Anyone who has endured something traumatic, whether it be battling a potentially fatal illness, a serious accident, being victimized by violent crime, surviving a natural disaster, trauma/injury sustained in the line of duty, or through abuse, knows first-hand the special difficulties they face in healing from their trauma. When faced with lack of support or understanding of those in our personal lives, many of us go in search of what we lack through numerous channels that include support groups, self-help books, medical and mental health professionals, and online communities. We tend to gravitate toward communities where the members have enough similarities to our experiences and struggles as this is where we find the non-critical support we so urgently need to help us not only understand what happened to us and how it has affected us, but guidance from those who perhaps face a common set of issues we see before us so we can begin the daunting task of healing.
All too often within the tight-knit communities of trauma survivors who have survived abuse, I see a potentially fatal wound common to many of us: the need to compare our traumas to other stories as we hear them and the subsequent act of minimizing and invalidating our own stories to the point where we convince ourselves that we’re making too much out of what we endured. This seems to largely be judgment most of us render only to ourselves. In fact, I can only recall one incident where a survivor came out and told another that she shouldn’t complain because “at least you didn’t have live through what I did.” I have seen countless statements from my fellow survivors reflecting very much the opposite mindset. We seem to be plagued with the detrimental habit of devaluing our suffering to the point where we openly communicate we feel that we are complaining and therefore do not have the right to share our stories with others who have lived through what we perceive as horror stories compared to our own experience.
It’s easy for those who have not experienced abuse and its resulting trauma and destruction to respond by telling us to stop complaining, making things up, or exaggerating. However, when we do this thing, complaining and exaggeration have absolutely nothing to do it. We are not trying to play victim and garner attention to make us feel more important. A part of each of us may truly believe that others’ abuse stories are more traumatic and demonstrate a higher level of perceived violence perpetrated against them than we endured in our own story. What is it not, though, is something that is easy to pick one thing and designate it as being the one and only root cause behind our statements of minimization. The causes are as complex and diverse as our individual experiences, but here are some of the most common of them.
- We tend to minimize the abuse we endured when we hear others stories, because our own abuse became a normal part of our daily lives. Do not misinterpret this to mean that I’m implying abuse is normal to relationships in general. What I mean by saying the abuse we endured was a normal part of our lives is that over time as it escalated both in frequency of occurrence and severity, we became accustomed to having to endure its presence and its impact on our lives. The dynamic of abuse, regardless of the method(s) and the severity, became expected. Over time, there were many things we became numb to in varying degrees. The shock value was gone, although the fear seemed to follow everywhere we went. We might not have been able to predict everything that would happen, but we knew to expect it. When we hear others’ stories, each experience is something fresh and new to us. Because of this, there is a particular edge to the rawness that immediately can lead us to think, “I can’t imagine living through that” or “I don’t know if I could have survived through that” or “Nothing I went through was that violent or cruel” or “I feel like I’m complaining when I talk about my abuse.” This resolution to labeling our abuse as so common that it thus became normal and dulled the truth of the dangers we faced is an Achilles Heal to our motivation to continue sharing our story and how it has impacted us in our lives post-abuse. If we feel that this normalcy is an indication that it wasn’t as bad as we think, it can have a destructive impact on processing, reconciling, and purging the damage so we can then overwrite, re-learn, and apply healthy thinking and views of our worth. It can lead us to shy away from avenues of support at a time its presence in our lives is imperative to our emotional health.
- We were conditioned by our abuser to view our own needs, experiences, and worth as inferior and insignificant to others. An integral part of the emotional abuse we endure with our abusers is the re-education process we undergo mentally for them to undermine and strip us of our sense of value and worth as human beings. We are taught through intense, relentless amounts of verbal battery and emotional manipulation that we are there to tend to their needs, to fulfill every one of their whims and demands, and to put ours last or not at all. To force us into compliance they will strip us of all physical means to see to our needs and over time brainwash us into thinking we truly do not matter. We are told “No one cares about you” or “I don’t care what you want or need, because it doesn’t matter” or “With the way you act, you ought to be grateful I even do x, y and z for you.” Once this thinking has been successfully planted, our actions will follow suit. We stop thinking we deserve certain treatment, we pursuing it, and we stop asking for it. After we leave, this does not change overnight, so when we find ourselves in situations where we are sharing our stories, that implanted debasement echoes in our head slowly re-awakening that doubt and hesitation into self-imposed silence. We will shy away from sharing or connecting, because although we recognize we need that connection for effective healing, our needs are not as important as anyone else’s. Thus we re-introduce that devastating silence into our post-abuse lives.
