Abusive, Intrusive, Neglectful

The Three Musketeers of Emotional Offense

In the realm of emotional health and resiliency, there are three basic ways each of us can be mistreated, hurt, or damaged. These are: being abused, being intruded upon, and being neglected.

There are many ways we can suffer psychologically and emotionally. But when you get right down to it, the varieties of mistreatment (real or perceived) fit into one of these three categories.

  • Abusive
    Abusive treatment comes under many guises: it can be physical, verbal, emotional/psychological, social, and can also be any combination of these. Abuse is characterized as a harmful act committed against someone that is intentional and usually repetitive.

    Abuse may involve sexual assault or impropriety, physical violence or domination, or verbal taunting or diminishment.

    Bullying is a common form of abuse, and may occur in any age group. Currently, it is a significant problem in schools. Anonymous bullying that exploits social media and humiliates unpopular classmates has become an increasingly mindless pursuit among adolescents and even pre-adolescents. It has damaged the lives of thousands of children and led to many suicides.

    Domestic abuse refers to resorting to physically or psychologically offensive actions in a relationship, with the term “domestic” denoting partners who live or did live together.

    Psychological abuse is a form of abuse characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another person to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    This abuse is usually apparent once the behaviors have been described and reported to mental health professionals or, in the case of domestic abuse, law enforcement. Victims do not always realize that they are being abused until well after the abuse has occurred. Although this may seem difficult to comprehend, abuse may be subtle or gradual at first, furtively conditioning the victim to enduring offensive behaviors, the damage by which is not realized or discovered until later. Unfortunately, many people tolerate abuse because of denial, threats, intimidation or fear, and circumstances in which emotional or financial dependence keeps them stuck.

    While some perpetrations are easily defined as abuse (e.g., rape, child molestation, physical beatings), people can identify themselves as “victims” by perceiving (and potentially claiming) the actions and motivations of others as abusive. Whether or not someone has been abusive is often dependent upon the judgment and values of those involved. Hence, there is much subjectivity in many allegations and perceptions of abuse.

  • Intrusive
    Intrusive behaviors are a common form of control exerted by overstepping boundaries, either physical or psychological. Intrusive actions may range from subtle or seemingly innocuous (such as questioning whereabouts or activities) to intimidating or threatening (stalking, actual threats, unwanted communications, etc.).

    Although intrusive behaviors can cross the line and become abusive, intrusion is typically subtler, less volatile, and more likely to be passive aggressive, rather than overtly aggressive or physical.

    Intrusiveness violates a person’s space or privacy, habitually encroaching beyond social norms or the recipient’s stated boundaries and limits. Infringements such as looking through belongings, eavesdropping, habitually giving unwanted opinions, advice, or comments, and “checking up” are types of intrusions.

    The person perpetrating intrusions typically denies that such behaviors are inappropriate, and often justifies them as necessary and responsible when challenged. “I was only concerned about you.” “If I don’t monitor your (homework, communications, spending, whereabouts, etc.), you will likely overdo it or not do what you’re supposed to do.” Such comments are standard in defending and justifying the intrusive behaviors by actually denying that they are intrusive at all.

    My mother was an intrusive person. She was very loving, but habitually intrusive. She would often interrupt whatever I happened to be doing by bursting into my room and “innocently” asking, “Did you call me?” Another of my Mom’s frequent and disturbing intrusions was to start or continue conversations through the bathroom door. As if oblivious to the convention of privacy, she would bang on the bathroom door, demanding to be admitted (for the purpose of ranting), even when admonished that I was sitting on the toilet. She just couldn’t wait—not to relieve herself toilet wise, but to discharge her tension by making her points with immediacy and exclamation.

  • Neglectful
    It is particularly traumatizing and damaging to be neglected. Abandonment, desertion, disregard, inattention, and absence are forms of neglect. While neglect is usually unintentional and passive, its effects can be devastating. The ravaging harm to infants neglected in orphanages is a classic example. Children who spend their early years under such conditions become mistrustful and emotionally cold. They have great difficulty forming attachments to people and sustaining healthy interpersonal relationships. They tend to develop brain and nervous system habits of sustained vigilance and fight-or-flight mode as their default approach to everyday life. Suspicion is their norm, thereby making emotional intimacy elusive.

