Psychological abuse

In our last entry I stated that the sister had been “psychologically abused, but was not subjected to any other abuse”.  Reading it again has made me realise what an odd statement it was, and it’s possibly tied to the rather large issues we have with the sister.  The family dynamics created a household where psychological abuse occurred frequently – the mother has now accepted this as a reality.  What I find frustrating, annoying and degrading is the way in which psychological abuse is often ignored or treated as if it isn’t serious.  All you have to do is consider the Megan Meier case to realise the implications of psychological abuse – in this instance a campaign of cyber-bullying. 

I wonder how many people know what psychological abuse is, and what it’s like to live in a psychologically abusive environment.

One of the most obvious examples we can think of when we were growing up, was presenting our report cards to the father.  At the end of each year we all had to give our father our respective report cards and wait for the fall out.  We all used to show them to the mother first so she could determine which order we’d present them to the father.  Depending on his mood we would go first or last, as we generally had the best grades of the four children.  If we went first then the others would get compared to ours and he’d end up in a foul mood calling at least one of the siblings useless, thick etc.  If we went last, he was in such a rage by the time we got to see him that we were terrified.

Due to the abuse we were subjected to, we became very withdrawn at school.  We didn’t talk and were incredibly shy.  One aspect they assess in school is participation, it eventually led to the teachers being honest and starting to give us B’s, C’s and D’s for class involvement/socialisation.  While we can now understand why this happened, seeing these lower grades on the report card caused major panic.  We were never praised for the straight A’s, so what was going to happen with these lower grades appearing?  We’d seen the abuse given to the siblings, so what was going to happen to us?

But if you look at psychological abuse as this one incident, it doesn’t give a true indication of the nature of psychological abuse.  The difference between psychological abuse and a father being angry at his children’s academic achievement is the nature of that anger, how it’s shown and its context within the life of the participants.  One quote we quite like to describe this is that psychological abuse is a campaign.

So if the fathers anger at our grades were a one off incident, it could be explained by him having a bad day.  It’s still not acceptable, but once the anger had blown over the family would be able to re-unite to talk about what had occurred with genuine remorse shown by the father.  Hurt had been caused and it would be addressed.  In families where pressure was building to the point where there was anger management issues, you can see how there would be room for family and individual counselling as a way to stop patterns developing.  This seems to be how a healthy family would deal with isolated incidents that cause harm, but they are not what would be considered a campaign of psychological abuse.

Without going into too much detail, it’s easy to see how the parents ended up in the marriage and family dynamic that they did.  While there are no indications of physical abuse, psychological abuse did seem to be a factor in the fathers up-bringing.  The mother married the first man she seriously dated.  Add to this the father’s alcoholism and enjoyment of pornography, and it was a disaster waiting to happen.  By the time we were born, the disaster was full blown.

Looking at any form of abuse that occurs over time as an enduring pattern, it can be quite baffling to stand outside of the situation and question why the victim doesn’t just leave, or the perpetrator realise how destructive the behaviour is.  But when that abuse is all you’ve ever known, or has been so slowly introduced into your life and is now insidious; you often lose sight of what is “normal” or healthy.

In our experience, the psychological abuse ensured that we didn’t tell anyone about what else was happening to us.  It meant that we tried to help a woman at work escape from an abusive marriage, without realising we were also in an abusive marriage.

In the sisters experience, the psychological abuse and having Cushings Syndrome, meant that she also went from one bad relationship to another.  She abused us in order to release the anger that she felt and couldn’t express in any other way.  She repeated those patterns for many years.

We haven’t had any real contact with the sister in over eight years.  We both continued the patterns learnt from childhood – we did become a product of our environment.  In our own ways, we’re all trying to break those patterns.


13 Responses to “Psychological abuse”

  1. 1 Sam Embracing Samo February 10, 2009 at 4:34 am

    Re: “She abused us in order to release the anger that she felt and couldn’t express in any other way.”

    Similar story happened to us and our brother – we haven’t had any real contact in over seven years.

  2. 2 castorgirl February 10, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    It helps to be able to intellectually understand why the situation happened. Unfortunately it doesn’t help the ones that were born to cope with the abuse.

