By: Debbie Paizee

Key Points:

  • Childhood abuse does not directly cause problems, and problems occur in the absence of childhood abuse.
  • Such abuse, however, does render a person more vulnerable to a wide range of difficulties.
  • In particular, an abusive history can affect the way we think. It influences the way we view ourselves, our world and our future, and this affects our relationships and the way we feel about ourselves.
  • Traumatic childhood experiences can also stay with a person, so that s/he might suffer from frightening memories in adulthood.
  • Although our memories of childhood are imperfect and sometimes subject to suggestion, they tend to be generally accurate.

Recovery from Childhood Trauma:

  • One can recover from the effects of childhood trauma, but sometimes one has to wait until the time is right to start to make the necessary changes in one’s life.
  • Change can be made in stages: (recollection stage; reworking stage; recovery stage); you can take on the task step by step, getting the pace right for yourself, giving yourself time to adjust.
  • Progress almost always involves “ups” and “downs”, so be prepared for this.
  • Recovery involves significant changes for which you must be prepared.
  • Change itself is stressful and you need to consider whether or not you are ready to deal with the stress, how far you are able to go and whether those you care about can support the changes you plan.
  • Although recovery is liberating and empowering, it can also stir up buried emotions and shocking revelations and you will need to give yourself time to adjust to this.

Preparing for Change:

  • In planning what you hope to achieve, there are 3 points to remember: make your plan realistic, concrete and manageable.
  • If your goals are achievable but ambitious, don’t give up on them but break them down into steps which are manageable.

Building your coping Skills:

  • You will already have some coping skills at your disposal. Monitor them and work out which are helpful in the long term, which are only helpful in the short term and which are actually harmful to you.
  • Plan to expand your coping repertoire so that you can be less reliant on unhelpful strategies.
  • Recognize the importance of social support and, if necessary, begin making plans to improve your social network.

Survivors’ thinking processes:

  • Survivors tend to “detach”, “tune-out” more than the average person (common phenomenon called dissociation)
  • Survivors are much more sensitive to abuse-related triggers (e.g: a violent or cruel passage in a book would have a stronger impact)

Traumatic Memories:

  • Survivors of trauma tend to suffer 2 main types of problem memory: intrusive memories and vivid flashbacks
  • Sometimes, survivors experience traumatic memories in the form of nightmares

Managing Problem Memories:

  • One way of managing problem memories is to avoid the things that trigger them, at least while you are developing the ability to take command of them.
  • You can use grounding strategies (approach based on distraction which aims to help you “switch off” the distressing memory by directing your attention elsewhere – objects that carry positive meaning for you, visual images that are soothing, an affirming phrase, or a physical position in which you feel safe and strong e.g; upright stance, curling position.)-  this requires a great deal of practice.
  • Sometimes the only way of managing the memories is to “face” them, to review in detail what has happened to you and what it meant to you. This allows you to process the memories in a way which will enable you to relegate them to the past.

Improving your Self-image:

Common Beliefs among Survivors of Abuse:

  • “I am bad”
  • “I am helpless”
  • “I am unclean”
  • “I am a misfit”
  • “I am nothing”
  • Others are untrustworthy
  • Others are rejecting
  • The future is hopeless

Common Problems Among Survivors of Abuse:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harming behaviours (cutting, burning oneself; attempting suicide)
  • Social withdrawal, shyness, lack of self-confidence
  • Poor anger management (difficulties with expression/controlling anger)
  • Anxieties or fears
  • Depression, hopelessness and helplessness
  • Guilt and shame
  • Physical problems in the genital region (painful sexual intercourse)

Challenging these Common Beliefs

  • You can improve your self-image by finding pleasurable activities, mixing with people that value you and by learning to nurture and value yourself.
  • It can be easy to forget one’s strengths and positive qualities, so keeping a record of achievements and compliments (however small) can help you keep a positive view of yourself in mind.
  • Very low self-esteem and distress can result in self-injury. There are steps that can be taken to combat this. If you are at risk, it is crucial that you take these steps.

Getting a Balanced Perspective and Recognising Misjudgments:

  • Examples of common misjudgments are: all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophization, overgeneralization, unrealistic expectations, disqualifying the positive, magnification/minimization, jumping to conclusions, emotional reasoning, taking things personally, self-blame or criticism, name-calling (self).
  • We all make misjudgements, but if this happens too frequently, it can cause problems, like unnecessary misery or worry.
  • We can learn to recognise misjudgements and correct them by systematically working through key questions.

e.g: Q1.Upsetting thought  : (just what are my upsetting thoughts or images?)

      Q2. I think like this because: (are there biases in my view of things? Is there evidence to support my thought or image?)

