Three Must-Read Posts for Mother’s Day If You’re an Adult Survivor of Emotional Child Abuse

photo credit: flickr user raw pixel

Advertisements on TV and the radio go over the top in portraying all mothers as idealized heroic women who did absolutely every single thing right.

Motherhood, however, is far more complex and grittier than those bleached versions of it. It’s a vocation that, when approached right, requires maternal sacrifice, encourages a selfless love from the mother, and fosters virtues in the family.

Motherhood is a special calling to live out the definition of love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury. It does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

Some mothers do their best to follow that definition. They can inspire us and present a type of motherhood that adult survivors can learn from to parent their own children.

But then, some children were brought up with a broken version of the above or one that goes in the exact opposite of it.

The maternal love received by some children was impatient, was unkind. It was jealous, it was pompous. It was inflated and rude. It sought its own interest and was quick-tempered. It brooded over injury. It rejoiced over wrongdoing and despaired the truth. It bore nothing, believed nothing, hoped for nothing, and enduring nothing. That twisted version of love failed.

For those adult survivors of emotional child abuse, the upcoming Mother’s Day holiday can be incredibly difficult. So, on this day before the holiday, I offer these three articles from The Invisible Scar archives that cover different approaches to surviving (or ignoring) Mother’s Day.

Onward and upward.


Veronica Jarski is the founder and writer 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 online publications. She also is the author of an e-book about waking up to the realization that one had an emotionally abusive childhood.

Questions From the Mailbox: Allegedly Ruining Your Future, Deciding to Blog, and Wondering Whether to Tell Your Abusive Parents How You Feel

photo credit: flickr user

Editor’s Note: The Invisible Scar does not offer professional advice, only opinion.

The Invisible Scar receives many emails every month. Some have questions or comments best shared with our readers in this “From the Editor’s Mailbox” column. Though our main advice is for the reader to seek therapy from a professional, we also invite helpful insight or support. (Names have been changed and questions edited for brevity.)

1.) “I live with my abusive mother. I want to leave home, but she’s turned my whole family against me. I work for the family business, they’re telling me that if I leave I’ll ruin my entire future.”—Hannah, age 18

The desire to get out of an emotionally abusive home is reasonable. Once your eyes are opened to the reality of your abuse, you have every right to get in a safe place away from your abuser.

That shift in the emotional landscape often freaks out abusive parents. They want the abused adult child to remain exactly where they have kept the adult child for years. They do not want any changes in the systematic cycle of abuse they perpetuate. So, when the adult child awakens to the fact that he or she is emotionally abused, abusive parents will absolutely freak out. They sometimes will probe your weaknesses and exploit them. In this case, they know you worry about the future, so they say you will ruin it.

Know that you have dignity and worth as a child of God. “Human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society.” 

You do not deserve the abuse. No one deserves abuse.

If you can live with a friend, rent out a room, or stay at a dorm, do so. If you can’t, come up with a plan to live in an emotionally healthy place, and start working toward the fulfillment of that plan. Start becoming more self-sufficient in your finances.

Give yourself some space to think. You are not ruining your entire future by separating yourself from an abusive situation. Instead, you are changing the game plan your mother had for you, the plan that kept you in captivity.

Please, seriously consider a future in an emotionally better workplace and home.


2.) “I am an adult survivor of the silent treatment. For years, I have tried to find a book written on this subject. There is nothing. Even books recommended to me by counselors and social workers do not address, the silent treatment. It’s like it never happened and it doesn’t exist?” —Allen

The silent treatment is very real.

Most of the information gathered for my article about the silent treatment comes from online research rather than books. I’ve not found very much about this horrific type of abuse covered in books. Dr. Gregory Jantz does discuss the silent treament in his book, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse.  You can read an excerpt. Also, Elyn Tromey’s blog post at Life & Therapy is also a thoughtful post.

Readers, if you have any recommendations about books that mention the silent treatment, please mention it in the comments.


3.) “I was emotionally abused as a child and adult and made the decision to cut my parents off and heal myself which is what I did. I feel so much better. I am thinking of starting a blog to help others using WordPress. If you have any thoughts on this, I would love to hear them.”—Emma

Let’s talk writing first … Can you write well? Do you know basic grammar rules—and which ones to break for clearer, more engaging writing? Can you write, not with yourself in mind, but with a sense of respect for your readers’ time?

Your writing must be well-crafted to draw in readers. Most importantly, you need to honor their time by providing the best content you can produce.

Unfortunately, myriad online writers believe they can get away with sloppier writing because, hey, the Internet.

However, writing for an online audience means crafting clear, focused content—whether for personal or public audiences. (If you don’t know much about writing skills, pacing, or narratives, I highly recommend Everybody Writes by Ann Handley.)

Now, let’s discuss the type of blog …

Do you want to start a personal blog that discusses your own journey through emotional child abuse and shares current experiences? If so, I highly suggest you take time to pray about this project, reflect on your reasons for the blog then discuss its purpose with a trusted friend or therapist.

Know that a personal blog that is public (as opposed to being a private blog that requires your permission) often can be very triggering and exhausting for adult survivors on the road to healing. 

Though you may begin your blog with the desire to help, you may find rancorous parents (and their flying-monkey friends) filling up your comment box with their vituperation. Even if you change your comments to be moderated, you’ll have to sift through those abusive tirades from those trolls. (What a waste of your time.) Plus, you need very thick skin to not take the ignorant comments personally or abandon blogging immediately or fan the fire with your own retorts.

Or perhaps you want to have a blog only for specific friends to read with your permission.

Or you may want to write in a journal or on your laptop and share printed copies of your experiences with friends.

Do you want to start a regular website that discusses emotional abuse but doesn’t delve into your own personal experiences? As the editor and writer of The Invisible Scarwhich is exactly thatI say go for it. The more awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors, the better.


4.) “You may be educated, but show no wisdom. Instead of correcting a problem (if there truly is one), the narcissism and abuse you speak of I see originating from you. So go ahead and be cold-hearted, cruel and show no empathy or compassion for those who raised, loved and sacrificed for you.”—Frank

I’m publishing that snippet of a wordy, pejorative email to prove my point in the previous answer: Abusive parents sometimes read blogs and websites about emotional child abuse, and feel compelled to send hate mail. (You have been warned.)

Does that mean you should keep quiet? No, just make sure you’re in a very emotionally healthy place before you decide to start your blog. Most importantly, talk to your therapist about your intention and make sure you’re in the right head space to handle the rigors of your project.


