NOTE: This article contains discussions of emotional and psychological abuse and their effects on victims. It references characteristics of and tactics used by abusers and briefly touches on some abusive situations I have personally experienced. If you are sensitive to these topics, please consider your mental health before reading.
If you tend to make unwise decisions when it comes to your information and entertainment sources and follow my work, you may have noticed that it’s been over 2 months since my last blog post. My old pal depression has crept up on me, making effortful, anxiety-provoking tasks like writing and making meals and cleaning up after myself and returning messages and doing much else other than working, watching YouTube and sleeping difficult or impossible to accomplish. As a result I’ve been doing a lot of introspection and self-analysis, sometimes in a healthy way, though often due to intrusive self-doubt. Earlier this week I was finally able to return to therapy after a financially-imposed year and a half break, where I was diagnosed with PTSD stemming from nearly-lifelong abuse. (And yes, this DOES, in fact, lend legitimacy to my never-ending SJW quest for #triggerwarnings.)
If you keep up with the goings-on of the atheist community on social media, you can probably recall an incident in August in which a semi-prominent atheist activist (now somewhat disgraced for this and other antagonistic behavior) targeted Callie and I for an out-of-the-blue smear campaign of sorts, which resulted in an invasion of my privacy and betrayal of Callie’s trust. Many people close to me, especially one of my partners who is also a member of the atheist community, were worried about how I would react when I woke up that morning to find so many negative comments about me. Knowing that I suffer from low self-esteem and can have panic attacks triggered by interpersonal conflict, my partner texted me after I had gone to bed and was still unaware of the situation, imploring me to trust him and not to go on Facebook until he let me know it was safe. Being the anxiety-fueled wreck that I am, I automatically assumed someone I loved had died and I couldn’t stop myself from checking social media to find out for certain what horrific, tragic event had occurred.
Rather than being upset and panicky like my partner had predicted, my reaction when I found that all of my friends and loved ones were safe – and all that had happened was that some people I didn’t even know said some mean things about me – was one of relief and even amusement. I understood why my partner and other friends of mine were worried about potential damage to my mental health that this situation could have inflicted. Due to the nature of the abuse I went through, one of my biggest anxiety triggers is someone being angry or upset with me (whether that upset is real or imagined), so it made sense that they would be worried about my reaction to dozens of strangers mocking me. And yes, I was a bit anxious and did avoid a good amount of what was being said, but that’s not terribly different from my day-to-day social media habits.
But overall, my reaction to the whole situation wasn’t one of hurt or trauma, but rather ironic amusement, especially as it became more and more clear to both myself and most onlookers that the instigating party was the one at fault in the situation. This person tried so desperately to harm me – a person who had never so much as spoken to him – on a personal level, and not only did he fail in that regard, but the attention he brought me ended up making me dozens of new friends and supporters. I thought – and still think – the situation ended up being rather comical in its irony, at least where I was involved (it was markedly less entertaining for Callie, who had a previous friendship with this person which was now completely broken).
As I thought on it more in the days that followed, I came to see that my unexpectedly healthy emotional reaction to a potentially damaging situation was not in spite of my trauma history, but because of it. I realized that although living through abuse has been hellishly painful and had psychological effects reaching well beyond the timeline of the actual events, it has also instilled skills in me that many people never have a chance to develop to the same extent.
Like a species living in an extreme climate, victims of abuse must adapt to their abnormal surroundings in order to survive, sometimes gaining traits that would hinder them in other, dissimilar settings. Drop a sea lion in the rainforests of the Amazon and the poor guy would get tangled in the dense underbrush and bruise its nose on a tree trunk within a few seconds, but observe that same be-flippered creature in its native oceanic habitat and you’ll see how easily it glides through the water and snaps up fish. The flippers and long body may be a big drawback in many environments, but given a suitable environment the sea lion can’t be matched in prowess. If its ancestors had evolved to suit a more temperate climate it may have been able to live in a wider variety of landscapes, but without the evolutionary pressure to adapt to a harsher climate, it probably wouldn’t have excelled in any one area.
Growing up in the household equivalent of a relatively “extreme” environment, I was pressured to develop skills and traits to aid in my survival, and while they often hinder me, in the right circumstances those skills can aid me in navigating social interaction and give me insight into self-development. These are the 6 most beneficial skills I learned as a result of my trauma history.
