“What we see is only a fractional part of what really is.” ~Unknown
On the surface, in the public eye, it can seem trivial. It might look like the seemingly harmless teasing of a child or romantic partner, joking about words they have mispronounced or silly mistakes they have made. Inane mistakes like putting on a shirt backward, burning something in the oven, or losing their keys. Mistakes that everyone makes.
Abuse might sound like judgmental comments that appear to come from a place of compassion. Comments like:
My daughter doesn’t apply herself; she’s lazy, and I wish she would care about her education so she can make something of herself.
At the moment she likes girls, but I’m sure she’ll grow out of it because I just want her to be happy and get married and have a family.
I wish he would make plans and stick to them instead of changing careers every five minutes; he would be so much happier.
Sometimes on the surface abuse can sound like frustration:
I wish she would just pick up after herself; it annoys me that I have to live in a pigsty.
She doesn’t do well in school, which is embarrassing for me because I am a teacher.
He never has any time for me; he’s so selfish, and all he thinks about is his work.
Abuse can also sound like statements of compassionate control:
If she doesn’t do better in school, I’m not going to pay for her cello lessons.
If he doesn’t help out around the house, I’m not going to make time for him.
If she doesn’t try to dress nicely, then why would I make time for date night?
I’m not saying that all teasing or comments expressing frustration necessarily mean that someone is being abused. I am only drawing your attention to them and encouraging you to look closer.
The victim might give you subtle hints. Hints like:
My parents really don’t care what I do; my parents only care if I do well in school and that’s all.
My partner is only happy when I’m doing things for him.
I don’t get a lot of me-time because me-time is selfish.
The victim might show you emails or texts the abuser has written. Oftentimes, these emails or texts may seem benign or contain subtleties that can be easily overlooked. They might have a few verbally abusive comments and a handful of demands, or they might even be disguised as messages of concern.
Sometimes these messages may be written so persuasively you might find yourself siding with the abuser or wondering why the victim is so upset about something so trivial.
Beneath the teasing, the frustration, and the deprecating comments disguised as compassion lies a world of abuse that you are not looking for.
Behind closed doors teasing turns into putdowns and verbal abuse:
You will never amount to anything.
You are incompetent.
You are lazy.
You are fundamentally a failure.
You will never be able to support yourself.
You’re a fag.
How can you be so dumb?
These harsh words may come with physical violence, but even on their own, they can be devastating.
Compassionate control that appears on the surface may be an indicator of neglect or financial abuse.
I have the money for music lessons, but you’re not doing what I want, so I’m not going to support you. I’m not giving you money for shampoo because it wouldn’t change the fact that you look ugly.
You have not become the person I had hoped you would become, so I’m not going to pay for your educational opportunities.
Sometimes you might look at abuse victims, like me, and wonder why we don’t wear better clothes, get regular haircuts, or take better care of ourselves. However, many times these simple choices were not within our power to make.
Victims of abuse often make self-deprecating comments. Comments like:
It was no big deal; anyone could have done it.
I’m not good at a lot of things.
I can’t do anything right.
Over the years we have been groomed to put ourselves down before you do. We have internalized the abuse narratives to the point where we no longer see our lack of self-esteem, or our talents.
Victims of abuse often don’t know how to accept a compliment and at times can feel uncomfortable in the spotlight. We’ve learned to make ourselves small and build you up so that we can keep ourselves safe. We downplay the favors we have given to you or the kindness we have shown you because we have learned the needs of others matter much more than our own.
We become overly anxious when we made a mistake, when we’ve expressed an opinion contrary to yours, or when we think we might have offended you.
We put your needs first, and we act overly agreeable and easy to please. We don’t mind where we go or what we eat when we are out with you. We don’t tell you if we’re feeling tired or cold, and we hyperfocus on you because we have learned that our needs don’t really matter to anyone.
Because we have been gaslit and our reality has been denied over and over, we have learned to downplay the abuse and even to deny it. We might say contrary things about our abuser, such as:
My mother loves me; she just doesn’t know how to express it.
Yes, that was a nasty thing that he said, but if I had been kinder to him or done a better job, he wouldn’t have felt the need to say that.
You might occasionally hear us expressing frustration about the way our parents have treated us. You might hear our longing for love and acceptance, but in response you may find yourself saying:
Your mother really loves you; she just wants what’s best for you.
