Do you sometimes have some of the following thoughts and feelings?
- I expect people to hurt or use me.
- Throughout my life people close to me have abused me.
- It is only a matter of time before the people I love will betray me.
- I have to protect myself and stay on my guard.
- If I am not careful, people will take advantage of me.
- I set up tests for people to see if they are really on my side.
- I try to hurt people before they hurt me.
- I am afraid to let people get close to me because I expect them to hurt me.
- I am angry about what people have done to me.
- I have been physically, verbally, or sexually abused by people I should have been able to trust.
Perhaps this is a sign of the Mistrustful Exile in your internal family system (the system of interlocking parts that makes up our psyche).
By exile, I mean a part of us that has experienced abuse or some other trauma in the past, and because of the pain of this experience, this part has been pushed out of awareness, out of the inner “family” (i.e. exiled in some way by the psyche).
“Like any oppressed group”, writes Richard C. Shwartz, “these exiles become increasingly extreme and desperate, looking for opportunities to break out of their prison and tell their stories. In this effort they give the person flashbacks or nightmares or sudden, fleeting tastes of pain or fear. Like abandoned children, many of the exiles desperately want to be cared for and loved. They constantly look for someone who might rescue and redeem them.”
THE EXPERIENCE OF ABUSE AND TRAUMA
Abuse is a complex mixture of feelings—pain, fear, rage, and grief. The feelings are intense, and they simmer near the surface.
We may have volatile moods. We suddenly become very upset— either crying or enraged.
At other times we may be spaced out—what we call dissociated. We seem to be somewhere else. Things seem unreal to us. Our emotions are numb. We might see this as another part of us that had to step in to create a kind of mental anaesthetic, a psychological escape from the abuse.
Often, our experience of relationships is a painful one. Relationships are not places to relax and become vulnerable. Rather, they are dangerous and unpredictable. People hurt us, betray us, and use us. We have to stay on our guard. It is hard for us to trust people, even the ones closest to us. In fact, it may be particularly the ones closest to us that we are most unable to trust.
We assume people secretly mean us harm. When someone does something nice for us, our mind may searches for the ulterior motive. We expect people to lie to us and to try to take advantage of us.
Mistrust and abuse bring about a state of hypervigilance. This exile is constantly on its guard. The threat can emerge at any time: it must be alert for the moment when the person turns on us. It watches and waits.
This stance may be directed at the whole world or only at specific types of people.
The way we remember our childhood trauma is important. We may remember everything, and our memories may haunt us. Things remind us of what happened to us.
On the other hand, we may have no clear memories of the abuse or trauma. There may be whole patches of our childhood that seem vague and foggy.
We may not remember anything directly. But we remember in other ways—dreams or nightmares, violent fantasies, intrusive images, suddenly feeling upset when something reminds us of our vulnerability. Our body can remember, even when we ourselves do not.
We may even have flashbacks—memories so strong that we feel as though the abuse were recurring. But perhaps the most dangerous way we remember is through our current relationships. We can very often reenact our own childhood traumas in the present.
Anxiety and depression are common. This part may have a deep sense of despair about our life, low self-esteem and feelings of defectiveness.
ORIGINS OF THE MISTRUST AND ABUSE SCHEMA/EXILE
The origins of this schema or exile are in childhood experiences of being abused, manipulated, humiliated, or betrayed.
Possible origins may include some of the following:
1. Someone in our family physically abused us as a child.
2. Someone in our family sexually abused us as a child, or repeatedly touched us in a sexually provocative way.
3. Someone in our family repeatedly humiliated us, teased us, or put us down (verbal abuse).
4. People in our family could not be trusted. (They betrayed confidences, exploited our weaknesses to their advantage, manipulated us, made promises they had no intention of keeping, or lied to us.)
5. Someone in our family seemed to get pleasure from seeing us upset.
6. We were made to do things as a child by the threat of severe punishment or retaliation.
7. One of our parents repeatedly warned us not to trust people outside of the family.
8. The people in our family were against us.
9. One of our parents turned to us for physical affection as a child, in a way that was inappropriate or made us uncomfortable.
