The Real Reason that Abusers Abuse: It’s Not Why You Think

One of my therapeutic specialties is helping people to work through abuse trauma. I honed my skills working in a domestic violence shelter, and also with Child Welfare Services, but I find that wherever I go, abuse trauma patients follow.

While there is endless variety in the types of abuse traumas that people have experienced, as well as the severity and duration of their abuse experiences, there always seems to be one underlying theme: a sense of shame and personal responsibility.

No matter how often I hear it, I never cease to be shocked by victims of sexual abuse who tell me that they somehow are to blame for their assaults, or the survivors of domestic violence who tell me that if they could have just been better spouses, their relationships could have been saved. These people tell me that their abusers must have seen that they were inherently flawed or unworthy, and that’s why they were chosen to be victims.

At first I would gently tell these people that they were mistaken, and that there was nothing wrong with them, but I quickly learned that the message that they were somehow to blame for what had happened to them was so deeply ingrained that they couldn’t take in any message that contradicted this belief.

That was when I had an epiphany about abuse. It’s not an action. It’s a process. Abuse is a process where the victims are slowly groomed to believe that they are at fault for their mistreatment. It’s an insidious message that starts out small, and grows over time. Abusers slowly push out other supports from the lives of their victims until the only message that can be heard is “You deserve this mistreatment because you are inherently bad and unworthy. If only you could be better, it would stop.”

Having victims who believe this message serves abusers in three ways:

  1. The victim is constantly trying to please the abuser. As a result, the abuser gets catered and deferred to. Depending on the type of abuse, the victim may also be afraid to contradict or stand up to the abuser, giving him/her the benefits of complete power and control over what should be a mutually beneficial relationship.
  2. It takes the blame off of the abuser for the abuse and puts it on the victim, so that the abuser can feel blameless and entitled to continue the abuse.
  3. It keeps victims from leaving because they truly believe that they are unworthy of respectful love, that they deserve the mistreatment, and that they are lucky that the abuser stays with them.

When people tell me now about the deep sense of shame that they feel about the abuse that they’ve suffered, I say, “Yes. That’s the message of abuse. Abuse says that you are somehow to blame for what has happened to you, and that if you were somehow better the abuse would stop. However, think about all that you did to try to be better and how none of it made the abuse stop. The message that you’re to blame is a lie that abuse tells.”

Usually, they nod and say, “Yes. It was just like that.”

Once they understand the message of abuse, I explain how it benefits abusers to get their victims to believe that they are the cause of the abuse. That’s when the healing begins.

There many of myths out there about abuse, and I would like to address some of them here:

  1. Abuse doesn’t happen because the abuser lost control of his/her temper. Abuse is a process. It is pre-meditated and thought through. Abusers behave the way that they do in order to get the benefits of abuse.
  2. Abuse doesn’t happen because of alcohol/drug use. Often, both victims and abusers will minimize abuse saying, “Well, he/she was drunk. He/she wouldn’t do that when sober.” Often in these cases the victim pushes the abuser to get clean thinking that will stop the abuse. If the abuser does get clean, the victim is often shocked that the abuse doesn’t stop. What they had failed to understand was that the abuser wasn’t abusing because of the substance. He/she was using the substance as an excuse to abuse and reap the benefits of abuse listed above.
  3. Victims do not enjoy being abused. They don’t stay because they like it or get some kind of thrill out of it. They stay for any mixture of the following reasons: a) They truly believe that they are bad people and nobody else will want them; b) They have become so isolated by the behavior of the abuser that they believe they have nowhere else to go; c) The abuser has convinced them that they cannot survive on their own; d) They are completely financially dependent on the abuser and cannot see a way to support themselves on their own. e) The abuser has threatened to kill them, take their children, or deport them if they leave, and they are afraid that he/she will follow through on these threats.
  4. Abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender, education level or sexual orientation. It’s something that happens to people just like you.

If you’ve recognized yourself here, know that there is help for you. Even if you don’t have any money or any family or friends that you can go live with, there are shelters that will take you. The wonderful thing about going to a shelter is that they can connect you to a transitional living program. These programs are specifically designed to provide shelter, food, funding, and education for survivors of abuse so that they can rebuild their lives, including finding a career and learning how to support themselves. Don’t continue to wait for things to get better. They won’t. Pack a bag, take your children, and go to a shelter. Your life will immediately improve and you will be able to take your power back.

Read the book, Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft. This is the best book about abuse I’ve ever read. Lundy Bancroft was the director of an abuse perpetrator’s program, and he has first-hand knowledge about the way that abusers think. Any time that I’ve been working with an abuse survivor who has read this book, she/he has gathered the courage to leave, and set down at least a portion of the shame she/he had been carrying. Understanding that abusers abuse in order to get the benefits of abuse is an empowering piece of knowledge.

