Facing the Pain of Child Abuse

Have self-compassion for your pain.

Posted Feb 15, 2018

“Self-Compassion is approaching ourselves, our inner experience with spaciousness, with the quality of allowing which has a quality of gentleness. Instead of our usual tendency to want to get over something, to fix it, to make it go away, the path of compassion is totally different. Compassion allows.” —Robert Gonzales

123 RF stock photo
Source: 123 RF stock photo

It is painful to come face-to-face with the reality that you were abused as a child—either emotionally, physically or sexually. It is painful to acknowledge that another human being could have treated you that way, especially if that person was someone you loved or admired. It is painful to realize that someone you cared so deeply for could be callous, cruel or selfish. And it is painful to remember how hurt, betrayed, and frightened you felt.

Let’s begin by helping you to understand the difference between “intellectually” recognizing how painful the abuse was and having real sympathy—or what psychologist and author of The Compassionate Mind, Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., refers to as having “self-focused sympathy” for your distress.  

If you were abused as a child, you may have intellectually recognized how difficult life was, but you probably have not been able to have much sympathy for your suffering or felt any kindness toward yourself for having had these experiences. You probably have not been genuinely moved by how painful your childhood was, how frightened you were as you were being abused, or how much pain you felt.

When you have sympathy or self-compassion for yourself, it means you are emotionally open to your suffering—you are genuinely moved by the painful things that you have experienced. This doesn’t mean that you dwell on how bad it was. Instead, it involves feeling kindness toward yourself for having suffered, and developing a compassionate understanding of your pain. 

Many former victims spent so much time holding themselves together, protecting themselves, and forging ahead that they never really had a chance to process the trauma they experienced and the pain they suffered. Having sympathy or self-compassion for yourself is the ability to recognize your pain without minimizing, denying or dissociating from it. It also means that, when opportunities arise, you can work with your pain and share it with others.

The Consequences of Shutting Off Your Emotions

As humans, we have an innate tendency to move away from pain and to instead shut ourselves off from our emotions. But unless we face and process our emotions, we tend to either become a slave to them when they erupt unannounced, or we become walking zombies, completely disconnected from our emotions. 

Other consequences of avoiding your emotions can include:

  • You end up not really knowing yourself. This is one of the most important consequences, since it includes not understanding why you react to situations the way you do and not knowing the difference between what you think you want and what you really need.
  • You lose the good, along with the bad. When you shut down the so-called “negative” feelings like anger, fear, and sadness, you also shut down your ability to experience positive feelings such as joy and love.
  • Your emotions become distorted or displaced. People who attempt to avoid their feelings often end up projecting onto other people (accusing others of being angry, sad, afraid) when it is actually you who is experiencing these feelings or displacing anger (taking anger out on innocent people).
  • It’s exhausting. You can distort and numb your emotions but you can’t eliminate them entirely. It takes a lot of energy to hold our feelings down and the effort can leave you stressed out and drained.
  • It damages your relationships. The more you distance yourself from your feelings the more distant you become from others, as well as yourself. 

Why We Resist Feeling Sadness and Grief 

I understand how difficult it is to allow your feelings surrounding the abuse to come up—especially your feelings of sadness and grief (deep anguish in response to a significant loss). But just as you need to grieve when someone you love dies—whether it is a beloved pet, a close and loyal friend, or a relative—you need to grieve the loss of your innocence, the loss of your love and trust, and perhaps the loss of the image you once had of the person or persons who abused you. You need to feel the pain of what happened to you.

There are very good reasons why we resist expressing our feelings of sadness and grief. Some people fear that if they begin to grieve they will never stop. Others are afraid they will become depressed if they allow themselves to feel their pain. And others sense that they don’t have the emotional strength to endure the pain. Still others fear that allowing themselves to grieve will transport them back in time to childhood and they will be unable to come back to the present. These are all valid fears, so let’s address them one by one.

