I understand that responding to abuse can be hard. What do you say, when someone tells you they have been the target of an abuser. Honestly, I get it.
Responding to bad news or difficult life circumstances is always tricky, and this one is especially bad. So, I will take you through it step by step.
“I Sincerely Do Not Understand”
Abuse is very hard to wrap your head around, if you have never experienced anything like it. In fact, it can be quite challenging to understand even when you are in the throes of it.
I get that as an outsider you are unable to “get it”. That you don’t understand the power dynamic. Ask yourself this though: Do you really need to understand in order to support a survivor? Do you really need to judge their choices and marginalize their pain, just because YOU can’t understand the torment of abuse? Really?
Can you empathize with the physical pain of being beaten up, and do you feel you can understand that someone would experience trauma from that experience? Then realize that emotional abuse is just like that. It is being beaten to an emotional pulp every day of your life.
It is losing your identity.
It is losing your self-worth.
It is losing the idea that you are a love-able person.
It is losing the belief that you are worthy of a better life.
Seriously, You Should Be Happy If You Do Not Understand This From Your Own Experiences
When you think about it, many of us have experienced this at some level. I would almost guarantee that we ALL at some point in our life meet a toxic person or bully who tries to get one over on us. For most of us it is someone we can avoid, or who has no particular authority over our lives. Or perhaps we are lucky enough to catch on early enough still to be able to resist.
But for some it is our parent, our partner, our manager, our sibling… someone who has a high presence in our lives and has some measure of control over it. This measure of control is what amplifies bullying to abuse.
So, if you do not understand, think of that bully you met in your life. Now imagine the square of that experience multiplied by 100, and 99 added.
Now tell me that ‘at least they did not hit you’, ‘are you sure?’ or ‘you are just doing this for attention’ are correct responses… if you dare!
Admitting You Were a Target is Hard Enough
When I began opening up about my past, most people were surprised. ‘I had no idea,’ they would say. And they wouldn’t have had. It was all hidden abuse, no scars or bruises to tell the story. Besides my parents great at seeming fantastic! They are pillars of the community, and they expend a huge amount of effort to keep that reputation in place.
Even under the influence of my abusers, I was a pretty smiley person. In fact, for a large part of my life, I was not even aware of the abuse myself. It was just my life, it was a life I was born to. So how could I have known? As I got older, and started to interact with others more, I began to figure out that my family had a strained relationship. And as external bonds got deeper and more intense, I began to see the difference and became aware of my family’s toxicity.
It took me some time to label the toxicity as abuse, and it took me even longer to really feel strong enough to tell people about it. Then, when I did, some people responded with ‘but they are your parents!’ other with ‘but you will be cut out of the will’. Neither of those was very useful.
No Judgment, Only Kindness
Firstly, I know they are my parents. That in fact is part of the issue. Secondly, standing up and saying ‘I was a target of abuse’ is NOT about money, and neither is shutting up about it and taking some more.
I stood up for myself, because I finally realized that I was worth protecting, I was worth healing, I was worth love and a better life.
I can’t even believe I need to say this, but it is only too easy to communicate judgment, and survivors of abuse deal with a fair bit of that. Trust me, we judge ourselves enough, and do not need more to be piled on. Instead of asking us to explain, elaborate or responding with outcries of disbelieve, why not respond with words of kindness and support.
These are some of the best I was privileged to receive.
The Bear Hug
This was by far the best and nicest response I ever got. One of my best friends, listened patiently when I stumbled through my story of cutting contact with my parents (whom he also knew). He then said nothing, but pulled me into the biggest bear hug ever.
I felt safe, and loved, and supported. Perfect response!
The Invitation to Talk
Sometimes you just mention your circumstance because the situation requires it, or sometimes you even just kind of blurt it out. This happened to me with a work colleague once. She realized immediately that I had not really intended to say anything, and so her response was: “thanks for sharing that and trusting me with it. If you ever want to talk about it, you know where to find me”, we then proceeded to talk about other things. She defused the situation, did not increase the weight or importance of the statement and managed to keep all the doors open for me. Now I felt I had a person to confide in if I felt overwhelmed at work.
How Likely Are You to Know a Target? Pretty Likely Actually!
Once I opened up, I started receiving messages from people I know. People who were suffering in toxic relationships with partner or parents, too. It turns out quite a few people in my circle were living the same pain I was living, and I hadn’t had a clue
Abuse is far more common than we would like to think, and trust me, abuse does not discriminate! It can take place anywhere, and in all sorts of different settings, and it happens to both women and men.
Both men and women can be abusers, and both can be victims too. It is so easy to jump to the conclusion that abusers are men, and their targets are women.
Abuse is a power play. It is about control and manipulation. It is about making the target question their reality and destroying their sense of self. There are many weapons in the abuser’s arsenal, and toxic people of both genders can be skilled at wielding them.
The abuse gender-bias that does worry me, is that men are less likely to receive support. They may be told to “man up”. When they show emotion they are classed as weak. When a woman shows abusive power plays, their male target is laughingly called ‘pussy whipped’ or similar. It is those types of stereo types that make it harder for men to stand up, speak up, and get out.
Abuse is Not About What the Target Does Or Doesn’t Do
During a conversation recently it occurred to me that the assumption of the other person was that I had lost touch with my parents over a fight. That somehow I was mad at them, and ‘in a huff’. The tone of the conversation was “where two people fight, two are to blame” and “just be the bigger person“.
We are so eager to blame the victims in our society. If you just behaved a little different, dressed a little different… Perhaps it is our way of trying to convince ourselves we are in control. That this bad thing cannot happen to us, because we don’t behave or dress for it.
Maybe it is just easier to blame the victim, than wrapping our brain around the idea that one human being could destroy another for no reason at all.
Just think of a time when someone you loved challenged your opinions or dressed ‘inappropriately’. Or when they buttered your toast incorrectly, or when they forgot to put their plate in the dishwasher… Did it make you feel you should destroy them? Did you love them any less?
Probably not. Those are not the thoughts of a healthy balanced person.
Trust Me, Nobody Goes Looking for Abuse
I can guarantee that it is nothing that the target does, says or wears that triggers abuse, because abuse has nothing to do with the target.
An abuser will pick the easiest target, so anyone who is emotionally vulnerable will be prime meat. Other than that, the abuser could care less what your faults or insecurities are. They will pick up on them, and use them against you. Abuse is not personal, but it is certainly personalized.
Believe me, nobody in this world goes looking for abuse, nobody. Abuse is losing your sense of self, your self-esteem, your confidence, your boundaries, your pride, your personality… It does not just destroy you, it annihilates you.
Nobody “causes” or deserves to be rubbed out of existence because of the way they behave or dress.
Can we do better? Yes, we can!
It is easy to cover up emotional pain, at least for a little while. No foundation required. Just whisk on a smile, or say you “had a bad sleep”.
If you are worried about someone, ask them again how they are. Let them know you are concerned, and why. Look into their eyes, and tell them you are here for them.
They may brush you off. They may also confide in you, if they are ready. At the very least they will remember.
I can recall all the people in my life, who showed me that kindness. Who reached out, and gave me a hug (whether physically or emotionally). If I had their addresses I would send them all thank you notes, they may well have saved my life. As it is, I will let the cosmos send them my gratitude. And I will pay it forward by asking others:
Are you okay? Can I help?
And when a survivor does tell you their story? When they are strong enough to own their truth, and trust you with it?
Try one of these:
That must have been hard, I’m so glad you are feeling better now
I am so proud you were able to stand up for yourself
You know I love you, right?
Responding to survivors of abuse really isn’t that hard. Just remember to be kind.