Emotional abuse can take many forms, but I think it is best summed up by the following definition:
“You did not feel consistently safe, protected, and thought about as a child.”
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you take care of other people’s emotional needs but don’t expect them to take care of yours?
- Is it hard to express what you think and feel when you suspect others won’t agree?
- Do you find yourself in relationships with people who are self-absorbed?
- Is it always your fault when things go wrong in your relationships?
- Do you shudder at the thought of expressing anger towards someone you care about?
If any of the above points apply to you, then you may have experienced a subtle form of abuse that often goes unacknowledged: emotional abuse.
Understanding Emotional Abuse
Consider the following hypothetical client to see an example:
“Joan was a client in her mid-forties who found herself in relationships where she orbited her partners’ lives but couldn’t be her own center of gravity in the relationship. She would prioritize her partner’s needs over her own – even refusing promotions at work because it threatened her availability to her partner. She came to therapy because she felt drained, used, anxious and exhausted from her last relationship.”
Many people suffer from some variation of what Joan experienced. Therapy revealed that Joan was chronically emotionally abused as a child, yet she still had a difficult time acknowledging the extent and severity of her trauma. She grew up with a self-absorbed alcoholic mother who would fly into rages if she or her siblings made the slightest amount of noise or disagreed with her.
Meanwhile, her father was emotionally fragile, did nothing to protect her from her mother’s verbal assaults, and depended on Joan for his own emotional comfort. Neither parent ever showed curiosity about what Joan was thinking or feeling. Joan learned that the only safe way to exist in her family was to project a sunny disposition so that her mother would not get triggered and be nurturing towards her father so that he did not get too depressed. Nowhere in that equation were Joan’s own needs – there was just no room for them.
Emotional Abuse Behind Closed Doors
One of the most tragic aspects of emotional abuse is how easy it is for the perpetrators to get away with it! Joan’s family was an upper-middle class household that appeared “normal” to their friends and neighbors. In American culture, what happens behind closed doors in families is nobody else’s business.
Furthermore, none of the adults in Joan’s life acknowledged that she was being mistreated: Dad was too traumatized himself to tell her that it was not her fault that Mom screamed at her for simple mistakes while Mom was too dangerous to look to for any emotional comfort. Yet Joan understood that this is just the way life is. When adults treat emotional abuse as normal, kids have little choice but to adopt this belief.
There’s another reason why it was so easy for Joan’s parents to get away with emotionally abusing her – she needed them to be her parents more than she needed her own pain to stop!
Most children are aware of how ill-equipped they are to survive in the world without the comfort and protection of an adult.
Kids get specifically attached to certain adults – usually a parent – and must experience that adult as available for their emotional needs in order to feel secure in themselves. There is no greater priority for kids. If this relationship is in jeopardy because the parent is emotionally abusive, then the child will organize their reality so that the tie to their parents stays intact.
Joan did this by telling herself – at a deep and unconscious level – that she was undeserving of emotional comfort and protection, so it made sense to spend all of her energy taking care of her parents. As a kid, she needed her relationship with her parents to continue, and this did the trick. It was impossible for her to consider an alternative such as: “Mom and Dad are not good people to be around; I’m going to go find people who are more even-tempered, stable, and interested in me for who I am.”
Finding Help for Emotional Abuse
Is there any good news? Yes! The good news is that as adults or older adolescents, we are no longer dependent on the relationship to our parents. We are free to examine how we were treated as children and reject the lessons learned as victims of emotional abuse. This process is best done in psychotherapy where your past experiences of emotional abuse can be identified, understood, and validated.
Psychotherapy done in this manner can be life-changing. For someone like Joan who didn’t get treated like her own perspective mattered, the experience of being in therapy with an attuned psychotherapist has gradually helped her consider her own needs even when they are in opposition to that of others. There is more work to be done, no doubt, but she is on the path towards overcoming the trauma of emotional abuse that she has lived with for so many years.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jay Reid is a Registered Professional Clinical Counselor Intern, employed and supervised at the Well Clinic. He is specifically trained to identify histories of emotional abuse and help clients reclaim their own lives.