CN: extensive discussion of the dynamics, healing process, and emotional experience of abuse. General discussion of PTSD and trauma responses. This post may encourage trauma processing. Read it at your own pace!
I have a large number of friends who have been through at least one kind of abuse and I’ve noticed that if someone has gone through the process of recognizing that something that happened to them was abusive at least once, it becomes much more important to them to evaluate future behaviors as potentially abusive.
It can be really difficult to tell, especially if you have PTSD and some of your triggers are benign behaviors, whether you are having a big reaction to something because it reminds you of abuse you suffered in the past or because the behavior itself is abusive. Complicating this distinction is that the existing definitions remain blurry and subjective.
The most common ways to define abuse that I’ve found, center around the act of harming a vulnerable person/a person who has less relative power than you do. Sometimes it’s used to mean simply the harming of another person if that harm reaches a certain level of severity.
While I believe power and vulnerability certainly play important roles in identifying abuse, I’ve also come into my own definition:
Abuse is when a person holds you responsible for events outside of your control and punishes you for failing to change what you never had the ability to affect in the first place.
Blamed for Everything Outside of Your Control
One night when I was staying at my abusive ex’s place, I had a dream that he was being a selfish jerk. When I told him about the dream, he became angry with me, said my dream-self had assumed ill-intent on his part without actually knowing what was going through his mind and that my dream-self should’ve given him the benefit of the doubt. He was angry that I had dreamed the wrong thing.
Obviously, I had no conscious control over my dreams, and there was no way I could consider how I went about my dreaming, apologize and then make a plan to make sure it didn’t happen again. But he used this misstep of mine as an excuse to drive the relationship away from the honeymoon stage of the abuse cycle and back to punishing me for my mistakes. By putting the responsibility on me for my unconsciously manifested dream, he could punish me, and go on punishing me, because I didn’t have the power to fix it.
Abusers may punish you for things like emotions, illness, and other actions resulting from unavoidable physiological effects but it’s particularly common for abusers to expect you to control the actions of other people (to their benefit). My ex got angry at me for portraying him inaccurately to my friends because they were becoming visibly distrustful of him. I had actually worked very hard to convince my friends that he was treating me respectfully but I could not control the fact that they didn’t believe me. He would say that I hadn’t tried hard enough and there was no way for me to prove that I had.
An abuser will peddle the idea that if you alter your actions in just the right way, the abuse and punishments will stop. But because the abuser controls when the abuse happens, no combination of words or perfectly executed behaviors or change of environment can stop the abuser from choosing to abuse you if they decide to. Stopping the abuse becomes an unattainable ideal that the victim is in a constant struggle to reach.
It was my job to closely watch the behavior of my abuser to try to ascertain which response, which words, which facial expression, was the right one to offer in any given circumstance. Guessing correctly meant the difference between short spans of bliss and torturous emotional abuse that could last for weeks.
This process of guessing felt like I was facing a hallway of infinite doors. I must choose the right door or else face peril. I never chose the right one. How do you know which one is the right one? How do you pick when there are so many of them and the answer is different every time?
But of course, the truth is you can never know which door is the right one if your abuser can decide at the very last moment that the door you chose wasn’t the right one after all. Like a mystifying shell game, your abuser can intentionally mislead you into choosing the wrong one, while maintaining the illusion that you should’ve been able to choose correctly had you really wanted to.
The Burden of Responsibility
According to my ex, I was responsible for everything bad that happened in the relationship. I believed we couldn’t be happy together because of my instability, my brokenness, and my inability to fully love or consider the needs of another person.
These dynamics are pretty fundamental to most abusive relationships. As long as I was chasing the goal of the perfect combination of what to do and say that will forever solve the unsolvable problems in the relationship and finally make the abuse stop; as long as I believed it was my responsibility to chase this goal, I was devoted to the relationship and to my abuser.
As the abuse escalates, a victim accepts responsibility for worse and worse punishments: harassment, stalking, sexual violence, assault, even threats to their life or the lives of their children. In the of the victims, it is always their responsibility to prevent the horrible things their abuser does to them, and the only way to do that is to follow their abusers’ directions exactly. Any slight deviation from their instructions could lead you to choose the wrong door.
