Tag Archives: abuse

Guilt and triggering

Content warning – abuse mechanics

There’s nothing like being triggered to bring on the guilt. It kicks in for me around any situation where I experience panic, but once I’m into flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, the guilt comes thick and heavy. I experience the trigger as my responsibility, my fault. I’ll end up apologising to the person who triggered me, for my being so unreasonable and for over-reacting. This makes it hard to even ask people not to do things that bring on high levels of panic in me.

It’s not an accident. The situations where I was most hurt, I was explicitly blamed for what happened. Complaining is a sure fire way to make an abusive situation even more dangerous. And it was, always, always my fault. Maybe because of what I did or didn’t do at the time. Maybe because of a comment I made years previously. Perhaps my being too tired to articulate things clearly made it my fault for not being clear enough. Perhaps I was upset over emotional pressure, which I should not have been because it was fair and justified, for reasons. You get the picture.

This is normal. Abusers blame their victims. It is an effective strategy to keep the victim in place and stop them from seeking help or going to the police. I was told many times that the problem was me – I was unreasonable, over-reacting, and worse still I was told that I was emotionally abusive, an emotional blackmailer, manipulative, cold, calculating… So when things go wrong, one of the places my triggers take me is back into that deep sense of shame, guilt and responsibility. It is even worse for child victims because they have nothing to set it against and no way of even wondering if what’s happening isn’t their fault.

It is so hard to ask for help when you think everything is your fault. It is so hard to ask for kindness or care when you feel like you don’t deserve it. There are regular shoutouts for people with mental health problems to ask for help and speak about our troubles, but that’s really hard to do if abuse is how you got here. It’s hard to ask for help when what damaged you in the first place was also blamed on you. If expressing distress has been dangerous for you, that’s an enduring barrier to asking for help.

The only things I know of that truly help with this are as follows. Boost self esteem and confidence – make an active effort to lift people and they may be able to handle all of this better. Take triggers seriously, even if they don’t make sense to you. Your understanding the process is irrelevant. If someone trusts you enough to flag up what triggers them, it means they think you won’t deliberately hurt or punish them. If you can honour that, you might be able to do a lot to help them feel safe and to heal. And if someone gets very weird with you and starts apologising for things that were not their fault, and especially if they seem scared when apologising, it’s a pretty reliable sign that they have some serious issues and need your care.


Who should change?

CW abuse

I’ve been poking about on the NHS website. I notice that medication to deal with trauma is something they offer to victims who can’t have meaningful therapy because their domestic abuse is ongoing. I’ve read page after page about coping with triggering and how to manage PTSD symptoms on websites designed to help people with mental health problems. I’ve read what content there is about how to support sufferers – be patient with them, listen – good stuff, but lacking something.

What I’m not seeing is the mental health advice about not triggering people. I’m not seeing the pages about dealing with workplace culture and bullying. I’m not seeing the advice to people about how to curb abusive behaviour and treat partners better. The Relate website is full of advice about what to do if you are upset, frustrated or annoyed in your relationship. It doesn’t say much about what to do if you are terrified, or in overwhelming distress, or what to do if your partner ‘makes you angry’ so that you feel justified hitting them.

It’s always the victim who has to change. It’s the victim who is expected to do the work, put the experience into perspective, take the meds, and become more resilient. Where is the content about how we do more to look after each other?

Everything I have thus far found online about PTSD therapy seems to start from the assumption that it was a one off event, never likely to happen again and that once you feel that you’ll be fine. Given the stats on abuse, child abuse, domestic abuse and people being made ill by their workplaces, it’s hard to see how this can be helpful. There are so many traumatic things people go through that aren’t one off events, but part of their daily lives.

If you’re wounded and struggling, all I can really offer you right now is solidarity and this thought – just because the majority of resources are focused on fixing you, does not mean it is you who are broken. The sick society that harmed you, is broken. The people who inflicted the damage, are broken. You need to feel safe – you should be able to feel safe. Safety does not really come from you changing the story about what happened, or working to minimise it. Safety comes from living in a culture that doesn’t encourage, condone and generally facilitate abuse and bullying. There’s nothing more healing and restorative than getting to feel safe.


