Abuse is one of those elephants in the room that people don't like to talk about, or they talk about it so much that is appears to lose its actual meaning. Society has swung the pendulum so far in each direction that it has lost sight of the fact that it is all the same thing. Abuse is abuse, no matter how you try to redefine it. I am often (and I hope I will always be) appalled by the way we as a species treat others with similar genetic make-ups. Even worse than the treatment itself is the acceptance it receives. People are too often seen as property of other people and treated as such. Yes, we eliminated slavery, but many people still see others as bodies to possess and control. In just about every century families consisted of a head-of-household who felt that he or she ought to get everything they wanted out of the other household members with no questions asked. Blind obedience was expected, even in the face of blatant disregard for the well-being of people or for the damage that may be caused by selfish acts of dominance. And society turned a blind eye to this mistreatment because 1) everybody did it and/or was subject to it themselves; and 2) no one thought to put themselves in the shoes of their fellow humans to see that each of us has feelings and desires, etc.
There were many times when we swung the pendulum in the opposite direction, beginning with the revelations of theorists such as Sigmund Freud. For all the criticism of Freud and psychoanalysis, he did open our eyes to the fact that early experiences will affect our later lives. Parents began to think twice about the possible consequences of punishment or mistreatment of their children. Sadly, this very rarely applied to mistreatment of other adults. Unfortunately, the revolution was not as long-lasting as one would hope. Child abuse, spousal abuse, even common mistreatment of random people on the street, continued. We accepted it because it happened all around and "everyone needs a bit of discipline to keep them in line." People were afraid and ashamed to come forward when they were mistreated and society was fine with that because then we wouldn't have to deal with the ugliness. Swing the pendulum even further and you get the time in which I grew up, though not the personal environment.
When I was a kid, we started to educate children about abuse and told them it was okay to report it. It helped some kids come free from truly abusive environments, but it also opened up the flood waters for misuse of the system. Many parents wanted to be so progressive that they let their children run wild with no rules or guidelines, more often for fear of their child calling the police to report them than for any altruistic or philosophical reason. Now we had parents abused by their children almost as often as children abused by their parents. And once again, other abuses of adults was going unnoticed. It became a badge of honor to come from a "broken" or "abusive" home. The "my life sucks" game proliferated. We are still in this mindset today, creating a divide between true abuse cases and individuals who want to believe that they were mistreated because they didn't get the exact idealized treatment that they hoped to receive (a possible sign of narcissism). To give an example, let's say you have 2 customers at a store. Customer A is cussed out, overcharged, and has slurs thrown at them. Most likely Customer A will not return to the store and their self-esteem will take a huge hit for the mistreatment they received. Customer B is treated very well, the salesman tries to accommodate them as much as possible, but the item that they wanted is out of stock. Now Customer B goes around telling all their friends how horrible the store treated them and how much they suffered at the hands of the staff. In these extremely obvious cases, it should be easy to tell who was truly mistreated and who is trying to make a mountain out of a pancake. Reality is a lot more complicated, but I hope you begin to see the point I am trying to make.
I know all of this preamble is not my customary style for this particular blog. This is just one of those issues that bothers me on so many levels both professionally and personally. I have met too many people who claim to be abused because it is somehow in some twisted way considered a badge of honor. I have also, unfortunately, seen real abuse occur that was never dealt with because it wasn't defined as abuse by the mainstream populace. I'm going to try to create a baseline of these definitions so that, hopefully, it will be easier to spot real abuse so that real victims can receive compassion and treatment. Let's start with the most basic definition: abuse.
Abuse: (v) to misuse, mistreat, use wrongly or improperly; to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way. (n) wrong or improper use, misuse; bad or improper treatment, mistreatment, maltreatment.
Already you can probably start to see how the term "abuse" can itself be misused. It would not be too hard for a selfish or narcissistic person to see a "no" as "mistreatment" simply because it's not what they wanted to hear. Not all abuse is obvious, and not all abuse is blatantly violent. Subterfuge is very difficult to identify and undermine, but we as a society are getting better about defining it.
NOTE: I will publish a future blog post on the subtleties of violence and aggression, as that is another complication to this particular topic.
The three primary categories of abuse, especially when concerned with child abuse and spousal abuse, are physical, sexual, and emotional (sometimes called psychological abuse). It's the last one that has so many subtle variations that it is not as simple to identify and it is often used as that imaginary "badge" I mentioned earlier.
Physical abuse: causing physical damage or harm to one's body. The law often refers to this type of abuse as "battery" and it can include the obvious--punching, kicking, biting, scratching, etc. Physical abuse is primarily intentional in that the main goal is to inflict pain on another person. This is also where the waters got muddy when I was a child. There was (and still is) a debate about physical punishment--spanking, whipping, smacking, etc.--used as a disciplinary device versus physical abuse. Many people took the easy route--laying a hand on your child, period, constituted abuse. Many others took the historical route--"I was smacked around to keep me in line and you don't see me having problems." The problem arose when many people used the term "discipline" as a smokescreen or license to treat others any way they pleased. Read my post on discipline to see why this leads to a misunderstanding of that concept. Sometimes it's obvious that the "discipline is abuse" such as when a person is visibly deformed by the action--burns, scars, massive bruises or broken bones. Sometimes it's not so obvious, especially when the physically aggressive episodes are few and far between. Frequency is one of the things the teachers and public service professionals are trained to look for, but waiting until "enough" damage occurs might be too late.
