The Emotional Toll of Abuse on Women
© 2000 Michele Toomey, PhD

Abuse that begins in childhood takes the highest toll. Children are just forming their view of the world, their sense of who they are in relation to the world, and where the power lies. Abused girls tend to learn that they are unworthy and have little or no power and that the bullies are superior and have all the power. Some abused girls react rebelliously and counterattack, becoming abusers themselves, but they are the minority. Either way, childhood abuse takes a toll that has a lifetime effect.

The most devastating toll is the self-abuse that evolves out of being abused. Children think they deserve the abuse, and they turn on themselves. Instead of learning how to live intimately and at one with themselves, in keeping with the integrity they were born with, they are at war with themselves, violating themselves and their integrity. They learn to say to themselves the abusive words and phrases that have been directed at them. They form their self-image around the unworthiness and inadequacy that the hostile messages from others defined them as: stupid, ugly, and bad. They feel not wanted, not deserving and not good. They are diminished, often depressed, and always damaged. There is no limit to the emotional toll of abuse. It destroys a child's sense of well-being, strips away its sense of worth, and leaves it as a violated shell, unable to recover from the onslaught of abuse without believing, on some level, that they deserve it.

If the child is a girl, she is particularly vulnerable to these assaults. Gender roles are still quite clear that boys are to get angry when attacked and should fight back, while girls get hurt and cry, and should look for someone else to protect them. Unfortunately, for abused girls, there is either no one to protect them or they think there's no one who will protect them. So, if she can't break out of the gender role, a girl is trapped by the abuse and the abuser. She tries to please, hoping that if she's a "good girl" she won't be abused. When that doesn't work, she begins to doubt her worth. Certainly if she knew how to do it right, "goodness" would protect her. Or so goes the myth. Since she can't and it doesn't, then she concludes that she is not good enough, she is bad, unworthy, deserving of the abuse. That is emotional toll.

She may try to become invisible, get really quiet, withdraw, not come to anyone's attention, just live in a world of her own. This survival technique serves to diminish her. Yet, even an apparently invisible child in an abusive environment, continues to get abused. How can it be that no matter how quiet and withdrawn she gets, she's still abused? Obviously, she's not small and quiet enough. She must continue to try harder and get smaller, quieter, more invisible. That's emotional toll.

So. this unworthy, bad, still not small enough girl, can make no sense out of abuse. If she can't figure it out, she must be stupid. They are right. She's also stupid, very, very stupid. What hope is there for her? She's unworthy, bad, and now stupid. That unbearable combination of traits becomes her self-image. That is emotional toll.

But, now comes the final violating stroke. The guillotine of a psychological beheading. She begins to hate herself. She's failed at everything she's tried. The abuse continues. She has blamed herself for every failure. There's nothing left but to despise who she is. If she were more worthy, good, smart, and successful, all would be well. But she is unworthy, bad, stupid, and a failure. She deserves to be abused and she most certainly deserves to be hated and despised.

The destructive effects of abuse have done their job well. She no longer needs another to violate her. She now knows the routine and she's caught in the corrupting pattern of it. Her inner dialogue will now be an inner diatribe. She will harangue herself. She will verbally and sometimes physically mutilate herself. Her success is measured by her suffering. Suffering is her lot. The emotional toll is now an emotional rack that gets stretched regularly by herself.

Not all abused women were abused children, but many, if not most of them are. Abused children are prime targets for becoming abused adults. However, even women who had happy childhoods and loving parents, are susceptible to becoming victims of abuse. The gender role messages are in the very air we breathe. If you are a good woman, loving, generous, hardworking and nice, you will have a loving partnership with a strong, good man who will protect you and together you'll have a good life. If and when this expectation isn't met, women are set-up to blame themselves, and the abusive pattern begins. Maybe she's not pretty enough, thin enough, understanding enough, generous enough. Maybe she's not enough.

This self-doubt can open the floodgates to all the other ways a woman gets caught in blaming herself for being abused. The love and need for a man coupled with self-blame and self-hatred is often more than sufficient to lock a woman into enduring abuse for years. It is a vicious cycle in which abusing herself is the key. The one thing she becomes successful at is enduring abuse, her own and others. To be free, she must stop abusing herself.

Self-loathing is the ultimate outcome of abuse directed at women, and not all abused women become obvious or clear in their self-hatred and abuse, but some variation on this theme is present in every abused woman. My question and my challenge to all women is: How dare we tolerate such horrific emotional devastation from abuse directed at women, and why don't we take a stronger stand and join together, refusing to keep silent anymore? We need to be a loud and vibrant part of the momentum that runs counter to the gender role and the norm, refusing to blame ourselves and each other for our abuse. We need to join hands, join voices and confront, first ourselves, then each other, and then the world as we demand intolerance to verbal as well as physical abuse of women.

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