Like many victims of abuse, in the immediate aftermath of my nightmare of a relationship, I didn’t believe that what I experienced was abuse. It took a month away from my abuser to even admit to myself that he may not have had my best interests in mind the way I believed he did, and another 4 months to realize that he had been intentionally harming me in order to further his own goals.
The realization that something that was so incredibly painful to go through wasn’t your fault is in itself painful. Continuing to blame myself was like walking a well-beaten path. It hurt but it was a hurt I had accepted as just part of my lot in life. Rejecting the notion that I was at fault didn’t just absolve me, it also pointed out that a person that I loved and devoted myself to had betrayed me and had allowed me to believe that the hurt was my fault. It was freeing and also devastating.
With the help of a lot of therapy, I started removing the blame from my shoulders and placing it on his. I was able to identify behaviors that had become so normal and expected and see them as toxic and damaging. This process allowed me to reframe the abuse; it wasn’t the inevitable result of my inherent brokenness, it was a set of harmful choices someone else made that I didn’t deserve. I started to heal.
The Old Habits that Haunt You
It was this middle section of recovery that I think was the most difficult to navigate. If, during the healing process, something triggered my people-pleasing compulsion, the need to take on the responsibility of another person’s problems was like a vortex– if I came anywhere close to that mindset, I would be sucked in completely, unable to escape for weeks. While I was mentally healthier than I had been during the abuse, I only had one tool to cope with the unreasonable demands on my emotions and that was to place all of the blame on the person that hurt me.
The triggers that snap you into an old heavily used neural pathway are a bit different from PTSD triggers. For me at least, PTSD triggers make my mind and body believe that I have been transported back to the source of the trauma. Avoiding behavioral triggers felt a bit more like quitting an addictive substance– I couldn’t risk even the smallest exposure for fear that I would lose control of these long-ingrained habits and I would be overpowered again.
As a result, I had to avoid thinking about my abuser’s perspective on our conflicts. The continuation of the abuse had depended equally on fear and empathy. In order for me to stay in the relationship, I had to believe that my abuser had good reasons to do everything he did, that I was needed, that everything I was doing to hurt myself was virtuously helping him. I cared about him deeply and that unlimited empathy for him had almost killed me. I had to mentally distance myself and dehumanize him in order to avoid similar mental traps.
I think it’s the life or death nature of abuse that makes it so difficult to discuss with nuance. In the recovery from abuse, you learn which toxic behaviors had been normalized to you but you also learn how that process of normalization allowed things to escalate to the level of life-threatening consequences.
If you associate x behavior with a threat to your survival and you know that your willingness to tolerate that behavior in the past allowed it to evolve into something life-threatening, even if it occurs in a context where the behavior isn’t a threat at all, it’s going to be very difficult to convince yourself that you should have a measured response to the behavior, rather than an all-out rejection. You are understandably going to prioritize protecting your own safety, even if that leads you to do illogical things. Fight or flight responses aren’t designed to be logical, they’re designed to keep us alive.
The Messiest Part of Healing
When your survival technique is to take responsibility and push it onto someone else (in order to protect yourself from taking on all of it and putting yourself in danger as a result) things can get messy very quickly, especially in an interaction between two abuse victims.
In this hypothetical, you have two people who have both separately experienced someone putting all the responsibility on their shoulders and the danger that brought to them. They discuss an emotionally charged topic, and on accident, one or both of them gets triggered.
Triggers are awful. During my worst triggered moments, my mind is convinced that I am physically back in the midst of my trauma: The feeling of the blanket in my ex’s apartment, the smell of his dish detergent, the sound of his fan. It’s like there’s a video of the trauma superimposed over my vision so that I’m seeing both what happened then and what’s happening now.
During a trigger, your entire body is shouting at you to run from the danger or to attack it. You grab your one tool which is to shed all responsibility, leaving it to the other person to take care of the mess.
But when you have two trauma victims both engaging in this coping mechanism, in addition to shedding responsibility, they will both experience someone else pushing the responsibility for the conflict on to them– a behavior they probably associate heavily with their abusers. With a distinctly abusive behavior identified, both feel justified in their identification of the conflict as a source of danger, both have their fears confirmed and reinforced, and both leave the situation feeling emotionally wrecked.
