Intimacy and the Real Self

As abuse victims, the majority of us have trust issues.  Intimacy, in other words, is a challenge for us. Lovers are likely to be selected for their inability to permit intimacy (or might as well be). The closer they get to us, the greater the chance they will run.

In the agony of trying to hold onto someone unwilling to commit, we lose sight of one essential fact. The closer they get, the greater the chance we will run. The attraction evaporates.

Our trust issues may be such that we cannot even allow for friendships. If we have managed to form valued relationships, we may still keep friends at arm’s length. While we need not fear or distrust genuine friends, it can be difficult for us to believe friends would remain loyal, if they knew all our flaws.

Our “true” selves.

Safety Zone

Painful as it is, abuse victims often rely on distance – geographic and emotional. Intimacy can be so unfamiliar it makes us nervous. Distance provides us a “safety” zone within which our secret selves live.

There is no actual safety in such a zone. It is merely a no man’s land with which we surround ourselves. Isolation takes the place of barbed wire, keeping us in and others out.

The Secret Self

Secrets can flourish within that zone. We need not explain the myriad after-effects of abuse (after-effects for which we may have been rejected in the past, for which we may despise ourselves).

We need not explain our eating disorders or sexual difficulties.  We need not explain what has compelled us to sleep with “so many” – or “so few” – men (or women, for that matter). We need not explain our complex reasons for remaining in abusive relationships – reasons we may not fully understand ourselves.

The Hidden Self

None of these secret flaws – these “terrible” aspects of what we view as our true selves – is harmful to others [1].

Strangely, we take no notice of our many positive qualities. It is as if these qualities were invisible to us, hidden in the same way we hide the worst details of the abuse and its after-effects from others.

There is a simple explanation.  Our positive qualities were not acknowledged when we were children, so they faded from sight.  All we heard was the barrage of criticism which now echoes in our heads.

We may have fought some of the battles over abuse since childhood – battles with misplaced guilt, perfectionism, procrastination, self-neglect, and self-deprivation. We can expect to fight others until our dying day – battles with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, for instance.

These struggles can be exhausting. They require enormous courage, and enormous strength — qualities we regularly exhibit, but rarely recognize in ourselves. Suffering has, also, increased our compassion for others. It may have deepened our faith.

Unrelated to the abuse, we may be diligent, reliable, sensitive, ethical, creative, and countless other positive things.  But we resist the description, since it does not conform with the criticism directed at us in childhood.


While disclosure is not appropriate with all issues, to all people, or in all settings, it can be a great relief [2].

At very least, the secret self should be introduced to the hidden self. After all, it is the combination of the two that is the real self. That combination provides a more accurate picture of reality, and a more balanced picture of who we are.

It is in that combination – and the acceptance of our very human flaws – that the possibility for change (and intimacy) rests.

[1] The situation is somewhat different for those of us with children. None of us want to pass these problem behaviors on. We attempt to shield our children from them, insofar as possible.

[2] Disclosure of the abuse and its after-effects is in the discretion of the individual. Each situation is unique. Professional guidance and support are highly recommended.



Filed under Child Abuse, Emotional Abuse, Neglect, Physical Abuse, Prostitution, Sexual Abuse, Violence Against Women

8 responses to “Intimacy and the Real Self

  1. Dear Anna, this was very good and full of insight into my life and that of others that I have tried to have a relationships with the past. I would like to bring up one more aspect of the “Safety Zone” aspect you wrote about.

    There is this other thing in relationships of the wounded and abused called “sabotage.” I have done it all my life so that I can keep people distant that can’t be trusted and get them to reject me. I did it with a dear Christian brother of mine in the beginning of our relationship fifteen years ago. I told him the second or third time we got together about all my failings and sins. My thinking was, “If I am going to invest a bunch of time in this relationship and then he finds out my past, I might as well just lay it all out on the table up front and let him reject me NOW and save the effort.”

    Most people try and hide things that might cause people to run from them, but the one who sabotages to maintain a “safety zone” likes to blow up their social bridges with their honesty. Most people cannot handle this kind of transparency coming from another and they leave, least it might require them to do the same. But once in a while you run into that rare person that loves you as Jesus does and who you are safe with. Sad to say, I never found one in all the churches I was part of.

    Thanks again, dear sister, for your wonderful love for the hurting and insight into this issue of abuse.
    Your friend,

    • Thank you for bringing up this important point, Michael. It is true that abuse victims will, at times, sabotage their relationships. This can be intentional, stemming from the fear of intimacy. Other times though it can be unconscious, stemming from the desire for intimacy.

      Victims often have boundary issues. Boundaries are the physical and emotional lines others require our permission to cross. Since our boundaries were repeatedly violated, we often have difficulty establishing healthy boundaries for ourselves, and recognizing the boundaries of others.

      Longing for intimacy, victims may unload the details of their abuse on an acquaintance who is unready to deal with them. A waiter once disclosed at our table during dinner that he had been abused.

      Genuine friends will provide love and support, in the full knowledge of our abuse. But friendships take time to develop. Those other than professionals confronted with too much information in the early days and weeks of a relationship may simply be overcome. At a loss how to respond, they will pull back — as much out of concern not to do harm to the victim, as anything else.

      Of course, from a victim’s perspective, this feels like rejection and is likely to discourage further disclosures.

      Again, thank you for sharing, Michael. I am sure your experience will be of help to others.

      Your friend,


      • Thank you so much, Anna. you have touched on some important truths about boundaries and how normal ones get messed up in those who have been abused. My church abuse that I have gone through left me with a lack of boundaries and it set me up to be abused and taken advantage of by pastors and church leaders over and over. Finally, God broke through all their bad teachings that used the Bible to endorsed what they were doing to me and others (Remember that Satan used scriptures to tempt Jesus). I finally saw that Jesus is NOT that way… He stands at the door and knocks (Rev. 3:20), He does not kick it in, intimidate, rape and pillage the one seeking Him. He calls to us and waits for us to open the door unto Him. He appeals to us with His pure unselfish love and seeks only our best interests.

        Slowly I am coming around to opening up to Jesus and the Father and praying like Mary did, “Behold your handmaiden. Let it be done to me according to your word.” Perfect love casts out ALL fear.

        Bless you, my dear friend!

      • You are a blessing to me, Michael! How deep and widespread the harm abuse can cause. We are left with a tangle of scars, as if a bomb had exploded across our lives. Yet God can uphold us despite the scars, and even use them for good.

  2. megangail

    Reblogged this on megangail's Blog and commented:
    An incredibly true post.

  3. This was very insightful. I hesitate to say that I was abused, you know. My parents did their best in a lot of ways. They were young parents with four kids. It’s tough. Plus alcoholism was a factor. Things got pretty out of control and it was very dysfunctional. I had a tough time making friends for years because I had very low self-esteem and felt like rejection was inevitable. I am now thankful to have a group of friends that get and accept me. My closest friend is also a survivor of abuse (much worse than mine). I think we really connect because there is an understanding and openness there. Just having friends is so crucial. Isolation is just so bad for anyone, but especially for people dealing with ‘demons’. I feel intimidated by people who seem like they ‘have it all together’. I recognize a lot of myself in what you said. Words of criticism hit me hard but I have a super-human ability to repel any praise or compliments! Thank goodness for the one who puts all the pieces back together!

    • I could not have put it better, Sierra. As you say, isolation is bad for everyone, especially those of us dealing with “demons”. Even talking about our past can take courage. Sadly, some people have been so deeply scarred they fear any further contact. It sounds as if you have great resilience. You know, those who seem to “have it all together” may never have been tested and tried the way you have. When we’re weak, He is strong. Blessings, A.

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