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Articles to help you improve quality of life

Words as weapons: the effects of chronic verbal abuse in childhood

If you still go around saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”, it is time you revaluated that belief. As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett explains in her brilliant new book “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain”, exposure to verbal abuse sustained over a long period has other significant harming effects that go beyond low self-esteem. Because the brain regions that process language also control the insides of our bodies, verbal abuse also impacts heart rate, glucose levels and the flow of chemicals that support our immune system. As kind words make us feel loved, calmer, and stronger, aggressive ones have the power to harm our physical health.

Words, then, are tools for regulating human bodies. Other people’s words have a direct effect on your brain activity and your bodily systems, and your words have the same effect on other people. Whether you intend that effect is irrelevant. It’s how we are wired.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, 2020

When abusive individuals use words as weapons to mistreat, manipulate, and control others, their victims also become more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, anger, mood disorders in young adulthood, Immune dysfunction, and more metabolic dysfunction. In view of such facts, the connection between verbal abuse and illnesses of the mind and body should no longer be downplayed or ignored.

Words as weapons the effects of chronic verbal abuse in childhood
Exposure to verbal abuse may harm your physical health

Although the above is of high concern to anyone who works in mental health, what Barrett and other neuroscientists have demonstrated through extensive research on the effects of emotional and verbal abuse does not surprise me. As a trauma counsellor who specialises in childhood/developmental trauma, I have had several clients who grew up in highly dysfunctional family environments who suffer from at least one chronic illness or physical vulnerability like the ones mentioned above. Interestingly, their onset is mostly felt in their late teens and adult years. When our bodies are submitted to chronic stress through our development, the probability of it having a negative effect on our immune, respiratory, digestive, nervous, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems is great.     

It is time our culture stopped normalising verbal abuse, be it in oral or written form. Whether you have witnessed or suffered verbal abuse, be reminded of how toxic it is to everyone involved and take active steps to stop perpetuating it. You can do that autonomously by reassessing your own rigid beliefs about verbal aggression, negative emotions and vulnerability, such as “If I let that get to me, it means I am weak”, and start honouring how you feel with tolerance. Whatever you do, be it getting out of your comfort zone through investing in assertive behaviours or speaking out about abuse, you are actively changing not only your own way of thinking, but that of our collective consciousness.

Reference:

Barrett, L. F. (2020). Seven and a half lessons about the brain. Picador: London, UK

Unattainable validation: when to give up trying to feel seen, felt and heard by your parents

Unattainable validation when to give up trying to feel seen, felt and heard by your parents
Is it time you gave up trying to feel seen, felt and heard by your parents?

Emotional neglect – despite being more commonly experienced than verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse – has painful and lasting effects on one’s development. Greatly misunderstood but ever so present in the narrative of those who grew up in dysfunctional and toxic families, emotional neglect is often a silent but very real self-esteem killer. It is naturally challenging for those who were made to feel like their emotions did not matter to nurture love and respect for themselves. How can one even build a reliable sense of self, when what they experience in their bodies is consistently ignored, denied, and discarded by those whose role is to model (emotional) maturity, congruence, autonomy, and intelligence?

When you grow up in a family culture of emotional neglect, you carry an emptiness that is felt strongly in your body. Emotional emptiness, as a result of failure to connect fully with others, makes one feel heavy, alone and alienated. Some may even feel numb and dissociated, as if they inhabited a body or lived a life that were not theirs. Because we all crave a sense of wholeness to experience happiness, those who suffered emotional neglect are particularly prone to relying on external factors, such as others’ reassurance, approval, and validation to feel good about themselves. Even when their parents are unable to give them what they want, they keep seeking their validation and support in an exhausting and, at times, obsessive fashion.

So how do you know when enough is enough? At what point can you state with confidence that your parents are truly unable or unwilling to validate your suffering?

In Burnout (2019), the Nagoski sisters advise on the following questions to determine a goal’s worth (my comments are in brackets):

What are the benefits of continuing? (Is there a realistic probability of your parents genuinely recognising their neglectful behaviour? How likely are you to feel better in pursuing that recognition?)

What are the benefits of stopping? (What effect would stop chasing your parents’ validation have on your mental/emotional health? How likely are you to feel better as a result of quitting that habit?)

What are the costs of continuing? (What effects feeling unseen and unimportant over and over may be having on your self-esteem? What influence would that continue to have on your self-confidence in relational contexts?)

What are the costs of stopping? (How stopping trying to connect emotionally with your parents may make you feel? How much do you trust your ability to process and accept that loss of connection?)

Even if the idea of not being able to rely on your parents for true emotional support and connection brings up great sadness in the short term, it is worth grieving that loss as an investment for authentic happiness in the long term.  Once you have given up on insisting on fixing dysfunctional and toxic relationships, you will feel freer to focus on more rewarding and satisfying ones.

