Lies we tell ourselves about abuse

We want to think the best of people. We want to tell ourselves that we were loved and cared for. We want to be “normal” and “OK”. So we find ways to excuse what was done to us. We find ways to explain what happened. If we can avoid dealing with it, maybe we won’t hurt anymore. Here are some of the lies I was telling myself about my past.

1. Abuse only happens when parents don’t love their kids.

“My parents love me. So there is no way they could have been abusive. Right?”

This is not true. People often do very harmful things with great intentions. Even if something was not meant to deliberately hurt you, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t damaging. Here is one simple example from my childhood of unintentional harm done by well meaning parents.

I don’t think that my parents sat down one day and came up with a plan for how to give their daughters insecurities about body image. But the action they took in forcing extreme modesty, my Mom comparing our bodies to hers and being paranoid about how much food we ate and how much we weighed, and even withholding food if we were being “gluttonous”, my Dad’s criticism of our bodies as well as his refusal to ever say anything positive about how we looked because he didn’t want to “puff us up”, all took their toll. Even if something was not planned to deliberately harm, it can still hurt.

Tradition and Ignorance

Abuse can be disguised when everyone else is doing it. Virtually everyone will recognize that female circumcision is abusive, that is why it is illegal in the western world. But in the areas of the world where it happens, this is a traditional practice, approved by parents who love their children. Centuries of foot binding in China was gradually phased out as the culture realized how damaging it was. Just because something is done in ignorance does not mean that it is not abusive. What is heartbreaking is when people live in a society where the information about a practice being harmful is widely available and distributed, but still continue to do it anyway.

2. I’ve dealt with it.

Oh how many times I’ve wanted to tell myself that I’m done dealing with it. That I am fixed now. I’ve figured it all out. That I’ve arrived. And every time I am proven wrong when another buried memory emerges, or I slip back into old patterns and have to fight my way out of depression. Again.

“Dealing with it” is a journey, not a destination.

It’s so tempting to stop working things out when it gets rough. Especially when lies about God get dragged into the process. “As a Christian you’re supposed to “forgive and forget.” But forgiveness (much like “dealing with it”) is a journey, not a one-time event. And forget isn’t even part of the equation. Do the memories fade? In a way they do. Not in that you don’t remember anymore, but that they slowly lose their control over you. But can I “forget” everything and pretend as though my parents raised me in a way they didn’t? No I can’t. My parents were who they were, they are who they are, they did what they did. Nothing is going to make that go away, nothing is going to reshape those memories. My relationship with my parents can never start over with a blank slate, but it can continue to grow and change as time goes on.

In a way, living with abuse in your background is kind of like living with an addiction in your past. An alcoholic can stop abusing alcohol, but they will probably never be able to drink recreationally. A cutter can put away the knife, but the scars don’t disappear. Nothing you do can make the abuse in your past disappear as though it never happened. But you can change how it affects your life!

3. I was never hurt (or) It wasn’t that bad.

Denial was a coping mechanism I had honed to an art. I buried memories. I explained abuse away when I could, and took the blame for it when I couldn’t explain it away. (If I had been smarter, better behaved, godlier etc. etc. Then they wouldn’t have done that to me.) If I could pretend it hadn’t happened, I could still believe that I was not broken, that I had nothing to work through, nothing to grieve. Opening the door to the truth was scary, because it risked crumbling the entire delusion I had built for myself.

Denial takes on many forms. It can look kind of like being a murderer in court, trying to convince the judge to let you off because you only killed one person, “At least I wasn’t a serial killer!” you protest. “I killed the guy with a gun, it’s not like I went after him with an axe!” The fact is, you are still a murderer, and you still have to deal with the repercussions of that.

Another example of this is sort of like the Pharisees’ prayer in the Bible where he prays, thanking God that he doesn’t have all the sins of other people all while completely ignoring his own sins. In this denial, you might say “I thank God that I wasn’t like those homeless children, at least I HAD parents. At least I am alive! I could have been one of those children who got killed by their parents, so I have it pretty good. I should be grateful.” You keep busy telling yourself what didn’t happen to you, so that you never have to face what actually did happen to you.

I kept telling myself that my parents had done the best they could, and that it was really my fault that I hadn’t been a better child. My parents tried, but did they really do their best? In refusing to deal with their own issues, they perpetuated them onto their children. Instead of recognizing and working through their own pain and anger over where they had come from, they justified their faults and their abusive behaviour. My parents were not concerned with what was best for me, or my siblings. They were concerned with what was best for them. What they felt was best for “God”, and what was best for the image of godliness they were trying to project. My parents did their best to make themselves look good, they did their best to make me into the daughter they wanted me to be. They did not accept me for who I was, or love me regardless of how I performed. They did not do what was best for me.

