This blog post is inspired not only from the persistence of my own struggle with apologizing for, justifying, criticizing, and over-accounting for my words and actions but also another survivor of domestic violence who recently revealed something devastatingly personal to her readers. In one fell swoop, as she shared with us her experience of being violated by her ex who had abused her, she apologized and over-accounted for, justified, and criticized herself for a choice made between two people in an intimate moment. It was a choice she later came to regret, not because of the act itself, but because of the emotional damage inflicted upon her by a cruel, devious man bent on destroying her credibility in the most heinous way he knew how. Aussa’s post Sexting: That Time I Took Nude Pics gives us all a look into the hurt that betrayal can cause.
If you are blessed to not count yourself a part of the family of abuse survivors, and you read her post, you may just miss it all, except the part where she goes out of her way to point to another blogger to give her choices some credit. You may have missed how subtly the apology was woven into some of her responses to the comments. How she hinted at self-criticism and accounting without making it at all obvious. It is something that would only be obvious if you had endured the same types of trauma and pain we as former victims of abuse have, whether it be as ancillary survivors in a household with a parent abusing their spouse, a child who suffered abuse or neglect, or as an adult being trapped in an abusive relationship.
As I read, I saw myself in her words, not because the same betrayal of trust happened to me, but because I felt the emotional pain behind it, along with her need to not be judged or looked down upon for the choice she made. Now that I look back on my reaction to what she wrote, it brought up the same hesitation I felt at revealing my own experiences in Another Side of Domestic Violence: Sexual Abuse. For some of us, more than others, we have an urgent need to always apologize, justify, criticize, and over-account for the things we say and do on a day-to-day basis. When those who are not privy to the conditioning that is alive and well inside our minds are witness to this, they can act confused, annoyed, and frustrated.
They impatiently ask:
“Are you doing that again?”
“Why do you always do that?”
“Why are you apologizing for that?”
“Why are you giving me a play-by-play of the entire day when all I asked was if you did this?”
They impatiently roll their eyes and say:
“I didn’t ask you all that.”
“Just give me what I asked for.”
“Oh I hate it when you do that!”
“I didn’t ask how much you spent; I just want to know how much money I owe you!”
The easiest response to this is we have been conditioned. Of course, the trouble with this is that even though it states a specific thing, it’s pretty much an open-ended answer, and it isn’t really an easy answer at all. Some of us do not feel comfortable giving an honest answer, because there are those who immediately react in judgment and say things like “Why don’t you get over it; you aren’t with him/her anymore!” Even worse, as in Aussa’s case, some might take an accusatory tone and cross the line and say “Well if you didn’t do that to begin with, you wouldn’t have had to worry it about it all!” This is the quickest way to drive us out of our minds: get angry and impatient with us for apologizing for something the average person knows isn’t necessary, then make us feel ashamed that we are doing this so we apologize again, and then you judge / criticize us more, making us over-account for what we were put through. Does the thought of going through this on a regular basis make you exhausted? It should. And for some of us, this is what we battle almost daily.
When I say we have been conditioned, I mean we were verbally stripped bare and subsequently re-built into shells by frequent, cruel insults, lies, and threats. In many cases, it was also physically reinforced. We are led to believe that everything we do or say is wrong, somehow, and we are conditioned to think that we must justify what we can, in many cases by over-accounting for things, apologize for being wrong, and criticize ourselves for not knowing better.
“Do this, or I will tell your parents that you are a worthless whore.”
“Wear this, or I will make sure you remember it the next time.”
“Why do you think I don’t like it when you do / say this?”
“Don’t ask me what I want, just choose.”
The last two are tricks. They begin to ask you what your opinion is to see how well they have manipulated your ability to use concise logic. We are not talking about logic in the every day world; the logic to which I refer is the deviant logic eating away all reality in the abuser’s head. It is the reality in which they expect you to live agreeably with them: unhealthy, unsettled, chaotic, and fearful. It is the reality in which they expect you to become a near carbon-copy, an extension of them, a puppet they can manipulate and master at your expense. If your answer still hints to them that you are allowing your mind to function on its own, they know they have more work to do, and therefore will continue your “education.” On the other hand, if the answer you give properly satisfies them that your will has been depleted, the game is set to the next level.
