This is Part Two of a two-part article on psycho-emotional child abuse. You may read Part One here.
Note: This article was first published in 2014 and revised in 2019, 2020, and 2021.
The ‘True Self’ Lost in Childhood
As discussed last week, psycho-emotional abuse, when repetitive and/or chronic, results in the child unconsciously believing that he or she is faulty, damaged, and unworthy of love, empathy, attention, and respect. The abused child develops distorted perceptions of self and others, and will often conclude at a deep, core level that there is something wrong with them and that they must deserve the abuse. Such children typically strive life-long to be accepted and approved of by others as a means of proving to themselves that they are ‘okay’ and worthy of love.
Children who have been victims of psycho-emotional abuse within their dysfunctional family system may exist in a near-constant state of anxiety or even terror as they struggle on a daily basis just to survive and be who they think they need to be in order to have their basic needs met by their primary caretakers (typically the parents).
Such children may have grown up in an alcoholic family system where fear or uncertainty was experienced on a daily basis, making it difficult to trust the very people who were supposed to care for them, love them, and keep them safe.
Others may have had a parent with one or more undiagnosed or diagnosed mental disorder(s), (e.g., Schizophrenia or a Bipolar Disorder with or without psychotic features), or a disorder that caused extreme emotional instability (such as Narcissistic, Histrionic, or Borderline Personality Disorder), causing them to be parented by adults who were still emotionally children themselves.
In such chaotic, non-nurturing environments that failed to lovingly and positively mirror the developing self, such children may have gradually disconnected from their true self. The ‘true self’ may be defined as the most pure, innate, natural, free, and intensely alive aspect of a person’s being. It is therefore the ‘true self’ that becomes distorted and diminished as the child seeks to conform to the expectations of others around him or her – especially the primary caregivers and/or the ‘power-holders’ in the child’s family system.
This disconnection from their primal, core ‘true self’ was a means of ‘getting by’ and emotionally surviving an uncertain, unpredictable environment. As adult survivors, they may have no idea that they have lost connection with an innate, precious aspect of themselves, nor do they understand how this is contributing to, and even fueling, their anxiety, addiction, depression, and other symptoms that are ultimately rooted in unmet needs and psycho-emotional trauma from childhood.
However, it is never too late for such an adult to recover, embrace, and embody their authentic, true self nature so as to reclaim and more fully realize who and what they are at the most basic, fundamental level so as to live in a more emotionally honest, authentic, expansive, energized, and awakened manner.
Psycho-Emotional Abuse and Its Consequences
The consequences experienced by the victims of psycho-emotional child abuse are potentially incalculable; however, research in this specific area has until recently been relatively sparse. The research that has been done to date suggests that children may experience lifelong patterns of disconnection, depression, anxiety, dysfunctional (’toxic’) relationships, low self-esteem, and an inability to experience empathy.
Having little self-worth, adult survivors of child abuse often find themselves in neglectful, even abusive relationships despite their best intentions to find happiness and love: Adult survivors may go on to abuse their own children (and others in their life, including mental health professionals who seek to assist them – typical of adult survivors diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder) without being conscious of the fact that they are engaging in the very same hurtful behaviors that were inflicted upon them as children.
In the event that an adult survivor does for some reason seek the help of a Mental Heath professional, such as a licensed psychotherapist, they still may not receive the psycho-education and targeted support that they so desperately need to recover from abuse experienced while they were young.
This is especially likely if the childhood wounds remain entirely unrecognized and go unreported by the client, and/or the therapist unconsciously colludes with their client to prevent the painful material from arising in session (this is especially likely if the therapist has repressed childhood wounding of their own). Successful treatment and recovery from ‘invisible’ child abuse is especially challenging in that the adult survivor in therapy may still be experiencing mental / emotional abuse as a consequence of wanting to remain connected to those who continue to abuse them (most commonly the parents).
Development processes may be impaired or even disrupted due to poor mental and emotional adjustment. By the time the child enters adolescence, they often find it difficult to trust others and may find themselves unable to experience fulfillment and happiness in their interpersonal relationships, while not having any idea that the roots of their unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and distress as an adult may be found in their painful, wounding childhood. Sadly, if they become parents, adult survivors may have great difficulty identifying and responding appropriately to the needs of their own children, thereby perpetuating the cycle of multi-generational abuse existing within their family system.
“I Think I Am An Adult Survivor Of Psycho-Emotional Child Abuse: What Now?”
Recovering from psycho-emotional abuse is indeed possible, and gaining awareness of how you may have been a victim of psycho-emotional abuse as a child is a necessary step in the healing process.
Alice Miller, renowned psychologist and author of the groundbreaking book, The Drama Of The Gifted Child: The Search For The True Self, had this to say about healing from childhood abuse: “Pain is the way to the truth. By denying that you were unloved as a child, you spare yourself some pain, but you are not with your own truth. And throughout your whole life you’ll try to earn love” (A. Miller, The Roots Of Violence ).
Ultimately, healing the invisible wounds of any form of child abuse requires the adult survivor to bravely acknowledge even the most painful and incomprehensible truths; hence, the decision to take responsibility for one’s own well-being and healing is a most courageous act indeed. Perhaps it is also time that we ask ourselves as a society how we may be contributing to the continued abuse of children through our indifference, and what we are willing to do collectively to change this so that no child need ever believe that they are unworthy and undeserving of being loved.
If you think that you may be an adult survivor of abuse, I encourage you to visit Adult Survivors of Child Abuse to learn more about pathways to healing, and to receive information, support, and resources. You might also wish to consider engaging in psychotherapy with a trauma-informed therapist who specifically specializes in helping adult survivors recover from child abuse (they should consider themselves an ‘expert’ in this area for best results).
About the Author: Rebecca C. Mandeville is a licensed psychotherapist, educator, blogger, and author. She coined the term Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) while researching family scapegoating’s impact on the targeted child or adult child. Her pioneering research on FSA is recognized worldwide and she is currently coordinating her research on FSA and C-PTSD (complex trauma) with interested Universities for the purposes of future (peer-reviewed) studies. Learn more about Rebecca and her book on family scapegoating abuse by visiting scapegoatrecovery.com.
Copyright 2021 | Rebecca C. Mandeville | All Rights Reserved
Rebecca C. Mandeville is a psychotherapist, recovery coach, writer, speaker, and media contributor on child psycho-emotional abuse, family scapegoating, and dysfunctional family systems. She has dedicated her 20-year career in Mental Health to advocating for those whose voices are not heard due to being systemically disempowered. Rebecca writes for various Mental Health organizations and her popular blog, Scapegoat Recovery. She is also the author of the best-selling book on what she named ‘Family Scapegoating Abuse’ (FSA), Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role.