Surviving Child Abuse: Why It Can Cause a Pattern of Avoiding Feelings

A girl sits on cement stairs covering her face.Many people who have survived childhood abuse are very skilled at avoiding their feelings. You might ask why they would do this, but it actually makes a lot of sense. As a helpless child, trapped in an abusive household, subjected to daily or sporadic abuse, the feelings were overwhelmingly painful. You either knew that you would be constantly bombarded with abuse and the resultant flooding of emotions, or that you would be hit with the abuse eventually, when you least expected it, also resulting in a flooding of emotions. Eventually, children in these situations just wanted to escape the emotional pain. So they slowly began to avoid the painful emotions—both consciously and unconsciously.

Unfortunately, in adulthood this practice becomes a habit. When you carry buried emotions from the past, you can end up struggling with depression and/or anxiety and have no idea why. This can continue until you learn to deal with it. If this is a lifetime habit of yours, a licensed therapist can be invaluable in helping you to resolve those old painful memories and the resulting emotions. Sometimes people hold on to old feelings, because those feelings feel familiar; change is scary! To let go can feel terrifying and can sometimes cause individuals to hang onto their feelings, even though they feel miserable in doing so. While exploring these old feelings with a therapist skilled in survivor work, you can learn where the feelings originated and why you can’t seem to let them go. Sometimes it’s simply because you aren’t aware that there’s anything to let go of!

In the beginning, when you felt you were in danger of being abused, you might have felt your heart racing, your breathing might have became shallow, you probably began to sweat and/or get cold chills; a whole host of other sensations might have taken place in your body. On an emotional level, maybe you began to cry, or perhaps you got angry. Maybe you cowered in fear, or hoped that you could persuade your abuser to leave you alone. But definitely, you experienced those physical sensations and reactions—your mind and body took notice and you took action to protect yourself.

Perhaps you ran and hid. Perhaps you covered up a mess you had made so that your parent wouldn’t learn of it and punish you for the incident. Perhaps you learned to blame it on a sibling (and then suffered the resulting guilt when you saw your brother or sister being abused for something which you had actually done). Eventually, though, when you learned as a child living in an abusive environment that you didn’t stand a chance of protecting yourself, you learned to shut off your feelings. You were trying to survive; perhaps figuratively and/or literally. Therefore, when a parent or other adult hurt you verbally, emotionally, physically, and/or sexually, you learned to disconnect from those overwhelming feelings since they were just too scary!

Although many are fearful, as adults, of getting in touch with their feelings, those feelings can actually help you to heal and to grow into a healthier adult. Feelings and emotions can play a positive role in your life, once you learn to understand them and what they are saying to you. You can learn to see your feelings and emotions as a friend, guiding you along in your life’s journey. You can learn to trust your gut feelings and make progress in doing so, along with the help of a skilled therapist who understands the process. Although this is not necessarily a fast process, it is definitely worthwhile. Ironically, when you begin therapy, you often want to continue disconnecting from these scary feelings, since this has served you well in your past. Unfortunately, in adulthood, this coping mechanism no longer works to your advantage and you must learn new ways of coping.

If you were hurt as an infant and/or toddler, you learned to be fearful and mistrustful of others. You may have gotten the message that you were unlovable or that you had to earn love from others. As adults, this can cause many problems in your adult relationships, whether with spouses, partners, co-workers, neighbors, etc. Even if you want to trust and not be fearful, those old habits are hard to get rid of, especially since they served you well for so many years.

When you were being abused as a child, you were being abandoned—whether literally or figuratively. Parents who were not there (physically or emotionally) for their children, leave these children feeling fearful that they are unlovable, and as a result, may be hurt and/or abandoned. The child gets the message that it’s unwise to count on others for getting their needs met, and to, instead, count only upon themselves. This message tends to live on well into one’s adult life, unless one gets proper help. Some adults who have survived child abuse may experience feelings of a need for control or even fall into patterns of abusive relationships.

I encourage you to get help and not allow this pattern to continue in your life. There are many good therapists who can help you to overcome your obstacles, which were created from the past. There’s no need to continue suffering. Help is available, and you truly can experience a happier and healthier life, both emotionally and physically!

