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abuseEmotional abuse can have more devastating consequences than physical abuse. Just as in previous generations corporal punishment was not identified as abuse, perhaps some day we will come to recognize certain forms of parenting as abuse as well. Physical abuse damages the body while emotional abuse damages the spirit.

The emotional abuses that some individuals experienced while growing up are not as readily apparent as are those who show or can talk about their physical abuse.  In fact, these people may not even know that they were abused. They become the walking wounded. They are all around us, invisible because they seem to be functioning well.

Emotionally abused children learn to develop self-protective strategies to cope with the world in which they live. As they mature, they may physically withdraw from people or surround themselves with a protective emotional shield thereby avoiding intimate contact. They distrust people and are perpetually on guard ready to defend themselves against real or imagined attack. While they may develop a socially acceptable persona that appears friendly and even gregarious, no one gets too close; they rarely disclose anything but the most superficial details about themselves, keeping others at arm’s length. Some may disarm people with their generosity as they try to buy friendship as though they were still paying for protection from bullies with their school lunch money.

They compensate well for their feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and in some cases, self-loathing.  When people are abused in childhood, especially by their parents, they wonder “what’s wrong with me; why am I so unlovable?” Children blame themselves when their parents are displeased with them. They see themselves as the cause of their parents displeasure and abuse, seldom blaming their parents.

Frequently these individuals do not think of themselves as having been abused. They may even consider their childhood normal without realizing the insidious nature of their abuse. They think of abuse only in terms of physical violence. Abuse, however, comes in various forms. Constant criticism, for example, like the dripping water torture, can undermine the human spirit; when a child feels that nothing he or she does is good enough it soon becomes “I am not good enough.”  Just as it does not take much pressure to damage the skin of an infant, it does not take much to damage the psyche of a young child. It becomes abuse when the behavior is chronic; that is, when it is daily, persistent, and unrelenting. Such abuse becomes the norm, grinding away at an individual’s sense of self-esteem.

We now know that bullying is harmful; kids commit suicide over verbal bullying. Some parenting styles are similar to bullying.  Just as hazing can be sadistic and cause emotional and physical damage, so can certain parenting.  Bullies and parents take advantage of those that are disempowered. Some parents are bullies. Constant verbal abuse in the form of criticism, shaming, sarcasm, condemnation, public ridicule, emotional isolation, though leaving no visible scars, can be psychologically damaging and have long last effects. It may manifest as social inhibition, panic attacks, lack of confidence, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression as well as alcohol and substance abuse and promiscuity.

What makes this type of abuse all the more damaging, is that the abusers are not easily identified. Their actions are not easily categorized as abusive. Thus the victim suffers the consequences but does not have a recognizable attacker. The parent who is relentless with criticism and sarcasm is not seen as an abuser. Nor is the unaffectionate parent who is constantly letting the child know that he or she is a burden. In these examples, the child feels as though he or she is the problem, not the parent. One father when confronted by his adult son admitted that “I rode you hard; I wanted you to become a better man!” He never realized the damage he inflicted. He felt justified. This parent is an emotional bully. He never considered the impact of his of his behavior on his child.

Most emotional bullies are oblivious to the needs of their children. They never think about their child’s emotional predisposition, e.g., just as some children are more sensitive to airborne pollens (allergies) others are more sensitive to emotional trauma. These parents claim they treat all of their children the same without realizing how inappropriate that statement is. Even dog and horse trainers all know that they have to use different approaches to their animals depending on the predisposition of the animal. Not so for emotional bullies.

When folks who have experienced abuse engage in psychotherapeutic exploration (usually precipitated by some crisis or other issue), the abusive patterns begin to emerge. They begin to give voice to the painful, often tragic, story of their life. Often it is the first time they have told anyone about their experiences. As the layers of defense peel away, they feel both relieved and vulnerable. They feel naked without their protective shield much like a knight without his armor. As one patient put it,  “After years of self-imposed imprisonment, even the warmth of the sunshine hurts.”   

Recovery is slow. Learning to trust difficult. They are extremely sensitive to insult and hurt. Without their defensive strategies, the pain is even greater. Even a term of endearment can be experienced as a slap. But in time, as they learn to soothe themselves, trust their sensitivities, they come to realize that the protections that they developed not only inured them to pain but also to love.

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Living Life Cover2[Dr. Dreyfus is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist, relationship counselor, sex therapist, and life coach in the Santa Monica – Los Angeles. The profits from his latest book, LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT along with his other five books, are being donated to charity through the website Book Royalties for Charity and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Please become a fan on his Facebook Fan Page by indicating “like” on the page by clicking here. You can also find more tools to help you experience a more fulfilling life by clicking here to visit his website.]