Tag Archives: victims

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.


Calling out abusers

When you call out bad behaviour in others, a number of things may happen. A person who has made an honest mistake, or just been careless, will likely be upset but also sorry and remorseful. Decent people called out on their cock-ups tend to own it and try to deal with it.

Whether you’re responding to something done to you, or calling someone out over what you’ve seen them do to others, the results can be the same, although the consequences of that, in turn, may be different. Here are some of the most obvious outcomes and their implications.

The abuser denies everything. Frustrating if you’re an observer, devastating if you’re a victim. If you’ve been shouted at or hit, and then told that these things did not happen, it’s confusing and distressing. If you endure a lot of it, you may feel you’re going mad. Denying what happened is a form of gaslighting.

The abuser blames the victim. The victim in some way made them do it. Again, this is devastating for the victim, and may over time persuade them that they are responsible. It’s hardest on child victims who have no reason to know it isn’t their fault. If you are not the victim and you get this response, do think carefully about whether the person on the receiving end could really have caused what happened to them. It’s not an argument anyone should be comfortable with. Making victims responsible for the abuse they experience is a form of emotional abuse and gaslighting.

The abuser derides the victim. The victim is crazy, a drama queen, over reacting, a liar, making it up, fantasising, needs help. This is another form of gaslighting that will, over time, cause the victim to doubt their own sanity and judgement. They will complain less, and do less to protect themselves if they are persuaded that their responses are irrational and unreasonable. If the person challenging over abuse is persuaded that the victim is ridiculous, the victim gets less help and support. If everyone is persuaded that the victim is silly and makes a fuss, abuse can go on and nothing is done about it. Do not be complicit in this.

The abuser minimises what was done. A blow becomes ‘just a tap’ a violent shove becomes ‘a little accident’. The abuser says it wasn’t as bad as the victim was making out – again this undermines the victim’s confidence in their own judgement and plays into the idea that the victim is making a fuss about nothing. Watch out for the use of the word ‘just’ in this context. Where the abuse is non-physical, this is even easier to persuade onlookers about. The victim is a snowflake, a drama queen, wants to be the centre of attention, has no sense of perspective, makes mountains out of molehills…

If you have heard about abuse from someone else, rather than seeing it first hand, there is a further thing to take into account when calling someone out: Bullies often play victim. If two people tell you that they are each is being bullied by the other, the odds are that one of them is telling you the truth, and the other is saying it to do more harm to their victim. On the whole, victims tend to be fearful and seeking safety while bullies claiming victimhood are likely to be angry and wanting retribution. Victims may be confused (for all of the above reasons) and not sure if it’s their fault in some way. Bullies are confident when they self identify as victims. The victim is the person most likely to be apologising and wondering how to fix things. If the bully is playing victim and the victim is the person who is saying ‘I think it may be all my fault, I’m afraid I’m a horrible person, I can’t get anything right’ then it can be all too easy to misjudge what’s going on.

Also, if someone is more offended by being called out than they are worried about the harm they may have inadvertently caused, they’re out of order.


No hierarchy of distress

Some years ago, I spent two terms on a course for abuse survivors, run by the Freedom Program. It really helped me get over what had happened and move on, and it taught me a great deal. One of the things I learned was this: Everyone there felt that other people present were far worse off than them.

Everyone had stories, and those stories were ghastly, heartbreaking and all too real. They were all far worse than anything I’d been through. But then an odd thing started happening, because other women, on hearing my stories, would say they thought it was far worse than what had happened to them. This shocked me. We all thought we’d probably deserved what had happened to us, but refused to accept that anyone else could possibly have deserved what happened to them. Through this we all began to question our feelings about our own experiences. It was a challenging process.

The idea that someone else has it worse, and we therefore shouldn’t make too much fuss may be relevant if you’ve merely broken a nail, or been slowed down by bad traffic. Perspective is useful in face of middle class, first world problems. However, that same line of thought absolutely does function to keep people in dangerous and damaging places. After all, it’s not like he cut you, other women get cut. Compared to being raped by a stranger, forced sex from someone you know really isn’t so bad. It was just a slap, not the same as being beaten up. It was only being beaten up, it’s not like you died…

Women who were imprisoned will say how much worse it must have been for women who were beaten, who think the victims of sexual assault were much worse off, but they in turn look to the women who lost their children in court battles, and feel that was much worse and the women who lost their children are so thankful that at least no one destroyed their mental health and the women whose minds were broken are busy feeling fortunate compared to the ones who were made prisoners in their own homes.

