The wounds of emotional incest are often invisible but profound. They can lead to a lifetime of difficulties in forming healthy relationships, trusting others, and developing a strong sense of self.

Healing the Hidden Wounds: Help for Survivors of Emotional Incest

Have you ever found yourself struggling to meet your parents’ expectations, and feeling like you’re never quite good enough? It’s tough to balance respecting your parents’ wishes with taking care of your own needs and feelings. 

But don’t worry – you’re not alone! If you’ve grown up in an environment where you feel guilty or ashamed for not living up to your parents’ expectations, you might be a victim of emotional incest. 

In this article, we’ll discuss emotional incest and give you some tips for boosting your self-worth. So take a deep breath, and let’s get started!

The worst scars aren't the ones you can see, but the emotional wounds that you cannot explain nor rationale the cause.

What is emotional incest?

Emotional incest, also referred to as covert or psychological incest, is a concept that explains the toxic dynamic between a parent and child, where emotional boundaries are crossed. 

Unlike physical incest, emotional incest does not involve sexual abuse; however, it can still profoundly impact the emotional well-being and development of the child.

If you grew up in a family where one person held a position of authority and saw family members as submissive individuals, chances are you experienced the damaging effects of emotional incest. 

Another instance is when a family member was unwell, and you were implicitly or explicitly instructed to “be careful with your words” or “avoid confronting them, even if they were unkind to you” as a child. This too falls under the category of emotional incest.

Next, lets discuss who and how each family is impacted by this form of abuse.

Who is impacted the most by emotional incest?

Emotional incest is a complex issue that affects the entire family. It causes damage to both the abuser and the victim, impacting their ability to problem-solve and creating a distorted sense of responsibility.
My client Sally (pseudonym), grew up in a household with an alcoholic mother. As a child, she mistakenly believed that her mother’s late bill payments were her own fault, leading her to take on multiple after-school jobs to support the household. Meanwhile, Sally’s mother irresponsible behavior worsened over time.
I strongly suggest reading “It’ll never happen to me!” by Claudia Black, a captivating exploration of the lasting impact of growing up in a household with emotionally disabled adults.

Why does it happen?

In emotional incest, a parent seeks emotional support, companionship, and validation from their child. The parent might depend on the child to meet their emotional needs, treating them as a confidant, surrogate partner, or source of intimacy. 

This form of incest occurs when a parent is emotionally unavailable or lacks appropriate adult relationships, leading to an inappropriate reliance on their child to fill the void.

I grew up under the influence of two emotionally disabled individuals. My mother sought solace in me, both physically and sexually, while my father relied on me for mental support. This overwhelming combination had a profound impact on my perception of love and relationships.

Still wondering if you were a victim of emotional incest? Below are some signs that you were abused during your childhood.

Signs of Emotional Incest

Some common signs and characteristics of emotional incest include:

Role reversal

 The child is placed in a role that is more akin to a partner or emotional confidant, rather than a child. The parent may share intimate details about their personal life, relationships, or emotional struggles with the child.

My valued client, Rachel (pseudonym), holds poignant recollections of her mother sharing the details of Rachel’s father’s past and ongoing amorous adventures. Throughout countless hours, Rachel found herself entrapped in the night, as her mother tearfully recounted each tale that a young girl could not fathom.

Emotional enmeshment

There is a lack of boundaries between the parent and child, resulting in emotional fusion. The child may feel responsible for the parent’s emotional well-being or experience an unhealthy level of emotional dependence on the parent.

My client David (pseudonym) quickly discovered his talent for bringing laughter to the household. In moments of turmoil caused by his unruly older brother, David would employ his wit to inject humor into the midst of shouts and cries reverberating throughout the house. As an adult he struggled with embracing sadness because he learned as a child to ignore his painful feelings.

Neglect of the child’s needs

The emotional focus is primarily on the parent’s needs, leaving the child’s emotional needs unmet or unrecognized. The child may suppress their own emotions or develop a sense of guilt or shame for expressing their own needs.

Oftentimes, individuals who have been conditioned to disregard their emotions often evolve into relentless workaholics striving for perfection. They have mastered the art of disregarding their innate needs and emotions in pursuit of achieving exceptional results.

Inappropriate or non-existent boundaries

The parent may invade the child’s privacy, overstep physical boundaries, or create an overly enmeshed relationship that prevents the child from developing their own sense of identity and autonomy.

The effects of emotional incest can be long-lasting and detrimental to the child’s psychological development. Children who experience emotional incest may struggle with intimacy, boundaries, trust, and the formation of healthy adult relationships. They may also experience feelings of guilt, confusion, and low self-esteem.

The wounds of emotional incest are often invisible but profound. They can lead to a lifetime of difficulties in forming healthy relationships, trusting others, and developing a strong sense of self.

