The Breaking of the Spirit Emotional Abuse Insidiously, Traumatically Destroys the Self

By Lynn Bulmahn 1994, Cox News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 14, 1994 | Go to article overview

The Breaking of the Spirit Emotional Abuse Insidiously, Traumatically Destroys the Self


Lynn Bulmahn 1994, Cox News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


`STICKS AND STONES may break my bones but words will never hurt me."

This old saying is a lie, mental health experts say.

Harsh words can constitute emotional abuse - sometimes the hardest type of hurt to overcome, they say.

Emotional abuse is the crushing of a person's spirit with verbal attacks, humiliation or threats.

The problem is believed to be widespread, occurring throughout our society. And it leaves bruised, hurting people in its wake.

Often, children are subject to this type of abuse from parents or caregivers. Classmates or teachers can add to the barrage.

Emotional abuse can sow seeds of low self-esteem, emotional damage and relationship problems. Its effects can last for years, even throughout a lifetime.

Sometimes girls who were emotionally abused by parents enter into marriages where they are abused - emotionally or otherwise - by their husbands. They may try to escape their emotionally abusive family in self-destructive ways. They could fall prey to drugs, gang membership, eating disorders or teen-age pregnancy.

Licensed professional counselor Vivian Stidvent, who provides therapy to survivors of childhood sexual abuse, says clients have told her it's much easier to get over the effects of physical and sexual abuse than the effects of emotional abuse.

"With physical abuse, you have bruises, broken bones or scars," Stidvent said. "But with emotional abuse the `scars' are so deep it's tough to ascertain what happened."

She said the emotionally abused girl receives habitual, constant criticism and negative messages from someone who is supposed to love and guide her.

Seldom do emotionally abused children hear words of love and acceptance from their abusers.

"They are treated like a piece of trash, so they start to feel like a piece of trash," said Dr. Elise Pinney, a clinical psychologist who works with emotionally abused children at the Methodist Home.

"There is a lot of truth in the saying `You become what you've been told you are,"' said licensed professional counselor Dennis Cocke. "If children are told they're worthless or no good, they lower themselves to that level. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

At its core, emotional abuse is about control and domination of the victim, Stidvent said. It is often disguised as teaching and guidance.

If the parent is always interfering, saying, "I'll teach you to do this," the girl thinks she can never get it, Stidvent explained.

"It's really domination," she said. "The parent controls the girl through constant criticism."

Cocke says emotional blackmail is also used. The abuser tries to make the victim feel guilt if the victim does not live up to often impossible expectations.

For instance, a parent may say that if the child doesn't do what she's told, it will cause the parent to feel depressed, angry, unhappy or to become violent.

The child may strive to please the parent in order to get the conditional love that is offered.

Yet, it's difficult or impossible to please an emotional abuser. With emotional abuse, the rules always change.

Emotionally abused people have a powerful sense of shame, failure and lack of self-worth. They do not realize they are not responsible for another person's feelings, Cocke said.

"She has been taught through overt and covert messages that she is to blame for the abuse. She thinks she causes it," Stidvent said.

Emotional abuse can be subtle. Such things as ignoring the child, giving the silent treatment or showing preferential treatment to siblings are examples of this, Pinney said. …

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