Anyone who has spent any time reading this blog is well aware that I suffered both emotional and physical abuse at the hands of my narcissistic mother. And many people who write to me express the belief that because the abuse they suffered was not physical, I had it much worse than they did and they, therefore, don’t have a right to feel hurt about the treatment they received. Because, after all, my abuse was worse than theirs.
This is nonsense.
Abuse is abuse, hurt is hurt, pain is pain. The fact that you suffered “only” emotional abuse and are still affected by it decades later is clue enough that your abuse was both severe and long-lasting. There are no scorecards, no measure, no competition when it comes to abuse and yet I get mail after mail from people who minimize and even dismiss their own abuse in the face of mine, which they perceive to be “worse.” Using their logic, however, I would have to dismiss my own in favour of the children who were starved or beaten or neglected to death by their parents because, in comparison to those kids, my childhood was a walk in the park.
But it wasn’t a walk in the park: it was brutal and terrifying and painful, both physically and emotionally. And I won’t invalidate either the severity or the long-lasting effects of the abuse just because someone else had a different kind of abuse than I did. I won’t minimize the long-term effects it had on me, I won’t diminish my own pain simply because another child suffered differently than I did. There were times in my life that I longed for death as a release, times I even courted it, yet someone who was trying to quantify degrees of abuse would likely not validate my feelings since the abuse I suffered was not “as bad” as an abuse that led to a child’s death.
Suppose the abuse I suffered had led me to suicide at the age of nine, the age at which I first began suicidal ideation? Would my death at my own hands have been viewed as evidence of fatal abuse on the part of my mother? Would the fact that I died as a result of the abuse she meted out to me make her culpable? Or would the fact that it was my own hand that brought about my actual demise exonerate her, thereby diminishing the severity of an abusive situation so painful that a nine-year-old was driven to take her own life?
I was terrified of my mother and rightly so. Rather than being motivated by a knowledge of right and wrong or even love for her and wanting to please her, I obeyed my mother out of fear of what she would do to me, no matter how small my infraction. It was from her, in a rather backhanded way, that I learned that all pain is equal for, in her household, all violations were alike: putting a fork in the spoon compartment was no less heinous and deserving of punishment than deliberate defiance of her demands. In fact, to her eyes, they were one and the same as she saw all failures to comply with her wishes to be deliberate and insubordinate in nature.
Pain is pain, particularly when you are a child and you have nothing to measure it against. And when the pain is inflicted by the people you fully expect to love you unfailingly, that pain is coupled with fear and confusion and a deep sense of betrayal. It doesn’t matter if the pain is inflicted physically or emotionally, the pain is the same and it provokes the same response in the victims: fear, confusion, and betrayal. A single incident will render the victim wary but, if there is no repeat, it can eventually fade until it no longer negatively affects the victim’s perception—or expectation—of the perpetrator. But repeated intention infliction of pain? A whole other story.
What we so often overlook is the fact that physical pain deliberately inflicted by a parent is also emotional pain. It hurts to know your mother will deliberately inflict pain on you in the same way as the schoolyard bully, and with no more remorse. The mere concept that the person to whom you should be able to turn to for protection is, in fact, your most frequent abuser is shattering. And, with the logic a child, we reason that because we don’t want to hurt people we love, they must not love us if they will hurt us, a distressing concept for a child to realize. It is the emotional pain that physical abuse provokes that hurts the worst because the stripes on my bum, back and thighs healed within days but the fear and pain in my heart remained for decades.
It is all abuse and it all hurts.
Whether it is verbal or physical or both, it is all pain and it is the emotional component that we carry with us for years—decades—afterwards. We do not remember the feeling of the lash on our bodies but we don’t forgets the words, the disdain, the minimizing, the name calling, the smirks and eye rolls, the sighs and the sarcasm, the yelling and deprecating remarks that cut us to the bone. Those words were carved into our psyches, those negative beliefs about and actions towards us, burned into our brains long after the stinging slap has stopped burning on our cheeks. Emotional abuse is forever, as is the pain it inflicts.
Many people who suffer emotional abuse feel guilty or like they are whining when they complain about the ill treatment they suffered but I am here to tell you that you have no need to feel that way. I don’t care if your NM called that bruising slap a “love tap,” or that she cruelly mocked you for your tears when she verbally abused you. It is in the best interest of the narcissist to minimize what s/he has said or done, so it is up to you to grab onto the truth and hang on to it with both hands—don’t allow her to minimize or dismiss your feelings. You see, it doesn’t matter if that smack was a “love tap” or not: what matters is that you felt hurt. And that is all that matters. Honour the truth of that, your truth about your feelings: nobody feels them but you.
People who, without conscience, abuse people smaller or weaker than themselves are, by definition, bullies. It doesn’t matter if those people are your parents and they rationalize their behaviour as “parenting,” they are still bullying someone smaller and weaker than themselves and not caring about your hurt. That is the most devastating part of being abused by your parents, the fact that you hurt and they are not affected by it. And so it doesn’t matter what means they used to hurt you, what matters is your feelings, your hurt.
Being verbally excoriated is painful, as is being hit with a yardstick or a belt. But can you honestly compare your pain to anyone else’s? You cannot know what another person’s pain feels like, you can only judge its depths from his expressions of pain—weeping or crying out. But how accurate a measure is that? Some of us were abused by people who punished us even more when we made normal and expected sounds when they hurt us, or they ridiculed us and accused us of fakery—I cannot tell you how many times I got accused of “crocodile tears” and “turning on the water works” during an assault—and so we learned to tightly suppress our natural responses, to stuff them, to reveal as little as possible, despite the depth of our pain.
In short, you cannot compare your pain against someone else’s because you simply cannot experience his pain in order to make an accurate comparison. You cannot dismiss your pain at being abused without dismissing mine and the pain of all those other people who suffered at the hands of an insensitive parent. You can only embrace your own hurt and know that whether you were assaulted verbally or physically—or both—you were hurt and feeling that pain and acknowledging the depths of it, its longevity, and its ability to shape your life, is your own truth. Your pain is no more or less valid than any other survivor of abuse, whether it was as blatant as a beating or a verbal assault, or as subtle as a passive aggressive or manipulative martyr game. It is all abusive and it all hurts.
And your pain is just as big and as painful and as valid as anyone else’s.