19 Ways Childhood Emotional Abuse Affects Your Mental Health as an Adult

Experiencing emotional abuse in the formative years of childhood can be incredibly damaging to a child’s mental health. Unfortunately, the effects of early emotional abuse often do not stay confined to the period of time when they occurred. The effects can be debilitating and far-reaching, often creeping into adult life in ways we may not expect — much less want.

What happens exactly when emotional abuse from childhood follows you into adulthood? And what happens if your experiences contributed to a present struggle with mental illness?

We wanted to know the effects of experiencing childhood emotional abuse, so we asked our mental health community to share how emotional abuse in their upbringing affects their present mental health.

If your experience with childhood emotional abuse has contributed to challenges you face now, please know help is available.


Here’s what they shared with us:

1. “[I have] very low self-confidence, [have been in] toxic relationships [and experience the] feeling of being never enough… Currently I’m battling with depression and eating disorders.”

2. “I overanalyze every situation, what I did wrong and what I could’ve done better. My self-esteem is shot, my self-confidence is minimal. I question people’s intentions about everything and have a difficult time trusting others because of it, which causes extreme anxiety quite often.”

3. “When I get yelled at, I start to panic and will sometimes have a panic attack. This is mostly because my mother was unstable when I was young and would yell at me very often… It definitely attributed to my anxiety today.”

4. “I can’t do anything without apologizing for it. I’m constantly fearful of and waiting for people to abandon me. The constant anxiety makes me physically sick. If someone seems even the slightest bit annoyed or disappointed in me, I burst into tears. I feel deeply emotionally attached to anyone that offers me any emotional comfort, as if it can make up for what I’ve lost.”

5. “On top of emotional abuse, I was also sexually abused, so that probably has compounded my problems. I had very low self-esteem, trust issues, eating disorders, feelings of worthlessness, [I] obsessed with perfection, [had] anxiety, depression [and] suicidal ideation and [also] abused alcohol — all of which carried over into my adult years… I have made great strides in the past five years or so. I no longer use alcohol to cope and I have gotten out of a toxic marriage. Some days are worse than others, but for the most part, I have learned how to cope with everything in healthy ways. I still deal with not feeling like I am good enough and I second guess myself a lot. Some days I need more reassurance. When the bad days come and anxiety or depression creep in, I know it won’t be around forever. My faith in God and my church family have been instrumental in my growth and healing. I know my worth now, even if I sometimes need reminding of it. My past still affects me, but I no longer allow it to define me.”

6. “I can’t trust anyone. I internalized it and learned to hate myself. I learned to believe all the things they said about me. I have anger issues. I can’t get close to anyone. I fear being around people. As a result of it all I can’t work. I live with almost constant anxiety.”

7. “I have anxiety and depression now. I have to know why things don’t go as planned. I obsess over closure of situations and it makes being a mom and spouse very difficult.”

8. “[I] still think everything is my fault. The guilt, the shame, the low self-esteem. Nothing I do can be good enough. I struggle with OCD, anxiety, depression and I’m in eating disorder recovery. As an adult, it’s definitely easier to connect some dots (which I consider a positive), leading to at least understanding why I am the way I am.”

9. “I’m still figuring it out. [For me,] child abuse [has made] cognitive development detached from society and finding healthy boundaries a work in progress. Delusions knock at [my] door all the time.”

10. “College is extremely hard for me to get through, mentally. I am constantly feeling like I am not smart or capable enough, and am in constant fear that I will not graduate. I feel like my anxiety and depression have really kept me from enjoying the college experience fully, and kept me from making use of the opportunities around me. I’m in my third year and I still fear I chose the wrong major, and that I am not doing enough. College is hard enough, but with a mind like this… it truly feels nearly impossible.”


11. “I never wanted to admit to myself that my parents’ behavior and the environment in which I was raised had any effect on me as an adult. I did not want to give them any sort of power over me anymore… Only now can I relate my panic disorder to my childhood. My childhood was living in fear in the place where a child should feel safe and loved. I was made to feel unwanted and unworthy and basically, in the way. As I type this, I can feel my brain starting to spin out of control and my heart beating into my throat. It’s sad that I still feel unworthy of anything in my life.”

12. “I looked for love and attention in all the wrong places. I didn’t get love and attention at home so I looked for it in relationships and when they didn’t go well, I was devastated. I thought about all the things I did wrong. I developed depression and didn’t do much to get help because I thought I deserved it.”

