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The Lifelong Impact of Childhood Emotional Abuse and Gaslighting

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

When I was a child, I had no tools or language to understand the abuse happening to me. What I did know was I was constantly misunderstood. My parents often accused me of doing things I never did and punished me for not doing things that were not mine to be done. I didn’t know what projection was, but I was constantly accused of having malicious intent when there was none. To survive, I stuffed my anger and made sure to never even think a cross thought about my abusers. I attempted to be perfect, which is, of course, impossible. I became hypervigilant in anticipating the needs of others. I became the cheerful servant, like Cinderella, daydreaming about a kinder and gentler world. Also like Cinderella, I didn’t understand why my family hated me so much despite all my best efforts. I thought it was some flaw of mine I was so misunderstood.

• What is PTSD?

When I grew older, I tried in vain to communicate with my abusers. I honed all the skills to write and speak with clarity and compassion. I made sure to never make assumptions or accusations about their intent (like they did with me) but rather to focus on communicating how their actions made me feel. It didn’t work. Whenever I tried to make my parents understand the effect their actions had on me, they would find some way to turn it around and make it my fault. I was open to trying anything to get through to them. I solicited help from mediators and counselors. All this did was make them double down on their projections. The more I tried to reason with them with grace and compassion the more they accused me of being spiteful and “crazy.”

For a while their projection worked, because I did feel “crazy.” I was caught in a loop where I would make a statement about their behavior, and they would accuse me of the same behavior. I would then self-reflect and try to figure out why they would say that about me. I was constantly examining my own motives, which was a distraction from the issue at hand. I didn’t yet know what gaslighting or projection was, I just knew I was in a futile loop. I developed panic attacks and migraines. It got to a point where whenever I was around my parents my body would just shut down. When I left, I did not leave because they were abusing me. I left because I knew I could no longer hold on to my own sanity if I didn’t. See how I turned it back onto me? For a long time I saw myself as “defective” because I couldn’t handle my own parents.

Because of all of the lifelong programming of my abusers, it took me a long time to accept that there is nothing I can say or do to make them understand or acknowledge my point of view. They are literally incapable of empathy and understanding. They cannot and will not ever see me as a person. They cannot and will not ever acknowledge I have feelings and opinions. They cannot and will not ever respect any of my boundaries. In their eyes I do not exist. To them I am not a person. I am a funhouse mirror, which fails to reflect their image the way they want to be seen.

Having such early fundamental needs unfulfilled leaves me with a deep longing to be understood. For a long time I continued to search for any possible way I could be understood by my parents. There is none. I have since learned to direct my need to be understood toward people who are capable of empathy and understanding. I have since found many people who “get it.” I now know my communication skills are not flawed, and I am actually pretty easy to understand. Even so, I don’t think the desire to be understood by those who have hurt me will ever go away completely. I often struggle to share my thoughts on abuse publicly because I am especially sensitive to people who reinforce the same accusations and dismissive attitudes of my abusers. Because of the physiological damage caused by psychological abuse, just one “suck it up” comment from a stranger literally feels like a punch in the gut to me. This serves as a reminder that I am not immune to toxic behavior, and I must limit my exposure.

There will always be some people who choose not to understand, but there are many others who do. Most of all I understand myself. I hope by the end of my life I can say the roar of encouragement of those who understand have drowned out the negative messages of those who choose not to.

Unsplash image by Yousef Espanioly

Originally published: October 10, 2019
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