Domestic Violence Awareness Month: The Impact of Emotional Abuse
There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” Maya Angelou
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’ve wanted to address the subject of emotional abuse for some time on my blog. I recently made a couple of new friends and heard their stories, and it’s prompted me to share some difficult things with you.
I experienced verbal and emotional abuse from my father as I was growing up. I was (and am) very sensitive and very emotional. At home, I was consistently made to believe that I “shouldn’t” feel hurt and that I cried for reasons that didn’t seem necessary. There is evidence of the effects of that abuse before I entered elementary school. From a very young age, I learned how to keep from crying. I was an easy target and a magnet for bullies, and I very rarely told anyone, even close friends, if they hurt me. I just learned to keep it all inside. If I mentioned being hurt, there was a better than average chance I would have my feelings invalidated. So everyone else’s feelings became more important than mine.
Because of the invalidation and shaming that I received both at home and at school, it contributed to my ability to see and recognize pain in the eyes of others. I can remember as far back as third grade seeing the hurt in a friend’s eyes even though she was keeping up a pretty good facade of strength and normalcy and becoming a confidant to her as her parents were getting divorced. I wasn’t afraid to ask anyone if they were okay, because their pain was so obvious to me.
Perhaps because teachers had noticed the strong sense of empathy and intuition I possessed, the principal at my elementary school recommended me for the privilege of attending a week long summer camp after my 6th grade year. I’m not sure if my parents were aware at the time, but this camp was for children who had been badly abused. A number of “regular, fine, upstanding, normal, good” children were placed in each cabin to provide some sort of balance. While it was a very important event in my personal development, I was exposed to the reality of children experiencing all forms of abuse, and being an ear, a shoulder, a support as they told their stories. Maybe the camp counselors didn’t expect little middle school girls to bond, to stay up talking late into the night about what they’d been through (physical abuse, pot smoking, alcohol, incest, and rape), but they did. Many of the names and faces of the girls in my cabin, and their stories, are still seared into my memory.
By the time I started high school, I had a number of girlfriends as well as two guy friends confiding in me about their parents being physically, emotionally, and verbally abusive. I’d learned how to validate their emotions, and gently inquire, allowing them as much freedom as they wanted to share their stories. I was told by one of the guys that men really do want to talk about their feelings, and how rare a girl I was to invite that honesty and keep their secrets. I became aware that both genders suffer abuse and feel the same deep levels of pain, but that guys learn quickly how to blow it off with a joke, with distraction, or disguise it with anger to preserve their dignity and masculinity.
Image: Don Sambandaraksa via Flickr
As I’ve gotten older, some of those same male and female friends have endured a history of relationships that involve verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual, and physical abuse. The patterns that were set in their childhood were left unchecked, and never addressed in counseling or therapy. Their childhood experience made them more willing to accept being treated poorly by romantic partners. They had a skewed sense of their own worth as well as what was “normal” respect, dignity, and love. That same thing happened to me. I dated men who were abusive in the same subtle ways my dad was: controlling, emotionally neglectful, invalidating, critical, and shaming. A pattern I never noticed until I left my ex. During my 13 year marriage, I didn’t really notice the abuse. It was just something I was enduring, surviving, it was my life, and I didn’t really question it. Does this surprise you? How many women do you know who have stayed in abusive relationships? And why do they stay?