Words Can Hit as Hard as a Fist

I am not a counselor for kids, yet I help children all day long.

What I mean by that is the "child within.” Yes, we all become grown up in so many important ways, but we typically carry "dark holes” from our past, which I have found can be beautifully accessed and healed through the metaphor of the child within. This inner child is especially vital to get to know for those (and there are many) who have experienced some kind of neglect or abuse, whether emotional, physical and/or sexual. As a couples counselor, every day, I see how the scars from past emotional abuse show up in my clients' closest relationships.

Recent attention on the harmful effects of emotional abuse has increased greatly. For many people, emotional abuse is the worst type of maltreatment. As David Vachon, study author and professor in the Department of Psychology at McGill University states, "Although people assume physical abuse is more harmful than other types of abuse, we found that they are associated with similar consequences. These consequences are wide-ranging and include everything from anxiety and depression to rule-breaking and aggression."

Understanding more about emotional abuse —  what it really is, how the damage shows up, and especially how to overcome - is vital for healing oneself and making sure we create the healthiest environments for ourselves, our children and our relationships. The first and most important understanding to hold near and dear is that we ourselves carry the cure to heal in our hearts and souls. We’ll talk more about this, But first lets clarify what emotional abuse looks like. 

What is emotional abuse: Emotional abuse can take many forms and involves any maltreatment that is emotional rather than physical.  According to the World Health Organization, about one third of children worldwide experience psychological maltreatment. I find examples paint the best picture, and some include: 

  • Constant criticism 
  • Intimidation, manipulation, and refusal to ever be pleased (usually more subtle tactics)
  • Constant belittling, shaming, and humiliating a child, such as mocking, embarrassing her in front of others
  • Calling names and making negative comparisons to others. Telling a child he or she is “no good,” “fat”, “stupid”, "worthless," "bad," or "a mistake."
  • Frequent yelling, verbal abuse, threatening, or bullying.
  • Ignoring or rejecting a child as punishment, giving him or her the silent treatment.
  • Limited physical contact with the child—no hugs, kisses, or other signs of affection.
  • Exposing the child to violence or abuse of others, e.g.,abuse of a parent, a sibling, or even a pet.
  • Abandonment or threat of abandonment. Especially for young children, a parent threatening to leave them some place can be highly traumatizing.

Important to note: Occasional negative attitudes or interactions are not considered emotional abuse.  Even the best of parents momentarily “lose control” and say hurtful things to their children, fail to give proper attention or scare their children unintentionally. It’s the chronic and persistent pattern that “erodes and corrodes a child” (James Barbarino, 1994). Emotional abuse is typically not an isolated incident.

Children need predictability and clear boundaries with consistent rules based on love and logic. Trauma is more difficult to overcome when we experience a “surprise attack." The unpredictability, whether that be a harsh comment or the silent treatment, can really leave children feeling unsafe, unloved and existentially alone. The world becomes a scary place when children cannot predict how their parents will act. 

Effects of Emotional Abuse: Visible signs of emotional abuse are not as obvious as physical abuse. The scars reveal themselves in many ways nonetheless, both in childhood and throughout adulthood. 

Warning: Ignore Victim Roadsigns. Before reading further about the impact of emotional abuse, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to keep the following consciousness in the forefront of all living and healing work. While our past can have a significant impact on us as adults — and it is vital that we listen to, support and care for that child within — ultimately we are responsible for and capable of finding our power within to creating the loving and fulfilling reality we truly desire. One dangerous road that the human ego can try and take us down is the victim road.  This direction only reinforces the very helplessness, low self worth and darkness that caused us great emotional and spiritual injury in the first place.  We are in charge of the reality we create for ourselves. The power we have to heal and use whatever challenges we have faced, and continue to face, as leverage to rise higher through our healing process is the gift of free will we have been given. This power and essence of wholeness is our birthright allowing us to fulfill our meaningful and beautiful purpose in life, no matter what.
It’s also important to note that not everyone who experiences child maltreatment shows symptoms, but the effects of childhood abuse can continue well into adulthood.  

That being said, let’s look with compassion at the following ways that emotional abuse tends to show up in one’s life: 

  • insecurity and poor self-esteem - emotionally abused children often grow up thinking that they are deficient in some way.
  • destructive behavior 
  • angry acts - outward but also imploding anger against oneself
  • withdrawal
  • poor development of basic skills
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • suicide
  • difficulty forming relationships  
  • unstable job histories
  • A continuing tragedy of emotional abuse is that, when these children become parents, some continue the cycle with their own children.

Taking it a step further, below are brief descriptions of 7 domains of functioning that researchers (Briere & Elliot 1994 and Kendall-Tackett 2001) have developed, and augmented respectively, to understand the long-term effects of emotional abuse.  While it might be difficult to read, knowledge is power.  Wherever an individual finds themselves in any of these tendencies below, this can be a good start to understanding oneself and taking the next step towards healing. Many of what you see below are dysfunctional coping mechanisms that at one time served as the savior to get through a difficult emotional environment.  So please we must never judge ourselves, but rather be grateful for whatever we employed to do our best. As faulty as they may be, these outmoded coping mechanisms get stuck in our nervous system and this is where counseling and spiritual growth can help us reboot and create a new and better reality for ourselves.  Here are the brief descriptions:

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - increased risk for having a traumatic-stress reaction to something that happens to you in adulthood that resembles your past, often unconsciously. 
  • Cognitive Distortions - e.g., overestimate danger and adversity; underestimate one’s own sense of self-efficacy and self worth
  • emotional distress - including anxiety, depression and anger
  • Avoidance - disassociation to cope with emotional pain, can include alcohol/drug abuse, compulsive high-risk sexual activities, eating disorders, and self-injurious behaviors.
  • Interpersonal Problems -  Adult survivors may adopt an avoidant style, which includes low interdependency, self-disclosure and warmth, leading to few interpersonal ties. Or they may adopt an intrusive style, which includes extremely high needs for closeness, excessive self-disclosure and being smotheringly warm. aka “codependent.” The intrusive style is overly demanding and controlling. Interestingly, both styles result in loneliness. 
  • Physical Health Problems - mind and body are connected

Healing emotional abuse from childhood:
We are all so beautifully unique. And our childhood does not determine our adulthood, but rather can influence it. That being said, some people are greatly affected by emotional abuse from their past while others seem mildly if at all affected.  Each person’s reaction ranges and it’s important to be accepting of yourself for wherever you are.
As we have discussed above, the key is to realize the choices we have: to self-empower and heal or remain a victim. You might have been given messages that you were the problem or the one at fault, or perhaps that you were not good enough or important enough.  Any moment is a good time to stop playing the role of letting others write your self-worth script and to write the one yourself that you know to be the truth in your soul. 

Healing means learning self-respect and earning your own fulfillment in your life through effort, self-love & care and respect for others around you. For all of us, and especially for the emotionally abused child, healing and overcoming comes down to self-love. Understanding who you are, and your inherent value at the core level of your being, this helps to learn the most important purpose we have for being here, to love within and around us. Any path that doesn’t help us learn to love, well, let’s just say that road will have more bumps and winding turns. We need enough runway to allow ourselves with compassion and patience the time we need to transform, heal and grow. Self-love includes this merciful and forgiving attitude toward ourselves.  We deserve to be loved and respected and when we empower ourselves with a commitment to put effort into our own growth and happiness, we are on The Way. 

How to heal: 5 important lifelong steps

  • Step 1: Realize you can heal
  • Step 2: Take responsibility for your own healing
  • Step 3: Seek help to heal.  We are not meant to go it alone.  
  • Step 4: Begin the journey ... of self awareness, connecting the dots of cause and effect in your life.  Listen to your truth, journal, open up express, read books about personal growth and healing, spirituality if you are interested. Learn to be with your pain, rather than running from it.  Identify your coping mechanisms that once served you but that are bringing you down. Look for your insecurities, your qualities that are keeping you stuck.  Identify your negative thoughts - TRANSFORM THEM.  Learn more about how life works from those who are wiser and who have mastered some level of fulfillment and inner peace.  Find healthy role models. Don’t become them, but adopt from them what helps you become more of who you are. 
  • Step 5: Turn darkness into Light. Connect to a bigger purpose and paradigm that helps you find meaning in what you experienced. The minute we begin a process of growth and healing, when we start to awaken, we begin revealing more and more of the Light that we are.  The more we can share our gifts and focus on what we want to manifest and create, to impart and bestow, then the healing on a very deep level takes a life of its own.  

It’s about relationships. Another perspective on the healing from emotional abuse — which also includes any dark holes even those we might not be able to explain by childhood — comes through the lens of 3 most important relationships.  

  • The first is the therapeutic relationship. Not only can the relationship with a counselor be healing on its own, but it can serve as the foundational tool to process your experiences and restructure your sense of self.  A good therapist with whom you connect, can validate and help you rewrite the limited script of who you are, help show you what self-respect and mutual respect look like. In this relationship, you can learn to set boundaries and express your truth in a safe place, whether that be your emotional pain and joy, your thoughts, dreams, or desires. You can also learn to take simple actions in your current life to recreate a new paradigm of thinking and being, opening up to the proactive unlimited aspect of your nature versus the limited reactionary human default. Ultimately the goal is to set your free will loose to discover how much control you truly have over your thoughts, feelings, words & actions, and ultimately, your reality.  
  • The second is your relationship with self - the inner child, if you will. Connecting with your inner being, which can come through as child within who can be sad or vulnerable, angry or afraid,  playful or hopeful is a great door to open in deepening and empowering yourself to reparent yourself.  Sounds complicated, but it’s quite simple in action. Layers and layers of new discoveries and healing can occur for the child within. S/he can open up and process what has been buried. It’s amazing and beautiful what emerges through the process. There are many ways to access one's inner truths, and while it can be painful, it’s the power of learning to “be with” our pain that is most healing.  The therapeutic process, which is very unique to each soul, transforms darkness into Light before my eyes day in and day out. 
  • The third is your relationship with your True or Higher Self.  All roads lead here.  Whether that be through counseling or other spiritual or personal growth paths, through reading books that speak to you, the ultimate goal is to learn how to connect to the spark of who we truly are.  This can be called the True Self, the Higher Self, the Real You, the Best Version of Yourself … but the most important part of any healing process is to continue to discover the inner wisdom we have and the value that is inherent within. The power we have within is tremendous and the more that we learn to connect to this “Ultimate Parent” within, then the progression of healing for the more vulnerable and traumatized parts of who we are becomes exponential.  And the blessings of well being should only grow and grow. Wishing you success on your journey.