13. “I can’t work due to the amount of hallucinations and stress vomiting that happens when I’m under stress. Living is stressful, eating is stressful, sleeping is stressful. I feel like there’s a threatening presence only I can feel… I have paranoia often, making it hard to leave the house. [I have an] eating disorder that has been present since childhood. [I go to] lots of doctor visits and [am on] different medications. It’s hard to know who you are when there’s so much pain blocking the joy. But I press on, and encourage others to do the same.”

14. “I stay between fight, flight and frozen. In many situations, I’m often anxious beyond typical ‘nervousness.’ I’ll stay guarded even around [people] I’ve been around for years.”

15. “I have no self-confidence, I have BPD and am a mother myself, now. I find myself second guessing my parenting and try my hardest not to repeat the past.”

16. “I don’t reach out for help, although medical issues make it a necessity. I don’t feel as if I am worth the help, or that people will berate me. [I’m] always on edge, waiting for the next verbal barrage.”

17. “I have serious trust issues, and I am unable to completely relax or know anything about what I would like to be at 60 [years old]. I have literally no clue who I am, and I am sometimes really mean or quick with words when I should not be. [It is] to the extent that it is causing me serious health issues now, too. I am scared of me.”

18. “[I struggle with] low self-esteem, developed an anxiety disorder [and] BPD, and [feel] the need to constantly seek validation in everything I do. It took me a while to realize the connection to emotional abuse from childhood, and this community has been so affirming.”

19. “I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Trusting in stability is a struggle for me, and I’m constantly second-guessing myself. I’m very self-critical and have worked extremely hard to change my internal narrative to something more positive. I’ve had to learn how to be kind to myself, and understand I am not a bad person — that I deserve to love and be loved. I [have] an anxiety disorder and OCD, as well as mild PTSD.”

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.  You can also visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

Thinkstock photo via Archv.

19 Ways Childhood Emotional Abuse Affects Your Mental Health as an Adult


hand reaching out

I Can’t Always Give. I Need Help, Too

I smile, I laugh, I even I crack jokes. I make people feel good about themselves, and let them know I am there to help them whenever they feel like they need someone to turn to.

I was there. I supported, I comforted, I helped and I gave assurance.

I was there. I was always there.

But inside, I needed help, too. I needed someone to tell me everything was going to be OK, that someone was there to support me, to comfort me and give me assurance. I needed that too. I guess they didn’t know though.

Every morning I wake up thinking, “Why do I have to start another day of faking everything, again? Didn’t I do enough yesterday?”

I am alone. At least I feel alone. It has been eating away at me. I want to run, scream at the top of my lungs and cry until I cannot cry anymore.

I feel tired, even if I sleep for 10 hours or more. I feel cold inside. I felt numb, breathless, like I am drowning from the inside out. Sometimes I walk aimlessly, because I feel lost, like everything I know has suddenly disappeared in front of me.

I cry myself to sleep each night, praying that I don’t have to do it all again tomorrow. I choke from the huge lump I feel in my throat whenever I think about how helpless I feel. I rock my own body to somehow thaw the ice that is at my core.

When I dream, I dream about falling down a dark void, but I never land. I always wake up, drenched in my own sweat, the hairs in my body standing. I try to sleep again and end up following the same excruciating pattern.

I start the day again. It’s always the same as yesterday. Thoughts are gnawing at my brain, eating at me bit by painful bit. My hands feel numb all day long, and my knees feel weak. I don’t stare at anything for too long. I come back to reality when I feel a tear crawling down my cheek.

Then I think about how the people around me would live if I weren’t here. Would they be happy? Would there be any changes at all if I wasn’t alive? Would their lives be better off without me?

I tried to escape, to go to places far away, where no one knew me, where I was free to do anything I wanted to; places where I can feel the wind in my face and forget that, for most of my life, I’ve felt nothing. That is why I loved taking breaks.

I did everything I’ve always wanted to do, and I didn’t waste a single minute. I fought to keep the thoughts away, and during these breaks, I win.

I filled my mind with things I wanted to think about; things that made me feel like everything was going fine, that there were no problems. I filled my mind with happy thoughts, like being free, which I realize are just illusions.

Was it so bad to feel happy and carefree for a short while? Was it a sin to get out and not think of anything for a day or two?

I wish I could feel like many other people do. I want to be free. I also want to do the things I want to do. I also want to be the things many other people want to be. I don’t want to feel tired anymore. I don’t like feeling useless and judged. I don’t want to be alone anymore.

Yes, I smile, I laugh, and I even crack jokes; but deep down inside I am lost.

Is it too much to ask?

Is it too much to ask to be free from this?

Is it too much to ask for more breaks from this life that I have been living in for so long?

Is it too much to ask to feel happy?

Is it too much to ask for someone to help me?

