We all form illogical connections in our brains. For example, most of us have a problem with procrastination. When we think about homework (or other unpleasant tasks), we feel a sense of dread. However, procrastination is an illogical behavior because putting something off makes the problem even worse. Our feelings can lead us down the wrong path. When we finally do the task that we’ve been putting off, it’s never quite as bad as we imagined it. Our brains make a highly illogical connection between putting something off and the immediate relief of avoiding an unpleasant task. The erroneous connection can cause us to do things that don’t benefit us.
It’s not just the trauma of homework that can cause illogical connections. Some people will develop intense fears or phobias of needles/syringes (e.g. flu shot), social interaction, anxiety, roller coasters, or other scary things. Child abuse often leaves victims with crippling fears that affect their ability to make money, to have normal relationships, to have a healthy self-esteem, and to feel safe.
The good news is that our fears can be unlearned. Take roller coasters for example. When we learn to overcome our fear of them, we start with the least intense roller coasters. Once we’ve ridden them a few times, our brain can learn that the intense sensation of falling does not mean that we are about to die or get seriously injured. Our fear goes down and we may even become bored of the experience. Our brain understands that there is nothing to fear. After that, we can tackle scarier and scarier rides. Those ideas are the basic concepts in exposure therapy, which is psychology’s most effective tool for treating phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Think of a memory or scenario:
- …that is slightly traumatic but not overly traumatic.
- …where your emotional reaction is NOT the logical response. For example, recalling a traumatic event may lead to an illogical amount of anxiety, pain, shame, anger, or embarrassment.
Play through the memory in your head. Then, use the logical part of your brain. Actively tell the rest of your brain what the appropriate emotional reaction is. e.g. “Ok, so my friend has placed their hand on my shoulder. Ok brain, thank you for watching out for me but you don’t need to tell me to be afraid. This has some similarities to me being abused but is actually completely different. I’m safe so you can relax now. You don’t need to warn me about danger in this situation.” Remember to tell yourself that there is no danger.
Or think of it like driving. Once you master driving, you can operate a car without having to think much about it. However, suppose that you move to a new country where you have to drive on the opposite side of the road. You need to actively think about driving so that you can reprogram all of your instincts and automatic responses to adapt to your new environment. You need to actively think about what you should be doing instead of leaving your brain in autopilot mode.
Begin to work on the rest of your life experiences that have messed with your head or currently cause you to get triggered. Work on traumatic memories. Play out scenarios in your head where you behave illogically.
Once you can play through memories and scenarios in your head without getting worked up, you can make the leap to real world situations. If you get angry at your abuser, slowly work on walking away from the situation without arguing, without lashing out at them, and without getting upset. As the situation unfolds, you need to tell your brain that getting emotional is not helpful and is not needed. Replace your automatic response with a better one:
- Don’t assume that your abuser’s criticism of you is valid. It probably isn’t. Your abuser may have all sorts of bizarre fantasies that don’t make sense. They usually don’t care about whether or not what they’re saying is true.
- You do need to keep yourself safe. Carefully watch how close they are to you if they might get violent on you. If they are violent, always keep a safe distance from them.
- Anger is not helpful.
- Strategically think about how much validation you want to give to your abuser. If you are using the ‘fake buttons’ strategy, then you need to think about whether or not you should display anger.
When you feel fear, you can use deep breathing (such as taking a deep breath) or muscle relaxation to get the fear to go down. While it’s fine to use coping mechanisms, you want to work towards realizing that there is no need to use them at all. Why? Because there is nothing to be afraid of! You only need to teach your brain that the connections are illogical. While the danger might feel very real, it is a mirage. You can think of fear as False Evidence Appearing Real.
You may have some of the following illogical connections in your head that you can work on:
- Worthlessness. Your brain likes to make connections between your actions and what happens to you. This might make you feel worthless because you are somehow ‘causing’ the abuse. Logically, this makes zero sense. When there is abuse, it is the abuser who is worthless and not the victim.
