How Abuse Defines Self-Concept

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What Life Looks Like After Being Abused

How to Understand the Effect of Abusive Relationships

No one plans to be in an abusive relationship, but, unfortunately many people find themselves growing up or living in or victimized by abusive people.  A relevant fact that is well supported by studies is that individuals who were verbally abused, emotionally, physically, or sexually by people who victimize them during the developmental process of childhood are at risk for finding themselves in the role of an abuser as an adult.  What needs to understood about the cycle of abuse is that abusive people define, destroy, and distort what normality looks like in life.  Therefore, instead of developing normal pathways of experience that provides a healthy baseline of self concept, self- esteem, and healthy patterns of social identification in relation to others your experiences, emotions, and judgement becomes skewed, distorted, and blurred by victimization that confuses how one sees themselves and predicts behavior that will be tainted and skewed by the lived-experience of life.

As a result children and adults who are abused in life may not know how to set standards –boundaries and develop a healthy view of  self, others, life experiences and balance feelings and perceptions about what is really happening in life.  Consequently, the controlling and defining perception created by abusive life events may feel familiar when similar experiences occur in later life because abusive experience enculturates life with distorted values and expectations.

For many people, normal can become the abnormal or even comfortable, while at the same time being very destructive to any healthy view of self.  Individuals who are abused come to expect it and sometimes cannot find a feeling of normalcy because an expectation of self and how “the self” relates to others in the social world has been defined by the expectation that abuse is normal.  As a result, many people who are abused find themselves drawn to abusers, like a moth to a flame and experience a repeated cycle of abuse throughout life.

Powerlessness Hurt, Anger, and Confused Feelings from Abuse Distorts Self Understanding.

The abused person often struggles with feelings of powerlessness, hurt, fear, anger, and guilt about what has happened to them.  Guilt internalized sends a message to the abused that they are to blame, they are at fault, which scars understanding of personal value.  Ironically, abusers tend to struggle with the same feelings –worthlessness, and devaluation that stems from distorted self perception.  In addition,  abusers are also likely to have been raised in emotionally abusive conditions where they learn to be abusive as a method to cope with their own feelings of powerlessness, hurt , fear, and anger.

Consequently, abusers are drawn to others who see themselves as helpless, appear to be naive, a victim, or who do not have a strong sense of identity and self image. The benefit to the abuser is that identification of the “Mark” allows the abuser to feel more secure and in control, which take the focus off dealing with their own feelings, and self-perceptions.  Therefore, emotional abuse victims can become so convinced that they are worthless and believe that no one else could want them, which ties them and their self worth to the abuser and the abuse. Unfortunately, many people remain locked in abusive situations because they believe they have nowhere else to go and no one else would want them.  An ultimate fear for the abuse is being all alone.

Relationships Have Predictable and Systematic Patterns which Govern How Behaviors Occur.

All human behaviors have have underlying response drivers that work in concert within a social, cultural system in a family unit.  Developing a reflective process of thinking about behavior, triggers, responses, and outcome will tell us a lot about why things work the way they do with others.  A beginning step is in understanding the pattern of your own relationships, especially those with family members and other significant people, is a first step toward change.   Many people who have been abused in life will have distinguishable patterns of the kind of people that they are drawn to, but fail to understand why they continually wind up with abusive partners and unhealthy functioning in relationships.  As a result, a lack of clarity about who you are in relationship to significant others may manifest itself in different ways.  For example, “switch hitting” is when you may act as an “abuser” in some situations and as a “recipient”of abuse in others.

Reflection may lead you may discover that there is a tendency for you to be abused in your romantic relationships, allowing your partners to define and control you.  While at the same time, in friendships, you may play the role of abuser by manipulating, trying to use guilt to create conformity through controlling behaviors while professing that you are only trying to be a  “help”. Consequently, the process of entering into a reflective way of knowing yourself and understanding your past can prevent abuse from being recreated in your life experience.

Self Concept is a Predictor of How the Abused Behave Toward Themselves: Are You Abusive to Yourself?

Often we allow people into our lives that treat badly because we expect to be treated badly.  The unfortunate truth is that if we feel contempt for ourselves or think very little of ourselves, we may pick partners or significant others who, like a mirror,  reflect this image back to us.  It is true that if we are willing to tolerate negative treatment from others, or treat others in negative ways, it is possible that we also treat ourselves similarly?  If you are an abuser or a recipient of abuse, you may want to consider how you think about yourself and treat yourself. In your private thoughts, what sort of things characterize your inner dialogue?  Do thoughts such as “I’m stupid” or “I never do anything right” dominate your thinking?  The art of Learning to love and care for ourselves increases self-esteem and makes it more likely that we will have healthy, intimate relationships.

Emotional Abuse May be as Simple as Having Your Needs Denied

One way of looking at emotional abuse is being denied the thing you need when you need it the most. John Bradshaw says something similar to this. He said, “we were most shamed at the times when we were most in need.”

Emotional Abuse Invalidates, Rejects, Ignores, Mocks, Teases, Judges, or Diminishes Someone’s Feelings as Unimportant.     

Constant invalidation may be one of the most significant reasons a person with high innate emotional intelligence suffers from unmet emotional needs later in life.(1)  An emotionally sensitive child who is repeatedly invalidated becomes confused and begins to distrust his own emotions.  He/she  fails to develop confidence in and healthy use of his emotional brain –one of nature’s most basic survival tools.

To adapt to this unhealthy environment, the working relationship between thoughts and feelings becomes twisted.   The emotional responses, emotional management, and emotional development will likely be seriously, and perhaps permanently, impaired when there is constant invalidation.  The emotional processes which worked for him as a child may begin to work against him as an adult creating psychosocial or personality problems.  In fact, one definition of the so-called “borderline personality disorder” is “the normal response of a sensitive person to an invalidating environment” (2)  Psychiatrist R.D. Laing said that when we invalidate people or deny their perceptions and personal experiences, we make mental invalids of them.  He found that when one’s feelings are denied a person can be made to feel crazy even they are perfectly mentally healthy which is the pattern of a Borderlines relationships toward their unwitting victims who resist their control.

Recent research by Thomas R. Lynch, Ph.D. of Duke University supports the idea that invalidation leads to mental health problems.   He writes “… a history of emotional invalidation (i.e., a history of childhood psychological abuse and parental punishment, minimization, and distress in response to negative emotion) was significantly associated with emotion inhibition (i.e., ambivalence over emotional expression, thought suppression, and avoidant stress responses).  Further, emotional inhibition significantly predicted psychological distress, including depression and anxiety symptoms.)  Invalidation goes beyond mere rejection by implying not only that our feelings are disapproved of, but that we are fundamentally abnormal.  This implies that there is something wrong with us because we aren’t like everyone else; we are strange; we are different; we are weird.

None of this feels good, and all of it damages us in our development of pro-social feelings and relationships.  The more different from the “mass norm” a person is — the more intelligent or more sensitive; the more he/she is likely to be invalidated by abusive behavior directed toward what is seen as different.   When we are invalidated by having our feelings repudiated over and over and we are attacked at the deepest level of our personhood creativity is stifled, problem solving ability is diminished and self concept is damaged.  What may not be understood in this abuse is that our feelings are the innermost expression of our individual identities and denial of the feelings is a repudiation of personhood.  What should be clearly understood is that psychological invalidation is one of the most lethal forms of emotional abuse.  It kills confidence, creativity and individuality.


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