Trauma: Psychological Abuse


every time

I say the word


I brace -





to believe

that the sky is not purple

but blue

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Speaking the Unspeakable: The Trauma of Ongoing Psychological Abuse

As I begin describing some aspects and effects of ongoing psychological abuse, I will be using general terms when speaking about abusive dynamics (i.e., the abuser and the abused). This is not meant to split individuals into dichotomized categories or good/bad parts; we are all complex, multifaceted individuals with our own history and story. Rather, this writing is an attempt to describe the reality of abusive dynamics from the perspective of the abused. So often these dynamics remain unspeakable or unspoken, and therefore, unacknowledged and unheard. These are the words I will start with as a way to begin speaking about the complex experience of abuse.

Passing the Blame: Passing the Buck

One telltale characteristic of significant psychological (often childhood) abuse is self-blame and condemnation. While self-blame also is consistent with other psychological conditions not specific to abuse histories, it nonetheless remains a consistent marker for those who have suffered from abusive relations (whether childhood/developmental abuse or domestic abuse during adulthood). Why is this the case? The most succinct answer is this: those who abuse take no responsibility for abuse, passing the blame and buck elsewhere (most always onto the abused), as if the abuse is the fault of the abused in some irrational, nonsensical shape or form. The abused may find themselves being told that they somehow “make” the abuser abuse or that they somehow “deserve” such abusive treatment. This, in and of itself, constitutes abuse. It is abuse. Those who abuse are notorious for declaring their innocence or victimhood and entering the “not guilty” plea when confronted, so often manipulating their abused into assuming responsibility, taking blame, hiding shame, and owning guilt (the blame, shame, and guilt that actually belong to the abuser but is denied, disowned, and relocated in the experience of the abused). Some abusers distort relational reality so much, it becomes extremely difficult to know which way is up or if the sky is even blue (after being repeatedly told otherwise). In general, those who abuse deny abuse; they pass the blame; they manipulate (seeking to control the abused as a way to manage themselves). In certain cases, it could even be said that some abusers (whether consciously or unconsciously) never let their victims be abused because, in their minds, the victim remains the abuser to the abuser. Again, this is abuse. When the most consistent message is abuse, it is no wonder that blame, loathing, and condemnation become internalized and perpetuated in the mind of the abused. After all, such abuse is continuous, even when it manifests as cyclical or patterned. The underlying dynamic remains in place, holding steady, until the next time…

When the Buck becomes the Baton

Essentially, in one way or another, nearly every abused person is told that the abuse didn't happen in the way that it happened (denied, dismissed, discounted). As previously mentioned, the abused are often blamed and charged for their own abuse by their abuser (as well as others possibly engaged in abusive, systemic family dynamics for example). Sometimes the denial of abuse feels like the worst offense to the person being abused who is left in the throes of unrecognized and unacknowledged internal pain. Invisible pain on top of invisible pain becomes a compound wound, left to fester without remedy, leading to excruciating psychological pain and suffering (and oftentimes physical symptoms and suffering as well). It is important to remember that humans need relatedness (although some negotiate that need in ways that may look otherwise), as it is human to seek love and connectivity. Abusive dynamics may be the only form of connectedness that the abused has experienced. This is consistent with childhood/developmental abuse; wherein, love is toxic or laced with pain. Needing primary attachments as children, we take what we can get, even if it is packaged in the form of abuse. Over time, this dynamic becomes a primary way of relating. Abuse is formative; attachment is inevitable. As such, another sign of significant psychological abuse appears when the abused unconsciously carries on the wishes of the abuser by engaging in self-blame and self-abuse that the original abuser would approve of in theory. In many cases, the abused are abused into taking the metaphorical baton (of abuse) and unconsciously begin treating themselves in the ways they experienced being treated by their abuser. This makes sense relationally, for if the abused can please (through unconscious processes) the abuser through compliance, then the abused can maintain some sort of relational bond or attachment (however toxic, destructive, and painful). Stated differently, such self-blame/abuse may represent an unconscious attempt to stay as safe as possible in an otherwise threatening relationship. Commonly, and unconsciously, the abused may absolve or acquit the abuser of any wrongdoing by assuming the burden of “badness” (comprised of the aforementioned shame, blame, and guilt) as a way to preserve and manage a relationship with someone who can now be seen as relatively “good.” Unconsciously espousing this sense of utter “badness” permits the relationship to continue in a paradoxical way that feels more tolerable or manageable to the one being abused. Take, for example, a young child desperately trying to make sense of psychological abuse within the family. Sadly, it is far too easy for the unconscious, developing mind of this child to accept a sense of personal “badness” and responsibility so that the much-needed parent/caregiver can remain experienced as relatively “good.” Ultimately, this represents a way to survive horrific psychological abuse. It is our human nature to choose attachment over loss. This is a fact. Abusers abuse this fact, and the abused learn to take care of those who hurt them in order to feel some semblance of love and attachment. Humans need attachment. We practice what we know based on our relational history and development. Abuse is an attachment, but abuse is not the fault of the abused.

