Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Profound Effects of Abuse

If you have experienced abuse at the hands of a church, or a mother or a father, it is important to understand what may have happened to your heart and mind, and what you may need to do about it. This is the kind of abuse that rocks your world. If you have experienced this abuse from a person or institution where you should have felt love and protection, this is truly the most hurtful type of abuse.

Excessive effort to control other people is a core aspect to abuse. The abuser attempts to exert control over your mind, your emotions and perhaps even your body. This control can make it difficult to take action to break free from the abuser. But it can also make it difficult to take further necessary action for your own healing even after you have escaped from your abuser.

A key mechanism of abuse is secrecy; the abuser hopes to maintain secrecy and keep hidden what took place. The same is true once you have left the abusive situation or relationship. If you keep the abuse hidden, the abuse sustains its effects on your mind, heart and life. You will make decisions unaware of the way your past abuse may be influencing your decisions. You will relate to those close to you in your life unaware of how your past abuse may be hurting you and those close to you. You will treat yourself in unconscious ways that undermine your effectiveness and success and that will ultimately hurt your life. It is hard to believe secrecy could add to and continue to hurt you after the abuse has ended but it just does.

Identifying what you experienced through close examination is hard and painful work. You will likely need the assistance of a trained professional. You will most certainly need the support of a good friend who can be objective and provide unconditional love and support during the process. You would never willingly try to do a surgical procedure on yourself and with abuse recovery; it just doesn’t make sense to “go it alone.”

Abuse early in life has a profound effect on our lives, whether we realize it or not. With unresolved emotions from our early life, we respond in our present relationships in ways that are not appropriate. We have anger, or fear, or sadness all out of proportion to our present life experiences or circumstances. We also have thinking and emotional patterns established early in life from which we interpret and respond to current life events. This is true for every human being, but when significant abuse has occurred in formative years, patterns and responses learned while being abused can be inappropriate, unnecessary and disruptive in your present life. It causes hurt and unnecessary difficulties for you and it causes hurt and conflict with those who are in your life.

If you are married, or are in a close relationship, it is too much to ask of your intimate partner to help you work through your past with only the two of you. You will need their support, but they will not be able to help you do the hard work of recovery. It is asking too much of close loved ones to expect them to be your counselor or to do the difficult healing work with you, or for you.

I remember the day I asked my wife if she felt I could benefit from counseling. She responded with: “I believe you would probably get some benefit from counseling and you would feel a lot better.” Though her words were so gentle, it was hard for me to hear these words from my wife. But they were true words! I began to quietly weep. Her words were probably the understatement of the century, but it was hard for me to feel like I had personal problems in my life I couldn’t fix on my own. Even if the reason I did was because of abuse that was done to me as an innocent child and that I couldn’t protect myself from. It is so hard to seek out help when it seems like you should be able to “buck up” and fix yourself.

There are different motivations for doing psycho-therapy and for determining whether such therapy would be beneficial. Generally speaking, emotional/psychological therapy is for the purpose of either improving your own life, improving your relationship with God, improving your relationship with someone you love or to gain a better understanding of yourself, which can result in improved quality of life. And sometimes it seems critical to being able to get out of bed in the morning and take the next step in your life.

But it is sometimes difficult to determine if therapy is necessary or would be beneficial. If you are having some emotional experiences that are very uncomfortable or out of control – difficulty with anger or anxiety or sadness, or if your relationships seem to indicate there is a problem, this can be a clue you need therapy. Also, if you are emotionally or physically hurting your spouse or your children, or if your friends seem to be having difficulty in their relationships with you in some way, this can indicate your need for therapy. There will usually be some indications or some symptoms within yourself or within your relationships pointing toward your need for positive change. And sometimes you figure it out when you discover that not everyone else feels the way you do and don’t carry around the burdens you do in your soul.

Eventually you will realize the need for therapy because, if there is a need, it will not just disappear; it won’t just magically go away. That’s why it’s not critical to make an immediate decision about whether you need therapy. If it is an important need, the indications will remain, grow in intensity, and become even more troublesome and obvious for you. And sometimes to those closest to you.

It is important to listen to others, as well as your own feelings, to help make a proper determination. If you are making some decisions that are not healthy for your life, for example, substance abuse or, in my opinion, if you have turned away from the Lord, this could also be a red flag for you, regarding your need for professional therapy. Perhaps you have intellectualized aspects of your life and you don’t want to deal with the emotions that lie beneath certain thoughts or decisions. This could also be an indication of a need for professional therapy. These are some things for you to consider and think about.

