Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Who's to Blame for Abuse, and Why People Get it Wrong

This is quite a personal and emotional post, much more personal that I usually do, and I wanted to share it because its a topic that matters a lot to me, but I just wanted to warn people that if abuse is a sensitive subject for you, you might want to skip this one.

I've unfortunately been the victim of abuse from so many people in so many circumstances throughout my life. The who's, what's, and how's of the situations are not relevant or important, but suffice it to say, unfortunately, this is something I have plenty of experience with. In addition to all that, I run support groups for various issues online and the vast percentage of the people in those groups have also been victims of abuse. So no, I don't have any PhD on the topic (though if the school of life gave out degrees I'd certainly have some), but something stuck out for me and I wanted to share.

People, even otherwise nice people, even people who you'd never expect to do so, generally blame the victims of abuse. Of course, it isn't done with those words, and if you asked them, of course they'd say "I'm not blaming you" but even so, they are.

Questions like "What did you do before that happened?" "What did you do that caused the situation to happen?" or statements like "It takes two to fight," or "You could have prevented the situation by just doing x" or "Why didn't you just?..." are so insidious and dangerous.

Because these questions often come from people who are otherwise supportive, who would agree abuse is wrong. And then if even they say things like that, it implies or straight out "proves" that the abuse could have been prevented by you, and therefore, it's at least partially your fault.

The reason these things are so insidious is because eventually over time (if even that long) it gets the abused person to believe that it was their fault. That they are to blame. And instead of taking out their ire on their abusers, they repeat a mantra in their head, consciously or unconsciously, that it's all their fault. They deserved it. They brought it upon themselves. And often stay in the dangerous situation, because its all their fault.

Do you know how many people who've escaped from life threatening abuse still blame themselves? That while they know that the abuser who threatened their very existence was in the wrong, they still see themselves as the bad guy, for doing what they needed to to get out. Or for bringing it upon themselves in the first place.

My last therapy session was a really emotional one for myself. It touched on some big abuse situations in my life, both past and present. And it terrified me. Because my therapist has been nothing but supportive of me and helpful to me; I couldn't ask for a better therapist. And yet I was terrified to share my thoughts about certain abuse situations with her, because I was terrified that she may put on a show of being supportive because it was her job, but deep down she'd be judging me and thinking that if I only did things differently I'd have been able to prevent the abuse. That I brought it on myself.

My therapist fortunately reassured me enough so that between my sobs I was able to share my fears with her, and she told me straight out that I could do everything my abusers want of me, and they'd still abuse me. Because abuse is not about the victim and their actions. Of course they'll always twist it around and say that you made them do that, it's your fault. But if it's not that specific thing, they'd be abusing you for something else. Because that’s what abusers do. They abuse. And they'll always find a reason.

But why me? If it's not about what I did, why am I the constant target for abuse?

The answer is a tough one.

Some people are simply easy targets.

And no. Being an easy target in no way means that it's your fault. But it's why abused people often get abused again and again. Because once you were abused the first time and you internalized the patently untrue message that the abuse was your fault, somehow other abusers pick up on that and will abuse you too, which makes a terrible cycle because then you end up assuming that there is something broken and hateable about you and you deserve the abuse you get, because so many people mistreat you.

Unfortunately internalizing the message of it being your fault doesn't stop with your view about yourself and your life. Because often what happens is that we see the world through the lens of our abuse, and because we take responsibility for the abuse we experience, we turn that outward and assume that when someone was abused, they brought it upon themselves, the same way our abuse was our fault as well.
Sometimes the biggest perpetrators of the whole "the abused person was at fault" myth are people who were abused themselves. People who haven’t healed enough to understand that the abuse wasn't their fault, so they blame themselves and everyone else who was abused. And this, while understandable, because abuse is a flipping mind game whose goal is to make you believe exactly that, is so damaging because if an abused person hears from another abused person that it was her fault, that she could have prevented it, she will take it to heart even more, because "that person was abused and says this, so it must be true".

As I was thinking about this, I couldn't help but think about the Candace Owens video going around, essentially blaming George Floyd for his murder, and then blaming the Black community for the racism against them. So many white people shared it, saying "Look, this Black woman thinks the Black community is at fault for how they're treated, so it must be true."

And all I could think about was that racism is a form of systemic abuse, and just as the abuser tries to convince you through his mind games that you're deserving of the mistreatment, and if you just behaved better/did what they want you wouldn’t be abused, that’s what racism does as well- it tries to convince the oppressed that they deserve to be oppressed, that if they just shaped up, they wouldn’t be mistreated. And just as abused people initially internalize the message that they deserved the abuse and then often tell other abused people that it was their fault, so too, some Black people have internalized the abuse of racism, and decided that it’s the Black community's fault for how they are being mistreated. That doesn’t make it any more true.

