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On my blog entry entitled Unmet Needs after Child Abuse: Birth to Age One, a reader posted the following comment:

This is where it begins: at the very beginning. These unmet needs damaged us from the moment we were born. How do you undo damage that began that early? How do you heal pain that began from the moment you entered this world? How do you counter a lesson that was instilled from birth? The lesson that I am worthless was the first one I learned. It was reinforced over and over, moment by moment. It was communicated by word, by look, by action, by lack of action and neglect. How do you unlearn a belief like that?? What do you do with a pain that runs that deep?? Sometimes it seems like an insurmountable task. Sometimes it seems impossible and hopeless. But… I carry on.

I, too, have wrestled with these questions. My abuse began at the hand of my own mother. When you were betrayed by the first person you ever loved (from when you were still in the womb), how do you ever move past that? How do you ever learn to love and trust after that kind of betrayal?

If being abused was the very beginning of my existence, then I believe the answer would be that I could not move past it. If we assume that we are born into this world as empty slates, and then all of the messages that were written on that empty slate were that I was worthless, then how would it be possible for me ever to move past this?

And yet, children are not born as empty slates. They exhibit their own personalities from birth forward, and no amount of parenting rights or wrongs can change who the child was meant to be. Despite being silenced as a child, I grew into a chatty adult. Nothing that any of my abusers ever did to me had the power to change who I was at my core.

Why not?

I believe the answer is that birth is not the beginning of who we are. I believe that we exist before we are born and that we continue to exist after we die. In short, I believe in reincarnation.

I believe that, when we are between physical lifetimes, we are basking in unending love. I believe that my spirit was filled with this deep love when it entered into the body growing in my mother’s womb. I believe this explains how, after a childhood filled with severe abuse, I could still be a compassionate child and grow into a compassionate adult.

I also believe that we have access to this unending love throughout our lifetimes. I do this through meditation. I use yoga to help silence my mind, and then I use meditation so my spirit can tap back into that unending source of love. I no longer believe that the love available to me on this earth is limited. I can access deep, rich love anytime I need it.

I also feel this unending love all around me – in the beautiful fall foliage, in the colors of the sky as the sun sets, and in the beauty of the water lilies on the pond near my house. We are surrounded by love if we know where to look for it. By being surrounded by love, I am never alone.

My abusers tried to break me, but they failed. They might have shaped much of who I thought I was, but, ultimately, who I am is timeless and cannot be stunted by the evil actions of others. Who I am transcends the abuse and even this lifetime. This is how I know that I can meet those unmet needs.

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Photo credit: Rosanne Mooney

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I am working through a series on unmet needs. The series begins here. I am using the book Beyond Integration: One Multiple’s Journey (Norton Professional Books) by Doris Bryant and Judy Kessler as a guide because the authors did a wonderful job in identifying the unmet needs that result from abuse during each stage of development. All identified unmet needs and reactions of child abuse survivors are from Chapter Four: Lost Developmental Stages.

Authors Bryant and Kessler identified the following four needs for children from ages twelve to eighteen:

  • Ego identity
  • Belonging to a group
  • Separating from home
  • Developing sexually

Personally, I had no issues with separating from home, at least physically. I was dependent financially, but I knew that I was barking up the wrong tree to expect any sort of emotional support from either parent. I learned how to make friends by mirroring who they were and becoming what they wanted me to be, which, of course, got in the way of my ego identity. My identity was always a reflection of whoever I was around.

The authors identify the following resulting outcomes:

  • Anxiety
  • Lack of identity or several identities among various social groups
  • Continued emotional enmeshment with abusers
  • Extreme fluctuations in behavior or moods or compulsive conformity and overachievement
  • Drug use
  • Sexual problems
  • Eating disorders

Yep – I definitely relate to most of the above.

The authors identify two internalized messages for those with dissociative identity disorder (DID), but I would imagine that they can apply to others who suffered abuse throughout their childhoods:

  • I don’t know who I am, how I feel, or what I do.
  • I want to be whole, but I don’t know how.

That would be a resounding yes. I struggled with both of those issues for most of my life.

My guess is that most children who suffer abuse from age twelve to eighteen also suffered at younger ages, so this would be an accumulation of unmet needs and resulting aftereffects. I have been successful in cutting all of my abusers out of my life, including my mother, so I know that it is possible to end the dysfunctional bond with an abuser. Figuring out who I am and learning how to be whole have been the two driving forces of my healing journey.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I am working through a series on unmet needs. The series begins here. I am using the book Beyond Integration: One Multiple’s Journey (Norton Professional Books) by Doris Bryant and Judy Kessler as a guide because the authors did a wonderful job in identifying the unmet needs that result from abuse during each stage of development. All identified unmet needs and reactions of child abuse survivors are from Chapter Four: Lost Developmental Stages.

Authors Bryant and Kessler identified the following three needs for children from ages six to twelve:

  • Competence
  • Intellectual and social skills
  • Experimenting with ways of doing things

Children who are abused between age six and twelve experience isolation, which wreaks havoc on their ability to develop social skills. I had no clue about how to interact socially during this time in my life. It’s not like I could go up to another kid and say, “I was taken from my bed at the full moon, assaulted by a bunch of people in black robes, and fear for my sister’s life. So, how was your weekend?”