     Q3. However: ( What is the evidence that does support my thought?) At this point start to think about alternative ways of looking at the situation:

  • What is the worst thing that could happen?(address your worst fear).
  • How could I cope if the worst happened? (coping and problem solving skills required).
  • Therefore (I should take specific action – plan well ahead and work out the least risk strategy for you), but remember, taking action means taking risks, and risks can mean disappointment.

So the 2 rules when risk-taking are:

  • Minimize the risk, by planning well ahead and work out the least risk strategy for you.
  • Give yourself credit even when things go wrong, and learn from setbacks.
  • With practice, this process can become second nature.

Understanding Blame:
Many survivors of abuse carry a heavy burden of assumed guilt. Self-blame often represents an old belief system, not easily shifted. Self-blame gives rise to feelings such as: shame, self-loathing, anger towards oneself, guilt, fear, and a deep sense of being “BAD”. These can lead to troubled inter-personal relationships and can be very destructive.

Adjustment to letting go of self-blame takes time;

  • Re-evaluate yourself
  • Use your coping strategies
  • Nurture yourself
  • Turn to support network to help you deal with stress
  • Understand how abuse occurs (and the cycle of abuse)
  • Assign responsibility for the abuse to the abuser
  • Clarify why you were not to blame

Anger: Feeling it and Dealing with it:

  • Cathartic physical activities can help you express the raw feelings of anger which can obstruct being assertive.

These include:

  1. pounding pillows with your fists
  2. playing vigorous sports
  3. tearing up newspapers
  4. screaming in a private place

However, you should always find something soothing to do immediately afterwards   to calm yourself down (listen to music, take a warm bath, try a meditation or relaxation exercise).

Then you can decide whether you want to take your anger further using the following indirect or direct methods.

  • Indirect Expression of Anger: means not having to encounter someone face-to face: This might involve having a ‘conversation’ in your mind with the person who wronged you; role-playing a confrontation; or writing a letter (you don’t have to send it, the important thing is that you have expressed your anger towards a person who merits it.
  • Direct Expression of Anger: This may require planning and preparation. It is important that you think of your safety: don’t risk directly confronting someone who might hurt you. Have a contingency plan ready. Try to focus on your achievements, learn from the experience and give yourself credit for taking on a difficult task. Once you have expressed your anger and directed it away from yourself, or others who don’t deserve it, try to engage in a soothing activity to help you achieve a feeling of calm. Self-soothing is an important part of anger management.

About Forgiveness:
As you work through your abusive experiences and begin to reach a feeling of resolution, you might begin to wonder whether or not you can forgive your abuser(s).

  • Think about the meaning that forgiveness holds for you (it does not have to be an absolute – you can forgive the person, but not the behaviour, or neither).
  • If you decide to forgive your abuser, make sure that this is because you have recognised the abuser’s strengths as well as weaknesses, that you have understood their frailties as well as weaknesses, that you have empathized with the abuser and have decided that you can forgive without demeaning your own position ( not reinforcing your own sense of responsibility or self-blame).
  • Make sure that you are not trying to resolve issues prematurely by “sweeping them under the carpet” through forgiveness,
  • That you are not forgiving because of social or religious pressure.
  • Most important is that you forgive “yourself” for having been abused.
  • You might or might not reach an attitude of forgiveness, but you can still make peace with your past and move on.
  • If you have begun to think about forgiveness, set aside some time so that you can do this properly.
  • Talk with others, write down your thoughts and make sure that you are making a real and personal choice in deciding to forgive or not.

Working through other Key Issues:

Communicating With your Family:

Some of you might have been fortunate enough to grow up in a supportive family and you might have good relationships with family members. Others of you will have suffered abuse within your family and, as an adult, might still have difficulties in dealing with family. Some family members can remain abusive and disrespectful, and if you want to remain in communication with your family, it’s worth spending time learning how you can best deal with these difficult relationships.

It is important to bear in mind that you could be moving towards reconciliation and better relationships, or you could be heading for significant compromise, or you could find yourself preparing to pull away from your family.

If you are going to tackle problem relationships within your family:

  • Begin to monitor your feelings when you are with family members
  • First be able to recognise your vulnerabilities when you are with the family
  • By being able to stand back, by detaching a little, you might be able to take the sting out of the experience
  • However, if this is not sufficient, you will need to think of ways of communicating your distress and asserting your needs so that you can maintain your integrity within your family
  • This can begin with your establishing some ground rules
  • Start by listing your needs
  • Then look back over your list and think what you can do to make sure that your needs are met
  • These points will form your ground rules for dealing with the family
  • Assertiveness means communicating your needs in a way which is not aggressive, nor passive, nor manipulative
  • If you respect yourself, while respecting others, then you are being assertive – this is a crucial balance
  • Being assertive does not have to involve a face-to-face interaction
  • You can be assertive in a letter, on a phone or through a third party

In being assertive you need to work through 4 steps:

    • Decide what you want or need
    • Decide what is reasonable or fair
    • Generate a reasonable proposal – which may represent a compromise
    • State the consequences of your proposal not being properly considered

Managing Opposition and Manipulation:

Family members are often very good at undermining the efforts of the person who challenges the family stability, so be prepared for opposition and manipulation (don’t accept it though).

