Sunday, August 31, 2014

Good intentions as mental abuse (revised 12/12/2016)

My counseling center’s diagnostic assessment form includes, as one would expect, the abuse and neglect question.  I ask, Do you know or suspect that you may have been a victim of physical, sexual or mental abuse?  Though many people, even today, convince themselves that spankings or even whippings are not abuse, and many more are not familiar with the concept of “emotional incest,”* the most ingenuous denials follow the mental abuse option.  I help new clients understand mental injury, in part by explaining shaming.  But I want them to know a lot more.

Did anyone in a caregiving position ever hurt your feelings?  Were you compared unfavorably to a sibling or another person?  Were you held to a gold standard of performance, achievement or productivity?  I could ask even more questions targeting insidious effects in the child’s psyche: Was your mother depressed or anxious?  Was there empathy; were you visible or audible to your parents?  And sub-issues: Were they pampering, which is neglect?  Was mother self-sacrificial?  Were they immature, Borderline, crazymaking, narcissistic?  What was the atmosphere of home: warm, repressed, empty, fake-happy or otherwise insincere, skewed or schismatic,** tense, alienated, angry, enmeshed?

It is terribly easy to hurt the undefended heart, to confuse the undeluded mind of a child.  Anything said or withheld that damages the crystallizing of self-esteem or sells bogus reason may be considered harmful.  This includes failure to hear your child or to give “positive parental identity messages.***”  This includes feeding him ideas you like but which are not verifiable by his own lights, such as your moral truths, your global attitudes, your religious certainties.

I believe that standards are a kind of mental abuse that can kill childhood, and instantly.  Standards – a bar over the child’s head, a blood supply his heart can’t reach – take airy substances – love and intelligent spirit – and replace them with fear and opaque thought.  They create a different life form.  I love tossing a ball around with my friends, but is my form right?  I love learning things, but am I getting A’s, am I superior?  It’s fun to be silly, but is it unbecoming behavior?  I want to help dad, but he says my efforts are inadequate.  I feel spontaneously, but I now must think about that, I must think before that.  Once conferred fear and thought pollinate the child’s spirit, he is never himself again.  He becomes an anticipatory person; he becomes a concept of a self, a high bar through his head that he cannot reach.

He becomes you, father, grafted inside, now pleasing or appeasing two people or none for the rest of his life.

Client described how his wife’s determination to end their marriage has left him with no purpose.  He is a man, he said, who lives by goals and purposes, and now he has nothing but a void.  All of his goals and purposes, he said, concerned his wife and family: making her happy; providing for the family’s welfare.  He has been, in profound ways, a selfless individual.  At work, he is ‘take-charge,’ can run things.  At home, his wife – by her own extreme need for control and by his complete acquiescence – is the determiner.  She chastised him for taking some leftover food from the freezer which no one had claimed.  He offered to wash the dishes, she peremptorily told him to leave it: She will do it later.  He has ‘disappeared’ himself to her consistently, following the dynamic that can infuriate a spouse: If she were to ask him what he wanted to do, he’d reply: ‘I don’t care, dear – whatever you want to do.’  Therapeutic intervention addressed client’s admitted inability to live in the moment, to feel a natural value, as he is driven only by beliefs and ‘goals.’  He talked a little about his childhood, where he had no friends, no fun, always associated with the older family members and therefore became ‘mature’ early.  We looked at the negative aspect of ‘standards’ which can ‘kill childhood’ as they supplant the natural, spontaneous enjoyment of things: The child must now have a high bar in mind and a struggle to reach it.  Client, now in his unwelcome loneliness (by his wife’s command, neither their children nor their respective families have been told about the break-up), may need to ‘find himself,’ learn what it is to feel something with no purpose but to experience or enjoy it.  Take a walk, sit at the coffee shop and look around, smell the roses.  I did ask him to consider reaching out to his family, letting the chips fall where they may.

Mental abuse as a subject to be defined, perpetrated and lived is crazymaking in its complexity, in its obscurity.  What interferes with the inviolacy of the child’s thinking and feeling and worth?  Shaming, valuing (“I’m so proud of you!” versus “You must be proud of yourself!”), father’s narcissism, mother’s depression and worrying, teacher’s insufficient patience, birth trauma, a parent who soothes:

Mommy, mommy . . . the teacher was unfair to me today.

Now dear, the teacher was only trying to do his best.

Vereshack says, “This failure of empathy can leave, in the end, as much pain and disability as actual physical harm,” and “This lack of allowing the child to explore its feelings, when they occur, tens of thousands of times across the growing years, seriously disables the supple processes of the young mind.”**** 

Forcing or even inspiring standards of performance in a child causes a remove – a quiet remove – from the love of being and doing to self-manipulation.  Alice Miller describes the difference between love received and approval (the parent's standard):

. . . it is impossible for the grandiose person to cut the tragic link between admiration and love.  He seeks insatiably for admiration, of which he never gets enough because admiration is not the same thing as love.  It is only a substitute gratification of the primary needs for respect, understanding, and being taken seriously – needs that have remained unconscious since early childhood.  Often a whole life is devoted to this substitute.  As long as the true need is not felt and understood, the struggle for the symbol of love will continue.  It is for this very reason that an aging, world-famous photographer who had received many international awards could say to an interviewer, “I’ve never felt what I have done was good enough.”  And he does not question why he has felt this way.  Apparently, it has never occurred to him that the depression he reports could be related to his fusion with the demands of his parents.*****
Certainly there must be such things as healthy guidance, encouragement and inspiration. I think their essence is the parents loving and happy feeling shown the child, rather than an injunction to achieve or do your best. A happy, loved kid will enjoy doing things best be damned.

- - - - - - - - - - -

* Dr. Patricia Love, The Emotional Incest Syndrome – What to do when a parent’s love rules your life, Bantam Books, 1990.

** Terms from pre-biopsychiatric era schizophrenia studies, in which parents were understood to be the cause of their child’s psychosis.  See:, and the work of Theodore Lidz.

*** Term from Levenkron, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, Warner Books, 1991.

**** Vereshack’s online primal-related psychotherapy book (quoted several times in this blog): (from Chapter 2).

***** Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child, pp. 35-36.  Basic Books, 1997.  (Also quoted in earlier posts.)


  1. This is a well written, concise summary of childhood non-physical abuse issues, one that will make explaining my past easier in the future. Thank you.

  2. Is there any wonder the world (we see) is the way it is? Millions of False Selves dealing with millions of False Selves. And this psychological abuse can be in a seemingly otherwise conventional, "normal" family setting! What of the children of war-torn Syria? Yemen? The sweatshops of India and the Far East? Seeds of the future! It is my opinion that the world should stop when a child is born. (OK a little tongue in cheek, but you know what I mean?). Yes it seems like the child, once he/she "gets over" the hope that they will be "seen" for who they are, and in this very moment, goes in for second-best, for instance, as above, substituting admiration for any chance of having his/her soul validated from outside. Just another little loss of self, a reason to live inside, not outside.


Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.