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Emotional Smothering Is a Type of Abuse

I blog a lot about abuse: how to recognize it and deal with it. Somehow I haven’t written much about one particular type of abuse and that’s called emotional smothering. It begins when parents stifle your wants by trying to make their desires yours and vice versa. They often don’t do this intentionally but, nevertheless, smothering literally takes your breath away. And along with your breath go your rights and power to make your own decisions and take pride in them or suffer the consequences. Children and adults in this situation may become so used to the blatant and subtle ways parents smother them that they fail to realize what they’ve given up until they have no voice left to govern their lives. When this occurs, they may act out in anger at others  or themselves because they feel robbed of making choices. Or they may become depressed that they’re defective...

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It’s Time to Take Trauma Both More and Less Seriously

While reading about trauma’s imprint on our minds and bodies in “Invisible Legacies: The Ubiquity of Trauma” by world renowned physician Gabor Maté (Psychotherapy Networker, Mar/Apr 2023, pp. 53-55), it struck me that clients sometimes make either too little or too much of trauma. By the latter, I mean they think of trauma as so overwhelming they believe they’re powerless to stop it from scarring them for life.  I’ve had clients that have been abandoned as children, abused by parents, or sexually assaulted in adulthood who were surprised when I labelled these events as traumatic. Though I could tell in initial sessions they’d suffered from something (or several somethings) having gone very awry in their lives, they acted as if it nothing had gone wrong. I’ve also treated clients who had a hard time giving up the belief that past trauma had ruined and always would ruin their lives. They felt...

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When You’re the Victim of Sexual Harassment or Assault.

Unfortunately, most women I talk to have been victims of sexual assault or harassment at some point in their lives. I’m sure many men have been as well. These events occur on a continuum from minor to major and can do lasting psychological damage. For survivors of such incidents, it’s important that you don’t simply push them out of memory or take on the shame that you are in any way to blame. How you view what happened to you is part of how you relate to your body. Here are some do’s and don’ts for survivors that also need to be understood by those who are close to them. I speak as someone who has encountered sexual assault in various forms over my life-time—an attempted rape in college, in my 20s narrowly escaping being forced into my apartment building by a man who was trying to assault me, a doctor...

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Why Keep Blaming Yourself for Your Childhood?

If you’re still carrying around some terrible story about being a bad, defective, unworthy person, please take a minute to read this blog. Our culture is big on individuals taking responsibility. Sure, it makes sense that at some point in your life you stop blaming your current problems on your history and become accountable for your actions. But what actually makes us who we are as adults?  No one as a child decides to become an angry drug user. Or a thief. Or an abusee. Or an ignorant person. So much of who we are started before we were born. For example, when you were a fetus in your mother’s womb and kept fidgeting and moving around so much that it prevented her from sleeping night after night. Was that your fault?  What happened was that a particular sperm and egg randomly got together and spawned you. It was an act...

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Watch Out for Breadcrumbing

I’m sure many of you read the title of this article and had no idea what I was talking about. I’d never heard the term “breadcrumbing” either until I read How to Tell if You’re Being Breadcrumbed in a Relationship, Friendship or at Work by Amy Beecham but I certainly recognize the behaviors described. I bet some of you will too. Breadcrumbing is a manipulative technique used by unhealthy (often not nice) people to keep you hooked into them or your relationship with them. It involves giving you just enough love, praise, time, attention, good will to make you happy, but not enough to really satisfy you. In clinical terms, it’s called giving you intermittent reinforcement.  According to Beecham, “‘breadcrumbing’ involves leading someone on, and keeping their hopes up through small and superficial acts of interest. A breadcrumber might be flirtatious, complimentary or seem engaged with you at first, but will...

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Defending Yourself Is Not the Same as Being Abusive

I could swear I’ve blogged about victims of abuse thinking that defending themselves against mistreatment constitutes abuse. So here are my thoughts, perhaps again. My client Judy’s wife, Dee, blows up at the least little thing. She has a whole litany of criticisms about Judy and demands she listen patiently to every last one of them. If Judy tries to leave in the midst of Dee’s tirade, she’s accused of being self-absorbed and ignoring Dee’s needs. Finally, one night when Dee started screaming at Judy the minute she came home from work, Judy yelled back, “Shut the f*** up.”  In our next session, though, rather than be proud of speaking up, Judy felt awful, insisting, “I’m just like Dee. I can’t believe I cursed her out. Shame on me.” A generally soft-spoken person, it’s hard to even imagine Judy cursing, so she clearly had been pushed to the brink. Her retort...

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Trauma Tolerance

Many clients who’ve suffered dysfunctional childhoods either over or under respond to trauma. Easily stressed by typical family and work problems, when there’s major mayhem or abuse in their lives, they either don’t recognize it or act as if nothing’s wrong. The goal is to have a healthy window of tolerance for stress and stressors. Over-reacting to situations only causes more stress. For example, when you need to keep calling repeatedly to get information from a bank or doctor’s office, this is simply how life works. Bureaucracy takes time as well as a toll on us. But if you quickly get frustrated, you can make the situation worse by being verbally abusive or giving up on finding out information that’s crucial to your well-being. Alternately, when you let your Mom or Dad scream at your children for no good reason and make excuses for their abuse, you’re under-reacting which will cause...

