Fear and Guilt Will Keep You in an Abusive Relationship If You Let Them

[via flickr user ajari]

[via flickr user ajari]

You’ve long suspected something is not quite normal about your relationship with your parents. Perhaps you even sought answers and read about the signs of emotional child abuse.

Now, you have come to the hard, cold realization that you’ve been emotionally abused as a childand that the abuse has extended into your adulthood.

So, what do you do now?

Your First Few Steps Towards Healing

First, you need some emotional breathing room to just grasp the reality of what has been happening. That means to take a break from interacting with your abusive parents. (Whether the break is permanent or temporary isn’t the focus right now.)

The focus is you—your coming to grips with your past abuse and present situation, your attempts to reconcile what you thought was real and what actually is, your desire to get a clear view of your life, your younger self finally feeling relief at being heard.

You need to breathe deeply. Think. Find a therapist. Pray. Think some more. Research.

Your abusers will not want you to think freely. They want your thinking to be only what they want you to think. Like Big Brother in George Orwell’s classic novel Ninety-Eighty-Four, your abusive parents do not want—nor will they tolerate—your thinking critically about them or your thinking well of yourself.

But don’t give up on yourself!  You need this time. If you want, tell your parents that you need some time to think about your relationship. Loving parents will understand and/or pray and hope for you. Abusive parents will go bat-shit crazy with fear of losing you or just freeze you out.

But don’t be afraid in giving yourself thinking time. Here’s why:

“Emotionally abusive relationships can destroy your self-worth, lead to anxiety and depression, and make you feel helpless and alone. No one should have to endure this kind of pain—and your first step to breaking free is recognizing that your situation is abusive. Once you acknowledge the reality of the abusive situation, then you can get the help you need.” (Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D, HelpGuide article)

What Creating Space Really Means

Creating breathing and thinking space for yourself means you have moved yourself up from being the lowest person on your own totem pole to the one in a higher position. It means making yourself a priority. It means putting your parents in their appropriate place on your totem pole.

Unfortunately, adult survivors have a hard time in setting such boundaries. Most adult survivors of emotional child abuse have been conditioned by their parents to habitually…

  • Jump up to answer their calls immediately
  • Answer their emails instantly
  • Drop everything to help them with non-emergencies (that the parents erroneously label “emergencies”)
  • Be completely available at every second of your day via text
  • Rearrange your work schedule to suit them
  • Organize your family schedule to accommodate your abusive parents’ demands
  • Plan your meetings with friends/co-workers/spouses/children around your abusive parents’ schedules
  • Report everything you do, think, or feel to them
  • Seek their constant approval by going through hoops
  • Act, dress, feel, think, and be in the ways approved by the abusive parents

In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent and adult children respect one another’s boundaries and the fact that the parent and adult child have their own separate identity and life. Parent and adult help one another sometimes. But in an abusive parent-child relationship, the parent demands to be the center of the adult child’s world, eclipsing the adult child’s own needs, friendships, relationships, work, well-being, everything.

Should You Tell Your Abusive Parents That You’ve Been Abused by Them and Need Time to Think?

That depends. Dr. Jonice Webb, author of Running on Empty: Overcoming Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, offers advice that applies to adult survivors of emotional child abuse:

“Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN [childhood emotional neglect] based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them, then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you.” (Dr. Jonice Webb,How to Deal With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents“)

For now, you can just tell them that you need some space to think. You don’t need to give them a deadline for your thinking to end or healing to being nor give them updates. It’s all right to breathe and search for healing and answers.

Even if doing so feels scary.

Fear and Guilt Will Hound You at First (But Not Forever)

Breaking out of an abusive relationship—especially a parent-child one—is very, very hard at first. It’s stepping out into the unknown.

Because an adult survivor of emotional child abuse has been conditioned to stay in his/her cage, the survivor will feel a hurricane of emotions. There will be heart-pounding panic, a sense of impending disaster, an almost overwhelming sense of loss, depression, and just the conditioned response that the adult survivor is going to catch absolute hell for acting against his or her parent.

Fear

The adult survivor may experience panic attacks and myriad symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

A person thinking about leaving an abusive relationship or actually leaving one may feel gripped by…

  • Fear of “getting in trouble”
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of retribution
  • Fear of being alone
  • Fear of being a disappointment
  • Fear of people thinking badly of you
  • Fear of not “fitting in”
  • Fear of losing friends
  • Fear of not being believed

Some of those fears may happen, but they will not crush you. Some may never take place. Either way, the fears should not keep you in your abusive relationship.

