The Impact of Emotional Abuse & Emotional Neglect

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A lot of the work I do in my practice is helping others sort through childhood hurts. Often a client is unaware that the emotional abuse or emotional neglect that they experienced in childhood is just that – abuse and neglect. They see themselves as “bad”, “failures”, or what I see so often – have the belief that they are “not good enough”. These ideas can be based on relationships with their parents. They were told directly that they were not good enough, or through the parent’s behaviors they were told indirectly. This could have been through manipulation, comparison to siblings or cousins, overall poor boundaries, parentification, triangulation, and/or putting too much adult responsibility on them. Children of emotional abusive or neglectful parents often feel like they have to protect or make excuses for their parents. I see this sometimes in my practice – where clients defend their parents, or minimize the hurt that they felt. “They did the best they could” is something I might hear.

A story that I heard at a training on trauma (yes, emotional abuse and neglect are traumatic!) plays in my mind at times. The presenter, a therapist working with trauma survivors, told this story about a client who felt the emotional abuse by her mother was much worse than the sexual assault she had experienced as a child. He first described her experience with gang rape. Walking home from school, the young girl (oldest of four), noticed that a group of older boys were following them. She started to feel uneasy and had the suspicion that they were in danger. Crossing through an open field, they followed. No where to hide or sneak away, she told her younger sisters to run home as fast as they could. In order to protect her sisters, she sacrificed her own safety. Though this was a horrific experience, she was able to make sense of it and process the trauma where it no longer deeply impacted her as an adult. Emotional trauma inflicted by her mother was a different matter. She told the therapist, among other memories, about a time when her mother acquired seven fur coats. They didn’t have much money growing up, so it was a huge deal when this happened. The client broke down in tears describing how what happened with these coats was so representative of how her mother treated her. Her mother gave one coat each to her three younger sisters, kept two for herself, and then gave the remaining two away. She said that she would have been alright with there only being enough for her sisters, or if their mother would have sold the other coats for money for the family. But instead of giving her one, the remaining two were just given away. She cried as she spoke to the therapist about never feeling good enough, that she didn’t matter to her mother, and that she never understood why.

I felt myself becoming tearful when I listened to this story at the training. I could really hear and connect with this woman’s pain in the belief that she didn’t matter. I thought of experiences of my own, and experiences of my clients. With or without any sexual or physical abuse, emotional abuse cuts us so deep. Much like the woman from the story, I have heard from clients that the emotional trauma they experienced was far worse than anything physical or sexual that happened to them.

It makes me think – why are we so dismissive of our emotional abuse? Why do we protect and make excuses for our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, or whoever it was that was abusing?

I’d like to share with you an article I have come across on this topic: 10 Huge Misconceptions About Emotional Child Abuse at The Invisible Scar. I refer people to this website who are struggling with trauma issues related to parents and family. They also have a great post about how to cope if you have made the decision to become estranged from your abusive family: Prepare Yourself for Backlash When Going No Contact (Advice for the Adult Child). I see clients try to set boundaries with abusive family with varying degrees of success (unfortunately it is mostly unsuccessful). Total estrangement is sometimes what a person needs in order to heal and breathe from the abusive parent or family. I also like on this website the information on identifying & coping with having a narcissistic parent.

What can you do? Whether the abuse still goes on or has mostly resided in your childhood, whether you still have a relationship with the abused parent or have decided to cut them out of your life, please take good care of yourself! Think of self-care, from the basics of nutrition and sleep to having healthy relationships to treating yourself in some way on a regular basis. It’s possible that you have denied your own wants and needs due to the belief that you don’t matter. It only makes sense that if we believe we are not good enough and don’t matter, there is no need to treat yourself well. Please try to challenge this belief. There is no reason to emotionally abuse or neglect a child, and this includes you! Becoming aware of your own abuse and neglect will be the beginning of your healing. Seek help through therapy if you are not already doing so. Do something today to treat your mind, body, and spirit well.

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Something’s Gotta Give!

