Q I was abused as a child and now I feel like I can never really get close to anyone. I don’t know if it’s because of the abuse or if it’s just my personality which would be like this anyway. How can I tell? And what can I do about it? I’d like to have some good friends and a long-term relationship but don’t seem to get it right, and people always seem to leave me.
A The part about not knowing if the abuse you suffered has shaped your personality, or if it would have been like this anyway, is a really good question. Sadly it’s one I can’t answer with any certainty. Maybe the closest you can get to finding out would be to look at the personality traits of your parents and whether you have inherited these.
Also find out about any other traumas you had prior to the abuse (you don’t say what kind of abuse it was), and how old you were then. It may not be possible for you to remember these yourself and I hope your parents/care-givers will be able to help (as long as they weren’t your abusers!)
When we have experienced a deep betrayal of trust as well as the shock of being treated so badly then yes, it does affect us, both in a neurological and physiological way. So much depends upon the context [such as how old you were; whether it was a ‘one-off’ event or continual over a period of time; whether you told anyone and were supported; whether ‘justice’ was done – in your eyes; and whether you had to continue to have ongoing contact with the abuser(s) or if you were able to avoid them].
Abusers get away with their appalling, selfish behaviour because of the vulnerability of their ‘victim’ (not that I’m saying you are a victim in a derogatory way). They take advantage of a child’s gullibility, trust and fear. When a child (or an adult) is ‘shocked’ their brain becomes very receptive to whatever is said to them and so they can be more easily conditioned and manipulated.
If your present personality has been shaped by your experience of abuse I would expect that you are overly cautious, see the worst in people until they convince you otherwise, suspect people’s motives, don’t give much of yourself away, don’t get emotionally or physically close – because all of that puts you in a vulnerable position again.
So, I’m sorry I can’t be more specific. This is one of those occasions where I’d say that working with a competent psychotherapist would be more beneficial to you. This would allow you the emotional safety to explore your feelings and behaviours and unearth the underlying causes for them and the needs they serve for you.
The bottom line is that we all need to feel safe before we can ‘show up’ and open up to anyone. More so if we’ve been abused or violated in some way in the past.
Please remember that whatever happened to you was NEVER your fault. Abuser(s) brains aren’t ‘working properly’ and this results in them treating other human beings as they do.
Please work at feel loving self-compassion, empathy and sympathy for the defenceless child you once were – the ‘wounded child’ who still hides away inside you.
You are the only one who can ‘rescue’ them now, and make them feel safe enough again. I know it takes strength and courage to do that but so does sending me this question – so I think you can do it… one step at a time.
Refuse to allow the defective brains of those around you in childhood to continue to affect you today.
Become a thriving and fiesty example of ‘I won’t let you diminish my light’.
What happened to you is a part of your life-story, and it will affect you as would any other childhood trauma, accident or bereavement.
It becomes just a small part of your back-story when you look at it through your adult eyes and you begin to nurture your ‘inner child’ – in a way that probably didn’t happen back then.
Please think carefully about getting one-to-one help but make sure you feel comfortable with whoever you work with – and that it is YOUR choice and not someone assigned to you by an GP or counselling agency (who may have only trainee/volunteer counsellors instead of experienced psychotherapists available).
Start with developing a good relationship with yourself and the rest will follow.
Maxine Harley (MSc Psychotherapy)