This post contains discussions about mental health that may be upsetting or triggering for trauma survivors. If you are at risk for serious depression, anxiety, emotional instability, or self-harm, consider reading this post in the company of a trusted, trauma-informed supporter.
Last week we began our four-part session titled It’s Not Personal. Here’s a recap of what we learned in the opening session:
- Even if our conscious mind knows that we don’t deserve to be hurt, our subconscious mind defaults to blaming itself (even though that makes no logical sense!). Learn more about how the subconscious mind blames itself HERE.
- When someone is hurtful, controlling, abusive, or toxic, it’s not about you. It’s never about you, meaning that it’s not your fault when someone mistreats you. We are all accountable for our own behavior.
- Someone who abuses another person’s physical or spiritual being is so deeply insecure, so deeply inside their own head, they don’t even see you. They are so full of rage, feel so out of control, so full of fear and personal insecurity, that the only way they can find even a moment’s relief is to lash out.
- When someone abuses another physically, sexually, emotionally, or spiritually, they are reflecting their own fear of physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual annihilation.
- In this series, we will be looking at three types of abuse: physical, sexual, and spiritual. Because we discuss elements of emotional abuse regularly in the Redefining Love Community, we won’t be doing a session specific to emotional abuse in this particular series. However, if you’d like to learn more about types of emotional abuse, please visit the Toxic Relationships page HERE.
This session, we will be discussing physical abuse.
Someone who is entirely disconnected with their own body does not have any means of interpreting these emotions. All they know is that they are deeply and profoundly uncomfortable. They know by instinct that they must act – that they must somehow physically respond to these emotional cues. So they lash out.
A difficult balance
The tendency to blame victims of physical abuse for their own circumstances makes the subject of It’s Not Personal a tricky conversation. When we discuss this reality within the Redefining Love Community, we must approach it from the understanding that abusers are always accountable for their own behavior.
Abuse may not be personal, but it certainly feels personal when it’s happening, especially for those who have been led to believe by a skilled manipulator that it’s all their fault.
However, the abuse is never the fault of the abused. Responsibility lies firmly at the feet of the abuser, regardless of their trauma experiences.
As discussed last week, physical abuse occurs when a person feels so out of control of their own physical body that they seek that control externally.
Why would someone feel out of control of their own body?
Many people assume that physical abusers were abused themselves as a child. And certainly, physical abuse can lead to violent or aggressive behavior. This is a tragic scenario, but it’s only one of an infinite number of ways people may feel out of control of their own body.
Perhaps the person hates their job but feels trapped because of financial and family obligations.
Or, maybe they witnessed a violent act being done to someone else that was so terrifying that it has made them feel unceasingly triggered and fearful.
Perhaps they are a combat veteran who came to believe that violence is the only way to process overwhelming emotions.
Perhaps they feel helpless against financial struggles beyond their control.
The possible scenarios are endless, but each of these instances in and of themselves do not lead to physical abuse.
We all feel out of control from time to time.
The difference between an abuser and a non-abuser is an individual’s ability to recognize and name their emotions. The inciting circumstances vary, but the underlying theme is always the same: helplessness in the face of debilitating emotions.
A person who physically abuses someone else does so because their trauma brain is stuck in a sense of complete helplessness. This explains why someone who experiences physical abuse is more likely to become a physical abuser themselves – they felt helpless, terrified, and angry, and no one taught them how to identify and process those feelings in a healthy way.
Past trauma is no excuse!
It is always tragic when someone feels helpless, terrified, and angry. In some extreme cases, some people never feel truly physically safe, from birth going forward, and this is terribly sad. However, just because someone has a tragic story does not make it okay to harm other people.
This all may seem entirely logical to outsiders, but to the victims of physical abuse, their sense of empathy has been so warped by their circumstances that they cannot see what seems so obvious to others on the outside looking in.
