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4 Common Challenges of Abuse Survivors, Plus How to Help

In today’s episode, we’ll tackle a challenging issue: why some individuals seem to get into one abusive situation after another. There are as many reasons as there are people involved, but there are also some common themes. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 4 frequent challenges faced by survivors of abuse, plus how you can help.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #071

Listener Yvonne from Dublin wrote in and asked if it’s possible to help individuals who get into one abusive situation after another. Yvonne wants to help a friend, but is getting frustrated: her friend defends the very people who hurt and manipulate her and protects those who take her money and belongings.

Yvonne notes that her friend suffered abuse as a child and again in a marriage. She questions if there’s a connection, but mostly she wonders, “How can I get through? How can I help? And if I can’t, how can I cope without being dragged into her choices?”

This week, we’ll examine some common challenges that abuse survivors face, as well as how to help and how to set some boundaries to protect yourself.

First off, it’s important to say there is as much diversity among people who have been abused as among those who have not. It can happen to people of any age, race, sex, class, or level of education. Many individuals who were abused grow up to be highly functional adults and model parents. But through no fault of their own, others aren’t so lucky. They face an uphill battle, like these 4 common challenges faced by survivors of abuse:

Challenge #1: A sense of worthlessness. It’s frustrating for outsiders to see someone they care about get treated like a doormat, but many individuals in abusive situations have been taught that if they’re being treated like this, they must deserve it.  

It’s been said that the way we speak to children becomes their inner voice, so a constant stream of put-downs (e.g, “You’ll never amount to anything,” or “You’re stupid”) or a contemptuous tone sets a child up to believe he or she doesn’t deserve respect. When kids grow up, this translates to a sense that they have no value and therefore don’t deserve common courtesy or even safety.

Challenge #2: Guilt. Many abuse survivors think the abuse was their fault. Consider the brainwashing that happens in abuse situations: abusers tell kids or partners, “OK, now you’ve done it,” “You asked for it,” or “You know you want it.” Believing he or she provoked such an extreme response makes a victim think he or she must be responsible, must have deserved it, and can change the outcome if only he or she “behaves” next time. Of course, none of these are true.

Survivors also often feel guilty for not stopping the abuse, even if they were little kids when it happened. Many therapists will ask survivors to bring in a picture of themselves at the age when the abuse began. Seeing just how small and innocent they really were can do wonders to challenge the notion that they were somehow responsible.           

Challenge #3: Helplessness. This is a tough one for outsiders to wrap their head around. They ask of people in abusive situations, “Why don’t you just leave?” One answer is that, for many individuals who go from one abusive situation to another, abuse is perceived as normal. Think about it: if you had never known anything but violence and disrespect, you would think that was just how life was. You would assume the future to be just as bad as the past and present.  

Our listener Yvonne noted that her friend allows people in her life to take her money and possessions. Sadly, this is pretty common: kids who were raised in abusive environments are taught their needs are a burden and their rights are nonexistent, so crying or wanting comfort might have been met with violence, boundaries and privacy might have been ignored, or ownership of items may not have been respected—abusive parents often help themselves to kids’ savings or belongings. Survivors have been disappointed or punished so often that they may think they’re helpless to stop others’ misdeeds.

Challenge #4: Re-enactment. To the exasperation of those who truly love them, people who were abused often date or marry a series of abusers, or find themselves in abusive or exploitative “friendships.” Why? Again, there are as many answers as people involved, but here are some of the biggies.  

One reason is that people who survived abuse may have been taught that love and violence go together. Abusers sometimes insist they love a child even while they were being abusive, saying, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” or “This is for your own good.”  

Next, some survivors may believe that all relationships include abuse, and that getting close to someone means getting hurt or betrayed by them.

Some but not all survivors think they can fix things or change the abuser if only they try a new tactic. This goes back to the guilt aspect: “If I do things differently, they’ll change.”    

A final reason goes back to the worthlessness challenge: many survivors have had their self-esteem stomped on to the point where they’re grateful to be in any relationship, think they’ll never find anything better, or that they’re so broken or damaged that if they don’t take what they can get, they’ll be alone forever. Abusers might contribute to this by saying no one else would love them, pretending the abuse isn’t so bad, or insisting that the victim is just being dramatic.

So, what can you do if someone you love keeps getting into abusive situations?

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