Content/trigger warning: this post is a discussion of abuse.
If you’re someone who feels like, or who has ever been told, that they are ‘attracted’ to people who are creepy, or abusive, or just don’t respect your boundaries, I want you—and everyone else—to know that this is the opposite of what’s true.
In this article I’ll share with you my insights into what’s really going on. I draw on my own experiences, what I’ve witnessed, what I’ve heard from other survivors, and years of research. I’ll provide links to some of the resources I’ve found most enduringly helpful at the end, but to annotate and quote everything that I’m drawing on would make this even longer than it already is. I’ll also provide you with some tips I’ve found helpful, if you feel like a magnet for assholes, or if you have a friend who’s continually winding up entangled with toxic friends and partners.
Who Really Makes the First Move?
People who act in creepy or abusive ways and routinely disrespect boundaries are the prime movers. They are the initiators. They have difficulty having relationships with people who have good boundaries and resilience, although potentially anyone can be a target, even those who have great confidence and great boundaries and a lot of resilience and support.
Resilience is formed when we are surrounded by people who model those good boundaries and confidence and resilience, as well as cherish and encourage us—not by being abused and hurt to ‘toughen us up.’ This is a toxic myth similar to the ‘pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps’ myth and prompts to ‘just grow a thicker skin’ don’t actually cultivate resilience, only insensitivity.
Most people who abuse and bully don’t think that what they’re doing is abuse or bullying. Most people who hurt others in these escalating ways, when they lose a target because their chosen prey escapes or starts enforcing boundaries, acquire another target fairly quickly, or have multiple targets in different areas of their lives.
When I’ve seen this happen, with many different people in different times in my life, it looks compulsive, like an addiction. I recently heard that hurting someone else can sometimes have the effect of stopping post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and suddenly it made so much sense to me.
Most bullies and abusers were themselves bullies and abused. They picked up their behaviors from the people around them, like socially healthy people pick up healthy behaviors from the healthy people around them. This doesn’t excuse abusive behavior in any way, or mean we have to feel sorry for the perpetrators and think of them as the real victims, or not hold them accountable. Many people who are abused and bullied do not go on to repeatedly do it to others. So it’s not an unstoppable inevitable result. Perpetrators are not puppets. These are people making choices in how they react to pain. Choices may become habits, and addictive compulsions, but they cause real harm and require real consequences in order to stop the abuse.
Perpetrators abuse and bully when they feel they can get away with it, even if this isn’t a conscious assessment. Each successful evasion of consequences through secrecy, threats, victim-blaming, denial, derailing, or any of a number of tactics emboldens a perpetrator to abuse again. They also gain experience in how to overcome resistance and blowback for their behaviors. When we succeed at any skill we’re building, when we practice it, we get better at it. People who repeatedly transgress others’ boundaries and learn how to derail, emotionally manipulate, retaliate, deny, and reverse victim and offender improve these skills through exercising them until this becomes their habitual style of relating to other people.
Perpetrators may have commonly mistaken abuse for intimacy, closeness, and love. Perpetrators may believe that this is the only way they can experience closeness with another person—through luring targets in with love-bombing and then gradually wearing away at boundaries, self-protective instincts, and confidence in the target’s own perceptions with grooming, microaggressions, gaslighting, passive aggression, public humiliation, monitoring, and escalation. From having been raised in a cult among many self-deceiving people who mistook abuse for love, boundary violations for intimacy, and passive aggression for enlightenment, I’ve been intimately acquainted with this point of view and way of protecting oneself from awareness and defending one’s abusive actions.
The Crucial Role of Denial & Self Deception
I’ve seen many, many abusers at work all my life. (Far too many, really, and that’s sort of my point—I was a particularly defenseless and dissociated target.) The perpetrators I’ve seen don’t consciously sit down and work out these things and strategies, any more than we consciously think about all the muscle actions it takes to, for example, reach for something, if we’re able, or strategize picking something up. Like motor coordination and speech, like many things we learn as children, the skills and habits of a perpetrator are things they picked up from the people and culture around them and repeat and refine.
The most important things perpetrators pick up are denial, rationalizations, lack of self-awareness, and retaliation and and threats and punishment for confrontations or having these issues talked about in any way that makes the abuser feel uncomfortable. It’s so much easier to convincingly deny abusive behavior when the perpetrator has rationalized to themselves that the behavior is not abuse. Getting away with it and denial are key to successfully hurting other people.
