The Inner Abuser

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Why do we tolerate comments from ourselves, which we would not tolerate from anyone else? Indeed, why do we sometimes allow whole running commentaries on our way of being to take up every second of the day and a significant amount of our mental and emotional space?

Often the ‘voices’ in our internal narratives which sound negative or unkind could be seen to be serving a purpose; in their own twisted way, they are trying to help us. They say “you’re not attractive and you’ll never find a man who loves you” in order to save you from the pain of another failed relationship, or “you’re a loser” in order to stop you even trying to fulfil your potential and thereby risk failure. They are sometimes copies of our parents’ voices and they may well have been trying to protect us form making the mistakes they did. They probably spoke to themselves the same way. Once seen in this perspective, the voices can soften and eventually give up their posts and leave us alone, free to find our own way. This is one way of working with nasty internal criticisms therapeutically, but it is not the only one.

Another way of seeing it is conceptualising the mental ‘voices’ as belonging to an inner abuser, who does not have our good intentions at heart. This often makes instinctive sense. Once we start to wonder about the motivations of the inner abuser, how he can be part of us yet not wish us well, etc., we may get lost in abstraction. I would argue that this is the case with real life separate-person abusers as well: there is no point whatsoever wondering why they got to be that way or how they can act this way when they supposedly love us, or what their own inner conflicts must be in order to make them behave this way. As far as you are concerned, if you have found yourself in an abusive relationship, the only useful person to concentrate on is yourself. Whatever reasons the other person may have, the course of action is the same — to strengthen yourself and escape.

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It’s the same with the inner kind. The effects of being constantly told that you are useless, evil, ugly, etc. are the same, and the course of action needs to be a strengthening and creation of a safe base, the gradual undermining of the corrosive narrative you have been feeding yourself. Stopping wondering about ‘where it came from’ can actually free up energy to do so. Once you have ‘escaped’ and are experiencing peace from the internal abuser, then you can more safely look at ‘where it came from’. You can’t look, though, when you are not feeling safe.

The abuse paradigm also seems to make sense of the ‘backlash effect’ that sometimes occurs when we make some kind of progress, feel particularly happy with ourselves, or have a stroke of luck, a good period. Sometimes this is followed by a brutal downward spiral that seems like punishment for having managed to ‘get above’ ourselves. We seem to have been almost lured into feeling good, and then brought firmly back into line. Eating disorders seem to me to be some of the most obvious ‘abusers’ — with no apparent hidden good intentions, they seem intent on seducing the victim with visions of beauty and fulfilment, then ravaging their health. They are also more likely than any other mental health problem to outright kill you.

As always, the key seems to be refusing to allow, let alone enable, any kind of treatment of ourselves that we would not tolerate happening to someone we love. If this doesn’t come instinctively, it needs to be enforced as a matter of principle. We don’t need to feel compassion for ourselves yet, but we can try to erect a boundary, and set up a safety plan for ourselves. This could be something like strengthening bonds with people who see something good in us, even though we don’t. It could be keeping ourselves busy with activities we know we enjoy more deeply and find more nourishing than, say, having a bulimic episode, although the pull towards the episode may well be stronger and feel much more immediately attractive. It could be many things. The idea would be to enlarge our sphere of being kind, or at the very least being decent, to ourselves.

Only once the nasty inner voices have died down a little and given us a break, then might be the time to dig around a little and find out how we fell prey to the abuser in the first place. For now, the recognition that this is taking place, and some firm steps to counteract it, are more than enough.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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