Tag Archives: abuse

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.


Crisis Tactics

One of the things it is common to lose to abuse is a sense of where your own edges need to be. Abusers will work to erode your confidence and self esteem, because when you don’t feel you can say no, you’re more vulnerable to their predations. Standing my ground, defending myself, flagging up problems and expressing distress all still put me in a place of expecting to be knocked down harder than I was by the initial problem. It’s hard to hold boundaries when you fear that protecting yourself will invite twice as much trouble.

I’m not living in that kind of environment any more. However, that knee-jerk reaction remains. If I need to express distress, then fear of what that will bring is with me. Until I’ve tested something like this, I don’t know how anyone will react to me – will they double down? To navigate this I’ve given myself a set of rules. Having established this rule set means that under pressure and feeling emotionally vulnerable, I have a set of defaults to work with.

One. I am entitled to say no to anyone for any reason and I am not obliged to justify that decision. If someone hurts me and I want to just back off and not deal with it, I am allowed to do that.

Two. If I express distress then there are a number of acceptable responses – anything with an element of care, concern, apology. Anything that accepts my response as valid even if it wasn’t where I was supposed to end up. Anyone kindly explaining why it wasn’t meant that way. Any kind of ‘oops’ or ‘oh shit’ noises. I may need further conversation to sort things out, but any of these responses are worth working with.

Three. If I express distress and am met with blame, criticism, mockery, dismissal, being told why I shouldn’t feel like that, being told why I ‘made them’ do it or why their position is justified, or anything else of this shape, I am entitled to end the conversation and step away from the person.

Four. How much slack I cut is totally up to me. How much I am willing to forgive is totally up to me.

Five. How much I love a person is not a reliable measure of that person’s inherent worth. If a person does not value me enough to care when they have upset me, then they do not merit the gift of my care and attention. I am allowed to feel that I have made a mistake in investing in them.

Six. How a person treats me when I am upset is not a measure of my worth – although it may well be a measure of my worth to them, which is not the same thing.


Politics and abusive relationships

Why do people stay in abusive relationships? This question has never been more pertinent, because politically speaking, a lot of people in the UK are choosing to do just that. Let me start by saying that if you decide it is a person’s fault for staying with their abuser and that they must be stupid to stay – you’ll help keep them there.

Loss of self esteem is key to keeping people in abusive relationships. You stay because you think there’s nothing better out there for you. You may even be persuaded that you are so awful that no one else but your abuser could put up with you. Consider what’s happened in the last ten years or so to blame the poor for poverty and to crush the self esteem of anyone who is struggling, and to suggest that nothing better exists.

If someone is persuaded that they don’t deserve nice things, and that their suffering is their own fault, they stay. Telling a person it’s their fault they will go hungry as they’re sanctioned to meet targets is a similar process to telling a person it is their fault you hit them. If you’re subject to blame for long enough, the odds are you will internalise it. If you think you are too clever, too self aware, too well informed to succumb, let me tell you that you are wrong in this, and that minds are fragile and break in certain circumstances. Everyone has points at which they would break and things they cannot resist. Pray you never get to find out where yours is, but don’t imagine you are ‘above’ all that.

You do not save people from abusive relationships by trying to tell them how awful their abuser is. This can cause victims to dig in, defending the one person they are convinced could even tolerate them. You don’t get people out of abusive relationships by shaming them, making them feel responsible, or making them feel stupid because this reinforces everything their abuser has been doing. We do this around politics a lot. It’s not helping.

The only way to help someone break out of an abusive relationship is to re-build their shattered confidence and self esteem. If they can feel better about themselves, they can better see what’s being done to them. The person who finds they are loved, valued, supported and cared for by someone who is not their abuser, can consider the ‘love’ their abuser shows in a new light. It takes time and patience to put back together someone who has been taken apart, but it is the only thing that works.

When people vote in a way we consider self-harming, we have to stop responding like this is because they are stupid. It is exactly the same as telling a battered wife that she is stupid to stay – women in such circumstances already know they are stupid and worthless and that life would be even more terrible if their abuser wasn’t there to sort things out for them. This is exactly the same, just on a much bigger scale. Only when we stop victim blaming can we help people believe they are worth more and should be able to have nice things, and that the way to have nice things is to get away from the person who keeps telling them they cannot have nice things.

It is of course much easier to be cross with people for staying, and to blame them and feel like you have the moral high ground for not being in that mess yourself. I’ve been there. I’ve been broken, robbed of my confidence and convinced I was so worthless that I should be grateful to the person who constantly mistreated me. I felt stupid, and useless and could not imagine I deserved any better. Being treated kindly and being valued got me out of there, eventually. Lifting each other up gets amazing things done. Blaming and shaming keeps people thinking they deserve no better.


Dubious logic

Trigger warnings for abuse and gaslighting mechanics

I’ve had a few comments here recently that I haven’t let through because of the kind of faux-logic involved. It’s a system I refer to as x=y and that can contribute to gaslighting. It can sound persuasive and if you’re exposed to it in a close relationship with someone you trust, it can be incredibly damaging.

The ‘x’ in this equation is something you’ve done or said. It might be your clothing, that one time you cried, something you misunderstood. It may also be something you never did or said that is now being attributed to you. The ‘y’ is presented as the logical consequence of x. As a culture we do this around rape – what a woman was wearing equals her consent to anyone who wanted to do anything to her. New Age Culture does it a lot – success equals virtue, and alongside it, suffering equals lack of sufficient positivity, or bad karma. These kinds of false causalities make life harder for people who are already suffering.

