Unlike wounds resulting from physical or sexual abuse, where the invasive energy is blatant, the wounding energy of emotional incest is stealthy and very difficult to track. The intrusive psychic energy of the perpetrator is packaged in care and attention. It can be quite challenging to break into this care package and reveal the expectations and needs of affiliation, control, love and understanding on behalf of the perpetrator. Being robbed of one’s childhood hardly goes noticed as the child feels so good about being chosen in a special way by an adult. The child is invited to act as if they are capable of being in an adult relationship.
Emotional incest often takes place with either a single parent or a parent whose spouse is not emotionally available. It can also happen with any trusted authority figure, e.g., clergy, coach, teacher, club leader or relative. There are a number of ways that emotional incest impacts development.
*An attachment to feeling special. The child typically feels special because of the attention received and the unusual level of involvement offered by the adult. However, the price for feeling special is high:
1) If emotional incest occurs with a parent, then the child often is the target of the other parent’s resentment for having taken his or her place.
2) Similar resentment and jealousy can be experienced by siblings or friends who have some awareness of what’s happening.
3) The victim can live with fear of being rejected by those impacted by the incestuous relationship.
4) The victim can exercise an inordinate amount of time and energy striving to be special, which leads to an attachment to perfectionism.
*Feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Children often feel guilty and inadequate as they are unable to meet the emotional needs of an adult. The child’s relational limitations may result in the parent expressing dissatisfaction. “Children who grow up with an invasive parent can have an unnaturally low estimation of their abilities, especially if the parent was critical or abusive.” (The Emotional Incest Syndrome by Patricia Love) These feelings easily flow into adulthood, with a gnawing sense of not getting life right.
• Perfectionism. Perfectionism is a compensation for not feeling good enough, which is a set up for not being able to settle into a comfortable feeling being okay.
* Confusion about limits. Rather than be honest about not being able to rightfully participate in an adult relationship, children will typically pretend they can handle it rather than risk losing the attention of the adult. As adults, victims are not clear about what they can do and what they cannot do. Emotionally incested children also run the risk of continuing to pretend they possess certain abilities, which they actually don’t.
* Sacrificial Lamb. One outcome of not knowing how to identify and accept limits is feeling both intolerant and shameful about feeling helpless. In lieu of feeling powerless in their relationships, victims run the risk of taking action that places them in legal, physical or emotional jeopardy.
* Weak Boundaries. The appropriate boundaries in an adult-child relationship are about the adult providing and the child receiving. The role of strong boundaries is to support the child’s capacity for self-care. An emotionally incestuous relationship has the child holding too much responsibility for the adult. Boundary confusion easily follows the child into adulthood with uncertainty about who is a peer, who is not and what kind of behavior distinguishes the two different relationships.
* Attracted to Enmeshment. Because of the weak boundaries, adults who were victims of emotional incest tend to generate enmeshed relationships rather than emotionally intimate ones. In the latter relationships, each person’s autonomy is valued. Where as in an enmeshed relationship, one person’s autonomy is compromised, favoring the needs and values of the other. A man who is addressing early enmeshment with his mother reports: “I would have done anything for my Mom when I saw how much she suffered after my Dad left. I was seven at the time and ever since then, I feel a deep sense of guilt if I attempt to prioritize my needs when I’m in a relationship with a woman. It is a struggle I’m determined to overcome.”
* Confusion About Power. Typically, the adult and child are not peers in an Emotionally Incestuous relationship with the adult possessing more knowledge and experience. This leads children to be confused about mutuality, holding the belief that someone in a relationship should be holding power and dominate. Typically, the survivor of emotional incest runs the likelihood of either dominating or being dominated.
Healing the Quiet Wound
Because so much was given and so much was taken, it takes patience and receiving viable support in order to navigate our way around the terrain of this wound. Let’s look at some ways to focus the healing:
• Wound Talk. The starting place is to begin talking about what happened, especially the implications of being asked to leave childhood prematurely. During what years was I in an emotionally incestuous relationship? Who was the adult in this relationship? How did it feel to be in such a relationship? What was given to me? What was taken from me? How do I feel now about my early experience? How do I feel toward the perpetrator?
• No Bad People. Those who were victims of emotional incest typically perpetrate emotional incest. Perpetrators act out of ignorance of what was done to them and what they are passing on to others. Perpetrators have no intent to harm children. If you were a victim presently passing on the wounding, you are not a bad person. However, you are responsible to acquire your own healing and interrupt any emotional violation you may presently be enacting.
• Learning to let go of an attachment to being special. When we’re attached to being special it leaves us feverishly striving to achieve it or condemned to not feeling good enough. A key is to replace feeling special by honoring our uniqueness. Our uniqueness is expressed by how we love, learn, and grieve, as well as the nature of our strengths and how we refine them.
• Getting conscious about power. Because the perpetrator abused power, healing power calls for raising consciousness about how we exercise power. Am I employing power in a way that allows me to meet my own needs as well as supporting the needs of others? Am I able to champion the uniqueness of others without recruiting them to be like me? Am I easily seduced into sacrificing myself in order to support the fulfillment of others?
• Healing Trust. Perpetrators gained certain leverage over children because children trusted them. This calls for the healing of the early violation of trust. The first step is to acknowledge that trust must be earned and not given indiscriminately. Earned trust happens and is sustained by a vigilance regarding what happens to us as we relate with someone. Some questions that are helpful include: Am I the object of sarcasm or ridicule? Am I remembered? Do I feel seen and understood? Is my relationship to this person a place to take refuge in the face of life’s challenges? Healing self-trust is even more essential. We can ask: Do I allow myself to feel and respond to instinctual cues that I am in potential or actual danger? (I recommend Somatic Experience as a therapeutic model for reconnecting to instinctual cues.) Do I treat myself kindly, knowing and responding appropriately when I am tired, hungry, lost or feeling vulnerable?
• Employing Effective Boundaries. Good boundaries support our safety, what we desire and hold important. Effective boundaries happen as we say “Yes” and “No” authentically and act in accordance with each declaration. It is advantageous to be able to distinguish mutual relationships from non-mutual ones. Mutual ones can be characterized as peer ship, such as friends and lovers. Non-mutual relationships usually involve authority figures who are offering a service or some level of support, e.g., parents, adult relatives, teachers, clergy, physicians, psychotherapists, coaches, etc. The boundaries in non-mutual relationships are meant to define the relationship mostly about the service or support offered.
We have been exploring an extremely mercurial kind of wounding, so much is given and so much is taken. How ironic to speak of a wound as “feeling so good.” It may be that children often can’t wait to become adults, making the perpetrator’s invitation to leave childhood so attractive, leaving the injury veiled. However, there is a heavy price to pay for children to psychologically be somewhere they don’t belong. I strongly encourage survivors of emotional incest not to simply see their wounding as unfortunate; but rather, as it is with all wounding, an opportunity to open to deeper regions of the soul. (For further reading see Temptation In The House Of The Lord, by Paul Dunion)