10. People used to call us names that really hurt.
All forms of abuse are violations of our boundaries. Our physical, sexual, or psychological boundaries were not respected. Someone in our family who was supposed to protect us willfully started to hurt us. And, being a child, we were largely defenseless.
It is important to understand that we bear none of the responsibility for our parents acting in this way. The fact that we may have allowed the abuse or even responded sexually to it in no way implies our guilt. The fact that we were a child absolves us. If there are people in our family who are bigger and stronger than us, and they want to violate our boundaries, there is little we can do. The situation is too complex. We were not expected to protect ourseles. Rather, our family was supposed to be protecting us.
We may recognize this all cognitively as adults, which is to say, another part of us recognize this, maybe even downplays the importance of what happened to us, but still the exiled part of us may need help to really take this message in and believe it.
The feeling of not being protected is central to most forms of abuse. One parent abused us, and the other failed to prevent or stop it. They both let us down.
We all know what we should do when a stranger attempts to abuse us. We should fight back, we should get help, we should escape. All of these options become problematic when we are a child and the abuser is someone we love. At bottom, we tolerated the abuse because we needed the connection with the person. It was our parent or brother or sister. Indeed, it may have been the only connection we were able to get. Without it we would have been alone. To most children, some connection, even an abusive one, is better than no connection at all.
In terms of the three types of abuse—physical, sexual, and verbal— the similarities are more important than the differences. They all involve that same strange mixture of love and hurt.
It is hard to convey how chaotic and dangerous the world seems when we are a child and someone close to us can invade us and hurt us. A basic sense of security that most people take for granted is simply not there.
In every instance of abuse I have encountered as a therapist, the abuser makes the child feel worthless. The abuser blames the child, and the child accepts that blame.
For this reason abuse often creates another, or shared exile, who holds a powerful feeling of defectiveness. It makes us ashamed of who we are. We are unworthy. We are not entitled to have any rights or to stand up for ourselves We have to let the person use us and take advantage of us. It feels to us as if abuse is all we deserve.
DISSOCIATION, THE PART OF US THAT GETS AWAY/ESCAPES
The last defense a child has is psychological. When reality is too terrible, there is the possibility of psychological escape. Depending upon the severity of our abuse, we may have spent portions of our childhood in a dissociated state (i.e. under the tutelage of this part of us that takes us somewhere else). Particularly while the abuse was happening, we may have learned to dissociate. This was an adaptive response, as a child..
Dissociating may have been a way for us to remove ourselves from the situation emotionally and just get through it.
Dissociating also gives an air of separateness to an event—it seems to be happening separately from the rest of our life. Thus we may have been able to relate to our abuser relatively normally in other situations.
Another Protector or Manager that can develop if we have suffered a lot of abuse is an Angry, even Abusive part, who might even abuse somebody else. This is what perpetuates the chain of abuse. The abused sometimes become the abusers. As you may be aware, most child abusers were abused themselves as children.
It is important to realize that the reverse is not necessarily true. Most victims of child abuse do not grow up to become child abusers. It is possible to break the chain, sometimes through one’s own inner work, but often our exiles and Angry/Abusive Protectors will need the help of a therapist to do this.
Many victims of abuse who do not actually behave abusively do have fantasies of abusing or hurting people. We may lash out at other people sporadically. We may enjoy seeing other people hurt. We may be manipulative or insulting. What we are describing is a sadistic part of is. It is a part we may find appalling—the part that Counterattacks by becoming like the one who hurt us.
A child who has a sadistic parent is in serious trouble. It is difficult to emerge from this situation without significant scars. There are parents who can coldly use and hurt their children. Such a parent will almost always strike when the child is very young – below five, for example. The parent does not have to worry as much that the child will tell or that other people will find out.
It is also possible to learn to be abusive and mistrustful by example. We may have had a parent who was unethical and manipulative in dealings with friends or in business. Or our parent may have manipulated us or betrayed our confidences. We learned that this is how people are, and therefore expect most people to be this way.
DANGER SIGNALS IN RELATIONSHIPS
The danger is that we will be attracted to abusive partners or to partners who do not deserve to be trusted. These are some of the signs.