Reference:

Nagoski, E. & A (2019). Burnout. Solve Your Stress Cycle. Penguin Random House: London, UK  

Why do I feel angry all the time? Understanding anger addiction

Why do I feel angry all the time anger addiction
Anger helps us regulate feelings of vulnerability

Feeling unconditionally loved by our primary caregivers is essential to foster a healthy sense of self-esteem. Unconditional love is experienced when a child feels felt, heard and seen, in ways that meet their most basic developmental needs. Parents who are attuned to their children’s emotions with empathy and without judgement help them nurture a sense of self that is whole, even when experiencing intense negative emotions such as shame, fear and anger. Neglect (including emotional) and abuse sustained throughout childhood, however, lead to developmental trauma and feelings of low self-esteem. As such feelings are easily triggered and not processed functionally with the help of an emotionally conscious and mature other, the developing child is more susceptible to create a dysfunctional relationship with their own emotional, inner world.

Children who are made to feel inadequate for having negative feelings (or any feelings at all) by their abusive and/or (emotionally) neglectful parents and feel powerless and rejected when triggered have little or no access to functional tools for emotional processing. In such cases, they are highly likely to resort to maladaptive coping strategies to deal with their shame, fear of abandonment and other feelings of unlovability to regain some sense of wellbeing. It is logical to want to feel good. It is also human to avoid suffering and try to control it. Problems arise when a given strategy becomes “the only one”, and, especially, when it does more harm than good in the long term. A rare instance of binge eating in front of the television might be okay when it is not one’s exclusive means of tolerating the pain of one’s losses. When that becomes a daily routine to deal with chronic stress, unprocessed grief and feelings of powerlessness and emotional isolation, you got yourself an addiction.

Anger – predominantly experienced as a secondary emotion – helps us regulate feelings of vulnerability. Under its influence we feel respectful, dignified, entitled and righteous. It does so by making us feel energetic, powerful and ready to fight and defend ourselves from whoever or whatever – including feelings – that make us feel small and hurt. In this heightened state of arousal, we experience a high that may become addictive. As the overweight who focus solely on dieting but avoid exploring the deeper, underlying mechanisms that feed their food addiction and, for that reason, struggle to keep a healthy weight – anger addicts remain angry by neglecting the primary emotions that trigger it. Therefore, the reason why you feel angry “all the time” may be centred on fear, reluctance, or difficulty to access the deeper, more painful emotions you have carried from years of (emotional) neglect and/or abuse.

If you identify with the above, I recommend trauma counselling to deal with the effects of complex trauma, such as pent-up anger and anger addiction.

6 Signs of CPTSD

6 Signs of CPTSD
CPTSD makes it difficult to regulate emotions

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder or CPTSD may develop as an effect of complex trauma. Complex trauma results from repeated exposure to adverse events over a prolonged period of time. Adult children of toxic parents and those who were raised in highly dysfunctional environments are, therefore, prone to have experienced childhood abuse and neglect (including emotional) which, in turn, increase their probability of identifying with the following 6 signs of CPTSD:

1- High reactivity and difficulties regulating emotions: unresolved childhood trauma is connected to unprocessed grief, built up anger and deep feelings of loneliness and abandonment depression that require conscious self-soothing efforts. Due to hypervigilance and high arousal levels, however, feelings of anxiety arise quickly and easily, making it harder to understand and manage one’s inner life. Emotions are often felt intensively and without a sense of matching or even belonging to specific context contexts.

2- Changes in consciousness: dissociation, difficulty remembering traumatic events, including the emotions related to it.

3- Negative self-perception: strong negative beliefs about oneself that are felt in the body even when they do not correspond to objective thinking (“I know I am competent/good enough/loveable, but I do not feel that way”). Strong inner critic, tendency to see the world in black and white, impostor syndrome and catastrophising are commonplace.

4- Relationship difficulties: difficulty trusting others and seeing relationships as sources of wellbeing. Natural tendency to gravitate toward abusive/toxic people and codependent and emotionally dependent relationships since they feel familiar and create a false sense of safety.

5- Distorted perception of the abuser: considering the abuser as powerful and able to cause continuous pain, control or even destroy one’s life, even when he or she is much older, physically and mentally weaker and emotionally immature. Tendency to obsess about feeling heard and having emotions and experience validated by the abuser and having recurrent thoughts/fantasies about talking to him or her, explaining things as well as planning revenge, etc.

6- Loss of systems of meanings: feelings of hopelessness and loss of purpose in relation to the world, life, people and spirituality.

Other symptoms may include chest pain, frequent headaches, migraine, armouring, bruxism, gastrointestinal problems, low libido, difficulty enjoying sex, weaker immune system, sleep disorders, flashbacks, avoidant behaviours, suicidal thoughts, higher susceptibility to addictive behaviours and depression.

