Tag Archives: abuse

Talking Down, or Lifting Up

There’s often a large verbal component to bullying and abuse. What is said is often key to keeping a victim silent. That may take the obvious form of threats – if you tell then there will be consequences. It can be more subtle. An ongoing rubbishing of a person’s feelings, needs, preferences, likes, values and so forth can really grind a person down. The more of it there is – the more people are involved, the longer the time frame, the more influential the bullies are, the more damage is taken. It can facilitate other kinds of abuse, if you’re too crushed to know it isn’t fair.

If the people you love (parents, partner, ‘friends’) tell you that you are silly and make a fuss, over react, are melodramatic, then you may start to question whether your responses to them are fair. It’s easier to assault a person who doesn’t trust their own judgement. If they call your favourite things stupid and worthless, you take damage. If they laugh at your clothes, or your cooking, or the music you like, it can all add up. Enough of this undermining knocks a person’s confidence and dents their self esteem. Eventually, confidence and self esteem can be destroyed by mockery and ridicule. Bullies will also try to isolate their victims so no alternative views are available. They may do this while saying they are the only one who really loves the victim, the only one who could understand them or put up with them.

This kind of damage is hard to recover from alone. It’s pretty much impossible to get over it without first getting away from it. A person needs the chance to hear something other than criticism and putdowns before they can rebuild a sense of self-worth. In the meantime, if I’m anything to go by then overthinking and paranoia can be issues. It is hard to hear a compliment when you’re waiting for the sting in its tail. It’s hard to trust someone who is building you up not to be setting you up for a fall. It takes years of safety to build a new normal. It takes multiple people telling all sorts of much more positive stories to undo the work of long term bullying.

There are people who default to uplifting. Who, given half a chance will compliment and encourage and gently prod you in the right direction. They are an antidote to the people who only belittle and knock down. People with the courage and care to keep uplifting even when the person they’re dealing with is too bruised to know what to do with it. People generous enough not to be put off when the frightened soft animal body they are dealing with reacts defensively and with fear.

I want to be that second sort of person. I realise that the key to this is not to take it personally when someone else flails. To learn how to make good decisions about what is intended to hurt, and what comes from a place of hurt is essential. I can’t afford to deal with people who intend to hurt me, but I can afford not to take things to heart that come from other people’s wounds. I’ve got this wrong in all kinds of ways, and there is nothing to do but learn and try to do better.

There will always be people who show up making helpful noises, but who have no desire to help. People who expect others to magically fix as soon as they step in and who are disappointed, even angry when it doesn’t go that way. Healing is slow and takes patience. Hearts and minds are slower to heal than bodies. For the people who were generous and patient enough with me to stick with my often brutal healing process, and not give up on me, I have enormous gratitude. It’s also taught me a lot about the good one person can do for another in the simple choice to lift them up rather than knocking them down.


Minimising with Liam Neeson

Trigger warnings – sexual assault.

Minimising is a tactic used by abusers, and apologists for abusers to facilitate abuse. It’s a simple method, and involves downplaying what’s going on. You’re making a fuss. It was just a little push. Recently, actor Liam Neeson has put himself forward to minimise the accusations of sexual abuse in the film industry. He’s quoted as saying “there’s some people, famous people, being suddenly accused of touching some girl’s knee, or something, and suddenly they’re being dropped from their program, or something.” He also called unwanted breast touching “childhood stuff”.

There are many accusations out there of serious sexual misconduct. So, by reducing it to ‘touching some girl’s knee’ Neeson dismisses the nastier stuff without even mentioning them. That doesn’t exist in his world. We are also to note that the victim is ‘some girl’ while ‘famous people’ are important men. People are men. Women are non-people in this quote. The victim is of no consequence, the perpetrator matters. That a ‘person’ is dropped from their program is presented to us as more important than that the non-person, the woman, has been assaulted.

