A good book explaining parental abuse and a child's view of one self?
August 31, 2010 1:17 PM   Subscribe

I need help UNDERSTANDING something. How does one emotional and physical abuse as a child contribute to one's basic feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem? Any specific book recommendations on the subject?

I am doing some amazing work with a therapist. And she is helping me change in remarkable ways. I was abused physically and emotionally as a child. But, I continue to NOT see the connection between my abuse as a child and my negative view of myself.

My therapist recommending read books about abuse and how it effects a persons learning of one self.

Can anyone recommend a good book on this, so I can understand the LEARNED nature of this?
posted by learninguntilidie to Human Relations (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I hesitate to respond because you seem to be looking for a book.

If this helps, though . . . I worked with more abused children than I care to remember. One reason that experience can be so devastating is that children, in particular, tend to see themselves as responsible for their environment. Children do believe, for example, that if they wish on a star something will happen, that if they step on a crack something bad might happen to their mom's back, etc. It is incredibly common for children to feel, too, that if their parents' relationship is bad or ends that they were bad children and therefore caused the problems.

It is also not uncommon for abusers to reinforce this natural tendency children have to take responsibility for what is not their fault. Abusers often tell children that they are being treated this way because they are bad or deserve it or invited it.

This isn't unique to children: adult abuse victims also tend to blame themselves. Self blame is a classic way for someone who has been traumatized to try to take control of the trauma. The calculus is usually -- if I hadn't done x, this bad thing would not have happened to me. (And therefore if I don't do x again, I'll be safe.)

But the self blaming is much worse, in my experience, for kids, because kids see themselves as the pivots on which the world turns anyway.

I am sorry if this is not what you were looking for, and even sorrier about what happened to you. For which, of course, you in reality have no responsibility at all. And congratulations on all your good work on healing.
posted by bearwife at 1:29 PM on August 31, 2010 [8 favorites]

I don't have a book recommendation, but do you agree that you have a negative view of yourself? It can be correlated with childhood abuse, but doesn't have to be.

Also, you can work on creating a positive view of yourself without understanding any exact mechanisms for how the negative view developed. Insight and aha moments are dramatically life-altering in depictions of psychotherapy -- but in real life, they don't always change things for your present realities and relationships.

The short answer, of course, is that being treated like a piece of crap can make you feel like a piece of crap.
posted by vitabellosi at 1:31 PM on August 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

I found the book Trauma and Recovery to be an excellent but accessible clinical overview of how stuff like this plays out in people's lives.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:34 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your parents are the ones who introduce and explain the world to you. You understand what green is, and that it's the color of the grass, because that's how they showed it to you. Your parents are the source of all information. You don't question this basic stuff you learn at the youngest ages, you don't even THINK to question it, because they're showing you all this matter-of-fact stuff about grass and colors and it's all just oh, okay, this is the world, okay.

Then they abuse you. How does this fit into your learning about the world? Maybe you think that all the kids get hit, or locked in closets, or whatever they do - that's just how the world works. Or maybe it's only you and you learn that you, uniquely, are a Wrong Thing in the world. That they denigrate and hurt you teaches you as a first, innate lesson that you deserve denigration and hurt. The grass is green, the sky is blue, and something is wrong with you that makes them have to punish and correct you.

This gets worse as you start to get pictures of the world from other sources, the movies and books and kids at school who are treated well by their parents. Wow, if this is the norm then there REALLY IS something wrong with me for them to have to treat me this way.

All of this is inside you at the same level as grass-is-green. It's a basic truth of the world that it would never occur to you to question because, well, the grass IS green. All that other stuff you soaked up is the truth of the world, and your inherent badness/unworthiness is just a part of that.

It's really, really hard to work past that. Every day I feel it, every day I feel some failure on my part that reminds me that I'm just the bad animal that my parents told me I was. You have to fight it, to remember that the people who built this into the inner workings of you were just people - flawed, unhappy, making mistakes and taking their frustrations, angers, jealousies and inadequacies out on you. Knowing that this picture of yourself as a flawed thing came from people who were WRONG, for whatever reason, helps you get a hold on the message, helps you catch it when it rises from that primal place where you "know" that grass is green and you are bad.
Whenever you feel your inadequacy, remember that this is a label that is not of your making, that is not based on the reality of who you really are. It's just a label. Peel it off.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 1:44 PM on August 31, 2010 [57 favorites]

Self promotion alert: I co-wrote a book on child trauma with leading expert Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, called The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. We look at both the psychology and the neuroscience of child trauma through a series of his cases. There is definitely some traumatic experience in there of course-- but it's ultimately a very hopeful, positive book. Essentially, the things you experience first set up your brain for what it will experience in the rest of life: if love comes packaged with pain, that connection is going to be made, for example.

