“At least you weren’t beaten up!”

Untold numbers of abuse survivors probably hear this sentence, and I have been told this multiple times myself by multiple people. For example, in the aftermath of an abusive relationship with someone who was emotionally and sexually abusive but never hit me (probably because he knew hitting me would make him look bad), I was told by multiple people that it wasn’t that bad and I needed to be grateful and think of the women who were being beaten up because they were the ones who actually had it bad. Being told those things cut me really, really deep and made me feel like I did not matter. Because I was not the victim of savage beatings, my pain was invisible to the people around me and not taken seriously; and actually made the pain more difficult to recover from. By its very nature, this sort of talk is deeply invalidating and undermines the person on the receiving end. The message behind it is: because you did not experience the only kind of abuse that many think counts as “real” abuse, your pain doesn’t matter.

This is in no way an attempt to belittle the experiences of people who were beaten by their abusers. What they went through is terrible, there’s no denying that, and it absolutely needs to be taken seriously. No one should have to be beaten and fear for their lives, and there are many people who live with PTSD as a result of physical abuse or have been killed as a result of it. Physical abuse needs to be stopped and the pain that these people have experienced should not be dismissed.

However, unfortunately, many people believe that physical pain is the only kind of pain that is “real” or that matters, and that the other forms of abuse “don’t count” because they don’t leave visible bruises or scars, or aren’t as violent. When people think of abuse, they think of beatings. Emotional and verbal abuse are probably the most misunderstood kinds out there. Even the phrase “emotional abuse” can sound rather ridiculous and like no big deal, and few people seem to understand the deep, long-lasting psychological scarring that emotional abuse can leave a person with even when it looks subtle to people outside of the situation (and indeed, it can be a contributing factor to depression and suicide). It is time to stop dismissing each other’s pain and calling it not real. Abuse is abuse.

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On George Will’s column

Columnist George Will recently started a lot of controversy by posting a newspaper column about progressivism on college campuses, suggesting that “victimhood” in college, such as sexual assault, is “a coveted status that confers privileges.” An in-depth discussion of the offensive parts of the column, as well as a link to the original column, can be found on this Salon article. While I often try to ignore people who are attempting to stir up controversy, I couldn’t help but have a visceral reaction to this one.

As many of us are aware, the backlash has included a #SurvivorPrivilege hashtag, where a lot of survivors of sexual assault have shared their painful stories of not only being assaulted and raped, and of living with the resultant trauma, but also of invalidation and mistreatment by others in the aftermath of their abuse. Clearly, being sexually assaulted in college (or, well, at any other time or place) doesn’t exactly leave you “privileged.” In my own painful experiences several years back of being sexually assaulted while in college, some of the “privileges” of being in this situation included difficulty concentrating and the resultant embarrassment, burnout, failed classes, academic probation, invalidating comments from the people around me who didn’t get what I was going through, and the joys of undiagnosed, untreated post-traumatic stress.

George Will is still defending his column, and some are arguing that the media is taking certain comments within the column out of context. It’s possible that things are being taken out of context, of course; but I read the column, about as much as I could despite how it was making me upset and feeling like a slap to the face. And I still found several things in it offensive, such as the downplaying of many forms of assault. It makes me happy that a newspaper has dropped him because of the column and that many are speaking out about how this column was a slap in the face to many of us.

Secondary wounding

I didn’t know there was a name for secondary wounding until I joined an internet forum not too long ago and saw it mentioned. It’s really nice that I’m finally able to put a name to it.

What is secondary wounding in a nutshell? The cruel, ignorant, or insensitive things people say when they find out you were abused. For example: you tell your friend or family member what happened, and they tell you they don’t believe you, they think you’re too sensitive or an attention whore, they say that the sexual assault you suffered was your fault for wearing revealing clothes or getting drunk, or they tell you it wasn’t that bad and you need to just get over it. It’s very common for children to get called liars when they disclose that they are being molested–I cannot imagine the pain that leads to. And people also don’t understand why those in abusive relationships don’t just up and leave their partner right away, not understanding how they trap you financially and mentally wear you down so it’s very hard to leave. Well-meaning people often make minimizing statements out of their sheer ignorance of trauma, because it can be hard for them to grasp that it’s not something you can snap your fingers and “get over” in an instant. Believe me, if we could easily get over it we would! I have even found that some people with a trauma history of their own exhibit a poor understanding of how trauma affects other people and show little empathy. And of course, some people will minimize abuse deliberately. In some cases, this is how they avoid taking responsibility for their part in it.

As I’m doing more research on secondary wounding, most of what I’m finding applies to rape/sexual abuse survivors. But I think it can happen to people who’ve been through all of the other kinds of abuse, too: emotional, spiritual, physical, psychological, and bullying. And I believe those who’ve been through emotional abuse are especially at risk, because so many people think emotional abuse is normal and nothing to get upset about, and that it was only abuse if you were beaten up with closed fists.

