You were lied to on the playground. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Neuroscientists and psychologists have proven in spades that words hurt most of all.
But first, let’s establish that abuse of any kind is horrible, heinous, and deserving of attention and care. The impact of physical trauma ought never be minimized in order to shine a light on psychological trauma. Not only is all trauma valid, all perceptions of trauma are valid. Two people can experience the same event and have drastically different outcomes. One’s experience isn’t more or less valid than another. If it hurts, seek help.
Physical trauma is visceral. There is hard, objective evidence of abuse. Most people don’t question its validity. It’s cut and dry. “If he hits you, you should leave.” If you are beaten or shot in a senseless crime, no one will try to convince you it didn’t really happen. Children who are physically abused are far more likely to be removed from an abusive environment and treated than those who are psychologically abused. People have sympathy for physical abuse. Because of its visual nature, it’s a million times easier to depict in storytelling. There are plenty of stories in the zeitgeist where people are bullied and beaten up. In fact, establishing that a hero is physically abused is one of the easiest ways for an audience to sympathize with him and cheer him to a victory.
Physical trauma gets cards and flowers. Psychological trauma gets suspicion and sideways glances.
Psychological trauma is hidden. There is no physical evidence, at least not in the way someone can see a bruise or a broken arm. Few people recognize that it even exists, let alone talk about it. It has to do with the neural pathways our brains create from all the information we take in in the course of our lives, given the way people treat us. While it is measurable, it is a highly complex and developing field. Understanding it requires interest and study.
Most of all, psychological trauma often stays hidden and misunderstood because of its own effects. Imagine a young child being told by a parent through words and behaviors, that she is worthless. Imagine that child being ignored when she had basic needs for comfort. Imagine she was told she was selfish for crying or asking for what she needs. Now, imagine that child is terrorized because the parent told her monsters will get her if she cries. Years later, when the grown woman tries to explain how she felt growing up, the same parent tells her she’s just making things up. She was never abused. How ungrateful she is to accuse her parents….
Gaslighting, manipulation, minimization, and denial are the cornerstones of psychological trauma. “It didn’t happen.” “You’re making that up.” “You’re exaggerating.” “Ugh, you’re so dramatic.” “It wasn’t that bad.” “Other people have it so much worse.” “It was a long time ago.” “Just get over it.” “First world problems….” “It’s not like you were hit or anything.” Guilt and shame heaped onto the abused by their abuser keeps everything in place. The question of whether it happened at all is the very thing that keeps victims from seeking treatment. Even for the someone who feels all the effects of the abuse, and can recall all sorts of specifics, getting over the question of whether it is valid is a huge step that many never make.
The effects of psychological trauma are complex and long-term, and often result in a myriad of diseases later in life, including autoimmune issues, cancers, heart disease, anxiety and depression. Those who have experienced prolonged psychological trauma often have a general sense that something is “off” about them, but they can’t quite put their finger on it. They often feel an inordinate amount of guilt, shame, or low self-esteem in spite of their accomplishments. Victims of psychological abuse often develop PTSD and C-PTSD. Some develop personality disorders and other forms of psychosis. It’s serious stuff, and left untreated, it almost always ensures lifelong misery.
If you know or suspect you are a victim of psychological abuse, seek treatment immediately. Find a therapist specifically trained in complex trauma. Read up on the ACE Study. Read The Body Keeps Score by Bessel van der Kolk. Check out therapies for trauma such as EMDR. The only thing you have to lose is your abuser’s voice in your head.