Being hurt by those who are supposed to protect you naturally makes you feel unworthy, in part because if you believe otherwise, you have to also believe that at least in this particular way, the world is a horrible, unfair place. That belief is often more painful than blaming oneself, so...
posted by Maias at 1:52 PM on August 31, 2010 [11 favorites]

Shame is a powerful emotion. It is designed to teach a growing child and or and adult how to behave properly. When it is applied to particular situations, where one should feel ashamed, it teaches.

But when abuse occurs the shame becomes all-pervasive. The child cannot assign the negative treatment to an actual act he or she has committed. So they assign it to themselves as a whole.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:09 PM on August 31, 2010 [6 favorites]

A friend of mine had/has a similar issue; his therapist recommended that he read For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. I don't know if he loved it, but I think he got a little something out of it.
posted by stefanie at 2:11 PM on August 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

I finally made that connection when I read If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. It was quite a revelation for me; I mean, logically it makes perfect sense, but I'd never really grasped and internalized it until I read this book. I don't think the book is super-in-depth or anything super-special either. But it worked for me.
posted by flex at 3:04 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would add to Stefanie's comment Alice Miller's "The Drama of the Gifted Child." (Miller is the author of "For Your Own Good.") "Gifted Child" has a very misleading title, IMO--it's not at all about the kids in the "smart classes"--Miller used the term quite differently.

Also, you may find helpful the work of John Bowlby, pioneer in the field of attachment theory.
posted by scratch at 3:07 PM on August 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I want to thank everyone for their compassionate help. I appreciate your insight.

I have just ordered 3 of Alice Miller's books (they all looked so good).
posted by learninguntilidie at 3:21 PM on August 31, 2010

Buy this book. It is amazing. and will do changes within you:

Reinvent your life by Jeffrey E Young.
posted by zulo at 3:28 PM on August 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I came in here to suggest reading everything you can lay your hands on by Bruce Perry and now I'm totally chuffed to find out that his regular co-author Maia Szalavitz is MeFi's Own.
posted by flabdablet at 4:35 PM on August 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

2nding the Young book.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:56 PM on August 31, 2010

Toxic Parents by Susan Forward
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 6:35 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing Alice Miller.
posted by Coaticass at 12:48 AM on September 1, 2010

The book recommendations I had in mind have already been thrown out here, but I did want to add my two cents...

In my recovery as an abused child, the connection between the abuse and my negative self-view was recognizing that in spite of the good work therapy was doing for my "adult self", my "inner child" (the parts of my brain still locked at the moment of trauma and still viewing the trauma through the eyes of a child) still identified with those initial feelings of rationalizing the trauma (=self-blame). I've spent a good part of my life reading other people's stories because it seems to help the "inner child" part of my brain re-rationalize any similar stories of abuse, e.g. "Wow, it wasn't right when that person hit their child, and it wasn't right when my guardian hit me."

FWIW the inner dialogue helps re-process the information for the "inner child" part of my brain. I consider a part of my brain "locked" in moments of trauma at different developmental ages... and so an age-appropriate re-explanation in simple terms seems to help the new message sink in and overwrite old obsolete inner dialogues.

Of course, your experience may be different than mine. It may be worthwhile to check out all the amazon descriptions for the books recommended here, and see which ones you're naturally drawn to... other stories of surviving abuse? Or maybe more clinical theory now. Make a list, keep reviewing it, and see if/how your intellectual appetite changes to meet your emotional needs. I think this appetite changes and matures for every abuse survivor over time, so do go back to that list after a few months to see if your needs have changed.
posted by human ecologist at 5:39 AM on September 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

For me, it finally clicked when my therapist said, "Your parents are supposed to PROTECT you, not HURT you. The people who love you are not supposed to hurt you. They are to protect you from the world and those who hurt you. It is absolutely backwards for your family to be the ones who hurt you."

I didn't understand until she put it that way. Then I was all, of course. My little herd is supposed to have my back, and instead they hit me and shamed me. Animals wouldn't even do that to their herd-mates. This doesn't really answer your question directly but is something to think about.
posted by Punctual at 5:59 AM on September 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

Outgrowing the Pain & the companion book for friends and willing loved ones, Outgrowing the Pain Together would likely be helpful.

They helped me a lot.
posted by batmonkey at 7:42 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

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