I’ve seen this scenario happen many times and I’ve likely been in it at some point without realizing it. Both people in the situation are totally justified in feeling hurt and terrified and in using the coping mechanism that they have to protect themselves. But it’s these messy interactions that make it really important to use the technique of putting responsibility elsewhere as a temporary tool; a stepping stone on the path to learning how to accurately identify where your responsibility lies and where someone else’s does.
The Blurring of Boundaries Between Abusers and Victims
You may be wondering, if the definition of abuse centers around forcing responsibility for your own actions onto someone else, doesn’t that mean that both of the trauma victims in the above scenario were abusing each other?
This question lends insight into why it can be so difficult to tell a victim and an abuser apart without extensive interaction with both parties. There are also plenty of cases where the roles of “abuser” and “victim” are not clearly defined at all. Abusive behaviors tend to be the most effective in an uneven power dynamic but it’s very possible to have an interaction between two people both exhibiting abusive behaviors toward each other.
Regardless of where you are in the dynamic, if you’ve been on one or both sides of an abusive relationship before, there’s a very good chance that you really struggle with separating out your own responsibilities from someone else’s. But it is the second half of my definition that distinguishes abuse from a case of bad boundaries: Punishing you for something you don’t control and then blaming you for bringing the punishment on yourself moves an act from the realm of defensiveness or emotionally lashing out to actual abuse.
Victims are more likely to take all the responsibility for a problem on themselves and turn their pain and anger inward. People who engage in abusive behavior may also have a problem with taking on too much responsibility (particularly if they have a history of being abuse-victims themselves), but they are more likely to cope with the pain of this problem by pushing their responsibilities away and blaming people around them for forcing them to take it in the first place.
Phrases like, “You leave me no choice….” or “Now I have to…” or “See what you’ve done?” or “You’ve forced me to/ You’ve made me…” tend to accompany abusive behavior. Phrases like, “Stop hurting me,” or “get your [x behavior] away from me,” or “You are doing [x behavior] to me,” usually come from recovering victims but are sometimes mistaken as abusive if delivered aggressively.
The difference is subtle but in the first, there is an emphasis on blaming the victim for the abuser’s lack of autonomy, whereas the second is focused on boundary setting and identifying toxic behaviors. The line is fuzzy and the distinction is not always clear cut precisely because both roles involve blurring boundaries and getting your own emotions and actions mixed up with someone else’s.
Moving Past the Fear
Several years into my therapy, I was walking in my own neighborhood when I saw someone that looked like my abuser on the street. I don’t actually know whether it was him or not but the impact was the same regardless. Once I had escaped the area, I became terrified of running into him again. What if he had moved to my neighborhood? What if I had to see him every day?
I came to my next therapy appointment terrified by the prospect of seeing him too frequently. I had devoted the last few years to teaching myself that no part of the abuse was my fault, that I had to do the terrible things my abuser told me to, that I had no choice.
But the unfortunate corollary of the idea that I had no power to affect the abuse was that I also had no power to prevent it in the future. If I had no choice but to do what he told me, and I ran into him on a regular basis, how much time did I have to spend in his presence before he could make me do that again? What was the magic phrase or quantity of interaction that would force me back into his emotional prison?
After removing the idea that I was responsible for everything terrible that happened and replacing it with the belief that he was, the next step was to recognize what I was responsible for.
If you’re still in the first step of relieving yourself of blame, the idea of the second step–accepting responsibility for your own abuse– sounds terrifying, it sounds self-destructive, it sounds victim-blaming, for all of the reasons I outlined earlier. Even mentioning the existence of the second step can be deeply upsetting and feel like an intolerable pressure to reject everything that you feel.
Feel free to skip this part and go straight to the heading, “Enabling trust with distance” if that’s the case for you but if you’re willing to stay with me, I have a message for you: If you are still on the first step, no one, absolutely no one can rush you into that second step. Only you know when it’s time to take it. Only you can determine when you are ready.
If hearing about the second step scares the shit out of you, you’re probably not ready to take it, and that’s okay. Wherever you are right now is okay. If you feel safe reading on, I’d like to tell you about what my second step looked like.
