|End the cycle|
The Cycle of Abuse
As children, we are abused in various ways by our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, priests, coaches, or other caregivers and authority figures. Sometimes the abuse is overt and instantaneous, like beatings or molestation – but often it is subtle and continuous, like emotional unavailability, shaming, threats, over-control, or neglect. Such experiences often start basically when we are born, and in one form or another they last for decades. All of this cripples us mentally and stunt our emotional and psychological growth.
Then we grow up. At least physically. We look like grownups and we do things “normal grownups should do”: go to school, find a job, find a partner, get married, have children, discuss politics, watch TV, have some drinks, have a credit card, buy lots of external things, etc. You know, “do normal stuff.” (“Normal stuff” that basically signifies distracting from our inner pain, repeating the same unprocessed patterns, and trying to fill the bottomless void of unmet childhood needs inside of us.)
Sadly, on the inside many of us are stuck in various stages of our childhood and feel hurt, extremely confused, lonely, and scared. And if we haven’t looked at our personal history and our present life – especially our inner life – and processed all of this, then we are stuck in those emotionally and psychologically stunted stages of development that are full of confusion, dissociation, and constant anxiety. And since we see people like that all around us, and they “act normal” and are perceived “as normal,” we think that everything’s fine. “It’s confusing, but everyone else looks kind of happy and are accepted, so it must be me – oh well, no time to ponder; go on with my life.”
Since there is SO MUCH trauma (in us and around us) and prohibition to talk about it, it’s very hard to be aware of it, let alone to resolve it. Thus many people – people who have a lot of inner wounds and might not even be aware of them – act “like adults should act” and have children instead of healing their inner wounds. Then they consciously or unconsciously harm the child when his or her actions or emotions trigger their ancient, unresolved trauma.
The trigger brings up inner pain, and the caregiver, instead of dealing with the pain by resolving the underlying trauma, tends to manage the pain by managing the trigger, i.e., the child. They tend to change – to “fix” – the child by using various tactics, and as a result traumatizing him or her.
Having a child is the easiest way to get your unmet childhood love needs met. If that’s the motive – and most of the time the motive is exactly this – it’s completely unfair to the child. Just imagine, you are born, completely helpless, needy and dependent, and it is expected from you to meet you parents’ needs – not vice versa. How messed up is that?
(The fact that explicitly it’s often stated and believed, “We care about the children; the child is the most important thing; I love you [the child] VERY much; etc.” doesn’t change the reality that childhood trauma is everywhere, parents and other authority figures abuse children to a great extent, and child abuse have had existed since the dawn of mankind. Actually, this makes it even more messed up, because it’s hypocritical and confusing to the abused child.)
Because the child is helpless and completely dependent on their caregiver, they have no other choice but to comply with everything. It’s literally vital for the child to have their parent’s approval because his or her survival depends on it. This means that the child will comply with the abuse, adapt for survival, and change into a persona their caregiver wants them to be – as a result abandoning his or her true self by splitting from it (dissociation), since expressing authentic emotions or preferences and accepting reality is vitally dangerous. This happens to the child many times and in many different forms.
Then this child grows up…. (For effect, now go back to the beginning of The Cycle of Abuse.)
Empathy plays a very big role in the cycle of abuse. If you are traumatized and you haven’t started to heal your inner wounds, the chances are that you lack empathy – for yourself, and, by extent, for others. Such person is disconnected from his or her true emotions and lack awareness. There’s no empathy for yourself and no real emotional connection with your personal history and your child-self.
And therefore you feel no empathy for children – both for real children and inner children in grownups. And you lack awareness of what’s really going on in you and around you. Thus it’s not surprising that such person will unconsciously – and sometimes even consciously – hurt children.
How to End the Cycle of Abuse?
The answer is simple, but not easy. The answer is this: try to heal yourself as much as you can. Instead of managing external triggers and trying to change others, work on yourself first. And then you'll be not only more mature and wise as a human being, but also more effective with your activism.
Remember, I started this article by saying that intellectually all this stuff is not that complicated. It can be summarized in five sentences:
1. I’m a small, dependent child, and my parents harm me in many different ways.
2. I grow up physically, but I haven’t fully (or even partially) processed my past, so I’m still emotionally and psychologically wounded; I lack awareness; and because I’ve developed many various defense mechanisms to “bend” reality, I probably don’t have a clear, objective understanding of the world and how it works.
3. I have a child of my own, or I have power over some other child.
4. I deliberately or unwittingly harm him or her in many different ways that are connected to the degree of my unprocessed trauma and my ignorance.
5. This abused child grows up and reproduces the harm I (and other people) have done to him with his own child (or other children) to the degree of his unprocessed trauma and his ignorance.
On an intellectual level it’s pretty clear. You don’t have to be a PhD in psychology to get it. (Sadly, even a lot of PhDs in psychology explicitly deny this.) Deep down we all get it, because we all were children once. And fundamentally we all know what we have experienced and why. However, on an emotional level it can be extremely hard and scary to heal, to get it, and to free from it, because it brings up a lot of painful and very scary emotions and memories. (I plan to write a separate article on reasons why it’s so hard for people to accept that they, as children, were wounded.)
My personal experience (and I have noticed this in many other people too) is that when you start to connect to yourself, feel your true repressed emotions, and heal, then you start to feel more empathy for yourself and others – especially children. And it becomes impossible to hurt others – especially children – because you just feel too much empathy. Also, you don’t have the unconscious need for it anymore, because you’ve processed what has been done to you.
Various activism and similar work can be helpful too – and a lot of it is, especially the work that raises people’s awareness. However, to my experience, often people engage in such activities mostly so that they won’t have to look at their own painful past, confront their unpleasant emotions, and heal. It’s understandable; I’m not trying to condemn it. I’m just saying that I think it’s always useful to be aware of what we are doing, for what purpose, what personal needs we are trying to meet, and if our methods for it are really the most effective.
In my opinion, things like legislation and child protective services fundamentally can’t stop or prevent child abuse. It’s much more complicated than that. But if more people started to heal themselves and become more aware, then child abuse would just diminish and disappear – like slavery or gender inequity did. At some point the general society just became more aware, and people gained moral clarity on a personal level, so the issue disappeared because it was not acceptable and justifiable anymore.
Thus, I think, if we want to end child abuse, we have to accept the logical conclusion that children are human beings too, and do it on a grander scale. And I mean REALLY accept it: intellectually, psychologically, emotionally – and fully. To do so, we have to look at our own painful history and face our personal demons first – or at least do it parallelly with your activism.
Sometimes healing can be very painful (as all true growth is), but it leads to personal prosperity that inevitably spreads interpersonally too. It’s a beautiful and very powerful thing.
Resources on Child Abuse and Childhood Trauma