The hidden scars – psychological abuse
When we think of the word ‘abuse’ in the context of a relationship, we usually imagine the harm inflicted to be predominantly of a physical or sexual nature. Abuse that is psychological is less clearly defined, less easily recognised, yet can be just as damaging. Psychological abuse essentially involves subjecting people to pain and distress of an emotional rather than a physical nature. It can occur in situations involving parents and children, carers and elderly or disabled adults, as well as within intimate relationships. In schools and the workplace it can be experienced in the form of bullying or harassment. The common denominator is that they are usually situations where there are unequal power dynamics.
Psychological abuse can take the form of threats, intimidation, isolation, excessive control and attempts to undermine the victim.
Both verbal and nonverbal means can be used:
- creating isolation by refusing to talk to or touch the victim
- segregating them from friends and family.
It can take the form of subtle means of control within relationships. It can also form as a consequence to witnessing inappropriate or damaging behaviour between others, such as the child who is constantly exposed to arguments between his or her parents.
It isn’t unusual for those who have been psychologically abused not to realise it. Such abuse doesn't leave visual clues - there are no bruises, broken bones or scar tissue to indicate that anything has happened. Lots of people seem to believe that words cannot really hurt. They think that if a person is affected by remarks, insults or the verbal rage of others, then they are weak and pathetic – the victims themselves are blamed for not being strong enough to take it.
The consequences can be wide-ranging and long-term. Behavioural changes, low self-esteem, stress, anxiety and depression are frequent symptoms. The abused may have difficulty expressing feelings and be uncertain about what they feel at any given moment. Due to the mind/body connection, physical symptoms and illnesses are common too. There are often difficulties in making decisions. Some may become abusive themselves, as, for example, when children experience a harmful emotional environment at home some become bullies in the playground.
We tend not to recall physical pain as we actually experienced it. We may remember an injury as being painful – but are seldom reduced to tears by remembering how it actually felt. Emotional pain is different. Replaying events in our minds that caused us distress – often years after they occurred – has the capacity to make us re-experience those feelings again. Alone this can be deeply distressing. In a safe non-judgemental environment, processing painful experiences can be a liberating and ultimately healing experience.
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