Emotional exploitation: what is it and how can you recognize it?

Emotional exploitation: what is it and how can you recognize it?

As an adult, you may suffer from emotional exploitation by your caregivers as a child. In this article, psychologist Bärbel Wardetzki gives three examples of exploitation and how you can recognize it in your feelings of hurt in your adult life.

Exploitation always involves the abuse of a power relationship. This has to do with oppression, betrayal, and abuse of trust. Where the child expects warmth, care, and protection, it is exploited for the needs of the adult(s). Exploitation is an attack on human dignity and identity.

In this article I will limit myself to psychological exploitation and show the connection with feelings of hurt. Trauma of exploitation usually forms the basis for feelings of hurt and the susceptibility to hurt, because they directly affect self-esteem. Emotional exploitation leads to introjections with serious consequences. They mainly concern prohibitions that prevent the child and adult from feeling and acting independently, from relying on their feelings and perceptions, and from trusting other people who give their attention.

Characteristics of emotional exploitation

Emotional exploitation: what is it and how can you recognize it?

• The exploitation has made them very insecure about themselves and other people.

• They cannot estimate for themselves what is important to them, what does them good and what they want. Nor can they estimate other people.

• They often feel manipulated by attention, but they are also very afraid of being abandoned or rejected

• Furthermore, they regularly involve themselves in everything, feel responsible for everything, are easily ashamed, and are convinced that they are guilty of everything.

• To flee from the feeling of being excluded and not belonging, they indulge in isolation through addiction (often drugs, bulimia, anorexia, alcohol) or suicidal fantasies and attempts.

Psychological exploitation is something of a betrayal, in that the child is misled in his confidence and manipulated and exploited in his dependence and vulnerability. Instead of protection and safety, the child experiences exploitation. The lack of security in childhood means that a person cannot give himself security later on. He who has not been protected does not know how to protect himself.

The world and other people are perceived as bad or dangerous, without the possibility of defending themselves against it. Then eating and throwing up can be an attempt to take over this function, as with Cordula Hansen. She fills herself with something ‘good’, calms herself by eating and vomiting, thereby changing her emotional mood and consciously no longer feeling sadness.

Feelings of powerlessness

Emotional exploitation: what is it and how can you recognize it?

The trauma of exploitation includes helplessness and being at the mercy of impotence. It means being totally powerless and having no control over relationships and one’s own feelings, thoughts and behavior. The person in question develops the belief that not he, but others control his life and that he himself has no influence, which leads to the victim’s self-image.

Symptoms such as bulimia and anorexia serve to regain control and influence, such as control over one’s own body (weight) but also over the environment, which is heavily manipulated by underweight, periods of starvation, and peculiar eating habits. By refusing the mother’s food, the daughter returns the hurt she suffered because she now feels rejected by her daughter.

Psychological trauma disrupts the natural sense of boundaries so that these people can later say neither yes nor no, or protect themselves only by rigid closure.

1. Taking care of the adult as a child

Emotional exploitation: what is it and how can you recognize it?

Emotional exploitation means that the child has to meet the psychological needs of an adult and sometimes even actively nurture them. One form of this is the parentification of the child. The child must then take over parental functions from the parent if the latter is unable to do so himself. Often the adults are then under the influence of drugs or alcohol and they need the support of the child, which the child actually needs from them.

Example: Beate

Beate Schneider grew up as a child of an alcoholic and learned to care for him at an early age. The mother could not handle the children, threw herself into her work, and distanced herself from her husband, who in her eyes became less and less attractive. Beate had a strong bond with her father, who was like a mother to her. He put her to bed, looked after her when she was sick, read her stories, and cared for her.

She didn’t tell her mother much about herself, because she did get directions and advice from her, but she didn’t really understand the things that made Beate difficult for me. So it happened that early on, when she was about seven years old, Beate took on the role of protectress of the father. She visited him in the pub and took him home, undressed him and helped him to bed. She hid the bottles or fill them with water. She defended him when her mother scolded him and called him a useless drunk. Beate suffered every time he didn’t come home, worried that something had happened to him and prayed every night that he would stop drinking.

Beate learned early on to care for others and to put her own wishes second. It was so natural to her that she was hurt when I confronted her about her co-dependency. She was hurt because what she was doing would be “bad” or “wrong” when it was only meant well. It took some time for Beate to understand what I meant. It wasn’t about right or wrong, but the fact that she neglected herself.

