All of us have probably acted against our own self-interest at some point in our lives. For some people, it’s feeling sick after eating a bag of candy or drinking too much, while for others it’s self-mutilation and mental self-erasure.
The concept of abuse is complicated. It’s simple on an abstract theoretical level: abuse is a type of behavior that is harmful. But it’s much more complicated on a psychoemotional level because people tend to justify or minimize the horrible experiences that they either went through themselves or caused for others.
We start conceptualizing reality early in life. Since we are still developing and dependent on our caregivers, our perception of reality depends on other people. In other words, how a child sees themselves and the world in general is formed with significant assistance from those around them: parents, siblings, other family members, nannies, teachers, peers, and so on.
When a child goes through an abusive experience, it usually results in deep trauma. More often than not, however, it is unrecognized and the child is unable to process it properly. Instead, a child dissociates from it to cope with this overwhelming experience.
This is encouraged by the caregiver who is, oftentimes, directly responsible for the traumatic experience because they are unwilling or unable to properly empathize and care for their child. A child may be told that they are bad, that they deserve it, or that it’s their fault. Sometimes the damaging messages are implicit such as when a child is ignored, neglected, or rejected for being themselves.
In our culture the caregiver is still highly protected, and the child—and the child’s sanity and dignity—is sacrificed in the process. “They did the best they could,” “They are your parents,” “They didn’t mean to,” “These were the times,” “They didn’t know any better,” “Honor thy mother and father,” “How dare you talk badly about your family!” “This person would never do that!” and so on, and so on.
A small child is still developing, is dependent on their caregiver for survival, and simply can’t accept the reality that their caregiver may be a bad person or unable to love them. This, combined with the aforementioned invalidations and cultural grooming, creates and maintains certain beliefs, emotions, and behaviors.
At some point the child consciously or unconsciously may think, “Why don’t you love me?” “Why didn’t you protect me?” “Why did you hurt me?” “Why do you disregard my emotions, thoughts, and preferences?” But these questions easily morph into certain beliefs. “I am unlovable.” “I am worthless.” “I don’t matter.” “Nobody cares about me.” “I deserve it.” “I am bad and inherently defective.”
And eventually the child grows up….
All these beliefs, unmet needs, emotions, and behaviors remain. All this unprocessed rage, hurt, sadness, loneliness, betrayal, and fear is still there. Sometimes they even become worse because of other experiences and relationships that the person encounters along the way. The hurt tends to pile up, the beliefs tend to become stronger, the behaviors tend to become more automatic, more “natural,” and more unconscious.
Sometimes it results in acting out on other people and reenacting onto others what was done to you. But for the most part, it results in self-harmful behavior or other acts against healthy self-interest (which includes hurting others).
In extreme cases, people even commit suicide—an ultimate act of self-destruction. Others actively and routinely hurt themselves, or fall into relationships where they are mistreated and abused—basic repetition compulsion. More common manifestations are a lack of self-care, living for other people, poor boundaries, ignoring your true emotions, thoughts, and preferences, self-loathing, self-attack, addiction, self-isolation, and much more.
Many are not even aware of the connection between their childhood environment and how they feel, think, and live as adults. They are also unable to empathize with others to the degree to which they are blind to it. They continue justifying their original abusers, hating themselves, and acting out onto others.
However, when a person starts working on themselves, they become more aware. They experience certain changes in their thinking, in their emotional life, in their behavior, and in their relationships. They are able to endure and regulate painful emotions better. They can resolve certain things that seemed unbearable or were invisible before. They rediscover themselves. They start living a happier and more truthful life where self-harm, self-sacrifice, aggressive behavior, and self-loathing are not only unnecessary, but not even considered as an option anymore.
How self-loving or self-harmful do you think you are? What could you do today to improve your situation? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or write about it in your personal journal.
Girl photo credit: ellyn.; woman photo credit: FUMIGRAPHIK_Photographist
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.