Andrea couldn’t stand to be alone; she just didn’t know it. At home by herself, usually at night, she would panic — heart racing, hyperventilating, sure she was having a heart attack. The attacks would come upon her suddenly, in the middle of watching television or after cleaning up the kitchen. Terrified, she tried to calm herself, but when that proved futile, the fear would accelerate as she convinced herself something was physically wrong.
After her third visit to the emergency room in as many weeks, a hospital caseworker suggested that her health difficulties might be better addressed by a therapist than a physician. Andrea had never considered counseling before, as it seemed too intrusive and personal. But, she was desperate, unable to hold her debilitating fear at bay.
Even though desperate, Andrea arrived at The Center • A Place of HOPE guarded, wary, and on edge. She just wanted something, anything to stop the panic attacks. She insisted the only reason she had come in was because the hospital suggested it. What she wanted was medication. What she got was the truth about herself.
Andrea came to realize that because of emotional abuse she had endured as a child, she never felt truly comfortable with herself. Instead, she derived her sense of self from other people. Andrea strove to please those around her and to do the best job possible. She was a perfectionist when it came to her job. When Andrea had something to do, she knew who she was. Growing up, being busy meant being away from home, and that meant she was out of range of an unhappy, bitter mother and a demanding, capricious father. If you weren’t busy, you were noticed. If things were quiet, there was no place to hide.
Living in a household where an emotional attack was always a real possibility, Andrea grew up never feeling safe or being totally able to relax. As long as people were surrounding her and things were going on, Andrea was able to divert her growing anxiety and panic into tasks and activities. It was at home, in the quiet, that panic took the upper hand. In order to heal, Andrea needed to learn to relax and be herself — something she had never had the luxury of doing while growing up. Andrea needed to learn to like who she was, even with nobody else in the room.
Any kind of abuse, emotional abuse included, is an attack on a person’s sense of self. It demeans and controls that person through words or actions, devaluing that person and ultimately elevating the abuser. If you have suffered emotional abuse in your past or are suffering it in the present, it is not something to be ignored, denied, accepted, or perpetuated. The damage it does to your sense of self is pervasive and destructive.
Over the course of my years of working with the abused and abusers, I have found several distinct negative effects to the sense of self associated with emotional abuse:
- low self-esteem
- lack of self-confidence
- transfer of needs
- acting out sexually
- failure syndrome
- unrealistic guilt
- crisis oriented
- unresolved anger and resentments
Depending on your situation, you may find that one or more of these effects is true in your own life. You may have been aware of these effects without understanding why they exist in your life.