How to Recover from a Violent or Abusive Childhood

Being abused as a child or being raised in an abusive environment can have a profoundly negative effect on your adult self-esteem. As children we generalize our experiences and assume that the whole world operates the same as our immediate circumstances. If we felt unsafe, unloved, unfairly criticized or hurt as a child by the people who were supposed to take care of us, it can affect our whole perspective on life and be devastating to our self-confidence.

Abuse leaves us feeling isolated from other people, and our true self

Abuse leaves us feeling isolated from other people, and our true self

Domestic violence, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse during childhood are insidious because they destroy our natural sense of trust and color our view of the world and the people in it, making it seem like a dangerous and scary place.

We don't necessarily need to be the immediate target of abuse in order for it to affect us. I grew up with a critical, dominant mother who was verbally abusive to my relatively passive and emotionally neutered father. He bottled up his feelings of frustration so they built to the point where he would explode violently.

It was mostly my parents who were on the receiving end of each others abusive treatment, but as a sensitive child I was traumatized by growing up in an environment where I felt unsafe and on edge much of the time. It's all too easy to end up as collateral damage when you're a boy if your parent's relationship is unhealthy.  It took me a lot of therapy and a long time to work through the fear I internalized during their arguments, and my resulting fear of conflict.

Recovering from childhood abuse is possible. Here's how to do it:

Decide To Live Your Life Differently

By default adults who were abused as children are much more likely to go on to become abusive themselves, causing the cycle of abuse and violence to carry on down the generations. Abusive parents typically have poor social and emotional coping skills, and as children we learn our own skills mostly from them.

In order to break the cycle, you need to decide to live your life differently: to deal with the trauma that you've inherited and to learn better coping skills from somewhere else. You have three choices: become an abuser yourself, become a victim, or break the cycle and become your own man. Breaking the cycle of abuse requires courage and determination, but it's really the only viable option.

Heal Your Emotional Pain

Living in an abusive situation is traumatic, and when we're traumatized our emotions often shut down. This is a primitive short-term survival mechanism that can make abuse even more damaging long term. It robs us of our sense of who we are as we grow from a boy into a man and can leave us feeling vulnerable and insecure instead of powerful and self-assured.

Shutting down emotionally is painful because we don't just repress unpleasant emotions like fear and sadness when we get overwhelmed; we also end up suppressing pleasant emotions like love, happiness and joy. Years later we find ourselves suffering from depression and not knowing why.

The solution is to seek out some emotional healing via whatever form of therapy you find most helpful. Primal therapy is particularly good at unlocking the deeper emotions that you may have repressed as a child in order to survive.

Programs like Heal For Life (in Australia) and Path Of Love (worldwide) offer a fast track to healing trauma and the shame associated with abuse. Find whatever works for you so that you are capable of feeling and expressing the full spectrum of emotions. It may feel painful at first allowing your emotions to come to the surface, but stick with it and you'll learn how to liberate your joy as well as your pain.

Let Go Of Other People's Shame

Abuse is shameful, and as children we were particularly vulnerable to taking on other people's shame. I felt dreadfully ashamed of the way my parent's treated each other and it took many years of therapy before I was even able to talk about it without feeling overwhelmed by irrational fear. Psychologists refer to this as “carried shame” when we end up carrying someone else's shameful burden. It's time to hand their shame back.

You can't heal shame by yourself because it stems from a fear of being abandoned and unlovable if the truth about us is exposed to other people. Hiding the shame doesn't work either; that just compounds the problem. If you have been affected by abuse, you need to find non-judgmental people who you can tell about what has happened to you in a loving, supportive environment so that you can begin to heal. John Bradshaw's excellent book Healing The Shame That Binds You offers deeper insights into the toxic nature of shame.

Free Yourself From Emotional Bonds With Your Abuser

In addition to healing your damaged emotions you need to free yourself from the emotional hold that the abuser had, and possibly still has, over you. Whether they are still alive or long dead, still in contact with you or not, it is important to break the emotional bond between you so that you can deal with the person or situation that hurt you objectively. You don't want to continue to suffer new hurtful experiences at their hands or to relive painful memories of your treatment in the past.