When the Baton becomes Psychological Bondage

The type of abuse I have been describing can be conceptualized in terms of dominant and submissive roles or possible sadomasochistic dynamics that involve pain as a manipulating variable when it comes to the preservation of relational bonds. Loss is never a human goal. Therefore, and understandably so, the abused often feels indebted to their abuser as well as trapped in the relationship. This is the tie that binds, so to speak, often leaving the abuser with unmitigated power and the abused in psychological bondage. Self-harm may occur for a variety of intricate psychological reasons and conflicts, and it often is associated with a history of severe abuse. There are several different ways to understand self-harm or threats of self-harm. In fact, one way is to consider this self-abuse as an extension of the original abusive paradigm (that is, unconsciously continuing the treatment of abuse that was originally carried out by the abuser as a form of sanctioned punishment). In contrast, it also may represent a desire to break free from the ties that bind and liberate oneself from a sense of being psychologically bound to the abuser or abusive dynamic. It is important to note that the development of a safe therapeutic relationship should seek to understand the varied, complex meanings that this behavior has for each individual and every trauma story. Sometimes, on the other hand and on occasion, the abuser may threaten to harm themselves or someone else as an attempt to regain power if, and when, the abused seeks to literally leave the abusive relationship and free themselves from this distressing dynamic. This is an attempt to regain control over the abused by evoking a sense of disabling guilt, badness, and responsibility (once again passing the blame). Abuse of power accounts for the majority of tactics used to maintain and perpetuate the cycle of abuse. Being tasked with the job of “secret keeper” is another way the abuser may exact power over the abused, implicitly or explicitly demanding that the abuser keep the secrets of abuse from the outside world so that the abuser is free to continue without concern of being “caught” or being held accountable by society. This also preserves the relational bond, “as if” loss cannot happen if the secret remains secret.

Therapy as Refuge for Understanding and Healing

Oftentimes, even if the abused separates from the abuser (such that they are physically free from such dynamics), abusive psychological dynamics continue within the abused in the form of internalized abusive messages, self-schemas, and paradigmatic ways of relating. Therapy offers the opportunity to develop a safe therapeutic space and a safe therapeutic relationship to work through the shackles of abuse that have accumulated over the years, from those which are salient and manifest to those which are nuanced and latent. So much of trauma goes unrecognized, unformulated, unknown, unwitnessed, unspoken, unseen, unorganized, and unmetabolized. When we’re reacting to and suffering from something but don’t know exactly what or why, therapy is a place to turn to make sense of what hurts and what makes us suffer. Above all, therapy should respect the pace that feels safe and manageable, and not be forced or rushed. Therapy should be patient in the way that trauma never was or will be. Trauma did not wait for consent; therapy must. I cannot stress this enough: trauma therapy needs to move at a pace that feels safe and manageable and that depends on each individual case. Ultimately, the formation of a safe therapeutic place and relationship can assist in developing new ways of relating to self and others so that the abused can eventually feel safe enough to separate from the abuser in their mind such that the abuser can no longer dominate them from within. Feel free to read my other related writings on trauma located on this website if they might be helpful to you.

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