Adult Survivors of Emotional Child Abuse · Ask the Therapist · Frequently Asked Questions

Ask the Therapist: Steven Stosny on Fading Negative Voices, Recognizing the Emotional Abuse, and Getting on the Path to Recovery

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At The Invisible Scar, we’ve recently received questions that made us seek out the advice of a mental healthcare professional to answer them. Because this site is run by a layperson, I turned to Steven Stosny, Ph. D, for a brief but informative interview.

Stosny is the founder of CompassionPower in suburban Washington, DC. His most recent books are Living and Loving after Betrayal. How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about It: Finding Love Beyond Words, and Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One.

TIS: How can the adult child of an emotionally abusive parent ever get rid of all the negative voices inside their head? All they hear is their parents’ abuse…

They may never ‘get rid’ of them, but they can learn to focus on creating value and meaning in their lives, which will give the old voices ‘white noise’ status, like an air conditioner in the background.

Focus is a skill that must be practiced. Whatever we focus on, amplifies and magnifies neural connections in the brain. Repeated focus forms habits. In time, more beneficial habits can develop by choosing to focus on what is most important to and about you as a person, partner, and parent.

TIS: How can spouses of adult children of emotional abusive parents help their spouse see that they are being abused?

Be compassionate and supportive, but never use the childhood experience as an excuse for accepting bad behavior, which will only further deteriorate the self-value of the adult child. Ultimately, we heal by giving compassion, not by getting it. Be open about your own vulnerabilities, and that will invite compassion from your partner, which is really the only way he/she can heal.

TIS: Can adult children ever have a healthy relationship with their parents? [Editor’s note: The question was not about whether a healthy relationship can exist with NPD parents but those without a personality disorder.] In other words, can the relationship between an emotionally abusive parent and an adult child ever be fixed?

In many cases, but the timeline varies greatly and is highly individual. Focus on healing before repairing. Without healing, adequate repair is impossible. Once you heal, you can decide whether you truly want to repair and what kind of emotional connection you wish to have. Then the decision will be positive, based on your values, rather than an attempt to avoid guilt or shame. 

TIS: How can adult children of emotionally abusive parents begin the path to recovery?

Focus less on how you feel about the past and more on how you want to feel in the present and future. When we focus on how we feel, we bring into implicit memory past instances that evoked similar feelings, creating an illusion that it’s always been that way and, by implication, always will be that way. If the feelings are painful, the brain must interpret, explain, and justify them. This whole process serves to habituate them, i.e., make them habits that will recur under stress. When we focus on how we want to feel, the brain comes up with ways to get there. Doing so systematically creates beneficial habits.

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A hearty thanks to Dr. Stosny for taking the time to answer questions from the inbox and combox.

If you are a mental healthcare professional, please consider an interview with The Invisible Scar. We often receive questions that merit professional advice, and we’d love to talk to you about them.

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6 thoughts on “Ask the Therapist: Steven Stosny on Fading Negative Voices, Recognizing the Emotional Abuse, and Getting on the Path to Recovery

  1. One thing I don’t see anyone discussing is the anger phase….I’ve recently awakened (it took the better part of the last year to get here) and I’m really angry. Angry at myself for not realizing I was stuck in the pit of Destructive Narcissists working their evil on me for the better part of my life, and angry that I didn’t “get it” sooner. Angry that my Narcissistic Adoptive Mother passed away without ever apologizing to me or possibly even recognizing her behavior, and now angry that my Adoptive Father will never have to face up to any of the hurt and damage he’s caused.

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    1. I am with you in the anger. I’m so angry that I’ve started to worry I’m turning into them, because I need so much after 30 years of living off a rancid emotional well, and if someone can’t give it to me or doesn’t understand, or is careless in a way that is commonplace and minor (like cutting me off in traffic), I lose it. Instantly. And when I lose it, things can get ugly enough that only my husband will still want me around, because he has the anger too. I have also noticed that even if I don’t act on my anger, it is not “okay” in anyone’s eyes, including well-intentioned people who want to support me like my boss, to talk about it. Because that’s the past and we don’t talk about the past, because we all believe in the idiotic “Law of Attraction” crap touted in the highly successful film “The Secret”: that if you think about or talk about or try to deal with anything negative, or hang around someone who does, you might get some on ya.

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