1. The fear of becoming overwhelmed with pain and grief. There is a reason why so many former victims of childhood abuse resist feeling the pain surrounding the abuse—they sense that there is so much pain that they could easily become overwhelmed by it once they allow themselves to feel it. They sense that because they have held in the pain for so long that once unleashed it will create a flood of emotions that they will not be able to contain again.

There can be some truth to this in the beginning. Once you allow yourself to release your pent up pain, the tears may gush out of you. These waves of sorrow may last for a long time and you may become afraid that you will never stop crying. But as a very wise therapist once told me when I asked her, “How long am I going to cry like this?” you will cry until you have no more tears to cry.

Although it can be scary when you end up crying for a long time, the good news is that your body will take care of you. Your sobs may cause you to cough and even choke momentarily at times—you may even feel like vomiting. But this is just your body’s way of helping you to expel and clear both the physical and emotional reminders of the abuse. Your body will also not allow you to cry to the point where you are endangering yourself. You will either become short of breath and will need to stop to catch your breath, or you will become so exhausted that you fall asleep.

2. The fear of becoming so overwhelmed with grief that you become depressed. Again, this is a rational fear, although you are more likely to become depressed if you do not allow yourself to express your pain and grief. Nevertheless, we don’t want you to get stuck in your sadness and grief to the point that you no longer experience any good in the world.

I will share with you techniques that will help you to move through your sadness instead of getting stuck in it. (Of course, if you feel you are getting stuck in your sadness or grief, please consult a psychotherapist or medical doctor). 

3. The fear that you do not have the emotional strength to endure the pain. You know yourself better than anyone else. You know how fragile you are at any given time. You may not feel strong enough at this moment to face your pain and that is okay. But if your pain and grief come up on their own, organically, consider this: It has been my experience that clients aren’t confronted with the truth about their abuse or the feelings that accompany it until they are ready.

If you have been feeling like crying, your body is telling you that you are sad and that you need to let out the tears. It is one thing to try to force yourself to grieve losses associated with the abuse, but it’s another to hold back the tears once they start flowing spontaneously. You may be a lot stronger than you think. You may only need to consider what you have already survived to be reminded of just how strong you actually are.

4. The fear that you will get stuck in the past. While this is a valid fear, the techniques below will help you learn ways of grounding yourself in the present so that you don’t stay stuck in your past feelings or traumas.

It is usually wise to seek a middle ground between facing your pain and avoiding it. If you feel particularly emotionally fragile one day, that may not be the day to focus on feeling your pain. If, on the other hand, you feel strong and fairly secure on a given day, that might be exactly the time for you to delve into the pain around an abusive experience.

Another way to achieve balance is to allow yourself to face your pain, practice self-compassion and mindfulness, and then rest for a few days until you can build up enough strength to process another piece of the abuse.

Basic Grounding Exercise

This is a basic technique to help you to remain grounded in the present while allowing yourself to grieve. It is especially good to use when you find yourself triggered by a past memory or when you find yourself “leaving your body” or dissociating, which is common for trauma victims.

  • Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed or distracted.
  • Sit up in a chair or on the couch. Put your feet flat on the ground. If you are wearing shoes with heels you will need to take your shoes off so that you can have your feet flat on the ground.
  • With your eyes open, take a few deep breaths. Turn your attention once again to feeling the ground under your feet. Continue your breathing and feeling your feet flat on the ground throughout the exercise.
  • Now, as you continue breathing, clear your eyes and take a look around the room. As you slowly scan the room, notice the colors, shapes, and textures of the objects in the room. If you’d like, scan your eyes around the room moving your neck so you can see a wider view.
  • Bring your focus back to feeling the ground under your feet as you continue to breathe and to notice the different colors, textures, and shapes of the objects in the room.

This grounding exercise will serve several purposes:

  • It will bring your awareness back to your body, which in turn can stop you from being triggered or from dissociating.
  • It will bring you back to the present, to the here and now, again a good thing if you have been triggered and have been catapulted back into the past by a memory or a trigger.
  • Deliberately focusing your attention outside yourself by being visually involved in the world allows your feelings and thoughts concerning the abuse to subside.