We’re telling you this not as excuses or reasons to not leave an abusive relationship, but to let you know that all those suffocatingly awful feelings you’re experiencing are normal for an adult survivor of emotional child abuse getting out of the abusive relationship. Those emotions are common and understandable.

And those emotions will not always be as huge and dark and overwhelming as they seem in the beginning. They’ll seem as vicious as monsters at first, but through therapy and prayer and time and reading, you’ll see those feelings become smaller and more manageable. And sometimes, a few of those terrible feelings disappear in the light and brightness of an emotionally healthier life.

False Guilt

You very well may lose friends and relatives and your social circles and your assigned place in family interactions when you decide to break out of the abusive parent-child relationship. People might give you absolute hell for how you are treating your outwardly-appearing-good parents because those people do not know the truth about your parents.

And in facing such opposition, you may begin questioning what really happened, gloss over facts, bury some unhealthy emotions, and jump right back into the abusive relationship—all out of guilt and fear.

That guilt, however, is not true guilt from doing something wrong and having our well-formed conscience tells us we need to ask for forgiveness and remedy the situation. This type of guilt is very different, according to psychologist and author Dr. Gregory L. Jantz. This guilt is how emotionally abused adults make false sense of what happened to them: “The reason given for the abuse varies: you are bad, stupid, ugly, or wanted, or you are the wrong sex, the wrong age, or the wrong whatever. You are guilty of causing the abuse.”

“The guilt you are feeling is not true guilt. True guilt is brought on by a realistic understanding of your behavior and its consequences to yourself and others. False guilt is an oppressive burden that is not based on reality but on the warped views, ideas, and attitudes of others. Emotional abuse transfers those warped views onto you, and those warped views produce mind-numbing, action-paralyzing shame.” (Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse)

But you need to face those fears so that you can become emotionally healthy.

“Emotional abuse leads to intense feelings of anger, rage, resentment and bitterness. Submerged feelings of guilt and fear of your abuser can lead you to choose a safer target for your anger that your abuser. All too often that target is you. Unspent anger continually works inside the body using up energy, causing feelings of fatigue and apathy.” (Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse)

You’ll need to tackle the reality of what happened, which means getting out of your current “comfort zone.”

But you know what? It really, really, really wasn’t working well for you in the first place. That “comfort zone” you were in with your abusive parent(s) wasn’t comfortable and it wasn’t safe. It was “known,” which has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with habit and brainwashing and conditioning.

The reality is that if those fears are actualized, you’ll still be a thousand times off better than when you were in your abusive relationship.

Because you’re walking in the truth now. And in doing so, you’re walking away from the shadows and into a healthier present and even healthier future.

Onward.

[via flickr user Henry Liriani]

[via flickr user Henry Liriani]


Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, Loyola Press, MarketingProfs, and Ragan.

Your Final Chance to Participate in an ACoN Study

[via]

[via]

If you’ve not participated in The University of Georgia‘s recent study of how parental communications affect adults, you’ve still a final chance.

Research project manager Valerie Coles emailed about giving adult children of narcissists (ACoNs) another opportunity to participate in the study. The short, simple survey will be open for participants up through June. (Bonus: Participants can enter their email address to get in a drawing for a $100 gift card.)

“The purpose of this study is to understand how parental communication impacts individuals once they are adults… This study is an assessment of a measure of parental narcissism. There is presently no published scale that measures parental narcissism behaviors from the perspective of the adult child. This study aims to further refine a measure of parental narcissism by targeting self-identified ‘Adult Children of Narcissists.'” (Dr. Jennifer Monahan and Valerie Coles)

In taking this survey, you participate in research about ACoNs, which, in the opinion of The Invisible Scar, is a very worthy reason for doing so. Not enough research has been done regarding adult survivors. This survey offers the opportunity to help raise awareness of ACoNs.

The researchers will be sharing the information with The Invisible Scar and other participating websites. And in turn, I’ll share the information with you.

Take the survey.

National Child Abuse Awareness Month: Emotional Child Abuse Is Real and Its Effects Last Long Into Adulthood

Editor’s note: April is National Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention month. The Invisible Scar is dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse, so in honor of this month’s focus, we’ll revisit the definition of emotional child abuse, types of emotional child abuse, and its effects for those who are not yet familiar with the fact that emotional child abuse is real.

When child-advocate lawyer Andrew Vachss was asked, “What is the worst case you ever handled?” when protecting abused children, he answered, “Of all the many forms of child abuse, emotional abuse may be the cruelest and longest-lasting of all.”