Supporting Victims

If someone you know is a victim of bullying or abuse, there are things you can say and do that will really help, and well meaning things that can make the situation worse.  

Being ‘neutral’ can feel like a moral choice. It isn’t. Doing nothing always supports bullies and abusers and enables them to continue. It always undermines the victim. If both people tell you they are the victim and you don’t know what to do, look at the power balance. If all else fails, support the person who is asking for comfort and safety not the person who is asking to punish someone. Abusers will gather support to pile further abuse on victims, and you can avoid becoming part of this.

Listen. Really listen. Don’t bring assumptions with you or ideas about what you would have done differently. Don’t assume that because the bully is nice to you that they wouldn’t do this. Bullies and abusers cultivate supporters – how else could they operate successfully? They are in control of what they do, and will deliberately isolate their victims.

Micro-aggressions are a real thing. If the individual events described to you seem trivial, remember to look at the bigger picture. If someone is facing a constant drip of poison, put downs, humiliations, criticism, being overloaded, being blamed and the like than the damage done will be greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t dismiss bullying on the basis that it just looked like one small thing. Also remember that experiences that aren’t a big deal for you might feel very different to someone else.

Don’t try to explain, justify or minimise the abuse. There may be a time in the future where understanding why would be helpful, but right now the most important thing is that the victim feels safe and supported. Don’t make the bully and their issues the more important thing. Being hurt, being a former victim, being under a lot of stress, having mental health problems – these things do not make it ok to hurt other people. Many hurt and damaged people manage not to hurt anyone else. It’s not inevitable and no free passes should be given.

Don’t tell them to be stoical. Don’t tell them it will pass, or not to make a fuss, or not to take it to heart. That’s just a way of shutting people down. If what they say makes you uncomfortable, that really shouldn’t be the most important thing. Your mild discomfort at hearing this is nothing compared to actually living with it. This includes being made to feel uncomfortable about someone you liked.

Don’t ask them to put the wellbeing of the community first. Don’t tell them to be silent for fear they will harm the company or the organisation. Any group that puts looking good ahead of caring for the people in it, is toxic. Any group that thinks its reputation is more important than whether it is enabling abuse, will keep enabling abuse and must be stopped. However important you think the community, or the work the group is doing really is, this stuff will rot it to the core if undealt with.

Don’t make the victim responsible for sorting out the situation. Don’t make it their job to better humour and pacify their abuser. Don’t tell them to put up with it. Listen to them, support them, act to make safer and healthier spaces. If you truly can’t tell who the bully is in a situation, working broadly to improve safety will either sort things out or make it clearer what’s going on. Sometimes people truly believe they are victims because they can’t accept others holding reasonable boundaries or can’t bear being given a ‘no’ as an answer. The person who is able to say no is usually the person with the power in any given situation, and the person who is not allowed to say no is the person who needs your help.


Not being in control of your thoughts

CW abuse mechanics

There is a popular, but highly flawed positivity concept that goes ‘even if you can’t control anything else, you can control your thought and reactions’. It sounds good. It sounds plausible, and empowering, but it isn’t true.

If you aren’t familiar with the mechanics of conditioning, hop over and read this piece on Pavlov’s dogs – https://www.verywellmind.com/pavlovs-dogs-2794989

Conditioning is a process that trains minds and behaviour. The individual being trained does not need to be aware that they are being taught to react in certain ways. You hear the bell, you salivate.  Reinforced by rewards and/or punishments, conditioning teaches your body to respond without your brain even having to get involved.  If you’ve been taught this way, changing your responses is really hard. You have to first figure out what you’ve learned and what causes your behaviour and then you have to either unpick it or replace it. It is easer to replace conditioning with new conditioning, but the process of making new rules and enforcing them is a hard one.