I deserve to be happy.

I need help, too.

There are a lot of us who need help; a lot of us who try to be OK, when we know in reality, we are not always OK. A lot of us who try to be genuinely happy, when we know we have thoughts of hopelessness. A lot of us who try to be like some others — carefree and at ease, when we know that living like that feels almost impossible. We need help, too. But it’s hard for us to ask for it because we are scared of getting rejected, we are scared of getting judged and we are scared of being ignored. It’s hard. It’s hard living in the shadows of our own lives.

All we want is for you to look at us, look at who we really are, and not our mistakes. Look at us with eyes free from bias, so that we may reveal our totality as one with everybody else. We want you to see us in a different light, for we have been living in the dark for too long, we forgot how it feels to live under bright skies. And we want you to care.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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Photograph of Carrie Fisher

Billie Lourd Shares Carrie Fisher's Cause of Death

The coroner’s report for Carrie Fisher’s cause of death was released on Friday, six months following the actress’s death at the age of 60. According to the Associated Press, Fisher died as the result of sleep apnea and “a combination of other factors,” including drugs.

Fisher was best known for her role as Princess Leia in “Star Wars” and was an outspoken mental health activist who lived openly with bipolar disorder and addiction. The drugs found in Fisher’s system included cocaine, heroin, MDMA and other opiates. While it’s impossible to know what she took and when, the Associated Press reported that according to experts, she may have used cocaine about a week prior to her death.

Releasing a statement to People about her mother’s death, Billie Lourd, Fisher’s daughter, said Fisher would have wanted her to be open about her cause of death, adding:

My mom battled drug addiction and mental illness her entire life. She ultimately died of it. She was purposefully open in all of her work about the social stigmas surrounding these diseases.

She talked about the shame that torments people and their families confronted by these diseases. I know my Mom, she’d want her death to encourage people to be open about their struggles. Seek help, fight for government funding for mental health programs. Shame and those social stigmas are the enemies of progress to solutions and ultimately a cure. Love you Momby.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Fisher’s brother Todd Fisher said he wasn’t surprised Fisher’s health was affected by her drug use. “If you want to know what killed her, it’s all of it,” he said of his sister’s heart condition, smoking and both prescription and illicit drug use.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

Image via Riccardo Ghilardi.

man comforting woman in house with arm around her

14 Steps to Help Me When I Am Hearing Voices

I sometimes hear voices when I am manic. I have also heard voices when under extreme stress, or during dissociative episodes.

I usually don’t share what is going on in my head… except with my husband sometimes and at support groups. When I have told people about the voices, they never seem to know how to respond, and don’t say things that are helpful. I thought it might help if I wrote out how people could help me during this time. Psychotic episodes can be very different for different people. For me, the battle is mostly inside my head and I know the voices are part of my illness. These are things that would help me, and hopefully, it could help someone else as well.

1. Establish my trust.

I am always really scared to share that I am hearing voices. If I tell you, please reassure me that you are a safe person I can confide in. You could do this by making eye contact and showing empathy in your voice. Tell me you care about me and want the best for me. Give me some time before I share more details. It takes a while for me to build up the courage to talk more.  Remain calm, and be sensitive to whether I want to sit apart from you or closer to you. Tell me you don’t think I’m “crazy,” and that other people have this problem too.

2. Listen.

After you have given me a little time and established I can trust you, I might start talking a little more about what’s going on. Listen with empathy and without judgment.

3. Respond to the feelings I share.

I know it’s hard to understand what it’s like to hear voices, but you can relate to my feelings. So you could say things like, “That seems so scary. I understand how you would be upset.”

4. Summarize what I am saying.

It helps me to feel heard if you respond to what I am saying by putting it in your own words and asking me if you understood it right.

5. Ask me what the voices are saying.

I may not be ready to share what the voices are saying, especially if they are saying bad things to me. But sometimes it helps to get the words out in the open and not in my chest. If I am too nervous to share, you can skip to the next step.

6. Ask me whether I am going to listen to the voices.

The voices might be telling me all sorts of bad things, but if I ignore them, it’s not so bad. If I start believing what the voices say or act on what they say, it can be a real problem. So ask me if I’m going to listen to them, or how I am going to deal with them. Maybe we can talk it over, or you will notice I need professional help to find ways to manage these voices.

7. Decide whether I am in crisis.

If the voices are telling me dangerous things and I’m listening to the voices — if I seem to be a threat to myself or others — call 911 or refer me to get professional help. If I don’t seem to be in crisis, you can go to the next step.