Breaking the emotional bonds that keep you trapped as a victim is called forgiveness. This is a much misunderstood concept. It is not an altruistic or self-righteous action. You learn to forgive your abuser by healing the emotional pain that they have caused you, and breaking the emotional ties between you so that their actions can't hurt you any more.

It helps if they accept responsibility for what they have done and acknowledge the hurt they've caused you, but it's still possible even if they don't. In fact, setting yourself free is even more important if they don't, can't, or won't apologise. You may or may not wish to remain in contact with them, but either way you're shifting the emotional dynamic in the way you relate to give yourself back your personal power.

You can't force forgiveness; it's something that happens over time as you heal emotionally and recover your sense of self. It's not about letting them off the hook; it's about letting you off the hook so you don't have to suffer painful memories of past hurts over and over.

If the thought of forgiving the person or people who abused you is repugnant or you think they don't deserve it, it just means that you haven't fully healed your pain yet and are still carrying some resentment. The point is that you deserve to be free. Be patient with yourself and focus on getting the healing you need first.

Rebuild The Confidence That Was Stolen From You

If you had an abusive or traumatic childhood, you can't go back and relive it problem-free. What you can do though is rebuild the confidence that you were robbed of, and live the rest of your adult life as a victor instead of a victim. Start today. No matter where you're at with your self-confidence right now, building greater confidence in all areas of your life is possible and the results are well worth the effort.

You build confidence and self-esteem by taking action to expand your comfort zone and face your fears gently and consistently over a period of time. You can learn new social skills like the ability to relate to other people better than your parents did. Make it your mission to triumph over the people who abused you by outgrowing them emotionally. The more confidence you build as an adult, the more successful and happy you will become and the less time you'll spend ruminating over the effects of your rotten childhood.

If you want help or aren't sure where to start, get The Confident Man Program.

About Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.

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34 Responses to How to Recover from a Violent or Abusive Childhood

  1. CC says:

    I'm still not strong enough to forgive.

  2. Mimi says:

    Can you say more about how this dynamic affected you? I am a mother of 2 tween/ teens and was emotionally physically and verbally abused by my mom. Dad died when I was a toddler. Also my older sister was mean to me. We were uprooted, moved to another country, and I was bullied for my race at school. I decided I was not going to hurt my kids so we never hit them. Yet I did emotionally and verbally abuse my husband while treating the kids very well. I thought so anyways. Lately my daughter is rebelling and I'm feeling rage towards her. I'm in therapy for depression. My son said he thinks he's gay... I wonder if it's due to my dominance and his dad's weakness.

    • Hi Mimi,

      Sounds like a lot of stuff you're dealing with there! You can read a bit more about the impact of my childhood in my story. My guess is that the depression and rage are indications of emotional baggage in your unconscious, so I acknowledge you for getting therapy to address it. It's normal for children to "rebel" as part of their development. They are, after all, independent human beings with their own desires so they aren't going to want to do what you want them to do all the time. Your responding with rage to her asserting herself would be worth exploring in therapy. You might also relate to my article on How To Recover From a Controlling Mother. As far as your son goes, I can't really say, but without a strong male role model perhaps he's confused about what it feels like to be a man; or maybe he's just innately same-sex-attracted. Again, how you feel about his sexual orientation would be worth exploring in therapy. If you're looking for a new therapist, drop me a line and we could potentially talk via Skype.

      Cheers, Graham

  3. Dawn says:

    I landed on this site today, through no chance. Although the article is for men...I as a woman can so relate and want to thank you sincerely for it. After almost 40 years of hurt and pain, I finally put up the boundary with my mother and walked away. I can no longer tolerate been the black sheep and not feeling I can voice my feelings with her. Our whole family is at logger heads and of course I am to blame...no one seems to see the effect my parents toxic relationship had, or why any of us have become the people we are. Incapable of being open and honest without fear of rejection and abandonment. I feel pretty crappy right now, she trough a lot of guilt trip statements and could not hear what I was expressing...whats new. It sadly proved my point and I wont be going back for seconds. Its life with just me and my own now. I feel as raw as I did when i was 7 listening to her go on and on and on. Never getting it right or been able to please her. I am 39 and free finally to find me. To be me. May my recovery give me the peace I deserve.