5.) “Hi, just a quick one: If you’re an adult unable to escape a psychologically abusive parent’s influence, should you acknowledge their continuing abusive subtly, or just ignore it?”—Maya

You can escape the influence. Doing so is not easy. But it can be done.

A psychologist who knows your situation and all the details surround it is better equipped than I am to give advice. But I’ll give my opinion because you did ask whether to acknowledge their abuse or ignore it.

If you aren’t in danger of being physically harmed, I would most definitely tell your abusive parent how you view your relationship with him/her, how you feel, and how you will need some space to think and get therapy.

Here’s why I believe you should tell your abusive parents (if they are not a threat to your physical well-being) how you feel…

  • You have a voice. Though it’s shaking from fear and nerves, you have the right to use it. Speaking up for yourself is a right you have. As an adult survivor of emotional child abuse, you have not used this voice very much, but it’s yours. Reclaim it. Use it. Speak up for yourself.
  • Your abusers need to hear it. You cannot change your abusers; only they can change themselves. But they need to know this truth about themselves. They’re not going to want to face the horrible fact that they are emotionally abusive parents. However, they need to be told. Don’t perpetuate the lie, don’t feed into their delusions. Be who you are meant to bean adult with dignity and worth living in the truth.
  • Your abusive parents may change. In some cases, the abusive parents may not be deliberately abusing their child. In their ignorance, the abusers continue the behavior they learned from their parents and do not really understand that it’s abusive. Or the abusive parent may see the light and realize they need to change. That possibility exists. (Unless your abusive parent was a narcissist.) The change will not be immediateit will require lots of work and therapy for them, and a proven change of behavior sustained over a long period of time.

Onward, friends.

Veronica Jarski is the founder and writer 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 online publications. She also is the author of an e-book about waking up to the realization that one had an emotionally abusive childhood.

Grateful for the Good in Your Life

thanksgiving-post

[photo credit: flickr user Keri Logan]

Thanksgiving is not about the turkey or the football game or the parade. It’s not about just how many family members you’ve gathered around your table or how close your celebration can come to looking like the front of a Thanksgiving card. It’s not even about the mouth-watering meal and all its delicious sides.

It’s a holiday that has its purpose built into its name: thanks giving.

But how can you give thanks when you’re bearing such a weighty sorrow about your family situation?

Or be grateful when you feel so out of sorts with how “everyone else” is celebrating Thanksgiving?

How can you even feel grateful when you scroll through your social media feeds and see that “everyone you know” is sharing bright, beautiful photos of happy families and delightful memory-making moments?

The truth is that it’s difficult … but not impossible to foster gratitude amid the difficulties.

I’ve already written about finding something to be grateful for on Thanksgiving (and beyond) and five ideas for a peaceful Thanksgiving. So, today, I want to focus specifically on you.

If you’re reading this on Thanksgiving, you’re most likely not in the best family situation. Because this is a website dedicated to adult survivors of emotional child abuse and you’re reading this, you probably have a toxic situation with your parents. And maybe today, the hurt of that emotional wound is aggravating you more than usual.

The pain’s a little sharper, the hole feels a little deeper, the sorrow bites more coldly into you.

Know that you’re not alone in this hurt. And know that this pain will, in time, hurt you less. As more time rolls along and you grow in your healing through therapy and prayer and boundary-setting, you’ll find yourself more and more able to foster gratitude in your life …

In time, you may become grateful for the fact that your eyes were opened to the abuse you suffered and now you can tackle the issues that have plagued you from the shadows.

What you suffered is terrible and horrific, no one is glad for abuse, but you can be glad that you see the abuse for what it is: a hidden, invisible monster terrorizing you. Be grateful that you now can see it and avoid it.

You may find a sense of gratitude for the person who you are becoming, the person who God wants you to be (not who your parents tried to force you into becoming). You may, in time, be grateful that, despite all the sorrow and pain, you are here, alive and functioning and creating a new, emotionally healthier life.

But that gratitude, my friends, doesn’t come swiftly nor automatically.

Gratitude takes time and a readjustment of your emotional lens. It’s not belittling who you were or mocking people who have good families. Nor hiding your pain or burying all your grief and hurts, which is unhealthy and leads to greater grief and hurt. It’s not ignoring what happened. It’s not automatic forgiveness for those who hurt you because you want to get to the “feeling better” part of the healing journey. Nor always picking at your wounds and seeing only the darkness around you.

No, gratitude is finding yourself still standing, despite it all, and being glad that you are. It’s that sense that you have survived emotional brutality against you … and are alive and seek help and have hope for better days ahead.

Grief, sorrow, hurt, pain, regret, anger … all these have not extinguished your desire to be here, to seek help, to want to be an emotionally healthier you.

Gratitude is looking at your life and finding joy there, even if it is in the tiniest of glimmers.

Not the “I won the lottery, I’m so grateful” attitude. But the small, quiet joys that make up a day. A good conversation with friend, a perfect cup of coffee, a favorite song on the radio, a nature walk, a moment of quiet prayer …

Some adult survivors find it almost impossible to find this joy. They feel they are composed only of their past, that everyone’s out to get them, that nothing—not one tiny thing—in their life is good. Having that viewpoint keeps them in constant loop, so they do not go forward in the journey towards healing. They find it easier (and more comfortable) to remain in a constant state of resentment and hurt and anger than to find ways to cope with those emotions and work through them to an emotionally healthier life.

You don’t want to be like that.

Even if you can only be grateful for just a minute a day, if you find that the only thing to be grateful for is that you aren’t dead, that’s a huge thing to be grateful for. Being alive is a tremendous gift to be grateful for.

Your gratitude doesn’t need to be for the showy, enormous, money-raining moments of life. Being grateful is a mindset of happiness for the small, lovely things in an ordinary day.

Doing that may sound hokey or cheesy. “Really? Grateful for such a small, insignificant thing?”

But the truth is that the smaller things are what make up a day. After all, it was the small yet constant, unyielding barrage of damaging comments and neglect and silent treatment and belittling through your childhood that led to the deep gash on your heart.

“If all small things can cause so much sorrow,” a friend recently told me, “then can’t it mean that many small things can cause so much joy?”

She makes an excellent point.

On this Thanksgiving Day, you are in my thoughts and prayers. Know you’re not alone in your sorrow … and that you’re not alone in your desire to become more emotionally healthy and steady.

Onward, friend. Onward.


Veronica Jarski is the founder and writer 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 online publications. She also is the author of an e-book about waking up to the realization that one had an emotionally abusive childhood.