That denial is extremely strong. It’s strengthened by a lifetime of avoiding responsibility, making excuses and rationalizations, intuitively anticipating negative responses and formulating responses in advance, and then planning things out in such a way that things go their way.
Socially healthy humans have similar skills. We think about what other people might say or do in response to our choices, and we alter how we go about doing things to try to get the best possible outcome. The difference is that healthy people don’t tend to rely on passive aggression, going behind someone’s back, asking questions in order to argue with the answers, guilting or loan sharking, or other manipulative tactics. These are as natural to perpetrators as healthy people’s social habits like asking permission, taking rejection well, and respecting when someone says ‘I’m not comfortable,’ or ‘no,’ or ‘stop.’
The Urge to Hurt
This is where a lot of people make a big mistake and think that stopping a perpetrator can be done by telling them ‘no.’ Many of us who have had been abused and bullied have had traumatic experiences with fighting back and saying no and setting boundaries and having the abuse increase, attracting the full wrathful attention of our tormentor. Perpetrators may be in denial, but they’re aware that there’s a chance that people will respond negatively to how they’re being treated, which is why isolating their targets and slow escalation are almost universal precursors to abuse.
Perpetrators want to do what they are doing, or they wouldn’t be doing it. Whether it’s for a feeling of relief from PTSD, a sense of power and control, or some other result, their behavior meets some need they have that is more important to them than others’ feelings and needs. This is why assertive systems of communication like Nonviolent Communication don’t work with them. Such systems privilege the needs and feelings of both people equally, assume equal validity of each viewpoint, assume that both people care about not hurting one another, and that communication and boundary problems all stem from misunderstandings. Perpetrators are great at gaming assertive communication systems and playing on a natural human desire to believe the best of others and to assume good intentions and innocence until proven otherwise.
Many bullies, when they grow into adulthood, don’t stop—they get smarter and more subtle. They develop more privileged and admired outward personas through good deeds and gaining community and social power and even charitable works, or twisting of facts or outright lies to paint them in the best possible light when they talk themselves up. Which they do. A lot. As a dear friend of mine once said, nice people don’t tell you they are nice. They show it through their actions. The old adage in writing of ‘show, don’t tell’ is really crucial in relationships.
Perpetrators are attracted to people who not only don’t stop them but avoid confrontation and tend to let things slide. They’re attracted to people who don’t fight them off. They’re attracted to people who are alone, who are vulnerable. Perpetrators are good at charging in like a ‘White Knight’ to rescue someone in distress, thus tying that person to them through a sense obligation, meanwhile painting themselves a martyr and a saint.
Saying that a frequent target is ‘attracted’ to abusers is as ludicrous as saying that people swimming in the ocean are attracted to sharks. Or that the food we consume is attracted to our mouths and profoundly hungers to be eaten, follows us home and forces itself between our lips while we’re sleeping or not hungry. That just doesn’t happen.
And I, as a frequent target, can tell you that I don’t like being abused, bullied, and violated. I may respond in placating ways in self-defense because that’s how I learned to survive my childhood—cater to the aggressors so it doesn’t get worse for me—but I don’t want to. I don’t like it. I hate when people’s aggression triggers my defensive people-pleasing to keep them ‘happy’ with me so they won’t hurt me. I get an enormous shame hangover and tend to pull the plug on any further contact with people who’ve triggered these responses.
Being bullied and abused can change your body language, the way you stand and walk. Survivors often develop a protective unwillingness to make eye contact, when eye contact would lead to abuse, or lack of facial expressions when abusers would take issue with our expressions. We have a tendency to not trust people, to become withdrawn and quiet, and sometimes mumble or apologize a lot. (When I was very young, the first sign I was getting sick was that I would start compulsively apologizing. Only now do I understand that if I was uncomfortable and in pain I would apologize to try to make it stop—because that was what I had to do when I was being abused: apologize excessively until my abusers were mollified.) These are unconscious signals of lack of confidence, self-worth, and assertiveness.
Family and acquaintance child sexual abuse perpetrators have reported that they look for specific characteristics in the children they choose to abuse.
Perpetrators report that they look for passive, quiet, troubled, lonely children from single parent or broken homes (Budin & Johnson 1989).
