6 Signs of People Who Might Have Suffered Abuse

 Hello, Psych2Goers. Today we will look at the signs that someone may have experienced abuse in the past. Please do not use this article as a way to diagnose others. This article is for educational purposes.  

Relationships. They define our lives. They are how we experience and engage with others in the world. Attached to each relationship we create are experiences and memories. However, sometimes what we experience in that relationship scar us. Whether we like to or not, these scars influence any new relationship we may be trying to build. 

  • Feeling insufficient

Feeling insufficient is a sign that someone might have suffered abuse in the past. Regardless if it is disguised as a joke or dismissive statement, there is an underlying sense of unworthiness. Such feelings stem from an unstable sense of self; consequent of emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive relationships. In an abusive relationship, an abuser plants false ideas in the victim’s mind, which distorts their self-image and affects their self-esteem. The power of these ideas is not in words used, but rather in who said them and how. 

Signs of low self-esteem are pessimism, hostility, lack of motivation, or a bad communicator. Research shows that low self-esteem causes depression and other negative conditions. (Silverstone & Salsali, 2003). 

Fortunately, self-esteem can improve. Working out, changing the negative narrative (stories that have been instilled in us about our self-perception), and practicing mindfulness can help boost self-esteem. 

  • Flashbacks

Abuse yields trauma, which can develop into PTSD. PTSD can affect anyone, not just war veterans, refugees, or victims of assault. People who have been in an abusive relationship may have Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). C-PTSD develops when someone suffers repetitive abuse over an extended period of time. Though the disorder is not in the DSM-5, WHO’s International Classification of Diseases has set the following criteria 

  • the person must have been exposed to a stressful event or situation that was exceptionally threatening or of catastrophic nature, which caused pervasive distress. 
  • persistent remembering or reliving of the stressor/traumatic event via intrusive flashbacks, dreams, or vivid memories. 
  • must exhibit actual or preferred avoidance of circumstances similar or associated with the event
  • physical symptoms include difficulty falling or staying asleep, increased psychological sensitivity, irritability, outbursts of anger, or difficulty regulating their emotions, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, and exaggerated startle response.  

C-PTSD may also exist comorbid with depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder. It can cause cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking, or labeling. 

Some examples of cognitive distortions are:

  •  If I am not (insert hyperbolic adverb + verb), then (insert negative noun). Example: If I do not finish the project perfectly, then it will such and I’ll be a total failure. 
  •  I just know that he/she will end up breaking my heart, so why bother even being in a relationship. 
  • I’m a total failure. 

If you or someone you know is dealing with C-PTSD, please reach out to a therapist or licensed professional for treatment.  Therapy will include CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy). These therapies help to replace negative thought patterns, deal with stress, and suicidal urges. 

  • Dissonance 

Cognitive dissonance can be another sign of past trauma through narcissistic abuse or in a toxic relationship. CD is when someone harbors two contradictory beliefs or thoughts simultaneously. 

In the past relationship, the victim felt as though he/she could not trust his/her own perception. Thus, developed a desire to avoid similar situations in the future. For example, the abuser may profess their love for their partner but verbally abuses them. This creates a sense of internal confusion that can make the victim wary of trusting others in the future.  

Cognitive dissonance is diffused via validation of the patient’s reality relating to the event. There are validation journaling exercises that can help you or someone you know to heal and create positive thought patterns. Taking to a licensed compassionate therapist can also help. 

  • Feeling numb

 It’s very difficult to explain how it feels like to feel empty or numb.  Some causes of emotional numbness are depression and anxiety. It is the mind’s response to increased levels of emotional or physical stress — a desire to disengage from negative experiences. In the DSM-5, it is classified as depersonalization/ derealization disorder (DD). 

Some of the symptoms are disassociation, feeling like a stranger in someone else’s life (depersonalization), and distress. DD is also a response to past abuse. Abuse creates more emotional stress which leads to the development of DD. In 2016, a study looked at continual exposure to violence in children and its relationship to DD. They found that over the 6 years, that most became increasingly desensitized over time regardless of age or gender. 

Despite this information, there is hope. Treatment for emotional numbness is possible through coping strategies, such as identifying the causes/triggers, exercising, and reaching out to your support group when necessary.