    • Hi Dawn,

      I hear you. It can be tough setting boundaries with a toxic mother; but the ultimate rewards are enormous. I hope you find that inner peace you're looking for.

      Cheers,
      Graham

  4. Lauren says:

    Graham,

    I enjoy readying through your website and its been helpful to me. I had an angry, unhappy controlling mother and a very sweet and passive father. I can't remember one time in my 18 years at home where there was joy in our house - there was always a cloud of anger or a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop. My mom projected most of her unhappiness out on my dad. He always was trying to comfort her no matter how much verbal abuse she heaped on him. Despite that he was very kind to her - always flowers on Valentines Day, helping her with household chores when he came home from work every night, etc. With all the rotten things she said to him he still loved her and didn't seem to be resentful.

    It was a horrible dynamic to witness as a child. I felt protective of my dad, but as a child there was not much I could do to protect him. I desperately wanted him to stand up to her crazy-making (but he never did). At 15 I developed ulcers in my intestines (ulcerative colitis) and I remember the doctor asking her "what's going on at home Mom?" and her steely silence. She didn't like have a child who was sick in that way because she felt it reflected on her. Even though she was rather anti-social it was very important to her what others thought.

    Fast forward to the present - my Dad passed away not that long ago. I loved him so much, but I am coming to realize how complicit he was in our toxic family dynamic. He had the power to stop it, but didn't. He gave his power over to my mother early on in their relationship. I wished he had stood up for himself and his children. Instead he acted like the hired help (my brother's term) as if we were our mother's children and his role was just to help her (versus claiming his rightful role as father and head of the family). He didn't do much without her permission, although he was always kind to us.

    I could go on, but you get the picture. I think I am not so much mourning him now as mourning what could have been. In a way I feel I never knew my father, the real person, free of my mother's influence. Its helpful to read similar stories and know as daughters and sons we are not alone. Thank you for letting me share my story.

    • Hi Lauren. I relate to a lot of what you said. My father is a different man when he's not around my mother; in order to connect with him at all I need to get him away from her. While he loves my mother and says she is the best thing that ever happened to him, like your father he is complicit in the dynamic that leaves my mother's toxic behavior unchallenged. That's stressful for everyone, as your colitis experience demonstrates. I think you've nailed why it's important for men to stand up to women who behave in toxic ways, not just for us men but for women and children involved too. Thanks for sharing your story. Cheers, Graham

  5. Raina says:

    I have a violent mother. She is schizophrenic. I hate her. She is medicated but still there is no saying what she will do. I feel so much rage and anger towards her. I want her experience all that she put me through. I want to do the same horrible things to her so she feels the pain she put me through. It's unfair she gets forgiveness and I get a lifetime of having to battle with nightmares of my past. She gets away with everything because she is mentally ill.

    • I hear that you're really angry with your mother. I believe that the way to put the nightmares of your past behind you is to heal the pain you're carrying and face your fear of standing up to her. Please contact me if you'd like to talk about how I can help you do this. Cheers, Graham

    • May says:

      I am not sure what was wrong with my mother but she was cruel lots of the time. One Sunday afternoon when I was in 6th grade she lit into me about something and I can't remember what. I felt so powerless so I made a VooDoo doll of her and stuck pins I the head of it. Years later she died of ALzheimers Disease and at times it gives me satisfaction to think I may have had something to do with that...

      • Sounds like you had a difficult experience of your mother which has left you feeling angry with her. Do you have someone you can talk to about your feelings towards your mother?

        Cheers,
        Graham

  6. Miss in need of a prayer says:

    I have a mother who is terribly violent verbally to me and I am a 44 yr old adult who doesn't even live with her. She knows only one way to communicate when she isn't getting her way which is yeling and humiliation. I used to work for her and she yelled so loud over the fact I decided to use my own money to buy me an extra taco instead of using her money. I tried to calm her down because people could hear but she wouldn't. She got ticked off because my ringer wasn't on and she didn't want to leave a voice message. I'm starting to think am I crazy ??