The idea that unwanted touching of knees or breasts is no big deal also acts to minimise. As though the female body is something that doesn’t merit protection from minor infringements. It was just a knee, just a breast. Nothing that mattered. Once you’ve made most of a person’s body irrelevant, it gets a lot easier to say ‘it was just your ass, what’s the big deal?’ It was only a quick hand up her skirt. It was only, it was just. She’s only an irrelevant girl after all.

There’s a gaslighting aspect to all this. If you assault someone and then tell them, and everyone else that it definitely wasn’t an assault, it was a small, insignificant thing, that’s really disorientating. If you tell your victim that they’re being silly, over reacting, making a fuss, blowing it out of all proportion, it makes it harder for them to protest. If you have the power to get the message to victims and potential victims that touching a girl or woman without consent is no big deal, you make it harder for them to speak up in the first place. You make them feel crazy and to blame if they take issue with what’s being done to their bodies.

People who touch without consent, and keep doing it, are invasive and disturbing. It is an act of power over someone to be able to force contact onto them that they do not want. Even ‘little’ acts of knee touching fall into this category. If you are not allowed to say no, if you are not allowed to decide who can touch you and who can’t, then you don’t own your body. The person touching it owns it. That’s an awful, awful place to be.

Watch out for how people use ‘just’ and ‘only’ to try and underplay what’s going on. Watch for the flow of power in a situation. And watch out for the people – usually men – who do this kind of shit, and who defend it, because they are not good people. People who minimise abuse are defending abusers and facilitating abuse, and you certainly can’t trust them to respect anyone else’s body, either.

When you can choose to disbelieve

There are a great many things that are subject to disbelief. Racial hatred, abuse and harassment, sexual hatred abuse and harassment, the practical and social difficulties grinding down the disabled, and the relentless misery of being poor. If I’m online any day, the odds are I’ll see someone questioning that these things happen, disbelieving victims and sufferers and offering alternative explanations.

The option to disbelieve comes from not being affected personally. So many people are so easily persuaded that if they haven’t seen it, it doesn’t happen. This means that when others try and tell them what happens, they ignore they evidence in favour of their belief, and so they still don’t see it happening.

Disbelief is most often followed by shaming and blaming. The feckless poor with their cigarettes and alcohol. The women who bring it upon themselves by having bodies and clothes and going outside. The disabled people who aren’t trying hard enough to magic themselves well. I think the worst of this is what comes up over race to try and explain away brutality, oppression and a rigged game designed to be unwinnable if you’re from the ‘wrong’ group. Often this is the worst of it because poverty is usually in there too, and the other things on the list can and do feature.

Disbelief means taking no responsibility. It means there’s no pressure to look either at your own behaviour or about the way you participate in a culture that allows this. Disbelief affirms the feeling that all your good things come from your hard work and virtue. You’re too clever to be raped, to get sick, to become poor. The illusion of safety and of being in control are comforting things.

Disbelief is also another form of misery to heap onto those already in trouble. Not only are you dealing with some vile thing, but you’re doing it surrounded by people who tell you it does not exist, is not happening, does not happen. You’ve made it up to get attention (because there’s so much glory, wealth and power to be obtained by admitting you were abused, right?). You’re lying. You’re trying to get out of something or get something for nothing or get special treatment. You’re a snowflake. You’re to blame. And when you’ve already been knocked down by something, dealing with people who refuse to believe it even exists it ghastly.

If people around you deny your reality, say your experience doesn’t exist or is your fault, that way lies madness. Being told you are the cause of the abuse you have suffered crushes your sense of self, takes away your self esteem, may make you question your own experience and your right to feel about it as you do. And of course if all you ever see is people denying that your problem is a real problem, you’ll be less likely to call it out in the first place.

If you’ve been there, it isn’t a belief issue. If you’ve seen it, you know it happens. You don’t have to question why someone would say something like that. You don’t try to figure out how it was their fault, because you know what happens. Disbelief is a luxury available only to those who do not know.

My friend has been accused of a terrible thing

If our friends are accused of bullying, assault or worse, our first instinct is of course to defend them. For a start, we’re emotionally invested in them. Our reputation may be linked to theirs. We don’t want our own judgement called into question if we have picked awful people as friends.  We don’t want to be guilty by association. They’ve never done anything to us. And on it goes.

