"Courage is resistance to fear,
mastery of fear -- not absence of fear." -- Mark Twain
Children who experience emotional pain blame themselves. They are too young to understand that when someone else -- especially a grown-up -- commits a wrongful act, it is that person's fault and not their own. The closest that children come to blaming others is when they point the finger at a brother, sister, or peer. Children rarely, if ever, point the finger at Mom, Dad, or other adults.
Instead, the child is conditioned to think along these lines: "If Daddy is being this mean to me, he must be very angry. I must be a very bad girl to make Daddy this mad." If an abusive situation continues, the child's negative thinking progresses to an even greater extent: "If it's my fault that this horrible thing is happening, then I must be a horrible person."
As small children, we are not responsible for the bad things that happen to us. We are naturally irresponsible beings who don't know any better. We learn responsibility in three ways: by listening to the lessons taught to us by our parents and other authority figures, by modeling the responsible behavior we see in our parents and others, and by learning the hard way through trial and error. All these methods take time; we don't actually have a firm grasp on the "rules" until we are older children.
However, as soon as we do begin to differentiate between right and wrong, we (if we're basically well-behaved kids) follow our parents' rules because it feels so good to get their approval, and it feels so bad to incur their disapproval. We still don't fully comprehend the rationale behind the rules; we only understand the consequences of not following them.
The onset of mature thinking is evinced when the older child or adolescent starts to "take the role of the other". This means that the child is able to view the world through the other person's eyes. The child can imagine how someone else feels and thinks -- that is, she empathizes. At this stage, the child begins to understand that Mommy and Daddy aren't superhumans -- they are simply human beings who experience joy, pain, confusion, and stress, just like anyone else. At this point in the child's development, she sees that the parent is capable of making a mistake or acting out of poor judgment.
It's also at this stage that many abuse survivors begin feeling sorry for their abusers. That's especially tragic, because it is absolutely essential for the abuse survivor to acknowledge one very important point when healing oneself from abuse: The adult was entirely responsible for the abusive act. And along with that acknowledgment and understanding comes the accompanying anger toward the perpetrator, as well as toward the act itself.
Repressed Pain, Forgotten Memories
By the time an abused child is six or seven, she may have experienced so much emotional neglect or psychological, physical, or sexual battery that she doesn't know any other way of life. Pain is normal to her. She may have even repressed the abuse. And while an abused adult has access to support groups, reading materials, and health professionals, a child in this situation has few resources to help her deal with trauma. She must rely on her wits, her imagination, and sheer intestinal fortitude to endure the pain. Many abuse survivors I've worked with have actually learned to split their awareness in two during an abusive incident.
My client Rebecca, for example, remembers being beaten by her parents. She would curl herself up into a fetal position and try to will herself to disappear during the beatings. Sometimes she imagined that she was leaving her body and that her soul was up on the ceiling, watching her father whipping her body. That was her way of dealing with incomprehensible pain.
Many children enter into this state of splitting off from reality, or dissociation. The word literally means dis-associating yourself from the situation. For children, dissociating may be their only escape route from abuse, and it often evolves into a routine coping mechanism as the child gets older.
Sometimes, painful childhood memories are repressed so deeply that the adult survivor honestly doesn't remember any of the abuse. At least, she doesn't consciously remember. Now, this would be an acceptable state of affairs if the underlying symptoms of abuse weren't so disruptive. If the abuse survivor grew up with a healthy body and mind, enjoying full and satisfying interpersonal relationships, then I'd be the first person to say that it's just as well she doesn't remember the horror she's gone through. Why dwell on such pain unless it serves some useful purpose?
Unfortunately, most survivors -- whether they've forgotten the abuse or not -- have a lava pit of anger bubbling deep within them. This anger manifests itself in chronic health problems such as cancer, gynecological disorders, back or neck pain, migraines, hemorrhoids, heart palpitations, skin problems, insomnia, alcoholism, and obesity. The abuse survivor usually doesn't have a very happy adult life. She probably has difficulties maintaining relationships, and she may hate her job.
But worst of all, she may hate herself. As an outgrowth of this self-loathing, she ends up neglecting her physical health. She overeats and avoids exercise because she doesn't believe that she deserves to have an attractive body. Other people are worthy of beauty; other people deserve good. Not me. I'm bad.
That is why she must remember the abuse. She must remember so she can tell her inner child -- the little girl living inside her -- that she isn't to blame for the bad things that happened. She must hug that little girl and explain that the perpetrator was the one responsible for the abuse.
This news will make the little girl angry. Very, very angry. After all, it's an injustice to harm a little child! How could someone have dared hurt her!
It is when she has finally come to this realization that the anger -- and most of the pain -- will be released.
This article was excerpted from
Losing Your Pounds of Pain: Breaking the Link between Abuse, Stress, and Overeating
by Doreen Virtue, Ph.D.
About The Author
Doreen Virtue, Ph. D. is a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders. Dr. Virtue's has written several books, among them: I?d Change My Life if I Had More Time; Losing Your Pounds of Pain; and The Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome. Dr. Virtue is a frequent guest on such talk shows such as Oprah, Geraldo, and Sally Jessy Raphael. Her articles have appeared in dozens of popular magazines and she is a contributing editor for Complete Woman. Her website is www.angeltherapy.com.