Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of emotional abuse and suicidality that may be triggering to some readers.
"We must then recognize the immense resiliency and power for us to pull through from a dark place because no matter where we are, as long as we are breathing, we are showing resilience."
As an empath and a mental health advocate, Ziling Yuan aspires to not only promote the social normalization of the effects of mental illness, but to encourage conversation on the topic of abuse and trauma in the general public. Pursuing her studies in Child and Youth Care at Humber College gives her the opportunity to develop the necessary skills to mobilize a positive impact on children, youth and families through challenging situations, as well as advocate for children’s rights. While being in her education field, she is also an active volunteer in providing psychosocial support and first aid to those in need. Helping others in their difficult times brings about a sense of purpose and meaning to the struggles she experienced and she utilizes this motivation in hope of inspiring others.
SWY: If you don’t mind sharing - What is your story with childhood emotional abuse and trauma?
ZY: My mother took good care of me, bought me things that I liked, and helped earn and provide for the family. My mother was like any mother except she was emotionally volatile and unavailable. Growing up, my existence slowly felt like a burden to her. The root stemmed from the history of intergenerational trauma that had been passed down through the family. And without anyone knowing, the norm of emotional abuse made my family quite dysfunctional. My mother would suffer from many mood swings and constant anxiety, and she would lash out on me whenever she felt. With migrating to a new country, coupled with financial issues and burdens appearing in the family, it became unbearable. Anger took control of her greatly and me, being the only child in the family, would become the punching bag. She would vent her problems to me yet claim that I would never understand her. She would say that she cares for me the most, yet I felt like she sometimes really hated me. I would often yearn for her unconditional love but almost every time I would be indirectly made guilty. She was also an authoritarian parent like her mother. Academic grades were absolutely the most important thing to her back then, it became the indicator of the level of love and happiness received from her and ultimately, my level of worth. Bad grades would result in uncontrollable rage episodes with intense belittling and threatening. A home is a safe place, yet I had felt trapped. And even if she was not around, her voice and expressions were imprinted in my mind that followed me everywhere to remind me of the consequences I would have to face.
I have had suicidal thoughts throughout my entire teenage years because of that immense pressure placed on me and being unable to feel safe and happy. I had never been able to express any negative emotions or talk about my feelings but rather, tend to my mother’s emotional tantrums. It was at that point where I had barely any motivation to study and do well, that I received a dreadful grade in a very important exam. Through my developed black and white thinking, it was difficult to see the grey in many situations. My life really depended on that exam. After that, I just could not find any hope and fell into depression along with many somatic symptoms. It was at that moment, two years ago, that pushed me to the devastating point of many suicide attempts. And it was at that point when I made myself take a lot of those drowsy pills in hope of never waking up that traumatized me the most. That day stuck with me ever since and still has its effects on me to this day. However, it was at those darkest moments that gave rise to an enough amount of faith in the future of my life and it was then that I truly wanted to be resilient and recover.
SWY: What was it like growing up in a family that has a history of intergenerational trauma?
ZY: The worst emotion to ever experience from this has to be the feeling of being a burden to the family. No matter the occurrence, it would feel like I was the problem. I did not have a say in situations, nor a chance to express my feelings, but only meaningless apologies. The immense unhappiness in the family and the arguments between my parents made me feel vastly guilty because my mother would be the constant reminder of the forever problems that she had to deal with. Friends and people around us were blinded by the façade that our family put up. A sense of security was rarely felt in the household as I would continually be inspected if I was slacking off or not doing what I was supposed to do. There was also a lack of freedom since it was up to her to decide whether I can do anything or go anywhere. One of the most difficult parts was that I could not differentiate between emotional abuse with what is ‘normal’ since it was all I knew. It was painful to watch her go through her desperate times and the things she would do in her moments of stress and anger. It was more painful to hear the words that she would carelessly and impulsively scream that wounded me immensely. Every school semester-end, I would dread that day that I go home to her with my grades and hear her excruciatingly harsh words of punishment and abandonment threats followed by long silent treatments. Those images and words were what lingered in my memory ever since, that I desperately do not ever want to see her in those states again. Sometimes I wanted to run away, but then I realized the one who’s taking care of me was the one I am afraid of and there was nowhere else to run.
SWY: What do you believe is the importance of having a secure attachment and relationship with your mother?