As a young woman, she had chosen an invalid man who, like her father, had to rely on her help and for whom she now sacrificed herself. However, her migraines and her strong feelings of inferiority showed that she was demanding too much of herself.

2. Narcissistic Exploitation

Emotional exploitation: what is it and how can you recognize it?

Another type of emotional exploitation is the so-called narcissistic exploitation, where the child has to become what the parents want it to be for their own emotional satisfaction. The child must develop certain skills and traits that compensate for the parents’ emotional deficits. In this form of narcissistic exploitation, the child has to achieve what their parents have not achieved. The fulfillment of that ambition by the child increases the self-esteem of the parents.

Also read: Narcissism within the family: a scar for life

But not only the child’s skills are exploited, but also his feelings and needsChildren are often only allowed to have certain feelings and to assert only those needs that the parents deem appropriate. They must deny all others. The tragedy consists in the fact that the child denies his own identity to his parents and becomes a reflection of their ambitions. We often see this dynamic in narcissistic personalities who are highly cut off from their emotionality and fulfillment of their needs and who put a lot of energy into maintaining a certain image of themselves.

In narcissistic exploitation, it can get to the point where the child takes over the feelings of the father or mother in order to relieve him or her. This often involves the fear and pain of the parent, which the child feels. In all these cases the emotional world of the child is affected.

This can mean that this person does not live according to his wishes and ideas for a lifetime, but that he always orients himself towards his parents. He will not find fulfillment or contentment, but must always be different from what he is. Neither the parents nor the child are aware of this narcissistic exploitation, which is fueled by the emotional deficits of the parents, who are usually themselves narcissistically exploited.

Also read: The Impact of a Narcissistic Parent: What Does It Mean to You?

Example: Werner

I remember Werner Schmidt, who couldn’t find his place in life. In fact, from childhood, he was a part of his mother who, proud of his cute appearance, showed him off, as he called it. He was neatly dressed up on display and was the ‘sweet little boy’, Mama’s darling. That role did have advantages; he was very spoiled and because of his charm, he got almost everything he wanted. Those were mostly material things.

What he did not get was his independence, which would have enabled him to complete the necessary separation from his mother and build his own life. Instead, he was always there for his mother emotionally. He supported her in her difficulties and defended her against his father.

His job was to be there for her and make her happy. His focus was not primarily on himself but on his mother, whether she was well or not. As a result, he only experienced himself in connection with his mother and he had his place in his task for her. But it became much harder for him as he grew up and had to fend for himself. He had never learned to do anything for himself and had to catch up as a man.

3. The terrorism of suffering

Emotional exploitation: what is it and how can you recognize it?

Another form of emotional exploitation is the terrorism of suffering, inducing guilt in the child from a parent’s chronic illness. The exploitation of the child, in this case, is that the parent does not take responsibility for his or her illness and thus prevents the child from satisfying his legitimate need for detachment and independence.

The child takes responsibility for the disease and bears the blame for its occurrence and maintenance. The child is thus forced to care for the ailing parent, limiting its own childish claims, and living in a constant state of emotional deficiency.

The child’s guilt prevents the expression of anger and liveliness; the others take precedence, he himself is not important and not entitled to live a satisfying life. This theme is impressively portrayed in the film Jenseits der Stille, the story of a girl who grows up with deaf and mute parents and who is repeatedly misunderstood due to the limitation of communication.

Example: Andrea

Another case concerns Andrea Müller, a woman with great self-doubt and a great fear of rejection. She describes how as a child she was woken up by her mother almost every night and had to walk her up and down the hall for hours on end to support her during her severe asthma attacks. Intuitively, she fluctuated between frantic fear for her mother and total powerlessness and anger at what her mother did to her.

Her mother made it seem that her nighttime walks, as she trivialized it, were quite normal, nothing special. Andrea was hopelessly overloaded and could no longer determine what was true: her strong feelings or what her mother wanted her to believe: that it wasn’t so bad.

Andrea protected herself by denying her feelings. To date, she is unable to determine whether her own observations are correct or those of others. In this way she easily gets into conflict with other people, because she often feels that behind the words and gestures of others there is still a hidden message. If she cannot clarify this doubt in the contact or if she does not feel understood by the other person, she experiences the impotent helplessness of her childhood and withdraws from hurt. She can’t bear the inner tension that she doesn’t know who to trust and breaks off contact.

The various forms of exploitation are, of course, interrelated and in reality, the distinction is seldom as precise as in the theoretical division. However, it provides a good overview of the various substantive characteristics of emotional exploitation.


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