Survivors of emotional violence will often speak to me about the re-victimization they experience at the hands of family members, friends, legal counsel, law enforcement and even helping professionals. This is a form of societal gaslighting, where the individual’s experience is minimized, invalidated and even been met with victim-blaming statements. This is such a widespread complaint I hear from people that I began to realize it is a much larger than an individual problem. This is a social bias.
My sociology and social work background always has me thinking about the societal underpinnings of individual problems. What this is truly about is power dynamics in our world.
By uncovering the unconscious rules of the power game and the methods by which it attains legitimacy, we are certainly in a position to bring around basic changes. – Alice Miller
Blaming the victim, victim-shaming and backlash against people who have joined the #MeToo movement is a sad reality in our world, and it is easy to see why victims of emotional abuse so readily adopt this view. We see it time and time again when we hear about people who suffer horrific abuse, and the question always lingers: “Why didn’t she just leave?”
We see this in sexual assault cases (what was she wearing?), or how people view those in poverty as lazy, or blaming mentally ill people for poor lifestyle choices. There are cases where some victims are at least partially responsible for their situations, but their personal responsibility is often inflated and the extenuating circumstances are overlooked. Why do people do this?
Blaming the victim has two parts: Avoid responsibility and avoid vulnerability. The world is a scary place and the human psyche fears this truth. Instead of feeling vulnerable, our minds search for evidence for how the world is indeed safe. Victims threaten our need for safety and security. We simply don’t want to believe that bad things happen to good people because in accepting this harsh truth, we acknowledge our vulnerability. Most people cannot accept this terrifying reality.
There is also a belief that leaving an abusive relationship should be simple and straightforward. You and I both know this is an enormous myth.
Accepting that you are not responsible for the abuse you suffered flies in the face of all of the messages we have received in our lives—from friends, family, popular media and society in general. The reality is that you had no control over this person. You must fully embrace this truth.
The abusive person has put you in the position of responsibility for their behavior. They have blamed you for their shortcomings. You have been told you’re not good enough and the abuse you endured seems to prove that this is true. This is wrong. You are not to blame. It is not you who is not good enough. The abuser is the only one responsible for the abuse. They knew what they was doing when they mistreated you and they did it on purpose. Their deliberate abuse highlights that they have a need to hurt others in order to make themselves feel significant and superior. You, on the other hand, already know you are imperfect, and you do not need to hurt someone else to make yourself feel better. Only an individual with a deeply flawed personality would need to do this.
How do we start validating survivors? Understand and make the clear distinction: this is not about a “bad breakup” or being “incompatible”. This is about people who have been incredibly injured by cruel individuals who lack empathy, who are chronic abusers, who lack remorse and have no conscience for their malicious actions.
As one survivor described to me, “Being told by my best friend that he was just going through a ‘rough patch’ and that the way he behaved in the marriage was typical of someone who has fallen out of love was like a kick in the stomach. It was like being told my reality was entirely false. That I must have imagined it, or I was oversensitive, or lacked awareness of normal human behavior. The gaslighting by my best friend only further victimized me. I already thought I was a completely crazy, stupid and hysterical. Then I had my best friend confirming it.”
How Do We Stop This Re-Victimization?
Acknowledge and validate the survivors’ reality. Understand that narcissism, antisocial personalities and psychopathy are real in this world. There are actually people in society, in our workplaces, churches, and families who are cruel, predatory and intentionally seek to destroy others. There are individuals who lack remorse, who behave in inhumane ways and will use emotional, psychological and physical violence to get their way. These are extremely dangerous people and this is gut-check time. Not all individuals in this world are inherently good.
Accept that recovery from a psychologically abusive relationship takes longer. It is also important to understand that friends, family and others do not understand this post-traumatic pain. They will dispense some unhelpful, even harmful advice, such as, “You’re dwelling on the past. You need to move on.” What they don’t know is that survivors are asking themselves a version of that question of themselves.
The difficulty that interferes with healing is the terrible betrayal at this fraudulent love. Narcissistic abuse survivors show many similarities in their recovery journey, due to the tactics used by the abuser. Someone who has undergone repeated gaslighting by a narcissistic abuser will invariably suffer the effects of cognitive dissonance. This is when the survivor is trying to make sense of the abuser’s false image that hooked them to them in the first place, with the abuser’s cruel, mean and disturbing true self.
Due to this cognitive dissonance, survivors will often perseverate on the discrepancy between the charming, over the top, love-bombing person they feel in love with compared to the ugly, malicious person they came to be.
What others see is the survivors constant re-view and attempt to re-assess the memories and resulting thoughts and emotions related to the cognitive dissonance. This is why the re-tell the same stories, over and over, because they are trying to make sense of something that inherently does not make sense.
This process, in and of itself, helps to reduce the cognitive dissonance and address the disconnection that has happened to their memories (survivors often dissociate during trauma and memories, thoughts and feelings become jumbled and elusive - an innate psychological protection). If, during a re-telling of the story, a friend validates, accepts and shows appropriate revulsion about the abusive behavior, it reduces the confusion and begins to allow the person’s reality to become trusted once again.
I hope and believe that as awareness of narcissistic abuse grows, the majority of the socially conscious individuals in this world will transition from victim-blaming to start to demand that responsibility for the abuse be where it should be: on the abuser.