Therapy for Emotional Abuse
I’m a strong believer in therapy for abuse. Many assume that emotional abuse doesn’t require therapeutic support unless it was extreme, such as an emotionally abusive parent saying they wish you were never born or constantly calling you a loser. I think this is a damaging belief. Since you’re at this website, I assume you feel that the emotional abuse from your parents, past and present, is interfering with your life. That justifies the support of a counselor.
The best kind of therapist to find is one who has experience counseling abuse survivors. Even if the therapist specializes in a particular kind of abuse, for instance sexual abuse or domestic abuse, they’ll be aware of the emotional dynamics of an abusive relationship more than a counselor who, say, specializes in addiction or learning disabilities.
Another type of therapist who can help is one who specializes in trauma. If your parents were physically or sexually abusive as well as emotionally abusive then this type of counselor can be a particularly good match. My personal opinion is that all abuse is traumatic on some level, so I wouldn’t shy away from this type of therapist if I were looking for counseling. Even if you don’t consider your emotional abuse traumatic, these therapists will be more sensitive to some of the problems that abuse creates (such as destructive relationships, low self-esteem, etc.) because other types of trauma create these problems too.
Unfortunately, counselors who specialize in abuse and trauma aren’t always available, or their services may be out of your price range or not covered by your insurance. A more popular type of therapist is the family therapist, and they can be helpful in supporting your healing because they understand family dynamics. They also understand child development, which I think is important in understanding how and why emotionally abusive parents harm their children and how and why that harm continues into adulthood.
Note that there are many different approaches to therapy, which I won’t even attempt to go into here. When you’re looking for a therapist, you want to check if they use any specific approach and do some research on it. Abuse message boards are also a place you can go to ask which therapeutic approaches have been helpful for treating abuse in other survivors. Obviously therapeutic effectiveness is subjective, but they at least have had to deal with some of the problems you have to deal with.
The best way to find a therapist is by asking friends, family members, or colleagues for a recommendation. Rather than mentioning that it’s for abuse issues, I recommend you simply ask for the information and do some research on the therapist on your own or ask the therapist if they’ve ever dealt with abuse. They may be able to recommend someone if they haven’t or don’t feel comfortable dealing with it.
You can also search directories online. If you’re in the United States or Canada, I recommend the database on the Psychology Today website because it lists therapists whose credentials have been verified. You can also narrow down your choices by issue (there’s a list of issues in the sidebar on the left). Though you won’t find emotional abuse or even abuse in general there, you will find family relationships, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and trauma.
You can also type into Google’s search box “therapist directory” to find therapist databases. The best ones to use are those belonging to psychology or therapy associations. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) has a Psychologist Locator that covers the U.S. and Canada. Though not nearly as extensive as the one offered by Psychology Today, it does give important information on specialty, approaches, and credentials. If you live outside North America, add the country name in your search line, such as “therapist directory South Africa.”
What to Look for in a Therapist
GoodTherapy.org is a website that aims to promote healthy therapy, particularly psychotherapy. It has a page on characteristics that go into healthy therapy which all therapists in its therapist database adhere to. It’s worth reading to get an idea of the sort of things a healthy therapeutic setting should have. There are, though, a few things I want to point out about what to be alert to when doing therapy for your emotional abuse issues.
Validation is, in my opinion, extremely important when it comes to emotional abuse. It’s really difficult for us to believe in our experiences as it is. We don’t need a therapist who’s constantly questioning what we tell them. While it’s true that we can misinterpret some behavior, I don’t believe it’s a therapist’s job to put doubts into our heads. They weren’t there and need to assume that what we tell them is true, not try to prove us wrong. If we’ve made a mistake, we’ll eventually reach a point where we’ll recognize it and learn from it.
I like to keep in mind what Andrew Seubert wrote in his book The Courage to Feel. Emotions are never wrong, he says. Sometimes, the beliefs underlying the emotions are wrong, but emotions aren’t right or wrong; they just are. Validation involves our emotions, not the beliefs underlying them. If you talk about your feelings of hurt, anger, resentment, and shame regarding your parents’ behavior in the past and in the present, your therapist needs to support your feelings, not question your interpretation of them. If you feel like your therapist isn’t validating your emotional abuse experiences then it’s best to find another.
In emotional abuse, our relationship to authority has been damaged. Our abusive parents wielded their authority over us without mercy. That’s why I believe that a therapist who can help us is one who doesn’t try to make us feel small and insecure. There are therapists out there who enjoy their power and knowledge. They’re constantly telling us what we should and shouldn’t feel, should and shouldn’t think, should and shouldn’t do.
This is particularly problematic for us because we fall into one of two ways of relating to them. We may feel like we’ve been placed in the role of the helpless, incompetent child again and find ourselves feeling an obligation to obey everything they say. This is unhealthy because we lose the ability to question their interpretation of things and their advice. That can lead to all kinds of trouble. Or, we may rebel against this authority figure and disregard everything they tell us, which creates an antagonistic relationship. Clearly that’s not going to help us because trust in a therapeutic setting is very important. A therapist with control or authority issues isn’t a good match for us.
Finally, a good therapist is one you know is on your side, no matter what. We can’t feel safe with a therapist who echoes things insensitive people say, such as
- Don’t you think you’re blaming your parents for your unhappiness?
- They’re doing/did the best they can/could. Maybe you’re being a little too hard on them.
- It sounds like you’re being over-sensitive. All parents do things like that once in a while.
- Parents aren’t perfect. Think of all of the great things they did for you.
We can’t deal with the legacy of emotional abuse if we’re made to feel like our pain is an illusion.
We also need our therapist to be on our side because when we deal with emotional abuse, if we want to stop the pain, we’re going to have to take some steps to protect ourselves. That might mean going no contact or low contact with our abusers. It might mean confronting them. It might mean training ourselves not to get emotionally involved with them. These are all tough choices, and our therapist should be in our corner no matter what choice we make. If you feel like you have to fight with your therapist to make them understand what you feel and what you need to do to bring peace into your life then you don’t have a therapist who can support your healing.
The decision to get counseling is a personal one, but when people ask me, I generally recommend it. Emotional abuse is a distressing experience that has long-term consequences. A good therapist will validate your experiences, will be an authority figure who shows you respect, and will support you as you work through your pain. They can also offer an objective view on who you are and give you creative ideas for working through specific problems caused by the emotional abuse. As long as you find one who empathizes with your emotional abuse experiences, I believe therapy can go a long way in helping you heal.