- Stop looking to your abuser for validation!!! Don’t look for validation or love from toxic people. If you want to know if you have value as a person, you should NOT rely on toxic people for feedback. Instead, form healthy relationships with normal healthy people. Once you do so, you will be ready to realize that you have value as a person, that you are worth loving, and that other people do care about your well-being.
- Fear. Some fear makes sense. If your abuser is violent and much bigger than you, then there is a logical reason to fear them. However, most fear doesn’t make sense. An abuser might try to get you to believe in things that aren’t true by repeating them over and over again. The truth is that few things in the world are worse than your current abusive household. Any fears about leaving probably don’t make sense. Try writing out your fears to see if they make sense or seem incredibly silly when you write them out.
- Obligation. Abusers might try to control you by guilt tripping you. Logically, the resulting sense of obligation makes no sense. Yes, perhaps you’ve had good moments with your parents where they were nice to you. But that doesn’t make the abuse ok at all. Your abuser owes you, not the other way around.
- Guilt. You wouldn’t expect a prisoner of war to feel guilty for escaping jail. So you shouldn’t feel any guilt for abandoning your abusers and the people who enabled them.
- Anxiety and panic attacks. In a panic attack, your brain tells your body that there is danger. Then your body dumps adrenaline into your body, causes your heart rate to go up, etc. You may feel heart palpitations or feel like you’re having a heart attack. Then your brain thinks that something is seriously wrong with your body and tells you that those feelings are dangerous. You start to develop a fear of anxiety itself. This creates a nasty cycle where anxiety leads to more anxiety until you have a crippling level of anxiety and think that the world is ending. The way out of it is to tell your brain: “Hey brain, this is just my own anxiety. Thank you for pumping my body full of adrenaline. But this is not a dangerous situation. The world is not ending. You can relax now. You don’t need to be afraid of anxiety because it’s just a feeling and it can’t punch me in the face.”
- Abuse-like situations. Situations that vaguely resemble your abuse might be triggers for anxiety or negative emotions. Usually the connections are illogical because the context is all wrong, e.g. a friend touching you on the shoulder is completely different than your abuser touching you.
- Social anxiety. Social anxiety is a very serious problem as it will affect your ability to make money doing most jobs. What might help is for you to realize that failing really isn’t so bad. For example, you can find many examples of celebrities having embarrassing moments, saying awkward things, or having public meltdowns. The pop star Britney Spears had a 2007 meltdown but managed to recover and continue her incredible career since then. Screwing up socially isn’t as bad as what your brain is telling you. Another way of looking at it is that failing is a natural part of developing better social skills. If you never shoot, you will never score. And if you want to score, you will always need to miss a lot. To learn how to fail, check out these Youtube videos:
- Fear of success. Some abuse victims are afraid of succeeding too hard because they learned that success would lead to more abuse. Obviously, being afraid of success is illogical.
- Fear of turning into your abuser. If your instinct is to form healthy relationships with others, then you simply aren’t going to turn into an abuser. You are in control of your behavior and you can choose not to be abusive.
- PTSD and complex PTSD. Everybody has post traumatic stress from things like getting a vaccination shot or experiencing bullying in school. In some cases, stress-induced problems can become extreme and make it difficult to have a normal life. If that happens, you have a very real problem regardless of whether or not a psychiatrist considers it to be “post traumatic stress disorder”. PTSD and complex PTSD are common among people who have faced serious emotional abuse as a child. The classic definition of PTSD doesn’t really consider emotional abuse to be a trauma that can cause PTSD. However, many psychiatrists are waking up to the idea that emotional abuse is often far worse than physical abuse. Complex PTSD generally includes traumas that happen over a prolonged period of time and includes emotional abuse. It is not an official disorder in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) that most psychiatrists use.