- We were conditioned by our abuser that we had no right to stand up for ourselves. This actually causes difficulties in speaking out against someone engaging in victim blaming, but it also relates to our willingness to connect and share our experiences with others post-abuse. The bulk of this conditioning occurs either when we are being verbally ambushed or physically assaulted and we fight back to defend ourselves. In response, the abuser immediately reminds us of “our true place,” our fault in this specific instance, and then follows up with what they consider to be appropriate punishment for our willful disobedience and failure to comply. By using violent, constant pressure (verbal reinforcement can absolutely be violent in a demeaning, exhausting way) we are trained to shrink back into the darkness to avoid further punishment. This behavior, wired in a high-stress environment where relief from its presence is not provided, follows us into our post-abuse lives and manifests by feeling fear, embarrassment, or worry at sharing with others. There can be a nagging doubt that we have a right to share as this would be most definitely something considered to be a major transgression. Some of us therefore react in way that leads us to be dismissive of the true severity of our own abuse, and we say things like “Well, I have no right to talk about being hurt, because my abuse was never physical” often followed up by “My abuser was mean to me, maybe I’m just making it out to be more than it really is.”
- We tend to think falsely that trauma can only be viewed as a hierarchy of severity. This is easier to see in our daily lives and requires little explanation. Our very way of life is hierarchical in nature. Our government is divided into federal and state, the latter being the group of inferior authority to the preceding, the federal is split into three smaller groups of varying and checked authority, our workplaces have upper management in corporate headquarters that develop, oversee, and enforce company polices on the lower level management and employees. It’s seen in banking institutions, the legal arena, education, and even groups chartered for social movements. We always look for who is authority, who is on their staff, and who they oversee. Even society is set up in a hierarchy of wealthy, middle, lower, and poverty income levels. We analyze, deconstruct, and catalogue everything imaginable (scientific, legal, crime, medical, etc) into neatly drawn tables where all the information fits into one specific place and nowhere else. We rate injuries, products, needs, and wants in order of importance and urgency in our lives. Every aspect of our life is governed by this ordering and rating, and we have a tendency to impose it in situations where it absolutely should not exist – areas like race, social standing, gender, religion, sexual orientation – areas unique to humanity and our right to dignity to create our own lives. Therefore, we take the same stance in regards to our own abuse. We compare it against another’s with complete disregard for our own circumstances and value as human beings. Erroneously we reason that because another survivor of abuse lived through horrific physical abuse, our being verbally and emotional abuse somehow shouldn’t count because there are no scars on the flesh. This is dangerous on so many levels, because while there are no apparent visible wounds in emotional abuse, they go much deeper to the heart and our thinking, and they cause immeasurable amounts of emotional distress that can lead to depression, self-imposed isolation, self-harm, and in many cases suicide when not treated.
- We repeat to ourselves what others say to us and internalize victim-blaming. Imagine living in an environment that is a vacuum. All you hear is how stupid you are, how oblivious, worthless, disgusting, fat, unwanted, and burdensome you are to another person. In the beginning you may not notice any changes in your sense of self-worth, but over time it wears you down and you begin to adopt these as your own thoughts. “Maybe I really am stupid.” “Maybe I really can’t do anything right.” “Maybe no one would miss me or even notice if something happened to me.” Once it takes root in our thinking, we begin to say these things to ourselves repetitively. We drop something, and we call ourselves an idiot. We make a mistake, and we ask ourselves how we could be so stupid/blind. We forget something, and tell ourselves that we can’t ever do anything right. Once we’ve been abused and have adopted negative self-talk, when confronted with victim blaming we can unfortunately internalize it, even when what is being presented as truth is actually myth or a deliberate lie crafted to purchase our silence with shame. In our interactions with other survivors, we carry that in our reasoning and tell ourselves (because it was forced upon us) that physical abuse is way worse than being emotionally abused. This is a lie. This lie shuts down communication, stops healing, and sets us up to be re-traumatized post abuse.
- We see society’s qualifications of what constitutes abuse and unfortunately apply to them to our own stories. Myths are damaging, especially when they are spread and reinforced by groups of people who have no first-hand experience. Without seeking the truth out themselves, they choose ignorance and believe hearsay out of convenience, perhaps because it fits in their own belief system. When friends and acquaintances tell us that we shouldn’t complain or that we should feel lucky we weren’t abused, we tend to place more value on their perspective, because we know them. If the abuser said it, and our peers are perpetuating it, then it must absolutely be accurate, right? Because why would those who love us mislead us? We start to doubt our objectivity and abandon it haphazardly because our belief that we should trust them eats away at that gut feeling that something bad happened. Doubt sets in, and we can shut down.
