Abuse and the abused: Understanding the journey to safety and health
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: P Michael Acton-Coles B.Ed., M.Ed. (Psych.) Hons., M.A.C. Psych., P.D. C. Psych.
5th May, 2012
Abuse takes many forms but it generally means that a person or people are making another or others hurt. Whether you are a child, adult, teenager, male, female, GLBT, rich, poor, educated or not, anyone of us can be subjected to abuse.
There are certain steps that we have to take immediately when working with abuse and all guidelines from NICE www.nice.org.uk; the BPS www.bps.org; APA www.apa.org; APS www.psychology.org.au; BACP www.bacp.co.uk; NSPCC www.nspcc.org.uk; Relate www.relate.org, or any other ethical or guiding force in the field of therapy and health agree that the first step is to eradicate abuse by making a person safe. Understanding this theoretically is the easy part; helping someone into a safe place is mostly difficult because their feelings around the abuse are more often than not confusing, and generally the abuser is someone they love (with the exception of workplace or school bullying and discriminatory abuse that comes from outside the personal life of the abused).
As practitioners, we tend to steer away from the “victim” label for a person that is being or has been abused, as it tends to suggest “hopelessness”. It is better to help people become stronger and survive in a way that is safe and “OK” for them..
Most literature, whether it be a self-help book or professional article that discusses the issues around abuse, tend to think of an abused person as always being in recovery and there is a reason for this. People who are abused tend to become very damaged not only by the experience but more often because of the way they have “coped” with the experience of abuse and the pain and mistrust that evolves from it. In therapy we cannot take away the experience of abuse but we can:
- Safely, and in time, revisit the abuse and clarify what took place. If the abuse is continuing then we need to really get to grips with what is going on and make the person as safe as we are able to.
- What other people are being affected by the abuse? Are there children around? Parents? What context is the abuse taking place in and how is it continuing to take place (or how is the person feeling trapped)?
- Once a person is clear of an abusive situation, we tend to look at how they were exposed to the abusive in the first place. We have to acknowledge and explore the abuser and their position (i.e. are they a parent, sibling, family friend, lover, spouse, partner, or the self). It is key to understand the relationship with our abusers in order to understand the full effect of the abuse upon us. This is how we start to unravel the many layers of the onion and find out where we are in the here and now. A person experiencing abuse quite often becomes lost and annihilated; in this comatic state, it is important they gradually find themselves again and establish a safe place to be when working it all out.
- Blame, and how this is apportioned, is always a difficult area. Most children and adults being abused put a portion or all of the blame on themselves: ‘she did it because I am bad’; ‘he did it because I’m bad’; ‘they did it because I was not good enough’; ‘I cause the badness’; ‘she did it because she is under so much pressure’, and ‘they did it because they really are nice but things are getting to them’. The first step in a new abuse-free life is re-educating ourselves and understanding that no abuse is necessary and the people that abuse others have the “choice” not to. Therefore, it is their “choice” to abuse and that is “not” OK ever; in no way, shape or form is it acceptable to be an abuser.
- Most of the therapeutic journey is rebuilding a person’s confidence in themselves, bringing the fragments of their life together and understanding the confusing area of “ambivalence”. As we mentioned earlier, we mostly love our abusers so how do we separate out our wonderful and loving memories from our pain and hurt? Humans generally “split-off” our most terrible moments from ourselves and sometimes we emotionally throw out the baby with the bath water. A big part of working with a professional is to find a way to embrace the good and understand the bad, and disengage the mass confusion of guilt, anger, blame, fear, terror and pain.
Not an easy journey by any means, but one that can bring in so much wholeness, peace and repair. Only the individual experiencing, or who needs to mend previous, abuse knows when it is time for them to access help. My advice to those of you seeking this type of help is to check the qualifications and experience of the therapist you are considering accessing and to not feel concerned at visiting several to make sure.
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