Perpetrators frequently seek out children who are particularly trusting (Conte et al., 1987) and work proactively to establish a trusting relationship before abusing them (Budin & Johnson, 1989; Conte, Wolfe, & Smith, 1989; Elliott et al., 1995; Warner-Kearney, 1987). Not infrequently, this extends to establishing a trusting relationship with the victim’s family as well (Elliott et al., 1995).
Perpetrators are drawn to those who don’t appear terribly confident. If you’re playing a video game, say, killing sharks for great justice, and you have a choice of which sharks to fight, most likely you’d pick one you knew you could beat, and then gain confidence and skills and strengths to beat stronger sharks.
The perpetrators I knew probably weren’t conscious that they were attracted by these body language signals of vulnerability and unconfident people. These characteristics are unconsciously associated in a perpetrator’s experiences with successfully getting what they want—someone they control, someone over whom they have power, someone they can hurt without consequences. Someone they can manipulate and gaslight and lie to in order to avoid responsibility.
And often, someone whom no one will believe because of other unconscious biases and discrimination. Such as: people with disabilities and mental illnesses, poor people, people of color, transgender and gender non-conforming people, overweight people, people for whom English is a second language, minors—people who are in some way one-down to the perpetrator and less privileged by society. The less privileged someone is, the greater the overall unconscious distrust society and culture associates with them. It sucks that we’re inundated with messaging that paints the more privileged as more trustworthy when many of the most privileged people are the most corrupt, but these unconscious associations are a reality that we ignore at our own peril. The underprivileged and the vulnerable who survive best often have innate and possibly unconscious understanding of these realities, and develop reactive distrust of those with whom we come to associate microaggressions and discrimination.
When you’ve been bullied and abused you’ve had your defenses systematically broken down and found yourself questioning your own perceptions of reality. Even when you’ve gotten away from those who hurt you, those things can still be triggered by other people. Boundaries and self-confidence don’t just bounce back after being broken down so thoroughly.
There’s also this: I’ve watched many perpetrators go through many, many acquaintances and communities, flitting from place to place to find somewhere they can dominate and find unquestioning social support. Statistics on rape tell us that most rapists rape multiple victims and commit other acts of violence as well. Sometimes perpetrators’ boundary-testing of people is their standard operating procedure, sort of like dialing every number in a directory. They’re testing for signs that neither you nor they may be aware of, the signs that they have acquired a viable target. Things that they are attracted to.
Derailers, Devil’s Advocates, & Trolls
Perpetrators are the prime movers. They’re also very aggressive, vocal, and pro-active in denying, attacking, and reversing victim and offender. They drive and manipulate a lot of conversations around the subject of bullies, rapists, abusers, assailants, and their targets or victims. Sometimes they do it with an air of being a helper, of being always right, and of being victims themselves, preyed on and forced to do whatever they’ve done to their targets. Sometimes, especially on the internet where they feel protected from the consequences, they outright insult and threaten people, especially women and others with marginalized and oppressed identities, merely for talking or writing about these subjects.
Perpetrators are distressed by and habitually derail open honest conversations about abuse and bullying with logical fallacies, blame and shame victims for any and all reasons no matter how absurd, and police their behavior and appearance obsessively. They do this not only to their victims but in any conversation about victims, even ones that don’t involve them. The ones most eager to perpetuate victim-blaming are the ones who are made most uncomfortable by the discussion of the facts of what happened. It hits too close to home and threatens their core denial and coping mechanisms of expressing their overwhelming emotions through abusive behaviors.
I’ve seen this happening. The rape jokes and victim-blaming I heard from people I used to hang with came from people I later witnessed abusing others, making moves on vulnerable or intoxicated people who were less able to fight them off, isolating them, or even assaulting them or me.
I don’t believe that everyone who makes a rape joke or blames a victim is a perpetrator, but they’re certainly furthering the cause and comfort of perpetrators and a culture that looks the other way and minimizes their victims’ pain. And if someone is arguing a bit too much and too loudly against discussions and realities of rape, it could be that they don’t understand consent or have fears and discomfort regarding their own behaviors. If they’re catching feelings, there’s usually a reason.