Sexual abuse: sexual behavior directed at an individual who does not welcome such acts; a misuse of sex for personal gain or retribution; mistreatment of an individual involving sexual acts or discussion. This is another one that gets muddied. The obvious synonym for sexual abuse is rape--unwanted sexual behavior. What most people don't realize is that, like physical abuse, all forms of sexual abuse are acts of power; they have very little to do with actual sexual urges. Sex, molestation, fondling, making sexual comments to incite discomfort, are all ways to assert one's power over one's victim. They have little to nothing to do with any emotional attachment. Lust is not love. Using sex to manipulate someone else is also a form of sexual abuse. Someone who uses sex to bribe another person into doing what they want, or who withholds sex specifically for the purpose of manipulating someone else, is engaging in sexual abuse. Anyone can be a victim of sexual abuse: male or female, old or young, spouse, child, friend, sibling, parent, known or unknown. Perpetrators of sexual abuse can also be anyone, any gender, especially if that person has some form of authority over others. The thing about all abuse, but especially sexual abuse, is that victims almost always know the perpetrator, whether the criminal is a parent or sibling, friend or coworker, or casual acquaintance. We are also much more likely to blame the victim in cases of sexual abuse than we are in situations of physical or psychological abuse, according to many years of research. The fight against sexual abuse creates the same divide mentioned earlier. We have people who are afraid to express honest emotions--hugging, kiss on the forehead, pat on the back--for fear of being reported. At the same time we have people who feel that their relationships entitle them to any actions they please. True victims often blame themselves, assuming they did something to incite the actions, and society's penchant for defensive attribution doesn't help.
Emotional (Psychological) abuse: mistreatment of another person's emotions, psychology, thought processes or perspectives; also includes acts of neglect. This is the least understood of the main types of abuse, especially because it rarely leaves physical signs, though sometimes behavioral manifestations may be observed. This category includes behaviors that toy with another's emotions, often giving someone false hope or misleading them. It also includes twisting their views of themselves or others through obvious or subtle statements, presenting misleading "facts," or outright lying. Name-calling, bullying (by today's definition; the "old school" bullying involved primarily physical abuse), gossip, rumors, teasing, ignoring, passive aggressiveness [see future blog post on aggression], and the use of "guilt trips" are all manifestations of emotional abuse. If you've ever experienced, witnessed, or used a guilt trip, then you know psychological abuse. It is a special passive-aggressive form of abuse that makes the victim feel as if they are the ones abusing the abuser. I have a special place of loathing in my soul for guilt trips because of the manipulative nature of the technique.
Sometimes a victim uses the emotional abuse to create a stronger protective shell around themselves, but even in these cases there is lasting damage. Psychological abuse, true psychological abuse, tears away at one's feelings of self-worth. It often leads a person to question their existence, sometimes their sanity. Abusers have been known to convince their victims that they (the victim) are just being "too sensitive" and are just crazy. This compounds the emotional impact further, making it more difficult for the victim to receive the treatment they need. Because psychological abuse leaves no physical trace, it is often difficult for society to accept it as a true form of mistreatment. We now understand that emotions, our personal definition of ourselves, and our grasp of reality are just as important to our physical health as our mental health. Psychoneuroimmunology was created to study the interrelationship between mental and physical health. We found that they are inseparable. Now, is it possible for someone to want to earn a badge of honor in this area as well? Of course. It is possible, and it has occurred too often, for an individual to perceive a denial--a "no" to a request--as a form of psychological abuse. Remember those kids who threatened to call the cops on their parents if they raised a hand to them? Neglect is often the siren song for these same types of people to call emotional abuse on someone. Of course, their idea of neglect is being denied something that they only wanted, not necessarily needed. [See my post on motivation for the distinction between wants and needs.] True neglect occurs when someone is ignored, when their needs are not met, when they are forgotten all too often. Neglect takes a long time to be noticed by others, unfortunately, and the longer it occurs, the greater the damage. With neglect, one experiences emotional damage long before the physical damage is felt.
I still do not understand why it is fashionable to be the false victim of abuse. This sick desire to be special for negative reasons always saddens me and angers me at the same time because it takes attention away from the real cases of abuse. I suppose it makes it easier to live with the disappointments or failures in one's life if you have "abuse" to blame. That said, I do believe that there are far too many real cases of abuse, all kinds, going on in this world. The cases that are not stereotypical or obvious are the hardest ones because they fall through the cracks too easily, leading to more damage for the victims in the long-run. Many real victims will keep their abuse hidden forever (or at least for the majority of their lives) in their hearts because it is too painful to dwell upon and it is shameful to admit that someone else mistreated you. It makes you feel like less than a human. Dwelling on it, harping on it, also makes it more difficult to move past it. There is a middle-ground in which the abuse is confronted, dealt with, and then let go. Neither hiding it nor flaunting it will provide any beneficial results for anyone. When we treat our fellow humans as humans, when we show them the kind of mutual respect that we want and deserve, then we will significantly reduce the abuse in this world.