Friday, September 21, 2012

Six things you should never say to hurting people

Caveat: I grew up in a tightly knit dysfunctional home that did NOT include neglect or physical abuse. I'm writing from that perspective and no other.  

What not to say to survivors of abuse (aka- what the title said):

1. Just put it behind you and move on with your life.

Sorry, we'd love nothing better, but we can't just do that on your schedule. For years (decades?) we've heard that voice telling us we're stupid, incompetent, ugly, unwanted, lazy, etc. That means every time we're thinking about making our bed we hear "Mom said I was lazy. I'm going to show her and make up the bed. But then why am I showing her anything when she kept lying to me? Maybe I don't want to make up the bed. That would actually show her. But then again if I "show her" that means I'm still invested in what she said and possibly bitter. But I still don't want to be lazy. I just don't want to make the bed out of guilt. Gah!" This all flashes through your brain in an instant, along with comments like the above, when all you want to do is make the bed like a normal person and not worry about whether you're doing it because you're meeting or rebelling against your mom's expectations. If you have no idea making your bed could become a mental power struggle like this then congratulations! You may have had a normal childhood!

2. Are you sure you're not bitter? Bitterness can really mess you up. I have a sermon/book/website/video you should read/listen to/watch.

Are you kidding me? I'm not sure what I'm feeling after I crawled out of that cave. Can I please have just a moment to mourn and be angry without someone adding another emotional requirement to the pile? I'm already struggling with whether or not my parents loved me, what I might have done to cause the abuse, how to let go of this anger, etc without worrying about whether or not I'm going to get cancer because I may or may not harbor bitterness against my dad. If you're a close friend you may ask this question if your friend seems unable to work through their anger over a period of time, is bent on creating vengeful fantasies, or variously indicates they are being consumed by their previous trauma. Otherwise, unless specifically solicited for advice, keep your mouth shut.

3. You should just forgive them.

It's a close race between this one and the previous. Forgiveness is a Christian necessity, but in my case, since I had never seen forgiveness modeled in a Christian home, I really had no conception of what forgiveness meant. To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure what forgiveness means in this context. "Forgive" can easily sound like stuff, excuse, forget, or gloss over. In many cases that's exactly what the abused person has been going for years at a time, and it's not always clear that forgiveness is really any different. At this point a good friend will model forgiveness and encourage that person to learn forgiveness in a way that doesn't involve sticking your emotions in a closet and pretending you never had them.

4. Are you sure you've forgiven them?

Argh! No, I'm not sure. My parents didn't model this for me, and most of the time the people around me are forgiving each other for forgetting to pick the groceries or yelling at their kids or "offending" each other. You're functional! You love your kids, and they know it. Blowing your cool after a long day and then apologizing for it hasn't grown into an immeasurable gulf. How do I forgive someone for being malicious when they should have protected me? How does forgiveness bridge that deep betrayal? Jesus did it, but that doesn't mean I've figured it out. I could use a pastor or wise friend to guide me, but I don't need that semi-judgemental tone questioning whether I'm a good Christian because I shared with a friend how I still struggle with trusting others due to broken relationships in my past. I've been trying to get off the guilt train for twenty years, and here you are punching my ticket for another station.

5. Just pray about it! (Relate story about praying and God miraculously fixing it all.)

That's what I've been doing. I don't intend to stop, but I do intend to pray over how badly I want to give you the stink eye right now. Again, this is one of those areas where unless you're a close friend or pastor you should really mind your own business. I prayed and read my Bible through the worst of my depression when I lived at home without seeing my mom become more sane or becoming relieved of my guilt and confusion. Looking back I'm sure God was leading me and giving me grace (sometimes I can even recognize it), but don't you even begin to imply that if I'd prayed better or been more surrendered then God would have rescued my family. I was as surrendered as an angry, desperate kid can get. On top of all this I'm wrestling with issues of faith and guilt as I wonder whether God was just another authority who betrayed me and left me to fend for myself. Saying "just pray about it!" marks you as yet one more person to whom I can't confide my struggle and look to for guidance.
Six really only applies to people who came from dysfunctional families. I can't imagine anyone saying this to a battered wife (ok, I can imagine Debi Pearl saying it, but I pray to God she's not a representative sample).
6. It's a shame you aren't reconciled with (in my case) your family.

