I have always been fascinated by Alexander Lowen's incredibly insightful thoughts on the subject of "terror versus horror," which he writes about in his landmark book: NARCISSISM: DENIAL OF THE TRUE SELF.

This seemed an appropriate follow-up to the matter of the "abused child" that Lowen claimed lives in 99% of us, a claim that I anecdotally agreed with in my recent post. (Not surprising, after I wrote that post, I received a number of disgruntled comments from people who claimed to be in that one-percent who experienced no abuse of any kind at the hands of their - presumably - completely self-actualized parents!)

As Lowen describes it, "terror" is our body's reaction to some kind of assault or direct threat to our personal well-being, and it evokes powerful emotions. "Horror," on the other hand, is our mind's reaction to witnessing something that presents a direct challenge to our perception of reality, something that doesn't compute, an event or series of events that at best cause confusion and at worst cause a mental dissociation in the observer.

As an example, a parent verbally or physically attacking a child will cause terror in that child, who in that moment is fearing for his or her life and limb. Yet, for that same child, witnessing a parent assaulting his or her sibling, or the other parent, or even a pet, will cause horror in the observing child.


Children innately presume that parents are not only all-knowing and all-powerful, but that they are also all-loving, especially to their children and to each other. When a child is being assaulted by a parent, the intenseness and direct terror of the experience engages the body's fight or flight mechanisms, followed by a release of emotions, so the analytic thought process is not immediately engaged. Afterwards, once the terror has subsided, the child, so willing to believe in its own badness as the cause of the parents' fury, feels able to "make sense" of the assault. It was their fault. One of the things I hear several times a day at least from patients is how they don't believe in their own deservedness of good treatment from others.

Sadly, the same child so willing to believe in their own badness, can't conceive of another loved one deserving abusive treatment. I have seen the horror in patients when describing the abuse inflicted on a sibling by a parent, even if it is just verbal. Likewise, when a child witnesses its parents hurling rageful, vitriolic assaults at each other, the reaction is one of utter horror and confusion. That is why so many children will literally attempt to draw the rage of their fighting parents onto themselves, and why they will subsequently blame themselves. Anything is better than witnessing the horror of supposed loved ones hating each other, even momentarily. It destroys the safety of their environment in their dependent state.

I have often mentioned in my writing that I can count on one hand the number of adult patients who report wishing that their divorced parents had stayed together, while I can't even count how many have said they wished their unhappy parents who stayed together had gotten divorced. To a child, witnessing their parents forcing themselves to live in a situation that is not vibrant with love, Eros and sex does not compute. It turns reality upside down. It is saying to the child, who intuitively knows better, that love and happiness are not actually the most important things in life. This causes horror and despair in the child, who is looking to its parents for examples of how to live and how to sustain love and happiness.

So, to all of you supposed "one-percenters" with parents who were self-actualized, in-love and happy, I say congratulations! To the rest of us, who were abused to varying degrees by our less-than-self-actualized parents, I say, keep focused on your healing process. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What Lowen missed is that a person can feel horror for what was done to them.
Discharging, expressing horror has these levels:
Voluntary attempts at vomiting (Note Reich's eliciting of the gag reflex)
Involuntary vomiting
The facial expression of horror can be found at http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/nov2009.html
Form Darwin's book on the The expression of Human emotions


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