There was a good piece on Slate.com last October in the "Dear Prudence" column entitled: "Surviving Mommie Dearest: My abusive mother haunts my dreams. How can I move on?"
"Prudie" answers a letter from an adult survivor of childhood abuse. It is worth reading, and although I agree with the columnist's statements in response to the letter, I would add the major caveat that one cannot follow such advice unless some serious self-work has been done first to pave the way, not just a "a short-term tune up," as Prudie suggests. Oh, and I would also disagree with you, Prudie, in that I do think that the mother of "Stuck In My Head," for all intents and purposes, was the anti-Christ! (Prudie's response to SIMH is after my post here.)
I believe it was Alexander Lowen who once proclaimed that "ninety-nine percent of all children are abused" in some way or another by their parents or primary caretakers. (Lowen, of course, was the famed psychiatrist who created Bioenergetics, the life-changing therapy approach that treats the whole person - mind, body and emotions - and coined the term "body language." Others subsequently added the spiritual aspect to Lowen's work and created Core Energetics.)
My three-plus decades of work as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, along with my expertise at reading what Lowen called the "language of the body," leads me unequivocally to the realization that Lowen was right. So right that I have yet to meet a single individual in my professional or personal life that emerged from childhood unscathed by the emotional-psychological dysfunctions and distortions in their parents' personalities.
That being said, that there is an "abused child" in all of us, I would like to delineate how I see the parental abuse spectrum.
At the lower, less extreme end on this scale are those adults with kids who I would describe as the "Clueless Parents." They had children at a young age very often, before even remotely having the time to become even remotely self-actualized. They may have a lot of energy for their kids, but they lack the needed wisdom and life experience to be true guides for younger beings. While the basic physical needs of their children may be met adequately, their higher, quality of life needs are not. Also in this range are parents who are from, or are recent descendants of parents from, "old world" or Third World countries, where poverty, ignorance about childhood developmental, and the socially acceptable harsh treatment of children is the norm. Children from these kinds of moderately abusive situations tend to have difficulty growing emotionally and psychologically past the levels attained by their parents, even though they may do better professionally and financially than said parents.
Close by, but still more abusive than the Clueless Parents, are the "Park Slope Parents." Educated, professional, maybe even artistically inclined, these people had children, and often too many of them, to fulfill an image of themselves as successful according to their gender-specific identities. Excessively ego-driven, these parents had kids to act out a story line that in their imaginations would enhance their self-worth and value in society, would recreate or redeem their own childhoods, and worst of all, fill the void that only grows over time from not being truly self-actualized in love, Eros and sex, and in their creative lives. These are the narcissistic parents Alice Miller writes about in her landmark book, DRAMA OF THE GIFTED CHILD, and ironically, but predictably, the children raised by these parents end up gutted of a genuine sense of self and riddled by a desperate neediness and an exaggerated sense of entitlement.
Next up on the abuse ladder are the "Borderline Parents." Straddling the line, as the name implies, between everyday neurotic and narcissistic complexes and the netherland of transient psychosis, these apparently stable individuals usually function fairly well in society, though they will sporadically descend into substance abuse, sexual acting out, rageful outbursts and paranoid and labile emotional swings. The children of these parents often become "survivors," individuals with strong compensated personalities whose behavior is overly focused on taking care of the needs of others at their own expense, proving that they can do without over and over again. As adults, the children of borderlines are surprisingly good candidates for a healing psychotherapy experience, even though their parents are absolutely not. Perhaps it is because these children have developed an early capacity for self-reliance, which is exactly what a truly holistic psychotherapy promotes.
Finally, there are the parents we typically label as "abusive," what I will call the "Sociopathic Parents." Without the capacity for empathy, these parents are essentially psychotic. They see their children merely as objects, as players in their own delusional fantasies. To the sociopath, children can and should be systematically and relentlessly manipulated, exploited, imprisoned, brutalized, punished and in some cases, ultimately destroyed. If the children of these parents don't end up psychotic or dead, they will most likely have borderline features at best, or suffer from major depression at worst. It should be noted that those who do survive such abuse and become relatively healed at some point, speak to the existence of a powerful Higher Self at work.
Folks, unless you claim to be among the one-percent of us who indeed had genuinely self-actualized parents, and therefore, you are someone I've never met or even heard about, then there is an abused child lurking inside of you. And that child is interfering with your capacity to enjoy great love, Eros and sex, is blocking you from full creative expression of your personal gifts and talents, is derailing your efforts to maintain a vibrant, healthy body and is preventing you from truly knowing and being yourself. The good news is that regardless of which type of abuse you endured, with enough determination, you can heal, you can have the ultimate "revenge," which is a happy, healthy, wealthy and wise life!
More to come on this subject...
Here's Prudie's response to SIMH
Your mother is no anti-Christ; she’s just a sad, sick woman who’s hurt her children and made a hash of her life. Sure, she was a scarily overwhelming figure in your childhood, but a good step toward releasing her hold is to recognize how much you inflate this pathetic flyspeck of a person. Accept that she has no power over you anymore and that you can consciously work on diminishing her place in your psyche. When you were a girl, she and her boyfriends made your nights a real misery. But even if she’s still in your dreams, remember she’s no longer lurking down the hall. You emerged from this maelstrom of abuse and became a loving, productive person. Many are shattered by such a start in life, but through hard work, self-insight, and resilience, you made it. Start working at being nicer to yourself. It might help to recognize that some credit, too, must go to your lucky draw in the genetics department. Perhaps you have siblings who were more fragile than you and broke under your mother’s “care.” You were fortunate to be made of tougher stuff, so celebrate those good genes. Then acknowledge that no matter how much you may physically resemble your mother, she doesn’t inhabit you. Those are your hands, that’s your smile. Take steps to reclaim them. Sign up for a pottery or painting class and watch something beautiful emerge from your hands. Buy yourself a ring that gives you pleasure. Go to a department store cosmetics counter and get a makeover. Not to hide your face, but to bring out what’s unique about your own looks. Reconsider therapy, even if only for a short-term tune up. Tell potential therapists you aren’t seeking an open-ended discussion about your childhood, but want to work on practical ways to diminish the thoughts about your mother. After a bad dream comes, when you open your eyes, savor the realization that you’re a grown woman, in your own bed, next to your darling husband, and you’re free.