If you’ve lived through abuse, or gaslighting then someone has trained you to respond to certain situations in specific ways. A lot of work goes into that training, destroying a person’s sense of self, their confidence, their ability to hold boundaries or say no. You can come back from there, but it isn’t easy. You can only control your own thoughts and responses after doing a great deal of work to rebuild your mind.

If you have PTSD then your responses to triggers are difficult through to impossible to control. Trauma impacts on you, and you are unable to escape it.  It may be possible to get some control over this – with time, safety, counselling, and a lot of work. For many people, the triggers never quite go away no matter how hard they try to fix themselves.

It’s hard to change your thinking and responses if what you’ve internalised is everything your culture reinforces every day. It’s hard to think differently without examples, role models, maps. Not impossible of course, but bloody difficult. Changing your thoughts is really hard if you have no idea what you could think instead.

You may not be in control of your thoughts and responses. If that’s true for you, then it is possible to change to at least some degree, but not in the way glib positivity statements suggest. Rebuilding, and retraining a mind is hard work and takes a long time. Dealing with learned responses that happen in your body is slow work, and painful, and the bigger the trauma, the harder it is to get over it.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that we have mammal bodies. We have our animal body chemistry, with the flight, fight, freeze and appease responses wired in. We have urges and hormones, and we won’t always know what’s going on with that. We should be able to control our responses so that those things don’t impact on other people too much, but we may not be able to control what goes on in our heads as the chemistry washes through our brains.

Be patient with yourself, you are a soft mammal, not a perfected thinking machine and sometimes being a mammal is a bit messy.


Masks and controlling behaviour

I’ve seen a few people on the interwebs saying that being told to wear a mask is controlling. It’s not. It’s a clearly expressed instruction that has helpful consequences. Wearing masks reduces the spread of disease. It won’t stop it, it isn’t 100% guaranteed to keep everyone safe, but it helps. In much the same way that seatbelts help but do not 100% guarantee that you will survive a car crash. This is useful instruction, not control.

Controlling behaviour is designed to make you fearful and obedient. It makes clear to you that the other person, or organisaiton has all the power and that it is dangerous for you to be anything other than totally compliant. Whether we’re talking about domestic abuse, workplace bullying or tyrannical states, the mechanics are much the same.

Controlling instructions aren’t clear. They may be over complicated. The latest instruction might contradict the instruction before it. You may get multiple instructions that are incompatible, or they may be vague so you aren’t sure if you’re following them. Instructions may change frequently with little or no warning so it’s hard to keep up. The result is confusion, insecurity and no confidence that you’re getting things right – no matter how hard you try to comply. You will have to always be alert for the next rule change, and will have to pay a lot of attention. It’s exhausting, and when things go wrong, it will be your fault for not following the rules properly.

Controllers use a mix of threats and promises to make you compliant. So, for example the may offer something you want. Like being able to have more than six people gathered on Christmas day. At the same time they’ll hit you with something frightening that you really don’t want – that the young humans will not be allowed home from university for Christmas, for example. Carrot and stick. You know they can really hurt you. You know they can deny you things that are really important to you. It will be conditional on your behaving, so you’d better focus on those vague and changing rules and get it right…

Clear rules might be annoying and they might be limiting, but they aren’t controlling in this way. The real loss of freedom comes when you are at the mercy of vague rules that you can’t uphold, where the punishments for failure are fearful, and you are being setup to lose. Controlling behaviour isn’t about getting you to do a specific thing. It’s about getting you so fearful and stressed that you’ll accept whatever is done to you and do whatever you think you’ve been told to do. It’s also not about the early rounds where you are being broken in. Go out, stay home, you must go to the office, you must not go to the office, you must protect granny by not seeing her unless she babysits to let you work and then you must see her… this is small stuff. This is how you train someone. It’s once this has become normal, and you jump through hoops without questioning it that those with power over you can start telling you when to report your neighbours, and not to teach anything in schools that challenges the system.


