6 Harmful survival tactics used by adults who were emotionally, verbally, and mentally abused as children

Many survivors who suffered from years of emotional, mental, and verbal abuse from their parents while growing up have tried to cope the best way that they can. Methods used consisted of turning a blind eye, tuning out, becoming passive, numbing our feelings, and trying to walk on eggshells around our abuser. An abusive parent can vary, from the angry tyrannical parent who controls your every move, the parent who is so “checked out” or “dependent on you” that you take on the role of the parent, the parent who constantly puts you down, or even still the parent who is inconsistent and unreliable. The warzone that we endure at home, has the same type of effect on our brains as it would if we were in an actual warzone such as the one going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. It causes psychological posttraumatic disorder, which has a long-term effect on our brains. And just like soldiers who are sent back home after the war have difficulty “adjusting to normal healthy lives outside of war,” survivors of childhood psychological abuse have similar struggles. The coping skills that you utilized to get you through the war at home, is a double-edged sword. Here are six long-term effects of being raised in an emotionally, mentally, and verbally abusive home.

1. History of abusive relationships. People who are abused as children, are also more likely to be involved with abusive partners, who are similar to their parents or the abusive relationships that their parents had with their own love interests. While you were growing up, your parents were your role models. You learned from them, what values and behaviors were acceptable in a relationship.

2. More likely to be an abuser. Abuse, is typically not linear. Those who were abused, are also more likely to abuse others (including their own children) in a way that was similar to how they were abused. For example, if your mother was hypercritical of you, you are also more likely to be hypercritical of others, for the same reasons mentioned above. The behavior that you were exposed to, influenced you to act in a way that was similar.

3. Difficulty trusting others. You will often hear people who were abused or traumatized say “I have trust issues.” A person who was abused early on in life by their parents learned that they could not trust anyone because their parents weren’t dependable, honest, respectful, nurturing, kind, loving, or able keep them safe from harm.

4. Inability to be affectionate or intimate. Those who grew up in with abusive parents are more likely to have difficulty expressing love or affection. In fact, you may be more likely to be in an unhealthy relationship where either you or your partner is unable to express love in a healthy way. This is likely due to not ever being shown what a healthy loving relationship looks like. There are many people out there whose parents did not tell them that they love them, validate their feelings, or express warmth and nurturance by giving hugs or kisses, or holding them close when they were hurt or afraid.

5. The desire to detach yourself from others. It is not uncommon for those who have been abused to want to detach themselves from people who they feel are “too clingy.” This could be friends, lovers, family, and even employers. The idea of commitment or a relationship, may make you nervous because that implies that it is going to be long-term or forever, and for some people who have been abused, that thought is absolutely terrifying. To detach oneself from relationships or commitments, you may find yourself sabotaging relationships by not being reliable, establishing the firm boundary with others that “this is not a relationship,” cheating on your partner, never staying in one place for a length of time, intentionally hurting people that are close to you (e.g. sleeping with your friend’s boyfriend) and avoiding connection with others. The idea is that you want to keep your guard up by not allowing anyone to get close enough to hurt you, or for you to hurt/leave them before they can do it to you.

6. Feeling numb. For those who have endured psychological trauma, one of the tried and true coping methods that has helped you continue to function, is “checking out or going emotionally numb.” By learning to stuff your feelings, that has helped you to battle and stifle the pain by putting on a protected armor of self-preservation and strength. Unfortunately, this behavior is a double-edged sword. By stuffing or numbing your feelings; you prevent yourself from feeling anything including true happiness and joy. Thus, while you are in a protected cocoon to get through the warzone, you also remain emotionally stuck. And because you stuff so much for so long, when those feelings finally bubble to the surface, they often become catastrophic and unbearable. This may lead to you using extra methods to ensure that you stay numb (e.g. substance abuse, avoidance, other addictive behaviors such as gambling, etc.).

When we are traumatized, it is our natural instinct to go into survival mode. However, when we are in an abusive environment for a long period of time, our methods of survival become engrained and often hardwired. In fact, it becomes so natural, you may not even realize that you are doing it anymore; but rather you just know that life feels safer this way. Your life doesn’t have to be this way, and there is living beyond trauma. By working to build a relationship with your therapist, you can learn how to have a healthy trusting relationship.

© Natalie Jones, LPCC, PsyD. | Clinical Psychologist