The Inner/Internal Abuser

I ran across the concept of the inner abuser or internal abuser through Dr. David Gersten, head of the Gersten Institute for Higher Medicine in California. He maintains a number of sites, one of which focuses on mental imagery called Imagerynet. On this site, he writes about the inner or internal abuser within the abuse victim. Apparently this concept is often discussed in the context of dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder. I think, though, that the inner or internal abuser dwells to some degree in every abuse survivor.

Origins of the Internal Abuser

As much as we hated the abuse we suffered and often harbor anger and resentment towards our abusers, we also became accustomed to abusive treatment. In a family situation, we passed through crucial developmental periods where we suffered from maltreatment. We learn a lot about coping from those we grow up with. Abuse is a destructive way to cope with problems, but it sticks to us even after the abuse has ceased or at least been greatly reduced.

The concept of an internal abuser depends on the belief that our identity is somewhat fragmented throughout life. This is controversial, so it depends on whether that makes sense to you. To me it makes sense. The idea is that as we take on new roles as our experiences in life expand, both for the benefit of others and for the benefit of ourselves, we develop a different side of ourselves. It’s like we play different roles when serving our own needs as well as the needs of others.

Because abuse of any kind is a disturbing experience, we develop fragments of our identity that cope with these disturbing experiences in sometimes dysfunctional ways. These fragments also cope with experiences in dysfunctional ways when those experiences produce similar feelings to those the emotional abuse produced, even if those experiences aren’t abusive. For instance, we may cope with any experience that scares us in ways similar to the way we coped with abusive experiences that scared us. If we retreated to our room every time our father came home drunk because we knew he would eventually become abusive, we may isolate ourselves from anyone who gets drunk, even if that person isn’t an abuser.

Dr. Gersten mentions how the abuse victim will internalize the abuser, sometimes taking on his or her characteristics. We abuse ourselves the way that we were abused and sometimes abuse others in those ways as well. Sometimes we don’t even recognize what’s happening. Many times we do but find it extremely difficult to stop, and we may not understand why. But believe it or not, the inner abuser isn’t meant to destroy us. It’s meant to support us, but since it’s modeled on a destructive supporter, it becomes destructive to us.

Inner Abuser as Protector

Ellen P. Lacter is a psychologist who’s worked with ritual abuse survivors. She wrote an article in October 2006 on “abuser personalities” where she discusses the internal or inner abuser. The article appears to refer to DID situations and is specific to ritual abuse victims, but some of her insights are also useful for all types of abuse, including emotional abuse.

The internal abuser may act as a warped kind of protector. When we were abused, we needed to comply with the abusers’ desires in order to avoid punishment. This instilled in us a fear of transgressing from their desired behaviors or beliefs. Even when we’re out of the abusive situation, or at least the abusers aren’t around as much, we may still cling to the same fear of punishment if we stray from what they wanted us to say, do, think, or feel.

For instance, one message my rigid and arrogant father sent me over and over again as I was growing up was that I was too stupid to make my own decisions and needed to rely on the advice of people with more knowledge and experience to tell me what to do. As I began to work on my own business, I found myself obeying this rule by relying too heavily on what business experts were telling me. When I wanted to modify their advice, I felt badly and resisted. This didn’t get me very far, but it quieted the nagging internal abuser.

An inner abuser can try to protect us from the punishment by making us deny the abuse even when we see glaring evidence of it and its damaging effects on our lives. It can be especially easy when dealing with emotional abuse to deny that our abusers’ behaviors were abusive or that we’re detrimentally affected by them as adults. We may blame other factors for feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, hopelessness, depression, anxiety, etc.

For example, abusers who have a mental illness are often excused by their victims because of that. It’s a tough situation because a mental illness really can make someone hurt us in ways that they wouldn’t if they weren’t mentally ill. The problem is that though the intention isn’t to abuse, the result is abuse. A father suffering from depression, for instance, who blames his children for his suffering may be desperate to find some comfort, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s making his children feel guilty for something they’re not responsible for, which is emotional abuse. The children may develop an inner abuser that excuses the father’s hurtful behavior by reminding them whenever they’re angry at him that it wasn’t their father’s fault because he was mentally ill. This invalidates their pain and doesn’t allow them to cope with it.