Why is emotional child abuse  the worst kind? Why is it even worse than physical child abuse or sexual child abuse?

It’s because emotional child abuse seeks to destroy the person’s very being.

“Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another,” Vachss writes in You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart. “It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child’s self-concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children: love and protection.”

Another definition by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is…

“Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional ill-treatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. It may involve causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children. Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of ill treatment of a child, though it may occur alone.” (Department of Health et al, 1999, p. 5-6)

Emotional Abuse Is Not a One-Time Event

The words persistent and systematic are crucial to the definition of emotional child abuse. Emotional child abuse isn’t a parent telling his child once, “Why did you spill the juice? Don’t do that again!”

Emotional abuse is systematic. It’s a consistent destructive force in a child’s life.

For example, an emotionally abusive parent will tell a child, “Why did you forget to make your bed? Are you stupid? Stupid and forgetful…” and then, at some point in time (close enough to be linked to the first event), “You forgot again? Can’t you ever do something right? You are always disappointing me.” Again, at another point, the abusive parent will say similar words, so that the child ties it together: “You can’t do anything right. You are always disappointing me.”

And so on…

In time, the emotionally abused child adopts the phrase into his or her memory as something that defines them: “I don’t do anything right. I am always disappointing my parents.” He takes the words as a description of who he is… and the phrases will come back to him often.

All the destructive words, whether encased in subtle phrasing or baldly hurtful, will become part of the child’s “self talk.”

The abusive words will become truths to the child.

Types of Emotional Child Abuse

“Psychological abuse of a child is a pattern of intentional verbal or behavioral actions or lack of actions that convey to a child the message that he or she is worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value to meet someone else’s needs.” (Samantha Gluck, Healthy Place: America’s Mental Health Channel article)

The pattern can take different forms. Here’s a look at types of emotional child abuse:

  • Giving the silent treatment
  • Ranking children unnecessarily
  • Being condescending
  • Bunny boiling (aka destroying something that the child cherishes)
  • Gaslighting children
  • Scapegoating
  • Sabotaging
  • Favoritism
  • Triangulation
  • Pathologic (or compulsive) lying
  • Smearing
  • Ignoring
  • Corrupting
  • Terrorizing
  • Isolating
  • Inappropriately controlling

You can read more about the Types of Emotional Child abuse here.

Affects of Emotionally Abused Children as Adults

“Although the scars may not be visible to the naked eye, emotional abuse wounds the spirit, frequently leaving its marks for a lifetime,” according to the National Council of Child Abuse & Family Violence.

“This form of abuse is destructive to a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem. It can affect a child’s emotional development, resulting in a sense of worthlessness and inadequacy.”

Moreover, the “children who suffer emotional abuse grow into adults who see themselves through the eyes of their abuser,” according to the council. “They carry a sense of inadequacy and worthlessness with them into their jobs and relationships. Frequently, those who have experienced emotional abuse in childhood find it difficult to develop healthy, intimate relationships as adults. They may even develop antisocial behaviors, which isolate them further.”

Health
“If you were emotionally abused in childhood, you will be sicker as an adult than if you had not been emotionally abused,” states Dr. Laurie McKinnon, the director of Insite Therapy and Consulting based in New South Wales, in her report Hurting Without Hitting: Non-Physical Contact Forms of Abuse [PDF]. “It is also likely that you will be sicker than if you had been physically abused.”

Health issues also include…

  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Other self-destructive behaviors

Mental Health
“One of the most frequently documented outcomes of childhood emotional abuse, particularly for women, is a vulnerability to clinical depression and anxiety in adulthood,” says McKinnon. “Internalised criticism, along with a fear of criticism and rejection from others, appears to be at the core of the depressed or anxious symptoms they experience in adulthood.”

Why Isn’t Emotional Child Abuse Identified or Reported More Often?

“Child protective service case workers may have a harder time recognizing and substantiating emotional neglect and abuse because there are no physical wounds,” said Joseph Spinazzola, PhD, of the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Center, and lead author of a new study on psychological trauma. “Also, psychological abuse isn’t considered a serious social taboo like physical and sexual child abuse. We need public awareness initiatives to help people understand just how harmful psychological maltreatment is for children and adolescents.”

Emotional child abuse is difficult to identify because the abuse works on the psyche of a child rather than the body. You cannot see the bruise or cut or wound that an insult or manipulation or the silent treatment has left upon the child. But the wound exists nevertheless.