Sharks in Dolphins’ Clothing
Perpetrators will never describe what they do as bullying or abuse or assault. They’ve had a lifetime of practicing denial, not caring, and making excuses. Perpetrators also never come on at full-strength abuse. That doesn’t work for anyone. It doesn’t secure targets they want. Perpetrators don’t advertise any more than housebreakers play trombones as they break in. Perpetrators know how to turn on the charm. They know how to tease information out of targets, especially lonely ones, and then use that information to simultaneously lure and bind and obligate them. To perpetrators, it’s the process of getting close with someone.
People who routinely transgress others’ boundaries exist on a spectrum, from mild but easily escaped assholes all the way to obsessive stalkers who will kill targets who reject or escape them. Life stresses and other exacerbating or disinhibiting factors—like intoxication or anonymity—can escalate someone’s overall abusiveness to others. So can getting away with it.
Perpetrators can be rich or poor, they can be any gender or sexuality, any race or ethnicity, any age, any shape or size, abled, disabled. They can be in any profession. Many are drawn to professions that supply them with regular contact with vulnerable people or people in pain or in an isolated and subservient position. I’ve met many abusers who were therapists, doctors, rape hotline operators; and we’ve all heard of priests, babysitters, day care workers, and abusive partners of single parents who target their children.
Isolating Targets and Making Escape Hard or Dangerous
Many people ask why victims of domestic violence don’t just leave. This question displays a naïve ignorance of many of the realities of how abuse works, what it feels like, and trivializes the dangers and difficulties of leaving an abuser.
Abusers tend to isolate their targets—from systems of support, from outside checks on reality, from self-protective instincts and habits, even from their own identities and feelings. Abusers often gradually foster more and more dependence on them, for everything from self-confidence and self-worth to food, shelter, safety, and money.
Abusers can put a great deal of time and energy into ensuring that leaving is antithetical to survival, through financial abuse, coercion, and threats. If you’ve been too long in an abusive situation, you truly may not be able to survive in the outside world. You may have no money, no job, no means of getting one. You may experience crippling mental or physical conditions caused by the abuse, or been targeted for abuse as an already disabled person and made financially dependent on an abuser for survival. You may have children. Very often when women leave their abusers, they end up homeless (63% of homeless women) or killed by their abusers. You can only stay for a certain amount of time in many battered women’s shelters.
The ‘why don’t victims just leave’ statement also discounts the struggles of people who have immigrated to the United States, who are perhaps not speakers of the native language here, who may be very poor and dependent on their spouse. Under current immigration laws they must be married for two years before they qualify for citizenship. Meaning that leaving would equal deportation. With no other family in the country and very few friends, such individuals present vulnerable, attractive targets for abuse.
Strong, independent people often have difficulty understanding how financially dependent and vulnerable and helpless people in abusive relationships can be, as a result of gradual changes instigated by the abuser. It’s not that abusers have booklets on ‘how to abuse’ or have meetings with other abusers to plan strategies—but all of the same tactics continue to work, are time-tested, and can be learned when one comes from an abusive home and a society that is too permissive and dismissive when it comes to abuse.
Often It Doesn’t ‘Get Better’—Only Worse
I’ve heard that the ‘It Gets Better’ anti-bullying videos have helped a lot of LGBTQIA+ individuals survive bullying in high school and deal. But not everyone does—many high schoolers are killed or kill themselves as a result of the bullying they experience, including those who do not identify as LGBTQIA+. For me as a survivor who continues to fall prey to perpetrators of bullying and violence, confronted with continual social and cultural messaging to just endure and hang in there in silence, I have been really disturbed by the amount of money and time and energy that goes into telling targets and victims to hang in there because ‘it gets better’ instead of focusing on intervention, condemnation, and breaking down a culture that looks the other way and trivializes the ongoing trauma of victims stuck in situations they can’t leave.
Those videos, especially videos from famous rich people, felt so condescending to me. They reinforced to me the kind of narratives that perpetrators like to foster, to hang in there and stay in the situation with the promise that it will get better. These videos for me minimized the pain, suffering, and potential mortal danger of bullying and abuse, specifically as it applies to the LGBT community, but I feel it as a survivor of bullying and abuse I’ve experienced in inescapable situations and because of my disabilities and poverty. No matter for what reason bullies target their targets, it’s not about us, it’s about them, and we need to stop them.
In my experience does not just ‘get better.’ It certainly doesn’t ‘get better’ for those who succeed us in these hostile situations and for the targets who are not fortunate enough to survive. Future targets who experience the same violence want to hear from other survivors that we’re working to stop the real source of the problem—perpetrators, not the apathy and depression and suicidal ideation of their targets whose lives have been made unbearably painful.