I was fortunate to have a group of girls take me under their wing. I was the shy and quiet friend who just went along with everything. My family moved away when I was 11, which got me away from the cult but also cost me my friends. It took me years to learn how to make a friend after that move.

The authors identify the following resulting internalized messages:

  • I can’t think/act for myself.
  • I’m stupid/wrong.
  • If I fail it’s my fault.
  • I’m a bad person.
  • I must try to look right.

Yes, I definitely internalized all of those messages. Even though I was objectively smart (graduated in the top 10 of my high school class of over 300 students, earned an academic scholarship for college, and earned a degree from a Top Ten graduate school), I was convinced that I was “stupid.” Even my intelligence was a “bad” thing.

I spent most of my life mirroring what other people did to get them to like me. I still do it today, although not consciously. I have picked up some of my newer friend’s mannerisms, but I only recently became aware of this in myself.

I have worked very hard to overcome these messages, and I have been much more successful in doing so than with the unmet needs from age three to six. I have learned to trust my intuition, which has given me the courage to think and act for myself. I have used positive mantras to undo many of these internal messages. I also consciously chose to stop thinking negative thoughts about myself, such as “I’m a bad person.”

Analyzing my own unmet needs for this series has been enlightening. I suffered from ritual abuse from ages six through eleven, so I would have guessed that those lost stages of development would have more of an impact than from age three to six, which was mostly the mother-daughter sexual abuse. I am surprised to learn that I am still most affected by my unmet needs from my younger years. I guess it is not a matter of how much I was impacted but which unmet needs I have succeeded in healing versus the ones that I have not.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I am working through a series on unmet needs. The series begins here. I am using the book Beyond Integration: One Multiple’s Journey (Norton Professional Books) by Doris Bryant and Judy Kessler as a guide because the authors did a wonderful job in identifying the unmet needs that result from abuse during each stage of development. All identified unmet needs and reactions of child abuse survivors are from Chapter Four: Lost Developmental Stages.

Authors Bryant and Kessler identified the following four needs for children from ages three to six:

  • Taking initiative
  • Taking risks
  • Exploring
  • Separating real from not real

Oy. These are all areas that were greatly stunted in my develop, especially the part about separating the real from the not real. My ritual abusers went to great lengths to confuse the two.

The lyrics from an Evanescence song called Going Under says what I feel so well:

Blurring and stirring the truth and the lies
So I don’t know what’s real and what’s not
Always confusing the thoughts in my head
So I can’t trust myself anymore

I have also had to work through (and continue to work through) a lot of grief over what I never got to explore at my own pace, especially when it comes to sex. But that’s another topic…

The authors identify the following resulting internalized messages:

  • If you risk/initiate, you’ll get hurt.
  • If you get hurt or if I get hurt, it’s your fault.
  • Don’t trust yourself.
  • No one will protect you.

Oh, boy – I am just now appreciating how much the abuse I experienced from ages three to six shaped who I am today. All four of those messages are ingrained in me so deeply, and I have been working very hard to remove them. But, it is still so hard.

One of my greatest gifts to myself was learning to trust my own intuition. My abusers worked hard to get me not to trust myself own inner voice. Since I have found this inner voice again, I feel much safer in my day-to-day life. My intuition has never steered me wrong. Learning to listen to your intuition is a huge part of healing from child abuse.

I still believe that no one will protect me. I do have friends who, in my head, I know would fight for me. However, in my heart, I truly believe that I am alone. I am working on this, but this message has been ingrained for so long.

Another Evanescence song comes to mind – from Whisper:

Catch me as I fall
Say you’re here and it’s all over now
Speaking to the atmosphere
No one’s here and I fall into myself
This truth drives me into madness

This is when abused children begin punishing themselves for the actions of others. “If it went wrong, then it is my fault, and I need to be punished.” This is also when the abused child is more likely to split into parts to enable himself to be what he needs to be in conflicting situations, such as the model student at school and the compliant abused child at home.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I am working through a series on unmet needs. The series begins here. I am using the book Beyond Integration: One Multiple’s Journey (Norton Professional Books) by Doris Bryant and Judy Kessler as a guide because the authors did a wonderful job in identifying the unmet needs that result from abuse during each stage of development. All identified unmet needs and reactions of child abuse survivors are from Chapter Four: Lost Developmental Stages.

Authors Bryant and Kessler identified the following three needs for children from ages one to three:

  • Autonomy
  • Personal control of body
  • Doing things “on your own”

Children who are abused from ages one to three do not get the opportunity to develop autonomy. They exist to meet the needs of their abusers. They are not encouraged to develop their individuality.

Children who are abused at this age learn that they do not have personal control of their bodies, which causes the child not to learn how to develop appropriate boundaries. They are taught that they do not control what is done to their bodies.

This results in the child experiencing shame, helplessness, anxiety, and overcompliance or hyperactivity. In my case, I became overcompliant. I was not aware that saying no was even an option. I was in my mid-thirties before I learned that I had the right to say no.