“Nonphysical contact abuse (NPC) can be difficult to identify because it leaves no visible injury and because victims often do not seek help,” according to McKinnon. “Professionals find overt NPC abuse easiest to identify because it’s openly hostile. Covert NPC abuse on the other hand is more subtle and insidious and often disguised as helpful or inadvertent.

“The abuser may deny hostile intent while ignoring and discounting the target person’s needs, feelings, and opinions,” McKinnon says. “The abuser negatively labels the target person in ways that convey that he or she is worthless, bad, more difficult, less attractive, or less desirable than other people. Onlookers may not identify the behaviour as abusive and instead blame the target person for his or her inadequacies.”

What to Do If… You’re a Parent Who Is Emotionally Abusing His or Her Child

Please get help! Contact Prevent Child Abuse and/or the American Humane Society for help.

What to Do If… You Suspect a Child Is Being Emotionally Abused

Learn how to become a trusted adult in the child’s life.

Also, contact Prevent Child Abuse and/or the American Humane Society for professional advice on what you can do.

What to Do If… You Are an Adult Survivor of Emotional Child Abuse

First, know that you are not alone… and that you can heal. You will bear scars, of course, but you can (in time and through prayer and therapy) still forge a good, emotionally healthy life for yourself.

Reading all the effects of emotional child abuse on an adult survivor can be very overwhelming, difficult, and depressing, but please don’t despair. Think of it this way: By facing the truth of what has happened to you and what the effects are, you can find the help you need and learn skills to grow into a healthier, happier person.

You are not alone. You need not despair. There is hope and healing.

Second, find yourself a good therapist; a fresh notebook for jotting down your feelings, thoughts, and ideas; and a good friend who will listen to you and believe your story.

I recommend reading  this article for more advice.

* * *

This April, we’ll be digging into the various types of emotional child abuse in detail. I’ve already covered gaslighting and the silent treatment in their separate posts.

Next week, let’s tackle bunny boiling. Stay tuned.

How to Read an Online Article About Narcissism

This morning, I read an online article about narcissism yet decided reading-womannot to share it for two very important reasons:

1. The information within the article was incorrect.

2. No research was cited at all.

Despite those two facts, the article was heavily shared on social networks. The current trend is to call anything like self-esteem a “form of narcissism” or simplifying the ubiquitous selfie to “absolute narcissism,” which explains the high volume of social shares and comments the article received.

As a professional editor with a background in communications (emphasis on journalism), I felt compelled to write a few lines about how to sift through information and how to find those shining gleams of well-written, informative research.

Here are a few tips on how to read an online article. (Note: You need not read everything online this way. A hilarious article, an essay on birds, a recipe for macaroons, etc. do not need to be analyzed. Unless you’re me. Then you end up analyzing everything.)

  • Skim the article first.
    If you skim the piece, you’ll be able to tell if the piece is well-written, which often, but not always, signifies clarity of thought. Some horrible ideas are expressed clearly, so clarity does not mark the article as possessing good information. You just don’t want to waste time on a convoluted piece.
  • Check for links.
    An online article that makes bold assertions, such as “so-and-so said this” or that “12% of whatsits did this,” should link to that information. Don’t believe so-and-so said it unless you have data proving that the person did say it. A research piece should allow you information to read further and provide links to do so.
  • Check the quality of those links.
    If you’ve ever written a school report on deadline and with minimal resources, you know that you can come up with statistics and quotes from the worst sources. So can online authors. For example, information gleaned from Psychology Today may weigh more heavily than information about personality disorders taken from a magazine about cooking.
  • Read the article again. This time, read it slowly and take time to consider the information there. Picture it like a meal: Instead of wolfing it down, savor and reflect on the overall taste and experience.
  • Read more than one article on a subject.
    If you read a fantastic article about gaslighting from one source and you find new bits of information in it, make sure to read more about the same subject. Unfortunately, many people read one article about a subject and assume knowledge of it. For example: I don’t know a lot about snowboarding, but during the Winter Olympics, I formed opinions about some snowboarders… though I know nothing about the sport. I had to give myself a mental shake and remind myself that what I know about snowboarding is: snow is involved and so is a board. 
  • Read a lot and read often.
    When you regularly read some newspapers, blogs, websites, etc., you start to know which sources are reliable, which authors have solid information, which ones to avoid, etc. Also, you’ll know enough about the subject to have your BS detector go off if something seems suspicious.

* * *

At The Invisible Scar, we strive to provide links to whatever information we find regarding emotional child abuse. And if you ever have a question or comment regarding the content here, do use the contact form to drop us a line.

photo credit: Pensiero via photopin cc;