Improvement comes through empowerment and support of targets, helping them to make choices that free them from their perpetrators. I believe we make it better through taking action, banding together and standing up against people with more power than us as individuals who are hurting us. A video campaign I want to see would target bystanders, friends, and family members, empower them with awareness and knowledge of these realities, and how resources for survivors are often inadequate to meet their needs, and give people concrete tools to support and empower targets.
Without removing the ‘It Gets Better’ videos but in addition to them, because these videos have helped people hang in there. I would never want to saw at the rope that a person is hanging on for dear life.
“Why is Everyone I Meet a Shark?!”
I read a great article on Everyday Feminism about setting boundaries after abuse that put into words something I’d hypothesized: survivors of abuse and bullying often go around putting out very strong ‘leave me alone’ vibes. Socially healthy people pick up on those vibes and leave us alone, so the only people who approach us are the people who ignore our self-protective signals. So we continue to be approached only by insensitive people and withdraw more. The cycle repeats. We start to feel like there’s something wrong with us or that everyone in the world is an asshole. Or that we’re attracted to them.
Or maybe even the truth: they’re attracted to us. We may be bleeding from very old wounds, but the sharks can smell it when we’re out in the water. Predators go after the ones separated from the herd and ones who don’t present a threat to them.
Tips for Targets, Survivors, Marginalized People, People in Pain
First, name your vulnerabilities. When you’re hit with major life stresses, like bereavement, loss of a job, natural disaster, violent crime, transportation wrecks, serious injuries, depression, diagnoses with serious or incurable conditions, abusive relationships, escaping from cult abuse, you need to be aware that you’re vulnerable. Realize that people are going to swarm you with advice and messages of support. Many of these people aren’t doing this because they’re on your team, but because they’re uncomfortable and want to make themselves feel better or helpful. Or, and this is where it can get dangerous, because they want something else from you.
I wish with all my heart someone had told me this when my husband died and as I was going through other hells. All of the people inhabiting my life at the time were either extremely young and inexperienced (20somethings) or toxic and draining. Or both. These took up so much space and psychological bandwidth that if I did know socially healthy people, I was too exhausted from dealing with all the Takers to even notice, much less nurture friendships with them. If only I had known then that grief vultures exist—people made uncomfortable by suffering who react by descending on the person most impacted, and making the grieving responsible for making the vultures’ discomfort better by assuring them they have ‘helped’ and their ‘well-meaning’ words of comfort succeeded in easing pain. (I have a whole other post in me about toxic ‘helping,’ but that’s for another day.)
This is pervasively socialized into us as an unquestioned knee-jerk reaction to misfortune, so I honestly believe no one who does this intends to drain or cause harm to someone honestly hurting. But, in these situations, I’ve also found these people are unwilling to respect boundaries, and behave as though I’ve deprived them of something to which they’re entitled if I don’t respond with appropriate gratitude. (Dear ‘helpers’: If you’re doing it for the gratitude, then it’s not about them, it’s about you. If you can’t take ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ for a response to what you’re saying, you’re not supporting, you’re demanding.)
It’s especially important when you’re in the most pain to find ways to keep yourself safe, and keep other people from draining and trapping you. Here’s how to know if they’re draining you: check in with how you feel before and after contact with them. If afterward you feel worse, then they’re draining.
If you have people in your life you know you can count on, then that is fantastic. Ask them to help filter all the ‘supportive’ messages coming in and protect you from approaches by ‘well-meaning’ acquaintances who act offended when you don’t want to give them your time and attention. Deputize helpers to keep watch for people who don’t take rejection well, to augment your own self-protection and even block people and be mean on your behalf when people ignore polite requests to stop and leave you alone.
But realistically a lot of us, when disaster strikes, find out that friends and even family may be unsupportive or ‘fair-weather,’ and we may be totally on our own. After the death of my husband I heard the phrase, ‘Grief rewrites your address book.’ Equally unfortunately, support groups are rife with passive-aggressive abusive survivors, and more often than not are poorly or not moderated, if the moderator or facilitator themselves isn’t on the spectrum of habitual aggressive/abusive behavior as well.