Rules for them

One of the signs that you are in an abusive situation, is that there are different rules for different people. It’s one thing if someone chooses to hold themselves to higher standards than others. Quite another when someone gives themselves permission to do things others are not allowed to get away with.

This is the situation in the UK right now. Our government has just voted to break international law. They’ve done this after a long summer of playing fast and loose with the rules, letting each other and their advisors off the hook for behaviour that would see the rest of us fined or otherwise in trouble. We find, for example, that most of us are not allowed to meet in groups of more than six now, unless you want to go hunting and shooting, which is different. I doubt the virus sees any difference, but we know who goes hunting and shooting, and it isn’t most of us.

If this country were a household, no one would be in any doubt that we were an abusive household, experiencing emotional and psychological abuse and rather a lot of coercive control. Rules for them and rules for us makes it clear that we’re second class, that the power imbalance is huge and that we just don’t count in the same way as people. Little surprise that they keep talking about scrapping human rights laws.

If we were a household, the police would help us leave safely. There would be, if we were lucky, some space in a shelter where we could hide and recover from the impact of what’s been done to us. We might go on a course to help re-build our relationship with reality. Being manipulated in this way causes cognitive dissonance and makes people crazy. I know, I’ve been there. But, there are resources an individual can tap into that a country cannot. The only thing that can tell a country it’s not entitled to behave this way, is international law, and our government has just decided it doesn’t really take that seriously anyway.

If we were a household right now, we’d be identified as at high risk. Social workers might be thinking about how best to protect our children. Friends might rally round to support us and help us get out. The police might get involved, because for ordinary people, deciding that the laws do not apply to us is not an option we really have. If we were a household, we’d be in a lot of trouble right now. We’re not a household, we’re a country, and the danger is real.

All we can do is look after each other. Support each other in remembering what is true, and what is not. Remind each other that double standards are a very bad sign. Do what we can. Try to stay sane. Try not to lose our personal sense of self worth, validity and importance under this torrent of being devalued. It is not going to be easy.


Trauma and basic needs

It occurred to me last week that trauma can be understood as what happens to us when our most basic needs aren’t met. I’m finding this a helpful re-framing because ‘trauma’ as a word suggests drama, but it might not always register that way. Sleep deprivation is considered traumatic enough to count as torture under international law. One or two bad nights clearly don’t impact traumatically, but when your sleep is consistently undermined over longer time frames, it becomes maddening. A few missed meals aren’t traumatic, necessarily, but starvation certainly is.

In really mundane ways, we can lose our safety. Being shouted at every day. Being threatened and harassed. Not being allowed to rest. We experience damage from trauma not when there’s some abnormal drama that we can understand as exceptional, but when the trauma becomes normal. One loud explosion probably won’t traumatise you. Dealing with it every day was what gave soldiers shell shock. Once trauma becomes normal, the world no longer feels safe and everything is potentially threatening and more dangerous.

It is also fundamentally dehumanising not to have basic needs met. These include basic needs for emotional security and comfort, for shelter and dignity. Emotional abuse – especially in childhood –  can rob a person of their sense of personhood.

Basic needs are essential things that we can’t do without for any length of time. These include our physical needs, our emotional and our social needs. How we experience losing those will vary, but the harm is considerable. In my experience, one of the problems is how easy it is to have genuine need start to seem trivial and not to be fussed over. The need to feel safe becomes being fragile and over-reacting. The need for anything can be minimised and treated as unimportant, adding a gaslighting element to an already problematic situation. When you start to believe that your basic needs don’t matter, that you don’t count in the way ‘real’ people do, you become incredibly vulnerable.

I’ve realised in recent weeks that one of the long term consequences of such experiences, is that I don’t know how to reliably prioritise my basic needs. I don’t know how to feel safe flagging up problems when they happen. I don’t know how or when to ask for help when basic needs aren’t met. I am easily persuaded that my doing without something I needed is a fair solution to other problems. This is going to take some unpicking. To heal, to be safe I have to make sure my basic needs are reliably met, but having internalised abuse and gaslighting, I’ve become part of my own problem. I can change that but it will take work.