For example, I lived with a horrific sense of wretchedness; the feeling of being under great affliction, of having no hope; a feeling of despair, agony, anguish and a desperate worthlessness. And I had learned as a very little boy; before I had realized what impact it would make in my life, that work was a place of safety and success for me. I learned to engage myself in what I perceived to be productive activity as a way to suppress my feelings. It worked fabulously to help me through my years of abuse, but it was wreaking havoc in my marriage to go there and forget to come back!

The closer a person is to you in your life the more he or she is going to feel the feelings that you have lurking below the surface or buried deep within. And a person who is intuitive or knows you well will often feel those feelings directed AT them, whether deserved or not! My wife is very sensitive to the feelings of others, which is part of her personality and a big part of why she is such a loving and compassionate person. It is also a big part of what attracted me to her in the first place.

But this wonderful, compassionate, gentle, tender, loving person; my wife; began to get the strong feeling that she wasn’t any good. I am sorry to say, she was getting that feeling from me! She was getting that feeling from the way I was treating her! She did not have that feeling when she met me. But she learned that feeling; she picked it up from me like a deadly poison, like an infectious disease; and it affected her life and she had great personal difficulty with it. Without meaning to I was transferring some of the deadly poison of growing up with a father filled with hate and rage onto my precious wife.

I wanted to stop this dynamic; I wanted to stop having this effect on my wife. Also, I didn’t want to be a parent who mistreated my children or be a parent who was absent from my children’s lives or emotionally unavailable for them. I grew to the point that, with all of my heart and with all of the capability I had, I wanted to learn to tenderly love my wife and to wonderfully love my children. I didn’t want to be a parent who was absent or unable to be present with my children because of my own emotional turmoil or things I was doing to keep myself so busy or so preoccupied that I didn’t have to feel the wretched feelings in me from abuse. These were some of the greater motivations that opened me to therapy work.

I didn’t want to leave the people closest to me with the feeling that they were a bother, while treating people I might meet during the course of a day with the feeling of being appreciated and valued.

That is often how it is with children of abuse. My wife told me, at one point, she felt like she would be better off being one of my customers or one of my vendor company representatives or the gal in the donut shop where we would stop in the morning, because they all seemed to get better treatment from me than she got from me. I know this may sound like the common complaint of a person who lives close to you as they see you treat the grocery store clerk with the utmost of respect. But with those of us who suffered long-term abuse, we have to become aware of when and how we are doing this because these behaviors can be so pervasive in us. And for those of us who have “stuffed” our feelings for years, this can take intentional, purposeful work to be able to even become aware of what we are doing and saying to those close to us.

The truth is, there was a part of me that felt: ‘what difference does it make how somebody feels about how I treat them because I’m a worthless, dirty, filthy pathetic nobody.’ It never occurred to me that I, a person who believed I had no worth, could still confer value and worth on my wife! Or worse, that I could unwittingly confer a lack of value to her if I was still unaware of my actions. But it was true. And I no longer wanted my wife to feel the way she was feeling anymore. Not because of her husband! I didn’t want my wife to feel I was angry at her or irritated with her or disgusted with her or that I didn’t like her.

A profound effect of abuse on the mind and heart is insensitivity. This happens because so much of the energy of the mind is taken up with suppressing the emotions and experiences of abuse, with the result that there is little room left for listening and understanding others. In addition, the abuse often results in a lack of caring, especially toward others who were abused with you. You learn to harden or shut off your mind and heart to the hurt of others because it becomes too overwhelming. You are barely taking care of yourself so how could you be expected to take care of anyone else?

The practical result of this reality is the way others experience you, as a person. The closer the person is to you in your life, the more they experience this insensitivity and this hardness or shutting off of your heart to others hurt. You may hear the words a person is saying, but you are not able to feel the emotion; the pain, urgency, confusion, sadness, despair, frustration, fear; behind their words. Because of this, others do not feel understood. They do not feel valued. They do not feel respected. Abuse affects the nature and quality of all of your relationships.