1. How to read others
Once they accept the reality of their abuse and become educated on abusive tactics, victims can very easily spot manipulators, abusers and narcissists in their lives and either avoid them or deal with them appropriately. It’s especially true for those who have been through therapy or a support group, and/or read books and articles on the subject. This, I think, is why I didn’t react as poorly as expected to the situation I wrote about above. As events unfolded the instigator pulled out tactic after tactic straight from the Abuser’s Playbook, a tome I know by rote at this point. It was so predictable to me that I found it much more comical than upsetting when events occurred precisely as I would expect from a toxic person. Because I had so many years of experience in dealing with a similar type of person, I was well equipped to handle the situation. Where someone who had never experienced the depth of human cruelty might have been wrecked and overblown, I was practiced in that area and therefore able to keep confident in myself. Based on my previous experience with a toxic person, I was able to correctly predict this person’s behavior patterns, so I was never caught off guard.
The ability to read others extends beyond the actions of toxic and abusive people and delves into the realm of emotional relationships, too. Because their safety often depends (or previously depended) on intuiting the moods and desires of the abuser, many abuse victims are hyper-aware of others’ emotional and physical needs. On the negative side, that can lead to anxiety and codependency as the person puts others’ needs ahead of their own to avoid the rejection or punishment they have been trained to expect as a consequence for not fully catering to another’s wishes. This is at the root of my fear of interpersonal conflict that I touched on earlier. When I feel that someone is angry with me, I become frantic in my attempts to allay the situation (and often end up making it worse in the process).
But you can also harness this superpower to use for good! Increased intuition for others’ needs, when combined with a drive to lessen hurt, can lead to an increased capability to effectively care for others. As long as it’s within healthy boundaries and they don’t put the other person’s needs or wants above their own health and happiness, a person with a trauma history may be in a better position than someone without to intuit and address the emotional states of those around them and help them to achieve harmony and happiness. Learning to do this in a healthy, non-codependent way can require a lot of retraining, but the benefits are well worth the work involved. I’m in the beginning stages of this process and am learning that when I’m feeling well and set healthy boundaries between my own feelings and the feelings of my loved ones, I’m able to provide intuitive emotional support that is fulfilling to both myself and the other person. Based on the progress I’ve seen so far, I look forward to seeing the good I can do for others with my inherent sensitivity once I master it.
2. How to disengage
When I was 15 my abusive family member and I briefly attended family therapy (very briefly – we only attended 2 sessions before my family member decided to move us to a new state and hope for a “fresh start” instead of addressing the underlying issues.) In a private session, I told the therapist about my family member’s fits of explosive rage where they would scream for hours about all the things I and other family members had done “wrong” since the last outburst. At the time I knew nothing about how therapy works and didn’t have any mental framework with which to interpret my therapist’s reaction, but looking back on it now I believe that she realized the level of anger and irrationality I was up against with my family member. Her advice for getting through these episodes was simple – don’t react. Don’t fight back, don’t argue, don’t do anything to escalate the situation. Don’t even try to present your side in a calm and rational manner – just don’t do anything and wait for it to be over.
As a 15 year old I was inwardly indignant at this advice. What, I should just sit there and let them get away with lying, misrepresenting and doling out undeserved blame on me? This is unjust! I wasn’t able to effectively apply the advice until many years later when I had more of a handle on my own anger and could better control my external reactions to provocation, but it’s since become one of the most spoon-conserving techniques in my arsenal.
The point behind the therapist’s advice was not to blame me for my family member’s behavior, but to convey to me that it’s okay and often necessary to back away from a harmful situation if possible, especially when the other person involved is acting irrationally. There’s no winning in arguing with an irrational person. Some people are not interested in being open to new information and just want to verbally beat others into submission so that they can feel justified in their position or avoid any threat to their self-esteem. These people cannot be reasoned with; they either don’t value truth in the situation or may be unable to gauge the situation objectively, and instead prefer to cling to their beliefs and reject all outside evidence.
