Tag Archives: abuse

Responsibility and Relationship

One of the things that I’ve found repeatedly comes up in literature about domestic abuse is that the abuser makes the victim responsible for their feelings. This is complicated, because to be in a relationship with someone is to hold responsibility, to a degree, for each other’s wellbeing. But what degree? How much responsibility should one person take for another and where is the line that crosses over into abuse? I realised I had absolutely no idea, so I sat down to try and figure it out rationally.

We are all responsible for our own behaviour. To act honourably is to take responsibility for what you do, and the consequences of what you do, both intended and unintended. That means if what you do impacts on someone in a negative way, then you hold some responsibility for it. Where emotions are concerned, not intending to hurt is frequently seen as a reason for the injured one to be at fault – you shouldn’t take it that way. (as previously explored) If we were talking about a physical situation, accidentally hurting someone because they have an old injury and we didn’t know, a bruise, a disability – I think most people would feel responsible then even though the physical pain caused was not intentional either. Emotional pain is the same. And equally, if something hurts us, we should be able to acknowledge it, because not being able to express pain is incredibly harmful.

I think the critical thing with the above scenarios, is that we’re talking about things people have control over. We’re asking people to take responsibility for things they can change – their behaviour, their assumptions, their ways of speaking. They can learn that we are hurt by this and adapt. If they care for us, they will not want to hurt us. A person who refuses to acknowledge that they have hurt you is not expressing care for you. Consider how you would expect them to behave if they had accidentally knocked you to the ground or trodden on your toes. This is the same.

However, consider “I am unhappy and you are responsible for this.” If it’s not about things that have, or have not been done, if it’s not offered with an explanation of how that responsibility can be taken, what that does is to cause pain. From my experience, this kind of approach is often subtle, which makes it harder. A person will present things they are unhappy about in a manner that suggests you are the one who must fix this, when in reality there is nothing you can do.

To express unhappiness about things that cannot be fixed is in and of itself fine. The death of a loved one being an obvious example. No one can make that better. But at the same time no one should be made to feel that they have a responsibility to make it better. My child worries about animal extinctions. He didn’t ask me to save the animals, but he shared his sadness, and I sponsored a tiger for him because it was something I could do to help. That’s a reasonable ask on his part, a healthy response on mine.

Stress, anxiety and depression are complicated, often irrational and illogical conditions. If a person is expressing experience of these, then if you are part of their life, it can be very easy to feel, or to be made to feel somehow responsible. I think the question is, can you do anything? If there is something you can actually do that genuinely makes a positive difference, there is scope for taking responsibility and it’s not necessarily abusive to be asked to be being responsible. If you are being made responsible, treated as responsible where you have no actual power to change things, then this is about abuse. It is about creating feelings of guilt and powerlessness in you and/or enabling the other person not to take responsibility for things they do have the power to tackle.

A request for help or an expression of need should focus on what the problem is and where the person you are asking to take responsibility for it can act. Power and responsibility have to go together. Power without responsibility is dishonourable. Responsibility without power is nightmarish and maddening. If one person has the power and the other bears the responsibility, then you’re moving out of relationship and into abuse.

For Your Own Good

If anyone hurts you, in body or in mind and then tells you they’ve done it for your own good, or that it is necessary in some way, run. Right then. Don’t stop, don’t think about it, don’t look back. There may be occasions to make exception for members of the medical profession, dentists, people who are pulling lumps of shrapnel from your legs etc, but even then if it feels wrong, take that discomfort seriously and make sure they know.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post on You Shouldn’t Feel That Way, how ‘I didn’t mean it’ is often given as a reason for putting that negation on someone. ‘I did not intend you to experience this as harm’ is another one, and goes with ‘it is for your own good.’ Attendant concepts include ‘I know best’ or ‘I know more than you.’

Whether or not the intended process is actually doing you any good, to tell someone it is without recognising that they feel otherwise, is patronising. It’s another way of taking away, reducing the person on the receiving end. It might be your body, your heart, your mind, your home, your child that is suffering… but someone else knows better and says you should take it. They might even go so far as to suggest that you should be grateful for all this helpful stuff they are doing to you.