If you have identified with the above, CPTSD management is possible via a very conscious and proactive attitude that includes a combination of trauma therapy, such as Attachment-Focused EMDR, and dedicated self-care.

Emotional connection through recognition of bodily sensations

Emotional connection through recognition of bodily sensations
Emotions are felt as bodily sensations

You do not have to hold a high coefficient of emotionally intelligence to connect with your body and emotions confidently. To foster the ability to notice what you are feeling, it is helpful to understand how emotions are felt as bodily sensations. Although your intuition is very powerful and no formal study is required to recognise your feelings, some struggle to fully trust it. With the help of some interesting research findings, however, this article may help you perceive emotions as more than abstract concepts, but as concrete bodily experience.

As Hartmann et al (2021)[i] explain in “Valence-Related Bodily Sensation Maps of Emotions”, high arousal emotions, or those triggered by the flight or fight response – such as fear and anger – lead to heaviness in the body. While non-pleasant emotions make us feel heavy, pleasant ones – such as love and happiness – have been connected to sensations of lightness and activation. You will find the areas where lightness and heaviness are felt in the body and the emotions with which they are associated below, in increasing order of heaviness (depression being the “heaviest” emotion, heavier than sadness):

Surprise: lightness in the head, upper chest and arms

Neutral: neither light nor heavy

Love: lightness in the whole body, but more intensely in the face

Happiness: lightness in the whole body, but more intensely in the upper body, especially head and chest areas

Pride: lightness in the head – especially upper face – and upper body

Fear: heaviness in the head, neck, throat and shoulders, upper and lower chest, and belly areas

Disgust: heaviness in the face, mouth, throat, upper and lower chest, and belly

Shame: heaviness in the head, neck, throat and shoulders, upper and lower chest, as well as belly area

Anger: heaviness in the head, neck, throat and shoulders, upper and lower chest, belly and hands

Contempt: heaviness in the head, throat, upper chest and hands

Envy: heaviness in the head, upper and lower chest areas

Anxiety: heaviness in the head, neck, throat and shoulders, upper and lower chest, and belly area

Sadness: heaviness in the whole body, but more intensely in the upper body, especially head and chest areas

Depression: heaviness in the whole body, but more intensely in the upper body, especially head and chest areas

Amongst the practices that facilitate connection with the body and boost awareness of self and others are mindfulness meditation (for a body scan meditation, please click here), yoga, breathing and grounding exercises, as well as therapeutic approaches which are rich in somatic interventions, such as Attachment-Focused EMDR (AF-EMDR).

[i] Hartmann, M., Lenggenhager, B., & Stocker, K. (2021, March 3). Happiness feels light, sadness feels heavy: introducing valence-related bodily sensation maps of emotions. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/d8wvn

Positive beliefs and affirmations to help you overcome codependency

Positive beliefs to help you overcome codependency
Positive beliefs boost autonomy and self-esteem

Codependency is a common effect of both relational and developmental trauma. Adult children of dysfunctional families who did not grow up feeling felt, heard and seen, struggle to connect with a healthy sense of boundaries and self-esteem also later in life. Therefore, they are highly prone to resort to codependent behaviours to feel safe and accepted in relationships. Here is a list of positive beliefs and affirmations to help you overcome codependency:

I am good enough for myself

I am good enough for others

I am loved

I am loveable

I am whole, even when alone

My worth is unconditional

My feelings matter

My needs and wants matter

My opinions matter

I matter

I can tolerate others’ discomfort

I can separate from others’ feelings, needs and wants, and focus on my own

I can handle my own discomfort

I can tolerate negative emotions

I can recognise and validate my feelings

I am emotionally aware

I am self-aware

I have a great connection with my body

I am emotionally autonomous

I am emotionally mature

I am safe in my own body

My body is my best guide

I am aware of the impact others’ have on me

I am much more than my relationships with others

I favour relationships which foster personal growth

I favour relationships with those who respect my feelings, needs and wants

I know how to honour myself through assertive behaviours

It is okay to say no to others

Self-agency is a gift

I am wise

My wellbeing comes first

I can say no and honour my boundaries

I am competent

I love my own company

My time is precious

I am a survivor

I am strong

I accept my vulnerabilities and limitations

I accept others’ vulnerabilities and limitations

I respect others’ needs for autonomy

 Mistakes are sources of wisdom

I am worth of respect

I am worth being treated with kindness

I can tolerate rejection

I can tolerate inadequacy and insecurity

I am brave

Your values, or the views you hold of yourself as an individual and in relationships tell you about the role you play in them. When rigid and filled with negative bias, they feed dysfunction and create a psychological barrier between you and your authentic needs. In order to lead a more satisfying and authentic life, proactively challenge negative thinking patterns and feel free to use the positive beliefs and affirmations listed above as guides to a more functional approach to relationships.