Inner Abuser as Isolator

The internal abuser who seeks to protect us may also isolate us from potential supporters. The isolation we experienced in childhood can easily spill into adulthood. We essentially continue that isolating behavior, avoiding contact with people who would understand, either on a personal or professional level. We may avoid seeking help because of what could happen to us if we stepped outside of the system of abuse, just as we did when we were under the control of the abuser.

For instance, I hear a lot of abuse survivors, particularly emotional abuse survivors, making excuses for not getting counseling. Although social beliefs about emotional abuse have something to do with this, namely that it’s not as damaging as physical or sexual abuse and therefore doesn’t require therapy, I think part of this is a wish to deny that what we suffered was really abuse. The inner abuser is part of the mechanism that keeps us away from therapy.

Inner Abuser as Substitute for Inner Nurturer

An inner abuser can also keep us from trying new things or making real changes in our lives. We feed ourselves berating thoughts so that we don’t dare rise above the image the abusers wanted us to have of ourselves. This makes us resist growth so that we don’t shake up the status quo (which benefited the abuser). We may find all kinds of justifications for not being good or right or capable of doing things, not recognizing that the voice that’s speaking to us belongs to an internal abuser.

Keeping this in mind can really help us understand why we self-sabotage some of our best efforts to move beyond the situations of our childhood. Let’s say, for example, that you constantly heard from your abusive mother that you’re stupid, a loser, and will never amount to anything. Such messages discouraged you from going to college, and you’ve been working boring, low-paying jobs for over 10 years. You hear about loans being given for getting a degree, and you decide to go for it.

You begin your studies but after a few weeks, you slack off on your assignments. You run into a particularly difficult one and give up. You end the semester with several failed courses. You might try to take them again the following semester, only to go through the same pattern of starting off well and ending badly. You may blame yourself for being lazy or bad at time management, but these may just be covering up a deeper problem. If you got that degree then you wouldn’t be the stupid loser your abusers told you you were. The inner abuser, unable to cope with violating that image, may have contributed to your failure.

This fear of change makes us feel safe because it’s a familiar feeling to be afraid. We may beat ourselves up for being weak, but we’re really seeking the safety of a caregiver that can’t give us safety. In our childhood, this was our abusers. In adulthood, this is the inner abuser, which is a replacement for the internal nurturer. We all need to develop a nurturer within and remain in touch with it so that we can feel safe without having to depend on someone else to make us feel safe. For many abuse survivors, the only way they felt safe was by holding back, and the internal abuser helps keep that going.

Abuser Identification through the Inner Abuser

In order to soothe the deep pain that develops from being abused, we may identify with the abuser through our internal abuser. According to Dr. Lacter, this is a way to get around feelings of helplessness and terror. One of the “highs” of abuse is that it gives the abuser a sense of power. No one is immune to this “high,” including those of us who’ve suffered or still suffer from abuse. In a strange way, controlling the abuse through an inner abuser gives us that “high” of power over ourselves.

By identifying with the abuser and practicing the same abusive behaviors on ourselves, we try to remove the role of victim from ourselves. However, it’s a twisted kind of logic because we become our own abuser, thus remaining in the role of victim as well. This can leave us with a deep conflict, wondering why we do these things to ourselves but unable to resist doing them.

I think a lot of us who’ve been constantly criticized as children, for instance, will become overly critical of ourselves and others. My father was a perfectionist, and I used to be one too. If everything didn’t fall into place based on my preconceived ideas then it all felt wrong and worthless. I destroyed so many fun experiences by beating myself over the head because things didn’t turn out “just right,” just like my father did to us when I was a kid. I was both victim and abuser.

I think the internal or inner abuser is a very real experience for anyone who’s been abused. We learn the abusive behaviors and also learn that we deserve them, so we practice them on ourselves and others throughout our lives. It’s a destructive but effective way of making us feel safe.

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