Sometimes when you mention past abuse, the abuser or other people in their life will say things like “That was a long time ago” or “Things are different now” or “Things have changed.” This can even be a lie that people tell themselves to avoid dealing with the effects of past abuse in their life.

While people do have the power to change and that is wonderful, the fact that things are different now does not mean that there were not issues in the past that need to be addressed. Just because something happened along time ago doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Saying “Things have changed” serves to distract from doing real work in the present to correct past wrongs by claiming that everything has already been resolved. No apologies are needed, reform has already happened according to this logic. Often times, “things have changed” serves to recast the victim of abuse as the bitter party who cannot “move on.” But usually only extremely tiny or superficial changes were made, or even none at all. When this is the case, tossing the “things are better now” card means this discussion is over. The abuser is really claiming (quite preposterously), “I have already without ever taking the time to understand what went wrong, resolved every problem related that abuse. This is true because I say so not because I have made any real effort to substantiate change.”

If you are telling yourself that “things are better now” means that the situation is resolved; you are buying just one more form of denial that distracts you from really finding healing from past abuse. Actual change would be something both parties can see and experience. It would be something lived out through tangible effort and work such as therapy, issuing genuine apologies, joining recovery support groups, and real public change in behaviour.

What are some of the lies you’ve heard about abuse?

  • Rebekah

    Great post. What you wrote about 'tradition and ignorance' can very well be applied to male circumcision. It is abuse, it is damaging, but a lot call it tradition or necessary and keep doing it. I am so glad that in our family this "tradition", this cycle was put to a stop.

  • jen

    *standing with you silently holding your hand*

  • Michelle

    "If I could pretend it hadn’t happened, I could still believe that I was not broken, that I had nothing to work through, nothing to grieve. "

    I have found this to be true regarding my hurt from my parents' divorce and the abuse I suffered at my mother's hands.

    Interestingly enough, I wrote on Mother's Day some positive things about my mother and my feeling that I knew she wasn't "all bad" and she "tried her best". And I received a huge pat on the back from my husband and from some other people for being "so mature". It kind of made me angry because I think I can be "mature" and still acknowledge that my mom…while sometimes was doing "her best" was still far from doing "the best for me" at times.

    This is a great post. I've kind of been sitting in a bit of denial lately about some things I experienced and haven't been able to write about them or anything. We'll see how things go forward.

  • RJ

    Amazing, amazing post.

    Lies I've heard: That if I try to address it to heal I'm just playing the victim / having the "victim mentality." That I'm not looking at my own sin or taking responsibility for my own sin. Would love to see you address these.

  • Kristen @ St Monica’s Bridge

    I would think one that I have heard most often is "no one else will think it is abuse." This is so wrong, not only will fellow survivors recognize it, so will many of us who have not suffered in that way. I always encourage people to tell their story not to shame anyone but to release themselves from their guilt and people will still accept and love them. Another lie, "I deserved this." No one does, and admitting that lie is not true can be crucial to stopping cycles of abuse.

  • Libby

    The worst is when someone who was there tells you it never happened, and that you're making it all up, and that you were the one who was wrong.

  • Grace

    I can so identify with trying to rationalize it with "they did the best they could." I believed that for awhile. But I have come to realize that most parents in patriocentric families have had family members or friends express concern, or actually been warned of the dangers of their chosen path, but have arrogantly refused to listen. For the most part, they have made a deliberate choice to continue down a damaging path without regard for the wisdom of others. And with very few (if any) exceptions, they believe that they are so spiritually above those who warn them that those on the "outside" can't possibly understand their reasons for making choices that ultimately scar their children. They often make these choices because of their own brokenness, but usually when genuine help is offered they reject it in favor of a rigid, abusive belief system that makes them feel good about themselves, like they are finally being "good enough" to cover the shame and brokenness. So no. They don't always do their best.

    And yes, they will try to brush it off as something that's in the past and so shouldn't be dealt with. I've experienced that too.


  • priest’s wife

    "dealing with it is a journey…" this is so true for many things (like grief)

  • lydiapurpuraria

    This is very helpful. Right now, my in-laws are at a neighboring beach, and we've decided to have a couple of brief, surrounded-by-other-people beach trips during their stay. They were physically and emotionally abusive to my husband while he was growing up. They're still emotionally abusive. My husband is trying so hard to work through all of it. He's in Al-Anon, but it's still such a struggle to acknowledge the past. It's still especially hard for him not to say "well, it could have been worse."