What Finn From ‘The Force Awakens’ and Adult Survivors of Emotional Child Abuse Have in Common

[photo credit: flickr user dale jackson]

[photo credit: flickr user dale jackson]

Editor’s Note: Upon reading this post, some readers may say, “Oh, it’s just a movie!” Indeed, but stories, whether in books or movies or television programs, teach us about ourselves, about what we value, about what we love, about what we hate.

Recently, I rewatched the latest Star Wars film, “The Force Awakens,” and noticed in particular how the FN-2187 character makes an emotional journey from a stormtrooper of the military dictatorship of the First Order toward his true, compassionate, and brave self, Finn.

His emotional path is similar to the one taken by an awakening adult survivor of emotional child abuse. And so, I thought to explore 11 of those commonalities in an article.

(Spoilers abound.)

1. The “awakening” happens due to a horrible event

Like many abuse survivors, Finn’s awakening isn’t necessarily one event but a build-up of myriad small horrors. Finn (we find out later) was very young when he was stolen away from his family. He has spent his life in training and being programmed. He also has witnessed horrors and slaughter that the First Order inflicted.

However, what snaps him out of his compliance is a particular tragic event. When on a mission on the planet Jakku to get part of a map of Luke Skywalker’s location, Finn witnesses the First Order’s attack and massacre on civilians at the village of Tuanul and the death of a fellow stormtrooper.

And he is rattled awake.

the-moment-fn-2187-decides-to-defect-from-the-first-order

Real-life equivalent: Adult survivors of emotional child abuse have a lifetime of terrible, heart-breaking experiences… but because of being born to emotionally abusive parents, they endure so much without rebelling against the family.

Often, however, something will happen—e.g., the adult survivor has a child and realizes the truth of their own childhood, someone “on the outside” makes a comment about the abuse, etc.—that startles the adult survivor awake.

2. The “awakening” creates panic, fear, and confusion at first

After Finn makes the decision not to participate, he is in a daze. He looks around in horror and confusion at the slaughter around him.

But he is not the same. And he cannot act the same now that he knows the truth.

Real-life equivalent: Adult survivors in the beginning of their awakening often feel surges of panic, confusion, and fear… These emotions can stem from post-traumatic stress disorder. Put simply: Adult survivors are freaked out by the realization that they have been emotionally abused their entire lives. They have been so programmed from childhood (like Finn) to comply and yield their will to those in charge that, once awakened, adult survivors stumble in shock.

3. The effects of the awakening are immediate

When ordered to slaughter civilians, the stormtroopers do so unquestioningly. None of them hesitate.

Except for Finn.

He exerts himself as an individual, a person separate from the brainwashed collective of the First Order’s stormtroopers. He does this despite the fact these stormtroopers (rather than clones) have been “programmed from birth”—according to General Hux of the First Order—to be compliant and obedient to the First Order.

“My first battle… I made a decision,” Finn tells Rey in a later scene. “I wouldn’t kill for them.”

And so, he holds his blaster but does not shoot it.

Unfortunately, this disobedience is noticed…

Real-life equivalent: An adult survivor of emotional child abuse who has awakened to the truth will find the situation almost unbearable. (“Almost” because some adult survivors go “limited contact” rather than “no contact” with their abusers.) The truth about the parent-child relationship makes it so that the adult survivor is uneasy and can no longer participate in the relationship in the same manner that he or she once did.

4. The awakening adult survivor’s lack of complete compliance will be punished

A commander of the First Order, Kylo Ren halts when he passes Finn amid the chaos. His attention is on Finn, noting his lack of compliance, and then Kylo Ren continues on.

When Finn and his fellow stormtroopers are back on the Star Destroyer Finalizer, Captain Phasma of the First Order orders Finn to turn in his blaster, so she can see whether he fired his gun at all. She also commands him to report to her for reconditioning, so he can better follow her orders.

The First Order wants complete compliance. Not a flicker of hesitation. Not a moment of thought. Obedience must be swift, must be unthinkingly carried forth.

Real-life equivalent: Emotionally abusive parents want a dictatorship in their home. They do not want any personality from their child. They do not want children who struggle, who doubt, who question, who hurt, who feel. These abusive parents just want to issue orders and have those order unflinchingly followed. And abusive parents want more than just their rules followed—they want their child(ren) to only do the will of the parent.

For example, an emotionally parent may want his/her child to be a super-athlete, and so the abusive parent will not tolerate anything in the child (such as musical inclinations, a lack of aggressiveness, a non-competitive spirit) that does not directly relate to the abused parent’s goal for that child.

The abusive parent does not recognize the child as a separate being but only perceives the child as an extension of himself/herself or a mirror or nuisance.

5. The adult survivor of emotional child abuse must separate himself/herself from the abuser and find some peace

Finn is desperate to leave, desperate to be his own person and not a servant to the First Order.

Faced with an evaluation and possible reprogramming, Finn decides to desert the First Order. He frees the Resistance pilot Poe Dameron from his cell (Finn needs a pilot), and they steal a Special Forces TIE fighter and escape. In the process, Finn takes out some of his former comrades, sealing his fate as a “traitor” to the First Order.

Real-life equivalent: Once awakened to the truth, an adult survivor will want to have some breathing room to think about has been revealed. Every adult survivor needs time to process, and to do that processing in a quiet, safe place.

6. The adult survivor refers to himself/herself in terms of what others say

He calls himself FN-2187, a rank and number assigned to him by others in power. As a young boy, Finn was stolen by the First Order. He’s not given a name (unlike other people in the First Order who must be addressed with honor and respect and titles, such as Captain Phasma).

When Poe asks his name, Finn says, “FN-2187.” This is his stormtrooper designation. (Even his nickname among other stormtroopers is a number: Eight Seven.)

“FN, huh?” Poe repeats. “Finn. I’m gonna call you Finn! That all right?”

And that is all right with the newly named Finn.

Real-life equivalent: Adult survivors of emotionally abusive parents are not really seen for who they are but who their parents assume they are or imagine them to be. They are forced into designated roles and controlled, manipulated, and abused into remaining in that role.

7. An adult survivor often struggles with a sense of identity

At the beginning of the film, Finn is wearing a storm trooper’s uniform, assigned to him by the First Order. A short while later, once again on Jakku, assuming Poe has died in a crash, Finn takes Poe’s jacket and wears it.

When Rey asks him whether he’s a member of the Resistance, he says yes repeatedly. He wants to be that for himself, for her, for a million different reasons. So, he pretends to be a Resistance fighter and eventually really does help in the fight against the First Order, all while he still plans to run away as far as he can from the military dictatorship.

