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Black and Blue Bruises On the Heart

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On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines. And on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by a significant other during the course of the day in the United States. Over the course of one year, this equates to over 10 million men and women who are victims of physical abuse.

Emotional Abuse

While these statistics are horrific, there is one form of abuse that rarely graces headlines and almost never incites a phone call to the police: emotional abuse. Yet emotional abuse runs rampant (and often under the radar) in relationships of all types. Even worse, the lack of experience with truly healthy relationship dynamics blinds victims of emotional abuse from recognizing and confronting the behavior for what it is.

The result? Many people—millennials in particular—tolerate friendships and romantic relationships that are downright destructive, yet they continue to pour into those relationships simply because of their unawareness and inexperience with normal, healthy, and life-giving relationships. In this insidious attack, however, the weapons aren’t fists and kicks; they’re words, looks, mind-games, manipulation, and intimidating behaviors.

Why does this matter to you? It matters because if you’re like a lot of my readers, you’ve experienced circumstances that have kept you stuck in a life that never stops moving. But it’s time to take the blinders off, set personal boundaries, and get free.

Black and Blue Bruises on the Heart

Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?” I’m calling B.S. because it is indeed a hot bag of gorilla crap. Words have the power to penetrate far beneath the skin; they either fortify or teardown a person’s spirit and soul. Remember what Proverbs 18:21 says? “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…”

Because that is truth, I must ask…husbands and wives, did you catch that? Boyfriends and girlfriends, are you paying attention? Parents, are you listening closely? There is no such thing as “it was just a joke” or “I really didn’t mean it literally.” Your words are either building up or tearing down. Period.

Do any of these fiery darts sound familiar?

“Why can’t you do anything right?”
“You’re completely stupid.”
“You’ll never amount to anything.”
“You’re a failure.”
“You’re such a [expletive].”

There is no in-between. There is no “joking.” It’s time to take responsibility for every careless word that comes out of our mouths and call them what they are: abusive.

What we fail to recognize is that emotional abuse sinks deeply within a person’s spirit and can cause major physical disease. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A happy heart is good medicine and a cheerful mind works healing, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.”

Maybe you can relate to my story.

The Orange Slice

In July of 1992, I was walking on the sidewalk. Unbeknownst to me, a measly orange slice was laying on the concrete—an orange slice that squirted juice all over my shorts upon crushing it underfoot. As a nine-year-old, I was having fun and honestly didn’t see it on the ground. Big deal.

It’s stupid that I remember that incident, right? Well what wasn’t stupid was the absolute verbal and emotional berating I received for being such a “clumsy, stupid, head-in-the-clouds” kid—a kid that accidentally stepped on a flipping piece of fruit.

What’s not stupid is that I’m wiping tears from my eyes right now because I can easily feel the cold shame in my bones as I recollect a moment that feels like yesterday, even though it occurred 24 years ago.

The Homerun Hall of Shame

If that wasn’t enough, two summers earlier, as an ambitious, dream-filled, carefree seven-year-old, I was playing little league baseball. Growing up, I loved watching (and emulating) my sports heroes play baseball on television. As was the custom, my favorite ball players threw their arms in the air while running around the bases after hitting a homerun.

Well, one afternoon, my day arrived. My bat connected with the ball and I drilled it far into left-center field.

With sheer exuberance, I threw my arms in the air and started my victory lap around the bases. That is until my coach ran onto the field and tore me down with a screaming fit of rage in front of everyone in attendance. “Get your arms down, you arrogant little kid!” he yelled, “Get your arms DOWN!” With embarrassment flooding my soul, I couldn’t feel my legs as I crossed home plate where he met me with more face-to-face berating. With a pounding heart and sweating brow, I ran off the field and hid, shaking and sobbing. Sadly, I never played another game that season.

What is it for you? I’ll hedge a bet that while you may not remember every wonderful childhood experience, you definitely remember the teacher who told you were stupid for being a slow reader/writer; the friend who betrayed you; the parent who tried to condemn your future with degrading words.

Think back on one of those moments. Wait for it…the emotion is rising, isn’t it?

That’s the power of emotional abuse.

