Think of the garden scene in the book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Throughout the story, Alice wants to get to the garden, but finds it to be a twisted place where everything’s bent to please the tyrant.
White roses are painted red and croquet games are rigged for one purpose – so the Queen of hearts wins. Alice continually upsets the queen with honest questions and observations until the Queen threatens Alice, yelling, “Off with her head!”
One minute the Queen is pleasant, luring Alice into a game she can’t win, and the next she’s threatening Alice’s life. It’s no wonder the little known King tries to calm his dramatic wife, saying, “Consider dear, she is only a child.”
Those in emotionally abusive relationships feel like they’re in an incredibly painful chess game rather than a relationship. Emotional abuse is relational poison that leaves us believing something is wrong with us, that we’re fundamentally bad or unimportant, and it constructs a sort of horrible, mental Wonderland that we cannot just wake up from.
The further we fall down the rabbit hole, the more real the messages become, trapping us in a loop of trying to do better, be more pleasing, and find ways to fix ourselves when we weren’t the problem to begin with.Emotional abuse is different than physical abuse because it requires no physical touch, and it’s not an event. Studies show that emotional abuse leads to damage in a child’s development even more than physical abuse does, and it is believed to be the underlying cause of the ongoing psychological injury of all other forms of abuse, causing deep psychological wounds that persist long after the body heals. It’s interactive, which is why it does so much damage.
In the movie World’s Greatest Dad, the late Robin William’s character made a statement that has been widely credited to the actor himself after he ended his own life: “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”
If nothing else, emotional abuse teaches us how destructive social isolation can be, especially in the midst of seemingly normal relationships plagued by an undermining culture of contest and cover up.
Neuroscience asserts the brain is a social organ “meant to function in a matrix of other brains” (Cozolina, 2014). In other words, we are community beings. Our sense of self, value, well-being, and safety are all developed and maintained within relationships.
Signs of Emotional Abuse
People pleasing makes us easier to manipulate and control, and is often the tendency we hate the most in ourselves when we take control of our lives after emotional abuse. But tending to abusers at our own expense is a profound survival skill with roots in our childhood.
Children are acutely tuned-in to threats of abuse and are amazingly accurate in assessing the needs of an abuser in order to take care of them, give them what they want, or try to please them in order to calm their anger and avoid more abuse. But putting ourselves aside to avoid mistreatment doesn’t serve us as adults.
In Alice’s Adventures in the Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts makes the statement, “All the ways about here belong to me.” Emotional abusers always have an agenda, and controlling is often the end, not the means.
The safe person will state their desires outwardly, knowing the answer can and may be “no.” The abuser will either pressure us or take steps to force us. For example, a family member can want a big family picture where everyone wears the same color, but if they resort to forcing the matter because what they want is such a “pure, reasonable thing to ask,” they are heading down the path of emotional abuse.
The use of emotional force – guilt, obligation, coercion, flattery, manipulation – are common strategies of abuse. It’s been said, “You cannot bless someone with what they already feel entitled to.” Negative messages about our boundaries, decisions, limits, and choices are usually because we are not doing what the abuser wants.
Take the example of a John and Jennifer, who have been dating. Jennifer is possessive and demonstrates an interest in undermining John’s other relationships. When he set limits around her behavior – avoiding seeing her with his other friends – she decides to use concerns to sway him in another direction. She offers gentle analysis about his decisions that keep her from interfering. Her approach seems innocent, but her motive is to get around his boundaries. Efforts to undermine boundaries are often disguised as genuine concern, hurt feelings, or confusion.
“You may go,” said the King to the Hatter in Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, and the Hatter scampers away.
“–and just take his head off outside,” said the Queen to one of the officers.
Those who experience emotional abuse routinely face judgments with the motto, “sentence before verdict.” It is very common in emotionally abusive relationships to be punished arbitrarily and without knowing why.
In the Christian faith, there is a distinction between condemnation and conviction. Conviction always allows us redemption and is accompanied by compassion, where condemnation is a final verdict where we have crossed an unforgivable line. Condemnation becomes such a common tone in emotionally abusive families that it seems perfectly natural.
Critical Voice and Unhealthy Compassion
If we cannot get away from emotional abuse, it will target the mind. Constant emotional punishment and blackmail, especially when we are children, gives rise to an inner, critical voice that we cannot shake. It is a series of false beliefs that get embedded in the mind like a microchip that controls and cripples us with shame when we resist.
The inner voice tells us we are bad and unworthy, but it also tells us distorted things about abuse – anger is unkind, even hateful, abuse is the consequence to our failures, and limiting or severing contact from abuse is wrong.Confidence, boundaries, and standing up for ourselves are traits that repel emotional abusers. Since they are traits that attract healthy relationships, those who’ve been taught to steer clear of them are most prone to mistreatment. Over time, we develop a sort of toxic compassion or tendency to excuse and rationalize abuse, which places us right in the cross hairs of toxic individuals.