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This is something that I am learning in my life currently. I am 34 weeks pregnant, and I am really starting to feel it! The bigger baby and I grow, the more my body tells me to slow down and take more breaks. If you know me at all, then you know this is hard for me! I am usually an energetic, type-A, let’s-get-this-done type of person. Because my mind and my body are in conflict, I often find myself frustrated and unfairly judging myself. I tell myself things like, “you should be doing more”, “too much time was wasted today just sitting around”, and “there must be tons of pregnant women doing much more than you right now”. These are not things I would think or say to anyone else, so why do I judge myself so harshly?

I think often of the DBT skills – especially of radical acceptance, non-judgmental stance, and wise mind. Remember that these skills require on-going practice. They are simply not understood and checked off a list or mastered (though I wish it were that easy!) I must remember to radically accept what I can not control and to let go. My body has changed greatly and I have to make adjustments accordingly. I can’t be on my feet as long, lift as much, or run as many errands. I have to let go when my to-do list isn’t all checked off and we don’t have anything cooked for dinner, or the bathroom is a mess. I have to remind myself to shift into neutral thinking when I start judging. I must say to myself, this is what I accomplished and this is what I didn’t. I will get to (fill in the blank) when I am able to. I have to challenge these beliefs that things must be a certain way. When I feel anxious or frustrated, I must balance those emotions with logic. What are the facts? Oh right – I’m eight months pregnant! Even if I wasn’t, I am human and I deserve a break. I am flawed and there is no such thing as perfection.

What has to give in your life right now? Often we try to take on too much, balance too many obligations. Work might be suffering if you have too much stress in your personal life, or you may be having issues in your intimate relationships if you have too many work or other social obligations. What I see most often unfortunately is that YOU are the one suffering. Everything else might be in balance, but self-care is non-existent.

What do you have to let go of so that you can take a little bit better care of yourself? What would that look like? If you could create more time for yourself, how would you fill it? Try to really challenge yourself to give up something – today and/or in your life currently!

Act The Way I Want to Feel

I recently started re-reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. (subtitle: “Or why I spent a year trying to sing in the morning, clean my closets, fight right, read Aristotle, and generally have more fun”) I forget exactly why I had picked this book up in the first place, but I really enjoyed the author’s story of why and how she tried to become happier. It is a lighter read than some books I may gravitate toward given that I am a trauma-based therapist. However it being lighter doesn’t mean it doesn’t give great points and insights on improving your life.

What does it mean to be happy? How can I have more fun? How can I make my life less complicated? How do my actions contribute to or re-enforce the days that I’m down and mopey?

One of her personal commandments – mantras and reminders of how to live a happier life that I am so loving right now is: act the way I want to feel.

Act the way I want to feel.

My husband will say to me sometimes if I get annoyed, “well you can feel however you want to feel”. This unfortunately for him (sorry babe!) sparks further annoyance. “Why would I want to feel (fill in the blank: angry, sad, annoyed, etc.)?” Of course I don’t want to stay stuck in feeling angry or sad. I want to feel happy, calm, relaxed. So how do I do it? This is becoming a reminder for me in those times to do something to turn it around.

Act the way I want to feel. It reminds me of the DBT skill: opposite to emotion action. Essentially this means: move toward what will help you versus what will hurt you or keep you stuck.

If you feel depressed, what will be the smarter option for getting out of the depressed mood?: A) stay in bed all day and watch dramas on Netflix or B) get up, shower, and go for a walk or call a friend to have lunch.
If you feel angry, what will be the smarter option for calming down?: A) throw things and yell about what is making you angry or B) take a deep breath, walk away, and shift attention away from the thing that has triggered you.

Sounds simple right? Of course I understand it isn’t that simple or else none of us would ever stay in bad moods. The thing that I encourage you to do is practice. Practice trying a better & healthier way. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Push yourself when even though you don’t feel like it, you know doing so will make you feel better. So often I hear people say, “I just didn’t feel like going”, about something like going to the gym or going out with friends (things they know make them feel good). This “I don’t feel like it” thinking traps them into often doing something ineffective, like isolating, emotional eating, drinking, or self-harming in some other way. If you know that going to the gym or going out with friends makes you feel better, then push yourself to try.