If a person is abusive, the odds are they’ll do it more than once. There isn’t a true reversal of this. That you have never seen a person abuse someone doesn’t mean they don’t do it. They may be a pillar of the community – just like all those paedophile priests. They may do great work for charity, just like Jimmy Saville. Cast your mind back to any interview with the friends and neighbours of a killer and they will tell you how that person never seemed the type. Was always nice, quiet, polite. It’s a hard truth to face, but if your friend has been accused of a terrible thing, there may be good reason.

What to do? Well, if you want to support your friend, you can do so. You can give them private emotional support, and you can refuse to comment if pressed. Beyond that, tread carefully because any testimony you think you can give to the effect that your friend just isn’t like that, isn’t relevant, or helpful.

It’s different if you can provide the sort of evidence the police or a court might use. If you can say honestly that you were there and that the thing did not happen, that’s relevant. If you were with the accused when the events allegedly occurred, that matters, or if you can demonstrate any other facts that cast things in a different light. If you’re dealing with a police situation, you need to go to the police with this rather than putting it in the public domain.

It is incredibly unsettling to find that someone you trusted has done a terrible thing. I’ve been through this. It punches holes in your reality, makes you question everything and everyone, leaves your trust in tatters. The fallout for people who are the family of, or have been friends with an abuser, a rapist, or (I imagine, not having been there) a killer is vast and can take a long time to work through. Reluctance to face this may have us inclined to protect people who do not deserve protecting. If we protect them to protect ourselves, we become complicit.

Of course we want to think the best of our friends. It’s natural. Loyalty is a good thing, and a friendship should be based on trust. The trouble is that people who offend also lie. They present themselves to us as good people. They may even believe that their offences are somehow ok, or not that big a deal. Of course if we’d do the same thing given half a chance, we might be inclined to agree with them, which is one of the reasons I don’t always trust the words of people who rush in to say that of course their good friend would never do something like that…

Reputation damage and calling out abuse

Trigger warnings – rape

A deliberate attack on your reputation from a false accusation of abuse is a terrible thing to have to deal with. I’m not speaking hypothetically here, I’ve experienced it. Alongside this, I see routinely in mainstream culture the idea that an attack on a man’s reputation is as bad, if not worse than an attack on a woman’s body. We don’t take people seriously when they claim to be abused – especially women and children – because they might be making it up as a way of attacking someone – usually a famous and powerful man. The people with the most scope, power and opportunity to abuse are the ones whose ‘reputation damage’ is often taken most seriously. It may be more about power than gender in essence, but power and masculinity still align more often than not.

Reputation damage hurts. There will always be people who want to believe the worst of you, and people with axes to grind who take it as an opportunity. Which you may or may not deserve. A reputation can be a key thing not only in terms of your personal relationships, but your professional life. Your job, your scope to pay the bills, your place in society may all hang on your reputation, and a loss of reputation can have a very high price tag.

I’ve seen two guys who were friends of mine deal with rape accusations. One was proved innocent because physical evidence taken at the time in no way matched the accusations. He went through a great deal of stress and anxiety, followed by relief and getting over it. Another friend dealt with accusations that were directed towards his work life, and not to the police. I saw him sickened and distraught, and it cost him dearly, and he survived. I suspect it has changed his behaviour in some ways, but it certainly didn’t ruin his life or damage any of his closest relationships. False accusations happen, and they certainly do cause a lot of pain and misery. I know far more people who have been raped and assaulted than I know people who have had to fend off a false accusation.

I’ve spent time with a lot of women who have experienced rape and assault. I was there one morning when another woman came in covered in bruises from the night before. I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories. Most rapes do not involve strangers with weapons, they involve someone you trusted enough to let get close. Friends. Partners, Husbands. Rarely first dates, but sometimes that. It’s not just the physical assault that does damage, but the absolute betrayal of trust. Some victims will never get over what happened to them. Some victims will die, because assaults of all kinds can prove fatal.