The urge to engage with them and hopefully change their mind is understandable and a lot of good might come from it if you are successful. But if the other person is closed off, the chances of success are slim while the chances of causing yourself frustration and pain are quite a bit higher, especially if you have a history of emotional trauma. In accordance with my judgement of the person’s character from the first point on this list, I can decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not engaging with a person could be beneficial, or if there is a greater likelihood of inflicting damage than there is of the situation ending in positive change. I try to remember that I have no obligation to change or fix others – It’s okay for someone to be wrong, and for me to let them continue to be wrong! It took several months of therapy as an adult to come to terms with this, but I know now that my well-being is always more important than someone’s opinion of me or views on an issue.
3. How to love conditionally
No, that’s not a typo. I did mean “conditionally”.
We’ve all heard the hype about unconditional love. It’s the truest, most selfless form of love, a love that persists through all obstacles and hardships and can never be broken, no matter what happens between the parties involved. This notion is, frankly, pure and unadulterated bullshit. Despite the adages, unconditional love should never be held up as the pinnacle of affection. It may seem beautiful in theory, but in practice it’s downright dangerous.
All relationships should be conditional – based on the condition of mutual respect. No one is entitled to another person’s love, approval or even presence, not even family. The standard of unconditional love is especially damaging to those who have been abused by a family member or romantic partner. We constantly hear that “blood is thicker than water” and that “you don’t have to like your family, you just have to love them”. No, you don’t have to love or even interact with anyone, no matter their biological or legal connection to you, especially someone who actively harms you.
Abuse survivors are often guilted for cutting off contact with abusers, especially family. How could you abandon the people who raised you, who are responsible for your very existence? Don’t you feel bad for shutting out this person when they were there for you for years? What gives you the right to keep your kids from knowing their (insert relative)?
What gives you the right? Your dignity as a human being. No one has the right to force you to engage with them or to put up with their toxic or damaging behavior. You can’t control how another person behaves, but most times you can control to what extent you will allow them access to your life. You have only one life and you are free to live it as you see fit; it would be a disservice to yourself to waste your life sacrificing your happiness and well-being to suit someone else who doesn’t deserve your charity. If an abuser or someone that enables them accuses you of cowardice or running away from your obligations, let them. You know the truth – no such obligation to subject yourself to harm for someone’s else’s comfort exists. When I realized and internalized this truth, I cut off all contact with my abuser, and in the year since then I have never felt more safe and in control of my life. I learned to set and keep healthier boundaries and conditions in all my relationships. Speaking of knowing the truth, that leads me to…
4. How to think critically and evaluate evidence
If you’ve spent a decent amount of time in social justice discussions online, you’ve probably come across the term gaslighting. Some overzealous rhetoricians have recently stretched the accepted usage of this term, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll clarify that I am speaking of a specific “form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity,” typically by either denying that certain events ever occurred or by reinterpreting and spinning the occurrence to retroactively absolve the abuser of blame and place it instead on the victim.
To survive interactions with abusers who make you question your understanding of reality, you learn how to check their claims against objective evidence. Am I really the person they say I am? Can I trust what they say about others? Did it actually happen the way they said it did? Should I trust their recounting of events over my own memory? As gaslighting was one of my abuser’s favorite tactics, over time I became quite adept at exercising skepticism. I came to find that when my abuser denied that they did certain actions or tried to tell me what really happened, it often conflicted with my own understanding. When I reviewed the available evidence and consulted others who may have witnessed or been involved in the events, I consistently found that my memories were much closer to the truth than my abuser tried to convince me of.
Through cognitive behavioral therapy, I also learned to challenge my own irrationally negative thoughts and beliefs, especially about myself. When I expressed beliefs that I was incompetent or that others were thinking about me negatively, my therapist guided me through exercises designed to help me question my assumptions. I learned to think critically about the limits of my knowledge and base beliefs about the self and others on evidence rather than relying on my own flawed speculation, attempts to “mind-read” others, and restricted point of view. When I dispense with assumptions and evaluate myself based on evidence instead of arbitrary perfectionistic standards, I find that my beliefs about myself and others are not only healthier and happier, but more accurate as well, which satisfies my skeptical mind quite nicely.
5. How to be compassionate to those who aren’t
I don’t believe that good and evil are universal concepts which exist outside of the human experience. In a secular humanistic worldview, good and evil are simply labels we employ to express the relative harm or benefit of a behavior. For that reason, I don’t believe that people themselves can be rightly called evil, though some of their actions may be called that in some contexts (though personally I prefer to use terms without religious baggage, like harmful).
