Emotional abuse may be an elusive concept to many, for people who have been on the receiving end it is only too tangible. The effects of emotional or narcissistic abuse are many, and healing from these can be challenging.
The younger a person is when exposed to this type of abuse, the more likely they are to develop long lasting emotional problems because of it. And for those who think that emotional problems are just fluffy and fuzzy, you could not be more wrong. The problems that victims of non-physical abuse suffer put them at greater risk of more abuse, can lead to more practical life struggles and even puts them at greater risk for physical illness.
Heightened Emotional Susceptibility
One of the effects of emotional abuse is heightened emotional susceptibility, ‘the tendency to “catch” others’ feelings (usually negative feelings), incorporate these feelings into yourself, and the find that you are unable to easily release them’ (from Children of the Self-Absorbed by Nina W. Brown, Ed. D., LPC. p.13). When exposed to emotional abuse as children (especially parentification) a child may not develop the normal psychological boundaries that keep them from catching others’ emotions. But even when dealing with emotional abuse later in life, when being made solely responsible for the emotional well-being of another person, these boundaries may fade.
So what does all that mean in everyday life? Well in the most practical sense it often means that a survivor will do whatever they can to make others feel good. And I mean whatever. No confrontations, no standing up for themselves, nothing to rock the boat. It can even mean doing things that they are not comfortable with in order to please the other person. It can mean that we find ourselves in arguments without having any idea how we got there, because we caught that argumentative emotion from somewhere else. When your emotional state of being is so heavily influenced by others, it means you have lost control over yourself, which leaves you vulnerable to bullies, stress and anxiety.
The Search for Perfection
Another often shared experience of survivors is the search for perfection. The idea that “if only you can be perfect, everything will be OK” is one that toxic people firmly plant in their victim’s brains. “If only you were perfect, I would not be flawed” is what they tell their target. So not only does the survivor has this burden of the never-ending (and doomed to fail) search for perfection, they even take on responsibility for the imperfections of others.
Survivors often feel they need to compensate for the shortcomings of others. Not in the sense that, like in a team for example, we feel people’s various talents complement each other. No we feel we need to work extra hard to make up for everyone else’s imperfections. Survivors feel a tremendous amount of responsibility for things that are clearly and firmly outside their circle of influence.
“I once had a life coach ask me how I was able to watch the news without feeling that finding a solution of every orphan starving in Africa was somehow my personal responsibility. He made me -dimly- aware that I was taking on responsibilities that were in no way my own, and that working so hard for others made me too tired and stressed to meet my actual responsibilities in life, like caring for myself and my partner”.
Becoming aware of this over-inflated sense of responsibility is a hard habit to shake, which often makes a survivor feel they are just not good enough. When you feel like that regularly it will start to have a negative effect on pretty much every aspect of you life. If you would like to learn about some ways to combat those feelings, check out these 11 Things to Remember When You Think You’re Not Good Enough on the Power of Positivity.
Self-Doubt and Self-Sabotage
Being constantly confronted with actual or fictional faults will leave survivors with unbelievable self-esteem issues. These do not just pertain to the above mentioned feeling of not being good enough. It is a wide spectrum of misconceptions about themselves. From not recognizing their own talents, to perceiving non-existent faults and weaknesses. In order to perpetrate their abuse, Toxic People must make their victim feel they deserve the bad treatment, that this is the best they will ever get and that they are not worthy of anything better. What most outsiders often do not understand is that a target does not appear to feel anything is wrong with their lives. Often this is not the case, they may be aware that the relationship is not good (although they cannot always specify the toxicity or label it as abuse) but have been utterly brainwashed to believe this is what they deserve. This indoctrination has many consequences, one even grimmer than the next.
What it often boils down to is that a target is absolutely certain they are never going to succeed at anything. Whether in work, in love or whatever other endeavor they participate in, as ‘the Ugly Duckling‘ they are convinced that they will not ever amount to anything. So for many that means they give up before they get started, while others will create a self-fulfilling prophecy by sabotaging their own efforts. This is not a conscious process. These seeds of doubt are sowed so deep within the subconscious brain, that a survivor may not be aware of the weeds that grow there even after they have realized the abuse and have started on their healing journey.
How Do We Stop the Merry-Go-Round?
So what does all that mean? It means survivors may settle for jobs below their ability, it means they settle for new toxic relationships. It means they are more likely to expose themselves to more toxicity and abuse. Just like children who suffer physical abuse at the hand of their parents are more likely to end up in abusive relationships and (or) become the abuser themselves, so too are those who grow up in emotionally abusive homes more likely to continue on that merry-go-round.
When you look at Toxic People as previous victims, you start to see the hurt that they are feeling. The debilitating emotional shortcomings they suffer that are making them lash out. Don’t get me wrong, there is no excuse for the havoc they create in others! But a balanced and whole human-being will not want to abuse others, whether emotionally or physically.
So how do we stop this cycle? I firmly believe that there needs to be much more awareness of what bullying and emotional abuse is and how it affects people. But maybe even more importantly, we need to acknowledge that people need time, space and support to heal from their wounds. ANYONE who has been made to feel like an Ugly Duckling, whether male or female, at work, by a partner or a parent, needs to be able to say: I am hurt, please help me heal. And when they say that, the world needs to say: of course you do, here hide under my wing for a while until you feel stronger.