Often with gaslighting it goes a step further so we find x=y and therefore it makes perfect sense if I do z to you. Z is presented as totally justified and the only reasonable response in the circumstance. Your clothes equal your consent so any reasonable person would rape you in the circumstances. It is a chilling line of logic.

What makes this so powerful is that human minds are persuaded by apparent causality. This is why we have superstitions. Our brains are willing to make connections where none exist. If someone else keeps making those connections and telling us about it, we may well start to internalise some of what we’re hearing. We believe that because we look the way we do it is inevitable that we will be harmed for it. We start to believe that use and abuse are normal, reasonable reactions to our faces, our bodies, our tears.

The recent blog comments were more along the lines of ‘if you believe this then you must also believe this really awful thing, so you can see what a terrible person you are’. The ‘x’ of my original statement becoming a ‘y’ of something being put onto me. It’s very easy to do and I’m not convinced everyone who uses this technique does so knowingly. I think sometimes it’s what happens when a person’s own reality is so badly damaged that their head is full of non-sequiturs. If you’ve internalised the dubious logic our culture holds then you might easily regurgitate that without knowing you’re doing it. Women who insist that modest dress will protect other women from rape are a case in point here.

Saying a thing is a logical progression does not make it a logical progression. Saying one thing means another does not make that true either.

Anything that makes a victim responsible for the actions of an abuser needs recognising as an abuse tactic and rejecting – which is not so easy to do in practice when you’re on the receiving end.

X=Y logic is not always worth arguing with. Sometimes it’s just about using up your time and energy and trying to tie you in knots with stupid hypothetical situations. Making you engage is a popular tactic with trolls, and that means sometimes the best thing to do is not engage. Sometimes the best thing to do is exit quickly and quietly. You are entitled to feel safe, and if a conversation doesn’t feel safe it’s often better to just get out of there if you can. If you are living with this kind of stuff, get help around how to leave safely – the risks of being killed or injured by an abuser are at their highest when people try to leave. X=Y logic all too often leads to ‘and this is why I have to hurt you.’


Emotion and responsibility

How much should we hold people responsible for our emotions? And how responsible should we be for other people’s emotional responses to us? This is a question that is so often relevant in situations of bullying. Bullies often treat their victims as responsible for how the bully feels, and for what they do, while taking no responsibility for how their behaviour impacts on the other person. “You made me do it” is a really problematic thought, an act of victim blaming. Equally I’ve seen memes suggesting that no one else can make us feel anything and how we feel is totally our own responsibility and I find that unhelpful, too.

We all have feelings, and we all respond to what we encounter. We all hold responsibility for ourselves, and some degree of responsibility for how what we do impacts on others. I think the first question to ask here, is whether the person being blamed can choose to do differently. For example, if someone in your household is loud when you need to sleep, they probably don’t need to be loud and it may be fair to expect they can stop being loud. Their loudness isn’t necessary to them, your sleep is necessary to you. At the same time, your need for sleep is not something you have control over, nor is how you feel when sleep deprived.

However, sometimes we may make people responsible for things they have no power over. If I find you very attractive, and I make you responsible for that feeling and act like because of it, you owe me love, or sex, this is not ok. Whether or not you find me attractive in turn is not something you can choose. How your face is, does not make you responsible for how I feel about your face.

It is fair to ask a person to take responsibility for the feelings they cause in some contexts. If you shout abuse at a person, you are responsible for making them feel like shit, for example. It is not usually fair to make someone else responsible for how you behave in response to your feelings. If your feelings lead to violent responses for example, the violence is your responsibility, not caused by the other person. If your feelings leave you needing to act protectively, it’s worth remembering that this is your choice because if you feel like you’re just reacting, that can leave you feeling powerless.

Power and responsibility are very much linked to each other. The person who takes no responsibility will likely feel they have no power in a situation. This may encourage them to keep making other people responsible, and to be angry about how powerless they feel, without having looked at how they are giving power away. Most of the time, most of us have choices about how to respond. If you don’t, then that’s a serious red flag. If you don’t feel safe about responding by changing things so that they would be better for you, look carefully at what’s going on. If you feel so obliged to humour another person that you regularly do so at the cost of not meeting your own most basic needs, there is a problem. Not wanting to choose differently is not the same as not being able to, although we may tell ourselves otherwise.

When it comes to behaviour, you should feel free and able to choose how to react, respond and express yourself. If you feel someone else is ‘making’ you behave in certain ways, look hard at this. If they have that much power over you and you have no scope to choose, you should seek help, because that level of control is abusive. If you’re making someone else responsible for your actions because you feel like it’s their job to take your emotional backlashes and answer your every need, then the problem is you, and you may need help to change.

One way or another, if you cannot control your own behaviour in a situation, seek help, and if you cannot tell if you are the bully or the victim, get professional advice. A belief that you have no power doesn’t always mean that you are the victim. Some of the most bullying people I’ve encountered had stories about how it was other people ‘making’ them act in certain ways. It can be really convenient to cast yourself as powerless if you want to spend time hurting people. It can be an easy way to control well-meaning people, who will try harder to make you feel better every time you tell them they are responsible for what you do. It’s a hard thing to deal with, and no doubt a hard thing to see in yourself and undertake to change.

If you’re seeing this from the outside and cannot tell if a person is a victim or a perpetrator, encourage them to seek professional help – either way, they need it.