Self-blame is common among victims of all types of abuse, including emotional abuse. How else can we explain the extreme behavior we endure from those who are supposed to protect us and nurture us? Abuse is never our fault, but few, if any, abuse survivors come out of an abusive situation not blaming themselves. That makes self-forgiveness a very important step in the healing process.
Forgiving the Child
Emotional abuse survivors are particularly prone to beating themselves up for “letting” the abuse go on. Emotional abuse involves non-violent actions, so, we think, it’s not like we were physically attacked by people stronger than us. Even as children, we think, we could have protested against put-downs and controlling behavior and resisted manipulation.
But it’s not that simple. First, in some situations there could have been a threat of physical violence as retaliation for crossing our abusers. This is true even if our parents never demonstrated outright violence. Lots of yelling, violent threats towards others, and destruction of property all send a message that you’re dealing with a person who could get physically violent at any time. Telling an abuser that you’re not the loser they think you are may not have been worth a beating.
There may also have been a more subtle fear of love withdrawal. Emotionally abusive parents are very good at sending the message that love is conditional. If you please them, you’ll get their love. If you displease them, you’ll get their rejection. It’s painful to be rejected by our caregivers, so giving into their demands, fulfilling their needs, and even anticipating their desires were all ways to ensure that this didn’t happen.
Another thing that could have kept you under their control was the emotionally charged nature of the relationship. Often, an abusive parent turns neutral situations into emotional situations. Sending a child to summer camp, for instance, may be an exciting experience for a healthy parent and a traumatic one for an enmeshed parent. Understanding how to handle our emotions so that they don’t sweep us away is a learning process that’s clearly hindered in an abusive environment. We can’t expect ourselves to draw boundaries, put abusive people in their place, and stand up for ourselves when we’re dodging strong emotions that are deeply rooted in a pattern of abuse.
Finally, we can’t ignore the parent-child dynamic. They had full authority over us. We trusted them completely. We had no choice. And we were told we could and should. It’s very difficult for a child to judge a parent, even when there’s ample evidence that what they’re doing is destructive. We may have felt there was something wrong, but often the mere fact that our parents had authority over us was enough to overcome those feelings of discomfort. It’s natural for a child to follow a parent’s lead, even when that leads to pain.
Forgiving the Adult
It may be more difficult for us to forgive ourselves as adults for giving into our abusive parents. Society certainly supports this view. We hear a lot about how we’re in control of our lives and our choices are our responsibility. We may even be accused of blaming our parents for our misery when we complain about their abusive behaviors. All of this ignores the complex issues involved in the parent-child relationship, even when everyone’s an adult.
Like it or not, the parent-child dynamic is still at work when we’re adults. In other words, they still have a kind of authority over us that other people don’t have. We may still take what they say and think as more important than what many others say or think. In abusive relationships where control is a big deal, the parental authority is even stronger. We may be able to look critically at their behavior, but that isn’t always enough to stop us from giving into it.
The fear of love withdrawal is also still alive and strong in relationships between abusive parents and adult children. The message is still make me happy and I’ll love you, but make me unhappy and you can’t expect me to love you. We don’t lose the need to be loved by our parents just because we grow up. Even a healthy relationship with our partner and children doesn’t replace the need to be loved by our caregivers.
As adults, we also have to juggle adult responsibilities alongside the abuse we get from our emotionally abusive parents. We only have so much fighting energy, and it makes sense to allocate it to situations that are more important at the moment. Let’s say, for instance, that you just went back to school to get your degree. You have to juggle classes, homework, a job, your children, and the running of the house. On top of that, you have your narcissistic mother nagging you to take her to doctor’s appointments, constantly texting you, keeping you on the phone for two hours as she complains about her life, and criticizing everything you do. As hurtful and intrusive as she is, your priorities are going to be with your education, your job, and your immediate family, so it’s natural that you want to minimize stress from her by giving into her demands.
Healing from Emotional Abuse Through Self-Forgiveness
As we’ve seen above, there are many understandable reasons why you would give into your emotionally abusive parents as a child and as an adult. But if you’re reading this then I suspect you’re ready to stop doing that. The first step is to forgive yourself for the past so that you can clear the way for a better future.
Colette Baron-Reid is a sexual abuse survivor and intuitive counselor who wrote a post back in May 2010 about self-forgiveness. She says
[f]orgiving yourself involves taking responsibility for who you are and what you do, but also knowing that you did the best you could at the time [my italics].
I think that last part is crucial. Self-blame comes when we step back and reflect on our past, which means we’re always in a different place than where we were at the time. You need to respect where you were at the time of the abuse, whether you were 8, 15, or 37.
Recognize the times when you didn’t have the knowledge to understand what was happening and why it was happening. Dealing with emotional abuse is very different when you’re in the relationship than when you’re out of it. I’ve heard from so many survivors how impossible it was for them to understand what was happening until they left home and got involved in healthy relationships. Honor the fact that you just weren’t in a place to do anything about the abuse at the time.
Perhaps more challenging is to forgive the times you gave into your abusers when you could have made another choice. As an adult, you may have been aware that what they were saying or doing didn’t make sense. You may even have known what emotional abuse is and that it was happening, and yet you gave in. Don’t forget that emotional abuse isn’t an isolated behavior. It’s a pattern of behaviors that you were primed to accept from a young age. The parts of the brain that are equipped to handle stressful situations develop differently in abused children, and those effects last into adulthood.
Keep in mind also that as you gain more awareness of what emotional abuse us, why it happens, and how it’s happening to you, you’ll find that resisting its influence is not a magical process. In other words, you’ll still give into it sometimes even as you recognize that you’re doing it. These can be the most frustrating times, making you wonder if you’ll ever learn to resist it. Never forget that resisting your abusers’ demands always causes conflict and stress. As you get stronger, your ability to deal with this stress will grow and you’ll find you can resist them more and more. In the meantime, accept that you’ll let them control you even when you know that’s what you’re doing.
If you struggle to forgive yourself for having succumbed to your parents’ emotional abuse then try to step back and see your situation as if it had happened to a friend. We find it much easier to show compassion for someone else. For instance, let’s take the scenario in the previous section of the survivor who’s in her first semester of college and has to juggle school along with a full-time job, care of her husband and children, care of the house, and the manipulation of her narcissistic mother. If she steps back from the situation and sees it as happening to a friend, she might be able to see that her mother’s demands show a complete lack of sensitivity to her situation. She may also be able to recognize that a healthy mother would try to help take some of the burdens off of her busy daughter, if she could, rather than add to them.
Self-forgiveness can make some of us uncomfortable because it means doing a 180-degree turn from where we usually are, which is beating ourselves up for being weak and giving into our abusers. Those of us who live in Western society also have to deal with the belief that we’re completely responsible for our own lives and have no one to blame but ourselves for bad choices and unhappiness. Recognize that it’s not that simple by forgiving what you did in the past and what you’ll do as you go through your healing journey. You’ll find that it will make your healing a lot easier.