Punishing Ourselves, Part 1 – Numbness and Deprivation

Isolation cells at Fremantle Prison, Australia, Author Gnangarra (CC-BY-2.5-AU)

WARNING:  Graphic Images

And Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear!’ ” (Gen. 4: 13).

Though there are some hideous punishments inflicted on children, I will not be focusing on those here.  I want instead to talk about the punishment we inflict on ourselves.  The two are linked.

As abuse victims, we come to believe ourselves deficient, sinful, unworthy of love.

We may be told this directly by curses, blows, and cigarette burns, or indirectly by food, warmth, and shelter denied; by affection, comfort, and encouragement withheld; by the absence of laughter, except at our expense; by the absence of protection from sexual predation; and, above all, by the absence of hope.

Whatever the details in our case, we come to see ourselves as guilty.  We may not be able to name the sins we committed to “deserve” our abuse.  But we are certain of our guilt.

It is as if we bear the mark of Cain without ever having committed the crime.

Punishment and Deprivation

My soul has been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is” (Lam. 3: 17).

Those of us who were deprived of the basic necessities as children may deprive ourselves the same way as adults.

We cannot keep the refrigerator full or the pantry stocked.  We have difficulty using the new sheets, and may prefer sleeping on the couch or floor.  We resist purchasing a favorite food or appealing item of clothing for ourselves.  We take time off from work only reluctantly for a vacation.

Collateral to this, abuse victims who were physically and/or emotionally starved may hide food (or money and valuables) in secret spots around the house or yard.

While it may be painful to us, none of this behavior is a sign of “insanity” on our part.  It is simply a residual scar of the abuse inflicted on us, the rational response to irrational circumstances.

Punishment and Numbness 

You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead…” (Lev. 19: 28).

Sadly, abuse victims may go to further extremes and use self-harm (“cutting”)  to overcome a sense of numbness or emotional deadening, in the aftermath of abuse.  Some victims, also, cut in an attempt to cope with powerful emotions like loneliness, emptiness, rejection, sorrow, and rage.

For yet other victims, the pain is so great they will do anything to block it out – even if that means destroying  themselves, in the process.  This is where illegal drugs come into the picture.

Drugs at best provide temporary anesthesia.  Abuse victims quite literally lose themselves, albeit at the risk of their lives.  Since victims already feel worthless, that can seem like a fair trade.

This series will conclude next week with “Punishing Ourselves, Part 2 – Emotional Hunger”



Filed under Child Abuse, Child Molestation, Christianity, Emotional Abuse, Neglect, Physical Abuse, Religion, Sexual Abuse

13 responses to “Punishing Ourselves, Part 1 – Numbness and Deprivation

  1. Miss A

    Self harm is so tough to see and yet it was so common, specially when i was a teenager. Wish it was more widely discussed among us at that time in school and how i could help my friends as i had no clue what to do

  2. One of the most difficult lessons to learn from abuse is that we are not to blame, nor did we deserve the punishment and cruelty meted out to us supposedly in the name of love. Abusers will nearly always claim that their behaviour is a true reflection of their love for us, seeing cruelty as a way of making us better in their eyes. Their view is warped. Abusers neither love themselves or their children. It can be a steep hill to climb to truly learn how to love yourself in adulthood because childhood concept of love is based on the treatment given by caregivers. Much as you would like to reverse the process, those same lessons taught in childhood, follow us into adulthood, because as the author through her own experience so rightly says: “It is simply a residual scar of the abuse inflicted on us, the rational response to irrational circumstances.” And scars whether visible or not are evidence of the trauma held in and by our bodies. How easy is it to remove a scar? You can’t. But what you can do is allow your scars to remind you that you are more than those scars. Let those scars remind you that you don’t deserve them – what you do deserve is love and compassion and a life in which devotion to self-care becomes second nature. It’s a new lesson to learn and it can be a hard one too, but just like driving a car (not the best example!), the more you practice, the more accomplished you become, and those ‘hill starts’ will cease to be as scary as they initially were! Anna – please forgive that terrible metaphor!

    • My blunt approach is never on a par with your sensitive one, Marie. 🙂 We both, however, agree. Scars are not signs of a defect on our part that somehow “justified” the abuse. Sue Cass said this about scars: “Never be ashamed of the scars that life has left you with. A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed, you endured the pain and God has healed you.” ❤

  3. This post is an eye-opener. The suffering that abuse victims go through is enormous. It is almost as though victims enter into a psychosomatic cascade of punishing themselves further for the sins committed by others. To the observers, all we see or perceive are the physical scars which are meager compared to psychological damages. Thanks for this exposition. I look forward to the concluding part.

  4. Anna,

    I know this is a repeat of earlier comments from me, but I never cease to be grateful: Thank you for the insights you share. Your writings pull back the veil in a way that is not intellectualism at all… just raw and real.

    I continue to be fed here.

    Your brother
    David NY

    • You are always so kind to me, David. 🙂 I’m glad if the blog is of some small help in your ministry. I speak from my heart, but do try to verify my conclusions vis a vis available psychological studies and the like. Individual experience, of course, varies.

      While you and I realize faith is an enormous consolation, it cannot be forced on abuse victims without damaging them further. You are so empathetic to the pain of others, I’m confident you would never make that mistake.

      Your sister in Christ,


  5. I could not agree more, Anna. And to be sure, my definition of “religion/theology’ will differ than many.

    I think on this verse often:

    “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction,…” (James 1:27)

    Love… He loves us beyond measure and without condition, and love never forces itself on another.

    Thank you as usual for clearing up what I should have qualified myself 🙂

    Always your brother

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