Here is a quick overview of different types of therapy:
- Exposure therapy. Many of the treatments for PTSD are simply variations on exposure therapy, where the patient is exposed to something that triggers them slightly. Note that exposure therapy should NOT involve putting you in a dangerous situation. If you have been assaulted and you seek therapy, any sane therapist will not put you into a dangerous situation or anything remotely resembling actual assault. They will expose you to normal everyday situations such as watching a violent movie, shaking hands with somebody, etc.
- Flooding. This is a variation on exposure therapy where somebody is put into a stressful situation for 3 hours or so. Because the body cannot keep up a state of high anxiety for a long amount of time, anxiety will naturally come down. This way, the brain can learn that the situation is not dangerous. This is probably one of the most unpleasant variations on exposure therapy.
- Exposure with deep breathing or relaxation. Some believe that this makes exposure therapy more effective while others argue against it.
- Prolonged exposure (PE). One way of doing prolonged exposure is to have the patient make an audio recording of them describing a highly traumatic event. Then the patient listens to the audio recording until they are desensitized to the traumatic event. PE and exposure therapy are scientifically proven treatments for PTSD1.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This involves the psychiatrist looking at how you currently think about the world and telling you that you should think about things differently. Exposure therapy is sometimes considered to be a type of CBT.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Patients are asked to recall traumatic memories while looking at the therapist wave their fingers left and right. If you look at videos of this on Youtube2, the session can look incredibly goofy. It is unclear if EMDR works simply because it is a variation on exposure therapy or if there is something unique about EMDR that has a healing effect. Advocates of EMDR say that the left-right movement of the eyes is similar to the rapid eye movements during sleep. Other advocates claim that EMDR works on the left and right hemispheres of the brain because EMDR also works when the therapist alternates between tapping on the left and right hand (instead of making the patient’s eyes move). Regardless, there is scientific proof that EMDR is an effective treatment for PTSD3. EMDR can be performed without having to reveal your deepest secrets to the therapist.
- Psychoanalysis. The therapist talks about your childhood and your relationship with your parents.
- Other therapies. There are many, many other forms of therapy such as DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). There is some debate as to whether those therapies are repackaged versions of existing therapies or if they are genuinely different. Because there is a whole alphabet soup of therapies out there, I won’t cover them all.
- Medication. Psychiatrists attempt to treat a wide range of conditions with drugs. This practice is highly controversial; see the chapter “Dealing with psychiatric abuse” for more information.
- Depression can be caused by medical conditions such as hypothyroidism. Psychiatrists generally aren’t trained in diagnosing patients for known medical causes of depression. You may want to see your family doctor about getting your thyroid hormones tested (TSH, free T3, etc.). There is some controversy about thyroid testing because some lab results fall in a grey area where they may or may not indicate a thyroid problem. There is also autoimmune thyroiditis where your immune system attacks the thyroid gland. It can cause your thyroid levels to fluctuate so a thyroid test may not necessarily rule it out. The bottom line is that you can check for medical causes of depression if you feel like your depression is unrelated to your life circumstances. Talk to your regular doctor / general practitioner about it.
- Antidepressants are highly controversial. They are prescribed by psychiatrists as well as many family doctors. Some argue that there may not be any scientific evidence that they do anything for depression aside from the placebo effect4. A 2009 review by the Cochrane Collaboration argues that antidepressants are effective for depression5. Unlike placebo treatments, antidepressants may have side effects such as making you suicidal. Many of them are very difficult to quit. They do not work for most people who try them. Antidepressants may become less effective over time because the placebo effect’s action on depression fades over time.
- Benzodiazepines are effective for treating anxiety in the short term. If used for a long period of time, they are addictive and can be difficult to get off of. They are not a good long-term solution for anxiety. Many of them are illegal street drugs.