    Whereas orphanages are an extreme (and unintentional) form of deprivation, neglectful treatment occurs in varied instances. Parents or caretakers who are absent or preoccupied, emotionally unstable or unavailable, or simply ignorant or immature can create an environment of neglect. Children in their formative years are, of course, most dependent and vulnerable. Early deprivation sets the stage for physical and psychological impairment. Recovery from such tragic deprivation can take a long time.

    The memory of deprivation sets the stage for negative expectations. Those who have been or feel neglected develop self-protective outlooks of hopelessness and negative forecasting. They expect people to disappoint and not care for them. They have their guard up, often resulting in self-defeating perceptions and interpretations of the treatment by and motivations of others.

    People in all walks of life and at different ages may feel chronically neglected. Realistically, the world is busy; often, individual needs go unmet. Many people are isolated, due to a variety of environmental and psychological conditions. Spouses and children often feel isolated or neglected. People feel unappreciated by their families, friends, associates, or coworkers.

    Many instances of neglect are inadvertent, and they go unnoticed. The hurt is unintentional, but real and damaging nonetheless.

    People who have been neglected early and repeatedly in life are much more likely to perceive and experience emotional offense in that manner. They tend to be hypersensitive to being ignored and to view the world as uncaring and threatening.

Responses to Emotional Offense

Being human entails emotional vulnerability that is within our nature. We recognize we can be hurt because we have been hurt. We all sustain traumas: some worse than others and some more repeatedly than others. Genetic predispositions combined with misfortunes and the perpetrations of others bring pain and tragedy into the human experience. So what is the practical value in analyzing and categorizing the misfortunes of the heart and mind?

At one level, we yearn for understanding and explanation of what happens to us. This is a natural curiosity and also a method by which the rational mind tries to make sense of experience—including emotional experience, which is not necessarily tethered to logical sequence or cause and effect.

At another level, we feel validated by explanations and the discovery of “causes” for unpleasant experiences and sensations. Having painful physical symptoms or coming down with the flu can be quite scary until the realization sets in or the diagnosis is made that explains the discomfort. Though fear of the unknown or the diagnosis of a serious medical problem brings its own set of worries, finding out the cause of many discomforts assuages fear because it can carry the assurance that the misery will soon pass.

With understanding and analysis comes the increased capacity to prepare and cope. If you recognize your own vulnerabilities and the patterns by which you tend to succumb to emotional offenses, you’ll be better prepared and more able to identify, withstand, and recover from them.

Whether you are consciously aware of (or perhaps keenly attuned and hypersensitive to) the emotional offenses committed by others against you, it may be helpful to recognize how you interpret and react to these offenses.

Do you frequently experience the perpetrations by others as abusive, intrusive, or neglectful?

These categories are not exclusive; they may overlap, or vary according to the people, times and situations in your life. Still they tend to fall into patterns. Each of these patterns has particular highlights, but they have in common the profound adverse impact of trauma.

Reactions to Abusiveness

Common reactions to abusiveness include helplessness, anger, and fear. (This assumes that the victim is not in denial. This also assumes initial visceral emotional reaction, not coping mechanisms or the pattern of behavior and psychological adaptation after healing.) Post-traumatic stress is the most common syndrome, and varying features and severities of anxiety and depression may persist.

Repetitive abusive interactions often also result in confusion for the victim. This is because a loved one who, at times, acts in a nurturing and caretaking manner may also be inflicting the patterns or acts of abuse. The disparity in treatment is illogical and tends to distort the sense of reality, cohesion, or even predictability.

Victims of abuse are typically quite aware of their own reactions and their debilitating psychological limitations. They may have flashbacks, and will often perseverate (that is, experience intense negative emotional states that accompanied the originating event, even though the event is long past.) Emotional withdrawal and difficulty trusting are also common reactions.

