Moving Beyond Physical, Sexual and Verbal Abuse to Realize Our Power To Be

by Robert Caldwell, M. Div.

Children are abused. Adults are abused. Persons who experience adult abuse, most often, were also abused as children. They lived in circumstances that caused them to expect abuse, to feel that it was a natural, normal part of their lives. Nigel (all names have been changed), when his mother worked the night shift, was locked in a closet by a step-father whenever he wanted to tour the bars. From seven years of age, Ginnie was expected to care for her infirm and incontinent mother. Ivan was seduced by his professor in a conservative, religious, academy and was invited to feel privileged that his teacher so "honored" him. Ellen was repeatedly fondled and forced by her "outstanding community leader" father to have oral sex from the time she was three years old. Marie was repeatedly publicly humiliated by her father who would excruciatingly embarrass her--for example, greeting her boyfriend at the door in his underwear. Maurice was slapped by his mother before her friends. Jamison was often awakened in the night by his mother pouring cold pitchers of water on his head. Thomas was laughed at by his father for thirty years because in a championship high school basketball game he made the deciding shot for the other team--in their basket. This most public humiliating event of his young life he has repeatedly been forced to re-experience in his father's sadistic "teasing."

one in four women and one in seven men have been sexually abused

We hurt each other a lot. Adults hit children; they make them eat soap; they shame them into feeling worthless; they molest them. Couples batter one another. Friends bloody each others' faces and devastate each other with scathing criticisms. Men and women, older boys and girls sexually exploit younger children. We yell, scream, at one another. We make each other feel diminished, unloved, not fit to be loved. So many people have been abused. Abuse comes in subtle, hardly seen, hardly felt forms; abuse comes in crushing blows. Some cope well with abuse, many do not. Some have grown through dealing with and transcending or incorporating and transforming their abuse. Many remain mired in abuse--and the abuse of childhood can be recapitulated in so many forms in adulthood. So many accept their abuse, not realizing that life could be any different and folding within themselves the negative experiences of being so devalued in the world that their victimization is experienced as something they deserve. And so many continue with self-abuse--in expecting little more than trivialities from themselves, in taking jobs they do not enjoy, in finding partners who continue the destructive patterns of their past.


Sexual, physical, and verbal abuse--each is painful, each redefines our view of ourselves and of our world. Each harms. Each can be devastatingly damaging. Each shapes us--how we respond to and act in life. Each happens both to us as children and as adults. Childhood abuse prepares us to replicate abuse as adults. And inertia keeps it moving--unless we take steps to make a halt, to make a change.

Sexual Abuse

Dixon was seduced by his boy's club coach. When he was a youngish twelve year old, his leader offered him a ride home after their weekly meeting of games and "character building." On the way his coach stopped by his house "to pick up a gift" for Dixon and invited Dixon to go into the house. Within a few minutes, after coaxing Dixon onto the sofa to see videos of the game they had played the previous week, the "trusted man" began touching him intimately and urged Dixon to return the fondling. Puzzled, and bewildered, Dixon knew neither how to protest nor how to tell his parents. Dixon kept this secret for twenty-two years before he was able to talk about it in therapy and begin to recognize and address his feelings about this trauma. In the meantime, his life--his sense of self-worth and his confidence in his sexuality--had suffered significantly. His ability to have a normal sex life was impaired as his libido was dampened from a sense of inappropriateness and guilt that seems permanently installed in association with sexuality. Though he is wholly heterosexual in his fantasy life, he is so haunted by his homosexual encounter with his club leader that he has little confidence in himself as a sexual protagonist, thus gives himself little opportunity for this aspect of living. What sexual pleasure he has had has come more from stolen sexual encounters than from society's approved paths for sexuality. A further consequence of Dixon's sexual abuse is that he has become himself a verbal abuser. His rage in being so betrayed was never effectively dissipated, so with his sometimes girl-friends and co-workers, when he is threatened, or anxious, or frustrated, or--even just--bored he often vents pent-up-energies on them with shouts, demands, and withering word demolitions.

The statistics are well known: one in four women and one in seven men have been sexually abused. Sexual abuse, once begun, tends to happen repeatedly. Most often the abuser is an older adult, a parent, or a family friend. Also, he or she can be a sibling, a baby-sitter, a kid or adult on the block. There are so many persons carrying wounds from this trauma, wounds powerfully debilitating because they evoke in children powerful sexual feelings that have no place to go. So shame, guilt, inadequacy, fear and distrust rush in to fill the vacuum. This dreadful experience is compounded when, very often, children believe that they cannot tell their parents or other adults, therefore harboring in their young minds this painful disequilibrium alone. Unless these wounds are recognized and worked through they continue to wreck havoc with people's sexual life and their feelings of acceptability and self-confidence.