So what are my tips for those who don’t have anyone supportive to call on? I can only talk about what I’ve found helpful in building my self-protection and my confidence in my own sense of who and what may not be healthy for me—but they’re still not as great as I’d like and sharks and vultures still get through.
Most importantly, know that this is not your fault. Have compassion for yourself and don’t join them in blaming you. When perpetrators get to you, realize that this is their goal. They’re really trying to get to you. You don’t invite this behavior and you don’t deserve it. If it wasn’t you it would be someone else. Know that what’s going on has nothing to do with your innate worth and your deservingness of love. It has everything to do with the person hurting you and their needs to feel power and control. Especially over their own emotions—and they use other people to regulate their emotions, including through stating their emotions with the expectation the other person will ‘fix’ them. They think this is love and closeness, and their goal is this ‘love and closeness.’ Pity them if you want, but the important thing is to move forward and, when possible, away from them. You can’t help them. You really can’t, no matter what they say.
Learn how to identify and name what’s going on, especially when you’re uncomfortable. It may help to write out and name your experiences, plug key words into Google searches, check books out of the library, or ask yourself questions or reflect on what happened and notice how you feel and what comes up for you. Doing this has been one of the most helpful things in beginning to restore my confidence in my own perceptions. It’s sped up the process of getting myself out of uncomfortable situations and relationships of all kinds before they escalate.
Learn and practice all kinds of ways of setting boundaries, early and often. This is going to be enormously hard at first, especially if most of the people clustered around you are toxic types who respond with anger and shaming and unhappiness to your boundaries. If it helps, you’re allowed to treat people who disrespect your stated boundaries like children throwing a tantrum, and insist that if they won’t behave, you will leave that place until they are ready to behave and speak respectfully.
Learn what healthy relationships look and sound like. Learn not just about what you want to avoid and stop in your life, but what you’re looking for. Learn about consent and healthy communication. When you meet people who model healthy boundaries and self-care, get to know them. Ask them questions about how they developed these qualities, or just fill your life with these people. My way of cultivating qualities I want to grow in myself is really effective for me and draws on evolved human social instincts—I spend lots of time with people who have those qualities, traits, and habits. We pick things up from the people around us, so really think about who you want to surround yourself with, the kind of person you want to become, and find people who model that for you.
The more you fill your life with what you want, the less room there will be for what you don’t want to leak in.
When what you don’t want does leak in, treat yourself with compassion. Exercise self-care and be gentle with you. Learn what you can from the experience, take care of you, express yourself in the way that feels right for you, and keep going.
It sucks to have to learn or re-learn how to protect yourself and have healthy boundaries and relationships as an adult. The good news is, you have a lot of sensitivity, you’re probably keenly aware of subtle things, and you’re able to understand and take in a lot of information. These things, which may have been used against you by toxic people, abusers, and bullies, and shamed and mocked in you, are great assets when you put them to work taking care of you.
When you’re out there learning, take in and use what’s useful for you, and discard the rest. It’s okay to not follow systems and guides to the letter, to abandon something that isn’t working, and to do things your own way. Go after things that seem to jive with where you know your strengths are. Start with what’s easy for you, what works for you. I have found dogs, self-defense classes, speaking out, books and online resources and the arts in general—especially having to do with survivorship—to be enormously helpful and healing. But it’s been a long process, and I wasn’t ready to speak out for decades. I still struggle.
Remember at the end of the day your goal is to take care of you. If you wound up having to lie, or be rude, or withstand something regrettable in order to survive what happened to you, you still got through it and you are still here. It’s okay to do these things if you need to in order to protect yourself from others you don’t feel comfortable with. There is a big difference between doing these things in order to hurt someone else and doing them to get away from someone who is hurting you. Keep coming back to the goal of protecting and taking care of yourself.
Tips for Allies, Friends & Loved Ones
So your friend seems to be a shark magnet. Or is currently locked in the jaws of a shark that’s isolating them and biting down hard, and has been careless enough that you have noticed. Or your friend has reached out to you. That you want to help and support your friend is awesome. That you’re willing to do the work to find out what to do and what not to do shows you care, rather than just telling that person you care. The more allies we have supporting us, the harder it becomes for perpetrators to hurt us and get away with it.
But there are common mistakes I see potential supporters and allies making that can easily be replaced with a little self-awareness and understanding, and a little work to change some unhelpful socially ingrained habits.