ZY: The attachment style with your mother is the most crucial since it is the first relationship you encounter in your life. It is the foundation of building bonds and it affects one’s mental development and depicts their own attachment style in future relationships. Security and understanding allow for the optimal development of a child and a secure attachment maintains their emotional balance, develops high self-esteem, and the ability to rebound from disappointment and loss. It also allows one to seek support and share their feelings. By knowing the ending in advance, much like a story told multiple times, children have a sense of security and safety. With an insecure attachment, they would not know the ending since there are no boundaries for behavior directed towards them. And where there are no boundaries, there is fear. Thus, love is then viewed as untrustworthy and a risk. The body, mental wellbeing, and current relationships are endangered when your mind is filled with emotional inner turmoil. And when you can’t control your negative emotions, you become the very person you fear.
"The body, mental wellbeing, and current relationships are endangered when your mind is filled with emotional inner turmoil. And when you can’t control your negative emotions, you become the very person you fear."
SWY: How do you think your attachment style and relationship with your mother has affected the way that you are able to have relationships with others?
ZY: The ‘come here, go away’ phrase is often used with fearful-avoidant attachment. And this is greatly justifiable because the very person you look to for love and affection is also the very person you fear. In other words, a person who is afraid of their attachment figure also finds themselves desperately needing comfort, yet they learned that they cannot trust them and their love, without thinking about the consequences. Many, then experience rocky relationships in adulthood and may fall for emotionally abusive partners that imitate their caregiver. Fearing interpersonal closeness and intimacy is the most prevalent in my life, along with the fear of dispute and rejection. Simultaneously, I had encountered feelings of desire for affection but became extremely uncomfortable and withdrew from them. It is this constant cycle of push and pull. There was also a lack of boundaries and I remembered going out of my way for others when they would not do the same. I had also always craved to be in many relationships, friendships, or not. Having some sort of connection lessens that level of anxiety in me, it gives validation and that feeling of being loved. However, that feeling of solitude was still greatly present because of the absence of that true and deep understanding and bond. In friend groups, I was very guarded and highly sensitive to moments of perceived abandonment or exclusion, and I was unwilling to open up in the belief that being myself can lead to rejection. Presently and fortunately, even with my continued struggle with low self-esteem, I am much more vulnerable, able to express my emotions, and found support that truly helped me.
SWY: From your personal experience, can you give us some insight into what it is like to live with CPTSD?
ZY: With my experiences, the most impactful thing was having negative self-perceptions and low self-esteem. Often, I felt inferior and distrustful to others and I have experienced my fair share of constant anxiety and stress. There were times when I got angry and upset with friends because of something they said and there were also many times where I would be impatient and critical at the things others do. I used to actively seek attention and validation from others. Despite it, I was very detached from my feelings and would not know how to describe them. Sharing anything with my friends was terrifying, and with my fear of rejection and becoming too close, I tried very hard to hide my dark side. I also could not imagine myself involved in romantic relationships because the mere thought of that would induce a set of negative and self-loathing feelings.
Living with my mother for a long time made me hypersensitive to other people’s negative emotions. I can often sense a change in emotion and would be quick to adjust to soothe the other. Certain sounds would remind me of my mother, and I would become hyperalert. My parents’ arguments with other people or with each other would feel like they were criticizing me, even though they were not. At hard times, I would frequently feel that the world was unfair and that this was a bad dream that I could wake up to. My mother would repeatedly say that she cares for me and deep down I know she does, the overwhelming amount of guilt I felt would become unbearable. I, from time to time, self-gaslight and ask myself if all of this really happened or question if I am being too sensitive. With the anxiety and depression that I suffered, I also had many somatic symptoms and were simply tired all the time. Triggering topics would give me anxiety and I would constantly avoid them. I would wake up with mental breakdowns and chest pains from the dreams of my mother and of other misunderstandings. Other times, I would have flashbacks of her in her anger and anxious moments and it would affect me greatly whenever I thought of them. Certain words would also remind me of my mother’s agonizing anger. Truthfully, C-PTSD is certainly not the same for everyone but no matter the severity, every person’s experiences are equally valid and important.
SWY: What would you say has helped you the most throughout your healing journey in learning to live with the aftermath of childhood abuse and trauma that you have experienced?