Physical Abuse

Jackson was brought up hard. The son of survivors of farm life, he learned early that if he didn't do what his father wanted he would be in serious trouble.

As adults we continue this pattern and injuries are repeated and perpetuated in habitual patterns that seemed as fixed as the stars.

He would be taken to the woodshed, and given a royal walloping with his father's studded belt. Escaping from this depressing grind became his obsession, and with a bent toward athletics, he made himself a baseball star and helped his team win a regional championship. This win set a pattern which he successfully repeated in business. When his children, with their independent values, came along there was big trouble. With a wife who was soft and pliant with the children, he felt it was his job to be the disciplinarian and to spur them on to the kind of mainstream ambitions which had guided him. When his son opposed his politics, Jackson on several occasions first yelled, then hit, then threw him on the floor. It was years before his son began to find a semi-solid direction for his life. When his daughter sought to marry a man of another religion, in the heat of a rage over "her disloyalty," he slapped her across the room. She is having a terribly difficult time putting her life in order, with four marriages and children by three different men to testify to her turbulent life shaped in response to an abusive father.

There are so many ways to physically abuse children: hitting, slapping, washing their mouths out with soap, forcing them to eat foods that are noxious to them, coercing them into athletics and other activities which are fearful and painful. To hit persons is to diminish them. The human animal is not well constructed to maintain a positive sense of itself when it has had its somatic boundaries attacked and its body injured. Aggression, of course, evokes retaliation, both from individuals and nations. But children do not have this power. They take their injuries within and nurse them and make adjustments so the hurts won't be repeated. As adults we continue this pattern and injuries are repeated and perpetuated in habitual patterns that seemed as fixed as the stars.

Verbal Abuse

One has only to walk through a supermarket and tune into parents' dialogues with their small children and adults with each other to be reminded of the pervasiveness of verbal abuse.

Mary Anne had a lonely and scary youth, the only child of a distant mother and a critical father. She didn't feel ready to take on marriage until her middle thirties. Radford, her husband, had seemed a good bet to venture with into married life. In their dating days he had been very attentive in driving almost fifty miles to see her twice a week and in calling her every day; besides, he was the first boyfriend who had shown any real enthusiasm for marrying her. Her father had guided her life, always making the necessary decisions--and never honoring Mary Anne's own initiatives. It seemed perfect that Radford would step in and take over where her father left off. He did, but with an abusive style that took Mary Anne more than ten years to understand and confront. Radford came on with an extraordinary amplification of her father's critical program and her mother's detachment. Where they had been "soft" abusers, her husband was hard. Her father, who seemed for all the world the very model of active and caring parenting, did in fact often abuse Mary Anne in fierce and unyielding criticisms, in his vigorous diatribes over Mary Anne's own interests--whether it was cutting her hair short or reading Kurt Vonnegut novels. So Mary Anne stepped from one abusive relationship into another. Radford was loud and insistent that his wife should improve her ability to make money for the household. As successful interior decorator in her own right, she had hoped to reduce her business commitments to begin a family. A baby, said Radford, was fine, but in no way should that relieve her from equal share in the financial responsibilities to the home. He demanded that she do all the housework while denigrating how she kept house, demanded access to her bank account for family expenses while keeping his salary for his own purposes, insulted her in front of friends and family, and threatened to leave her whenever he found something to his displeasure. Her life was a roller coaster in hell. Mary Anne was so used to this behavior that she nursed her injuries, attempted "to do better," assumed that the only possibilities for her were to endure, hoping that some day Radford would heed her entreaties for him to change--perhaps go into therapy, perhaps begin to take her seriously. For so long she felt as helpless in her marriage as she had as an eight-year-old in her parent's home. When she came to therapy she only knew that her marriage was troubled and that she could not move in her life. She knew she was mired down. Eventually, she came to realize how she was stuck in the habit and experience of being verbally and emotionally abused. She came to question her life and how her abusive past and present had sapped her spirit and distorted her perspective on life's possibilities.

One has only to walk through a supermarket and tune into parents' dialogues with their small children and adults with each other to be reminded of the pervasiveness of verbal abuse. Both children and adults are criticized, yelled at, taunted, threatened, told false stories of retribution, pulled age-rank on, made to feel inferior, told fearsome stories, lied to. Children who have experienced a lot of verbal abuse, like those physically and sexually abused, hardly know when they are being abused as adults, and the syndrome goes on.


