Monday, October 3, 2016

“I didn’t do it”

It’s really hard when someone tells you that your words or actions have hurt them. Our brain goes into denial and defense mode because we feel attacked. Instead of paying attention to the harm done, we start thinking about the consequences and impact on ourselves. Maybe we blame the other person, or come up with reasons and excuses for our words and actions. By the end of the interaction, we have added more pain to the person we had already caused so much pain to! I’ve done this. I think we’ve all probably done it, but it’s really damaging. Maybe we had no idea that our behaviour was doing so much harm and we are shocked to find out it did. Regardless of intention, hurt is hurt. We can’t let our ego get in the way of making things right. When I think about values in Sikhism, one of the most important things that comes to my mind is accountability for our actions.
I’m going to use the example of emotional abuse to talk about accountability. Relationships are one of the biggest areas of our lives so if we are going to be accountable and take responsibility for our actions, our relationships are a good place to start. I chose this topic because it’s a lot more common than people think, and it’s one that we tend not to talk about. People often think of abusive behaviours as physical abuse. Because of this, I think emotional abuse can go unrecognized. The abuser may not realize it is a very-real form of abuse, and the victim may not have a name for their pain. Emotional abuse is extremely damaging: “Abused women have identified that the long-term effects of emotional abuse are greater than any other form of abuse, including physical violence” and it “slowly erodes the victim’s sense of self-worth, security, and trust in themselves and others” (2). (Note that although this quote was about women, men are emotionally abused as well, and I will be using neutral language for the rest of this post. Also note I have a paragraph at the bottom of this article with a note about victims/survivors of abuse, but the next bit is going to be about abusers and accountability.)
Emotional abuse is defined as “when a person uses words or actions to control, frighten or isolate someone or take away their self-respect” (3). Emotionally abusive relationships can be any relationship- parent/child, siblings, relatives, friendships, partner, etc. (2). This is a big topic, so there are longer lists of what emotional abuse can look like, but I wanted to provide some examples below (sources: 2,4,5,6,7)
  • Lack of empathy/not caring how you feel
  • Silent treatment, emotional isolation/distancing, ignoring you
  • Make you feel they are right and you are always wrong
  • Belittle your goals/accomplishments
  • Humiliation
  • Judging, criticizing
  • insults, yelling
  • Threatening/intimidating
  • Neglect
  • Isolating you from family or friends
  • Withdrawing affection and attention
  • Manipulation
  • Guilt trips
Some people might look at that list, or read more about emotional abuse and recognize their own behavior. Maybe someone has even pointed out that you are doing some of those things. Maybe you are questioning now whether or not you have been emotionally abusive towards someone. Even people who have realized they are abusive (including physical, sexual or emotional abuse) might be scared to change, and I can understand that because I would be scared too. Change is especially hard when you feel like society is painting a picture of “the abuser” as a monster or a psychopath. As I posted about previously in my post “Male Privilege Part 2”, that’s not reality. There is no image of what the abuser or abused person should look like, it could be any of us! The authors of ‘Out of the FOG’ write:

 “Abusers aren’t pure evil. They aren’t like the bad guys in the movies. They are regular people. When a criminal is apprehended, there will often be neighbors who will say that ‘they seemed like such a regular person.’… Abusive people are just like the person next door because abusive people are the person next door” (8).

Abusers don’t abuse in all of their relationships or even most of the time, but “it doesn’t take much mistreatment to terrorize or demoralize a person for a very long time. It is quite common for an abusive person to behave normally most of the time and even be kind, polite, humble, gracious, generous, devoted or apologetic in periods between and immediately following episodes of mistreatment” (8). The reason I am making these points is because when we create the picture of the “monster”, then we can separate ourselves out and deny our abuse. Victims of abuse will also fail to identify the abuse by saying “but this is someone I love; how can they be abusive? (Where is the monster you speak of?)” This prevents them from getting the help they need. Kai Thom writes “When we are able to admit that the capacity to harm lies within ourselves-within us all- we become capable of radially transforming the conversation around abuse and rape culture. We can go from simply reacting to abuse and punishing ‘abusers’ to prevent abuse and healing our communities” (9). Remember, there is stigma for BOTH abusers, and the survivors of abuse (10). Also, people can be abused in one relationship and abusive in another (not the same relationship) (9)

Changing abusive behaviour is a hard process and you have to make the decision to do it for yourself. You will benefit from it- just think of all that bad karma you are going to avoid, and all the good karma you are going to create! It will greatly help your relationships, and you will avoid passing on the patterns of abusive behaviours to your kids, who will watch/are watching you as their role model. The younger you are when you change your ways, the better, but its never too late. (Note: If you are single, its really good to work on this before you are in a relationship, because you will not still be actively abusing a partner while you are working on yourself (12). It’s better to go into a relationship after you have already made significant progress to know you aren’t going to hurt your partner/kids (12). If you really want your future partner to live a happy life with you then sacrifice this time and instead of going out to look for someone, look inside and work on yourself). If you are ready to take responsibility, this is what it looks like (for any type of abuse):
  • Listen to the person you have abused, and do what you can to help facilitate their healing based on what they need (9,13). If this means they need to be left alone, respect that (14). Remember this is based on what they need, not what you think they need. You can’t really make it up to them for what you did in the past, but the least you can do is help them in whatever way you can now.
  • Admit what you did, without blaming the other person, rationalizing, minimizing or making excuses. Understand the impact of what you did and accept the consequences (13, 15)
  • Are you ready to give up the power? Every type of abuse is about control. Fixing that is a long-term commitment to changing your controlling beliefs and attitudes to respectful ones and figuring out where those beliefs come from (9,13,15)
  • Change requires professional help. There are specific programs dealing with addressing abusive behaviours (and it helps to have support!). Things like anger management and couples counselling are not effective for addressing abuse (16,17,18)
  •  Forgive yourself and heal your shame- seeing yourself as a bad person prevents you from being able to move forward and being accountable (remember shame is different than guilt) (9). Ask Waheguru for forgiveness.
I know this sounds like a lot of work but honestly it’s you that’s going to benefit, and you that’s going to pay if you don’t. Some people end up making these changes after they are forced to from the criminal justice system (I’ve seen that happen, and it really isn’t pleasant to watch). Some people will end up wasting the rest of their lives hurting other people, and ruin their chance at meeting God (I’ve seen that happen too and its even worse). Why not make the effort ahead of time? If we fail to recognize how we are treating other people, we are leaving behind a trail of destruction and that’s not what we came onto this earth to do. Who are we hiding our actions from? God is all-knowing and all-seeing and is the one delivering the karma! Who are we harming? Each person is the sargun-saroop of God Himself! If we saw Waheguru in each person we would not be anywhere near abusive. So it’s important to build towards that by doing our prayers, simran, and practicing the values we learn from Sikhi. With the grace of God one day we will be able to actually meet God, and see God in everything and everyone. If we continue to deny our actions and harm other people we can’t get there and our lives will be wasted away. So, please, be accountable for your actions. This applies to how we are talking about people, talking to people, and how we act in general. Treat people with the respect that you would treat God.  
Special note for survivors of abuse:
If you looked at the above list and realized you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, I want you to know that it’s not your fault. It might feel isolating, but you aren’t alone. There is no excuse for how you are being treated. Some of the effects of emotional abuse include low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and PTSD (2). You deserve to be treated with love and respect in your relationships, and there is help available. A good place to start is the doctor’s office or counsellor (and in an unsafe situation, the police). You have a right to get help and stay safe.

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