Psychological Effects of Child Abuse
Guilt and low self esteem are both essential consequences of child abuse. They are mindsets that drive the often destructive and counterproductive behaviors displayed by victims, and altering or eliminating them is essential to reversing the psychological effects of child abuse. Let’s examine each.
Guilt is a byproduct of wrongdoing to another, either real or perceived. The elimination of my guilt requires I be forgiven by the offended party and assumes that I feel remorse for my transgression. For example, if I punch my little sister in the nose it is she who holds the power to wipe away my guilt.
During a “discussion” I lose my temper and call my wife a name that offends her. She will likely require that I do some sort of penance for my sin; when in her mind that penance becomes sufficient to make up for my insult she will likely forgive me. When she does so the guilt I’ve been carrying for the last week will disappear.
People forgive people, nations forgive nations, God forgives people and nations; but who forgives the victim of child abuse?
Janet has been consumed by guilt for years, assuming that she must have done something terribly wrong to the person who abused her; otherwise why would he have treated her as cruelly as he did? But she has assumed incorrectly and, consequently, suffered unnecessarily. because
no one has pointed out her error in thinking. This perverse logic can go unquestioned for a lifetime, wreaking emotional havoc on an innocent party.
The lucky victim one day realizes she does not need forgiving for she has done nothing wrong.
Having discovered her error in thinking and this new clarity, she can begin to put her debilitating, unearned guilt behind her. She will cease administering the punishment she thinks she deserves and the pain of self-flagellation will be replaced by the joy of freedom from guilt. The healing has begun.
In “The Six Pillars of Self Esteem” Nathaniel Branden defines self esteem as “The disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness.” The victim of child abuse will be lacking in one or both.
Our feeling as to our self worth is typically a belief, not a fact.
How often have you heard, “Don’t be so hard on yourself?” or something similar. That is one person saying that they hold a belief about you that is different than your belief about you. Who’s right? Both of you, neither of you—it doesn’t matter who’s right, it only matters what each of you believe.
Your beliefs create your reality and beliefs are often wrong.
Take Santa Clause and “the world is flat,” for example. But whether right or wrong, beliefs determine how we act toward something. When you believed in Santa you were anxious to jump on his lap and tell him what you wanted for Christmas (or Hanukah, or Quanza…); but you wouldn’t do that now that you’ve discovered the fraud.
Beliefs like “I can’t do that,” “I’m not good/smart/pretty enough,” and “I don’t deserve that,” spawn behaviors that are congruent with the belief. Girls who believe they aren’t pretty enough do not enter beauty pageants; boys who believe they don’t deserve to succeed do not attempt to succeed. Notice that in each of these cases, as in nearly all cases, the belief becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.
Here are 3 steps for improving low self esteem:
1) Identify the belief.
Ask yourself, “What are my beliefs about myself that make me feel unworthy or unable to cope?” This may take some work but it’s critical that you clearly identify those thoughts you harbor about yourself that are causing your self esteem to suffer.
2) Confirm or discredit the belief.
Is it true? Are you in fact that which you accuse yourself of being? Who told you so? Are they a credible source? Beliefs are supported by “references” much like a table is supported by legs. If the legs are defective the beliefs they support crumble; truth prevails.
3) Make pain/pleasure associations to your belief.
Ask yourself these two questions:
“If I retain this (now discredited but long-held) belief how much more pain will I have to endure?” And then,
“If I accept the evidence that this belief is invalid and let it go, how much pleasure will I experience when it’s gone?”
Appropriate pain/pleasure associations will cause your brain to accept that which benefits you and reject that which does not. You can use this basic tenet of behavioral psychology to make rapid, dramatic changes to your beliefs.
(For a more in-depth discussion on this powerful topic please visit my page on Sigmund Freud’s “Pleasure Principle.”)
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