Our era is the time of the discovery of the impact our abusive experiences have on our lives and a beginning of dealing with the damaging effects of this dark story. Initiating with the feminist movement, out of the closet has come the reality of how badly people treat their own, and the price that so many pay for it. For we suffer from being abused, often without memory or awareness. We have not handled abuse well. Basically, we have dealt with abuse through denying it, resigning ourselves to it, and raging against it.


There are many forms of denial. Forgetting is a favorite. This is remarkably effective, for the mind has an extraordinary capacity for blanking out that which is neither pleasant nor practical to recall. When we begin to remember, we consciously or unconsciously push the images out of our mind, because they seem too painful, and might lead us to confront our abusers, a task too inconvenient or terrifying. Minimizing abuse is also useful. Here we make our painful histories so "unimportant" that we are able to believe that what happened to us is hardly worth notice--a sort of "out of mind, out of hurt" approach, which does indeed enable us not to be overwhelmed by the pain of the abuse. Distorting our experience helps us to develop high thresholds for feeling abusive pain by thinking such avoidance and justifying drivel as "It only hurts a little while." or "He can't help it, he has such a bad temper."


We know nothing else so we see abuse as normal, or at least as normal for us. So many of us can, to some degree fall into this category. I once met with a woman whose husband regularly beat her, and threatened to throw her out of their house. She had decided that she was not going to take this any longer, stating that she wanted to work in therapy to get the strength and self-respect to leave him. After only a few sessions, she called me and said she wished to discontinue her therapy, for she had taken another look at her life and decided that it was not so bad after all. Yes, he hit her, and spoke nastily to her, but he was a good provider and they did share the children. And, besides, how could she get along financially if she really confronted him and he did "throw her out." She could not support herself. "I'm resigned to my life. It's what I know."


Some persons deal with their abuse by becoming abusers of others. These are the persons who respond to the victimization they have experienced by venting their anger and rage outwardly. They project their abusive histories on the world and re-experience abuse at every turn. They amplify every slight, and believe themselves singled-out for betrayal and unfair treatment. They may be perpetually angry, belligerent, not able to get feelings of hatred and contempt out of their systems. They "solve" their panic with aggressive judgementalism. Forgiveness, rapprochement are alien concepts.

Marietta doesn't take a breath before she starts her tales of woe, whether she be with friends, family or business associates. A boy-friend has lied to her. A friend has left her in the lurch. A customer has been unkind. A competitor has unscrupulously cut her out of an opportunity. Marietta's pain is real. She is not making up these grievances. But her mind is working with much more than what happened last week. She cannot rid herself of the gnawing feelings of being abused. She has become stuck in a primitive stage of vigorous confrontation with her abusers. But she can go no further. She repeats ad nauseam these stories of others' meanness and exploitations. She is injured, but she has settled for perpetual martyrdom, accumulating one sad story of mistreatment after another with only the comfort of the righteousness of her anger to hold on to. Her anger keeps her alive. But it is not a very complete living.


To develop a life that is not tinctured by the necessity of abuse-survival, that is not determined by reactivity to real and perceived abusive experiences in the present, you need to bring your full intentionality and be ready to do some serious work. And you can be remarkably successful, wounds and all. Here are some suggestions:

Face Your Abuse

First you must grow in awareness and knowledge of your abuse. This is not easy. If it had been, you would have been doing it all the time. You have trained yourselves not to know how you have been abused. This will take a lot of courage, for it means facing things the way they actually are. It means remembering and letting in the feelings and thoughts you are capable of having about your experience. It means being honest, congruent, grounded in the full breadth of your personal journey, with all parts accessible.

If you are determined to face your abuse, here are some questions that can help you begin to take a look at your life in these terms: Were you yelled at for the slightest thing? Did you have a fear of speaking you own mind? Did you tell a lot of lies, or half-lies? Do you find it hard to believe in yourself? Are you easily shamed? Do your become enraged easily? When you are angry, does your anger, your agitated anger seem never to end? Are you likely to spend much more time and energy processing a "slight" than your friends? Are you almost never angry? Do you almost always make excuses for the hateful behaviors of others? Are you erratic in your sexual interests? Are you easily offended by your partner's sexual initiatives? Do you dislike sex? Does anger make you want to go and hide? Does life often seem depressing and/or hopeless, but you can't really get hold of viable alternatives?

Follow these questions into your private mind and memory. You may tell yourself--and others, when you are ready--stories textured with suffering and fear. Other questions and pathways of understanding will form that fit the particulars of your life, if you begin by spending time with these. Look carefully at your past. If you answer several of these questions with "Yes," specific memories will begin to emerge. You will be preparing yourself for the hard work that is facing your abusive past and your present patterns of action and reaction that have been structured into your adult life to cope with "your aggressively unfriendly world." You will be on your way to regaining a self that repels abuse, not accepts it and makes dysfunctional accommodations to it.