© Copyright 2010 by Joyce Thompson. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sandra

    Sandra

    March 12th, 2010 at 10:31 PM

    My husband saw his dad beat his mom on a regular basis from as far back as he can remember. Sometimes in his eyes when we start talking about our childhoods I can see him put up this…hmmm, wall I guess is the word… and he steps behind this as surely as if he’d physically taken a step away from me. You can see the emotional shielding because his eyes dull. This is a man that’s now in his fifties.

    My childhood was uneventful and it hurts to see him withdraw from me emotionally like that, even though he does so unconsciously. That’s my visual cue to drop what we’re talking about, no matter how innocent it seemed to me because I just never know what it’s triggering inside him. He still carries so much pain it breaks my heart but he’s a lot better than he used to be. It’s a long slow road.

    Thank you for a very good article Joyce.

  • skye

    skye

    March 13th, 2010 at 7:00 AM

    avoid and you don’t have to deal with the pain

  • andrew newman

    andrew newman

    March 13th, 2010 at 11:46 AM

    it is just a kind of reaction to a lot of hardship.most children that are subjected to abuse or other kinds of hardships are not able to do anything.but they also need to avoid and escape the pain at the same time,even without physically going away from the source.so this is why,i think,they develop such a system where they are able to avoid their feelings well…because the feelings hurt!

  • barb g

    barb g

    March 14th, 2010 at 9:23 AM

    Avoiding the pain though does not make it go away. It is going to come up sometime and have to be faced and reckoned with.

  • Stacy O'Leary

    Stacy O'Leary

    March 14th, 2010 at 2:34 PM

    I liked this article, especially that it was written from the perspective of the abused child. It is so sad what humans are capable of doing to each other. I can only hope that with more survivors speaking out and more options for healing that we, as a society, find ways to protect all of our children. It is so important.

  • Raymond

    Raymond

    January 5th, 2014 at 3:29 PM

    Sandra. It’s painful to hear this tragic reality of your husband, and well-done for sticking by and being so patient and understanding. Perhaps you could bring yourself, slowly, – to understand that these moments are the keys to resolve and dissolve his old hurt. Easy and gently. With a bit of preparation when these feelings are not present. Gentle conversation, like only you probably can. And it can also bring in and include, the fact that these behaviours he witnessed as a kid, are utterly, completely and totally dispicable and CONDEMNABLE. Loud and clear, as soon as the situation allows. Lucky him, to have you Sandra. A Happier New Year to you both.

  • k

    k

    August 4th, 2014 at 3:57 AM

    I live with wanting to release that feeling of just existing….my head is in shock… i allowed to be re-abused….i re-inacted scenarios…. and i am tired….
    I just want it to go away…

    I really dont recall my childhood…. i have memorys but only what my mother told me…

    Currently i sit here broken….i dont kniw what happened to my life except to say that i have been running from myself forevor….

  • Unicorn Pewds

    Unicorn Pewds

    October 27th, 2015 at 3:07 AM

    I have been sexually molested all my life since I was a kid and, even if I told my mom, sometimes she helped but she’s helpless in the matters of my step dad. Being a victim of sexual molestation since a kid I’ve obviously developed sexual feelings,but only for my age group of course. I’m currently 17 years old. I’ve engaged in sexual relationships with my boyfriend (it was an abusive relationship yet I loved him) and then I eventually broke up with him and them met a new guy and also indluged in sex with him and he left me too tho he was a darling but idk. I feel like I don’t have any desires anymore or anything and I hate having emotions and every time I feel like a break down coming up I just tell myself to man up (even tho I’m a girl). I’m a rape victim too, been raped twice. My mom is of no help, she calls me a slut.. I don’t have any friends and I wear this mask to school and which is why people accept me now. Before that when I had exploited myself everyone backed away from me and I lost it and created an imaginary friend and actually started believing in her existence and I told everyone around in my school idk why (I was in grade 10). I feel mom doesn’t understand me and she’s just a selfish person who can’t leave the bastard step dad and then to top it all off, I started smoking because that gave me mental peace but she’s against me. Its like shes not letting me live, neither are the people in my college. I currently have a crush on this guy and I befriended him but we ended up fighting and I let him go, but I still like him and I’m on my breaking point but I’m avoiding the emotions. I have self harmed a lot of times. Maybe what I’m facing is more than depression… I’ve gone insane and I have no help whatsoever. I don’t need help anyway but if life would work in my favor just for once maybe it would be better..

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