8. Bring the focus back to me.

When I think or talk about the voices too much, I start focusing on them too much, and they get louder and stronger. So we can talk about the voices some, but then bring it back to me. Explain you are concerned about my health and care about me.

9. Ask me what you can do to help.

Sometimes I can think of something helpful, or I might share something unhelpful.

10. Ask me what has helped in the past.

I personally have dealt with voices many times in the past. I’ve developed coping skills, but in the moment I sometimes forget them. Ask me what I have done in the past, and I might remember things I have done before that have helped.

11. Ask me if I’m feeling better.

Hopefully talking to you has helped me feel better. I might say how you have helped me. It helps me focus on the positive and see things are getting better.

12. Ask me what I’m going to do next.

Ask me what my plan is to deal with these voices. Encourage me to get professional help to talk about hearing voices, if I’m not already.

13. Say you care about me.

Reassure me that you care about me and want to be here for me.

14. Follow up.

Check in on me later on, whether it’s hours or days later, to see how I’m doing. Convey to me that you care about me and want to help me if possible.

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Thinkstock photo via AntonioGuillem

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How I Learned to Accept and Acknowledge 'Negative' Emotions

Who Will Speak Up for “Negative” Emotions?

When I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to be sad. It was “cheer up, don’t cry, look up on the bright side.” Anger? Forget about it – there was no room at all for anger. “We don’t get angry in this family.”

The only feelings that were approved were the bright happy cheerful ones.

Of course I did have “negative” feelings — I got scared and sad and upset — but my mom was determined to redirect everything I felt into something she could handle. “What if you look at it this way?” she would say. “Maybe it was all for the best.”

I was bullied at school for years. Once – just once – I tried to tell my parents about it. It was obvious they didn’t want to hear and had no idea what to do about it. “Maybe they are just trying to be friends,” said my mom, helplessly.

Trust me, the kids who mocked me and shamed me and called me stupid and ugly… no, Mom, they were not just trying to be friends.

But I didn’t have the words to say that to my parents.

So I kept quiet about it from then on, and I started to feel more and more anxious around people, and withdraw into isolation whenever I could. Obviously, I did get sad. And angry. But because there was no welcome, no room for such feelings, they went underground in me. Sadness was shameful. Anger was unthinkable. I had no vocabulary for such feelings, because they had never been talked about around me.

Alone in my room, I turned to poetry. Poetry was the first thing that saved me. The feelings I could never talk about came out on the page. Sadness, rage and despair came pouring out. And longing.

The person reflected back to me from my poetry was so different from the quiet, polite girl who did everything she was supposed to do. I ended up feeling even more isolated, unable to show that “dark” side of me to anyone… but at least I felt alive.

The second thing that saved me was a teacher I met in grad school. He had developed a method and a philosophy for listening with absolute acceptance to all the feelings inside us. A community grew up around his teaching — young people like me who were trying out his method as a way of life.

For the first time, it was not only OK to have feelings, but there was a way to explore them, to allow and trust that every feeling has a story to tell and can change and evolve if you pay attention.

No feelings were considered “negative.” All were welcome. Just as all people were welcome in the community we created. No negative people, no negative feelings.

The inner exploration of feelings became my life’s work. Given how I started out, I can see why.

And here’s the thing: I’ve learned it wasn’t only my family and my small town that suppressed negative feelings. It’s our whole culture, our whole country. And though my childhood was a long time ago, the shunning of “negative” feelings is still going on.

If you show sadness, you’re considered a “basket case.” If you show anger, you’re labeled an “angry person” — the kiss of death. If you show anxiety, people try to fix you or talk you out of it or explain you just have to change your thoughts… good luck with that.

The latest version of ostracizing negative feelings is a kind of pseudo-neuroscience where we are told that dwelling on negatives rewires/strengthens the negative neural connections in the brain. (I haven’t found any actual science to support this.) Methods have emerged for “thought-stopping,” which teach people to suppress any “negative” thoughts.

Really? After all these years of progress and learning about being human, is that the best we can do?

When I was mocked and teased at school, I couldn’t allow myself to feel how scared I was — because that would have made the mocking worse. Besides, I knew that if I dissolved into tears, swallowed up by my misery, nothing would have changed. But the feelings, unfelt and unprocessed, stayed in me as tension in every social situation from then on… until I met that teacher in grad school.

When feelings and thoughts are suppressed and not allowed, they remain the same — unchanged. Letting our feelings take us over and run riot is also not good… because they don’t change that way either.

What I learned from my teacher was a third way: How to welcome and turn toward any feeling and give it a space to be explored. I don’t have to be anxious; I can be with an anxious part of me, and listen to what is getting it so anxious.