Yes it is a shame. I love my sisters and brothers (and yes my parents). I have all sort of good memories of traveling and Christmases and  birthdays and visiting our cousins. But a question like that does two things: 1. It pressures the abused to do whatever it takes to maintain at least the semblance of a relationship, and 2. It reinforces that the abused left and broke the presumed fellowship or unity that existed previously. A lot of time the abused already felt like the bad one, the black sheep, the unloved and unwanted. A statement like the above just reiterates that she's the one who lost out by not being able to take it or fit in or be good enough. It's already a heavy enough burden, so don't add to it. In fact, if you want to bless that person's heart trying reversing your statement and saying "It's a shame your parents/family/significant other are missing out on such a lovely, kindhearted woman." In a sense you leave your entire identity behind when you leave an abusive situation, so affirming that person's best qualities helps rebuild her identity as a woman who deserves loving parents and is worth kindness and appreciation.

Let me finish with one giant, robust caveat. There certainly is a time and a place in which all six of these things might need to be said with various degrees of emphasis and tact. Some people need encouragement in praying faithfully (I do) and some might need guidance on how to forgive as Jesus forgave on the cross (that would be me again). People can become bitter when they dwell on the past and need someone to confront their sin and lead them to repentance and wholeness. The point of this list, though, is that these things should be done by faithful friends and pastors who know the story because they've lived beside the other person and loved them. This isn't a job for acquaintances or internet buddies or people who once felt sort of depressed for a couple weeks or someone who totally knows what you're going through because their mom completely nagged them so much about their room as a kid. In such situations a hug is much better consolation. 

And a small caveat by way of a postscript. Please don't read this post and extrapolate that my parents ate baby kittens for breakfast or locked me out in the cold or made me wear itchy polyester jumpers my whole life or didn't teach me anything or never let me get a job. In many ways we were a pretty normal close knit Christian family. Part of the time. The other times contained codependency, depression, and victimization. Even as I write about some of what I experienced I want to be clear that I did and do respect my parent's good decisions. I just wish more of those good decisions had extended to how they treated me. 


  1. Hey, I also came from a similar "christian" disfunctional family which sounds similar to yours. Fortunately, God graciously provided for me to see a therapist for three years. He was a great therapist and put a lot of time and effort into deprogramming me. Let me tell you he never once said any of those things or anything like them.

  2. I'm a huge believer in Christian counseling! I just started back again after moving across the country, and she's been such a blessing. It's the other people - casual acquaintances and people off the internet - who need to hear this the most I feel. Saying any of the above might "feel" Christian or helpful, but as I'm sure you know are anything but that.

    And for the record, I firmly believe that my parents are Christians. I also believe that my mom has her head so far down in her own pain that she (willfully and otherwise) cannot see what she's doing. That's not an excuse because there are no excuses for some of what she said. I just think that's her reality. It's pretty sad.

  3. All very good points.

    Might I add though, that if you feel the need to talk to someone about forgiveness, stress how freeing it is for the victim and that it is absolutely NOT about absolving someone of their misdeeds.

    It's something that is hard to grasp until you are on the other side of the equation (ie have forgiven someone). I've heard it put many ways but the one that really "spoke" to me was "Forgiveness is about admitting that the past cannot be changed". It's about grieving for what you didn't have, and then coming to terms with he fact that you will NEVER have it.

    Of course, that's easy to say and hard to do. It's not like deciding to forgive a friend for not paying back £10, that's easy to choose the friendship over a little money. Forgiving deep seated pain is much harder.

    Forgiveness also does not mean forgetting (would anyone suggest it was a good idea to leave your child with a parent who has abused you? Of course not). Nor do you have to let that person back into your life at all. Some people are so toxic that they shouldn't be let back in but as I said, forgiveness isn't about them, it's about you, clearing your own head-space and healing your own heartache.

    It's essentially a selfish act because it is all about healing yourself (though it does sometimes have the side effect of being beneficial for the person who wronged you too).

    As for "are you sure you've forgiven them" I will use me as an example, though I accept that the path and experience will be different for everyone, but for me the process was quite painless. I didn't decide to forgive them (though it was on my mind) but it just happened. I pictured a talk where I would air my grievances and I would get an apology and a tearful hug. That was a dream though and no, it never came true and I never got an apology but then, I never asked for one.

    Instead I asked them and other family members about them, about their life, especially pre-me. I learned that they too had been wronged, both abused in different ways, both forced into situations they didn't want, both jumping from frying pan to fire (often repeatedly) for lack of options. They stopped being "my parents" and became people. People as fallible as I am and really, given the different era they grew up in and the shit they endured, they did pretty well. I stewed all this new information over for about three months, then one day I just realised that I didn't hold any malice towards them any longer. Forgiveness just happened, it wasn't concious on my part.

    I'm better for it. I haven't told them I've forgiven them and I don't think that I ever will. What I don't do now, is carry a chip on my shoulder when I meet them but equally, I don't up with their shit either. I didn't forget what they did, I just planned how to handle it in the future. By and large, it has been a success and my relationships with them have improved a lot.