Surviving abuse and healing is not a competition, and we are not all made from the same mold. Our backgrounds, which are constructed and colored by things like religion, economic status, education, life experiences, and family and cultural upbringing, vary. Perhaps we have medical conditions (whether cause of abuse or not does not matter). Although there are similarities to our stories, our circumstances are never the same. Even emotionally none of us process, handle, work through, and react to the abuse the same way. Therefore, abuse cannot be viewed as something that should be forced into a hierarchy when discussing our stories. Here are some thoughts to help keep your perspective in line:
- Abuse occurs by use of six main methods: verbal and emotional, physical, sexual, financial, spiritual, and digital/technology/stalking. While their purpose – to gain control and power over us by force – is similar, there are unique aspects to them all.
- It is possible to be abused without ever having a hand laid on you.
- The type of abuse you experience does not have to specifically include any physical violence to constitute abuse.
- The most used method of abuse is verbal/emotional abuse, and it is common for it not to escalate to include other methods, although the severity of it can and often worsens drastically over time.
- Verbal and emotional abuse is largely considered to be the priming method used by abusers starting early in the binding phase while they are still love-bombing (seducing) their victims. By using this two-pronged attack, the abuser is able to insidiously and, initially, affect an imperceptible change in the victim’s thinking and self-esteem with the goal of breaking their spirit and rendering them prime for escalation of abuse with reduced risk that the victim will attempt to defend themselves or leave.
- Verbal and emotional abuse is more than just name calling or an offhand insult said out of frustration and hurt. If you have ever heard the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” erase it from your mind. Now. More than just a name, this method of abuse causes horrific destruction in self-esteem, confidence, value, worth, and image. It is used to belittle, demean, devalue, and dehumanize another in the same of obtaining and leveraging tyrannical control over them. It is used to empty out the victim of everything good thing they feel and believe about themselves so the void can be stuffed to the ceiling with hurtful, cruel, and spirit-crushing poison. It is this poison that paralyzes their sense of value as human beings and allows for the abuse to continue without consequence.
- Never forget that they very nature of abuse is force. There is nothing that the abuser has done or did to you that you allowed to happen or caused. In fact, when you see those “will never allow” quotes and memes that circulate so pervasively around the internet communities, show yourself the love and compassion you deserve and ignore it. Why continue taking in something that will eventually desensitize you enough that you will begin to believe that you control over what someone else did to you? By force. By coercion, using cruelty, malice, and evil as their tools. The abuse knows what they are doing, they know it is wrong, and they do it deliberately and very much against your will. You have as much control over them as you do the weather. You didn’t hand them the power. They ripped it away, and stating directly or indirectly that you were complicit in their acts of abuse against you works against your ability to heal.
- The effects of verbal and emotional abuse do not disappear just because you leave the abuser. To begin to heal the damage it causes our heart and mind, we have to stare the pain in the face and put in much effort and time in counseling and overwriting the lies with which we were destroyed and replacing them with positive affirmations. Just as we were not abused in a day, the effects of that abuse endure long after we leave, and some of them may very well stay with us for years to come. We cannot just “get over it,” so don’t put that cruel expectation over your head. You wouldn’t ever do that to another survivor, so don’t do it to yourself.
- You should avoid comparing your abuse to others, because none of us even with the similarities we share have the same story or circumstances of abuse. What matters when it comes down to it is that you were harmed, hurt, betrayed, and damaged by the one person in this world who should have done everything they could to keep you safe, protected, and make you feel loved. You were violated, hurt, and traumatized, and we all now find ourselves on this tumultuous path of healing together. Comparing stories and minimizing what you endured can only cause setbacks and further damage the fragile sense of self-worth and love you are working to somehow rebuild.
The best thing we can do for ourselves and for others who have been and still are being abused is show them support and compassion, and listen to them without casting judgment or criticizing their stories. What we tend to forget, however, is that in order to heal in a healthy way, we also need to show that same support, compassion, love, and lack of judgment and criticism to ourselves. We are all worthy and deserving of this. We all require it to heal and maintain that progress, but it’s also imperative if we are also able to provide that support to others so we can be a light out of the darkness for each other. As I close this post, I am hoping that you will show this love to yourself, to acknowledge that the abuse you endured (no matter what form) was as bad as it really was. Only when we acknowledge that reality can we really begin to heal, because with this comes recognizing that we have worth and value as human beings regardless of our limitations, flaws, imperfections, and traumas, and only then will that darkness begin to lift.
It’s okay to be loving to yourself. I see you. You’re amazing, and you’re worth it.
With love and support,