This Is Why You Are Frightened of Emotionally Abusive People

28 Feb 2018

I grew up with a lot of fear in my life.   Perhaps you did, too. At the time, I couldn’t know it but I was actually deeply – and appropriately – frightened of emotionally abusive people. Those people were my family of origin.

My parents both came across as very powerful people. They expected unquestioning obedience; especially from me, their only daughter.   They also regarded my fearfulness as a weakness – another weakness.

That upbringing set me up beautifully to be the “mark” of an emotionally abusive husband?

(That wasn’t exactly their intention. But nobody in their right mind would ever have suggested my parents were far-sighted people. They couldn’t foresee that what they were actually doing was paving the way for their successor.)

The effect of intimidating parents

If this was just my experience and I didn’t think it would relate to you, too, I wouldn’t be sharing it. Occasionally, I speak with emotionally abused clients who  grew up in a home where being intimidated was the norm; but that is relatively uncommon.  Most of us have experienced at least one parent who could be hugely intimidating. Not uncommonly, when we talk about childhood experiences, clients ask: “Were you brought up in my family?”

For a very long time I felt ashamed that my upbringing had been as it was.  My assumption was that must have been my fault. Above all, I felt ashamed of my own craven cowardice. I did not spend my childhood fighting the overwhelming force that was my parents.  Rather, I spent as much time as I could below my parents’ radar. It was safer that way.

Instead, I picked my moment to walk (or limp) away from their world, the first time a true window of opportunity opened up.  Still, I was so accustomed to berate myself for my cowardice that it took me a long, LONG time to see the obvious – I was the only one of my parents’ children who made a sincere, successful bid for freedom.  Plus, I was the only one of my parents’ children who realized that my parents’ child-rearing methods were both toxic and abusive.

More terrifying than my commanding officer.”

My siblings never looked beyond the tip of their noses.  They merely “renegotiated” the terms of their imprisonment. As married, chronological adults, they replicated their parents’ behaviors. (I, on the other hand,  broke free – only to attempt to “renegotiate” the terms of my imprisonment with an abusive partner.)

When my mother died, someone who wasn’t even related to us finally outed the elephant in the (family) room.  In his letter of condolence to the family, he wrote: “Your mother was unique. I was more terrified of her than I was of my commanding officer in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces)!”


“I always thought it was just me.”

I had always thought that it was just me being a craven coward!! 

Actually, I had always been taught that “it” was just me.  My parents had taught me to blame myself for what I experienced.  That one little letter of condolence confirmed that my experience of reality had, in fact, been accurate.  My mother could indeed be quite terrifying.

Mother had a sharp tongue which she used to craft stinging put-downs and chilling threats. My father, too, was a past-master of intimidation – when he put his mind to it. In between times, he adopted a sweet, bumbling, harmless routine.  Although I’m not sure that anyone but me actually fell for that routine.

Still, both parents did a nice job of imposing their – negative – judgment on their children’s world..

Last week, a client was telling me about her terrifying, emotionally abusive mother.  My client had always experienced – and continue to experience – her mother as incredibly powerful and hurtful.

Why you remain frightened of emotionally abusive people

When you reach adulthood yet still continue to experience your parent(s) as exerting incredible power over your life and feelings that doesn’t leave much space for you to experience your own power.

Those of us who grew up with powerful parents were taught that the reins of power can only ever be in the hands of one person.  That person is never going to be you. So you end up accepting that you have to be frightened of emotionally abusive people.

No wonder you end up accepting that an emotionally abusive partner naturally holds the reins of power in the relationship. All that happens is a transfer – or sharing – of power.

My client was still experiencing that powerlessness where her mother was concerned. Inevitably, it percolated through to other areas of her life. Understandably, she was deeply frightened of emotionally abusive people.  They had, after all, played a key role in her life.  As a result, she was also deeply frightened of people in general.  Experience had taught her to expect everyone to be abusive.

You can’t just compartmentalize fear and powerlessness

Fear and powerlessness are extraordinarily hard to compartmentalize into just one area of life. They percolate through your mind in all sorts of ways.  That is why it is so important to address them.

I said to my client that my scary mother was, in reality, one of the most fearful people I had ever come across. In my entire life. She could have been the model for the Wizard of Oz – in that scene from the film where Dorothy finally sees what lies behind the Wizard of Oz facade.

It was one of those light-bulb moments that aren’t really a moment.  It is as if time stops, and then with a whirring of cogs, the machinery goes into a different gear.

For the first time in her whole life, my client started to see her own mother as she truly was: a woman so terrified that she masked her terror with ferocity.

Satisfying as it is to furnish clients with powerful realizations that they never got before from the counsellors and therapists they have worked with, that is only a small part of the therapeutic process.

Behind the facade

The next powerful piece of work that needs to be done is to free clients from their past fears and beliefs about what they are NOT and can never be.  That enables them to  stop feeling frightened of emotionally abusive people.  Instead, they start to see the true extent of their own strengths and resources.

My scary mother lived in an emotional Fort Knox.  My choices, as she saw it, were to hole up there with her (seriously SCARY and S-U-F-F-O-C-A-T-I-N-G), or else go it alone, outside the defenses, under constant attack from bogeymen, monsters, wildebeest, sex maniacs, psychopaths, and every conceivable nightmare she ever read about in the papers.

How well can you live with that kind of fear?

Not very well, at all.

Fear is millstone around your neck.

Fear is a millstone around your neck, It won’t keep you safe.  Scary people may tell you that it will, but the reality is that your fear only plays into their hands. Emotionally abusive people need to keep you in a place of fear.

The solution?

You have to learn to ditch the fear.

On the other side of that fear lie fun, happiness, love, and connection – as my client is already starting to realize.

Nobody is so broken that they can’t do it.

Don’t let being frightened of emotionally abusive people rob you of your present and future happiness. You can overcome that old fear. You certainly don’t want to spend the rest of your life servicing the egos of those ghastly people.


Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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