Facing abuse, for many, leads them to confront their abuser. This may, or may not be your path. Certainly one needs to look straight into the eyes and heart of one's abuser in one's own mind. This is the beginning. There is no one way that is necessary for anyone--after all, it is being constrained to limited options which is the foundation of abuse. The crucial part is that you do not continue to deny your feelings. As you continue on your path, learning that now they cannot abuse you as they could, that your actions can continue your abuse or transcend it, you will discover your individual way to approach your abuser.

Find a Loving Witness

In acknowledging your abuse, if you are to have the strength you need to face yourself, then you will need others to share your history and provide you with the understanding and acceptance which is essential for undoing and healing the damage. This is a person or persons who is free to see the innocent child within the jaded adult, persons who are sufficiently secure in themselves to be there for you even when you doubt their presence--after all, you are accustomed to being abused and will inevitably spot "intimidating aggression" even from the most caring friends and guides. Your "loving witnesses" are persons who can both help you recall and express your story through listening, sharing their own story, and--most critically--providing the support for you to be able to face your hidden fears and tragic experiences. You simply cannot face more in yourself than you believe you can bear. Loving witnesses enable you to acknowledge much more than otherwise you would by their example of what they can face in themselves, and by their insistent good will even when you display the darker side of your history and of the injured, unbalanced person you may have become.

Be specific in planning how to find loving witnesses. Many groups, especially twelve-step groups have been extremely helpful to many, particularly, Children of Alcoholics and Incest Survivors groups. (By calling AA you can be led to make contacts with these and other groups.) Increasingly therapists are sensitive to issues of abuse and shame and are able to provide critical support and guidance. And, when you look at your relationships with friends and family, from those that are intimate to those that are casual, you will want to reevaluate them for the abuse factor that may still be perpetuated. Whether with groups, or therapists, or individuals be sure that you do not feel abused. Remember that's the whole point. You will need to remind yourself again and again. You are breaking a habit.

Don't Rush Forgiveness

When one has been abused, distinct and indelible things have happened in one's mind and character. You have developed a capacity for being easily hurt and for defending against hurt. This takes time to heal. Even if your abusers, summoning what seems, to your rational mind, utter sincerity, ask for your forgiveness, you may be far from ready to give it to them. Forgiveness is not an act that is good because it is sanctified and esteemed by religious and popular piety; forgiveness is a happening that can only come when you are so filled with your own strength and compassion that you can again make yourself humanly vulnerable to others and become open to them in dialogue and in spirit. Monitor your forgiveness process. You need not offer any more than you honestly feel--to do so is passively to repeat your abuse.

Reduce Your Own Abusiveness

Perhaps your best clue to having been abused is through observing how you are and are not abusive in your world of relationships. You may continue abusive patterns by unkind and critical ways you treat yourself and respond to others. If you are sarcastic or continually teasing, if your friends seem to avoid you, if you often find yourself becoming angrily frustrated with others, if you seldom trust others--study these behaviors of yours, you may be unconsciously, aggressively acting out your hurt or mimicking the patterns of abuse you knew too well. The hard part is not to imitate the patterns of your abuse either by direct repetition, or by hostile attitudes and behaviors, or by over-accommodation and mental numbness. It is also where the growth possibilities are.

You are fortunate, for in paying attention to your own abusiveness, you have a pathway to dealing with your feelings and dysfunctions created by your defenses against your abusers. Nothing will so release you from your past than being able to know that you have broken the cycle of abuse and have been able to be present respectfully and empathetically for another, confounding your history's dictate to respond abusively as you were responded to.

Claim Your Power

Abuse is about power, the lack thereof, and the attempt to access and exercise power. It is power over another rather than power of the self. Persons who do not feel powerful will be either passive, ineffective, parasitic--i.e. abusive to themselves, their human capacities, their souls OR insensitive, hostile and aggressive--i.e. abusive to others. Ultimately, you are trapped in an abusive spiral unless you develop a strong sense of self that knows that power is exercising one's capacities of competency and compassion--not restraining, diminishing, or destroying the powers of others. Facing your abuses, finding your friends, creating your behavior to be constructive rather than abusive is building into your sense-of-self a strength that enables you to transcend abuse and claim your power.

Robert D. Caldwell, M. Div., C.P.C. practices individual, couple and group psychotherapy in Bethesda, MD. He can be reached at 301-652-6180 or email rbrtdciii@aol.com.