  7. miranda says:

    Hire. Well I was a bit hesitant to write this but here goes. I'm 18 years old and in university. Looking back, I feel I've lost myself. I don't feel anything anymore and I shut down a lot and don't seem to talk as much as I did. Everything I saw is a start for an argument with my mom. I can say I don't want breakfast or I'm struggling at school and all of a sudden I'm having an attitude and want people to fear me or I'm intimidating her or am looking for excuses to play around at school. I've had many accomplishments that I hide because there's no point, they will never be acknowledged. I'm constantly the bad daughter and am compared to my sister and other girls. She always say I gave birth to you and if I wanted to I could have just killed you you wouldn't be here. It actually doesn't affect me when she says that because I wish she would have killed and I wouldn't have had to go through all this. She claims she knows me well and make assumptions about things to start drama and this could be a status or picture. Funny how she doesn't know I was raped and almost rapped again and sexually molested and bullied and had teachers that were racist all that I hold it in and keep moving. Everyday I get closer to wanting to commit suicide but I'm a christian n suicide is a sin and God has been there for me. My father I won't even start about him.Twice he said hhe'd kill me and the first time he actually stopped the car and asked me to get out so he could crash a bottle over my head. I didn't even know why he was angry like my father is one person I've never had anything with because he was never there when we were growing up.All he does is get angry out of tthe blues and I'm the target. Its funny how he took me to see his other kids and told me to keep it a secret and now he's trying to kiss up to my mom because of abusing and cheating on her so anytime she chooses to flip on me,he'll support her without even being part of the story. Its too much and I can't deal with it anymore

    • Hey Miranda. Wow, that sounds like a lot to be dealing with! No wonder you're feeling overwhelmed and going into emotional shutdown. I'm wondering if there's someone around you who you can talk to about the feelings that you must have bottled up inside? Rape, molestation and parental abuse can all generate overwhelming feelings that take an empathic presence of another caring person to help resolve. Universities often have student service counselors who might be able to help and support you in dealing with what you've been through. Posting here has taken great courage, so I honor you for that. Who would you feel safe reaching out to in person this week?

  8. sdsfd says:

    I don't understand how these sites can be so flippant about participating in therapy. If the onus is on me to spend time and money finding therapy, I would rather figure it out on my own.

    • Well sure, the path you take to healing is up to you. Most people starting out aren't aware of the wide variety of therapies out there, so it's handy to at least have some kind of guidance where to start. I don't see anything flippant about emotional healing. Cheers, Graham

    • Dawn says:

      sometimes we simply dont need to do it alone..it can be a mind field to walk through, why would you want to do it alone! I wouldn't see it as been flippant but more understanding and a guide to point us in a better direction. If you did figure it out on your own...I would be grateful to hear about it. But I am happy to have experience and knowledge from a therapist to lesson the load. Often that need to do it alone stems more from the fact we as the violated had to do it alone in those hard times. Just thoughts.

      • I totally agree Dawn! Therapy and support from other people is really vital to restore our sense of safety and trust in other people. Cheers, Graham

  9. Britt says:

    I had a step dad who emotionally abused me for years he would call me stupid, idiot, wimp and would always tell me I am worthless. I am dealing with depression and anxiety because of his verbal abuse. I am trying to rebuild the self-esteem and confidence that I had when I was in first grade, which is the last time I had my self-esteem. I don't think he ever relized what he was doing to me. The pain never truly goes away. But thanks to the good Lord for giving me strength and faith I am a survivor and I am determined to prove my father wrong! I AM NOT WORTHLESS!!!!

  10. Carter says:

    Thanks for the article, its clear to me that the effects of a difficult childhood is seriously effecting my adult life. I can't cope with stress as well as my peers, I get such bad anxiety I can't think straight etc. I'm always told I'm bright but always underperforming. I really can't fix this myself. Any practical suggestions to keep me going? About to give up.