By donning the jacket of a rebel against the First Order, Finn expresses who he wants to be. In time, Finn grows into this role.

Real-life equivalent: Adult survivors of emotional child abuse often find themselves at a loss regarding who they really are—without their abusive parents’ input, without the negative voices in their head, without worrying about what their abusive parents will say. Adult survivors often relate having to revisit what they were told they weren’t good at (“You’re not very graceful, you can’t possible like dancing” or “You were never good at numbers. What makes you think you can study accounting?” and so forth). This awakening process is, by its nature, very revelatory.

8. The awakening appears abrupt but has been a process

When escaping in an X-wing, Poe tells Finn that they must return to Jakku. Finn hates the idea, but Poe says that BB8 has a map leading to Luke Skywalker that needs to be protected from the First Order.

Finn knows what must be done. He doesn’t ask who Luke Skywalker is nor does he ask what must be done.

Later in the film, when introduced to Han Solo, Finn asks Chewbacca, “Wasn’t he a war hero or something?” Again, Finn knows about the Resistance, and he has kept informed of its heroes.

Real-life equivalent: Just like abuse is gradual (often worsening with age), the awakening to the truth is also a process. An adult survivor will slowly begin to piece together all the pieces from a lifetime of abuse—the time that her mother screamed that she was worthless because she forgot to put the dishes away, the time that his father gaslighted him a school event, the time that her father didn’t talk to her because he said she was useless, the time that his mother called him an idiot for wanting to do something independently from the family, etc.

All the pains and sorrows and abuses fit together, the broken pieces forming a mosaic of the true nature of the abusive parent-child relationship.

9. The adult survivor of emotional child abuse is a survivor

Not limited to expertly wielding blasters and also handling light sabers, Finn shows moxie. Even when he is being dragged physically through the Millennial Falcon by the Rathtars, he shouts, “Get off! Get off!” and punches and fights against the Rathtar.

He doesn’t just scream and succumb to a terrible death; he fights against the monsters.

Real-life equivalent: Though adult survivors of emotional child abuse will often berate themselves upon their awakening (WHY DIDN’T I REALIZE THIS BEFORE? WHY DIDN’T I SPEAK UP FOR MYSELF YEARS AGO?), an adult survivor is a fighter. Something in the abused child knew that something was terribly wrong. And though the abusive parents tried to smother that personality, that strength of character, they could not do so. The strength of the adult survivor, the power of truth, fought through the years and years of abuse. The adult survivor is a fighter.

10. Even living under a dictatorship, an adult survivor can foster good, positive traits

Despite having lived life mostly as a stormtrooper under the dictatorship of the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke, Finn shows remarkable kindness and compassion. The First Order was incapable of tearing out those traits from within him.

When Finn first sees Rey, she is involved in a kerfuffle, and he’s ready to jump into action. (It hilariously backfires on him, but he was completely ready to help!) Also, when he and Rey are blasted to the ground, he asks Rey, “Are you OK?” rather than think of himself.

Much later, when an unconscious Rey is being carried away by Kylo Ren, Finn—who has sworn time to never, ever go back to the First Order, who has told everyone to run away from this evil system—runs toward Kylo Ren.

And he doesn’t only run… He screams, with his heart in his throat, for Rey, uncaring that his mortal enemies are before him.

Even more heroically, Finn manages to go on a mission with Han Solo and Chewbacca to the superweapon Starkiller Base—with the main purpose of rescuing Rey from the First Order.

Much later, Finn shows exceptional bravery and concern for his friend when Rey is injured in a fight with Kylo Ren. Finn uses the light saber that Rey has been carrying and fights Kylo Ren, despite his being far more experienced with a light saber.

Real-life equivalent: Adult survivors of emotional child abuse know loneliness and sorrow—but they can still show love, comfort, and kindness to others.

11. Adult survivors of emotional child abuse, now awakened, must build new, emotionally healthier futures

In many, many scenes, Finn is looking around, taking in the world, studying the different beings within it. He’s also trying to sort out who trustworthy people are… and who not to trust. He asks a lot of questions.

Finn also describes himself in different terms. He tells Rey that he is part of the Resistance. He later tells Han Solo that he’s a “big deal” in the Resistance. When he’s trying to convince Rey to run away with him rather than fight the First Order, he says, “I’m a stormtrooper.” Much later, when he, Han Solo, and Chewbacca are on mission, Han Solo asks Finn what he did, and Finn says he was in sanitation.

Real-life equivalent: An adult survivor of emotional child abuse will feel like his reality is crumbling all around him. What the adult child believed may be so very different from what actually is. And so, the adult child will begin to process life and experience it in a new way… It’s as if they are given glasses that brings the reality of life into focus, and the survivor will see more of what is good, what needs to be healed, what needs to be felt, what needs to be experienced.

At first, an awakening will be difficult, and dark times will threaten to overshadow the adult survivor… In time, however, there will be healing. And the world will be so much richer and far more beautiful than the adult survivor could have imagined.

* * *

In the Star Wars film, “The Force Awakens,” the former stormtrooper Finn escapes the cruelty of the military dictatorship The First Order, and in doing so, he is able to exert his independence, fight for what he believes in, form healthy relationships (such as his friendship with Rey), see new worlds, and start to become the person he wants to be.

If you haven’t seen the movie “The Force Awakens”—and even if you’re one of the millions of people did see it—consider giving it another viewing. This time, focus primarily on Finn and watch his interesting character arc within the film.

The comparison of Finn to an adult survivor of emotional child abuse isn’t a perfect comparison, no. The film wasn’t written from that viewpoint or with that intention necessarily. But I hope that the comparison does encourage you to look at your own path of awakening and inspire you to keep on the path of healing.

Stay strong in the truth.

And may the Force be with you.


veronica-jarski-managing-editor-the-invisible-scarVeronica 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, MarketingProfs, and Ragan. She also is the author of an e-book about waking up to the realization that one had an emotionally abusive childhood.

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From the Editor’s Mailbox: Being a Trusted Adult to Your Siblings, Going No Contact, and Why Therapy May Not Work for You

photo credit: flickr user charles clegg

photo credit: flickr user charles clegg

Editor’s Note: The Invisible Scar does not offer professional advice, only opinion.

Here’s a look at the most common questions popping up in my inbox lately and some thoughts regarding them.

My younger siblings live at home, and they’re being emotionally abused by our parents. What can I do?

Call the Childhelp National Child Abuse hotline, and talk to a qualified crisis counselor about the details of your situation. By calling, you are not immediately reporting abuse—so don’t be afraid of calling. You will be able to ask the professionals there about the best way to handle such an issue.