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.

Go to http://www.RAINN.org. RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, and they have resources for survivors.

Survivors of childhood abuse, I recommend getting involved in your local Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) organization. They don’t just help the children of alcoholics. They are a 12 step organization for overcoming the effects of all types of childhood abuse.

Know that you are not alone. There is help and support, and if you access it, things will get better.

Redefining Power

I began writing my book, I’m Sick, Not Crazy: How I Took Control of My Health When Western Medicine Told Me it Was All In My Head, as a way to take my power back after an incredibly disempowering experience.  It seemed to me that if I could understand the story of my own debilitating physical illness, then I could reclaim the control over my body and mind that the medical system had taken from me.  Even better, I could help others to reclaim power and control over their own bodies.

When I became ill, I did what most people do.  I went to my doctor and explained my symptoms, expecting to get a diagnosis and a treatment plan.  Instead, what I received was a long series of dismissals from medical professionals.  They minimized my symptoms, insinuated that I was exaggerating, and told me that I was “probably just anxious.”  

By the end of a year and a half of severe illness, my energy to ask Western Medicine for help was utterly depleted.  I realized that I was just one small person, and that the medical system was vast and powerful, and my voice was simply too tiny to be heard.

Instead of giving up, however, I gathered my energy back to myself and began to find other ways to heal.  By taking my power back and seeking my own wellness, my own way, I saved my own life.

Unfortunately, many people going through similar situations don’t realize that they even have the option of reclaiming their own power, which is what I want to talk about today.

For centuries, power has been defined as having power over others; the might makes right philosophy.  Kingdoms were created where one person had ultimate power over others.  People with physical strength, or with superior weaponry or technology have subdued others in order to take resources from them.

Hierarchy can be found today in all areas of life.  In the corporations that we work for, where labor is underpaid in order to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, and in governments that take from the people they govern, and give little back.  And, of course, in the medical system, which over-charges for care that is questionably helpful, and often leaves people bankrupt.

These hierarchies don’t work.  They concentrate wealth, resources, and authority in the hands of the few.  They define power as having power over others.

Yet, I believe that power is something very different.  I believe that power is found in all of the ways that people take control of themselves and their own futures.  And I believe that power is found in communities of equals who work together towards a common goal that is helpful and enriching to everyone.

When I realized that asking Western Medicine to save me wasn’t working, I had to re-evaluate.  I had to practice radical acceptance of the fact that my body was likely never going to be the same, and that mainstream sources of medical assistance weren’t going to help me.  I had to start researching other ways to get what I needed in order to get well, and I had to trust my own intuitive knowing that there are many ways to heal–not just the one that capitalism says is right.  I had to take my power back to myself and take charge of my own life and health.

There could be many ways that you are giving your power away.  You could be staying in a relationship that doesn’t serve you and will never give you the future that you want.  Possibly you’re working in a job that makes you feel unimportant and pays you less than you’re worth.  Perhaps you’re relying on a person, or a bureaucracy, to take care of you, your health, or your safety, and you’re finding that it isn’t actually working out the way you’d hoped.

Consider, are there ways that I could take my power back?  Are there ways that I’ve been giving my power away that aren’t serving me?  Is it possible to move away from hierarchy and toward equality and community?

After asking myself these questions about my interactions with Western Medicine, I decided that there were ways that I could take control, take my power back, and make myself whole again.

The first thing that I did was join a yoga studio, and I will forever maintain that this move saved my life.  By joining a community of wellness seekers that accepted my body in all of its brokenness and make me feel acceptable, and then showed me how I could still move my body in ways that felt good, I began the process of taking my power back and moving toward healing.

As I slowly began to regain my physical strength, the strength of my mind and heart began to grow as well.  I became a seeker of wellness in my own right, and the doors slowly opened.  After yoga, massage became part of my healthcare routine, and the stuck and stagnant parts of my body began to move and soften.  Then acupuncture and craniosacral therapy became pieces of my healthcare puzzle.

I know that my body will never be like it was before my illness, and that I will always need to work to maintain my health.  However, I am thrilled to be able to tell you that by taking back my power over my own body and healing, I succeeded in creating a body that works.  

Not only am I well enough to function, but I thrive.  People laugh at how much energy I have to be productive, and they joke that I accomplish as much as two or three people usually do.  They’re right, and it’s because I embody my own power now.  I don’t wait for permission.  I decide what is right for me, and I go after it.  I trust myself.

If you’ve given away your power, taking it back is a process, but awareness is the first step.  Once you’re aware, you can start to make moves away from the old definition of power-over, and towards the new definition of power-within-yourself, and power-in-community.  

Rather than calling you out, I’m calling you in to a new way of being with yourself and those around you, and I support you in every step of the journey.