Author: Michael Strelcheck
“Recognizing The Emotions Of Being Abused”
The aftermath of an incident of abuse is often physically apparent to the victim, but what is not so obvious is the emotional damage. Modern psychology has long struggled with trying to understand what unexpected trauma does to the human psyche. In recent years there has been an appearance of psychological models that attempt to define what a person feels at those times. Perhaps the most known such model is “The 5 Stages of Grief” championed by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. In this model Dr. Kubler-Ross suggested that the traumatic loss of a loved one caused the survivor’s psyche to embark on an emotional journey through grief, in order to cope with their experience. She proposed that there are five stages in that process:
This list attempts to express a progression of experiences that a person goes through (not necessarily in the displayed order) as they work through their grief over the loss of something meaningful. Interestingly, these “stages of grief” are similar in nature to an individual’s reaction to being abused. For when one is abused, the loss of something meaningful occurs – the loss of one’s self-worth!
Unfortunately, the experience of being abused creates a more complex emotional reaction that a catastrophic loss of a loved one due to the fact that the abuser often remains in the victim’s life (or continues to live on).
EMOTIONAL REACTIONS to ABUSE
The emotional reaction to abuse can be broken down into seven distinct feelings that emerge in a victim. This pattern of emotions is consistent in almost everyone as it is an instinctive or unconscious response rather than feelings that a person knowingly chooses. Unlike the stages of grief, these feelings are usually sequential in the order given. They are:
- Anger – against the abuser as well as oneself
- Hate – against the abuser as well as oneself
As an individual moves through these emotional reactions, it causes a victim of abuse to feel overwhelmed and confused, as well as conflicted.
The long-term problem with this emotional reaction is that it leaves a person feeling victimized, stuck in a place where they cannot find peace. In other words, the instinctive sequence of feelings doesn’t bring a person to a place of acceptance and closure as the “5 stages of grief” suggest.
Although the emotional experience of being abused is difficult to make sense of, having some knowledge as to why the many strong emotions are being felt helps the individuals sort out their feelings in their attempt to find solace from their inner pain. Arguably, some of the feelings in the sequence are difficult to accept (particularly anger, hate and revenge, which are ugly words). But since these are natural emotional reactions to being hurt, it is helpful to remind oneself that these feelings are instinctual to all and don’t reflect negatively upon the nature of a person’s character.
Having personally experienced abuse (as a child) I found that it was helpful to get a handle on all the feelings I felt, and why I felt them. With this, I was better able to deal with my emotional pain. Although I loved my father, I couldn’t come to a point of accepting what he had done to me. That inner turmoil stayed with me (well into adulthood). It wasn’t until I was able to acknowledge the anger and rage I unconsciously felt, that my inner pain started to subside.
Let’s go through each feeling listed and get some idea of why it’s there.
1. Shock – This can be felt as a type of numbness. This reaction is natural to a person when confronted with something unexpected. The unfortunate problem with the emotional “state of shock” is that it leaves the feeling nature of a person wide open and defenseless, meaning the victim of abuse cannot defend themselves from the emotional fury an abuser is dumping on them. Hence, they absorb the energy of the abuser. It’s in this initial phase of a person’s reaction that the deep emotional wounding takes place.
2. Rejection – This can be felt as being pushed away or being left behind. Once a person comes out of shock (which could be hours or days) they experience a sense of aloneness and isolation. This is a natural response for the emotional self. When it realizes it has its guard down, it will attempt to protect itself by isolating its feeling nature. Often, the victim interprets this sense of rejection as originating with the abuser – that the abuser has rejected them – but in reality it’s the victim who is emotionally rejecting the abuser.
3. Shame – This can be felt if one is dirty or soiled leading to feelings of embarrassment. This instinctive response is due to the feeling nature of the body realizing that something negative has been dumped on it. If a person is unaware of the hurtful feelings they absorbed from the abuser, they will assume that the negative feelings they’re having are because they are “bad” or defective in some way, which can lead them to feel ashamed.
4. Grief – This can be felt as if there’s a bottomless pit, a hole or void inside. The feelings of grief reflect a loss of something that an individual can feel. When one is abused, the attacker takes something from them being that they cannot defend themselves. What is lost – a person’s sense of power – translates in the mind as their personal self-value, their self-esteem.
5. Anger (against the abuser as well as a subtle anger towards themselves) – This can be felt as a hot burning sensation in the body. As a person digests their experience of being abused, they naturally become angry. This is how the emotional self attempts to heal its nature. This instinctive response is very much like how the body’s immune system deals with germs – it gets hot (causing a fever) in an attempt to burn up unhealthy bacteria. When anger arises in a victim, they will naturally assume they’re angry with themselves – for their inability to defend themselves!
6. Hate (against the abuser as well as a subtle hate towards themselves) – This can be felt as if one’s sense of burning has gone white-hot. Hate is a natural evolution of anger and is an intensification of the emotional nature’s healing process for it fuels the body’s rebuilding process. As one recovers from their experience, they will naturally have periods of “white hot heat” in order to help clear the residue of their negative feelings. Unfortunately, the intense feelings of hate beg for expression because they are tremendously energizing to the body. Consequently, they push a person to act in some way in order to get back what was lost (to complete the healing process). The question is – how will a person respond?
7. Revenge – This can be felt as an urge to strike out. The stimulation of the fiery emotions preceding this stage causes a person to “act out” in an attempt to reclaim the physical power they felt was lost when they were abused. Again, as with all the emotions listed above, this impulse is totally natural. It is inspired instinctively, by nature, so that one can regain a sense of confidence and defend themselves in the future. The problem with this phase of the process lies with where a victim may go to regain their power. The logical choice is to take action of a like manner (to abuse someone or something) in order to reclaim one’s power, but for most victims of abuse this idea is unacceptable.
Unfortunately, many abused individuals will respond to the “call to act” in their instinct by turning their feelings towards themselves. I know in my case this was true. My need to act in order to feel powerful again turned inward, manifesting as a type of unhealthy self-discipline, which was in reality self-abusive. From my perspective, being dependent upon my father for survival, there was no way I could challenge him, so I took revenge against myself, attempting to punish my own feeling-self, denying it a sense of happiness or value. This choice made me very unhappy, so in later years I learned to take out my anger (and rage) in football where violent behavior was encouraged. This helped me vent my feelings (and as I grew my father became fearful of me and stopped his abuse), but it didn’t lead me to find peace within.
Fortunately, there are ways one can rebuild their “sense of power” and self-value that are not destructive, which are explored in the next part of this series.