    • Hi Carter. I hear where you're coming from; it sounds like you've still got some emotionally charged memories from that difficult childhood holding you back. I'd need to know more about your story to give specific advice, but generally the idea is to find someone you feel safe with to share how you really feel, without censoring it or making it "nice". What happened wasn't OK, and I wouldn't be surprised if you were carrying a load of anger, grief and shame around with you. I think you're right that we can't fix this ourselves; we need support. If this resonates with you, consider seeking an emotional mastery coach, counsellor or psychologist to help you through the emotional maze. I'd be happy to talk more; check out my page on coaching. Cheers, Graham

  11. kw says:

    Thank you for the article. Im turning 30 and just starting to allow myself to remember things from my childhood. I appreciate your words.

  12. gina says:

    after 2 years of being scold, yelled at, thrown things at, humilliated in public, being cheated on and just leave in fear. after changing my phone # go back, move far, go back. having a baby with my now exfiance. i finally saw the light when he lost ot again in fromt of my kids and my 5 day old. i has to ask what was my limit??? a punch in my face. now we r about to go to court for visitations. and i wont deny him seeing our son but i will not tolarate more abuse against me or my kids. is a battle in my head but i feel exhausted being by him nomatter what. i have to think now how do I keep from staying away from this abusive relationships and how to put boundaries and mantain them.

    • Good on you for getting out. The problem with abusive relationships is that boundaries get trashed, and I think you're absolutely right that re-establishing good boundaries is key to stopping the problem recurring. Cheers, Graham

  13. Debbie says:

    I have just recently confronted my stepfather who was emotionally, verbally and physically abusive, he called me a liar, so we ended up having a scuffle and i felt like the little girl in me he hurt, was fighting back and had a voice. I feel free from his curse, and broke the chain of abuse. As a result I have lost a sister, his daughter, who wasnt abused and wont accept my need for confrontation. It has been done now, and I feel free from this mans curse, and I now have a better relationship with my 5 year old son, whom before I was showing signs of uncontrollable rage, so I sacrificed a relationship with my sister to save the one with my son. I am proud of myself for taking control of my life and confronting a childhood monster. Past abusers dont have the ability to make you feel as helpless as when you were little, I stood up to him and told him exactly what he was... a bully! I have really healed through this, although I am a woman confronting a man, I would think a confrontation would be equally as rewarding for a male too. I have lightened the load and no longer have a sad past haunting me. No more flashbacks as the inner child is happier. I am now looking forward to the rest of my life with more confidence and possibly a chance to trust and develop a healthy relationship. I think it's never too late to speak up about the past.

    • Good for you Debbie! It's particularly heartening to hear you as a parent breaking the cycle of abuse before it infects the next generation. I can relate to siblings turning against you rather than supporting you in such a courageous act. Unfortunately they often have unhealed pain of their own and it's easier for them to deny and side with the abuser than to face whatever they've been through. Your sister may not have been abused in the same way that you were, but her lack of compassion for you suggests that she has some pain going on for her too. Perhaps she'll come around in the future, or perhaps not; either way you've freed yourself. Congratulations! Graham

  14. Matt says:

    "Breaking the emotional bonds that keep you trapped as a victim is called forgiveness. This is a much misunderstood concept. It is not an altruistic or self-righteous action. You learn to forgive your abuser by healing the emotional pain that they have caused you, and breaking the emotional ties between you so that their actions can't hurt you any more."

    Sometimes, Graham, you manage to write things that are so profound that I wonder if you're a qualified psychologist and also makes me envious of how sound you are as a man and a human being.

    • Thanks Matt. Actually I'm just a regular guy who has had a lot of therapy! I had a rough night last night so I appreciate your kind words. Cheers, Graham

  15. Benn says:

    Great article Graham, which I generally agree with. My understanding is, that anyone experiencing trauma is experiencing 'abandonment'. Being hit is a form of being abandoned. However, so is having parents who you see for a large part of everyday, but are not emotionally present for themselves or others. Here, the absence of any obvious abusive action, can lead the the experiencer of trauma to be completely unaware of malignant effect on their life. A large part of society has experienced abandonment trauma and are completely unaware of this important happening in their lives.

    • Yes; another way of looking at it is that emotional abandonment is traumatic, and the process for healing the resulting emotional wounds is much the same. I agree that many of us who were emotionally abandoned in some way don't immediately recognize it because we didn't know any different. Awareness is an important step towards healing this. Thanks for your comment!

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