    Take care…

  3. 3 Clare Murphy February 16, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    I feel privileged to read your story about psychological abuse. You are sooooo right that many people do not know what psychological abuse is, or how it affects the victim. I experienced this kind of abuse from my mother and in a very different way from my father, then from my ex-husband, and a girlfriend. I was very lucky that I then went on and studied the dynamics of ‘power and control’ and facilitated programmes for women who were victims of psychological abuse and control by their male partners. If I had not spent the last nine years studying this I would probably still be confused. It is only because of this intense study that I can now “sniff” out that kind of behaviour in someone before getting caught up in it. I have several girlfriends who are still confused after leaving their husbands/male partners who psychologically abused them through a systematic ongoing campaign. I have made it my mission to speak out loud about the subject. Your story helps. I started writing a blog and website to help people understand the confusion that happens. You might find something useful there (albeit intellectual!!). I love your daily photos by the way – beautiful.

  4. 4 castorgirl February 16, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Hi Clare,

    Thank you :)
    Ohh we’re much more comfortable with intellectual perspectives… It has been noted by several therapists that we are too comfortable with the intellectual side of things :)

    I’ve had a quick look at your website and it’s got some great information – thank you for sharing this. You’re right that many people don’t know what psychological abuse is, or it’s impact of everyone who witnesses or is a victim of it.

    Take care…
    Sophie :)

    PS We’re just over the Kaimai’s from you :)

  5. 5 Sam Embracing Samo February 16, 2009 at 10:47 pm


    I was wondering if you are familiar with the concept of Victimization Sequelae Disorder?

    Below is an excerpt from the Frank Ochberg’s webpage:

    Proposed Diagnostic Criteria for Victimization Sequelae Syndrome/Disorder

    A. The experience (or witnessing) of one or more episodes of physical violence or psychological abuse or of being coerced into sexual activity by another person.

    B. The development of at least (number to be determined) of the following symptoms (not present before the victimization experiences):

    1. A generalized sense of being ineffective in dealing with one’s environment that is not limited to the victimization experience (e.g., generalized passivity, lack of assertiveness, or lack of confidence in one’s own judgment).

    2. The belief that one has been permanently damaged by the victimization experience (e.g., a sexually abused child or rape victim believing that he or she will never be attractive to others).

    3. Feeling isolated or unable to trust or to be intimate with others.

    4. Over inhibition of anger or excessive expression of anger.

    5. Inappropriate minimizing of the injuries that were inflicted.

    6. Amnesia for the victimization experiences.

    7. Belief that one deserved to be victimized, rather than blaming the perpetrator.

    8. Vulnerability to being revictimized.

    9. Adopting the distorted beliefs of the perpetrator with regard to interpersonal behavior (e.g., believing that it is OK for parents to have sex with their children, or that it is OK for a husband to beat his wife to keep her obedient).

    10. Inappropriate idealization of the perpetrator.

    C. Duration of the disturbance of at least one month.

    Appendix 2

    Victimization Symptoms: A Distinct Subcategory of Traumatic Stress

    1. Shame: Deep embarrassment, often characterized as humiliation or mortification.

    2. Self-blame: Exaggerated feelings of responsibility for the traumatic event, with guilt and remorse, despite obvious evidence of innocence.

    3. Subjugation: Feeling belittled, dehumanized, lowered in dominance, and powerless as a direct result of the trauma.

    4. Morbid hatred: Obsessions of vengeance and preoccupation with hurting or humiliating the perpetrator, with or without outbursts of anger or rage.

    5. Paradoxical gratitude: Positive feelings toward the victimizer ranging from compassion to romantic love, including attachment but not necessarily identification. The feelings are usually experienced as ironic but profound gratitude for the gift of life from one who has demonstrated the will to kill. (Also known as pathological transference and/or Stockholm syndrome).

    6. Defilement: Feeling dirty, disgusted, disgusting, tainted, “like spoiled goods,” and in extreme cases, rotten and evil.

    7. Sexual inhibition: Loss of libido, reduced capacity for intimacy, more frequently associated with sexual assault.

    8. Resignation: A state of broken will or despair, often associated with repetitive victimization or prolonged exploitation, with markedly diminished interest in past or future.

    9. Second injury or second wound: Revictimization through participation in the criminal justice, health, mental health, and other systems.

    10. Socioeconomic status downward drift: Reduction of opportunity or life-style, and increased risk of repeat criminal victimization due to psychological, social, and vocational impairment.

    Why am I asking?

    Because it was this concept that has helped me enormously to be able to — intellectually (right, Castor Girl? :-) ) — understand/accept/validate my extreme symptoms that otherwise made no sense to me.

