatic experiences.
There are many other methodologies available to you not listed here. The important thing is to decide you want to do something different, you actually want to get better. Setting up an appointment with a mental health professional is one of the best ways to begin your journey toward better emotional health.
“Blindfolded”, Courtesy of Oscar Keys, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Damaged”, Courtesy of Verne Ho, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Deja Vu”, Courtesy of Emile Séguin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Victory”, Courtesy of Alex Woods, Unsplash.com, CC0 License