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Some Thoughts about Victimization, Anger and Abuse

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Woman with bruised eyesI've been reading over comments made about abuse. There are many sad stories posted. Some are difficult, even painful to read. There are also a number of hopeful stories which suggest that truly negative situations such as abuse can be overcome. As I consider the various comments, I'm struck by how people handle similar situations so differently; by how some people are able to transform themselves over time so as to leave an abusive situation, while others don't seem to be able to get unstuck from the bonds that hold them in place.

It's not always the case that people can leave an abusive situation. Some people are trapped economically, or politically. Some people cannot leave easily because to do so will cause them to have to leave their children behind, for instance. Other people cannot provide for themselves easily. These sorts of situations are difficult to do anything about, at least in the short term. However, there are also many reasons people use to justify staying in abuse situations that are potentially under their control to change.

It strikes me that part of becoming able to leave an abuse situation involves learning to change the way that you think about yourself. In particular, the way that abused people relate to the idea that they are victims seems to be important. As a way to organize my thoughts on this subject, I've come up with three stages that some abuse victims seem to move through as they work their way through their difficulties.

Stage 1: Realizing abuse is occurring

It actually is not clear to many people that they are being abused. Such people need first to become aware that they are being abused before they can do anything about that abuse. The first significant change that people make, then, happens when they begin to understand that they are, in fact, being abused.

Some comments have been written by abuse victims who aren't sure if they are victims or not. At least, they aren't sure whether they are deserving victims or undeserving victims. Various people find it okay to be slapped, punched, kicked, or pushed, even to the point of damage, if there is some reason why they believe they deserve this damage. The distinction between a deserving and an undeserving victim is critical, because (so some people, not myself, think) if you deserve to be abused, it isn't really abuse; it's just punishment. Abuse only becomes easily recognized as abuse when it isn't deserved.

This sort of attitude is always a bit of a shock to me. I personally tend to think that there are absolute standards of abuse; that it is never really okay for one person to physically or emotionally beat on another person. I can't really think of a situation where it is ever all that appropriate for one relationship partner to physically strike another when that strike is not desired by the receiving party. But what seems like clear abuse to me is not recognized as such by someone who is in the middle of an abusive situation. So there is an attitude evolution that occurs, wherein abused people grow to see themselves as abused people; as true victims. The shift that occurs here is that they go from seeing themselves as deserving victims to undeserving victims.

Stage 2: Becoming angry about it; leaving the relationship

The majority of comments are from people who feel undeservingly abused. The defining feature of such comments is that they are emotional and upset in nature. These authors express an awareness that their situation is fundamentally unfair; that there is no reasonable justification for what has been happening to them. The emotion expressed over this unfairness is not consistent, however. Where some authors are angry, others feel hopeless or frustrated.

The main difference between whether people end up feeling hopeless or angry seems to come down to whether they end up blaming themselves for what is happening, or their abusers, and also to a lesser extent on how much control they feel they have over their situations. People can become angry regardless of whether they feel they have control or not, but it is easier and safer to feel angry when people feel that they have a little control versus when they feel they have no control.

Being able to feel angry about being abused is, in general, a good thing. Anger has the capability of acting as a motivating force. Anger's ability to motivate is never stronger than situations in which people feel they have been put down unjustly and that they have a right to take action to correct their situation.

So here is another step in the evolution of understanding what it is to be a victim. When you identify yourself as an undeserved victim, you may start to feel angry about your situation, and that anger can become (and often does become) the rocket fuel you need to get yourself out of a terrible abuse situation. Here is a case where seeing yourself as a victim can have a positive outcome.

Anger as rocket fuel. I like that analogy, because though anger can fuel someone's escape if that anger is properly channeled, it is always a potentially dangerous thing as well. If handled poorly, the same anger that can motivate someone to leave a dangerous relationship can also cause that person to attack the person who has abused them, increasing the chances that they are harmed, and making that relationship ever more volatile and dangerous. It doesn't help abuse victims much if they attack their abuser directly. Such action may provoke violent retaliation and/or physical attack. Legal complications may occur as well and it is not always the abuser who goes to jail (sometimes the police get it wrong and the abuse victim goes to jail!). Better to use anger as a motivation to simply leave the relationship. Perhaps simple is the wrong word. It is seldom a simple thing to leave a relationship. Sometimes it needs to be done, however.