The authors identify the following resulting internalized messages:

  • I I can’t do it/I have to.
  • I feel out of control.
  • I am bad.
  • I won’t feel.

Those who develop dissociative identity disorder (DID) during this stage of development do so to contain or compartmentalize their conflicting emotions. Because they cannot control what their bodies do or explore how to feel, they opt for feeling nothing. They observe others to learn how to behave. They shut off their needs and feel out of control if they feel need.

I continue to struggle with these issues. I have found that learning how to set and enforce boundaries has been immensely helpful. I used mantras to help me feel better about myself.

Learning how to feel is a continual process for me. I try to stay present and focus upon the good sensations in life, such as how good it feels when my son plays with my hair. If I don’t allow myself to feel, then I am much more likely to self-injure or binge eat. It took a lot of courage to risk feeling, especially since most of what I felt in the beginning was painful.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I am working through a series on unmet needs. The series begins here. I am using the book Beyond Integration: One Multiple’s Journey (Norton Professional Books) by Doris Bryant and Judy Kessler as a guide because the authors did a wonderful job in identifying the unmet needs that result from abuse during each stage of development. All identified unmet needs and reactions of child abuse survivors are from Chapter Four: Lost Developmental Stages.

Authors Bryant and Kessler identified the following two needs for children from birth to age one:

  • Trust in environment and caretakers
  • Being taken care of

Of course, child abuse survivors whose abuse began during this time did not have these needs met. Even if the abuse did not begin yet, most child abusers do not have the capacity to meet those needs, even if they were not overtly abusing the baby.

Most child abusers (obviously) have major issues in connecting with another person emotionally. They see children as objects to be used for their own purposes, not as living beings with whom they could connect. So, a child abuser parenting a baby is unlikely to meet either of those needs.

By failing to meet these needs in a baby, the abuser sends the message that the child’s existence is based upon the abuser’s whims and that the baby is not allowed to have needs. Of course, a baby is nothing but needy, so this is a powerful message for a baby to receive. Those of you who, like me, struggle with believing that having any needs = weakness likely did not have these basic needs met when you were a baby.

As a result, the baby begins his life with the belief that he is not important and that his world is not safe. He becomes mistrustful of his environment and anxious.

The authors identify the following internalized messages:

  • I don’t know where I end and you begin.
  • I can’t trust anyone.
  • I have to take care of myself.

So, how do you heal this in yourself? Honestly, I am still working on healing these messages in myself.

For the first one, learning how to set and enforce boundaries was the key. I truly had no concept of any form of boundaries. My therapist made this my “homework” every single week between therapy appointments. I had a very hard time until I recognized that every time I refused to set a boundary, I was choosing to hurt myself rather than say no to an inconsiderate person. I am much better at setting boundaries today, but I still have room for improvement.

As for the other two, that is a work in progress for me. I have made the most progress through positive friendships. I have learned that it is okay to trust some people for some things and that I don’t have to put all of my eggs in one basket. As for having to take care of myself, my blog entry on Wednesday drives home how big of a challenge this one is for me.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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One serious issue that adult survivors of child abuse often deal with is the ache of unmet needs. I am going to be focusing on the topic of unmet needs over my next several blog entries.

I have seen the ache of unmet needs manifest in many ways. Most child abuse survivors have serious issues with trust and shame. I know a child abuse survivor who felt such a strong need to be rocked (a need that was not met in childhood) that she bought herself a hammock to give her this experience. I know child abuse survivors who have felt the need to sleep with stuffed animals in their forties because it met a need that was never met in childhood.

The sad reality for child abuse survivors, and particularly those who experienced ongoing and severe child abuse throughout their childhoods, is that unmet needs do not just “go away.” Anyone who has adopted a child out of foster care can tell you this. Even though the parents are doing a wonderful job in parenting the abused child from age five and meeting the five-year-old child’s needs, the child still has five years of unmet needs that the foster or adoptive parent must try to meet.

The best resource that I have found to explain unmet needs the book Beyond Integration: One Multiple’s Journey (Norton Professional Books) by Doris Bryant and Judy Kessler. Although the book is about a woman who integrated from dissociative identity disorder (DID), it has a lot to offer to anyone who experienced severe and ongoing child abuse or who is parenting a severely abused child.

DID is just the way that a person might react to severe and ongoing child abuse. It is a symptom, not a cause. The abuse is the cause of the unmet needs, so all child abuse survivors are going to experience at least some unmet needs. Until those unmet needs are met, they will manifest as empty places inside of the abused child’s soul. The fact that the abused child now resides in an adult body does not change that fact that the voids are still there.

Over my next few blog entries, I am going to discuss the unmet needs that result from abuse during each stage of development in a child. I will be using the information provided in Beyond Integration: One Multiple’s Journey (Norton Professional Books) as a template because I could not possibly do a better job at identifying unmet needs in each stage of development than this book does. However, I will bring my own perspective into the discussion about things you can do to begin healing your emotional wounds from unmet needs.

Developmental Stages:

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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