The way we learn about relating to other people, as well as to ourselves, is through our early relationships, usually with our mother or other primary caregiver. As babies, we are hard wired to connect as soon as we are born, it is a means of survival and we seek out with our eyes the people whose voices are familiar to us from our time in the womb. The anticipation is that these familiar people, usually a parent or parents, will greet us and acknowledge our presence with joy, will go on to protect and support us while we are growing up and love us unconditionally for the rest of our lives.
This is not always the case however. Sometimes the adults who were supposed to care for us during childhood deliver that ‘care’ by regularly shaming, humiliating, shouting, hitting or lying to us. The internal conflict resulting from our protectors becoming our persecutors can feel utterly bewildering, as our mind believes this must be ‘normal’ because we know no different, while our body tells us that not one bit of it feels good. It can mean that we go on to experience difficulties engaging in close relationships in later life.
Emotional abuse during childhood
‘Gaslighting’ is a term used to describe how one person can cause another person to doubt their own mind through psychological manipulation. Tactics used include lying, denying that they have said something even when we have proof that they did; using things or people close to us to attack us, wearing us down slowly, so that often we don’t realise what is happening. Occasional praise may make us feel the persecutor is not so bad, but most times they only praise us for doing something that makes them look good. Confusion and collusion with others is used to maintain power over us, including telling us how others think badly towards us yet that everyone else is a liar, so that we end up looking to the very person who is persecuting us, for clarification of what is ‘real’ or ‘right’. Projection of their own demons onto us, is another tactic that can make us believe that we’re the one who is wrong, not them.
As a child or young person, being met with a hateful or harmful response by the people upon who our survival depends can cause us to turn those feelings inwards and blame ourselves. ‘Gaslighters’ may tell us that we have mental health issues, yet suggesting that whatever we say to others about the way we have been treated by the persecuting parent will not be believed. This means that when help is offered to us, perhaps by a teacher or a child counselling service, we are not able to tell our story for fear of being ridiculed all over again, let alone the punishment from our persecutors that might be awaiting us. And in this way, they remain safe from prying questions by any outside agency.
Yet all we are demonstrating is a normal response to what has happened to us. While we do our best to try to fit in, not to arouse aggravation, an early experience of ‘care’ that has felt filled with conflict, fear and betrayal, may mean it’s difficult for us to feel safe in our self. This in turn can mean that we act out our feelings, often in an aggressive way, in places outside the childhood home, such as nursery or school, because we do not have any other way to express ourselves. From the outside, our parents may appear to be caring, compassionate and respectful people, yet inside the home they are acting out a cruel drama of emotional abuse, neglect and disregard.
Later on, when we meet someone who cares for us in a healthy way, sometimes that very sense of connection through feeling loved and cared for, can trigger old memories that make us feel at the same time uncomfortable. Human beings are curious, we go back to what feels familiar, even when those feelings are not pleasant. It may be that our partner has no agenda other than to love us, yet we can find ourselves sabotaging the relationship because our early experience of emotional abuse has caused us to believe that we are not worthy of such love. Or we may find ourselves in relationships where history repeats itself, either with a partner or with a teacher or a boss, where intimacy, guidance or management is wrapped up as abuse. We may find ourselves acting out old patterns of behaviour that have been aroused as the result of ‘gaslighting’ by one or both our parents, when all we really strive for is to find a place where we can feel safe and secure, and a person with whom we can connect and feel accepted for who we are.
Finding ways forward
Understanding that we did nothing wrong, that we are not mad and that it is possible to trust another person without the risk of betrayal or retribution however, is the first step towards changing our future and allowing ourselves the opportunity to re-connect with our self as well as others. This may be through telling our story to an intimate partner or close friend, or in the case of a child a trusted adult, or perhaps in a therapeutic setting with a trained counsellor. In this way, we can start to build resilience and the belief that we can trust ourselves again, our own instincts and what feels right or wrong for us, which in turn helps us to set boundaries in relationships with others. We may start to feel compassion for our childhood selves, to accept that responsibility for the way the adults who persecuted us lies with them alone and that we are entitled to have our voice heard, to love and feel loved by others in a healthy way.
While counselling is often described as ‘talking’ therapy, with a view to thinking in a supportive setting towards developing a greater understanding of ourselves, it can also mean simply experiencing and processing feelings that come up during a session. It is important first to find someone with whom we feel safe and comfortable enough to do this with therefore. There are a number of different approaches to talking therapy, including psychodynamic, person centred, humanistic and integrative, and every counsellor/therapist is different. Research supports the idea that the approach is not as important as the therapeutic relationship, and so it may take a few taster sessions with different counsellors before you find the right person for you. This process is essential, as trying to work with someone you do not like or trust can trigger old feelings of persecution and through no fault of your own, may actually cause you more harm than good.
When we reconnect with trauma that happened to us as a child, particularly before we could speak (before 4yrs), we tend to experience this as a ‘felt sense’ in the present time, rather than in thoughts. This is because we didn’t and still don’t have the words to describe how we felt then, and now, we just know we feel bad. Having a trusted person sit quietly and think with us while we re-experience these feelings and perhaps together start to find words to describe them, can support us to begin to make some sense of what happened to us. It also helps our brain to create new and healthier pathways in terms of how we relate. In the longer term, we can learn how to self soothe and better regulate our emotional response, so that triggers in the present time don’t arouse such strong feelings from the past any more. Painful feelings can begin to feel less overwhelming and more manageable and we may feel freer to be happy in ourselves, as well as when in relationship with others.