As a business owner and employer, I had a reputation as ‘Mark the Shark’ among my employees. I had one employee blow up at me one night as we were working together. He told me all about how I didn’t care about my employees or their futures and that I had no regard for them. This truly surprised me and I thought this employee just had it wrong about me. But it threw me for a loop and I did not sleep for the next 48 hours as a result of the hurt and confusion. I was grappling with the truth of the profound effects abuse had left on my life and I was trying to understand what was happening.

One day, while working with a business consultant to learn more about employee selection and management, he suggested the results of a sample test I had taken with him indicated I had low sensitivity to others. My perception at the time was completely different than that of the test results. You see, I had learned from living with my father to always be alert to signs and indications of how he was feeling so I could be ready when a rage would erupt and thereby protect myself. I also learned to be pretty good at anticipating and reading his expectations so I could be safe, not get beaten, and survive in my environment. So my perception was, I was very much in touch with and aware of what was going on around me, and with others. It’s how I survived!

But nothing could have been further from the truth. In my abusive environment I had learned to assess elements and aspects of behavior and conduct. I was not listening and hearing what people’s perceptions were or what their feelings were. I was not connecting with people as human beings! And I did not have a clue about what it was like to live with me. I did not have a clue about the feelings of others. I not only did not know my own feelings, I had no capacity, desire or ability to sit and hear and understand and feel the feelings of others. The concept of abiding – sitting quietly and just being – was as foreign to me as a foreign language!

My wife was the one most hurt by these effects of abuse on my heart. At times, she felt I was cold and insensitive. She felt indifference from me. This treatment caused her to feel she was not good enough. She came to believe that no matter how much she tried to show love to me, she never knew when I would treat her harshly or when she would see a look of irritation on my face. Not knowing what to expect was very difficult for her and it began to affect her in very negative ways. My wife was experiencing some of the things I experienced as a child in that I never knew what to expect from my father. He was a totally unsafe person for me to be around and I had unwittingly become unsafe for my wife to be around. I had learned the behaviors of the abuser though I never wanted this for myself and I probably promised myself every day of my life I would not ever become like him!

Anger is a significant effect of abuse. Eventually the daily reality of life will catch up to the person who has experienced abuse early in life and they will begin to have a problem with anger. Proverbs 22:24-25 speaks to the effects of this when it says “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared.” Well the truth is a child of abuse is a person who has learned the abusers ways and is ensnared.

The abused adult may finally be at a place where it is safe for the anger to come out. And come out it will. The anger may be partly controlled or it may be completely out of control but the effects are much the same. This anger may seem entirely warranted by the victim of abuse for what they had to endure. It seems so incredibly long overdue and so important to finally be able to let out an appropriate response to all that has happened to you at the hands of the abuser. It may “make sense” in terms of fairness and justice. But it is very difficult to live with a person who has this level of anger. It begins to wear on the people who live in the environment after weeks and months and even years of this type of anger. It affects emotional intimacy. To be specific it very effectively shuts it down. So while the person who has experienced abuse desperately needs to let his anger out, he cannot safely do it with family members because they have no means to help the abuse victim sort through the anger. The anger will just explode out of them like an untreated infection.

It is inevitable for a marriage partner to begin to lose feelings of intimacy and love when living with a partner who is angry. In the case of my wife, she needed to protect herself. She never knew when or how the anger was going to surface or be displayed by me. My anger was arbitrary and it was mean. I would lash out or belittle my wife for any reason or no reason. I had learned better, from watching my father, than to ever hit my wife. I was determined and I was not about to hit my wife. But physical violence is only a part of anger. Have you heard the saying: ‘You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy?’ The same is true of being raised in an abusive environment. The abuse doesn’t just magically evaporate. Sorry!

Sudden outbursts, little verbal jabs, angry looks, looks of irritation or disapproval, even disgust, random verbal shortness and meanness; it comes in all ways, shapes and forms, but it comes. It is very difficult to contain within the victim of abuse because there has been so much hurt. But the people we love; our families; should not be the recipient of or the container for our anger! The anger must be focused on the right place or it is abuse and sadly continues the abuse you suffered.

So though I was determined not to abuse my wife, I eventually realized I was indeed abusing her, and doing it without even fully realizing it. I would ignore her, or snap at her in some situations. At other times it was the looks – often the looks of irritation or aggravation or even disgust that would creep onto my face – which were very hurtful and began to take their toll on my wife.