  • Stand your ground and if you choose to, repeat your assertive statement
  • Stay calm (so use your stress coping mechanisms)
  • Alternatively, you can accept that the other person is being manipulative and unfair and simply walk away with the knowledge that you have been reasonable.
  • Remember, the goal in asserting your needs with your family (or anyone else) is to address a situation without undermining yourself or others. The goal is not to “win”: winning is a bonus

It is important to remember that taking steps to change relationships with family members involves a lot of courage. Do this at your own pace and make sure to ask for support from others that you trust.

Avoiding Intimacy in Relationships after Abuse

It is natural to protect oneself from being hurt by others, and avoiding intimacy might seem like a way of achieving this. Unfortunately, this causes its own problems, such as loneliness and isolation. Those with good social support networks are less likely to suffer emotional problems, according to research, so it’s worth taking steps to increase your social circle and foster close relationships.

  • The first step is understanding more about your difficulties with intimacy
  • When you feel ready, start to monitor and analyze the obstacles that you come up against when you have the opportunity to get closer to someone
  • The aim here is to keep a record of your thoughts and reactions when you find yourself pulling away from a friend or ending a relationship
  • Sometimes you will realize that you are doing the right thing in withdrawing
  • But sometimes you might identify negative biases in your thinking and reactions based on fear and misconceptions. In this case you are probably not doing what is best for you, and so you need to give it some more thought.
  • Challenge misconceptions and rectify them
  • When you have reviewed your thoughts, you can work out what course of action would be in your best interest, for example:
    1. Take the risk and work on the relationship (give it a chance), knowing that you could always get out of it later.
    2. Focus on the positive things in the relationship/friendship and remind yourself how good it is for you if it is.
    3. Always be wary when giving others another chance.
    4. Perhaps, give the relationship more time and discover how you really feel.
    5. Watch what others do and try to get some ideas, or read a book on social skills to improve yours.
    6. Know this will take time, so take things slowly.
  • Lacking social skills and confidence presents a significant obstacle to developing any relationship.
  • By building your confidence in social situations, and learning to make conversation, you will be much more able to get closer to others.
  • Your assertiveness skills are already part of your social skills repertoire (helps you to draw boundaries/say ‘no’).
  • Observe those you know are socially skilled.
  • Hold eye-contact with others, smile readily, give compliments (not too much), use the person’s name.
  • You will be able to copy many of the social behaviours that you see in others and build up your repertoire this way.
  • If you realize that you are socially anxious, then you can use the technique of recognizing your anxious thoughts, analyzing them and, where relevant, challenging them (managing anger, and being assertive) or changing your perspective when appropriate.

The Problem of being Over-intimate

Problems can arise for those who become over-intimate too easily. Trusting too much can present as many problems as trusting too little: for example, we make ourselves very vulnerable to exploitation and betrayal if we trust before we have good reason for doing so.

Trust isn’t an “all-or-nothing” thing. Although it is basic to healthy relationships, it can be given in degrees and we can change our minds about the degree to which we trust a person. It is wise not to trust or to mistrust completely; unless you have good evidence for doing so.


Trust takes time. It is very rare that one person will trust another immediately unless there is an overwhelmingly powerful reason, such as life or death situations. More usually trust is built over time, with repeated testing in different circumstances.

How is trust built between people?
First, trust comes from knowing yourself. Unless you know yourself, your boundaries, goals and values, you may trust too soon, because you want to believe the other person. Or you may trust too readily because you ask for too little from the other person for them to be trustworthy. In these cases, you may be exploited.

On the other hand, you may have very high standards and demand impossible feats before you trust anyone. In this case, you may become lonely and emotionally isolated.

We often say that trust has to be ‘earned’. However, trust is not a matter of accounting – adding up a person’s positives and subtracting their negatives to see if the equation balances. Trust is more flexible – it is not an all-or-nothing quality. It is more useful to consider how far you trust a person and in what context.

We usually judge trust by 2 criteria :

  • Sincerity, or subjective truthfulness. We have to judge this by a person’s behaviour. Are they sincere? Do they follow through on their promises? Are their words and actions consistent with each other?
  • Competence. A person may be sincere, but are they capable of carrying out what they promise?

Acknowledgement of Resource & Recommended Reading
Kennerley, H (2000). Overcoming Childhood Trauma, A Self-Help Guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques. Robinson Publishing, London.