Posts

Unclothing the Lie that Words Can Never Hurt

“My God! You are so clumsy! What is wrong with you?” Once again, Angie had spilled her milk. Her siblings popped up out of their seats, as much to get away from their mother as away from the milk, which was now spreading across the table and threatening to drip on the floor.

“Get out of my way!” their mother yelled as she grabbed a kitchen towel and headed for the spill. “Don’t just stand there! Pick up those plates so I can make sure it doesn’t get on the carpet! Angie was afraid to move, afraid to do anything else wrong. No one looked at her—not her mother, not her brother, not her sister— until the spill was mopped up and the table put back together.

“Oh, no you don’t,” her mother said as Angie started to sit down at the table. “You cannot be trusted.” After picking up Angie’s plate, her mother went into the kitchen and placed it on the floor, next to the dog bowl. “You can just eat with the dog until you can eat like a person.” With that, her mother marched back into the other room, leaving Angie thinking about a meal she no longer had any interest in.

Emotional abuse happens when an adult humiliates a child for actions consistent with being a child.

Children require correction from adults to learn the right thing to do. Emotional abuse happens when correction meant to help the child is turned into humiliation meant to punish the child. The definition of humiliation is to cause a painful loss of dignity, pride, or self-respect. Children have not yet gained the maturity to withstand the damage of humiliation, which can be difficult even for adults to endure. Humiliating a child is taking advantage of someone younger and more vulnerable out of a distorted desire for control and power.

More than twenty years ago, I wrote a book on emotional abuse because I wasn’t finding much acknowledgment regarding the damage I was seeing in my clients from emotional or psychological abuse. One question I asked in that book was why emotional abuse was so common. I concluded that emotional abuse was so prevalent because some people categorized emotional abuse as normal. How could something normal be considered abusive? So what if you were yelled at growing up, wasn’t everyone? Who cared if you were regularly dismissed as worthless? You just needed to try harder. If you didn’t grow up feeling loved, that was just a generational thing you were supposed to get over. If you weren’t beaten within an inch of your life, you had nothing to complain about. So people didn’t complain; they moved on with their lives. Yet some of those people kept having difficulties, difficulties that eventually led them to my office.

People are slow to admit the obvious in cases of emotional abuse for various reasons. When I was growing up, years of groupthink said that adults, especially parents, had the right to deal with children however they saw fit. You weren’t supposed to involve yourself in another family’s “business.” If adults spoke harshly to children, well, they must have had a reason. It wasn’t your “place” to object—and certainly not in public.

My generation also grew up learning that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I remember repeating that rhyme to myself when other kids were mean to me. I learned the lesson well and determined I wasn’t going to let other kids get to me. That rhyme wasn’t as successful when it came to hurtful words from adults, and certainly not my parents.

When I started my practice over thirty years ago, I committed to unclothe the lie that “words can never hurt.” They can and they do, in stunning and devastating ways. When society collectively comes to that conclusion, the emotional abuse of children will become less common.

If you or a loved one is struggling with past abuse, The Center • A Place of HOPE is here to help.  Our team is skilled at navigating these sensitive issues, and bringing healing and treatment for emotional abuse to the whole family. For more information, fill out this form or call 1-888-747-5592 to speak confidentially with a specialist today.

The Emotional Cost of Childhood Abuse

An abused child is an abandoned child in so many ways, as the child has been denied the love, care, and concern they have every right to expect from their caregivers. In situations of abuse, not only are love, care, and concern denied, but they are also often replaced by a true house of horrors, with no safety, no peace, and no trust. Such a dysfunctional formative environment creates a wave of damage that crashes into the processes of maturation and healthy development. In the presence of childhood abuse, whole-person health is compromised — emotional, intellectual, physical, relational, and spiritual health.

I have found children to be both fragile and resilient. Their resiliency is shown through their ability to hope, trust, and endure. Their fragility is shown through an incomplete understanding of adult motives, reasons, and objectives. Children so often find a way to navigate through life in the short term. To avoid a danger, they will skew off on a different path, without realizing the problematic trajectory of that temporary way out.

Sadly, when abuse is present, a child’s healthy path through life is hijacked. The paths they should have traveled—the roads of trust, security, love, attention, appreciation, care, and concern—are cordoned off by the abuse. Instead, they are forced to travel down roads of fear, insecurity, hardship, frustration, anger, distrust, and chaos.

I am not surprised by the emotional damage of childhood abuse; I expect it. What continually surprises me is how those who have been abused as children—through creativity, ingenuity, and sheer force-of-will—still find their way to hope, love, forgiveness, and faith. But traveling through the negativity of abuse as children takes its toll; a toll that can become due and payable in adulthood.

