Emotional Abuse is All About…

I’ve been thinking lately about how to succinctly describe emotional abuse. Wondering, how do you put into a few words the cunning and cumulative manipulations that an emotional abuser uses? How do you talk about it swiftly, without going into gratuitous details about the put downs, verbal assaults, neglect, withholding, and other revolting behaviours an emotional abuser displays? How do you talk about the lifelong trauma that results from being emotionally abused, or how to parent after abuse, or how to co-parent with an emotionally abusive partner? How do you say all that in a just a few words??

It seems it’s impossible for me to stop the torrent of descriptors that come out of my mouth when someone asks me what emotional abuse is all about, but I do want to try and find a clearer and more direct way of conveying my understanding of it.

I think we need to find ways to summarize and express what emotional abuse (sometimes called “mental” abuse) is all about without overdoing it. We, as champions of sharing our experiences of emotional abuse, need to draw people in by not overwhelming them, while still conveying the magnitude of emotional abuse’s insidious nature.

“A healthy relationship will never require you to sacrifice your friends, your dreams, or your dignity.”

source

In the talk I gave recently I spent 20 minutes or so sharing my experience, describing emotional abuse, and offering ideas for managing post-abuse. There was also a great discussion afterwards, with people offering truly insightful and interesting comments and questions that led me to further extrapolate on my understanding of emotional abuse and my identity as an abuse survivor.

As I reflected on my talk later, I realized that in the end I could sum up emotional abuse using just six words:

Emotional abuse is all about control.

That’s really what it comes down to. It’s one person creating a significant power imbalance between themselves and another person, exerting control and maintaining it for as long as possible and in as many ways as possible. It’s constructing a powerful codependence in which one person benefits immensely from the suffering of another.

I think about my past relationships and these are the kinds of controlling behaviours that come to mind:

  • Being told what to wear/what not to wear
  • Being promised things repeatedly and then having those promises undone
  • Being expected to report about my whereabouts and goings-on, even when in my own house
  • Having a partner who never showed up on time or who consistently procrastinated getting ready, making us both chronically late
  • Telling me who I could spend time with (and who I couldn’t)
  • Using sex as a bargaining tool instead of an expression of affection

…I could go on, but I suspect that the picture’s becoming clear.

Emotional abuse is about control. Full stop. And it is just as harmful and just as scary as physical abuse. It carries an intense traumatic impact and on top of all of that, it can be impossible to prove because it can  happen so surreptitiously.

How would you summarize emotional abuse? What other ways might we succinctly categorize and explain what emotional abuse is and how it affects people? Or do you think I’ve summed it up accurately?

Finding new and better ways to describe emotional abuse is something I will continue to work on. Not only so I can continue to improve my own understanding, but also so that I can increase the vocabulary we use when talking about it and so that knowledge and compassion about this topic can build and develop. So that everyone knows that emotional abuse is real and understands that what it’s really about, is asserting and maintaining control in the worst, most calculated and cruel ways.

xxJ

The chains of control exerted by our abusers often feel like they are inescapable, but I’m living proof that you can break through them, even if the word “forever” hangs over you like a prison sentence. Remember this: absolutely nothing is forever.

Do It Anyway

“You might put your love and trust on the line
It’s risky, people love to tear that down
Let ’em try
Do it anyway
Risk it anyway”

Ben Folds Five

When I was a kid, I was terrified of roller coasters. There was absolutely no way in hell anyone was getting me to strap myself into a rickety bucket seat and go hurtling along a bumpy, terrifyingly tall and twisty train ride.

Nuh-uh. No way.

The truth was that I desperately wanted to be brave enough to ride a coaster. I was embarrassed of being wimpy and emotional about it and I hated feeling left behind by my peers. It took me until I was 14 to get up the courage to try a roller coaster. In Ontario, where I live, the quintessential theme park is Canada’s Wonderland. Living nearby in Brampton, my sisters and friends and I spent many summer days hanging around this wondrous playground. Resolutely determined to NOT be left behind again, I had to come up with something that would make the big rides less scary.

So how did I do it?

I told myself that all I needed to do was get in line and nothing more.

If I could just get into the line-up (which often took 1-2 hours to work your way through), then I could consider myself committed and unable to back out. (I know that technically I *could* have backed out, but in my mind that was NOT an option.)

This idea—the idea of just “getting in line”—has become a quintessential tool for me whenever I face seemingly scary things in my life. When I’m feeling anxious in anticipation of something new or something uncomfortable, I can simply tell myself that if I just take the first step and “get in line”, I’ll be able to manage whatever comes next.

