I think that abuse is actually the norm, not the exception. In the past years, since getting out of an abusive relationship, I’ve written a lot about abuse. Like many survivors, I learned one important technique to avoid future abuse: avoid abusers. Cut them out of your life. Do not allow yourself to be drawn back into the cycle.
But here’s the problem; abuse is the norm.
What I mean by that is, when I engage with most people, I notice toxic patterns all the time. One of my strategies to heal from my abuse (and get my head straight again) was to retreat from the world. I became a hermit. I’m an introvert, so this wasn’t too much of a departure from my norm. The past four years, most of my interaction with human beings has been when I’m traveling and teaching. Or via social media, and while I still encounter plenty of horrible behavior from people there, I can also walk away pretty easily if I need to.
During this attempt to be a hermit I engaged in the process of dating several different men (and all of those in an open relationship format where I usually had to interact with their primary partners as well) I found myself running into more abusive and toxic behavior.
And most of this behavior isn’t stuff that anyone would notice as being “wrong.” As someone who has experienced abuse (in my case, primarily of the emotional and psychological time), and as someone who teaches communication and group dynamics, I see these toxic behaviors all over the place, and I’m now hyper aware of it.
Like so many other victims of abuse, I swore to never, ever let myself get stuck in an abusive romantic relationship. Or friendship. Or family dynamic. I frequently talk about boundaries, and how the ultimate enforcement of our boundaries (establishing limits) is cutting someone out of our lives. Every time I talk about this in a workshop after people have told me about their abusive friend/relative/lover/coven leader, and I say, “You could cut them out of your life,” they say, “Oh no, I could never do that.”
Abuse survivors know that yes, you can. And often you must. Because abuse typically follows a pattern of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Every time Mr. Hyde makes a monstrous and hurtful appearance, Dr. Jekyll’s there with apologies and flowers. “I’ll never do that again, I swear.”
Often the only way out of the pattern is to dial our trust back down to zero. To remove all contact with the abuser. Because–and trust me, I hate saying this about myself–those of us who have been fooled, been bamboozled, been suckered into that pattern, we know that we’re susceptible to it. We get into someone’s orbit and we want to believe they’ll be better, even though the abuse continues, and usually escalates.
One of the most important lessons that victims of abuse learn is that their abuser cannot change, cannot be fixed.
But the more I work to recover from my own experiences, the more I realize how ubiquitous abuse is. How much abusive behavior is everywhere and people don’t even notice it.
In short–there’s no way I could ever interact with anyone and avoid abuse.
And so I’ve learned that abuse is, to a certain extent, a spectrum. That yes, much like there are trolls on the internet that you will never be able to talk to, there are abusers who will never change their behavior. They will be harmful to the people around them. Whether they have a personality disorder or they’re just jerks, who cares. They aren’t changing.
Then there are the rest of us. And yes–I count myself among the abusers. I’m a survivor of abuse, and I’m a perpetrator. Because I can’t write an article about this, I can’t talk to people about their own shadows, without facing my own shadow on this.
I’ve engaged in emotional and psychological abuse too.
Was I planning on it? Nope. Did I wake up intending to harm someone else that day? Nope. I was acting on autopilot. I was protecting that fragile part of me deep inside. The part that was afraid and hurting; the part that was abused before I knew what abuse was.
Because, we pay it forward. Because, we learn from the dysfunctional behaviors around us. We learn dysfunctional communication from sitcoms and from our families. We see bullying normalized on children’s television shows. I never liked Looney Tunes as a kid, and now I hear these cartoons are no longer broadcast. And thinking back, it makes sense to me; Bugs Bunny and the rest of the cartoon crew are physically harming one another, bullying one another, psychologically torturing one another.
Years ago, I made a commitment to almost entirely stop teasing people, because I recognized it was a form of abuse. It’s a way of controlling the behavior of others through subtle shaming. I will tease fellow Star Wars geeks about our geekery, for instance, because it’s a shared joy and camaraderie. I will not tease someone about anything that might actually hurt them.
And, when I am engaging in a new relationship with any emotional intimacy (lovers, friends, etc.) I sometimes will go through the exercise of communicating specific things that I am absolutely not ok with being teased about. My acne, my weight, my depression or anxiety.
In the case of my current romantic relationship, my boyfriend is a “car guy,” and I specifically asked him to not tease me about any issues with my car. I asked that if he had something he needed to communicate to me about my car (the tires are low, I need an oil change, the brakes are crunchy) that he do so in a way that isn’t teasing. It’s really helped me to hear what he’s saying without me getting defensive. I know I don’t know a whole lot about cars, and I don’t feel that I have to somehow “show off” to counteract the emotional impact of the teasing.
Think about how much teasing goes on in your life in any given day. It’s abusive. People say, “Oh, teasing is how we show love around here.” Nope, it’s how we tear down the self esteem of others and perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
I remember being in high school in the theater department. All of us backstage geeks used to tease the crap out of each other. I learned the form of humor of ripping on one another, and that took quite some time to unlearn since that was the first time I ever had real friends. That was my social norm.
The kinds of abuse where I’ve been the perpetrator have primarily been in the context of romantic relationships where I felt cornered and tried to manipulate a situation to my advantage. There are probably times where I engaged in gaslighting–that is to say, rewriting reality to fit what I wanted my partner to feel and do. An example that comes to mind is, my ex husband was angry at me about something, and instead of just acknowledging I’d made a mistake, I tried to make him wrong, make him the bad guy, so that I could be the good guy.
