Why We Dismiss and Diminish Our Past Abuse
If you have experienced emotional abuse or physical abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
I sat with her, across from her in my therapy room, the coffee table between us, the box of tissues in reach.
She told me what her mother had done to her when she came home with anything less than As.
She told me how her mother would scream at her, telling her she’s a stupid cow and a failure.
She told me about the way her mother would make her — a 9-year-old — walk over to the canister in the kitchen and choose the wooden spoon for her spanking (she would try to choose the smallest spoon, it tended to bruise her less).
She told me about how, when the beating was over, she would go hide in her closet for hours — standing because she couldn’t sit on the bruises — until she knew it was safe to come out again, when she knew her mother would have had enough wine to make her nicer, easier to be around, less enraged about her Bs.
She told me how this happened every single month when the report cards were released.
She told me all of this, without emotion, looking out the window toward the UC Berkeley campus, a few blocks away from my offices.
“I am so, so sorry that happened to you.” I said, tears welling up in my eyes and a pit in my stomach. “That was not OK. No child deserves to be treated that way by their mother, not by anyone.”
“Oh, it’s fine,” she said, cooly, “That’s just the way things were. It could have been worse.”
“It’s not OK,” I said again emphatically. “You didn’t deserve that. That was abuse.”
“No, abuse is when parents molest their kids. At least that didn’t happen to me. She just wanted me to succeed. It made me work harder in school. It’s probably why I’m professionally successful now. It’s not that big of a deal.”
Still, she looked out the window, not meeting my eyes, speaking with some distance, some detachment from her story.
As if she were reciting the grocery list she had plugged into Instacart that morning.
This conversation isn’t a real conversation that happened.
Details have been changed.
But it is an accurate amalgamation of countless conversations I’ve had over the years.
It’s a kind of conversation where, when finally ready to go back in time and speak about details of their pasts, my therapy clients dismiss and diminish their own childhood trauma histories, their own abuse, the suffering they endured as they recount their past.
It’s a conversation that slowly but inevitably allows us — as therapist and client — to talk about the way they dismiss and diminish their past, and why this is so important to recognize and to change.
If you — if any part of you — can relate to this experience of excusing, dismissing, minimizing, explaining away the abuse you endured, today’s essay is for you.
Please join me to keep reading about why you may dismiss and diminish your past, why it’s important to stop doing this, and how we can support you in changing this.
Dismissing and diminishing are psychological defense mechanisms.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner
Why do we dismiss and diminish our pasts?
Simply put, the acts of dismissing and diminishing our pasts are psychological defense mechanisms.
All psychological defense mechanisms are, ultimately, unconscious attempts and strategies used by an individual to help protect themselves from what can feel like intolerable feelings and thoughts should they face their reality.
Excusing, dismissing, minimizing, explaining away, diminishing, rationalizing, justifying… however and whatever descriptor you wish to give these attempts, all of them are ways in which we attempt — albeit poorly — to protect ourselves from pain.
Like with all psychological defense mechanisms and other ways we organize ourselves to cope with and survive traumatic experiences, doing this, at some level, is very wise.
Because as children, we’re objectively quite powerless. Really at the mercy of our caregivers and circumstances. But children are clever. They are survivors.
And children will do whatever it takes to organize themselves (their feelings, thoughts, behaviors, personalities, needs, and wants) to be what they need to be to protect themselves in their circumstances.
And one way that can help children and adolescents cope is to dismiss and diminish what happens (and happened) to them.
Rationalizing, justifying, dismissing, and diminishing the pain they are enduring (and the emotional pain they have about it) helps mentally and emotionally protect them so they can get through the rest of the time they have to endure living with their abuser.
To fully acknowledge how terrible and hard their circumstances are while they are still trapped inside of the situation, with five, eight, 10 years to go before they can get the hell out and leave… it would be too much.
And so they learn to explain away, to dismiss and diminish, to do whatever it takes to avoid feeling the enormity of feelings about their circumstances.
But, inevitably, after the child grows and leaves the home of their abuser, those same psychological defense mechanisms may no longer serve them as adults; instead, they may harm versus help them.
What’s the harm in dismissing or diminishing the past?