It’s disempowering. For anyone who is less than totally confident (and if you’re bruised already, you’ll likely be there) it’s hard to be sure. It makes it possible to end up accepting and tolerating hurtful things that are not in fact remotely for your own good. While this kind of patronising and reducing can be undertaken by people who are of the misguided belief that they are indeed right and do know better, it’s also an easy tool in the hands of those who intend to hurt and abuse. So whatever the professed intention, this kind of behaviour should always be resisted and challenged, because if it stops being something seen as ok, that’s one less tool for folk who want to abuse. It’s a very easy way of both harming and controlling a child. It is relatively normal for adults to tell children that they know best, and it’s for their own good.

If you are in a position of authority and responsibility – parent/child relationships being a good example, think carefully about how you express that authority. Yes, you probably do have more experience, more insight, you can see a bigger picture. If the other person needs to endure something they aren’t going to like (taking medicine, the pain of having a splinter pulled out, the discomfort of facing a fear etc) then put it in context for them. Tell them what you know and can see that makes you think it would be better and give them chance to give informed consent. Withholding what it is that ‘you know best’ about keeps power in your hands and prevents them from learning. Even with very young children and very confused people, there’s much to be said for offering some kind of explanation. It shows them that you take them seriously, you aren’t poo-pooing their hurt, you aren’t reducing them, you are actually trying to help. Don’t ask them to put blind faith in your ‘I know best,’ show them respect and explain what you know. However good you think your intentions are, if they learn to bow to ‘It’s for your own good’ you might be setting them up to be victims of someone who really does mean them harm. Knowledge is power. Don’t withhold it.

In whatever form it takes, true help gives to the person on the receiving end. It doesn’t lessen them, weaken them, make them dependent or dent their confidence. True help gets people back on their own feet and as independent as they can be. Anything that keeps a person limited, and takes power and autonomy from them is not actual help, it’s a nasty, manipulative form of control. And frankly, I don’t care whether it was ‘meant that way’ or not, the result is still the same and the result is what matters. Good intentions do not reliably make for good outcomes, especially when we imagine that we ‘know best’ and don’t listen to what the other person thinks and feels.

‘It’s for your own good’ is all about authority and power. It’s about asserting that I’m bigger, better, cleverer than you and making you accept my authority. If I do it, and I get away with it, maybe next time I think I know best I’ll take something else away. I’ll feel justified in hurting you, morally superior as I do it, telling you what you need to hear, even if it makes you cry, forcing you to do things you hate because you have to learn. If we go down this track together, I become a monster and you become a victim.

If someone says ‘it’s for your own good’ when it doesn’t feel that way to you, run, and don’t look back.

You Shouldn’t Feel That Way

One of the least helpful things a person can do is tell someone else that they shouldn’t feel how they are feeling. No matter how well intentioned the comment, it never helps and is inherently harming. This is newly learned stuff for me. I have the right to feel however I am feeling. It does not matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient other people find those emotions, I am entitled to feel however I actually feel. I’ll play out some frequent ‘you shouldn’t feel that way’ scenarios in this blog and flag up the issues and better ways of handling them.

Because I didn’t mean it. This is useful information if it’s actually true. If you want it to be taken as such say sorry as well. Find out why the upset person took it the way they did and you will know more for next time. Maybe it was a communication breakdown. Maybe there are things you do not know. If you are asking them to hear that there was no intention to hurt then you have to hear that they ARE hurt and deal with that. An honourable person takes responsibility for the unintended consequences of their actions. An abusive person will use the line ‘you shouldn’t feel that way because I didn’t mean to hurt you’ and phrases like it to enable them to get away with abuse and to shift responsibility onto the victim. If you sincerely meant no harm, then it is vital to acknowledge when you have accidentally caused it.

You should be over it by now. Often applied to people who have not recovered from grief or anger. This is about the needs of the speaker, not the needs of the one who is upset. If what you mean is ‘I can’t cope with this,’ ‘I don’t understand why this is affecting you so much,’ or ‘I am not interested in how you feel’ then it is more honourable to acknowledge it is so. No one is obliged to deal with how someone else feels, and if you can’t cope it may be better to step back. If someone else’s feelings are uncomfortable or inconvenient to you, do not make them responsible for that. You can most certainly ask them to BEHAVE in a different way but not to FEEL in a different way.