Trying to be the “good guy” is a lot of our underlying human programming; it’s a lot of what fuels our ego.I’ve written a bit about my own work to be less of a know-it-all. Most know-it-alls seem to share a pretty common pattern; we have issues with self esteem. (Maybe we’ve been bullied or abused. We’re raised in a culture of shame, it’s not hard to end up this way.) And, our ego overcompensates for this with what a therapist would call an unsuccessful strategy; we somehow cover over our deepest fears about ourselves, and that nagging sensation that nobody likes us, by trying to be good at something: knowing things and being smarter than anyone else, or at least, more knowledgeable on our topic of choice.
Theoretically, know-it-alls end up like this because our egos want to make us likable to other people. If we know things, if we’re smart, we must be “good.” And ego is kind of simplistic about the whole good/bad thing. We want to be good, but we don’t realize that our “strategy” to be “good” is actually counterproductive. We’re actually pushing people away from us.
It’s worth exploring this particular behavior because it ties right back into so many of the other abusive behaviors, particularly the psychological ones. Bullying and abuse of this type often goes back to protecting that small, fragile part inside of ourselves that’s afraid. Gaslighting isn’t always the malicious strategy of a sociopath; it’s often enough the defense mechanism of someone who has been bullied and abused and is just trying to be the “good” one.
It’s only as the victim of gaslighting, and as someone who’s read about, thought about, and written about abuse, that I began to understand that I, too, had engaged in this form of abuse. I wasn’t trying to psychologically destabilize my ex, I was just trying to not be the “bad” one.
Years ago I was exposed to a form of personal/spiritual work called a Fear Progression. How this worked is, you dig up your worst, gnarliest fear. And someone asks you, “And what would happen if that fear came true?” If you keep asking people a series of similar questions as they name their fears and the consequences, eventually most people’s fears boil down to, “Because nobody would like me.” “And what would happen if nobody liked you? “I would be alone.” “And what would happen if you were alone?” “I would die.”
Ask yourself those questions when you think about your worst fears. How many of your fears are about how others will judge you? How many of your fears are about whether or not people will care about you, whether or not you will have friends and family? Whether or not you’ll be alone?
Our culture so normalizes abuse and bullying, it so normalizes shaming, that we don’t even realize it’s being done to us.
And we don’t realize that we’re doing it to the people we love.
It’s hard to look in the mirror and recognize that we’re engaging in some of these abusive behaviors ourselves. For myself, it’s one of the hardest realizations I’ve made in my personal work. But it’s come hard at the heels of me recognizing that, if I tried to cut every abusive person out of my life, that’s everyone.
That’s every single person. Because there isn’t anyone I know who doesn’t engage in at least some toxic behaviors.
Almost a year ago, I ended one phase of my hermit-hood by moving in with my partner and his wife. And that’s brought up a lot of issues for me. Some of it has nothing to do with anyone doing anything wrong; I have had to come face to face with the fact that my anxiety has triggers, such as people yelling (even if it’s reasonable to yell). And this probably means that I’m staring down a diagnosis of PTSD, but I won’t know that for sure until I’m able to find a way to get health care assistance so that I can afford to get therapy. Some of the issues are just the issues that happen when people live together. We’re not perfect. We make mistakes, we’re different from one another in our wants and needs, and we’re going to annoy one another.
And other issues have come up because of toxic behaviors.
So I’ve had to renegotiate my approach. These aren’t people I’m cutting out of my life. I’m investing the time and energy to help address the toxic, manipulative, and abusive behaviors of certain people in my life. And it’s more work to do that, and it’s more work still to hold the discernment to figure out, is this a malignant narcissist or sociopath? Or is this someone who is hurting inside, who is acting on autopilot, and who has the potential to shift their behavior? Is this someone in my life that is toxic, but I don’t have to engage with them much? It takes a lot of juggling to balance how much effort to invest, and who it’s worth sucking up the courage to confront.
So much of the focus of my work is on personal and spiritual growth. And most of that boils down to healing our egos, healing our wounded hearts. Healing from the shame and the bullying and abuse. Healing from the misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism. The body shaming, the sex shaming. The anything-you-can-think-of shaming. That hurt, that abuse, cracks and shatters our hearts.
Some hearts are shattered so badly that–while there’s a possibility of transformation, it’s unlikely, and it’s beyond my ability to sustain a relationship with someone like that. And I wish I had the power to heal and to help, but I don’t. Again, maybe they are sociopaths or narcissists, maybe not, but they’re beyond my ability to be with.
Most broken hearts, I believe, are shattered pieces that can become that stained glass mosaic.
The secret to healing is to look into the Dark Mirror, the Mirror of Souls. To journey down to the Underworld to face our shadows and our fears. There is the work of addressing the toxic behavior of others around us–and finding ways to skillfully do that is a separate post entirely. But there is also the work of addressing how we, each of us, might also do some of these things.
The challenge is standing on the knife’s edge of balance; by learning we’ve done bad, hurtful things, we are in danger of worsening our own issues of poor self esteem and self image. We are in danger of adding more weight to that voice of self-shaming that causes the problems and behaviors in the first place.
But we can hold the paradox of, I’ve done something hurtful in the past, and, I am committing to doing better. I may have engaged in harmful behavior, but I am not a bad person and I can learn a different way.
Only if we recognize the harmful behaviors we’ve engaged in can we change those behaviors. And we must. And only if we begin to see the culture of shame can we find the tools to dismantle it. Let us each look into the Dark Mirror, work to overcome the behaviors that make the world a worse place, and work together to move out of the cycle of abuse. Let our power be the magic of shattered glass.
Let us make beauty from the broken. *