When I look around the world today, I see so much division and fear. Whole races and religions are called “bad” and pushed away. We’re afraid of people who aren’t just like us. The same thing is true inside us. Whole sets of thoughts and feelings are labeled “negative” and sent into internal exile. This can’t be good.

Every feeling you have is trying to understand your situation and carry you forward. Depression is a real sign that something isn’t right. Anger says, “I need this to stop.” When you learn to listen to your feelings without being taken over by them, you live more fully. You become more “you.” You contribute more to the world, your family, yourself.

Who will speak up for “negative” emotions? I do.

Ann Weiser Cornell is the co-developer and teacher/author of an empowering skill for emotional healing called Inner Relationship Focusing. She herself has struggled with anxiety, obsessions and addiction. Her latest offering is a free online course called Transforming Your Relationship to Your Inner Critic. You can also find her at focusingresources.com.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock illustration via berdsigns

woman wearing striped top in greenhouse laughing

What You Don't Expect to Hear in the Psych Ward

There are sounds you expect to hear in a psych ward. You expect to hear nurses talking to patients, medical carts rolling, thermometers beeping, doors opening and closing for 15-minute checks, and occasionally, alarms sounding. But one thing you don’t expect to hear in a psych ward is laughter. And I don’t just mean the awkward, fake laughter, like when you first meet someone or are uncomfortable. I mean full-out, belly laughter that makes your eyes water and your stomach hurt.

When I spent a week in a psych ward, I laughed far harder than I had in the months leading up to it. This might be surprising because over those months my depression had gradually worsened. You would think laughing would gradually decrease as my mood went south, and there would be no laughter by the time I was in the psych ward. And you’re right in that laughing had decreased over the months leading up to being hospitalized. But after a few days in the psych ward, once the patients had met and started getting more comfortable with one another, the laughter exploded.

I can’t remember a lot of what we were laughing about. And of what I do remember, I won’t share most of it because it isn’t funny unless you have also been in a psych ward. It’s a very dry, dark humor, and some of it could probably be offensive to someone who hasn’t had those experiences. We laughed about the millions of rules on the psych ward. For example, I wasn’t allowed scrunchies for my hair. If someone complained about a rule or talked about what they wanted to do once they got out I would often jokingly exclaim in exasperation, “I just want a scrunchie!” We would laugh at things nurses said, or the odd looks they gave us. Once I had asked a nurse for a pair of hospital socks from the supply closet. She said something funny about how she was already late to a meeting so might as well get it now, and then went into the closet. I stood outside waiting and was still chuckling a bit at her comment. Another nurse passed, gave me a deeply concerned look, and questioned, “Are you OK?” Granted, to her it looked like I was standing in the hallway just laughing to myself. A worrying but perhaps not surprising image of someone in a psych ward. I quickly reassured her that yes, I was fine. I was just waiting for socks. When I rushed to tell the other patients what had happened, this story was a hit. I often wondered if hearing us laugh this much scared the nurses and doctors, but thinking about this just made us laugh more.

In the psych ward, you get to a point where everything is funny because you are desperate for a distraction from your own thoughts and emotions. I think the laughter also stems from the community that forms. When you are in hospital for a mental illness, it’s no secret to anyone else on the ward why you are there. You’re either suicidal, detoxing from drugs, psychotic, or some combination of the three. Everyone there is scared and uncomfortable, and because of this also extremely vulnerable. Yet around you are 20 or so other people going through incredibly similar struggles. The empathy and support for one another is natural, even though you’ve just met and have little else in common.

After the morning psychoeducation groups, there isn’t a lot to do in a psych ward. So simply because you are bored (and because it will look good to the doctors), you end up hanging out in the common areas with the other patients. I’m quite the introvert, and even I spent a lot of time there. We had SVU marathons, played the game Fact or Crap, and ordered late night mac and cheese.

Now it would be a massive stretch to say I enjoyed my time in there. I was still sick and needed to be there for a reason. Plus, as someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the lack of my usual routine and sense of control was terrifying. Still, it wasn’t a completely awful experience. After all, a lot of therapies teach to not view the world in black and white, but to see the grays too.

I can look back on those evenings spent with the other patients and even have some fond memories. I’ll certainly remember the laughing fits, and with a sense of gratitude. It kept me going through tough, sad, long, boring hours on the ward. It kept me connected with others and helped prepare me to re-enter the “real” world. Perhaps most importantly, the laughter planted tiny seeds of hope for a future I might be able to have, one that I couldn’t have seen alone. Now it’s time to keep laughing and keep watering those seeds.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Unsplash photo via Brooke Cagle

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