Think about what makes you happy, what gets in the way of your happiness, and what contributes to staying in bad moods. Practice acting the way you want to feel!

Self-Imposed Pressure

Dear followers, it has been almost a year since I have written to you. My apologies! Life has been so busy with settling into our new home, preparing for our wedding, and other day to day life stress and adventures! I’ve been thinking a lot about the website & blog lately. I’ve been feeling more inspired to write, create, and connect. I also want to acknowledge that I’ve started to write several times but have hesitated. The reason? Self-doubt.

I talk often to my clients about self-doubt and indecisiveness. In reference to my creativity (including journaling, crafting, and blogging) I have been victim to my own self-imposed pressure. It’s the pressure of perfectionism, something that runs deep for me. There is a picture of me that my husband loves to bring up to describe me. I’m maybe 4 years old, sitting in front of my Little Tykes table with little animals laid out in front of me. What’s funny is how they are lined up – all different animals and little plastic figurines lined up perfectly like little soldiers! Clearly my need to organize and for things to be just so is nothing new!

It can be really hard to let go of that. All I can do is try. There will always be some sort of pressure and potential for self-doubt, if you allow it in. I have wasted so much thought and energy worrying about what other people think at the expense of being my true self. I’m going to continue to work on being the best I can be each day while allowing room for mistakes. I hope that you can continue to work on being kind to yourself. Take risks and make mistakes! It is all opportunity to learn.

Please write me with ideas for topics & what you would like to see more of on this site!

Spotlight on ~ DBT

DBT = Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

This is a type of therapy I became more aware of in 2010 while working at a partial hospitalization program. Since then I have had multiple trainings and have learned as much as I could about it. In my experiences, it has been the most useful and effective type of therapy that I have worked with.

My favorite skills are wise mind and radical acceptance.

Wise mind is the balance of your logic and emotions. Many of the DBT skills are about balance. It is probably unrealistic to expect that we would be completely logical about a situation, and it is probably ineffective to be completely emotional about that same situation. Ideally, we would acknowledge what our emotions are (basic mindfulness practice – checking in and observing our feelings), and then engage the rational part of our brains so that we don’t act out impulsively.

Things to consider for arriving in wise mind: Can you identify the emotion or feeling? Where do you feel it in your body? Can you rate it on a scale of 1-10? Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you are feeling without acting. Then assess what you are thinking. What information do you have – what are the facts? Is it something you have any control over? Are you making assumptions or predicting the future? Understand that your thoughts are not always true. Live without judgment and you can tap into your own wise mind.

Radical acceptance is about acknowledging reality. Acceptance doesn’t mean forgiveness or that we condone or are happy about that reality. It just is an acknowledgment that we most likely have no control. Remember, the only things that we can control of are our thoughts, feelings (though this is often debated,) and behaviors. Everything else is out of our control. The past is out of our control, though we can learn from it; the future is out of our control, though we can try to prepare for it. Finding acceptance can create an important freedom and allow you to live in the moment without judgment.

Check out these resources for more information on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and feel free to comment with any thoughts or questions!

DBT Self-Help
DBT at Get Self-Help
DBT Links at Healing from BPD
Diary Card templates (to track your progress)

Journal Prompt: Think of a recent upsetting situation. How can you use wise mind and radical acceptance to look at it differently?

 

 

Winter Blues

My apologies loyal followers and guests. It has been so long since I have written a new post! I had hoped to start writing more since I moved (back in November), but I haven’t quite figured out my flow yet.

Many of you have mentioned that its been difficult this winter with as much snow as we have had. I can understand. Though I am a person that is content with being at home, I do like to go out as well! With the weather such as it has been it certainly has been difficult to get motivated to go anywhere, or even do things around the house. It’s been really easy to hide under the covers and get sucked into the Netflix queue.

What’ s the winter been like for you? Are you playing in the snow with your kids, getting projects done inside of the house, or do you find yourself doing a lot of eating and sleeping each evening and weekend?