There is no hierarchy here. This is no reason for telling 90% of the victims to shut up and recognise that only one of these was really bad. The idea of a hierarchy of suffering is used to make us shut up and stop complaining. I was hit by one only this week – I should be grateful because I’m not picking plastic off rubbish dumps in a third world country. But here’s a thing: The shitty situation in my country is not a separate issue, and tackling problems here would also tackle our habit of creating this kind of waste and sending it abroad. The idea of a hierarchy of suffering breaks down the connections between problems and obscures the truth that these things are all connected. None of the things that are wrong in this world exist in a vacuum.

Think properly about the misery of the traffic jam, and you might indeed come to question commuter culture, city planning, economic pressures, modern economic models, international trade agreements and the whole structure of modern society. You can do that starting from anywhere. Don’t look for the hierarchy, look for the connections. Look for how your problem is related to someone else’s, and is part of it, feeding the same mess and creating misery. That way we can start to see what small things we might solve, that lead to actually fixing even the biggest things that are wrong. Most of those big things are gatherings of small problems, too, and it is the act of not taking the small problems seriously that prevents us from getting anywhere near the big stuff.


Dealing with depression

If you’re lucky enough not to suffer from depression at some point in your life, the odds are good you’ll need to deal with someone who does. How you handle that will have impact on the sufferer. To which end I’d like to put in some requests, based on things that have really knocked me about on a few occasions now.

Depressed people are hard work. They will not cheer up because you asked them to, they may not get over it any time soon any more than a person with flu will recover because you showed them cute cat pictures. Do not get cross with ill people for things beyond their control. Depressed people are not given the option, actually, to just pull ourselves together and get over it. We may be able to fake viability in short bursts, but that can be costly and is not available to everyone. Pointing out to a depressed person that it’s like pouring your energy into a black hole (I’m quoting, I had that one) is not going to help them. Rather the opposite.

You may find dealing with a depressed person is hard work. That’s actually fine. Ill people are hard work, and when the people we love are ill, we deal with that. It’s a working definition of what love means. If you are a full time carer, or a long term carer, then yes exhaustion is a real risk for you and yes taking care of yourself is important. No ill person who is free from psychotic tendencies actually wants you to martyr yourself for them. The reverse is more likely true: Ill people, be that the bodily ill or the mentally ill, usually fear being a burden. The keen sense of uselessness haunts many people who are unwell. Furthermore illness of all kinds impairs self-esteem, and depression sufferers are likely to have low self-esteem in the first place. If you tell an ill person how difficult you find them, how exhausting and draining they are, you will cause considerable harm. Depressed people may not need much persuading that the world would be better off without them. People die of depression (via suicide), so this is an appeal not to add to that.

If looking after someone is hard, take that to another friend. Go lean on someone who can bear it. We all struggle, and long term illness in someone you care about is frightening and demoralising, and actually they probably know that, but your gift of not making it explicit to them is priceless.

If really what you want from the situation is to have someone tell you how good and noble you are for putting up with this shit, move on. You are in it for your own ego, for pride and self-importance. The odds are you will do more harm than good. If you need the ill person to be terribly grateful, always impressed, always thanking you, what you actually want is them always to be vulnerable and inferior while you get to feel important. People who play that game will go to surprising lengths to keep their victim ill or down just so that they can keep rescuing them. It’s not helpful. Don’t be that person.

If you are suffering because someone you love is suffering, there is no shame or wrong in that, and that pain can be shared in mutually supportive ways. Watching someone suffer and being unable to do anything to help, is hellish. It hurts like nothing else. Owning that frustration can easily be an expression of love. Not owning it, but turning it into something to blame the other one for so that you do not have to feel guilty about being powerless… that doesn’t help anyone, ever.

It is one of the hardest things to hear that you are harming other people by being ill or in pain. When there are things you have no control over and you desperately need help and support, being told you are expensive, a nuisance, a drain and making other people ill is the sort of experience that can leave you wanting to die. I’ve had it happen more than once, and it’s left me wounded and flailing every time. When people are already down, already broken and barely able to function, these extra blows to sense of worth are nigh on impossible to take. If you love someone, you do not count the cost. If you are counting the cost, please consider that the kindest and most responsible thing you could do would be not to mention it.

Thank you.