Anxiety

Abused children live in a world of dread. They also live in a world where they’ve learned they are responsible for their safety. In such a world, there is no standing down. They live on high alert—all the time. When these children find themselves responsible for other children, the sense of hyper-watchfulness is compounded. These children become tightly wound, emotionally stretched as they attempt to monitor their worlds for anticipated dangers. As such, they are highly reactive, twitching at the slightest movement or smallest sound. They default to a world of imminent disaster. Red alert becomes their familiar state, a known place of warped safety.

Did you grow up always wondering when the next shoe would drop, whether it was a harsh word, a taunt, a slap, or a touch? Where and when did you feel safe? Did you ever feel safe? High anxiety can be a way of coping with such a world. In a world where you are a target, you learn never to let your guard down; you keep it up, all the time, just in case.

Depression

Abused children are resilient. They are inventive and creative about finding ways to overcome and survive their abuse. Yet chronic abuse can take a significant toll on what I call “emotional buoyancy,” that ability to spring back and recover from psychological trauma. A child may find that recovering a sense of emotional balance increasingly becomes more challenging with frequent and damaging psychological shocks. With child- hood abuse, hope takes a beating. Bearing the weight of belief in a positive future can become a very heavy burden.

Did you grow up wishing for things that you knew, deep down, weren’t possible? How did you feel when they didn’t happen? Disappointed? Foolish for even thinking you could have them? Did you decide, at some point, it was just easier to expect the worst? And did expecting the worst make living life harder or easier? Were there times when you just wanted to run away, hide, and feel nothing at all? Did you grow up learning not to hope for things so you wouldn’t be hurt? At least, that’s what you told yourself.

If you or a loved one is struggling with past abuse, The Center • A Place of HOPE is here to help.  Our team is skilled at navigating these sensitive issues, and bringing healing to the whole family. For more information, fill out this form or call 1-888-747-5592 to speak confidentially with a specialist today.

The Effects of Emotional Abuse

Andrea couldn’t stand to be alone; she just didn’t know it.  At home by herself, usually at night, she would panic — heart racing, hyperventilating, sure she was having a heart attack.  The attacks would come upon her suddenly, in the middle of watching television or after cleaning up the kitchen.  Terrified, she tried to calm herself, but when that proved futile, the fear would accelerate as she convinced herself something was physically wrong.

After her third visit to the emergency room in as many weeks, a hospital caseworker suggested that her health difficulties might better be addressed by a therapist than a physician.  Andrea had never considered counseling before — it seemed to intrusive and personal — but she was desperate, unable to hold her debilitating fear at bay.

Even though desperate, Andrea arrived at The Center • A Place of HOPE guarded, wary, and on edge.  She just wanted something, anything, to stop the panic attacks.  She insisted that the only reason she had come in was because the hospital suggested it.  What she wanted was medication.  What she got was the truth about herself.

Andrea came to realize that because of emotional abuse she had endured as a child, she never felt truly comfortable with herself.  Instead, she derived her sense of self from other people.  Andrea strove to please those around her and to do the best job possible.  She was a perfectionist when it came to her job.  She was at her best in the midst of a busy, bustling office with a high level of demands.  When Andrea had something to do, she knew who she was.

Growing up, being busy meant being away from home, and that meant she was out of range of an unhappy, bitter mother and a demanding, capricious father.  If you weren’t busy, you were noticed.  If things were quiet, there was no place to hide.

Living in a household where an emotional attack was always a real possibility, Andrea grew up never feeling safe or being totally able to relax.  As long as people were surrounding her and things were going on, Andrea was able to divert her growing anxiety and panic into tasks and activity.  It was at home, in the quiet, that panic took the upper hand.  In order to heal, Andrea needed to learn to relax and be herself — something she had never had the luxury of doing while growing up and something she had never given herself permission to do as an adult.  Andrea needed to learn to like who she was, even with nobody else in the room.

Any kind of abuse, emotional abuse included, is an attack on a person’s sense of self.  It demeans and controls that person through words or actions, devaluing that person and ultimately elevating the abuser.  If you have suffered abuse in your past or are suffering in the present, it is not something to be ignored, denied, accepted, or perpetuated.  The damage it does to your sense of self is pervasive and destructive.

Over the course of my years of working with the abused and abusers, I have found several distinct negative effects to the sense of self associated with emotional abuse:

  • low self-esteem
  • lack of self-confidence
  • transfer of needs
  • acting out sexually
  • loneliness
  • failure syndrome
  • perfectionism
  • unrealistic guilt
  • crisis oriented
  • unresolved anger and resentments

Depending on your situation, you may find that one or more of these effects is true in your own life.  You may have been aware of these effects without understanding why they exist in your life.

If you are struggling with emotional abuse, The Center • A Place of HOPE can help.  Call us at 1-888-771-5166 to speak confidentially with a specialist.