    Do you find it helpful? I was writing about it


    • 6 castorgirl February 23, 2009 at 4:54 pm

      Hi Sam,

      Sorry it took us so long to get back to you – been a rough week :(

      These lists always get us… Some of us love them because it helps us to understand where we are and where we’ve come from. Some of us hate them as they consider that they put another label on us…

      This particular list is both scary (we tick off a few too many of them) and validating (ohh so this is why we do things). You’re right, on the intellectual level we can understand that our past has meant that we respond in this way. But on an intellectual level, we don’t like the use of the word “Victim” in the title – just one of our hang-ups.

      I think that our problem with the word victim is associated with the long standing issues with have with control, authority and self-determination. We had no control growing up. So why would we want to continue with words that reinforce that feeling?

      Issues that you raise in your entry about transference and counter-transference are big ones for us. Boundaries are always an issue when there is abuse, and it’s difficult for the therapist to walk that line between empathy on a professional level and as a human being. Both are needed at some point, but when is each appropriate??

      Thank you for bringing such different perspectives to our attention – we really appreciate the work you’ve done and the thought processes involved…

      Take care

  6. 7 Sam's the most (too much) righteously bold & creative alter February 23, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    I agree with you about the word “Victim” as petrifying the process and making less easy to crawl out of the role.

    It is exactly why I find Frank Ochberg’s emphasis on the process, not the role, illuminating.

    Why I find Frank Ochberg’s concept illuminating?

    Well, his concept helps me to see that something was done to me by someone else because it is called victimization :) as opposed to the self-victimization and other concepts (implicit in many religious and karma concepts, making us feel guilty and keeping us “in line”) reinforcing the self-blame which is actually symptom #2 from the Appendix 2.)

    His concept never makes me feel guilty and thinking it must have been something we did in the first place that caused other people to treated us the way they did.

    • 8 castorgirl February 24, 2009 at 12:47 pm


      I can see what you mean now. Sometimes we see a word and do a knee-jerk reaction to it. We often need to be shown the meaning behind the word before we can accept that it’s there.

      In some respects it’s similar to the use of the word “disorder” in many of the mental health diagnoses – who determined that it was a disorder?? Who determined what is “normal”?? Sorry, getting way off track here…

      The word victim and victimization has so many connotations, but I can see how it could also be seen as validating – I didn’t have any choice in what was done to me in the past, but I have the power to make choices now. So I can understand that being victimized will explain how we react and how we cope. It also means that I don’t have to continue with that, I can choose to move on and heal.

      Hmmm still have to think it all through.

      Thank you…
      Take care

      • 9 Sam's the most (too much) righteously bold & creative alter February 25, 2009 at 2:20 am

        Hi B.

        It’s nice to talk to you because I can see you can teach other parts of your system the difference between the role (“victim”), on one hand, and the process (“victimization”), on the other hand.

        The role doesn’t change in time, but the process does!
        (If it couldn’t change in time, it wouldn’t be called a process, IMTMBO – standing for “In My Too Much Bold an Opinion” :) ).

        Re: “I didn’t have any choice in what was done TO me in the past, but I have the power to make choices now”.

        Yes, I couldn’t put it better myself. :)

      • 10 Sam's the most (too much) righteously bold & creative alter February 25, 2009 at 2:38 am

        Re disorder. Yes, you are right. It shouldn’t be called disorder, but rather a normal response to abnormal circumstances.

        This is exactly what Frank Ochberg calls normalizing principle – click to read what he has to say.

        I have memorized that he was a member of the American Psychiatric Association committee when they were deciding on PTSD criteria and argued for placing the description in the “V Code” section of DSM manual (with other normal reactions) but the practical consequence of placing it in the chapter on disorders is that insurance companies pay their share of the bill! he he

  7. 11 Sam Embracing Samo February 23, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    Hi Castor Girl

    I am sincerely apologizing to you for the opinionated tone (and the un-necessarily bold text above) of my alter.

    Take care

    • 12 castorgirl February 23, 2009 at 11:53 pm

      Hello Sam,

      Thank you for apologising, but there is no need. None of us were offended by the tone or what was said. I’m glad that you all feel safe enough with us that those opinions can be shared.

      We really appreciate the different perspective you bring to the healing process. Sometimes it takes us awhile to process the information into a format that we can digest and reflect on, but we read and listen to what is being said. As we’ve said, we tend to look at things from an intellectual point of view – and quite a clinical one at that. So the concepts which require thinking outside of that take us more out of our comfort zone and take longer to process. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t share those ideas with us, rather we might be about 20 steps behind you in understanding it.

      Take care

  1. 1 My chart « Mybelovedalter’s Blog Trackback on February 25, 2009 at 1:49 am

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