The idea that I am fundamentally entitled to have my needs met, to ask that my needs be met and to raise it as an issue when they are not, is a very large thought for me. We should all have this, and I am painfully aware that for many people in the world, getting basic needs met is not a question of learning how to ask. It’s a question of systemic oppression, international abuses of power, war, climate chaos and exploitation.


Dealing with fear

I’ve been dealing with fear for years. Here are some things I’ve learned that may be useful. If you want more insights, I’ve written a lot of notes from the journey – search for blogs here about anxiety.

Your fear is not unreasonable. You’ve lived through something, or the threat of something that has taught you to be afraid. If the world seems hostile, dangerous and unkind, this is because you have found it to be so. Your fear is rational. If you are in a dangerous situation, treating your fear like it’s an irrational response will keep you in danger – often an issue in abusive relationships. If you are not in danger, historical fear can make your life hell.

It is really important to notice the fear. If it becomes normal, this may take more effort. Accelerated heart rate, overwhelming feelings of threat, futility, powerlessness and everything going wrong are not normal. If you’re feeling those a lot, or all the time, you are feeling fear.

Risk assess. Sit down, breathe slowly and look at what you’re afraid of. Ask yourself how real the threats are, and try and go through them as slowly and carefully as you can. If you find you are in real danger, seek help. Take it seriously. If the danger is based on past experience, question it. Don’t let it take over. It is reasonable to be afraid if you have been through trauma, but it doesn’t mean you are always in danger.

Breathing slowly and deeply is often a good way to control fear in the body. Moving is good. I find I have to literally run away sometimes to control the flight responses. I get out and walk. If you freeze up with fear, try and coax yourself into some small, gentle movement. Flight, fight and freeze responses are all signs that fear has taken you over.

It is really important to eat well, get exercise, rest and sleep, and to do things that comfort you. Alcohol doesn’t really help. Many of us find herbal interventions like St Johns Wort, chamomile, valerian and lavender to be helpful, and you’re in control of those, which helps. If your body is run down, exhausted or malnourished it has good reasons to be afraid, and that won’t help.

This is really hard stuff to deal with on your own. You are not obliged to deal with it on your own. Fear may tell you no one will help you, or that they will use it as an opportunity to hold power over you. Find the people who also live with anxiety and work with them. It is easier to dismantle this sort of stuff as part of a team. It is easier to think about other people’s experiences than your own. By sharing your experiences, you can help someone else. By supporting each other we can make safe spaces to defend ourselves from fear.

You didn’t get here by yourself. Fear will tell you that people will judge you and think less of you if you need help. This isn’t always true. Some people will do this, but not everyone, and the people worth having in your life are the friends and allies who will not kick you when you are down. Get out as far as you can from situations where people will use your vulnerabilities to hurt you. Find the people you can trust. Even if it’s just some random blogger like me. You aren’t alone, and you can get the fear under control and have some, or all of your life back.


What causes abuse?

With deaths from domestic violence increased under lockdown it seemed like a good time to talk about the causes of abuse.

What causes abuse?

100% of abuse is caused by abusers. They may take opportunities, find excuses and justifications in their circumstances, but the cause of abuse, is abusers.

I got very upset last weekend seeing content on Facebook about how we might facilitate or enable abuse. That if we choose to stay, we are choosing to be abused. Abuse happens in a context, and it is usual for that context to include a process of undermining self esteem, destroying self confidence, getting the victim to doubt their own judgement and generally getting them so mentally fragile that they think they deserve what is done to them. If you think you are too strong, or too clever to be caught up by that, think again. Human minds are fragile.

The people who are most vulnerable to abuse are the people who care and feel responsible. It’s much easier to blame someone who is inclined to take responsibility and try and fix things. People who care are easier to manipulate, and easier to persuade. They give second, third, fourth chances. They hear the pathetic excuses, and the promises to do better. They want to help. And I am not prepared to accept this as a weakness, or an inadequacy, or a way of being in the world that justifies abuse. Taking advantage of someone’s good nature is all about the abuser, and not a failing on the part of the victim.