I mean, I haven’t lost a limb on a roller coaster yet, so clearly the technique works!

This week I’m doing my first ever professional speaking gig. Damnit I’m scared! And excited! (But mostly scared…)

This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I couldn’t get myself in line to do it. Finally, a few months ago, I felt ready to step into the queue and commit myself to whatever happened.

It’s been a slow climb to that inevitable drop at the top since then, and tomorrow, my stomach will lift into my chest and I’ll be free-falling into my first experience of talking publicly about my history as an abuse survivor and person with mental illness. Yikes!

The song I quoted at the beginning of this post, Ben Fold Five’s “Do It Anyway”, takes to heart the idea that I’m hinting at with my roller-coaster-line-up analogy. We all have moments in our lives that feel scary or uncomfortable, but we have to do it anyway. The cost of NOT doing it is far too high. And in a world of too many people ignoring or undermining what really needs to be done, those of us who are brave enough to speak up and face what makes us feel icky are desperately needed.

So tomorrow, I’m doing it anyway. I’m going for it; taking the leap. Jumping off the cliff. Putting it all out there… Choose your cliché; I’m doing them all!

And on the other side will be the thrill of the ride; the rush of trying something new and the pride of speaking my truth. All of head/strong is an exercise in speaking up and speaking out, so I feel armed and ready to take another big step (publishing my blog was one of the first ones, obviously) and reach out even farther into the fray.

xxJ

Here we go! Weeeeeeeeeeee!

Trust Issues

Trust.

Hard to earn, easy to break. Seemingly impossible to feel again once you’ve been taken advantage of.

I absolutely have trust issues.

My issues around trust are complicated…? Because outwardly I’m pretty sure it looks like I’m an overly-trusting person. And at the same time, I actually put my faith in people tentatively. My attempts at reaching out with a branch of trust come with a smattering of desperation, which is an ugly thing to admit. But a lot of my behaviour is driven by desperation, and a lot of my relationships are sabotaged by my desperate attempts to feel secure in them.

I crave security more than anything else. This is because my emotional needs went unmet for so long and this left me with a deep sense of insecurity that now pervades every part of my life. I’m actually really good at making other people feel safe and secure, but I’ve always, even as a child, felt lonely and on the outside of my relationships.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my insecure attachments; I’ve been thinking a lot about how I don’t even trust myself most of the time. I mean, really, the only thing I can trust in is my anxiety. I can trust it to always be there; to tell me that things are NOT okay, that I don’t know what I’m doing, that no one loves me, that I’m not good enough, blah blah blah…

It’s a fight to work against this. It’s a battle to convince myself that I can trust anyone, including me.

Trust takes so much time to earn. It takes conversation and consistency and showing the fuck up when you say you will. I think for me, and people like me, who have trust issues, the process of building security in relationships takes a long, long time. We can’t give our trust away quickly anymore; we’ve been burned too badly in the past. Instead, we have to tiptoe around it, poking at it, extending our hands, just a little bit, and hoping that our fingertips don’t meet a flame. Or sometimes we do what I’m apt to do: we go overboard and become desperate in seeking a sense of safety, throwing ourselves into the proverbial fire, which makes no sense because how can you feel secure when you also feel desperate?!

I often wish I could slow myself down. I wish I could be more patient and lackadaisical in my approach to life. But wishing things like that is kind of ridiculous, because I’m simply not like that! I’m a complicated, emotional, anxious person who needs a steadying hand to hold onto. It often feels like I’m searching for a unicorn or Nessie when I’m reaching out to build trust with someone new. In my mind, there’s the perfect scenario in which someone gives wholly of themselves and is ready and open to allow me to be entirely vulnerable and yet feel completely safe. HA! That probably my biggest fantasy! Not even close to reality!

Reality is me putting pressure on things that are fragile. Reality is me being a survivor of domestic abuse. Reality is many other people carrying their own trust issues and having these manifest in their own unique ways. Honestly, does anyone actually feel secure in their life? I have no idea what that feels like, do you?

Writing something like this points out to me that I need to keep working on not rushing, not pushing, and listening both to myself and to what other people say. It also helps me realize that there are parts of myself I shouldn’t have to apologize for, like being Highly Sensitive or having a mental illness, or just being dynamic and expressive. The right people will embrace these parts of me and then maybe we’ll both have a chance at trust.

xxJ

Give me back those damn apples.