Roots of Abuse

By no means am I a professional counselor, but having been raised by two of them, I’ve asked this question throughout the years: where does the abuse come from? It’s rare that a person wakes up and decides to be abusive towards someone else. But after watching behaviors and relationships play-out over the years, I feel confident in saying that the equation often looks like this:

Anger + Shame = Blame

Somewhere in their past, angry people (the abusers) were victimized at their core which resulted in shame, and now they project (displace) their unresolved dysfunction upon others through blame and inappropriate behavior. At the root, I believe that doing so is a control mechanism with an agenda to do harm. Moreover, a person who seeks to control their circumstances (and others) through manipulation and verbal/emotional abuse rarely feels satisfied because the anxiety is actually inward and the root of it is an inability to express authentic intimacy because of fear.

But not all abuse is loud and obnoxious. Instead, silent abusers disengage from those with whom they have relationship and ignore the feelings and needs of significant others. The repercussions of such abuse make the abused person feel unwanted, unloved, unheard, unseen, and unattractive.

Just like some dating relationships I’ve recently witnessed.

The Dating Game

I’m sick to my stomach seeing teenagers and young adults float through dysfunctional relationships: girls that sit and tolerate berating, ignorance, and manipulation; guys that tolerate “on one day, off the next” relationships in which they tolerate and pursue those who reject them and take advantage of them. Walking on eggshells in a relationship is exhausting and in most abusive dating relationships, the victim’s sense of dignity and autonomy flies out the window.

The Way Out

Getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship requires that you first recognize the abuse for what it is. Minimizing, denying, protecting, or hiding the abuse will only cause more harm to you in the long run. Instead, realize that you need to prioritize your own needs, set boundaries, refuse to engage with the behavior, realize you cannot fix the abuser, and make the choice to move on with the help of trusted friends, family, or even a professional counselor.

Take the first step. Your time is now.

  • Cari Peck

    Wow. I really resonated with this email and I’m glad you sent it my way.
    In third grade, I started a new school. At my old school (in Pontiac), I was one of the brighter students in my class. At my new school (Stiles in Avondale), I was not. I noticed that I was put in a different reading group than the smarter kids. I asked one of the girls in my class and her words would haunt me forever: “Didn’t you know? You’re in the dumb kids reading group”.
    From that point, I struggled in school and my self esteem took a nosedive. I went from being a star student to just showing up and hoping for the day to be over. I had problems retaining information and paying attention. I could read a whole page and not know what I just read. My grades steadily declined, and i became more and more depressed and also started having panic attacks. Unfortunately, it cost me a couple jobs later on as well.
    That girl’s comment may not have been abuse. But like many abuse victims, it takes major work to overcome the damage that those words have caused.

    • Wow. You’re right about that. Words are as volatile as sticks and stones, that’s for sure.

  • Debbie

    I can hardly wait to read your blogs. This is just incredibly good information for those that live with daily pain from abuse. You continue to be a must read. Emotional abuse renders the abused silent, which is one of the most dangerous places any of us can live. Having courage to share our story in a safe place, is one of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves. The abused often don’t know that it’s abuse. It’s simply their normal. Thank you for writing w/ such authenticity and transparency.

  • Melissa

    :…a control mechanism with an agenda to do harm.” So often within abusive relationships we feel sorry for our abuser, believing that somehow underneath it all their heart is in the right place and if we could only just be…whatever it is that makes the abuser angry. “An agenda to do harm” – That has really stuck with me this week.

  • Judy Latrouno Thayer-Shepard

    Always enjoy your insightful blogs……..verbal/emotional abuse doesn’t leave a bruise that is visible to the eye- only the soul. I think those are harder to recognize and much harder to heal………making a choice to move on and realize you cannot fix the abuser.

  • Anna M

    This is the post I was talking about when I met you yesterday. My previous 20 year marriage was highly emotionally abusive. It got to a point that I felt my voice didn’t matter, I was heartbroken, and invisible; my soul was dying. Battling cancer three times actually strengthened my faith and me. Cancer, Jesus, and wise counsel gave me the strength and courage to take action. This is a difficult topic for the church because being a Christian wife and mom in this type of relationship, lines get blurred when it comes to submission, leadership, and commitment but it is a topic I’m very passionate about because there’s quite a bit of hesitation and non-belief the Christian community sometimes struggles with (and that’s internally too). It is like living with a bully 24/7 without the opportunity to fight back because eventually your heart and being is so dismissed and bruised that your mind tells you nothing matters anymore. Steve A. said to me, ‘everyone sees bruises in a physically abusive relationship but those heal, no one sees a bruised and dying soul which is much more difficult to heal.’ Thank you for opening the discussion. It’s been a difficult journey but a beautiful one.

    • Anna, it was wonderful meeting you. Thank you for this incredible note. I’m praying for you and believe for God’s full restoration of all things lost!