Reactions to Intrusiveness

Because intrusiveness is characterized by an overstepping of boundaries with accompanying justification or denial by the perpetrator, victims at first may be perplexed by the perpetrator’s justifications or distorted sense of entitlement or rules. The perpetrator will usually feign innocence or, when confronted, will justify the behavior, even claiming its “necessity” for the victim’s well being.

Since intrusive perpetrators are often unwilling or unable to exhibit restraint (even when held accountable), victims typically resort to coping by avoidance or escape. The quest for independence and autonomy becomes central and paramount for those at the effects of intrusiveness.

At its extreme, intrusiveness may also induce paranoia. One only has to reflect upon totalitarian governments to realize the survival value of heightened vigilance.

I realize that my mother’s overbearing manner and nosiness (including her barging in on me in the bathroom) were not acts of a secret police! Yet, at the time (and for long afterward), I felt exposed, embarrassed, and that my desire for privacy was somehow illegitimate.

By contrast, my wife, who grew up in communist Russia, did have to be overly careful because the government and the KGB were indeed looking and listening! She has done a remarkable job in developing “normal” boundaries, despite the horrendous governmental intrusions.

Establishing appropriate boundaries is a developmental task necessary for everyone. It is influenced, facilitated, and hampered by the psychological quirks of individuals in families and also by the pervasive societal values, discriminatory attitudes, justifications, and the sense of entitlement (e.g., sexual harassment).

When boundaries have been violated, resulting in trauma, the affected individuals often experience extended periods of vulnerability, emotional claustrophobia, resentment, and sensitivity to controlling individuals.

Sometimes, people in the relationship circle of a person who experiences intrusiveness have trouble seeing or believing the existence or effects of intrusion. As a humorous illustration of this disturbing reality, I remember a dear graduate school professor who wrote a song entitled Rapanoia. Its intriguing lyrics played on the semantics and themes of paranoia and its opposite. Whereas paranoia means obsessive suspicion that someone or something is out to get you (without supporting evidence), rapanoia is the blithe indifference to the reality of clear and present danger.

Here is an example: paranoia may be exemplified by germ phobia or the irrational fear or belief that one is going to get a fatal disease. Rapanoia may be illustrated by rationalization or inattention to impending health issues (smoking, heart disease, etc.). Occasionally, there are news features demonstrating scientifically that cell phones have more bacteria than toilet bowls! Since I am unperturbed by these announcements, perhaps I suffer from rapanoia. Following my professor’s concept, rapanoia is a nonchalant absence of fear, where fear may be warranted.

Reactions to Neglect

Neglect is an insidious offender. Though abusiveness and intrusiveness lend themselves to degrees of subjectivity and the intensity of perceived experience, those offenses are more easily discernible by the observation and assessment of discrete actions. Rape, assault, beatings, theft, and peeping are clear violations.

By contrast, neglect is the persistent absence of necessary or appropriate care and involvement. Whereas the former are acts of commission, neglect is the act (or inaction) of omission.

Moreover, because neglect is the absence of needed (or desired or anticipated involvement), it is more easily amplified by covert internal perception. A person’s feeling of neglect becomes the reality. What may have started as minor neglect can, over time, become exaggerated into an overarching sense of being neglected, rejected, invalidated, and unloved.

One stereotype of the neglected individual is that of a passive, self-pitying, helpless person. A less obvious profile resulting from neglect is the person whose brain and nervous system live in constant fight-or-flight mode. While there are numerous causes and triggers for an accelerated central nervous system response, an etiology that has been increasingly researched and recognized is that of early childhood neglect syndrome.

The most blatant cases are those resulting from massively neglectful orphanages (mainly studied in Eastern Europe, though there are countless other instances). The bond between an infant and his/her mother is critical and profound. It is the inextricable physiological and psychological matrix connecting the initial experiences of life with satiety, security, comfort, and the expectation that basic needs and survival are ensured.