Secondary wounding by various well-meaning people has really hindered my progress in healing, created a lot of anger, and made me feel like less of a person. I have been told that I should be grateful that at least my rapist wasn’t beating me up, that I shouldn’t have “let” him sexually assault me, and also that the verbal abuse wouldn’t have happened if only I was more confident and had stood up for myself. In my experience, trying to stand up for myself only made verbally abusive types angrier and more determined to win the fight. While I was being bullied as a child and adolescent, I got told that this was happening to me as a consequence for not being “positive” enough and frowning too much, even though I don’t think any forced facial expression would have made a difference in how much I was tormented. I have also gotten minimizing statements implying that I’m deliberately “hanging on” to my pain from the past and because it was years ago, I need to not discuss that sad old stuff from long ago. My partner, who was sexually abused as a child and could not tell anyone until adulthood because he knew that as a child he would’ve been accused of lying, has also suffered terrible secondary wounding. For instance, a person in his family told him stories about little girls making false sexual abuse allegations (hinting that he was making it up), and then accused him of being attracted to his abuser for money. I think we both harbor about as much anger over the various instances of secondary wounding as we do over the primary abuse.

More information about secondary wounding in the context of sexual abuse can be found on Aphrodite Wounded and Pandora’s Project for those who are interested.

What do people owe their childhood abusers?

I thought I’d share this interesting article about adults with abusive parents or childhood caregivers. Slate magazine: The Debt.

The article addresses the issue of deciding whether to forgive, not forgive, keep around, or cut off toxic abusers who don’t apologize or change, or who cause post-traumatic stress symptoms with their presence. Cutting off parents can be hard, because deep down we still want their approval, and it is common to grow emotionally enmeshed with abusive parents. People who do make the decision to cut off family members often face a lot of pressure from the people around them to let the person back into their life and try to make up, particularly laying on guilt trips if the abuser is ailing or near death.

The pressure is especially hard when the person’s mother is the one who gets cut off. People often seem to have the idea stuck in their head that mothers are always kind, innocent, and blameless, and that being somebody’s mother means you cannot abuse or do anything wrong–overlooking the fact that psychopaths, narcissists, and other women with abusive temperaments can get pregnant too. My partner, who made the decision to cut off his physically and psychologically abusive mother after realizing how little she’d changed, has been dealing with the “But she’s your mom!” pressure and guilt trips for years. And it is frustrating.

The decision to cut off family is not an easy one to make. What a person in this situation feels is right for them, whether it be cutting contact or continuing a relationship on their terms, is their own business. However, if someone has mistreated you and won’t genuinely apologize and change their hurtful behavior, I think that this person has not earned your respect and you don’t owe them anything–and that associating with them again may cause more pain especially if the abuse continues. Respect must be earned, even if you are somebody’s mother, even if you are sick in the hospital.

Victim-blaming and the Law of Attraction

I was going to lump this into another post about victim-blaming, but I think this opinion rant deserves its own post. I’m about respecting other people’s belief systems when possible. But I can’t help but feel triggered and angered by The Secret, a.k.a. The Law of Attraction. For those who are unfamiliar, it’s a New Age belief that we attract everything that happens to us, good or bad, depending on the kinds of thoughts we think and the energy they generate. For example, if a person wants a new job, if they think lots of positive thoughts about getting that job then the universe will draw it to them, “manifesting” the job.

I think the reverse side of the Secret coin is very offensive and dangerous to abuse survivors and others, for that matter… the belief that your thoughts not only attract the good things that happen to you, but the bad things, and that the state of our lives is the reality we created ourselves. Some strong believers in this system include abuse in the things we attract. I think this is a pretty offensive form of victim-blaming that promotes not only invalidating comments from others blaming us for what happened, but terrible guilt and shame for the person who’s been abused or who has fallen on hard times, thinking they must have thought too negatively, worried too much, or done something wrong to “attract” this to themselves. Not only does this victim-blaming make me angry, but it simply doesn’t make sense. Who sits around thinking, “I want to be raped!” Or “I want to be in a terrible bus accident!” or “I want an unexpected natural disaster to happen!” If it’s true that we attracted everything that’s ever happened to us, what about people who were abused early in life, for one example? Did they want it? Did they themselves “create the reality” of abusive caregivers? Of course not, and it’s incredibly offensive to blame the child. There are numerous other examples of abuse and natural disasters and financial problems that the person did not think about or wish upon themselves before it happened. And countless others of us who are in life circumstances that are less than ideal. For instance, I really wish I had a job right now. I was trying to stay positive about a particular job opportunity and a rejection letter from that job just landed in my email inbox. If the Law of Attraction really worked, think how many more of us would be rich by now.

Victim-blaming aside, I think the Law of Attraction also creates a breeding ground for anxiety and shame. If you’re trying to think positive in order to manifest what you want, and any “negative” thoughts creep into your head, as they inevitably will from time to time, it may possibly lead to a cycle of obsessing, fear, and beating yourself up. And I imagine it must be hard for a person struggling with depression to keep all their thoughts positive for fear of generating negative energy and manifesting bad things.

The Law of Attraction is scientifically unproven. But, so are a lot of other things. There is nothing wrong with positive thinking, certainly. Often it spurs positive, proactive behavior to help us reach our goals. But if you sit passively and do nothing, you’re much less likely to reach your goals. Some self-help techniques that promote positive thinking and positive action without the victim-blaming can be found here, as well as some more commentary on what makes the Law of Attraction belief system harmful.