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.
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.