Once they wear you down and set the autopilot switch in your head, they expect you to become a mind-reader. The issue with this is two-fold: one, no one is a mind-reader and two, you always choose the wrong option, even in cases where you are expressly told: “When the situation arises again, do this.” You are put into an impossible situation that renders you incapable of ever appeasing the abuser, thereby giving them an excuse to persist with their behavior.
What does it look like when we go through it? Here are just a few of the many examples from my experiences with my ex:
He would initially give me false compliments to condition me to believe that he liked who I was. (They are not really compliments so much as they are getting you to be lured into a false sense of believing what he says by appealing to things we as women put effort into.)
- “You don’t need to wear so much / any makeup. You are pretty without it.”
- “You shouldn’t feel like you always need to be dressed up to look good. The clothes aren’t what make you attractive.”
He would negate positive statements by criticizing and belittling me for my decisions to condition me to know that I was always wrong.
- “It’s good that you see the importance of learning another language, but Japanese? Come on, how could you be so stupid? You can’t use that anywhere!”
- “So you saw the benefit of going to college to get a degree in something that could get you out of retail, but you weren’t smart enough to plan a way to do it without taking out loans that you have to repay the rest of your life?”
- “Not a lot of people can say they get the grades you get, but for a smart person, you are f****** stupid as hell!”
He used blatant insults to condition me to believe I was valueless. He would say repeatedly that I was stupid, fat, ugly, worthless… and worse… over and over until I believed it. I think this is self-explanatory.
He would compare me to other women to condition me to accept my inferiority to others. Nothing was off limits… physical appearance, intelligence, skills, employment, etc.
- “You have all these loans for a degree you didn’t finish, but she worked her way through college to get her law degree.”
- “If you were so smart, you’d be working as xxxxxxxx like so-and-so, not retail!”
- “Look at her.. THIS is what men like to see. She looks like a woman, and you…. I am embarrassed to be seen with you.”
He would blame me for every negative thing that happened and get me to believe that everything was my fault so I would be conditioned to feel guilty and have to apologize.
- “If you would have just told the landlord what I told you to say, we wouldn’t have gotten this demand letter.”
- “If you treated me better, I wouldn’t need to run the streets with women or do drugs.”
- “If you would have kept your mouth shut, we wouldn’t have been evicted.”
- “If you wouldn’t have been so lazy and put the away like I asked you, that wouldn’t have gotten broken.”
- “If you would have kept your eye on the cat, he wouldn’t have ran out the door.”
- “If you were paying more attention to what you were doing instead of f****** around, you wouldn’t have screwed up my paperwork!”
Once in a while, he would defer to a choice or statement I made so he could condition me to think that he actually did take my input into consideration. This was not done as admittance that he was wrong so much as it was something to use in an argument about me falsely accusing him of invalidating everything I say / or do.
- “Don’t you remember the time I wanted to do xxxxx but you said yyyyyyy was a better idea? I listened, didn’t I?”
- “Don’t you remember when I said xxxxxx but you were actually right? Didn’t I say I was wrong?”
He would punish me for talking out of turn or saying things he had not approved to condition me to be silent. No matter what.
- If he was having a conversation with a man, and the man attempted to bring me into the conversation because me standing there like a mute was a little odd and I actually spoke, I was physically punished later.
- If he was having a conversation with any of the brothers and sisters in the original congregation I attended, I had to stand next to him and be silent. If I didn’t, I was interrogated and physically punished later.
- If I spoke during the meeting and he was displeased with anything I said, whether it be a word I used, something I left out, something he thought I could have said better, and there was always something wrong, I was physically punished later.
- If I tried to speak up and not agree with what he told me I should think, I was physically punished.
- If someone said something that contradicted what he said, and I spoke in support of them, I was physically punished.
He would make me account for things to the nth degree.
- When I came home from the store, he would ask me what was left in the account, how much I spent in each store, what I paid the cab / bus or a friend for gas, etc. If the amount I gave him didn’t match his figures exactly (if I left out the fee charged for the debit card, for example), I was subject to brutal verbal and physical assault.
- When I came home from errands, he would ask me every place I went, what time I got there, who was there, what they did, what time I left for every place until I got home. If I spent too much time at one place, I was accused of cheating on him and then subjected to brutal verbal and physical assault.
- When I had (rare) conversations with family, his sister, or co-workers on the phone or out of earshot, I was expected to be able to replay the conversations back to him in their entirety at his demand. If I could not, I was accused of leaving things out and then subjected to brutal verbal and physical assault.