In emotionally abusive relationships there has to be a winner and loser. A contest might ensue as to who is the healthy one in the relationship. This I-so-don’t-care game is played with a vengeance in emotionally abusive relationships, as if the most undaunted by the exchange has superior health. I like to call it a serial-killerish calm, used by abusers in arguments to frustrate and punish. The self-declared healthy one in the relationship, oddly, is the one who cares the least because they are not easily enflamed or ruffled.
This component of emotional abuse is often referred to as gaslighting, which is basically a form of manipulation that makes another person feel or look crazy. When we begin recovery, this old game is still in play, making us defensive, and prone to over-explaining and getting emotional. It causes us to inflict harmful pressure on ourselves in an attempt to declare, “I’m not the broken one!”
A toxic family can be like crabs in a pot – a wonderful description a client used once in my office to describe a very unhealthy group she eventually found freedom from. She explained to me that when live crabs boil in a pot of water, there is no need for a lid, because when one crab scales the wall and tries to get out the others pull them back down. There are many ways this is done in relationships, but gaslighting is a powerful way of making someone defend themselves when they are better off walking away.
How Do We Heal from Emotional Abuse?
Limit or Cut Off Exposure to Abuse
Getting away from abuse is the first step. Whether we do that with strategies, boundaries, or limiting exposure to an abuser, it is as important as stabilizing a broken bone. We will not find relief from pain or impairment without shelter from interactions that cause ongoing damage.
Ongoing abuse buries self-destructive messages deeper and deeper into our belief system over time, making necessary surgery even more complicated and difficult. We are not strengthened by “taking it” and abuse is character-stripping, rather than character-building.
Recovery from abuse can build our character and give us depth we otherwise wouldn’t have had, but recovery happens in an incubator, a slow re-learning that occurs with an ever-increasing intolerance of abuse.
Talk Back to Negative Messaging
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy guides victims of emotional abuse to identify and talk back to toxic messages. Counseling is meant to help develop within our brains new messages that are rational and kind. Counseling is more than just giving advice, because the new messages, a mature inner voice if you will, must come from within the client to reprogram the brain. That’s why practices like prayer and meditation can also be helpful.We’ve all had those who’ve told us that a situation isn’t that bad or that things aren’t as dreadful as we think, and we all know how unhelpful those well-intentioned words can be. It might be easy as rain for someone to tell us how to interpret the world, but if they’ve never spent one day in our heads, they have no idea how hard it really is. Since internal messages from emotional abuse are so deep-seated, they must be addressed by our own, internal voice, not someone else’s.
Give Yourself Time
It’s not uncommon for those who’ve experienced emotional abuse to get very short with themselves, dismiss their own feelings, and blame themselves for being too sensitive or flawed for not healing fast enough. A sort of true-grit approach is applied to healing in order to force oneself over the hurdles of recovery, but it leaves us feeling defeated.
While it looks like we are hard-charging health-seekers, marching forward toward good things and putting on a brave face, we can hinder the ebb and flow of recovery with an I-must-be-healthy-now attitude. Trying to force our own speed-healing can lead to an unhelpful turning away from the reality of our wounds and can blind our sensitivity when we talk to others about theirs.
Berating ourselves and others for not looking, acting, and feeling like someone who has not experienced psychological damage is a common trait of those healing from emotional abuse. Regardless what others may tell us, just as everyone is subject to gravity, everyone who wasn’t born on Krypton experiences damage by emotional abuse and needs time to recover. We will have good days and bad days as we heal, and we will undoubtedly find all our flaws in the soul-searching that recovery requires – flaws those old messages will tell us are unforgivable.
Even once we’ve forgiven those who’ve harmed us, and gathered emotion regulation and social skills to live a more functional life, we may still struggle with addiction, depression, anxiety, or have triggers that set us back. Health is not a grocery store item that we purchase and bring home – it’s a lifelong effort.
We may find ourselves overreacting, ruminating, or having difficulty getting past things that seem small to others, but that’s the name of the game. Making room for our brokenness is important, because getting back up when we fall – over and over again – is a normal part of the process.
Learn to Trust Again
Emotional abuse undermines one of the most important things a person can have in order to get their needs met – trust. Hidden motives to control, manipulation, gaslighting, and deep and critical negative messages about ourselves leave us anxiously on the lookout for danger. After abuse we don’t know who we can count on, who might be lying to us, or what tricks our own mind might be playing.
Trusting again is an important hurdle that is often the hardest step in recovery from abuse. It helps to tackle this step in safe, controlled doses, preferably with varied people in a structured environment that allows for low intensity and minimal drama.
Therapy and therapeutic support groups can be thought of as experiments in intimacy after intimacy has gone very wrong in our lives. A group has a beginning and end and helps us stay with it, avoid isolating ourselves, and allow relationships again. Individual counseling can be a good place to start as well.
Claussen & Crittenden, 1991.
Hart, Brassard, & Karlson, 1996.
Sanders & Becker-Lausen, 1995.Photos
“Forest,” courtesy of Jon Flobrant, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fog,” courtesy of Bara Cross, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sunset silhouette,” courtesy of Aziz Acharki, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Blur,” courtesy of Mar Newhall, unsplash.com, CC0 License