  • Amy

    Ooooo that denial is a POWERFUL survival skill…oh boy! My hub is walking through healing with a therapist right now, and it is a really tough journey for him. Denial is his default…I think it's most peoples, to be totally honest.

    Your post is so empowering and gives a voice to so many people that lost theirs. Thankyou for your courage to speak about this and share your journey.

  • Me

    Thank you for this.

    I would add that if you were in the house seeing the abuse happen, although it was not necessarily happening to you, you still experienced the abuse. Does that make sense?

    I am still working through my own issues, and many of your posts speak to me. Thank you for your courage and honesty.

  • Anonymous

    They were concerned with what was best for them. … My parents did their best to make themselves look good, they did their best to make me into the daughter they wanted me to be. They did not accept me for who I was, or love me regardless of how I performed. They did not do what was best for me.

    This, so much. Everything in this post is exactly what I needed to read right now- thank you! I've put a continent between my abusive family and myself and kept very sparse contact with my extended family but this summer I'm getting married and it'll be the first time everyone (minus the main abusers) will be together since my breaking the silence. I'm working on steeling myself to handle all the denial I'll face then and this post is very helpful for that.

    There are two lies that I face most often from my family and myself.
    The first is a subset of the "wasn't that bad" lie- that since I was financially and materially taken care of I couldn't have been abused. The people who've hurled this at me never stop to think that the things I was given were only trinkets meant to buy my loyalty and to ease the abusers' conscience.

    The second is the "I let it happen" lie. That I should have had enough control of the situation to stop the abuse. I constantly have to remind myself that I was 3 when it started and there was no way for me to have power in those situations. I was a *child* and my well-being at that point in time was my parents' responsibility and not my own.

  • Also

    "I do not care if it happened" is something you hear quite often, implying that the victim is lying or insane.

    "It never happened, but if YOU believe it happened"…

    Cutting out the victim whenever they raise the subject.

    Rejecting the victim for talking about abuse.

    All those are quite frequent, unfortunately…

  • Nicki

    This is really great writing. I really identify with the one telling myself I should have been smarter, braver, stronger. Admitting it was even abuse took me so long. I also tell myself how lucky I was, that it wasn't worse, while at the same time wishing it had been worse so it couldn't have been hidden.

    Another big one for me was that Christians don't abuse their kids. They can and they do and it's so hard to admit because we think it will reflect badly on Christianity. Covering it up just makes it worse.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you! You have a gift for articulating what people who have been abused can not do. Thank you for stating things plainly and sharing yourself with all of us. You are a blessing to others.

  • Pippi

    I've had to fight these lies in my own path from a religious standpoint, and in my husband's from a physical standpoint. Hearing the excuses he makes for his mother, and coming up with the reasons why they aren't valid, was an eye-opener for me. I realized that abused kids ALWAYS want to make excuses. It's the normal reaction when you don't want to address it. Which means it can't possibly be correct.

  • Anonymous

    I would only add that our feelings toward an abuser/memories of them can be complicated. And that different siblings experience the same abuser/family differently. One of my sisters can remember almost nothing from our childhood but bad things, while I remember times like vacations when things seemed almost normal. And that's okay — we have different personalities and temperaments, and are entitled to our own versions of our personal histories. Each of us sees the world through our own lens, and it's not either of our jobs to convince the other that "our" version is the only one.

  • Hannah

    I used the excuse that I loved my parents, and they loved me. Since that was the case the neglect, abuse wasn't that bad. I could point out a few things that were not good, but they loved me.

    I had to face the facts. I could love them, and they could love me – but the neglect and abuse were facts in our past. My mother would play the southern belle act of I don't remember or I don't understand if they were brought up. I had to accept that. Dad wrote me a letter of apology before he died.

    I had to take them off the pedestal I had them on. Things mellowed with time, and we have better relationships now. I had to learn to accept so i could move on, and learn to live differently with my knowledge. That was so much better than making things sound better than they were.

  • Chandra

    Excellent article, well-spoken and thought provoking. Thanks for taking the time to articulate a passion of mine!!

  • Anonymous

    For me it was, "She never hit me so it wasn't abuse".

    She never hit me. But she made me hurt myself out of guilt and shame and feelings of worthlessness. That's abuse.

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