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How Being Stuck in the Chaos Cycle Harms You

Many dysregulated eaters were raised in chaotic environments and suffer from the emotional and physical aftermath today—hypervigilance, excessive body tension, substance abuse, high anxiety, control issues, denial, lack of self- or other- trust, panic attacks, poor interpersonal choices, fear of abandonment, indecisiveness, stress-related physical conditions, perfectionism, and difficulty calming down and feeling care-free.  Talking with clients about their experiences growing up in chaos helps them understand what happens in this debilitating cycle. One was raised in an upper-class city family with three siblings. Mom was severely depressed and Dad, though often loving, suffered from alcoholism. My client recalls few occasions when Dad was sober, and Mom wasn’t feeling depressed. Instead, she remembers what she calls chaos: feeling anxious going out because Dad might over-drink and embarrass the family, never knowing if Mom would be together enough to remember to pick her up after soccer practice, fearing walking into their apartment and...

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Still Looking for What You Didn’t Get in Childhood?

I had a middle-aged client decades ago in Boston who grew up smack in the middle of seven siblings. She never could get a word in edgewise and was trying to make up for lost time by talking nonstop as an adult. When she didn’t have the floor, she took it and when she did, she kept it. I understood her intense need to be heard and listened to, but her behavior only pushed others away, leaving her in the same boat as she was in childhood: no one wanted to listen to her, and this made her feel invisible. Here's another example. I have a lovely client who can’t recall a time when she didn’t have suffocating, overwhelming anxiety. Her grandmother and aunts who also suffered from it because it ran rampant through her family, would tell her not to make a big deal of it and that she was...

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What Is Splitting and How It Can Hurt You

Reading an article on maladaptive behaviors due to early abuse, I came across the term splitting. It’s used a great deal when talking about Borderline Personality Disorder, but most folks have never heard of it, which is too bad, because it’s a useful concept. Splitting happens when someone has difficulty integrating aspects of themselves or others. For example, how you’ve felt after a binge—like an entirely bad and disgusting person. In splitting, you forget all the other wonderful qualities you have, all the behaviors that make you valuable and lovable, and see only the negative ones.  Or, you meet a potential romantic partner and only see their best qualities, ignoring that they sometimes treat you poorly. You don’t see them as fully human. This happens with people who are different from us ethnically, religiously, etc. as well. We see us as good and them as bad. Or when you put someone...

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The Legacy of Trauma

Many people think that if they didn’t suffer trauma in childhood or adulthood, they’re trauma free. But it’s interesting to note how many of these people suffer with anxiety, depression, chemical dependency, or are victims or perpetrators of abuse. How trauma becomes intergenerational through our cells and DNA is more complex than I’m able to do justice to (though I’m reading a book on the subject and will soon blog about it). For now, I want to talk about how intergenerational trauma affects people and may be one of the causes of their dysregulated eating. Here are two examples. When Devon’s grandparents who were farmers came over from Ireland, they were dirt poor. With eight children, two of whom who died as toddlers, they could barely scrape together enough money to migrate to the U.S. when Devon’s dad was 11. All the children arrived here malnourished and were put to work...

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Sore or Scar

What’s the difference between a scar and a sore? In my mind, a scar is something that once hurt but is no longer painful, while a sore is something that hurts right now. You view a scar as being about something that happened to you and recognize that it isn’t happening now. A sore is different: it’s an active wound that keeps hurting. It’s helpful to think about events in life as scars or sores in order to distinguish what’s active and really needs our attention and what’s a memory to ignore. Here’s an example. My client Lloyd was the oldest of six children and their unofficial caretaker, what we call the parentified child. Growing up, his mother was on disability due to a heart condition and his father worked two jobs to support the family. Good natured Lloyd tried to do all that was expected of him, but that was...

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It’s Time to Live for What You Fought for in Childhood

Every once in a while a client latches onto a phrase I’ve said because it speaks to them. This happened when I suggested that it’s time for my client Jill to “live for what you fought for.” What I meant was that she’d struggled through an abusive childhood only to live like she’s still stuck on the battlefield.  The truth is that many clients feel and act this way. The war is over, but they can’t seem to climb out of the trenches and delight in freedom, clear skies, and the calm of inner peace. Dr. Jon Connelly, founder of Rapid Resolution Therapy, describes it this way: It’s as if you’re walking forward but always looking over your shoulder. How can you move ahead without looking ahead? How can you leave memories of the past behind if you’re always glancing back at them? Jill, the client referenced above, is a great...

