I have been getting a lot of letters asking for help from people wanting to stop abuse. Some want help to stop themselves from being abusive, some want help to stop loved ones from abusing them and some want help to stop mutual abuse.
I have already answered these people in my FAQ advice page but I guess I need to expand on that.
The names and details of the people asking for help differ but the answer is always going to be the same so I am going to write this and send it to all those who ask for help with this problem.
I am also adding it as a blog entry for anyone else who might find it useful.
Let me start by addressing those who want help to stop themselves from being abusive to others. It takes intelligence to recognise when change is needed in yourself and courage to reach out for help to make those changes but actually changing yourself is hard and requires more.
You need determination, persistence and the right sort of help to succeed in stopping family abuse and violence. The right sort of help is tailored to suit the individual and that can only be done with a lot of interaction. A letter or even a dozen letters from me won’t be enough!
Abusive behaviour is not made up of just a few specific actions like hitting someone. Abuse is a language that ranges from the obvious breaking of bones to the more subtle breaking down of a person’s spirit. You can beat someone up quite painfully with words as well as fists. Even body language can say quite hurtful things.
Society is full of abusive people and this normalizes abusive behaviour making it that much more difficult to erase.
Who hasn’t met the kind of domineering salesperson who tries to overpower you verbally and push you into buying something you don’t need and can’t afford? How many of us have run into, or heard about, a bullying boss or troublemaking co-worker who made the workplace so miserable quitting seemed to be the only real solution? How about all the times people did things illegally and got away with it because the victims either didn’t know what was done was illegal or they couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer to set things right.
Power and control over others is a theme that runs all through the fabric of our society making it hard to pinpoint where the cut off point lies. There is a fine line between being assertive and being abusive for example. Raising your voice to make your point is assertive but raising it too far or for too long crosses over into abusive. A therapist can’t tell from the written word whether a client routinely crosses that line or not.
Facial expressions can be abusive since they can express threats, insults or put-downs and that is something else you can’t pick up from correspondence.
Body language and physical gestures can also be used to abuse others and these forms of abuse can be so subtle the abuser will have a hard time acknowledging them as abuse without therapeutic assistance.
I once had a client whose face was so expressive he could insult and offend you without opening his mouth but the only way I could help him see that was to mirror, or copy, his facial expression and body language when he was speaking to me. He got angry and offended and finally saw for himself the effect he was having on other people.
I would not have been able to see what he was doing let alone help him see it if we hadn’t been meeting in person.
It took several weeks with me pointing out when his face and body were moving into the offensive realm before he was able to feel it happening and take action to stop it.
If you have learned to speak the language of abuse you will need to learn what you do and say that is abusive before you can learn to stop doing and saying it.
For some people that means thinking about why they do or say the things they do. An awful lot of abusive behaviour starts in the brain with the things people believe.
Abusive people often believe the world is a dangerous place and the only way to survive is to be eternally vigilant and ready to defend themselves.
The trouble is they feel threatened by just about everything.
Stopping abusive behaviour is only the first step to overcoming abuse. Once a person stops using abuse as their primary means of communication they will be at risk of returning to abusive ways if they don’t learn other ways to communicate.
This is often what happens. The abuser promises to change and they stop doing what their loved one has complained about but it leaves them trapped in a world where they still feel the same but can no longer express themselves. Frustration builds up because they feel they have been gagged and no longer have even the right to say how they feel. Eventually they can’t stand it any more and the abuse begins again.
If you really want to change for good you need to find someone who can teach you how to communicate with others in appropriate ways or you will just go back to old habits.
Learning new ways to communicate and behave takes time and a lot of practise. You can’t practise via letters! You MUST have face to face assistance.
Now I must address the concerns of those who have written to me asking for help to stop others from being abusive to them and I hope what I have already said has shown that it is not possible for you to stop someone else from being abusive.
Only the abusive person can do that and they will need help. All you can do to stop someone else from abusing you is take yourself out of their reach! The rest is up to them.
In conclusion, and I think it bears repeating, abuse does not go away by itself. It doesn’t stop because either the target of it or even the performer of it want it to stop. Wanting it to stop is just the first step. Hands on, face to face, individually tailored therapy is required and even that won’t work if there is no genuine desire to change or serious commitment to learning new skills.