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Child Development

Cognitive Healing From Childhood Abuse

The bedrock of cognition is thought, so what you think is vitally important.

Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock
Source: Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock

Cognitive healing takes an intentional strategy to realign cognitive distortions that were created through childhood abuse. Remember, cognition happens through thought, experiences, and senses. These three elements of cognition can become hijacked by childhood abuse and must be realigned with reality. The bedrock of cognition is thought, so what you think becomes vitally important.

In therapy, there is a concept known as cognitive dissonance. This is an anxiety condition that results when a person tries to hold on to two incompatible thoughts at the same time. For example, a person who grew up with childhood abuse may have a strong belief that people are untrustworthy. However, when that person is around people who are genuinely trustworthy, the evidence does not match the belief, creating dissonance.

The dissonance, in turn, leads to discomfort. Instead of jettisoning the false belief that people are untrustworthy, the person instead may abandon trustworthy people and seek out untrustworthy individuals who match that belief.

One challenge of recovery from childhood abuse lies in this cognitive dissonance between what an abused child comes to believe as true and the truth of the broader world. I believe cognitive healing happens when a person changes and modifies those beliefs derived from an unhealthy, abusive past, and realizes harmony through present-day experiences and updated beliefs:

You are not stupid. Over the years, I've been surprised by how many successful people carry this destructive seed of doubt about their own intellectual abilities. They were told they were stupid or treated as stupid growing up, and even though they may have fought virulently against this perception into adulthood, they are still terrified that this falsehood is true.

You are not in danger. A person who has survived childhood abuse is literally hardwired to expect danger. They have been conditioned to react instinctively to avoid, attempt to avoid, or survive pain. Dangerous situations come with their own rules, which are generally no rules beyond finding a way to escape and survive.

You are not worthless. People do not generally put forth a great effort for items of little or no value. If you believe you are an item of little or no value, you may not put in much effort on your own behalf. You may presuppose that others will not put out much effort on your behalf, either.

You are not unlovable. People love things they value. If you believe you have no value, then you are sure no one could or should love you. And you certainly can find no love for yourself. By considering yourself unlovable, you remove yourself from contention for the attention, affection, and effort of others.

You are not doomed to fail. Ever heard sayings such as, "No pain, no gain," or "No risk, no reward"? If you are convinced that pain will not produce gain, and risk will not produce reward, then why should you undergo pain and risk for nothing? If failure is assured, then why not at least settle for some assurance in an identity of someplace different? To effect change, you must move from where you are to someplace different. And to find the motivation to move, you must believe you can move, and that you are moving to a better place.

You are not destined to stay a victim. Childhood abuse incubates feelings of powerlessness. You may begin to view yourself as constantly fighting against forces that are stronger than you, that are determined to bring you down, to teach you a lesson, to put you in your place. You come to believe that others are against you, God is against you, life is against you.

This is by no means a complete compilation of the negative thoughts that can burrow into a person's mindset through childhood abuse. They are meant as an illustration of how cognition can be impaired through faulty and false beliefs.

To effect change and healing, you must learn to interrogate and reject your thoughts and beliefs, even those you are convinced kept you safe, or at least safer, throughout your childhood and still have value today. Each thought and belief needs to be able to stand on its own, within a healthy, positive mindset and worldview.

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