In addition to what the professionals might tell you there, I’d suggest doing what you can to love, support, and nurture your siblings as much as possible.

For example, if your parents are neglectful, you can reach out to your siblings and just listen to them, hug them, show them that someone in this crazy big world loves them unconditionally, encourage their (healthy) interests, etc. Or if your parents tend to be overly critical of your siblings, you can make time to talk to them in an encouraging, soul-building way,

Say your siblings love to draw or paint, then encourage their art, take your siblings to art shows, give them books about art, look at the art they produce, listen to their talk about art, etc.

The heart of an abused child starves for attention, for acknowledgement, for love…. and if the abusive parent does not offer that, the child will often turn to other people and things… Be that trusted adult that your siblings can turn to.

Know that one person can make a tremendous positive difference in a child’s life.  This article by Josh Shipp discusses the power of a trusted adult in a teen’s life. I’m not familiar with all of Josh’s work, so I’m not fully endorsing—or not endorsing—his work, but that article’s worth a read for people wondering how to help emotionally abused children in their lives.

Moreover, myriad adult survivors of emotional child abuse are alive today and on the path to emotional health because one adult in their life cared about them. Those trusted adults were coaches, teachers, librarians, neighbors, etc., that took the time to see the child, to listen to him/her, to let that child know that he/she matters. They weren’t creepy or overly fawning adults; they were adults who could be trusted, who could be like a beacon of light in the child’s dark childhood.

Those people made a huge difference. You can, too.

How can I make my parents’ stop abusing me? They are always gaslighting me, making fun of me, and making me feel awful. But then sometimes, they’re nice. How can I just make the abuse stop?

You extract yourself from the relationship. You get the hell out of Dodge.

Your parents choose to abuse you… Now, you choose to get out of the relationship and create some space for yourself.

Whether that decision is permanent, only you can decide. But until the abusive parent shows remorse, apologizes, and exhibits a sustained (read: for a long time) change of improved behavior, the adult child should stay away and get emotionally healthy.

“Improved behavior” doesn’t mean that your abusive parents are nice to you now and then. They should always treat you with respect and love. “Normal” parents drop the ball here now and then, but they are good people who have a bad day—in contrast to abusive parents who are mostly bad people who have good days.

Many truly awful human beings have their moments of being charming and sweet and engaging. Many abusive people have sparkling, loving sides that fool people. But emotionally abused children know that any good moment with the abusive parent will be outweighed by the many, many, many terrible moments. And yet somehow, the abused child will focus on the brief glimmering moment of good and try not to think too much about the bad.

Don’t let yourself get caught up in looking at those rare pretty photos in your memory and avoiding the giant gaps in between them. Keep your eyes wide open. Walk in the truth. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and to pull away from abusive people.

I want to go No Contact with my parents, but I don’t know whether blocking their number or not answering their phone calls is too extreme. Do you need the permission of the other person to let go? What happens if they don’t let go of you?

If you want to go No Contact with parents who are toxic to you, then do it. And, yes, going No Contact means to not allow them into your life… which means blocked phone numbers and emails, etc.

“Going No Contact is not an attempt to change a person or to teach them a lesson,” states the Out of the Fog website. “If it were it wouldn’t be No Contact but a bluff and an ill-advised one at that. Going No Contact is more about protecting yourself and letting go of the need or desire to change another person.”

You don’t need anyone’s permission to go No Contact. The best part of being an adult is that you get to choose who to have a relationship with. Familial ties, circumstance, office environments, etc. can put people in your path, but you get to decide whether to socialize with any of them. You get to decide what is best for your emotional health.

You have the power to say…

  • “No, I no longer want this toxic person in my life.”
  • “No, I do not want to be an emotional punching bag for this person anymore.”
  • “No, I will no longer put myself in the path of an emotional vampire.”
  • “No, I will not give my time and energy to someone who will turn on me and treat me like shit.”

You have the power to say…

  • “Yes, I matter, and I have a voice.”
  • “Yes, every person is precious to God, and that includes me.”
  • “Yes, I have the right to live a life free from someone else’s toxicity.”
  • “Yes, I can and will choose how to spend my time and energy.”
  • “Yes, I will choose friends who are loving and kind and supportive and not toxic.”

The finer points of going no contact are explained well by this article from Out of the Fog organization.

And remember: If someone armed to the teeth with daggers to wound you, bared teeth to rip you to shreds, and a mind determined to hurt you came to your front door, would you open the front door? No, you wouldn’t. Now, if someone is hell-bent on hurting your soul in that way, why would you let them in?

How can I get people to see me as okay and that going to NC was the best thing I ever did with my life?

The above question comes up a lot in my inbox. A whole lot.

Here’s the truth of the matter: You can’t make anyone understand you and sympathize with you… You can’t make anyone really get it, and few people do.  Most people have loving, kind, and well-meaning parents, and they cannot see how any parent would be as hurtful and destructive as yours.

They are fortunate.

But you, dear reader, have had a different sort of childhood. And some people just don’t get it. That’s all right—you don’t have to explain yourself to them.

Your gift to yourself—and you deserve this—is a more peaceful life, without your abusive parents’ drama and their abuse.  And that is a huge and wonderful thing.

Live your life in the truth. Good people will see how much happier, calmer, and healthier you are in comparison to who you were. And if some people don’t, they weren’t friends to begin with. And as you meet new people who don’t know about your past and who ask about your parents, tell them that you’re estranged and leave it at that.“I’ve chosen not to have my toxic parents in my life.”

Let your life, your newer and emotionally healthier life, this honest life rid of parental toxicity, be your testimony. Praise God, you’re living an emotionally healthier life. Enjoy it.

And don’t forget that readers of The Invisible Scar understand the value of going no contact. You can always find support here in the comments or post something on The Invisible Scar’s Facebook page.

Therapy isn’t working for me. Why are you pushing therapy?! It doesn’t work.

Therapy may not be working for you for a few reasons:

  • Your therapist sucks.
    Not all therapists are good. Some are laughable, some are terrible, some should’ve definitely chosen a different career. That’s why it’s important for you to do your research and take time to find the right therapist for you. Know that doing so can take time.
  • You hate the idea of therapy… and you’re only semi-interested in your therapy sessions.
    “Everyone who wants to engage in therapy can benefit,” writes Margarita Tartarkovsky in Therapists Spill: 11 Myths About Therapy. “Not surprisingly, people who don’t have a modicum of motivation to change probably won’t.” Therapy can be hard, and if you drag your feet to it and don’t open up very well, you may be doing yourself a disservice.
  • You haven’t gone to therapy for very long.
    Healing takes time… lots of time. Be patient with the process.