Think about how you could motivate yourself! The new year is a time where we set goals and resolutions. Have you been keeping up with them? Maybe this is an opportunity to check in with yourself about your hopes and dreams – for the future and for today. Can you mindfully live in the present? Can you appreciate your right now?

Some ideas for coping and thriving while we wait for spring:

  • plan a vacation – get away for the weekend soon, or think ahead to the summer
  • make yourself a cup of hot tea and curl up with a book you’ve been wanting to read
  • go out, but stay indoors – check out a concert, movie, or go to a coffee house
  • take an online class, research something new, or go through that pile of paperwork that never seems to get put away
  • check out meetup.com to connect with others and find new hobbies
  • play a board game or get out a deck of cards – with the family or some friends
  • start an indoor project – check out Pinterest for some budget friendly ideas for updating your living space
  • start a blog – what would you want to write about?
  • start your spring cleaning early – you don’t have to wait for spring to have a yard sale, just throw it up on eBay or craigslist

Please comment with any ideas that you might have! Stay warm, and I will talk to you soon πŸ™‚

How Giving Up and Letting Go Are In for 2014

One of my best friends has had a hell of a year – moving out of state, resigning from her job, deaths in the family – just to name a few of the things she is dealing with. One of the ways that she has gotten though it is to say to herself, “I’m going to pick my battles.” It may sound simple, but this statement and what is represents can be so powerful – letting go.

So much of our anxiety has to do with control – wanting to control the things we can’t, feeling out of control (especially when it comes to emotions), ignoring or avoiding the things that we can control, and getting so angry when we can’t make loved ones just do what (we think) they need to do. Imagine that you could stop yourself, evaluate the scenario with a clear head, and realize that it isn’t worth your energy? You can!

Often associated with AA is the serenity prayer, “Higher power, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This prayer/mantra can be such a helpful reminder for anyone struggle with the stress of difficult situations. A quote by mindfulness guru Elisha Goldstein – “It is what it is, when it is”. This so simply ties radical acceptance and mindfulness. Can you work on accepting your reality? You don’t have to agree with it, like it, or understand it. But you can accept that in that reality there is nothing you can do about it. Your only control is over your thoughts, behaviors, feelings, and reactions to everything else.

Just for today, or as a new resolution, try giving up control and letting go. The dishes don’t have to get done before you go to bed. The kids don’t have to get straight As on their report cards. You don’t have to put on make-up every time you leave the house. Think about what brings you joy and what brings you frustration. Re-evaluate what is important in your life. Letting go of the more trivial things can help you to focus your attention on what matters.

Journal prompt: What can I let go of? What is something that bothers me that I have no control over? Where can I shift my attention to instead?

Recommended reading: “Mastering the Art of Quitting“…Β  I have not yet read this book, but recently heard an interview with one of the authors on NPR and was very intrigued!

 

The Gift of Expression

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There is something that I am excited to talk about. It is something that has become a therapeutic tool and a hobby, something I hope to be doing more of now that I have a bigger space to do it in… Art-jouranling! I often get asked, “what is that?”. It’s hard for me to explain in only a few words. One of the best things about it is that it can be so many different things for you. Some other terms you might hear are altered book or mixed media art. You are creating something using various resources – crayons, markers, pen/pencil, paint, glue, glitter, fabric, magazine cut-outs, photographs – just to name a few! You can start off with a book that exists (a textbook or children’s book), start with a blank canvas, or use a journal or sketchbook. One of the most important aspects of this is that for the purposes of therapy and self-care, it is about the PROCESS and not the product. So don’t worry what comes out of it – focus on instead what it felt like to express yourself.

{Check out some beautiful examples of Art-Journaling!}

Starting in January, I will be running an art-journaling group once a month at my office in Turnersville. It will be the second Saturday of the month at 1pm. The cost is $30 which will cover some basic supplies, prompts, socializing, feedback on your process, guided mindfulness, and more! Please contact me for more information if you are interested!

Prompt: How can I take time for myself during this holiday season to feed my creativity? What are some healthy ways that I can express myself? Think about ways you can incorporate journaling, art, and/or crafting into your life that work for you!