  • Emotional Detachment

Paired with emotional numbness, is often emotional detachment. In an abusive relationship, it is common for the victim to feel detached from themselves– physically or emotionally. 

Emotional detachment or disassociation is a defense mechanism used to cope with distressing and overwhelming emotions. It is the mind’s way of disengaging from traumatic experiences. It is also a tool that a victim develops to gain resilience against the abuse and to keep their sense of Self. However, the effects of emotional detachment can linger after the relationship has ended, and can prevent them from opening up and being emotionally vulnerable. 

If you or someone you know is emotionally detached, encourage doing something that grounds them in their body and emotions, such as yoga. Also, consider getting a pet, connecting with new friends, or picking up a hobby. 

  • Over-apologizing

A result of low self-esteem caused by abuse or trauma is apologizing. Constantly. Those who have endured abuse in the past, often apologize for things that are not their fault. This habit originates from feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, or blame. 

There are ways to help someone who has been through abuse and over-apologizes. The first step is to make them know that their needs matter and are important. Make them feel seen and understood. They should try to replace self-defeating thought patterns with positive ones, be intentional about what you believe, and seek therapy.  

Past hurts do not have to determine future outcomes. It is a matter of will and desire to heal and move forward. If you know someone who has been abused in the past, be supportive of their journey to healing, but do not feel responsible for their healing. 

Encourage them to reach out to a professional for treatment, to foster a community of supportive people who can help them with their journey, and be kind.

Take care! 

Additional sources

Weber, D. (2008, June 10). Information Processing Bias in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2714576/

Lachmann, S. (2013, December 24). 10 Sources of Low Self-Esteem. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/me-we/201312/10-sources-low-self-esteem

Lents, N. H. (2016, May 23). Trauma, PTSD, and Memory Distortion. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beastly-behavior/201605/trauma-ptsd-and-memory-distortion

HealingCenters, B. L. (2018, June 14). What is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? – Breathe Life Healing Centers: West Hollywood: CA. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://breathelifehealingcenters.com/abuse-c-ptsd-complex-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/

A. Lambert, C. (2017, August 30). 6 Troubling Signs of Psychological Abuse. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-games/201708/6-troubling-signs-psychological-abuse

Fellizar, K. (2018, September 12). 7 Signs Your Partner Was Emotionally Abused By Their Ex. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.bustle.com/p/7-signs-your-partner-was-emotionally-abused-by-their-ex-11862190

Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2017; 8(sup7): 1418103. 

Published online 2018 Jan 15. doi: 10.1080/20008198.2017.1418103

Maercker, Andreas MD, PhD*; Hecker, Tobias PhD*†; Augsburger, Mareike PhD*; Kliem, Sören PhD‡§ ICD-11 Prevalence Rates of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in a German Nationwide Sample, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: April 2018 – Volume 206 – Issue 4 – p 270-276 doi: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000000790

Burgers DE, Drabick DA. Community Violence Exposure and Generalized Anxiety Symptoms: Does Executive Functioning Serve a Moderating Role Among Low Income, Urban Youth?. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2016;44(8):1543-1557. doi:10.1007/s10802-016-0144-x

Maercker A, Hecker T, Augsburger M, Kliem S. ICD-11 Prevalence Rates of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in a German Nationwide Sample. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2018;206(4):270-276. doi:10.1097/NMD.0000000000000790

Everly G.S. (1995) Psychotraumatology. In: Everly G.S., Lating J.M. (eds) Psychotraumatology. The Springer Series on Stress and Coping. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4899-1034-9_1

Mcleod, S. (2018, February 5). Cognitive Dissonance. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html

Cloitre M, Garvert DW, Brewin CR, Bryant RA, Maercker A. Evidence for proposed ICD-11 PTSD and complex PTSD: a latent profile analysis. Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2013;4:10.3402/ejpt.v4i0.20706. Published 2013 May 15. doi:10.3402/ejpt.v4i0.20706

Kerig PK, Bennett DC, Chaplo SD, Modrowski CA, McGee AB. Numbing of Positive, Negative, and General Emotions: Associations With Trauma Exposure, Posttraumatic Stress, and Depressive Symptoms Among Justice-Involved Youth. J Trauma Stress. 2016;29(2):111-119. doi:10.1002/jts.22087

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