Don’t give up on therapy. Don’t give up on yourself.

Sometimes, watching movies help me work through my emotional child abuse. Is that too weird?

Only one person asked me this question, but I had to share it. The question plugs into the fact that people love narratives, we love stories, we grow and learn through stories, written, told, and presented.

No, you’re not being weird.

Good movies reveal ourselves to ourselves and shed light on the human condition. That’s why watching the “Tangled” movie led to a very long blog post analyzing the narcissistic personality disorder of Mother Gothel. And why I’m taking notes about Finn from “The Force Awakens” for another article…

Onward and upward.


veronica-jarski_authorVeronica 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, MarketingProfs, and Ragan. She also is the author of an e-book about waking up to the realization that one had an emotionally abusive childhood.

Party of One: How to Stand Strong in the Truth When No One Believes You

150915-stand-strong-in-the-truthAfter you’ve awakened to the truth that you were emotionally abused as a child (and perhaps continue to be as an adult child), you will definitely encounter some hard-core resistance from some disbelieving people. These people either have known you as a child and believe the image of a happy family that your parents propagated; are enmeshed in relationships, whether as relatives or friends, with your parents; are in denial of their own abusive pasts or are in similar abusive relationships; or are not sufficiently emotionally mature or loving to be a good friend during your awakening and subsequent healing journey.

Those people will often try to coax you back into a state of slumber. Your emotional awakening is too messy for them to handle. They want you to stay in your box, under your label, not bustling out in passion and growth, but confined to the definitions of others.

In wanting you to stay in your designated area, your disbelievers will try to make you disbelieve yourself. “Were you really abused? Are you sure you weren’t being too sensitive? Oh, but you know your parents love you…. You didn’t take any of that seriously, did you? Oh, emotional abuse, really? That never happened to you.”

And because you really wish you weren’t emotionally abused as a child (because, honestly, that realization hurts like hell), you may try to talk yourself out of your awakening. Like the character Cypher in the movie The Matrix said after taking the red pill that showed him the truth instead of the blue one that kept him believing lies, you may think, “Why, oh, why, didn’t I take the blue pill?”

I already addressed the disbelievers’ and doubters’ arguments in another article, so let’s tackle the most important person in the awakening: you. You have to stay awake and remember your story. You are the one who needs to speak the truth, to be honest with yourself, to live in the truth.

Here are some tips for staying awake in the truth, especially in the face of heavy opposition.

Keep a journal of the facts

As you awaken, you’ll have so many memories running through your mind. Write them down. That time when your mother insulted you in front of all your friends? Write it down. That time when you could have sworn your father promised to help you do something and then he gaslit you and went back on his word? Put it on paper. What about the time that you got your hopes all up about spending some quality time with your parent and then s/he ditched you and made fun of you for having your feelings hurt by it? Record it.

Being the adult survivor of emotional child abuse, you’ll feel strange about recording those moments. You’ve been conditioned to let the abuse pass over you, to not flinch at all the slings and arrows thrown your way. You’ve been taught that it’s really not a freaking big deal, hello, don’t be so sensitive.

And though it’s true that sometimes people hurt each other’s feelings—and yes, people can be mean sometimes—the abused child’s experiences are so much more than just a few rare times. Emotional abuse is systematic.

By writing down what happened to you as the memories arise, you’ll have documentation of what happened, and you’ll have proof for yourself that you did not “imagine” your parents to be abusive; they really are abusive.

For example, reading one random diary entry of someone calling you a fat, horrendous pig may not deeply affect you; reading countless entries of being insulted will show you how devastating and long-term the abuse was. 

If you’re not the “writing it down” type, you can record yourself on video, sketch scenes from our childhood, or even do audio recordings of your memories.

Please note that this journal can be an enormously helpful tool to take to your therapist and make sense of the emotional minefield of your childhood. You’re not writing this all down to perpetually re-live the past or get caught up in obsessive thinking. No, this journal is to help you navigate through the early stages of your awakening.

Bonus: When you have the urge to run back to your abusive parents and accept them in your life without even seeing any significant and lost-lasting change in your life, you’ll have something to read that’ll smack (figuratively) some sense into you.

Find a support group—online or offline—that works for you

Feeling alone in your story? Consider finding online support. Make sure the forum or website is moderated and positive rather than a morass of bitterness, hate, and revenge.

A good place to start for adult children of narcissists (ACoNs) is the Web of Narcissism. The über-helpful Out of the FOG website also has a forum to help its readers. Also, Psych Central has online support groups that can offer understanding and comfort amid the chaos.

Talk to a trusted friend who believes you

You may have a friend who always has your back and who isn’t emotionally bound to your abusive parent(s). Make time to spend time with this friend. You won’t necessarily want to place all our burdens on this friend (that’s what a therapist is for), but you can share some of your thoughts and just rest in the comfort of a friend who has your back

If you want to take a practical approach to finding out who to talk to (or who you’d like to talk to), check out this Support System worksheet (PDF) from psychotherapist and Psychology Today therapist Will Baum.

(A reminder: If you’ve not a friend who you can count on, do not despair. You can share your story on the aforementioned support groups or forums. Perhaps you can also find some comfort here at The Invisible Scar in knowing you are not alone.)

Revisit past documentation

You remember being 10 years old and knowing your parents took your pet and dropped it off in the woods as a punishment for your low grade… but now, as an adult, you mention the incident to your parents, and they deny it. Or you recall being 13 and having your parents forget it was your birthday… and again, they deny it. Maybe you remember your father calling you a piece-of-shit-ingrate because you didn’t clean your room…. and your father denies it.

Are you going crazy? Are you erroneously remembering everything?

Here’s what you can do to get your bearings:

  • Ask an old friend whether s/he remembers the incident. Sometimes, the incident was so strange or your reaction was so sad or emotional that your friend will remember the incident just as you shared it years ago
  • Bring it up to your parent(s) again… but don’t try to convince the abusive parent that it happened. Instead, listen to how the parent replies. Are they diverting your attention from true incident? Projecting blame on you? Belittling you? A truly loving and caring parent will either apologize for hurting his/her child or try to really get the details of what happened rather than sweep it under the rug.
  • Check your old diaries and journals. If you kept journals or diaries, you will find a goldmine of evidence that you did not imagine all the shit that happened to you. The details will be there for you to look at. Because you were abused, you may have written the entries with excuses for your parents’ behavior or berating yourself for being sensitive, but the incident will be recorded.