- When I came home from work, I was expected to be able to tell him everything I did that day in the proper order, including calls I had to make to vendors and conversations I had with co-workers and what was said and sometimes the hours the others got into work in the morning. If I could not, I was accused of screwing around with the department manager then subjected to brutal verbal and physical assault.
One of the things I detested most was how he expected me to read his mind. If we went grocery shopping together and I had the nerve to ask him if he wanted something, he would go on this very long, deliberately loud tirade about how I was an adult, I shouldn’t have to ask, and I should be able to decide on my own. That he was sick of my stupidity and always having to tell me what to do and when to do it. He also expected me to be able to know that he had changed his mind without him telling me and I should do the opposite of what he originally told me.
- “Why did you do that for? I don’t care what I said the last time, I want it this way. I thought you’d be smart enough to figure that out on your own. Weren’t you the one who got good grades all the time? I see that doesn’t mean s***!”
- “Why did you buy that kind for? I like the others better! / I’m tired of that! It’s always the same thing with you!”
I would be remiss if I were to leave out an obnoxious need pounding around in my head as I wrote out the examples for you. That I feel the need to explain that the reason I wasn’t able to finish school and the reason we got rent demand letters and evictions so much is because of him spending all the money on drugs. That I walked around looking less than I would have liked to, because he forbade me to do any different or else I was subjected to punishment. That I wasn’t expected to account for money or time or conversations or the presence of others because of anything I was doing wrong, but instead it was because of the insane level of jealousy kicking around in his head.
To some degree, I am aware that these are not things I need to explain to anyone reading this blog. However, the incessant amount of physical punishment and reinforcement that I endured prohibits me from taking to heart the fact that I do not need to explain away, justify, account or apologize for anything that I have mentioned in this post… or any other post, for that matter. The pull to the conditioning is strong, at times impossible to escape. Those of us who have endured it will, for a long time to come, continue to apologize to you for the bad morning you had, to justify why we opted to do this instead of that, try to point to other examples of people we both know who did the same thing we chose, and to give you a minute-by-minute playback of our day when all you asked is what time I processed that one particular invoice.
On some levels, doing so really is habit engrained in us by traumatic means. Because we feel we should. Because we feel that we have to. But the deepest levels reveal to the outside world the fear and discomfort confronted by Aussa in the post I linked to at the beginning of this entry. That we could be unwillingly revealed to others in our most private moments, in our most personal decisions, and be subjected not only to embarrassment, but worse. Judgment. People speaking cruelly, out of turn, about something they have no right to. About an intimate part of our lives that we urgently feel the need to protect. When it is revealed, an average person might be able to feel some embarrassment and then move on. However, we are not your average person. We have been violated, manipulated, used, punished, abused, and betrayed. For us, when something deeply personal is revealed to those who should not know, and we then share our experiences with others, we do what Aussa did, and what I want to do every time I share experiences that were extremely personal in their nature. She apologized, accounted for, criticized, and even justified the choice she had a right to make, because she feared the judgment that could come from it.
This fear of judgment, this fear of criticism serves as tangible evidence of the emotional aftermath we were left with as a result of the abuses we endured. The need to go through these motions–the apologies, the justifications, the over-accounting, and the hints of self-criticism–are for now a part of who we are as survivors. Over time, as with the other traumas we experienced, these urges to protect our most basic right to private decisions will lessen, and we will reach some sort of equilibrium.
For now, to Aussa, I proclaim myself a hypocrite and say that you are not the one who should apologize, explain, criticize, justify, or account for the decision you made. It was made in a private instance between two people, an instance in which the world has no right to judge one way or the other. And the trust you gave was violated, hurtfully so. I know due to the personal nature of what you went through that it is easy for me to say (as I already told you), but I have to tell you that you must not judge yourself or feel shame or guilt for what this man did to you. I know due to the personal nature of what he wrongfully made outsiders privy to that it is difficult for you to not feel that you need to justify your choice, to not feel like you have to defend yourself, but you are a grown woman and have the right to make whatever decision you feel is right for you. And those who judge you for it are fools for more reasons than one. Mostly because they think it is they you are accountable to, but also because they are brazen enough to think it’s any of their business.
You, as all survivors of domestic violence, endured endless instances of having to apologize and justify yourself to the man who abused you. Do not be unkind and continue heaping it upon yourself.