May 2017: Acute Social Anxiety & Childhood Abuse
Dear Dr. Jane
I am 32 and feel virtually crippled with social anxiety. I had an odd childhood. I was an only child and we moved lots for my dad’s work, he’s a vet. So I never got to make friends and my mum and dad have never really made any effort with their families or to make friends. I always felt that my parents were just not there for me, not really interested in what I did. They were, and are, always so wrapped up in each other, I felt a bit like a spare part.
I just feels so anxious in so many social situations, at work, I’m a vet too, it was expected. If I meet anyone at all, even if I’ve met them before. All I want to do is stay in my own flat. I’m not sure how, but I do have a long term girlfriend and she’s supportive, but I think she gets fed up as we don’t do couple things.
Please help as I really fear we will break up over this, and I would not blame her if we did.
As is the case with many of the people I see in person, respond to here or at my regular Agony slot on Radio Gorgeous. When it comes to presentations to do with anxiety, so much is about what your beliefs are not only about you as a person, but your beliefs about your ability to cope in a difficult or stressful situation such as when you meet new people.
And if, as in your case, you have not really been given the tools of coping as you were growing up, you were seemingly just left to it.
It’s as much part of parental responsibility to let children securely understand that they can handle and cope with difficult or strange situations as it is to fed, clothed and educated. The last one you must have had as you are a qualified vet.
When it comes to many anxiety conditions I always like to use the analogy of two things. A Stress Bucket that overflows and results in anxiety. The second analogy I use is a Portfolio Box, somewhere you ‘put’ all the memories and achievements, the mundane things, like getting to work on time, paying bills anything at all that if you think about has a sense of achievement, When you have a stressful/anxiety situation instead of just giving into to it you can dip into the Portfolio Box to remind yourself that you can and have coped in the past and can now.
Also your anxiety is a deep rooted one which is formed from a poor sense of self worth that your parents did little, if anything to counter. I think that having a proper long term place to discuss, and hear yourself say out loud how you feel and what/who has contributed to it. If it is not practical to have therapy, at least write what you feel down in an honest way and see where that leads your thoughts and feeling.
Dr. Jane x
Dear Dr. Jane
My boyfriend and I have been together for two and a half years, easily the happiest of my life. We have a great relationship — open, loving, comfortable and full of fun. For me it’s perfect, but for one thing I struggle to even discuss. Quite early on, he confided that he was sexually abused by a neighbour as a child. It went on for around two years (from age seven to nine) and his abuser died some years ago.
I’m the only person he has ever told and he’s adamant nobody else should ever know. I think it would be fair to say he has moved on from the ordeal quite successfully.
My problem is that I am eaten up inside by the knowledge of what happened to this man I love so much.
At the time, I tried to let him know my feelings hadn’t changed towards him. That was his biggest fear and I did everything I could to convince him that, to me, he is still exactly the same man I fell for. While that’s absolutely true, now two years later I’m afraid I can’t let go of it. I think about it most days. Sometimes I could cry for the terrible pain he had to endure. When we visit his family, I struggle to look at childhood pictures, because I can’t bear to imagine the frightened little boy he was.
Other days I am so filled with rage I struggle to control it. I feel like I want to fix it — go back in time and save him.
I feel irrational anger towards his amazing parents for not protecting him (which I know is unreasonable and grossly unfair). What makes it all worse is that it’s literally the only thing we don’t discuss — not since he first told me.
I’m only writing to you because I just need to talk to someone about it. I really don’t know what to do. Please help.
It’s a sad fact that many people suffer sexual abuse as children, the NSPCC estimated that 1in 20 children will be sexually abused in one way or another. To the child being abused it is horrid, humiliating, confusing, isolating and shameful – that last two feelings are the one that the abusers will capitalise on to keep the child silent, secretive and to the twisted perversions of the abuser, willing to carry on.
I’m loathed to discuss the psychological profile of abusers, as you are the one who contacted me about you and your boyfriend, but having some psychological insight to any abusers is a powerful tool, shedding some light on how abuse starts and continues and how children feel so utterly powerless to stop it is useful for us all to know. And it will answer the questions that people who have not been subject to abuse often ask. Why didn’t you just tell someone so it would stop? It’s really not as easy as that, if it was we wouldn’t read this dreadful tale so often. But the one thing that must be paramount is the abused is never, ever to blame, for the start of it and the continuation of it.
However your question is about you and your partner, it would seem that by telling your right from the start of your relationship he wanted to let you know, both what had happened to him, and to let you share that painful part of his history with you, as far as you know you are the only person he has told, and it is a testament to you and your relationship.
All this time he’s been carrying this with him, and by hearing himself say it out loud to one trusted and non judgmental individual it has been enough for him at this point in his life. It maybe that he will, or equally he may not, want to revisit this at another time in his life, and although it causes you problems, which I’ll discuss in a moment, for him it’s enough that he’s said what he has for the time being.
But you feel that you are left with having to be the confidant, which if you’re not a trained professional is a hard call, but a crucial one in demonstrating that he can confide in another and not have it challenged, picked apart or broadcast to all and sundry.
You say he gets on well with the rest of his life and relationships, and although the abuse is part of his history, it would seem not defining him, as you say he has not become a victim of it. But yet you seem to want to make him one, you talk about rescuing him, going back in time to stop it, having irrational feelings (presumably of blame) towards his family.
In my experience for every victim there has to be a rescuer, and you can’t be a rescuer without a victim. However there is danger that you could be falling in the trap of becoming if not his actual abusive persecutor, then you will start to persecute and ultimately ruin what sounds like a fantastic relationship.
His past experiences are obviously something that disturbs you and perhaps leading by example, such as you seeing your own therapists to discuss you, your stresses, your own thoughts this will be a way of demonstrating the benefits of therapy. However one note of caution if you see someone, do not just simply say it’s about needing to discuss what he told you, because that will be a sure way of making him feel that he should not have told you in the first place. And once you start to see and feel the benefits of sitting face to face discussing your thoughts and feelings about this incident and other aspects to your life and own personality, he may well be led by example, if not right now then sometime in the future.
Any type of abuse, sexual or otherwise is a complex and intricate psychological business with no easy one size fits all answer. However there are lots of organisation offering help for adults who have been subjected to child sexual abuse Nspcc and Napac are just two (links below).
With very best wishes,
Dr. Jane x