When a child’s mother (or surrogate mother) is unavailable, physically or emotionally, the child suffers neurological and emotional stunting. This results in a brain and nervous system that is constantly “on guard,” often for decades into adult life. The previously deprived brain “believes” that it requires perpetual heightened vigilance in order to survive. Prior imprinting stamps the nervous system with an imprimatur of fear in response to perceived threat.

People who have been—or feel that they have been or are—neglected may imagine many potential negative scenarios. They tend to be quite pessimistic and mistrustful. They may be paranoid. They have inordinate difficulty trusting, and often are impeded in their efforts to establish satisfying intimacy. In such cases, the brain and nervous system physiologically acts as if under attack.

I’m reminded of a Yiddish saying that illustrates the horror of private insecure imagination:

Vos der mensch ken alts ibertrachten, ken der ergster soyna im nisht vinchen.

(What people can think up for themselves, their own worst enemies couldn’t wish upon them.)

Recovering From What Offends You

Beyond the analysis of emotional offenses resides the practical issue of recovery. How do we deal with a world that threatens, hurts, and confuses. Some impact is unavoidable. Trauma affects all of us. Yet there are helpful strategies and resources.

While I have no guarantees or magic cures, I would be remiss to leave you without hopeful positive suggestions. Here goes:

  • Know yourself
    Self-awareness and maturity are invaluable assets in recognizing what overstimulates you and causes overreactions. Even if you don’t speak Yiddish, you can see parts of yourself in the human tendency to imagine and jump to conclusions that are questionable or self-denigrating. Perhaps the current analysis of emotional offenses will help you see how you react and view things in better perspective.

  • Practice self-soothing
    There are many techniques to calm yourself down. The ability to do so is vital. Find what works reliably for you. Whether it’s deep breathing, self-talk, exercise, therapeutic tapping, prayer, etc.—practice! Emotional fire drills are useful.

  • Train your brain to be calm, flexible, balanced, and unflappable
    The antidote to and prevention of a runaway brain is training with EEG neurofeedack. You may have had a reasonably secure childhood, but still have trouble sleeping, or suffer from headaches, anxiety, anger, fear, etc. Even if you are not hyped up or super vigilant, life is full of annoying people and irritating circumstances (i.e., I don’t get what I want when I want it). Training your brain with neurofeedback will have a truly positive impact on your life, even in areas you think are already going well. Everyone needs an organized and self-regulated brain. No one needs a persistent excess of adrenalin or cortisol.

    Remember the example of children neglected in orphanages and by other early childhood traumas? My colleagues and I have shown that these people heal quite well when they train their brains with neurofeedback. Talking about early (sometimes poorly remembered or unarticulated) traumas tends to reinforce the negative impact rather than release it. By contrast, training the brain neurologically is a safe and effective game changer. (This holds true for virtually all traumas, at any stage of life).

    The brain can learn—at a physiological level—that the world is a safe place and that select people can be trusted.

  • Make a habit of forgiveness
    You’ve heard this before: let things go. Easier said than done, of course; but the heart can learn to be responsive. Life depends upon habits, and forgiveness becomes a habit when you practice it.

    People may have hurt you without intending to do so. Or, in some cases, you may have been the victim of callousness or malice. What are you going to do? If you cling on to it and rehash, the perpetrator will get over it long before you do. The power of forgiveness is an unassailable blessing. By forgiving, you bless and take control. It’s an aspect of godliness that’s supreme! Forgiveness helps you love yourself and others even more.

  • Know that God is in control and is your ultimate protector
    People—even the good ones—inevitably disappoint. Don’t be pessimistic or cynical, but expect it. In reality, we are all fallible.

    God will never leave you or forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5)

    What is impossible with man is possible with God. (Luke 18:27)

Life is often unfair. You may have gotten a raw deal. You may be a victim, regardless of the extent to which you identify as one. Let’s move on. There is hope for you, because God says so.

As a practical matter, making lemonade out of lemons is doable, and it works. You may even be able to sell some.