The Second Phase to Healing
My therapist encouraged me to focus on the power I had to walk away should I find myself in an abusive situation again. I did not have to enter or stay in a relationship with him if I didn’t want to. It dawned on me that if that was the case now, that was also the case then. If I had the power to leave or to stay, that meant that I had chosen to stay in an environment that was toxic and deeply hurtful to me. Why would I do that to myself?
My therapist saw that I was making a big step and she let me know that moving forward could be really difficult. She knew that proceeding to that second step too soon could hurt me, and she also knew that only I could decide if it was time to do it. She asked me if I wanted to pursue that line of processing, and I said yes.
With each judgmental question that popped into my head, “Why would you allow x to happen? Why didn’t you do y?” I carefully considered it and gave myself an honest answer that was not focused on self-criticism. As a result, I was able to recognize the real reasons I had decided to stay.
At the time, I believed that I was doing what was best for me. I believed that my life would be much harder if I left the relationship. I believed my abuser had my best interests at heart. Every decision I made was based in the belief that I was doing the right thing for everyone involved. I wasn’t consciously choosing to put up with a deeply toxic relationship because I didn’t recognize it as toxic at the time. My decision to stay was based on false information, and there was no way that I could’ve accessed that information earlier without outside help. I was taking care of myself the only way I knew how based on the knowledge and skill set that I had.
It was an incredibly important part of my healing process to recognize the autonomy I had in making my own decisions within the relationship. It was even more important to then forgive myself for making them.
Enabling Trust with Distance
Not everyone’s healing process is going to look like mine. Maybe you progressed past the first phase of abuse recovery, haven’t reached the second one, but you’ve found some kind of stability in the center. Or maybe the pathway that you follow to learn where your responsibility ends and someone else’s begins will not be the same as mine was.
However it is that you go about your healing, I do believe that if you are striving for a future where your relationships are happy and healthy long-term, you will want to come into a solid understanding of what is your responsibility and what is your partner/friend/family/coworker’s responsibility. Without that understanding, you risk being vulnerable to more abuse or engaging in abusive behaviors yourself in a moment of self-protectiveness.
I have a longstanding habit of taking on other people’s feelings and responsibilities that predated my abuser by many years. I’ve been working on replacing this habit with healthier ones for about 10 years now and I’m still not very good at sticking to the new practices. For so long, I used generosity towards others as a way of ensuring my own safety, taking care of them so that they would have enough resources to give back to me, hoping what they gave me matched what I needed.
This habit is so ingrained that anytime I’m being generous, I still get confused about whether I’m trying to help the other person, or trying to help myself. These habits made me a perfect target for abuse and gave me a controlling streak that kicks in whenever I’m faced with trusting other people to take care of their own responsibilities without my help.
To move away from these patterns, I had to teach myself that nothing bad would happen if I asked for my needs to be met directly. I had to learn that if I separated out my needs from someone else’s and just focused on communicating what mine were, I would actually spend more time fulfilled and less time stressed or resentful, as a result.
I had to learn how to say no when someone tried to give me their feelings to manage for them. When someone says to me with their actions, “This is yours,” or “You have to fix it for me,” I had to learn how to decide for myself whether they were right, and if they weren’t, I had to give it back to them without guilt.
I had to find what the difference between obligation and generosity was. Wanting to give to others is nothing to be ashamed of; it’s an amazing thing to offer, but generosity without boundaries will always leave you empty and used. I had to learn to look inward to determine whether I should or shouldn’t do something, instead of watching the cues of the person in front of me.
In order for me to have a shot at safety, a trusting relationship, and having my needs met, I had to learn where I ended and other people began. I needed to accept that, as a result of that separation, I could actually enable greater trust and closeness to the people I cared about.
Resources to support abuse victims:
CLICK HERE FOR QUICK ACCESS TO HELP. Purple Purse’s website offers several phone numbers for immediate assistance as well as a search engine to find shelters and other local support in your area.
How to Lend a Hand in a Mental Health Crisis Part 5: Seeking Solutions includes a guide on how to find resources for people in a crisis as well as a list of recommended resources including websites, youtube channels, magazines, and books.
See our Comprehensive Guide to Assisting with a Mental Health Crisis to learn strategies to help someone else who is in a crisis.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.