When I told people I had just broken up with my abusive girlfriend, several people responded, “Have you looked at your part?” Since I had been tormenting myself for months doing nothing else, the question left me speechless.
More appropriate responses to the news would have been, “How are you feeling?” or “I’m so sorry you’re going through that,” or “That’s awful! No one deserves abuse!”
We want life to be fair
We all want to believe that life is fair and we’re in control. We work hard to behave in “good” ways to stay safe. Unfortunately, that leads directly to the belief that if victims had behaved differently, they would not be coping with bad news now, so it’s their fault. Our fear makes us fiercely judgmental of vulnerability and powerlessness in ourselves and others.
Victim-blaming reinforces abuse
Victim-blaming robs abuse survivors of crucial support after an assault. Even worse, it stops those who are suffering in ongoing abusive situations from reaching out for help. Emotional abuse is reinforced by the idea that victims deserve it, focusing their energy on “improving” themselves rather than on ending the situation.
Forgiveness as control
Recommending forgiveness can contribute to victim-blaming and silencing those with less power. “If only you weren’t so upset, there wouldn’t be a problem.” Forgiving is intensely private and happens in its own time. Yes, terror, shame, and rage can hurt the person feeling them, but more harm is done by suppressing emotions and pretending all is forgiven, especially with ongoing abuse.
Our culture is steeped in victim-blaming
From popular magazines and new age movies, from psychotherapists and religious leaders, we’re surrounded by messages about what is wrong with us and how to fix it. Our Inner Critic joins the chorus and tries to keep us safe by detailing all the ways we need to fix ourselves right now.
You are already enough
Amid all the bustle of “try harder,” “try smarter,” “try better,” a radically different message occasionally appears. Instead of telling us what’s missing, it tells us we are already enough. Instead of telling us which external authority to believe, it tells us to listen inside and trust what we already know.
Notice what happens in your body, in your heart, in your thoughts, when you give yourself permission to imagine that you are already enough. What if you don’t need fixing? What if you already have plenty of the next fix you’re tempted to buy?
The respect you deserve
Think of a recent puzzling or disturbing incident. Perhaps a store clerk was unaccountably rude as you completed a purchase. Did you ask yourself what you did wrong and how to fix it? Notice how that feels in your body.
Now imagine telling a friend about it, and your friend responds by supporting your right to feel the way you feel, telling you that your perceptions are accurate, and appreciating that you are sharing the event with them. Notice how your body feels as you imagine it. This is the respect you deserve.
Consider demanding more respect in your life. Move away from messages that say you need fixing, and toward messages that say you’re already enough. Remind yourself that people committing abuse are solely responsible for their actions. Ask your Inner Critic to notice which beliefs keep you safer in the long run.
Strength in owning vulnerability
It takes courage to push away the blaming messages and sit with ourselves just as we are. It can be frightening to acknowledge that there is no magical action to to make someone else change, and many events are beyond our control.
At the same time, owning our vulnerability gives us the strength to notice our responses in the present moment. Secure in the knowledge that no one deserves abuse for any reason, we can take action sooner to withdraw from situations that are causing us pain and find abuse-free ways to meet our needs.
“Not Trauma Alone” by Steven N. Gold is an academic text with a profoundly respectful attitude toward survivors of prolonged childhood abuse. I wish every practitioner working with traumatized people would read and absorb this book.
Advice on how to prevent rape, including, “If a woman is walking alone at night, don’t rape her.”