Stage 3: Letting the anger go

The third step, which cannot readily be accomplished until after one has become free of the abusive situation, is to let the victim identity go, and with it, the need to be angry.

Becoming a victim - identifying one's self as a victim - is a true achievement for many abuse victims. It is an achievement of personal independence to realize that you are not simply an extension of someone else; not there to be a punching bag, but rather that you are an independent person who is entitled to be treated decently by others. The anger that comes from such awareness helps to motivate the courage to escape. It is not a good thing, however, to live your life angry all the time. Prolonged anger is literally bad for your health.

Ideally, anger motivates people to leave abusive situations and then resolves so that people don't remain chronically angry. However, it often doesn't work out this way, as we all know. Abused people may end up feeling angry about being abused, but still feeling too helpless and scared do something about it. A sort of paralysis can set in and the situation may worsen. Now, not only are people being abused; they are also aware that they are not feeling brave enough to act to save themselves. Such people become upset with themselves and may start beating up on themselves. Such people end up beaten up from without and from within.

Victims that escape abuse may remain chronically angry and self-tortured too. Having extracted themselves from difficult relationships, such people may remain backwards-looking and focused on the fact that they have been abused, continually picking at their scabs, so to speak. It's understandable when this happens, but not a good thing, just the same.

Once anger has propelled you out of an abusive situation, its primary reason for being goes away. To the extent that anger hangs around after abuse is over, it ceases to be useful and simply becomes a mental, physical and social health problem. People who spend their time ruminating about past injustices tend not to be happy. And – life is short. It's far better to be happy (provided your circumstances warrant a little happiness) than to be bitter, and this remains true even if you have ample reason to be bitter. When a person remains identified as an angry victim after having extracted themselves from an abuse situation, they are at that point oppressing themselves.

Abuse memories don't fade easily. Abuse tends to change people – often for the worse. People feel humiliated, taken advantage of, made less than. They may bear physical and emotional scars that will never go away. The emotional impact of abuse memories may or may not fade with time, but no amount of time will erase the knowledge that abuse has occurred. Memory is a one-way street. Stuff goes in, but nothing really gets erased (at least until senility sets in).

Given that abuse memories persist, it is quite a trick for people to shed their victim identity, lose the angry "rocket fuel" approach to life that has served them well in the past and move on towards becoming happier people. This is a difficult movement to accomplish. There are various strategies one can take. A few popular ones are reminding yourself that "living well is the best revenge" (and then doing your best to live well), and cultivating a spirit of forgiveness towards abusers to the extent that forgiveness is possible. Working towards forgiveness is best done when your abuse is safely distant in time and space; it may be too much to ask when abuse memories are fresh. It is true that many abusers themselves have been abused, and it isn't therefore very hard to view one's own abuser as someone who has been abused. However, having been abused is not an excuse for abusing. It takes a special sort of person to be able to really forgive someone who has harmed you.

I don't have answers to offer here really. Just some observations: It is good for people who are being abused to develop awareness that they are being abused. It is good for that awareness to turn into a righteous and self-protective anger which one can use to motivate one's self to leave the abusive situation. However, care must be taken when applying this anger. It is easy for anger to turn into something self-destructive. The best use of anger is as a motivator to promote your escape from an abusive situation. When anger is used as an excuse for attacking an abuser, that is a misuse of anger. Attacking one's abuser generally becomes self-destructive in a hurry, and it is by definition destructive of the person or people you are attacking. Once you've gotten away from abuse your anger will hopefully reduce in intensity (as it is no longer needed). Anger that lingers on for years after abuse has ended will reduce rather than enhance the quality of your life. When your anger is no longer needed, it is worthwhile to work hard to let it go.