Surviving the First of the Holiday Triad

To those of you that celebrate, let me wish you an upcoming Happy Thanksgiving! The hoiidays remind me to live mindfully and to take time to enjoy myself – how about you?

For over a month now, I’ve see Christmas decorations in almost all of the stores I shop at. Since the end of summer, marketers have been pushing you to think about, buy,Β and plan for the holiday season. I went looking for some Halloween decorations (hoping to find them on clearance for next year) toward the end of October, and they were cleared out! Now, the Thanksgiving and fall decorations are long gone even though it isn’t even December.

Take time to slow down and enjoy the holidays, whichever ones you celebrate. Make your holiday your own! I think that too often we feel pressured to live up to the expectations of others, and of the media. Spend time with yourself, with your family & friends. Limit your time with the family that make you crazy. You work hard, don’t torture yourself on your day off! After not celebrating last year after my father’s passing, it is important to me to create new traditions for this year and the years to come. Scott and I will be having a Rocky marathon on Thursday, and dinner for some ofΒ our self-made family on Friday.

As any other time of the year, remember to live mindfully and to set boundaries. Find a balance between living in the moment without judgment, and setting aside time to plan for the future. You will get done everything that needs to get done. And what doesn’t wasn’t meant to be. Sit down, reflect on gratitude, and have a great holiday!

Prompt: What am I thankful for this year? How can I make this a holiday that I will enjoy – how can I balance my needs with the needs of my family?

Ohana (Means Family)

“Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten”. – Lilo & Stitch

I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships lately. Interpersonal problems are often at the focus of my work, what my clients are experiencing. What I am often experiencing in my personal life as well. It affects us all. “No man is an island” is a quote that sometimes comes to mind. Although it may sound lovely at times to exist on that island alone, I believe the quote to be true. Throughout our day we are interacting with other people – our family, friends, strangers, co-workers, managers, customer service representatives, etc. I hear most often about the problems that arise at work and at home.

I’m a big believer that we have become who we are by way of our family of origin. It is not a life sentence. It is not impossible to change who we become. But it makes sense that we would view and react to the world through the influence of who was around us in our formative years – parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, and friends. I see it so often, how much pain and suffering we hold onto from incidents that have occurred and relationships we have formed during our childhood and adolescent years. Often we struggle most with the relationships (or lack of relationships) with our parents. Our parents are supposed to love, support, and care for us. They are supposed to be there no matter what we do, or who we are. At least that’s what our culture tells us. So what happens when they aren’t? What happens when parents or care-givers abuse and/or neglect us as children? What happens when they aren’t there for us as adults?

I’m reminded of something that was said to me a few years ago by a good friend who is also a therapist. She reminded me that you can’t go to the refrigerator and expect to pull out a hot meal. It’s not that the refrigerator has something wrong with it; it’s just not possible. That’s what dealing with people can be like. Especially with our families, we want to be seen and heard. We want to matter. We want love and attention. And we deserve it. But there may be some people in our lives that are never able to give us that hot meal. It’s just not possible. And that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with us. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that something is wrong with them. It just is.

As adults, we can choose who we have in our lives. We can choose the people who get to be in the inner circle. Blood relatives do not get a free pass. If someone is your life is abusive or neglectful, or if someone in your life causes you more pain and suffering than happiness, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the relationships. How close are they? How much of a priority are they to you and you to them? Relationships can not always be completely equal, but if you are feeling exhausted by someone most of the time you are dealing with them then it’s not even close. Surround yourself with people who stimulate you, bring you joy, and feed your soul. Create space and boundaries with the people who do the opposite. Create your own family! One of my favorite movies is one I’ve quoted at the beginning of this post – Lilo & Stitch. Besides Stitch being adorable, it’s a very heartwarming story about how we create our family, and how that doesn’t always fit the stereotypical mold. Watch this movie, especially if you have kids!

Journal prompt: Who is in my inner circle? Am I receiving as much as I am giving? What would my relationships look like if this was true? How would my life be different if all my relationships were reciprocal?

Resources: The Invisible Scar (blog/website regarding family) & Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry (highly recommended reading for dealing with many kinds of difficult people!)