Attend therapy regularly

Yes, I do go on about the importance of good therapy a lot on The Invisible Scar. That’s because I’ve seen the enormous strides that adult children of emotional abuse have made in their healing process when they attend therapy—especially when compared to those adult survivors who do not.

Therapy is not the solution to everything, but it is a critical and essential component to one’s healing from emotional child abuse.

Some readers have written me emails telling me about just how grateful and life-changing attending therapy regularly was. (Hooray!) One or two readers have written telling me that they didn’t get much out of it. To them, I suggest finding a new therapist or a new approach. Sometimes, the fit isn’t the right one, whether conscious (you cannot feel comfortable with the therapist) or subconscious (the therapist’s pointy nose reminds you of your mother). But if therapy isn’t working, find a way to make it work for you. Don’t be afraid to get a new therapist.

Onward and upward.

(photo credit: flickr user aya padrón)


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.

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.

The Mind Games of Gaslighting [Types of Emotional Child Abuse Series, Part 2]

Photo: John Irving, "Ingrid Bergman"

Photo: John Irving, “Ingrid Bergman”

When you look up the definition of emotional child abuse, it includes different kinds of emotional child abuse. In our Types of Emotional Child Abuse series, the first post discussed the silent treatment. In this post, we’ll explore gaslighting.

The Dark Art of Driving Someone Who Trusts You Crazy

In the 1944 film “Gaslight,” pianist Gregory Anton launches a secret campaign to drive his wife, Paula, insane—and to have people in her life also believe she is crazy. He dismantles her sanity through subtle manipulations of their home environment and little changes in the details of their conversations.

Because Gregory portrays himself as calm and reasonable when Paula grows upset at those discrepancies in her life, she assumes he is the clear-headed one of the pair. Paula then begins doubting her perception of reality and her own sanity.

Gregory’s gaslighting of Paula is slow, steady—and very subtle. No one in their household, especially the maid with whom Gregory flirts, would suspect he is slowly driving his wife insane. No one in their social sphere would ever accuse the golden-voiced, sophisticated Gregory of being insane. And because he spins stories in public about poor nutty, fragile Paula (while he keeps her isolated at home), their social circle favors him.

At home, Gregory continually hammers away at her sanity. He makes her believe she is mentally unstable and a kleptomaniac. He makes her doubt her memories, her behavior, herself. He is the worst sort of villain. He is a soul killer.

Definitions of Gaslighting

The psychological term gaslight comes from this movie. When Paula is left alone in the evenings, she sees the gaslights in her room dim for no reason, but Gregory, when told of them, tells her she is imagining such things. Throughout the movie, Gregory continually presents himself as a loving, nurturing, attractive and talented husband; Paula starts out seeming beautiful, talented, and sane, but her husband’s mind games wear away at her, so she begins to break down, even in public.

The mind games that Gregory plays are familiar to psychologists, who use the term gaslighting to explain them.

“Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity.” (Theodore L. Dorpat, “Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis“)

Emotional abusive parents use gaslighting to break down their children’s perception of reality.

“Gaslighting is an insidious form of abuse. It makes victims question the very instincts that they have counted on their whole lives, making them unsure of anything. Gaslighting makes it very likely that the victims will believe whatever their abusers tell them regardless as to their own experience of the situation.” (Natasha Tracy, “Gaslighting Definition, Techniques, and Being Gaslighted“)

The cruelest part of gaslighting is how it slowly erodes at the mind of the abused child.

The abusive parent makes a child question himself:

  • Did this really happen?
  • What did my parents really do?
  • What did my parents really say?
  • Did I hear them incorrectly?
  • Did I not remember that right?
  • Did I misunderstand something?
  • Was I not paying attention?
  • Why am I always getting everything all mixed-up?

To make a child rely on the memories and the telling of events from the abusive parent instead of himself is the ultimate triumph for the abusive parent.

“Gaslighting occurs when a person you trust to tell you the truth about reality, is, in fact, bending reality with lies. When this happens consistently over a period of time it causes you to question your sanity.” (Anna Valerious, Narcissists Suck)

Moreover, because the gaslighting is a slow erosion, an abusive parent often gets away with it. If an adult survivor of emotional child abuse calls the parent on such an occurrence, the abusive parent can say such things as:

  • “I don’t remember saying that.”
  • “You remembered that wrong.”
  • “You aren’t getting your facts straight.”
  • “No, I never said that.”
  • “No, I never did that.”

Because people don’t go around habitually recording their conversations, the adult survivor cannot prove that the gaslighting happens. And because the adult survivor has been conditioned by years of abuse from their parents, he or she is apt to believe the gaslighting parent rather than his or her own recollection of the event.

Examples of Gaslighting

In my conversations with adult survivors of emotional child abuse, I’ve heard myriad accounts of gaslighting. The following are a few examples.

  • A gaslighting parent makes a dinner appointment with an adult survivor at 6 p.m. at the child’s house, but then the parent does not go over until 8 p.m. When the adult survivor mentions it, the abuser says that the child said, “8 p.m.” The adult survivor says, “No, it was 6 p.m.” The abusive parent denies it and even adds the comment that the adult survivor’s memory must be going.
  • A gaslighting parent makes a cruel comment to her child. The child later mentions the comment in the hopes that the abusive parent will apologize for the comment. The gaslighting parent denies the comment was ever said, and he gets furious when the child says that it really did happen. The gaslighting parent denies it over and over again.
  • A gaslighting parent asks a child if he wants to go to the movies during the weekend. The child says she would love that. That weekend, the child mentions going to the movies. The gaslighting parent tells the child that he had said he didn’t want to go to the movies. The child says, “No, no, I said I’d like it.” The gaslighting parent says, “No, I remember you saying you didn’t.” The child cannot prove what he said.

What comes through in the recollections of the adult survivor is how the abusive parents changed details just slightly, enough to almost be right. (For example, in the third story, the parent did keep the element of asking the child about the movie and the plans for the weekend, but changed the child’s “yes” into “no.”) Also, the abusive parents will always deny the occurrence, even if told the conversation verbatim.

The adult survivor starts to feel that he is losing his mind, his ability to trust his own memory.

Are You a Victim of Gaslighting?

If you suspect you are a victim, check out the signs of gaslighting. Among the signs that psychoanalyst Robin Stern mentions are…

  • You are constantly second-guessing yourself.
  • You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” repeatedly throughout the day.
  • You often feel confused and even crazy at work.
  • You’re always apologizing to people in your life.
  • You know something is horribly wrong, but you can never express exactly what’s wrong, not even to yourself. 

