Validating Your Pain
Many of us struggle to justify our pain. Some of us find other family members, partners, children, friends, and even therapists have trouble taking it seriously. In an article from August 28, 1994, in Parade Magazine, Andrew Vachss (a lawyer who’s worked with child abuse victims for a number of years) states that “when it comes to emotional abuse, we are more likely to believe the victims will ‘just get over it’ when they become adults.” We may want to believe this ourselves. But we can’t heal pain that we don’t take seriously, and there are many reasons why we should.
The Parent-Child Dynamic
People may wonder why we take an abusive parent’s words and actions to heart. Why can’t we just ignore them when they’re hurtful? We’re adults now, not dependent children. I think it would be a mistake to underestimate the influence of the destructive pattern that’s set up in an emotionally abusive relationship. We train ourselves to take the pain seriously, and worse, find reasons why it must be our fault because how else can we explain our feelings?
The parent-child relationship is a powerful one, and that doesn’t change as much as people think when we become adults. When we were young, we were so dependent on our parents that they took on a kind of God-like authority. Certainly as young children and even as teens, what a parents says and does is of enormous importance, even if we choose to rebel against it. Teens with behavioral problems have actually admitted this.
When we grow up, most of us aren’t dependent on them for our physical needs. But since emotionally abusive parents typically don’t give us what we need emotionally, we may still search for it as adults, against our will. We may recognize that emotionally abusive parents are destructive, but because they’re our parents, what they say and do bugs us more than what others say and do and may control us on some level.
The first thing to do in validating the abuse is to recognize that the parent-child dynamic is powerful in all families, even healthy ones. Emotional abuse survivors are reacting normally to an abnormal situation. In healthy families, adult children regard what their parents say and do as more important than what almost anyone else says and does (with possibly the exception of their partners and children). They get genuine love, support, and respect from their parents. But that’s not our reality, and it’s natural for that to leave a deep pain within us.
The Context of Emotional Abuse
An emotionally abusive parent’s main motivations are self-serving. I’m not suggesting this is deliberate, nor am I a fan of the sacrificial parent. Parents are people with needs that they deserve to have fulfilled, but by bringing children into the world, they’ve accepted the responsibility of remaining aware of their children’s needs and meeting them even when that means setting aside their own. It’s not about the children being selfish and the parents being unselfish. It’s about the children being inevitably dependent on their parents and their parents resisting the temptation to exploit that dependence.
Validating your pain involves examining your abusers’ behavior in the context of the situation from the point of view of someone who isn’t involved with the family. The last part is important because we may have learned a skewed way of looking at things from our parents. Their explanations for how they abuse us can make sense to us if we don’t step back from the situation and see it through the eyes of a stranger.
For instance, clingy parents may constantly be at their children’s elbow offering their “help.” Often this is unsolicited advice, and sometimes it’s material help that’s pushed onto us. If you refuse it, their disappointment is obvious and you feel guilty. Their explanation for their clinginess is that they love you so much and just want to help you, and if you remain within their worldview, you may explain their behavior in that way too.
But when you look at the situation from the point of view of a stranger, you can see that the “help” is excessive. A stranger would see that they want to control your life. They want to solve every problem you have, depriving you of a very important adult experience, finding the solutions to your own problems. On top of the control issue is a degrading feeling that they don’t think you can take care of your own needs. This step back can help you see that what’s happening, no matter what their good intentions are, is inappropriate and serves their needs more than yours.
Emotional Abuse Is Intuitive
We can’t use logic to explain our pain because the evidence is often elusive. It exists but it’s like building a complex lawsuit; there are so many threads to pull together in order to see the whole tapestry, and even then it may still never be clear to someone who didn’t go through it.
Healthy parents exist, so our expectations for unconditional love, support, and respect aren’t crazy. Healthy parents aren’t destructive, don’t exploit the authority that they have over their children, and understand when it’s right to set their needs aside in favor of their children’s needs. That’s why they can give guidance, criticize, and tease their children without scarring them. Emotionally abusive parents taint many interactions that they have with their children, and we feel it.
It’s not so much that we can’t point to specific incidents or behaviors as hurtful. All parents, indeed all people, tease, criticize, control, and manipulate others sometimes. These are the ugly sides of human interaction. It’s “proving” that there was a pattern of these that’s difficult, particularly since emotionally abusive parents tap into a rich arsenal of behaviors that look different on the surface but have the same goal (i.e., control, manipulation, degradation, etc.).
Validating our pain means we have to trust our own feelings. The Adult Survivors of Child Abuse website has a Survivor to Thriver Manual, and in the third chapter, it states that emotional abuse often involves verbal abuse.