People rarely just wake up one day and find themselves being abused. Just as there is in sexual abuse, there is a grooming that takes place, long before the first punch is thrown, slap is given, or chokehold placed around a victim’s neck.
Physical abusers are so skilled at emotional manipulation that by the time the first incidence of abuse occurs, victims often feel like they have it coming. It’s also possible that they either were abused as children, or witnessed abuse of a caregiver.
This is why it is absolutely crucial that society does not blame victims for staying in a dangerous situation.
Abuse victims have literally been brainwashed to believe they deserve the way they are treated. And, if the person was abused as a child, they may not even realize that this isn’t totally normal family behavior.
The role that culture plays in abuse
When culture supports a hierarchy in which certain individuals have power over another, it creates an environment ripe for abuse (in all its forms). After generations of living within a cultural hierarchy, power gets confused for confidence, and obedience gets confused with respect.
This creates confusion for everyone at every level. Those who are automatically granted power feel subconscious shame because they haven’t done anything to attain it, and those who are subordinate resent those who have power over them.
And so, everyone within the culture – regardless of where they are on the hierarchy – scrambles for power and obedience, and confidence and respect lose their value within the society.
Abuse is the easy way out.
When we want something done our way, it’s easier to use fear and intimidation than to sit down with others to find an acceptable compromise. Why have those uncomfortable, hard conversations when you can just beat someone into submission?
Certainly, for those whose family and culture* endorses physical abuse as a permissible means to an end, there is little reason to explore the hard feelings and come to a peaceful resolution.
*Culture in this case could be religion, government, or even large family systems.
Why boundaries, accountability, and grace are crucial to ending physical abuse:
When someone acts out with physical violence towards another, it may not be personal to the abused, but it certainly hurts and causes great harm. Abuse victims struggle with a sense of worthlessness and self-blame. In a sense, the abuser takes possession of their target’s entire sense of self.
Since Redefining Love requires both inward and outward reflection, it can be a powerful tool for abuse survivors to reclaim their own autonomy, both inside their own heart, soul, and mind, and externally, by gaining the perspective and courage to break free from their abuser.
They recognize that they have every right to step away from a relationship where they are not safe, and in fact, are the only one who can truly free themselves. In doing so, they learn to be accountable for their own freedom and healing.
And, when those pesky thoughts of worthlessness and blame creep back in, they know they must set boundaries against those thoughts. These boundaries are possible once they recognize that those insecurities are lies told them by their trauma experience.
When an abuse survivor applies the Redefining Love principles outward, towards their abuser, they recognize that the other person’s rage has nothing to do with them. It’s not personal. It has everything to do with the abuser’s own sense of powerlessness and rage. They can see that accountability for the abuse lies entirely with the abuser.
They also recognize that, sadly, this person is acting from a place of their own trauma, and they can give them grace. This grace makes space for forgiveness, which is a crucial step in taking our power back from abusers.
And although we can honor the tragic circumstances that brought the abuser to this place, we recognize that forgiveness does not require relationship. We can walk away and set safe boundaries, knowing that – sad as the abuser’s story may be – their story is theirs alone to process and heal.
We ended our session last week with some questions about abuse in a general sense. Now, let’s apply them specifically to physical abuse:
Important questions for the abused:
How much do you value yourself? Do you deserve better than being physically harmed by someone else? (The answer is always yes.)
We’ve established that regardless of your own behavior, you deserve better than being abused (this is grace for self).
So, how will you respond? Will you internalize the physical pain, self-hatred, and rage of your abuser? Will you allow it to fester and become shame, and eventually pass it on to someone else in some form of abuse or toxicity?
There is help available.
It’s easy for me to sit at the safety of my computer and type these hard questions. It’s not nearly so easy to put these questions into action within a terrifying, abusive relationship. This is literally a matter of life and death.
Fortunately, we live in a time where abusers are finally being held accountable. The cultural shift from a structure of hierarchy to one of equity can feel painstakingly slow to those in dangerous circumstances. But change is coming. And with that change comes an ever-growing list of resources to help survivors of domestic violence.