Assaults on reputation tend not to prove fatal.

Knowing perfectly well that false accusations happen, and are damaging, I still believe firmly that the default response to an accusation of any kind of abuse, is to listen and take it seriously. As individuals, we are not equipped to deal with these kinds of accusations, what we need to do is actively support victims and get the police involved, and get it investigated. Most rape allegations don’t result in court cases because unless the physical evidence is collected quickly, it is just one person’s word against another, and impossible to prove the way our courts work. But, police involvement can persuade someone that what they did is rape, and wasn’t ok, and isn’t a good idea. It can persuade them they may not get away with it next time. If a person stacks up enough rape allegations, the odds increase of it being taken seriously. The same is true with other kinds of assault as well.

The really problematic false accusations are not the ones made against powerful men, but the ones used to keep victims under the thumb. My go-to example here is the man shouting ‘you’re abusing me’ while breaking his partner’s bones. A short version of a true story. I’ve witnessed this done – where a bully attacks a victim and then plays the victim and draws people around into supporting them. As a quiet witness to one of these I was able to put the lie to it, but many bullies are cleverer than that, and don’t make their methods quite so obvious.

It is better to take allegations of bullying and physical assault seriously than to ignore them. It is better that someone take reputation damage than that bullying and assault go unchecked. It is as well to look closely, because in situations of abuse you can be sure someone will be lying, and it isn’t always obvious as to who.  Most often, victims are frightened and seeking safety, whereas people making false accusations will present demands and seek revenge.

I’m still dealing now and then with the fallout from being accused of bullying. At the time, I did not put in a lot of work defending my reputation. I spent a lot of time pointing out how important it is to take bullying accusations seriously and not just sweep it under the carpet and pretend everything is fine.  It was a strange, and deeply ironic situation to be in. I don’t regret my choices. Having experienced both abuse, and reputation damage, I can say with confidence that abuse is life destroying, whereas reputation damage is unpleasant, and that risk of damage to reputation should not be the priority issue, ever.

Am I in the wrong?

At one extreme are the people with little or no self esteem who take every criticism to heart. At the other extreme are the narcissists who reject any negative feedback. Sanity lies between the extremes, but how to find it? How do we decide when we’ve got it wrong? If we can’t identify our mistakes, we can’t learn, grow or change. Mistakes can be wonderful teachers, and permission to make mistakes is key to breaking into new things. The person who takes every failure to heart and the person who can’t bear criticism may find it equally difficult to take risks around getting things wrong.

It wasn’t what I intended! This is a very common way of resisting negative feedback. Intentions matter, but they don’t reliably define outcomes. What we meant and how someone else experienced it don’t necessarily align. If you meant well and got it wrong, this is often a good opportunity to find out how someone sees the world differently to you.

It’s not my fault! Maybe it was an accident, and if that’s true, it’s worth flagging up. It’s also worth paying attention to blaming and shaming, because in cultures where the buck is passed, no one can get to the bottom of a problem to prevent it reoccurring. If it’s all about punishment then people can’t be honest about mistakes. We all make mistakes – lack of knowledge, inability to predict all the variables – these are the usual causes. Some leeway for mistakes is essential. That said, the idea of it being a mistake is not a get out clause for all shortcomings. Perhaps we could have done more, tried harder, researched better…

You’re just making a fuss! This can be the classic way of negating someone else’s experience when their response isn’t convenient to you. And sometimes of course it is true, and the person complaining is just someone who likes to nit pick and find fault. Check the power balance between the person complaining and the person on the receiving end if you aren’t sure how to respond, and be most careful with the person who has least power.

On the other side of the issue, people with poor self esteem are easily persuaded that it was their shortcoming, poor judgement, lack of care etc that caused the problem, even when there’s no evidence to support the idea. The sort of person who can end up apologising because they said ‘ow’ when their foot was trodden on, and it wasn’t like the other person meant to stomp on their toes… A low self esteem sufferer who is in a blame culture will likely just keep internalising the blame and never builds self esteem as a consequence. This is a hard thing to unpick, but it calls for recognition of your limits – you can’t magically know everything, you aren’t so psychic that everyone else’s preferences and needs are visible to you, and you aren’t, ever, the only person who could have done something differently.