Healing from emotional incest is a deeply personal and complex process. It often requires time, self-reflection, and support from trusted individuals or professionals. While everyone’s healing journey is unique, here are some general steps that can be helpful:

Healing the hidden emotional wounds

Recognize and acknowledge the problem

It is essential to acknowledge and understand the impact it has had on your life. By validating your experiences and recognizing the inappropriate dynamics, you are taking the first step towards healing and reclaiming your emotional health.

Emotional incest can be a deeply complex and challenging experience, but by acknowledging its existence, you are empowering yourself to confront and overcome its effects. It is important to remember that you are not alone in this journey. There are resources and support available to guide you through the healing process.

Recognizing the signs of emotional incest is a significant breakthrough in itself. It allows you to gain insights into the dynamics that may have shaped your emotional well-being. By acknowledging and understanding these dynamics, you can begin to break free from your parent’s emotionally toxic hold and forge a path towards healing.

Establish boundaries

Mastering the art of establishing and upholding healthy boundaries is essential for personal growth and overall well-being. It’s crucial to take a moment to reflect on past experiences where your personal boundaries may have been encroached upon, as this self-awareness will empower you to confidently express your needs and limitations moving forward. 

Moreover, creating boundaries will teach you how to create a healthy emotional distance from an emotionally disabled parent. You can still enjoy their company without feeling guilty or shamed. 

Read, “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents” by renowned author Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD. In this book you will gain invaluable insights on establishing healthy boundaries with your biological parents as an adult.

Cultivate self-care practices

It is crucial to engage in self-care activities that not only nurture your mind and body but also promote emotional well-being. Here are a few suggestions to help you prioritize your own needs, emotions, and self-compassion.

Firstly, incorporating exercise into your daily routine can work wonders for your emotional well-being. Whether it’s going for a run, practicing yoga, or even dancing to your favorite tunes, physical activity releases endorphins that can boost your mood and reduce stress.

In addition to exercise, meditation can be a powerful tool in finding inner peace and calmness. Take a few moments each day to sit in a quiet space, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. This simple practice can help reduce anxiety and improve overall emotional well-being.

Another great way to promote emotional well-being is through journaling. Writing down your thoughts and feelings allows you to reflect on your experiences and release any pent-up emotions. 

Consider setting aside some time each day to jot down your thoughts, dreams, or even gratitude. It can be incredibly therapeutic.

Spending time in nature can have a profound impact on your emotional well-being. Take a walk in the park, hike a trail, or simply sit by a lake. Connecting with the natural world around you can help reduce stress and provide a sense of tranquility.

Reclaim your identity

Imagine a world where you can fully express yourself without any external judgments or expectations. This is your chance to rediscover who you truly are as an individual. Embrace your passions and dive into activities that ignite your soul, whether it’s painting or writing.

By nurturing your own personal growth and development, you will unlock a whole new level of fulfillment and happiness. It’s time to prioritize yourself and invest in your own well-being. Take the time to engage in self-reflection and push yourself beyond your comfort zone.

Develop healthy relationships

Surround yourself with supportive and trustworthy individuals who respect your boundaries and offer emotional support. Build healthy relationships based on mutual respect, trust, and open communication. Learning to trust and form healthy attachments with others can be a crucial part of healing.

These individuals will not only be there for you but will also encourage you to set healthy boundaries that protect your emotional space. They will provide the support you need to navigate through life’s ups and downs, allowing you to grow and heal in a safe and nurturing environment.

Learning to trust and form healthy attachments with others might seem daunting at first, but it is an essential part of your healing process. The connections you build will provide a solid foundation for your emotional growth, allowing you to experience the joy of genuine human connection.

Practice forgiveness and self-compassion

While we understand that past pain cannot be erased, holding onto it will not benefit you or your future. It is important to practice forgiveness, both for yourself and your abuser. This does not mean condoning their behavior, but rather recognizing that they lacked the necessary tools to properly parent you.

As you work towards forgiveness, remember to include yourself in this healing process. Nurturing self-compassion is crucial for your own well-being and success. Be gentle with yourself, acknowledge that the emotional incest was not your fault, and allow yourself to heal at your own pace.


Final Thoughts

It’s important to note that emotional incest is a complex and sensitive topic, and professional support from a therapist or coach like myself who specialize in trauma and family dynamics can be beneficial for individuals who have experienced emotional incest or suspect they may have.

Remember, healing is a gradual process, and it’s normal to have ups and downs along the way. Give yourself time and patience as you navigate your healing journey, and get support if needed.

Ready to take a deeper dive in healing from incest and/or intergeneration trauma? In this podcast episode, learn more about how trauma impacts not just a family, but a culture. Listen to it here or click the play button below.


The information in this article is for informational purposes only. No material in this article or website is to be a substitute for professional medical and/or mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you read from me or anyone else online.

Also, this article is not designed to diagnose or treat you or anyone with a suspected mental health illness. Please, if you need help, seek appropriate help from a lawyer, health care provider or law enforcement officer.

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