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How to Unstick from Traumatic Bonding

If you’re being abused and having difficulty breaking away from your abuser, you may be experiencing traumatic bonding. A destructive form of attachment that occurs when, in spite of mistreatment, you still want to be with the person hurting you, it may happen with family, friends, or co-workers. According to Wikipedia, “Trauma bonds are emotional bonds with an individual that arise from a recurring, cyclical pattern of abuse perpetuated by intermittent reinforcement through rewards and punishments. The process . . .  is referred to as trauma bonding or traumatic bonding.” Hotline explains the difficulty of breaking free from abusers as recognizing that they “exhibit ‘good’ behaviors too.” That is, they’re not abusive all the time, but may be kind, caring and loving between abusive episodes. Some partners are even described in glowing terms when they’re not being abusive. Here’s the thing: Intermittent reinforcement is what creates the bonding part of trauma bonding,...

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Are You Desensitized to Abuse?

When awful things are going on around you, do you ever feel disconnected from them, as if what’s happening has nothing to do with you? Do friends or family ever try to get you to see that you’re being grossly mistreated and you insist that everything is fine or will be? These are both cases of having become desensitized to your painful emotions.  Desensitization occurs when you suppress (consciously) or repress (unconsciously) feelings of fear, anxiety, hurt or anger which are meant to warn you that something in your life is very wrong. I often blog about the difficulties of feeling too much and being too reactive in situations. Desensitization is the opposite, when you don’t feel enough. For example, a client we’ll call Don, who’s separated from his wife, has two teenage sons who frequently act out, screaming at each other and cursing their parents. Once, son #1 threatened family...

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What People Who Grew Up in (Relatively) Functional Families Know

Have you heard the saying, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you likely don’t even realize all the life skills you lack and the viewpoints that those who were raised in more functional environments have that you don’t. So, here’s what you might not know but need to. You can trust people.       Obviously, you can’t trust everyone for everything. You can’t expect everyone to know how to fly an airplane, cut your hair, or advise you on investments. When we talk about trusting people, we usually mean that we can trust them emotionally: Are they honest, ethical, dependable and reliable; will they validate our feelings, be there for us and take care of us? Not everyone will, but many will try their darndest to do so.      If you grew up with parents who couldn’t (because of their upbringing)...

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Why You Can’t Use the Past to Predict the Future

Here are stories clients tell me by the truckload. “I never had any luck with dating, so I gave up eight years ago,” “I tried intuitive eating when I was younger and couldn’t do it,” or “I haven’t worked since I lost my last job because it was too stressful for me.” What do all these scenarios have in common? Each one uses the past to predict the future. Why do we do this? Although we’re the only animals we know of who have consciousness about our actions, our brains are still built to use past experience to guide current and future behavior. My cat knows that when she gets too near the pool she loves to drink from, she’s going to get a spritz of water in her face as a deterrent because she’s fallen in twice. This is how cat mind teaches itself what to do and not do....

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Healing from Parental Abuse

Here are excerpts from a client’s letter showing her triumph over trauma from a highly abusive father. I hope her growth inspires you to continue on your path to healing. “I finally get it. I get that my father is incapable of loving me, feeling empathy by putting himself in my shoes, caring about my feelings, etc. I see that he is sociopathic and a malignant narcissist and it feels so very painful. I see that I have believed the lie that I am not worthy of being loved as he continues to put others needs over mine. I see that I have believed that I was crazy, wrong, a trouble maker, too sensitive, etc. I see that I have been abused. That my mother was abused and afraid and numb and couldn’t protect me. I see how I have been codependent in my relationships with men and friendships with women...

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Look for Answers to Today’s Problems in Yesterday

“Boy,” said a client, “this childhood stuff really can mess you up!” I couldn’t help but chuckle. In fact, we had a long, shared laugh about the validity of this statement. What’s as true is that you might not realize in which ways and to what degree your upbringing is messing with you. The good news is that it’s never too late to learn. To do this, you must first erase blame from your brain. Your parents may have caused your problems, but they too had childhoods and parents, so it’s useless to point fingers at them. Who else is there, you might wonder, to blame, so you fault yourself for not realizing earlier in life that you’ve been barreling through it ill-equipped. Once you get blame out of your system, you can look objectively at how “this childhood stuff” might have messed with your head and heart. Here are some...

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When A Safety Net Turns Deadly

I haven’t been able to get a phrase out of my head that a client said a few months ago. It went something like this: “. . . and then the safety net turns into a spider’s web.” As a writer, I found the allusion to be brilliant. As a therapist, it was chilling. Sadly, my client was talking about her marriage. It’s common for victims of abuse, especially women, to partner up with abusers in same sex as well as heterosexual relationships. The path starts in childhood when, through no fault of their own, they suffer abuse as children—physical, emotional, sexual or, worse, all three. Parents or other caretakers are emotionally unhealthy and more concerned with meeting their own pathological needs than rearing healthy children.  As children, these individuals have no idea that they are not causing the abuse and, instead, are perfectly normal and whole, while their abuser is...

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