People who wish to blame others are often quick to draw extra people in. They don’t deal with a problem by trying to solve it, instead they make accusations and point fingers and enlist support. Their main aim is to prove it isn’t their fault and this matters more to them than sorting things out. The person who wants to sort things out may shoulder more responsibility than is fairly theirs because that way they can change something, fix something. From the outside, this can look like one righteous person – the accuser – and one guilty person – the fixer. Blame and bullying often go together. Blaming someone and making them responsible for things beyond their control is a standard abuse tactic. Enlisting everyone else to confirm the blame and uphold the position of the bully is also a standard abuse tactic. When we focus on who was wrong, and who to blame, any of us can be drawn into supporting an abuser, not necessarily with any awareness that this is what’s happening.

It takes a certain amount of courage to face down a mistake. To look at it, own it, make sense of it and sort it out. It’s a vulnerable thing to do. We may look bad. We may pay a cost. But, I’d rather take that road any day than blame someone else for the sake of covering my own arse. I’d rather deal with the consequences of my errors than pretend there isn’t a problem. What I need to stop doing is co-operating with buck passers, people who always want more, and people who can’t take any responsibility for their share of the problem.

Stealing the language of distress

If kindness is part of who you are, then the last thing you’d want to do is add to someone’s suffering. But, how do we tell between people who really are in trouble, and people who steal the language of distress for other reasons? It’s a really hard call to make.

I have no doubt there are people who permit themselves to be fragile rather than face down their problems. I can’t easily tell by looking who has real issues, and who isn’t prepared to deal with the grit and shit of life and shoulder their share of responsibility. Not at the first glance, although over time it gets more obvious.

People dealing with real issues will have things they can’t deal with because body and/or mind just can’t, but otherwise will tend to do the best they can with what they’ve got. People with genuine issues often hate being seen as victims (but not always). People who have survived massive doses of crap tend to have courage, determination and backbone – at least some of the time.

If someone is obviously financially secure, and obviously more well than not, and educated and resourced then I may be a little less inclined to see fragility as something to respond to with care and support. I am especially wary of people who use the word ‘triggered’ when they mean discomforted, and people who talk about being bullied when I can see what happened didn’t have that shape. Being told no, is not automatically bullying. Being disagreed with is not necessarily bullying. People with a lot of privilege who get entitlement issues when told they can’t have things their way, can be quick to claim victimhood, and to use the language of disempowerment to try and get their own way. It’s important to take a long, hard look at how much power people have.

One of the things I will do is help people get stuff done. The person who can make use of that help and use it to get stuff done, I will keep helping. The person who wants me to do things for them – and we’re talking things they clearly could do for themselves – I am not going to indulge.

It is hard for victims to talk about bullying and abuse. It is hard for people with mental health problems to talk about vulnerabilities and triggers. It can be really difficult for people with bodily health issues and physical limitations to flag up what they need. Privacy, and dignity are big factors here. For the person who just wants to have it all done for them, privacy and dignity aren’t issues in the same way. However, by using the language of triggering and disempowerment, what these people do is make it that bit harder for people with real problems to get taken seriously. That makes me cross.

There are also people who take this language and use it deliberately to further disempower those who are already in trouble. Take the ‘all lives matter’ response to ‘black lives matter’ as a case in point here.  Take the people (I‘ve met some) who can say without irony that they think middle class white boys are the most prejudiced against group there is. Take the Christians who see any kind of equality for other faiths and people as an attack on their rights and freedoms. Take the man who is fighting for the right for a grown man to walk into a comics store and not be forced to buy a copy of Squirrel Girl (he was on twitter).

There are no easy answers here. Precise use of language goes a long way. If we let people who are basically fine take over the words needed for talking about large and serious problems, then we shut down whole areas of conversation. And when we do that, we keep power in the hands of those who had it all along, and keep silencing people who need to be heard.