Of course there are a lot of people who enable and facilitate abuse. They do it by pretending it isn’t happening. They don’t listen to, believe or support victims. They make excuses for abusers. They get on social media with theories about how it is really all the fault of the victim for not holding more substantial boundaries. They pedal untruths about how easy it is to avoid abuse and how they would never stand for it without understanding the mechanics of the process. It’s not kindness and generosity that enables abuse, it’s wanting to blame something, anything, except the abuser themselves.

And yes, some people abuse because of their own pain and wounding, but many people are wounded and choose not to become abusive. It isn’t inevitable. It is a choice.

 


Why we don’t always believe victims

It would seem a no-brainer, if you are a decent human being, that you would listen to and believe people who report abuse and bullying. But we don’t, and it is important to look at why if that’s ever going to change.

Bullies and abusers don’t go along with being called out. They deny everything, or they tell you that they are the real victim and the person who first clamed victimhood is really the bully. There are bullies who, as part of their routine, accuse their victims of attacking them. If two people are claiming to be victims of each other, the idea of always believing the victim doesn’t stand up very well, because you may not know who it is. More thoughts on this over here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/07/28/calling-out-abusers/

Most of us have a morality that depends to some degree on relationship. So we tend to believe the people we care about and disbelieve the people we don’t know or care about if that threatens someone we like. We also don’t want to believe that we love someone abusive, so we look for reasons to explain away claims of abusive behaviour.

Victim blaming is widespread. Many of us have internalised some of that.

Abusers know what they are doing, and around people who are not their victims, they act in ways that hide this. We are persuaded because they were always so nice to us. In public, they may have seemed like exemplary spouses and parents. They may tell us, with great love and concern how worried they are about the poor mental health and strange beliefs of their victim. We may sympathise, and go on to not believe the victim when they confide in us.

Victims are usually in distress. If they’ve suffered gaslighting, been blamed and made responsible, they may feel it is all their fault. If the bully has persuaded the victim that the victim is the bully, you’re going to have a hard time figuring out what to believe. I am inclined to take care of people who are afraid and distressed and seeking safety. I tend to disbelieve people who are angry and demanding retribution. I look at the power balances. I also figure, if I get this wrong, the angry person is probably better resourced to take care of themselves. It’s not foolproof. Nothing is.

An un-nuanced approach that goes ‘I always believe victims’ can be deeply threatening if you are someone whose abuser has cast them in the role of the bully. If you have had your reality dismantled in this way, this is such a hard thing to deal with. For a long time, I believed myself to be an awful person, deserving of any punishment that came my way. For some years now, I’ve lived in a strange, inbetween place where some days I think I have experienced gaslighting in the past, and some days I think I’m an awful person who deserves everything they get. On the good days, I dare to think I might get over having been made responsible in this way. I’m able to write this because today is a good day.

On a bad day, a flat statement about always believing victims can, and has panicked me. I think about the people (there were several) who were so loud and confident about being my victims, and how knocked down and powerless I felt in face of them. There is always the fear one of them will come back for another go and that they will be believed, and I will not. And the fear that no matter how hard I try, I am so inherently awful that I can only cause harm. On a good day, I think that’s the gaslighting impacting on me.

And I also know that for some people, any experience of being said no to, any criticism, any less than perfectly positive feedback counts as an attack. I know that several of the people in my history experienced me as a terrible person because I couldn’t give them what they needed. I did not prove kind, patient, generous, forgiving, understanding and co-operative enough for them and they experienced that insufficiency as abusive. They’re not making it up, it was their experience of me, and some of them I have seen go through similar issues with other people.

Abuse and bullying are really complicated. A superficial response that says ‘I will always believe victims’ and doesn’t dig into the mechanics and specifics of anything it encounters, is not a magic solution to the woes of the world.