Because it’s stupid/pointless/irrational/excessive/does not make sense to me. Just because you wouldn’t feel that way in the same circumstances, or do not understand the reaction you are seeing does not make it ok to invalidate the other person’s emotions. They are not you, and they feel differently. If you feel they are over-reacting, you will not change that by putting them down. Acknowledge how they feel, talk about the context with them. Be at least as willing to listen as to offer your opinion. They are allowed to respond differently to you. They have a different history, different emotional triggers, different issues and they perceive differently.

Because you’re upsetting me. When someone else’s emotions cause us pain it’s tempting to want to make them stop it. But again, start from the assumption that if you are entitled to feel upset right now, so are they, and a playground style ‘he started it’ won’t help. Expressing difficulty with behaviour is one thing – if someone is shouting, or hysterical then saying that you are upset by their behaviour is fine. They are responsible for how they manifest their emotions.

It is very hard to control how you feel – that’s part of the nature of emotions. We do have a fair amount of control over how we express them, and if all else fails it’s usually possible to walk away for a few moments and seek composure. Acting in the heat of emotion is seldom productive. Denying someone else the space to have their own feelings is abusive all by itself and leaves them vulnerable to further abuse. We all have the right to feel, and we never have the right to deny someone else their emotions. We have the right to ask others to handle their emotions with honour, and we have the duty to do the same ourselves, as far as is humanly possible. When someone says ‘you shouldn’t feel that way’ they are taking something precious away from the person on the receiving end. They are taking away that person’s confidence that they are entitled, and allowed to feel. It is a rubbishing of a person’s most essential self, and never, ever ok. I’ve been on the wrong end of this too many times and from here onwards am taking a zero tolerance policy. I am not going to be told how I should, or should not feel and I am not going to trust anyone who thinks they are entitled to do that. Knowing what it does to a person, I will not let this one go unchallenged any time I encounter it.

What Price Peace?

Without peace in your life, it is difficult to do much. The peace and security that allow a person to sleep well rather than waking at every sound are essential for wellbeing. Without peace, the voice of spirit cannot be heard. Without peace, no work can be done. But what do you do when life does not, for one reason or another, allow you that necessary, essential peace? For a lot of people in all kinds of different circumstances, there are times when you have to choose between needful peace, and all that is familiar.

In the UK (and no doubt other countries too) large towns and cities have refuges for women who flee domestic abuse. There are helplines and centres for abused children who go on the run. Some folks don’t manage to access this support and just end up in the streets. At what point do you decide that the lack of peace in your home, in your life, makes it worth taking your chances and being homeless? There are people making that choice every day.

Across the world there are countless people fleeing war zones and oppression. There are countries that still want to put people to death for being gay, adulterous or witches. There have been so many examples of ‘ethnic cleansing’ where a subset of people are forced out. When does it become too much? When do you run? I can barely imagine what it must be like to give up everything you have known and flee like that. Thinking about how many people do face such trials and hardships puts my own life into a lot of perspective. I have not lost everything.

I wonder about the other side too. For every fleeing person, there is some other person who prompted it. An aggressor, abuser, war-maker, ethnic-cleanser… someone who feels entirely justified (I assume) in their actions. Stories that make the news sometimes, of horrific killings, tortures, massacres, make me wonder what kind of head space you have to be in to justify that to yourself. It’s tempting to believe that the perpetrators are other, somehow, not like us… but how close do any of us come to pushing others to breaking point? Would we even know, necessarily? Could you drive another human being to despair and destitution without even seeing that was what you were doing? Perhaps.

Not everyone runs. There are people dying on a daily basis because they’ve stood their ground, or refused to believe the degree of danger. There are people who don’t run because they can’t imagine anyone would really go so far as to kill them. People who are too afraid to run, or do not believe it could be better elsewhere. People conditioned into believing they deserve it.

How would you know when to keep trying, and when to run for your life, giving up all but the clothes you stand up in? Every day, someone, somewhere will be making that choice, and not all of them make the right call. Every day, people are making smaller decisions about how much to tolerate and excuse, or how hard to push. Is today the day we throw stones as well as verbal abuse? Each small decision pushes us closer to the big ones, in such circumstances. Run or stay, kill or tolerate. Every erosion of peace takes us closer to putting individuals, or whole communities, in danger. The small actions matter. The little cruelties lead to bigger ones. I wish I had answers, but I don’t.