Abuse from a psychotherapeutic perspectiv - Embodied Living


Abuse is more prevalent than we realise in our society. Parents abuse children, husbands abuse their wives, women bully and abuse other women at work and children abuse children.

There are three general categories of abuse:

  • Physical abuse: physical beatings where damaging blows to the victims’ body are experienced
  • Sexual abuse: unwanted sexual relationship or exposure
  • Psychological abuse: which is about unwanted reduction of the victims self-esteem and value through psychological blows such as: derision, humiliation, ostracism, forced submission etc.

The word ‘Ab-use’ means an abnormal use of a person whereby a person is treated as a thing or object or commodity and not as a living soul or ego.


By Soul, is meant essential or real self – our core being. It is the source of all energies of a person, instincts, emotions, impulses primeval unconscious reactions to external events. When we’re in touch with our soul we are able to laugh and find pleasure when things are satisfying; get angry if things are frustrating. When we’re connected to our soul we have the capacity to be close to others, to love, and to be creative (to create). We also are able to attack or run when we are in danger. In other words, we feel truly alive.

It is a function of the soul to process events and experiences (psychologically and neurologically digest it) and convert it to meaning: in terms of emotion, thoughts, beliefs, behaviours. The soul contains polarities such as the nuclear forces of power and vulnerability. It also contains our collective and genetic history going all the way back through human history.


In order to survive and thrive, the soul needs the discriminating ability of the ego. Which is about boundary making, with separating capacities, providing a separate sense of self that is able to stand independent of others and protect itself from ‘invasion’ and does not have a tendency to want to ‘merge’ with another in co-dependency.

The Ego, which is developed in our own lifetime, acts as a perfectly fitting cell membrane and controls what comes in and goes out of us. The development of the ego is shaped by relationships- especially by parents.

The balance between soul and ego, the closeness of the ‘fit’ is determined by our parents and their parenting. If our parenting was such that it allowed as much of our soul’s potential to be expressed, named, sanctioned we are in good balance. Otherwise parts of our experience of our soul become unacceptable, hidden, denied as coming from the self.

Toddler tantrum as breach of ego

Take an example of how parenting can result in imbalance. A toddler in a powerful tantrum: a fit of rage. He or she might be put in another room until the tantrum dissipates, the child becomes exhausted through the expulsion of energy and collapses with tears in despair, forlornness and tiredness.

This is a highly negative experience for the child, as the nuclear force of power has not been contained. Remember, that the child’s ego is the container for the powerful forces of the soul, and is developed with parents who are strong enough to do the containing for the child in early life. The child then learns that she is not limitless, that the forces within her are not ‘all powerful’.

In the above example, the parents need to hold the child in a supportive way, to see and accept the child’s power, and let the tantrum dissipate whilst the child is in their arms. This provides an external ‘countershape’ for the inner force, which can then get internalised by the child’s ego.

If the child is left, as in the example, the relationship and balance between the soul and the ego is disrupted. The child experiences an all powerful, omnipotent level of feeling that doesn’t have limits (exhaustion and crying themselves out is not a ‘safe container’ and doesn’t give a feeling of control). This experience damages the ego. Several ego functions may be affected and reduced including identity, consciousness, meaning and resulting in feelings of loss of control.

The damage of abuse

Abuse even more dramatically damages the ego, breaking the ego defences and leaving the soul, to a greater or lesser degree, without boundaries. This also gives rise to omnipotent levels of feeling. It arouses strong feelings of both vulnerability or powerlessness and reactivity and power that aren’t ‘digestible’ by the victim’s ego because they are so much stronger than anything he has learnt to cope with. Life simply has not prepared them for this. Thus the feelings are seen as foreign or alien and not part of the self, and in this way abuse can dramatically affect the survivors sense of identity.

This breach in ego boundary can make the victim vulnerable to more abuse: they often present as quiet and fearful. Though sometimes this vulnerable core can have an outer ‘armour’ of toughness or prickliness, but underneath survivors share a fear of their own weakness.

They become more closed, protecting themselves and fearful of letting anything or anyone near to them. Paradoxically this unbounded vulnerability may lead to some abuse victims acting out sexually.

Others cope with the intense feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability by closing down completely. They disconnect from their bodies and felt experience, and learn to be out of their body (dissociate), so they don’t feel. Sometimes they might appear ‘spacey’ or far away, with a whispery, breathy voice, often not clear on what they are talking about. But this subconscious expression of softness or vulnerability leaves them open to the opposite kind of contact in others. Because when someone is weak or vulnerable others often become more powerful, as the polarities of power and vulnerability tend to elicit the opposite in other people.


In psychomotor therapy (PBSP) the treatment of abuse victims focuses on:

  • creating conditions to heal the ego, to ‘darn’ the breaches in its fabric, that allow the ego to once again to be in control
  • creating a safe environment where the victim can get in touch with and express all those powerful, repressed feelings and impulses
  • providing that behaviour and those feelings with the vital validating or limiting interactions with ego-creating ideal parent figures.

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