And on another note, as I'm writing this, one phrase pops into my head repeatedly. Reactive abuse. Reactive abuse. Reactive abuse. Big neon lights, flashing.

One of the things abusers are good at is pushing the abused person’s buttons. They know exactly what your sore spots are, poke it and prod it until you scream in pain and lash out at them in self defense. Then they use that as proof to say "She was the abusive one. Look what she did to me!"

My most recent altercation with one of my abusers left me feeling terrible. I tried to not react. I know they're an abuser. I know they will do anything to hurt me. And for a time I did nothing. But eventually the abuse got to be too much, and I lashed out. Reactive abuse. And then I felt so ashamed. Felt I had no right to complain about how I was treated, because, after all, I also behaved badly.

But the thing is, that's a tactic of the abuser. To not only make people think that the abuse is their fault and they deserved it, but even more, to make them feel like they're the abuser in the situation. That they are the terrible one.

According to, mutual abuse is when both partners are equally abusive to one another. Many survivors often ask themselves if they are abusive too because of how they react, but the truth is that mutual abuse is very rare and many experts don’t believe it exists. The power and control dynamics involved in domestic violence would make it nearly impossible for both partners to be abusive. (See more here.)

I’m not going to say reactive abuse is ok. However, it is understandable because people can only deal with abuse hurled at them so long before they respond. And any reaction to abuse cannot in any way be equated to the actions of the abuser.

But there are better options than reactive abuse. Like walking away from the abuser. Leaving them. Not giving in to their instigation.

But even that doesn't always work. Sometimes specifically not reacting to the abuse causes them to ramp it up, because the abuser is so frustrated that they didn't get their way that it escalates. And if you try to leave an abuser, well that's the most dangerous time in your life, and when most abusers kill the abused person.

It's important that when you do hear about situations of reactive abuse, you realize it for what it is, and don’t make it seem as if the lashing out as a reaction to the abuse is equatable and on a similar level to the initial abuse. Because it is not. One is evil, and the other is understandable if misguided. And when people react badly to reactive abuse, when people say things like "You both need help" it is just as hurtful and damaging as when someone asks innocently "Well, what could you have done to prevent that abuse?" It puts the blame on the abused person and convinces them that they deserve the mistreatment they got.

As I think about myself and my friends and everyone else that is abused, either by specific people or systemically, all I have to say is this:

The abuse is not your fault. It never is. You did nothing to deserve this. Don’t let anyone convince you that it was your fault. Even if it is coming from someone who was abused. Abuse is never the fault of the victim. Period.


  1. Abuse is never your fault. No matter the kind of abuse, no matter who did it to you, it is never your fault. Even if it happens again and again. Not your fault.

    I'd add kids bullied in school by other kids to the list of kinds of abuse. Especially in the olden days, victims were told to keep quiet, not react. That doesn't work because it's abuse, and as you say, often the abuser just ramps it up.

    Thank you for such a deeply personal post. It obviously hurt to write it, but I'm still glad you got the words out.

    1. Oh absolutely being bullied in school is a type of abuse. There's far too many types of abuse to write out. Thank you!

  2. Excellent post. I never even heard the term "emotional abuse" until about 30 years ago. It was such an eye-opener.

  3. Brilliant. Absolutely, amazingly brilliant.Answers so many questions for more & poses a dozen more. So glad I read this.....and will do, again & again.

  4. Of course you're right that it's not their fault, but do you disagree that by staying, it enables the abuse to continue? Does that seem like victim blaming? I'm also curious why you chose to use the term 'abused person' rather than 'survivor'. I appreciate your courage on this sensitive subject!

    1. That's a complicated question, because the nature of the abuse making people think its their fault is also the same reason that they dont leave, they think they deserve it, and additionally, leaving puts you in danger for your life. So no, I dont think staying is enabling abuse. Making it hard to leave is a part of the abuse.
      As for the word survivor, I never thought much about it, but I'm not the biggest fan of the word. Especially because some people who go through abuse don't survive. :( I'll think about your question.

    2. It takes understanding that there comes a point - and that point isn’t going to be the same for everyone, not in terms of time or type of abuse or frequency- when breaking away is next to impossible. Then there is the abuse which is interspersed with apologies/regret/promises from the abuser that things will change. And then the fear that leaving the situation & stepping into the unknown can be so scary. Personally I don’t see myself as ever becoming a ‘survivor’. My script was written & although I can now see it for what it was, my patterns of behaviour are, I think, imprinted too deeply.


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