1. He/She has an explosive temper that scares you.
2. He/She loses control when he/she drinks too much.
3. He/She puts you down in front of our friends and family.
4. He/She repeatedly demeans you, criticizes you, and makes you
5. He/She has no respect for your needs.
6. He/She will do anything—lie or manipulate—to get his/her way.
7. He/She is somewhat of a con artist in business dealings.
8. He/She is sadistic or cruel—seems to get pleasure when you or
other people suffer.
9. He/She hits you or threatens you when you do not do as he/she wants.
10. He/She forces you to have sex, even when you do not want to.
11. He/She exploits your weaknesses to his/her advantage.
12. He/She cheats on you (has other lovers behind your back).
13. He/She is very unreliable, and takes advantage of your generosity.
It is one of the most puzzling facts of life that we seem to keep repeating the same self-destructive patterns over and over. This is what Freud called the repetition compulsion. Why would someone who was abused as a child willingly become involved in another abusive relationship? It does not make sense. Yet that is what happens.
We may find that we are most attracted to abusive partners. People who use, hit, rape, or insult and demean us – are the lovers who generate the most chemistry. This is one of the most devastating consequences of our childhood abuse. It turned us into a person who is drawn to abusive relationships in adulthood – so we can never escape, even when we grow up – unless we get treatment.
Here are some other ways in which this exile can make itself known to us in our relationships.
1. We often feel people are taking advantage of is, even when there is little concrete proof.
2. We allow other people to mistreat us because we are afraid of them or because we feel it is all we deserve.
3. We are quick to attack other people because we expect them to hurt us or put us down.
4. We have a very hard time enjoying sex—it feels like an obligation or we cannot derive pleasure.
5. We are reluctant to reveal personal information because we worry that people will use it against us.
6. We are reluctant to show our weaknesses because we expect people to take advantage of them.
7. We feel nervous around people because we worry that they will humiliate us.
8. We give in too easily to other people because we are afraid of what they will do or say if we don’t.
9. We feel that other people seem to enjoy our suffering.
10. We have a definite sadistic or cruel part in our own internal family system, even though we may not show it.
11. We allow other people to take advantage of us because “it is better than being alone.”
12. We feel that men/women cannot be trusted.
13. We do not remember large portions of our childhood.
14. When we are frightened of someone, a part of us steps in who is able to “tune out,” so that we might feel as if we are not really there.
15. We often feel people have hidden motives or bad intentions, even when we have little proof.
16. We have sadomasochistic fantasies.
17. We avoid getting close to men/women because we cannot trust
18. We feel frightened around men/women and we do not understand why.
19. We have sometimes been abusive or cruel to other people, especially the ones to whom we are closest.
20. We often feel helpless in relation to other people.
Even when we are in a good relationship, we may do things to turn it into an abusive one. We may become the abuser or the abused. Either way we reenact our childhood abuse.
There are a lot of things we can do to make good partners seem like abusers. We can twist the things they say, so innocent remarks take on the cast of cuts and insults. We can set up tests that fail to convince us, even when our partner passes. We can accuse them of trying to hurt us when they are not. We can magnify their disloyalties and minimize their acts of love. Even when they truly treat us well, we can feel as though we are being abused.
Depending upon how blended/taken over we are by our Mistrustful/Abused exile at any time, our whole world view may be based upon the idea that people cannot be trusted. This part’s basic sense of people is that they are out to hurt us and secretly enjoy our suffering. It is the emotional tone of our relationships—the feeling that surrounds us when somebody gets close.
We may also do things that encourage partners who might otherwise be good to treat us badly. We do this by lowering our value in the relationship: we give in too easily to whatever the person wants, put ourselves down, allow our partner to take advantage of us, send out messages that we are not worth treating well.
The road out of the Mistrust and Abuse schema is long and difficult. But for that reason it can be one of the most rewarding. The road can bring we to what we have always wanted—to love and be loved.
If you are struggling with this part of yourself and would like to find out more about how to cope better with it, please feel free to get in touch with me to discuss this matter further.
There are powerful and reliables ways in which your Mistrustful or Traumatised exile can be helped and healed. However, not all therapeutic modalities (e.g. CBT) will be able to get to the roots of this part, so it is important to find a therapist and a modality which has the means to do so.