“My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step, they are gray faces that peer over my shoulder.” — William Golding
What’s the harm in continuing to diminish and dismiss our childhood trauma histories as adults?
It keeps us from feeling our pain and grief and anger about our past.
And to truly heal, to process our experiences, make sense of them, and work toward psychological integration, we must feel our feelings about our past.
There’s a famous (albeit cliché) saying in therapy: We cannot heal what we cannot feel.
The longer we continue to use dismissal and diminishment (or any other psychological defense mechanism) to guard ourselves from feeling the feelings that are inevitably inside ourselves, the longer we will delay and deny our healing process.
But, of course, I understand personally and professionally how incredibly scary and painful it can feel to imagine actually allowing yourself to really feel your feelings about the past.
It’s normal and natural to want to avoid pain.
Plus, there’s often a strong and common belief that if we actually do start to allow ourselves to feel our feelings about the past, it will feel like a proverbial tsunami, that we won’t survive the full strength of our feelings, and/or once we start to feel our sadness and anger, it will never end.
And yes, sometimes when we start to feel our feelings about the past, the force of our feelings may be overwhelming.
But a good trauma-informed therapist will help you to titrate your feelings so that they don’t overwhelm and re-traumatize you so that they feel tolerable.
And what’s also true is our grief about our pasts — our sadness, anger, rage, regret, confusion, despair — may take some time to fully process.
It may take more time than we imagine and probably more time than we suspect it “should” take.
But it’s still necessary to appropriately feel our feelings about our past and to begin the grieving process — for the childhood we had, for the childhood we did not have and will sadly never have — to help ourselves, as adults, have a beautiful adulthood despite our adverse early experiences.
How do I stop dismissing and diminishing my past?
“But pain’s like water. It finds a way to push through any seal. There’s no way to stop it. Sometimes you have to let yourself sink inside of it before you can learn how to swim to the surface.” — Katie Kacvinsky
I want to circle back to the top of this essay when I described the vignette of my client in my office.
And I want to be clear about something: I do not believe it’s helpful at all to force someone to confront their past or their feelings about their past before they are psychologically ready to do so.
I personally work from a phased, titrated, trauma-informed approach that necessitates stabilizing clients — psychologically and logistically preparing them for their grief and processing work — before we start to help them fully feel their feelings about their past.
Only when and if a client feels ready to feel their feelings about their past, will I gently confront them in the way I did in the above vignette.
And when and if a client can acknowledge they are ready to start to feel their feelings about their past, only then will I design interventions to support them in doing so.
The interventions and therapeutic tools I use are numerous and beyond the scope of this essay to detail (plus I customize therapy and attendant interventions differently for every client), but I will leave you with one tool I use in case, after reading today’s essay, any part of you feels ready and able to challenge any dismissal or diminishment you may do of your own past.
To practice this tool, I want you to place your hand on your heart (really, this part is important).
And I want you to say to yourself, out loud, the following:
“What happened to me wasn’t okay. What happened to me wasn’t normal. What happened to me should never happen to a child. I have a right to feel sad and angry about what happened to me.”
Notice what happens in your body as you make contact with yourself in this way, hand on your heart, and as you verbally acknowledge your past and how it was not OK.
Track your somatic sensations, notice your thoughts, and if — at all — you quickly want to jump away from the exercise or explain it away as being ridiculous and silly, and useless.
Stay just a little bit longer, hand on heart, breathing deeply, stilling yourself to track your experience.
And if feelings start to rise up, allow yourself to feel them in tolerable amounts. In allowing yourself to feel what surfaces for you, you will support your healing process.
This is one tool of many I use with my therapy clients and online course students to help them begin to reduce their dismissal and diminishment of their past so they can begin to more fully feel their feelings and finally move into the grieving, processing, and sense-making that’s required to support them to fully heal.
If you would personally like support around this and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together.
And now I’d love to hear from you:
Did you relate at all to today’s essay? Are you prone to dismissing or diminishing your past? What’s one tool, thought, behavior or practice that has helped you to stop doing this so that you can feel your feelings and heal?
If you feel so inclined, please leave a comment below so our community can benefit from your wisdom.
And until next time, please take such good care of yourself.
You’re so worth it.
Getty image by mihominoru