ZY: Self-compassion is truly one of the most powerful things through anyone’s healing journey. We must know and acknowledge that what had happened to us was not because of faulty being. We must then recognize the immense resiliency and power for us to pull through from a dark place because no matter where we are, as long as we are breathing, we are showing resilience. Being simply alive and pulling through each day is resilience and we should be proud of each step because what we are going through is truly exhausting. Upon reading other people’s testimonials creates the feeling that you are not alone and I also found comfort through the writings of psychologists on social media.
My favorite advice is to simply be curious about the future. We do not have to be hopeful of what our future looks like because that is a tremendously difficult thing to do in a dark place. But being curious gives us that tiny spark and is already great enough. This has worked incredibly for me personally. Sometimes the only thing that I looked forward to was an episode of a good TV show or a new album from my favorite artist. Being excited about the little things in your day can be truly enlightening during hard times. Mindfulness and yoga had also benefited me in being more in-tune with my mind and its sensations. It has the underwhelming power to calm my mind, leave my thoughts, and be more present. In addition, being in therapy has assisted me in being more open about my feelings and it was the first time ever that I shared my story and true emotions with another person. This became the doormat for me to be more vulnerable, which in turn is crucial for true connection. I began to be more direct about my feelings to my father and simply being listened to, makes my emotions more bearable. Having supportive friends around also helped me so much throughout that I am truly grateful for.
Learning about reparenting has taught me the act of validating the inner child during times of stress and anxiety. Effectively, actively listening to the body and feeling the present emotion helped my mind be more in-tune with it. I sometimes remind myself that it is okay to feel a certain emotion, the most crucial thing is to recognize its presence, acknowledge it, and question what do I need to do then to comfort it. It is frankly difficult to form that habit of self-soothe and reassurance during painful times but when we do, we slowly begin to build that confidence and self-love in us that we really deserve.
SWY: As an individual who grew up in a family with a history of intergenerational trauma, what are some messages and traits you think are most important in instilling in your future child in terms of changing the trajectory of intergenerational trauma and abuse?
ZY: Creating a safe and secure environment without fear and anxiety is one of the most important parts. Being able to regulate big emotions and able to be in control with them brings good boundaries. My mother was unpredictable. What was met with an apathetic response yesterday may be an outrage episode tomorrow. She can show love and affection today and claim abandonment threats the next. Displaying love and affection is evidently essential but being able to be responsible with my own negative emotions is the most important. Fear is the immediate result when a child lives with a parent with no boundaries. Presenting control of emotions during stressful times sets a good example for the child. Active and non-judgmental listening is another crucial part and contributes to the development of a secure environment because children need to be comfortable and able to display their feelings, positive or negative. Children should learn that unhappiness is just as valuable as happiness and emotions are only temporary. Good listening skills promote good interpersonal communication and thus, vulnerability which in turn, allows for successful relationships and the capability of accepting rejections and moving on despite conflict or loss.
SWY: What do you think we can do as a society to try and break the cycle of childhood and youth abuse and trauma?
ZY: In a society where the stigma surrounding mental health, abuse, and trauma are distinctly present, these topics are not frequently conversed in the general public. As much as abuse and trauma are uncomfortable and unendurable to talk about, there are also usually shame and guilt attached to these same conversations. We still live in a society where being vulnerable is considered as weakness and voicing one’s emotions as sensitive. In many cultures around the world, the cultural acceptance of dominance in any relationship allows for abuse to take root. Also, in these cultures lies the belief that part of the maturation process of a person is learning to suppress their emotions. Normalizing and bringing awareness to the topic of abuse and trauma is the first step in driving change into practice. Mental health programs should be mandatory in schools and services should be readily available to everyone in the community. Awareness should also be regularly advertised and promoted in the media. Individually, it is essential to educate ourselves to not only sensitize these topics but mold them to become more tolerable. Discrimination against those that are vulnerable and affected still persists in the community. It is a necessity to manifest, not just sympathy, but empathy and compassion towards each other. It is also imperative to not compare one’s experiences with others because trauma is not a competition. No matter the severity, everyone’s story is different and equally powerful because as long as we went through pain and suffering, our voices are important and rightful to be heard. We need to be kind and encourage each other through our healing paths. Even if we do not see it, there are and will be people around us with invisible war wounds that unlike physical scars, do not directly scream for understanding, concern, and ultimately, love.