Jumping through hoops

Trigger warnings: exploring abuse.

Sometimes the goals just keep moving, always staying that bit ahead of you so that you can never make the grade. No matter how hard you try, how good you are, how well you do the things you were told to do, the goal shifts with you and you never reach it.

I think back to playground games, and the desperate, uncool kid I was, trying to be good enough. It doesn’t matter how often you’re useful in that context, how often you let them do the things they want to do, you never earn a place as a cool kid. There are plenty of adults still playing this game, in workplaces, in families, in social groups. Hurt yourself for our amusement and there may be a place for you. Now demean yourself for us. Now grovel.

At least with the moving goalpost game you can see the goal, and you can watch it move, and sooner or later you can spot this and recognise it for what it is. The unwinnable game is just that, the only way to win it is to quit, and that’s a simple enough lesson to learn. Anyone trapped into playing it stands a chance of getting themselves out again.

The invisible hoop game is much, much worse. I guess there’s nothing really wrong with situations that ask us to jump through hoops – that’s the school system in a nutshell. It’s part of how employment works. Do the things, get the rewards. Sticks and carrots all the way. However, the invisible hoop game doesn’t let you know what you have to do. There will be hoops, and you are expected to jump through them, but with no information as to where those hoops are or what they require.

Generally speaking, a person in an invisible hoop game will find out what the score is only when they have failed to jump through a hoop. They have failed to magically know what was wanted of them. They were not psychic, they did not predict the future. They will be punished for having failed to jump through the right hoop at the right moment.

This happens a lot in abusive relationships. Of course you were supposed to know that today they wanted to sleep in/get up an hour early/have breakfast bought to them in bed. It is your fault for not packing the thing they wanted, not ordering the thing they’d run out of, not mending the thing you did not know was broken. You are too noisy, too quiet, too sociable, too morose, too happy, too sad. You are making them feel something you weren’t supposed to make them feel. And now they are angry. For some people (more often than not, it happens to women) this is where the physical violence starts. You didn’t jump through the invisible hoop, and that makes it ok to hurt you. Or it may be that you are shouted at, told off, humiliated or ridiculed instead.

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the physical consequences. The psychological consequences run much deeper. For some people, this will be a whole life issue as a consequence of childhood abuse. Some of us are trained to it later. If you have played the invisible hoop game, you can never entirely relax. You’ll always be looking for the invisible hoops. In all situations, with everyone, a part of your mind is watching out for clues that there’s a hoop with your name on it. A part of your mind is watching for the danger signs that you didn’t jump when you should have done. Underneath all of this, lingers the suspicion that any decent, normal person would be able to see these hoops and jump through them. You can’t, and you think that’s because you are crap, careless and not willing to try hard enough. Rather than running away, you blame yourself, and try harder.

Time in safe spaces can reduce the fear. It can get easier not to be looking for hoops all the time. I don’t know if it ever entirely goes away.

Who am I responsible for?

Without a doubt, any time we ignore abuse, hate speech and prejudice, we support it. We let the person carry on doing what they were doing. We let them believe we agreed with them. They will infer our tacit support from our silence and inaction.

Every time we ignore someone who speaks from a place of ignorance and misinformation, we’re letting things stay as they are, contributing to things that are wrong.

The trouble is that like everyone else, I have finite energy and I get emotionally knocked about when I step up to these arguments. I could spend all day every day on twitter, challenging haters, bullies, bigots and abusers. Well, in theory I could, in practice I reckon by lunchtime I would be a weeping wreck.

Who am I responsible for? It is not an easy or a comfortable question. I know some activists have become very clear that people should educate themselves. I understand why – advocating personal responsibility is a good idea. Demanding education is a way of sucking up energy and time, and derailing people. But equally, turning around how someone thinks is a massive and difficult process, if I can help someone do that then I’d like to. It’s partly about spotting the scope for change and trying to see who is for real and who is a time waster. I’m not that psychic, I don’t always know.

