When you first think of the word ‘abuse’ what comes to mind? A shocking or tragic news story or something more personal? Whatever your first thoughts were, it is likely that your first instinct was protective and hence fearful.
Abuse can manifest in many ways: psychological, sexual, emotional, financial, abuse of position or authority, the list goes on. The aim of an abuser, however, is constant, to have power and control over a more vulnerable person. Anyone of us, no matter how ‘strong’ can fall victim to of a form of abuse.
To fully understand the impact of abuse, we start in how we define and engage with the reality of it.
Types of abuse
Defining abuse or ‘naming it’ can be helpful as abuse thrives in secrecy and manipulation. It is often tangled in our lives in such a way as to remain hidden. Thriving in a wounded part of our shadow self, making it hard to understand or even acknowledge its existence.
Whilst we explore the different types of abuse here, it is also important to stress that there is no hierarchy to abuse. Moreover, it is seldom experienced in just one singular form and there is considerable overlap in terms of impact among survivors.
Physical abuse involves any physical contact intended to cause feelings of intimidation, pain, injury or other physical suffering or harm.
Emotional abuse describes behavioural manipulation or aggression designed to cause anguish or humiliation through criticism, degradation or oppression and active withdrawal such as neglect or isolation.
Sexual abuse describes circumstances when a person is manipulated, pressurised or forced into taking part in or witnessing any kind of sexual activity against their will. This includes instances of contact and non-contact sexualised activity.
All types of abuse are an attack on a person’s psyche.
Here are some common effects reported by adults who experienced any type of abuse. There can be many others.
• Shame and Guilt
• Inability to trust
• Difficulties regulating emotions (e.g. anger, anxiety)
• Dissociation and Emotional numbness/Isolating
• Excessive self-reliance or feelings of helplessness
• Distorted perception of reality
• Lack of boundaries (setting or respecting)
• Sexual and emotional intimacy difficulties
• Re-enactments (unconsciously acting out the original trauma)
• Minimalised sense of Self
• Low self-worth/ Poor self-care
Any and all of these effects can lead to harm.
To help cope with an abusive or traumatic situation, our internalised self-belief system may relay powerful, negative messages, which can be self-damaging. Internalised beliefs during childhood are particularly powerful.
Moments of abuse can lead to permanent lasting emotional injury and self-punishment.
Here are some common ‘belief messages’ that are reported by abuse survivors:
Physical Abuse: “I am powerless” “others are all-powerful” “I must fight or hide to survive.”
Emotional Abuse: “I am to blame”, “I need to be punished”, “Others are better than me”, “I need to try harder.” “I am worthless”, “I am helpless” “I can only rely on myself.”
Sexual Abuse, “I am to be used by others”, “I am to blame”, “I led him/her on”, “I don’t deserve” “I have to earn love”.
Counselling therapy can help in challenging these beliefs.
Therapy for current or historic abuse
How can it help?
Whilst there are many survivors of abuse who will not choose or feel the need to enter therapy at any time in their lives if an individual is traumatised or ‘frozen’ by their experience, therapy can offer help.
Let us initially consider a definition of trauma,
‘an event or events that make a person feel emotionally, cognitively, and/or physically overwhelmed. The circumstances of the event commonly include abuse of power, physical injury, betrayal of trust, entrapment, or loss’.
When overwhelmed we are at our most vulnerable and at our lowest point to access any type of self-care or empowerment. It is one thing to be aware that there is external help and support available, but simply finding the inner strength to step into it grasping it can be a daunting one.
Therapy is a safe place to express and process the challenging emotions that may be stopping a victim of abuse from seeking help. A suitable therapist will not judge you for how you respond to abuse.
What is happening will be more complex than may be perceived by those who do not have the appropriate training. While some people may resent their abuser to the point of obsession, others may still care for them. It is easy to shift back and forth along this spectrum. Anger, shame, relief, loss…these are all valid reactions.
Most forms of abuse will drain confidence or sense of self-worth. As explored earlier the internalised beliefs are strong and powerful messages, so re-building a sense of worthiness and safety will likely begin with trusted individuals.
Research shows that a person is at the most risk when they are attempting to leave an abuser. If you are still in an abusive relationship, a therapist may also help you develop a safe plan for leaving and support you when accessing practical help.
Why ‘reopen’ historic abuse feelings in therapy?
As we have explored, one of the main characteristics of an abusive relationship is control, which leads to entrenched self-limiting behaviours. Survivors can often relate problems in wider relationships to their historic abuse. A sad reality is that many of those who have been abused would have been in relationships with their abuser, or the impact of the abuse will impact relationships with significant others.
Any abuse or neglect can have a deep impact throughout life if left unacknowledged and untreated. It is known that abuse suffered years or decades previous can continue to harm the lives of millions of adults today. The ripples of effect can be passed through generations.
Counselling can be a supportive step for survivors, helping to re-identifying with authentic self and explore ways to detach negative self-feelings from the abuser’s behaviour. Through a trusting therapeutic relationship, survivors can re-examine healthy ways of relating and build trust in self and others.
Even if a seemingly unrelated issue with a known ‘coping mechanism’ such as addiction is what brings a survivor to counselling, techniques can help raise awareness. Traumatic memories can be explored safely with the client in control, in the hope they will become less disruptive in the present.
It is important to acknowledge here that often it wasn’t or didn’t feel safe to identify or report abuse at the time of an event, survival is an essential human response.
Every individual has the right to leave the impact of abuse behind, grow as a person and enjoy a happy and fulfilled life. Survivors of abuse can be empowered and supported to do just that. There are proven ways to help.
Find a counsellor to help with abuse
If you decide you would like to seek therapy where do you go?
When choosing a therapist or counsellor it is strongly advised that all clients check if their chosen therapist is a member of a Professional Standards Authority accredited register, such as the NCS. This will ensure that the therapist has received appropriate counselling training and is committed to working to stringent ethical standards.
It is vital that you feel safe and trust in your therapist, look for those who offer details about their training and experience in working with abuse survivors.
Search the NCS register
Follow these steps to guide you through the NCS register:
At our website www.nationalcounsellingsociety.org.
click on the ‘find a counsellor’ tab
enter your chosen geographic location
then refine your search by selecting: Abuse - Emotional, Physical or Sexual
Other mental health support for issues relating to abuse
https://www.counsellingcpd.org/. NCS Online CPD available.
Introductory support for professionals on Working with Adult Survivors of Child Abuse in a Trauma-Informed Way. The purpose of this course is to equip professionals with baseline knowledge about the impacts of child abuse in adulthood and fundamental skills to engage with abuse survivors in a way that is empowering and guards against re-traumatisation. This training has been referenced.