• NUWAY Annual Picnic 2019Hazelden Renewal Center

Healing the Invisible Harm of Emotional Cruelty

healing from emotional cruelty

All my life I’ve felt there’s something terribly wrong with me–something I can’t put into words, something that makes me different from everybody else. People say, “Sheila, you are a good person” but I know they don’t really like me. Sometimes I really hate myself. I know you’ll think this is stupid. For the longest time I thought it was the fact that I was adopted that made me feel this way. One day I looked at an old photo of when I first arrived as an infant. I was stunned to see how my father was holding me while my mother stared out into space looking disheartened. I remember being told how my parents struggled with infertility for so long and eventually settled on me. Later they were jubilant because they finally had a “real child.” Yet my mom and I have never hugged or been close. Later it dawned on me that perhaps she felt like a failure and was simply deferring to dad’s wishes by adopting me. Although my parents didn’t overtly harm me, I wonder if how they felt about adopting me makes me feel the way I do about myself today. At least I have some hope in that idea.

What we can’t see often hurts us more than what we can see. What was invisible to us then only makes us prone to hate ourselves now. Too many of us, like the woman in the story above, were wounded by unseen emotional cruelty in otherwise caring upbringings. To not be wanted is hard to describe and put into words—yet is the worst cruelty of all.

The shadows of our pasts follow us everywhere; we cannot hide from them. Often we blame ourselves for our crippling defects as we cannot fathom how we’ve come to feel the way we do about ourselves. Such experiences may cast a lasting spell of self-criticism so that we become who we were judged to be and not who we might have been. As a result, we may seal ourselves off from love in reaction to past cruelty as we cannot bear to have others see us as we really are—inherently unlovable. We may be strongly reluctant to regard our otherwise loving parents as harmful for fear of discrediting them or creating even more distance from them. Yet, as the woman above also teaches us, seeing the cruelty gives us hope.

For, when we see more clearly what has happened to us, we can imagine that all the bad feelings we have about ourselves may have been unfairly induced in us and aren’t true descriptions of who we really are. In fact, once we see the unseen, we are more free to be who we really are and forgive ourselves for what we are not. It’s never too late to be what we might have been.

Importance of emotional bonding, it’s not the big events or terrible things in childhood that shape our personalities; it’s the way ordinary living and terrible events were handled daily that shape our personalities. Some of us are sane today because our parents have helped us handle bad things that happened to us. Others are hurt today because our parents did not help us handle the ordinary things that happened to us. The emotional relationships we had with our parents and loved ones growing up are the centerpieces of our identities; they shaped our brain development, social adjustments, career achievements, and moral dimensions. When these bonds were safe and nurturing, our whole identities grew. While our genetic endowment gave us our menu of personality traits; what we picked and used from the menu were determined by the emotional bond with our parents and other loved ones. Who we are today is the history of our emotional bonds with our parents plus the roll of our genetic dice, continually modified by our life experiences.

Different types of cruelty

Emotional cruelty is the invisible breaking of safety and trust in the parent/child bond; being harmed by the very people who are supposed to protect us. Emotional cruelty is a pervasive pattern of denied transgressions toward children and is different from the normal limitations and mistakes that all parents make.

Cruelty is not a mistake; it is the continual denial of mistreatment. It often leaves children feeling defective and shameful without them realizing how it was done. It becomes internalized by children as defects in themselves, rather than as harm that has happened to them. Over the long haul, cruelty stunts all aspects of personal growth and becomes encoded in adults in the form of self-defeating behaviors and self-hating attitudes. According to recent national mental health research, about 11 percent of adults identify themselves as survivors of emotional cruelty.

Ultimately, cruelty is something damaged adults can’t help inflicting upon themselves and it results in depression and strained personal relationships. Facial gestures, attitudes towards children, tones of voices, neglectful treatment, over-indulgence, touch deprivation, and other forms of nonverbal communication are the primary ways emotional cruelty is conveyed to children. Examples include emotional disregard of children’s interests, failing to set firm limits on behavior for fear of being disliked, seeing children as extensions of ourselves, unwillingness to protect children from harmful cultural influences, saying we are doing things for their own good when it is really for our own good, preventing children from making mistakes or enduring hardships, being unempathetic to children’s needs or stereotyping children in ways that reflect our own inner shame. We can betray children in an infinite number of ways. All it takes is having a negative frame of mind toward our children, blaming them for it, and denying the viciousness of our thoughts.

Recognizing our woundedness

So how do we recover from emotional cruelty? We do so slowly, by recognizing how we have been hurt and naming it as woundedness. Woundedness is the impression of other people’s harm in ourselves. It is not the same as defectiveness. When we recognize our woundedness we realize that aspects of ourselves may have resulted from things that happened to us externally and are not necessarily permanent pronouncements about ourselves.

When we see our woundedness, we may feel defective and despairing but we are open to other possibilities, including the potential for changing how we see ourselves. Woundedness can be healed; defectiveness cannot.

Identifying woundedness means we are willing to hold others responsible for how we have been treated; when we see ourselves as defective, we only blame ourselves and make excuses for not being fully functioning adults. It takes courage to hold other people responsible for what they have done to us as we hold ourselves countable for our own lives now.

Some signs of woundedness may include

  1. lifelong feelings of unlovability and depressive malaise
  2. persistent self-criticalness
  3. a history of parental rejection, disregard, tyranny, indulgence or exploitation
  4. pervasive shame that has no identifiable source
  5. avoidance of close relationships and chronic unexplainable under achievement
  6. chronically craving love yet sabotaging it when it is found
  7. patterns of being with people who ultimately abuse us
  8. boundary confusion in adult relationships, i.e., “Is it me or is it you?”

Finding hope

Indeed it is no small achievement to acknowledge limitations in ourselves and begin seeing them as intelligent and modifiable responses to past external harm. Such undertakings are only for the brave of heart. We can find hope by entering into empowering relationships with trusted helpers and correcting what was done to us from our pasts. Often in therapy, many of our long-held beliefs about ourselves need to be challenged and reformulated.

Also, many of our customary behavior patterns that keep us apart from others need to be tweaked so that healing can occur. Our self-defeating patterns, when altered, often reveal our enormous pain and anger about being emotionally mistreated. Ultimately, when we connect with sponsors, 12 Step groups, and professional helpers, we re-experience how we were hurt by emotional cruelty from our pasts, we learn new ways to be close to others and we have much different and life-altering outcomes in such loving relationships. We may finally learn that love is not dangerous, but healing.

I can recommend Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child (Basic Books, 1981) and The Truth Will Set You Free: Overcoming Emotional Blindness (Basic Books, 2001) for guidance. With discerning love it’s never too late to be what we’d like to be.


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St.Paul and co-author of “Intimacy Between Men” (Penguin Books, 1990) He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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