I would also blow up with outbursts of anger at outsiders but I was so verbal and entertaining in the outbursts, my wife would say, that it was not immediately as hurtful. But eventually it all adds up to the same thing. It is not emotionally safe to be around a person who has unresolved anger. The Bible has wisdom in this area. In Proverbs 22:24 it says “do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered.”

I began to realize the angry person in our home was me.

The person who lives with a person with unresolved anger begins to experience anxiety and fear themselves. Not being certain how the anger will come next, or how intense, or how hurtful, the effects of this ever changing and unsafe environment are significant and pervasive. Most of the peace and gentleness and softness within relationships are lost. It is an unacceptable way to live and ultimately it is inexcusable for a person to display anger toward, or around, any person to whom it is not due.

Significant, intense anger comes from hurt and injustice; most likely deep hurt or severe injustice; and the resolution of the anger only comes from facing the hurt and ending the injustice. If you need help to do this, I hope you get help. It is essential for most of us.

If you are unable or unwilling to gain understanding about your abuse, your abuse will negatively influence your life; your thinking, your decisions, your emotions and your relationships. You may even find yourself rejecting Christ and the Bible, if you were abused by a church. This is an understandable response and predictable, if you leave the abuse unaddressed. But the decision to reject Christ or the Bible is a big decision and one I hope you will give careful consideration to or be willing to reconsider!

To decide on a life partner is a big decision under the best of circumstances. If you make (or have made) this decision without examining your abuse and coming to an understanding of your abuse, you may have (or be having) difficulties in your relationship. It may be due to the abuse you experienced and the grip it has on your thinking and your way of being in your relationship. But you can change the rudder of your ship. With help you can begin to see great burdens lifted off your soul and your spirit that you were never meant to carry. And neither were the people closest to you.

You will need to take time to examine your experiences of abuse and identify the truth of what occurred. Without identification, without examination in the light of day, there will be no healing. And without healing, there will be no restoration. Truth is what brings light to your abuse experiences. Identifying what is true will allow restoration to begin.

If you have been abused, there is a tendency to believe that any examination will only bring up pain that has no chance of being alleviated. And to keep it in its safe little underground part of your soul seems best. There is an interesting verse in the Bible that says “there is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Sadly this verse was never more true than for we victims of abuse. It seems like things will go better for us if we bury our pain and do not examine it or see if it is based on cruel lies. But, the truth is the pain and the agony of that abuse will surface. And surface on some of the people you love best. And once you have dealt with your pain and challenged the inevitable lies it took to get you in that place of pain you will begin to experience healing. Day by day healing truly can come.

As you begin the journey toward healing, you may need to read. You may need to interview excellent counselors to understand the methods they will use to help you. You may need to discuss with your spouse that the bringing up of emotions may challenge you and your equilibrium initially. And that you may experience a range of emotions you have worked hard to suppress for years. Consider the abuse and the toll it is taking to be like an infection deep inside you.

If you allow a skilled surgeon to relieve the pressure and release that infection, there will be opportunity for scrubbing and cleansing the infected area, and to bring in antibiotics, bandages, and soothing ointments to make you feel better in the process. And one day you will look at the pink of the growing scar and realize you have made progress. And beyond that you may get to see a scar that has receded in your mind and in your spirit and is simply not part of your everyday life anymore. And you can be just as amazed and blessed as I was that it was possible for this to happen.

In my next blog I will begin talking about how I asked God for help in this healing process. I hope for many of you who have suffered abuse you will allow the Great Physician, Jesus, to help you through your healing. I hope you are able to open your heart to the Lord’s love and allow Him to do the healing work deep within you that He is able and willing to do. He is gentle, and will do it with you as you are ready and at your own pace.

Please get in touch with me if you have questions about how to begin this journey.

If you are experiencing some of the profound effects of abuse I want you to know there is hope . . . hope in the healing.

Mark Phelps

1 comment:

  1. Wow! That is rather intense, like taking something and prying open its surface, and letting its intersecting aspects spill out and unwind. Management is tricky, as it plays out the subjective nature of its agents. Ultimately, we should find ways to countermand that by building up a company enough to deliver and move and run in a certain way outside our own person. That is the markings of a company's competency and excellence, which is always a great way forward as well. Thanks for sharing that! I wish you all the best!

    Barton Wilson @ ISA Registrar