Many therapists get into the field because they have been abused themselves. However, very few therapists have actually resolved their traumas and have actually been healed. For example, Alice Miller is a famous psychologist who wrote the bestselling book The Drama of the Gifted Child, a book about child abuse. Her book continues to be fairly popular with 398 reviews on Amazon and 13,434 votes on GoodReads.com. The problem with Alice Miller is that she married a monster and let him abuse her son. Martin Miller was too afraid to speak out about his mother (who also abused him) until after she died6 7. One of Martin’s therapists broke professional ethics and leaked tapes of his sessions. His abuser-mother ultimately got a hold of the copy and used them against him. If you go see a therapist, be aware that you may be seeing somebody who is pretty messed up and has unresolved traumas.
Most therapists buy into the mainstream approach of throwing drugs at all their patients’ problems. Going along with the herd makes them look better (a licensed and trained medical professional!) and results in less risk for them (they can get into trouble for not prescribing drugs to their patients, even if the drug isn’t approved for whatever the patient was diagnosed with).
Therapists often prefer patients that they like talking to. They generally don’t like patients who question them. If a therapist is not good at handling criticism, they may try to gaslight the patient into thinking that there is something wrong with them and that they should take more drugs. Be careful about gaslighting from therapists. You can always request your medical records. This can be helpful as some therapists will talk trash about their patients in the patient’s medical records.
There are also some therapists in the world who genuinely care about their patients and have experience in helping patients overcome their problems. Some therapists will provide a free first session so that the patient can figure out whether or not they get along with the therapist.
It is a good sign if the therapist offers a sliding scale, providing discounts to those who find it difficult to afford therapy. The point isn’t to abuse the sliding scale to be a cheapskate. Rather, a sliding scale is a sign that the therapist understands their clients. Abuse victims are often stripped of their financial independence and are more likely to have mental health issues that make it difficult for them to work (e.g. agoraphobia, panic attacks, social anxiety). The people who need therapy the most are often the same people who can least afford it. It is a good sign if the therapist understands that.
You can also ask a therapist if they have experience in treating children of abusive parents as an experienced therapist should be far more helpful.
- [Advice Request] Searching for a therapist: things to look for and red flags
- Tips on Finding A Good Therapist – Share Them!
- Is My Therapist Good or Not? 12 Questions a Former Psychotherapist Asks
- Psychology Today has a good directory of therapists. You can search by city.
- Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker. Many consider this book to be the ‘bible’ on treating complex PTSD. As with any book, you can read its reviews on Amazon and GoodReads. Pete Walker talks about his own experience in treating his own complex PTSD.
- r/RaisedByNarcissists – This subreddit is a very large online community of people who have been abused by their parents (some of those parents are abusive without being narcissists). The sidebar has some useful resources:
- r/cPTSD – Support community for those affected by complex PTSD.
- https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHk_36kn2zDnVL-d23tE6bg/videos – Kris Godinez is a licensed professional counselor who has fought her own battle with a borderline father. Her Youtube channel talks extensively abusive parents and abusive romantic relationships.
- https://www.youtube.com/user/SPARTANLIFECOACH/videos – Richard Grannon was formerly in a relationship with an abuser. His channel is one of the more popular channels about narcissism.
1 Refer to the following literature review:
Rauch SA, Eftekhari A, Ruzek JI. Review of exposure therapy: a gold standard for PTSD treatment. Journal of rehabilitation research and development. 2012 Aug 1;49(5):679-88.
3 One study found that EMDR and Prolonged Exposure (PE) were equally effective in treating PTSD rape victims.
Rothbaum BO, Astin MC, Marsteller F. Prolonged exposure versus eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) for PTSD rape victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress: Official Publication of The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. 2005 Dec;18(6):607-16.
4 Kirsch I. Antidepressants and the placebo effect. Zeitschrift für Psychologie. 2014;222(3):128.
5 Arroll B, Elley CR, Fishman T, Goodyear‐Smith FA, Kenealy T, Blashki G, Kerse N, MacGillivray S. Antidepressants versus placebo for depression in primary care. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2009(3).
6 http://www.contemporarypsychotherapy.org/volume-7-no-1-summer-2015/interview-martin-miller/ Interview with Martin Miller.