I know you’re frustrated with your dad, but you should really try and forgive him.
You might hear us expressing frustration about our partners and you may find yourself saying:
You should be grateful for all that they have provided for you and done for your family.
I don’t believe you; he or she doesn’t seem like the type of person to do a thing like that.
Your comments leave us feeling invalidated, so we become silent.
Abuse was always there in plain sight, but like an iceberg you only saw the tip. A tip you could easily normalize, rationalize, and dismiss.
If you suspect that someone is being abused, here are some small steps you can take to protect them.
First, realize that the victim may not know that they are being abused or that the way they are being treated is wrong.
Oftentimes, they have been groomed to believe that they deserve to be treated poorly and that the abuse is somehow their fault. If they do realize that they are being abused, they may not be in a position to do anything about it; therefore, their denial serves as a temporary coping mechanism. The best thing that you can do is to treat them with kindness and compassion.
Ask questions that encourage the person to get in touch with their feelings or needs. For example, I noticed that your mother makes a lot of negative comments about your abilities. How does this make you feel? Or, last night when we were out your partner said some harsh things about your appearance. How did you feel about this? I notice that you look thirsty. Would you like some water?
By encouraging them to get in touch with their feelings, you validate their lived experiences and help them recognize that the way they have been treated is not appropriate or healthy. By encouraging them to focus on their needs, you help them to prioritize self-care even if only in a small way. This allows them to take back the power they have lost and helps them realize that they deserve to be treated better.
Sometimes the simplest compassionate questions can help them take small steps to decrease the amount of abuse they are exposed to and eventually take drastic actions to remove the abusers from their lives entirely.
If you witness someone being teased or shamed during a social event, firmly tell the perpetrator that their behavior is not kind or appropriate. If the perpetrator does not stop, invite the victim to walk with you to another part of the room or engage in a different activity to give them a break.
Never join the perpetrator in teasing or criticizing the victim even if you believe that the teasing is just for fun.
When you join the perpetrator in teasing you are engaging in a benign form of abuse and reinforcing their power and control. You are unknowingly teaching the perpetrator that you are a person they can use against the victim. Additionally, you are affirming and normalizing the perpetrator’s opinions of the victim, making it hard for the victim to break free from toxic narratives and limiting beliefs.
Never engage in discussions about the victim with the perpetrator. Oftentimes, abusers use people who are close to the victim to convince them to do things they are not comfortable doing. Sometimes these conversations are disguised as concern for the victims, their well-being, or their financial future. If you suspect that you are being used in this manner, make it clear that you are not comfortable engaging in these sorts of conversations. Keep your communications with them brief yet firm.
Never confront the abuser or tell them that you think their behavior is abusive. This may prompt them to encourage the victim to cut you out of their life. If you need to call the abuser out on their actions, talk specifically about why you do not like their behavior or why it is not appropriate. If you suspect that the victim is in serious physical danger, contact the police, a social worker, or a local women’s shelter for professional advice.
Abusers tend to isolate their victims in order to maintain control over their lives. Invite them to activities you both enjoy so you can spend quality time together and give them a break from their home life.
If you have a friend or family member who cancels plans at the last minute or frequently declines invitations, they may not be making this choice of their own free will. It is important not to take this personally or wall the victim out of your life. This is what the abuser wants you to do.
Instead, continue to call your friend and invite them to social events even if you think that they will not attend. Knowing that you are in our lives even in some small way can make us feel less isolated.
Make it clear to your friend or family member that you are always there if they need to talk and frequently remind them of this. If you feel comfortable you can also let them know that they are always welcome to stay at your home if they ever need a safe place to go. You can also offer to help them create a safety plan should they ever feel unsafe.
By taking these small steps you are choosing to see the abuse that lies beneath the tip of the iceberg and helping your loved one make it safely to the surface.
About Jen Hinkkala
Jen Hinkkala is PhD student, researcher, and teacher of arts education in Canada. She strives to understand what factors and experiences lead to higher levels of wellness, resiliency, and self-care among arts educators and students. Jen is also a life coach and specializes in self-care, well-being, time management, performance anxiety, estrangement, overcoming abuse, career paths, and anxiety. Jen runs a support group for estranged adults and a group to support personal development. Follow her on Twitter here.
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