The Significance of Identifying Abuse
Many on the path of recovery are at this moment asking themselves an important question: “Was I abused?” The answer to this question might seem apparent. If you were abused, wouldn’t you know this from the moment it occurred? But this question ends up being far more difficult to address than we might have expected.
Although there is a wealth of information on abuse, we do not all have equal access to evidence-based resources. Many rely on ideas propagated by entertainment media.
In film and television, abuse is often portrayed as an easily identifiable moment or series of events.
Common imagery includes the predator attempting to enter an adolescent’s home, or the creepy man coaxing children into his vehicle. In these scenarios, there is a readily identifiable division between good and bad. A more subtle way this can happen is if the viewer is introduced into a narrative context in which he or she is informed that what is taking place is abuse, thereby allowing the viewer to make connections regarding abusive dynamics. Whatever the case may be, we are usually led to believe that abuse is readily apparent to all of the parties involved. Translated to our own lives, if we do not already know that we were abused, then it probably never happened.
In reality, a majority of child abuse is perpetrated by trusted family members and friends.
Abuse more often occurs within the family system. This family system is composed of multiple subsystems (e.g., parental, sibling) that interact with each other in the context of a specific set of boundaries (e.g., rigid, diffuse) and rules, which are usually implicit and not directly stated. Cultural differences influence this system, in such areas as gender roles and marital expectations. In this sense, abuse becomes exponentially more difficult for an individual to identify, as he or she will be raised in a family context that is defined as normative. For a child in this family, there are not always clear instances of perpetration, but rather cumulative relational transactions, modes of touch, and templates of addressing difficult family issues that lead toward abuse as another aspect of the family system.
There are also societal pressures against gaining awareness and reporting abuse. Many times, when a victim of abuse acknowledges that he or she was violated, the perpetrator, family, or society at large will question the victim’s credibility. The focus is shifted away from empathy for the survivor, who is pressured to publicly reveal intimate details about the abuse and accused of engaging in attention-seeking behavior. Primary concern is placed on the potential damage to the reputation of the perpetrator.
Additionally, the conversation inevitably shifts to the perceived level of physical harm. Those who claim objectivity want to witness a particular level of harm in the details, in order to ‘verify’ that this was truly a crime. Yet, what we see is that the consequences of any kind of trauma are profoundly psychological. This includes intrusive flashbacks, depression, anxiety, addiction, self-harm, and a variety of other symptoms and behaviors.
At this point, the question becomes, “What is the purpose of recognizing abuse, and does it even matter?” Trauma expert Judith Herman answers this question by saying,
“When survivors recognize the origins of their psychological difficulties in an abusive childhood environment, they no longer need to attribute them to an inherent defect in the self.”
In light of the familial and social climate in which survivors live, it is not surprising that many individuals are hesitant to begin asking questions about abuse. Beyond this, the cumulative pressures of these systems can actively contribute to a survivor internalizing or dissociating the trauma. Consequently he or she turns towards self-blame or repression, psychologically banishing awareness of the perpetration of abuse. But our bodies will never let us forget the harm that has been done to us, and they advocate for us through the symptoms we experience.
In order to move toward healing, we need to gain awareness of the harm that was perpetrated against our bodies, minds and souls. Sharing our story is essential to this process. When we focus particularly on the abuse that we have experienced, regardless of the perceived level of harm, we begin to gain an understanding of our overwhelming feelings and behaviors. This allows us to develop empathy for ourselves and see that our pain is not inescapable. There is hope.