My primary areas of concern have, for some years, been mental health and domestic abuse. The former gives me some scope to speak more widely about disability issues, the latter gives me insight into the mechanics of abuse in all forms. I use that knowledge where I can. I care about everything but there are plenty of issues I don’t have the experience to really get into details. Faced with an online argument of that ilk I feel the most useful thing I can do is offer support for and agreement with the people who have the experience to speak.

It is so easy for well meaning people to get this wrong. It is so easy for people who are not well meaning to hide behind activism and take unfair pot shots at others. I am reminded of the feminist reviewer who called a mixed race author with a complex social background out for appropriation. I don’t think the reviewer had any idea who the author was. When we’re challenging each other, knowing the limits of our insight is essential, or we end up calling out the wrong people and hurting those we should be helping.

I like blogging because it isn’t an argument. It’s a chance to put forward thoughts and ideas, and to share experiences around the things I know about in a way that hopefully makes it easier for others to understand. I believe that we need to share our truth, tell our stories and speak of our experiences. And when we run into other people who are doing that, a bit of support and recognition can go a long way. So much of it comes down to ignorance, so much could be solved with better understanding.

It’s all well and good talking about punching Nazis, but I couldn’t usefully punch anyone, not with these hands. The clever thing would be to get to them before they become Nazis, but of course if it works you can’t even tell that it works. Keep talking keep supporting each other, keep doing what you can do. None of us can fix everything, or everyone.

Gnawing away at the roots

Trigger warnings – exploring the mechanics of abuse.

It’s all too common to imagine abuse in terms of obvious physical violence. In practice, when people are subjected to physical abuse it’s often late in a process that has already ground them down so badly that they don’t resist or complain and instead feel it’s what they deserved. The long term consequences of emotional and psychological abuse tend to be far more damaging than any physical abuse that is survived (but not everyone survives). Our criminal systems focus on bodily wounding.

Psychological and emotional abuse is not always deliberate. There is often no way to tell if it is meant to harm the recipient or not. People may be repeating their own family patterns and experiences, affected by their cultural background, religion, belief and so forth. They may think what they’re doing is fine, they may be projecting all kinds of crap onto their victim. This doesn’t lessen the effect, but it means if challenged they will be very clear that they aren’t doing anything wrong, and this makes them difficult to challenge. If you tell your significant other that they are hurting you and they respond by saying it is your problem not theirs, they are fine, it only serves to entrench the damage.

This kind of abuse is often a slow process of attrition and erosion. No single act will be enough to make you realise it isn’t ok. It’s just little nit picking criticism and complaints, it’s living without praise or kindness, it’s being told off and told you look lousy and that your cooking isn’t up to much. You make too much noise, you don’t smile enough, your taste in clothes, films, books, friends is piss poor… and slowly, day by day, more is shaved off your identity until you wake up one morning and you don’t know who you are any more, you just know you aren’t any good at anything and its all your fault.

You don’t know what happened. And maybe the person who did this to you tells you that they still love you, even though you look terrible and aren’t doing anything interesting. They still love you, even now you’re fat and boring. And you’re grateful to them. They’re heroes. No one else would want you in this mess and you are so desperately glad they are willing to put up with you that you’d do anything to try and make them happier. You wish you were a better person so that you could do more good things for them.

If you’ve grown up with this coming towards you from a parent, you may never notice that it isn’t normal or ok, and that your crushed self esteem and the anxiety that comes from it is not something that you deserve. If you take it from a spouse, you may keep taking it for years, all the while internalising your own alleged shortcomings. How do you tell that you’re ok when the key people in your life constantly undermine you?

There are no easy answers to this. It is very hard for a person in that situation to wake up and get out on their own.  However, most people who are being ground down in this way will defend the person crushing them if faced with a direct challenge (because you’re dissing the one person who can put up with them). A well meaning attempt to get someone out of this trap can instead push them further into it. The only thing I’ve seen work is to get in there and gently, persistently build someone up. Affirm them, praise them, encourage them, ignore whatever they do to deflect it. And keep doing it, for months, or years or as long as it takes for them to start questioning how rubbish they think they are.