A quick Google search will likely lead you to many local options. Simply search “domestic violence services,” along with the name of your town and state.
Or, in the U.S. call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-7233. Operators will help you find resources in your area to help you break free, once and for all.
A word on “retribution”
Many people who are abused have been brainwashed to believe that they are trapped in their circumstances, and to speak up or seek help will have dire consequences. But except for the most extreme cases, usually the sense of being trapped is actually a lie perpetrated by the abuser to maintain control.
Particularly in this day and age, where so much help is available, and so much more awareness exists around domestic violence, your cry for help will be heard and you will be supported through your healing.
Here are a few things to think about:
Do not allow your abuser to convince you that calling for help and holding them accountable with criminal charges will “destroy their life.” They surrendered their own power and freedom the moment they chose to physically hurt another human being.
Physical assault is a crime. If they didn’t want to be arrested, they should have thought of that before they hit you. You are not responsible for protecting your abuser from their own bad choices!
And, do not allow your abuser to convince you that turning them in will only bring you further harm. Except in cases of gang affiliation or organized crime, abusers typically act in isolation. In fact, secrecy is usually crucial for an abuser to remain in control if their victims. How can your abuser continue to harm you if they are in jail?
What to do if you are being physically abused:
Most communities have some sort of help pipeline in place for abuse survivors that typically starts with law enforcement.
Here’s a step-by-step process to break free from an abusive relationship:
Get safe: Safety of yourself and your children should be your #1 priority. You can’t break free until you are safe. Go to a local shelter. Or, drive to the local police station or sheriff’s office, or even a fire station. If it isn’t safe to get out of your car, park in the parking lot and honk your horn until someone comes out.
If you aren’t sure of the location of your local emergency services, go somewhere public that has video cameras. Then, call the police.
Call 911: (If outside of the U.S., call your local emergency services number.) Every call to 911 is recorded. This begins the “paper trail” that will help in the eventual conviction of your abuser, and will also help in child custody cases.
Once you are safe, take photos of any visible wounds or marks left on your or your children’s bodies by the abuser. Then, send them to an objective, safe person, in case your photos are somehow deleted. A counselor, therapist, or shelter staff are great options. Another option is to create a private email account, and send all photos and documentation there.
Build a support community: Start with local service providers dedicated to helping survivors of domestic violence. Surround yourself with people committed to your safety.
Set boundaries around people who encourage you to go back to your abuser: Remember, there is no excuse for physical abuse. Those who encourage you to return to a dangerous situation are part of the abuse shame cycle, and they need to be loved from a distance. You can reconsider your boundaries with these people once you are safe and the abuser is permanently removed from your life.
Gain employment: Financial dependence is one of the primary reasons people don’t leave abusive relationships. If you are unable to work due to disability or other circumstances, ask your local shelter to help connect you with resources to help you break free from dependence on your abuser for your basic needs.
Get mental healthcare: Nobody just wakes up one day in an abusive relationship. There is a deep history of trauma that leads people to be both an abuser, and the abused. Until you dig in and get that shame healed, you are vulnerable to enter back into an abusive relationships, either with the same person or someone new. Your local domestic violence shelter should be able to help connect you with mental healthcare.
And finally, remember that even though it hurts both physically and emotionally, physical abuse is not about you!
You didn’t ask for this. You don’t deserve it. It’s not your fault. This is about the abuser and their own poor choices. Your responsibility is to get safe, and stay safe. Keep your attention focused on healing.
What is Redefining Love?
The Three Pillars
The Shame Cycle
The Family Connection
It’s not personal
How we get trapped in toxic circumstances
Naming, blaming, and the uncluttered subconscious
Emotions are the brain’s dashboard
Gaslighting vs. Greenlighting
Secrets can only control you when they are kept
How witnessing domestic violence affects children