[B]ecause the use and meaning of words are highly subjective, it is harder to quantify and clarify.
This is part of what makes it so easy for our parents and others to deny the existence of emotional abuse. What’s hurtful to us may be judged as harmless by others.
That’s why we can’t let ourselves deny what we know to be true, but we also have to accept that this knowledge is largely instinctual, intuitive, and emotional and only secondarily logical, intellectual, or rational. As Vachss so eloquently puts it
[w]hen it comes to damage, there is no real difference between physical, sexual and emotional abuse. All that distinguishes one from the other is the abuser’s choice of weapons.
I would go further and point out that sexual abuse and physical abuse are always accompanied by emotional abuse, which makes emotional abuse more prevalent, more encompassing, and more insidious. It helps to remember this so that we can get over the proof issue.
Justifying Emotional Abuse to Others
It’s tempting to link validating your own pain with justifying it to others. If we can convince other family members, friends, and therapists that we really suffered then we can get validation from them to boost our own beliefs. But it doesn’t work that way. Even if we do get the validation of others, if we still have lingering doubts, we can’t begin the healing process.
I would even say that part of validating our pain, which is the first step to healing from it, is to let go of the need to justify it to others. I’ll be the first to admit how difficult this is. I used to build up arguments of proof, pointing out, for instance, that they tried to control my choices when I was 10, 13, 16, 17, 19, 20, 22, 25, 27, and 32, so how could I possibly be wrong? It took a while for me to realize that such “proof” is a waste of energy.
As I discussed in the section on what emotional abuse is, there are circumstances where you could be interpreting the behavior of someone else incorrectly. Abusive behaviors, for instance, weren’t repetitive, there was no pattern of them, and the context of the situation made those behaviors appropriate in the eyes of a stranger. But after you’ve assessed your situation from all of these points of view and found that the relationship with your parents was and is indeed emotionally abusive, your need to show “proof” is over. It’s now time to take the first steps in healing.
Negative Feelings from Emotional Abuse
One more thing to talk about when validating emotional abuse is dealing with the negative feelings that inevitably come up when you start processing your experiences. In other words, how do you deal with the anger, the grief, and the blame? This is especially difficult when you hear from others how you need to take responsibility for your own mistakes in life, no matter how your parents treated you, and regardless of your painful past, you have the power to change your life.
All of this is true, but it’s for the future. I strongly believe that the initial period of healing demands that we bring up all of the negative feelings we have towards our abusers without restrictions. It’s not the time to be “mature” about them. We need to let ourselves get angry while working on understanding where the anger comes from, how much of it is justified, and how much of it is wasted energy. We need to let ourselves blame our parents for the pain they caused us in childhood and are still causing us in adulthood. We need to grieve for the things we missed out on as children and the things we’re missing out on right now because of the problems the emotional abuse has caused in our lives.
This period of negativity can last quite a while, maybe even years. It’s wise at this time to be careful who you share your pain with. Well-meaning family members and friends can end up putting doubts in your mind with comments like they meant well, they didn’t mean it, and blaming them isn’t going to do any good now. Joining an abuse forum can be really helpful here because most survivors on these forums understand the negativity and will validate your feelings. Keeping a journal can also really help at this point in the healing process because you can be as negative as you want in it without fear of judgment.
There’s a period of transition where we begin to understand that our abusers weren’t entirely responsible for their own actions (due, for instance, to their abusive upbringing and/or mental illness), that hanging onto negative emotions won’t help us heal, and that in spite of the destructive family dynamics, there were times in the past when we should have made better choices. At that point, we can learn to validate every one of those negative emotions but still let go of them.
Anger, for instance, will always linger because what was done to us was unfair. A lot has been said about the destructive nature of anger, but I believe it’s useful energy when it’s validated and understood. Believing in your right to feel angry at your abusers helps you set boundaries with them. Grief over what you’ve lost because of the abuse, in childhood and adulthood, can help you make sure you don’t lose any more because of it. And holding your abusers responsible for hurting you not only helps you protect yourself from further abuse but also gives you the strength to move beyond your pain because you know it really wasn’t your fault.
Emotional abuse can make us wonder if we’re crazy. We feel something’s very wrong in the way we’re relating to our abusers, but it’s not always easy to put a finger on it. Validation is absolutely crucial to the healing process. We can’t heal from pain that we deny or justify. The validation process has its ugly points, but that doesn’t make you a bad person. In my experience, if you accept it in all of its darkness then you’ll eventually be able to move on.