My abuser is not an evil, rotten-to-the-core human. This person has done some terrible things to me and other members of my family, but they’ve also done wonderful things. They provided for me, made my education a top priority, enriched my life with activities and experiences, and sometimes we even had fun together. Abusers tend to think in black and white – don’t do the same!
Abusers are often sad, angry, hurting, ill people who can’t or won’t get help and lash out at others because they are unable to address their own pain. My previous and current therapists agree that my abuser is most likely is suffering from a mood or personality disorder, but because this person believes their behavior is perfectly justified and normal, they never took my advice and sought support and thus never got diagnosed or treated. (If everyone else is the problem, there’s no need to change!) That’s not someone I think is bad or evil or deserving of scorn – that’s someone I feel pity for. They’re suffering in a world of anger and pain and may never experience healing. If they had more self-insight they may have been able to alleviate some of the inner turmoil that caused them to act abusively, but they probably never will, and that makes me sad for them.
This is not to excuse any of their abusive behavior or absolve them of blame. No matter the factors that influenced their behavior, abusers are still ultimately responsible for the damage they inflict and should be held to account just like anyone else. This is just to highlight the nuance in the situation and express that abusers are complex humans, not robots programmed to bring destruction and chaos. Perhaps there are a few people out there without a single well-meaning intention to be found in their mind or a solitary good thing to contribute to the world, but that has yet to be demonstrated, and my abuser certainly doesn’t fit that description. Living with someone like that for 23 years – and later unpacking that experience through therapy and introspection – has given me keen awareness of the complexity of human beings. As a result I’m a more nuanced thinker in general, and it’s difficult for me to see anyone as purely evil or irredeemable. (That doesn’t, however, mean that I allow a toxic person to remain in my life on the off chance that they may reform – they must first meet their burden of proof, so to speak, and demonstrate that they have earned an end to their probation.)
6. How to take pride in my accomplishments and character
Emotional and psychological abusers thrive on making their victims believe that they are inherently helpless and dependent. They know that someone with good self-esteem would dispense with their toxic bull and dump them out of their life, so abusers spend a lot of time engaging in tactics to convince the victim that they can’t survive without the help of the abuser. They need to convince you that you’re worthless and can only be redeemed by allowing your abuser full control over your life, so they cut you down and undermine your self-confidence until you believe that you can’t be functional without them telling you exactly how to live.
Once you realize the abuse and start to see through the tactics, you begin to rebuild confidence in yourself, and when you finally escape, the discovery of your own strength is indescribable. It’s said that the most difficult actions are the most rewarding – no pain, no gain – and I have to agree. Leaving my abusive situation and cutting off contact with my abuser was the most difficult but ultimately most fulfilling thing I have ever done.
After listening to my story, my last therapist told me that she was impressed with how functional and healthy I am given my upbringing. I was incredulous at that claim. At the time I was totally crippled with anxiety, unable to answer phone calls or even open my email inbox, stalling to a paralyzed halt on grad school applications. And she was telling me I was impressively functional? The idea was laughable to me.
She explained that although I had areas I was clearly struggling in, I had overall been much more successful in life than my situation would have predicted. Despite my poor mental health, I had graduated college with honors and was employed full-time with glowing reviews from my bosses. I had a healthy and happy romantic relationship even though I never had one modeled for me growing up. Although I was never even taught what personal boundaries were, much less how to set and maintain them, I had a well-developed sense of justice and knew intuitively when my boundaries were being violated, even if I didn’t always feel strong enough to push back against them.
And that, my therapist told me, was all my doing. Because of my strength and good character. Because of my ambition and my self-respect. Because of my intuitive respect for others and my love of knowledge and truth. And now I believe her. My experiences hurt me and have left a lasting impact on me that effects me every day, but they also turned me into a stronger, more educated and more empathetic person. I can always be proud of myself for being a more functional, more lovable, more compassionate, and better person than my abuser wanted me to be.
It’s the ultimate “screw you” to succeed when someone roots for you to fail, and I just love a good “screw you.”
If you are currently in an abusive situation or need help healing, please contact one or more of the following resources:
National Domestic Violence Hotline: http://www.thehotline.org/
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: https://www.childhelp.org/hotline/