If you come to the realization that you are a victim of gaslighting, first be grateful for the awakening. Though the realization is difficult, at least you now know. Then, as always, we recommend seeking a therapist or mental health professional to help you identify other signs of it and get the resources you need to start rebuilding your mental health.

In finding the right therapist, take the time to research the therapist, get to know what his or her areas of expertise are, and take time to do an initial interview to see if you two are a right fit. If not, keep searching for one; don’t give up.

Onward and upward.

How to Handle Your Critical Inner Voice: An Interview with Psychologist Lisa Firestone

lisa-firestone2At The Invisible Scar, we’ve received myriad emails and comments regarding how to deal with one’s harsh inner voice, which hounds adult survivors of emotional child abuse.

To answer questions from readers, we turned to Dr. Lisa Firestone for her professional insight.

Lisa works as the director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association and a senior editor at PsychAlive.org. She has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), and Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003).

1. What’s the correlation between emotional child abuse and the critical inner voice?

The critical inner voice is not only correlated with emotional abuse, it is also correlated with, and is the result of all forms of child abuse, neglect, and other traumatic events we experienced in our childhood. We treat ourselves in much the same way we were treated [or mistreated] as children. The critical inner voice controls the ways in which we mistreat ourselves as well as the negative stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about other people, and about the world.

In Compassionate Child-Rearing (1990), Robert Firestone (my father) described how “all children, to some extent, suffer trauma and rejection during their formative years. They incorporate an internal parent in the form of a destructive thought process or ‘voice’ and carry it with them throughout life, restricting, limiting, and punishing themselves.”

Another source of the critical inner voice can be found in some of the lessons we learned from our parents about their defensive ways of coping with life—their negative prescriptions for living. The critical inner voice also reflects many of the negative attitudes our parents held toward themselves, which we internalized and took on as part of our negative self-image.

2. What are the long-term effects of emotional child abuse on one’s inner voice?

One particularly damaging long-term effect of child abuse on a person’s critical inner voice is that it contributes to the formation of the negative self-image and feelings of low self-esteem that many survivors of child abuse still struggle with. All forms of child abuse, have the effect of creating a sense of being bad in children. Yet children typically blame themselves for the emotional pain they are in rather than seeing weaknesses or shortcomings in their parents. Unfortunately, as adults, many of us continue to view ourselves, often on an unconscious level, as bad or undeserving of love.

Emotional, physical, and sexual child abuse, and neglect have many other long-term debilitating effects. According to Robert Firestone (Compassionate Child Rearing), these experiences impact one’s “personal relationships, lead to a condition of general unhappiness, cause pain and anxiety in one’s sexual life and interfere with and stifle development of career and vocational pursuits.”

The severity of these effects are proportional to the cumulative number of “Aversive Childhood Experiences”[ACEs] that people encounter during their formative years, the age at which the abuses occurred and the duration of the abuse. In general, the more abuse children suffer early in life, the more they will be subject to voice attacks as adults, and the more their behavior will be under the control of the critical inner voice.

3. How can an adult survivor of emotional child abuse overcome that critical inner voice?

First, recognize that the emotional pain you feel is valid. The experiences you had in growing up made it necessary for you to develop defenses, including the critical inner voice, and these defenses and voices now limit you in pursuing your goals in life. Understanding this important point can help you develop compassion for yourself, which is a strong antidote to the critical inner voice. The more you strengthen your real self and develop feeling for yourself, the weaker the inner voice will become and the less influence it will have over your life.

Second, read Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice and work through the journaling exercises in the chapters related to the areas that you are struggling with. These exercises are designed to increase your awareness of the inner voice, to understand its origins, and to challenge its control over your life. In addition, there are many articles and blogs available on www.psychalive.com that can empower you in overcoming this destructive thought process.

Third, if you believe that you could benefit from additional help, you may want to consider psychotherapy or you might want to use therapy as a tool for further personal development. You could look for a psychotherapist who is familiar with the critical inner voice and who applies the techniques of Voice Therapy, a cognitive/affective/behavioral method for accessing, identifying, and challenging the voice, in his or her practice.

Fourth, become more aware of the times you start attacking yourself in your mind. One way is to be aware of changes in your mood. Did your mood slip from optimistic to pessimistic in the last few days? Did you wake up this morning in a bad mood? Think about what you might be telling yourself, in terms of the critical inner voice, that is negative and affecting your mood.

Become more aware of when you start to attack yourself. It is also important to recognize the events, people, and experiences that trigger your self-attacks. Whenever you notice that you’re attacking yourself, simply take note of the fact, “Oh, I’m attacking myself again.” Recognize the attack for what it is, part of a destructive thinking process that is opposed to your best interests and your well-being. You may not even need to identify the specific voices at that point to return to your own point of view and a better mood

Most important, strive to maintain an accepting, compassionate, and loving attitude toward yourself in all the situations you encounter in your everyday life. Loving kindness mediation has been shown to be effective in helping people develop more self-compassion.

4. Most adult survivors of emotional child abuse have a tendency to bash themselves all the time… What are some steps they can follow to create a kinder inner voice (if that’s possible)?

Positive self-affirmations are a form of self-parenting, they are still a part of how we evaluate or judge ourselves. It’s impossible to effectively replace the critical inner voice with a “kinder inner voice” if you try to tell yourself positive things about yourself in this way.

Positive self-affirmations are very different from developing feelings of compassion for yourself. In Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, we emphasized this crucial point. Self-parenting, whether it consists of soothing ourselves with positive self-affirmations or punishing ourselves with negative self-statements, is part of a defense that we developed early in life to compensate for what was missing in our environment. “People tend to parent themselves as they were parented, both soothing and punishing themselves in a manner similar to the way their parents soothed and punished them.”

It is very important for you to develop compassionate feelings or attitudes toward yourself. Strive to adopt Dan Siegel’s attitude of COAL, that is, be Curious, Open, Accepting and Loving toward yourself. Think of it this way, you would probably never treat a close friend the way you often treat yourself when you are under the influence of the voice. Learn to befriend yourself, be as kind to yourself as you would be toward your friend.

Dispense with all judgments or evaluations of yourself and practice being kinder to yourself on an emotional level. Even in situations where your critical inner voice accuses you of something that has some basis in reality, don’t castigate yourself for a mistake you made or for something you disapprove of in yourself.

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Thanks, Lisa, for taking the time to answer questions for The Invisible Scar.