As tempting as it may be, as socially and culturally sanctioned as it seems to be, don’t make decisions for your friend whom you see getting targeted, sucked in, and hurt repeatedly. Don’t insist on educating them if they’re not there yet, if they haven’t specifically asked for help getting information. Don’t decide what’s best for them. The only exceptions to this are when someone’s life or a child are in physical danger. There are resources out there, people and hotlines you can call to report and ask what you need to do in those instances.
Other than that, consent should be your number one priority in your relationship to your friend. Communicate your intentions in advance and be willing to adapt to their needs and what works for them. Ask what they are and aren’t comfortable with and what support they want. If they tell you they’re not comfortable with something don’t have a meltdown and frantically apologize—acknowledge their boundary, thank them honestly for letting you know, make reparations if necessary, change your behavior and just be cool. Their nerves are probably frayed from being on high alert to any potential mood shifts from their perpetrator that precipitate abuse—they need friends who are chill and can take care of their own emotional needs.
Realize that your friend or loved one has been experiencing another person or people overriding what they want and feel, taking away their autonomy. Attempting to make decisions or take actions for them or coerce them to do something they’re reluctant to, even with the intention of saving them, may only retraumatize them, or make them completely dependent on you for survival, if not end that friendship for good. Which leaves them stuck in that same situation, only now without your support.
This doesn’t mean you have to be okay with the fact that your friend is in this situation, but remember: comfort in, dump out. This means that we give comfort toward those who are more painfully affected by trauma and unfortunate life events, and seek comfort from or vent to people less affected than ourselves.
Take care of yourself. Model that and how you set and maintain boundaries. Find support for yourself. Make sure you know what you’ve got going on inside yourself—take your emotional temperature frequently. If you’re feeling too wrapped up in the situation, the best thing you can do is encourage your friend to develop and draw on additional resources for support so you can take a breather and they won’t feel abandoned.
Meet your friend where they are in their process. Know that it’s natural to feel impatient with their progress. You may even sometimes impulsively in your enthusiasm wind up persuading them to push themselves past where they are comfortable. Check in with them often. Ask how they feel, what they need, and how you can help them get what you need. They’re Luccia Cappachione’s three simple questions: “How do you feel?” “What do you need?” and “How can I help you get what you need?”
Believe what your friend tells you about their experiences and feelings. Never make excuses for other people or interpret their actions, even if you were there. Remember you are not impacted in the same way your friend is. Instead of thinking about what you’d do in their situation, listen to them. Don’t invalidate or dismiss abuse and bullying that comes from friends, roommates, coworkers, clients, therapists, doctors—it can be just as damaging as when it comes from a partner or family member.
Always ask permission before giving advice or your opinion, especially if you think they might not want to hear it. Ask permission before doing things that impact them, even things like making them some food, giving them a gift. Abusers use acts of surprise charity to obligate their targets to them, so surprise gifts, even needed ones, can be a complicated issue for us, especially if we want to say ‘no’ but don’t want to hurt your feelings. Asking permission (and being willing to hear ‘no’) is a demonstration of respect, and an easy everyday way to help build consent culture.
Never make your friend feel bad for saying ‘no’ to you. Take it calmly and take it in stride. Model how socially healthy people behave with boundary-setting and permission-asking and consent.
Treat your friend like an autonomous human, in charge of their lives and all the things that impact them, and the best judge of what is best for them. Resist any impulses you may have to do things for them that may infantilize or disempower them.
Cheer on their successes. They may be inclined to discount or feel bad about their progress, especially since for them it may seem glacier-slow. You as an outside observer can have a valuable perspective (if it’s wanted—remember to ask!) in sharing with them what positive changes you’ve seen over time. Talk about your own positive feelings about watching these changes, rather than phrasing your compliments as you-statements about them. Perpetrators and toxic people love defining their targets, telling them who and what they are, lavishing them with comments that make value judgments and uncomfortable observations, and fostering dependence on their positive opinion for the target’s sense of self-worth, as well as projecting their issues onto targets. So it’s really important to use I-statements when complimenting your friend, and focus on your own feelings and experience of them.
Don’t pull away from them or fail to express your affection for them when you don’t agree with their choices, or fear them backsliding. They’re probably already feeling awful and being affected much more than you by the impact of their choices, and you may not fully understand why they are making those choices because you’re not living with the consequences. Sometimes all of our choices feel bad to us, and sometimes that’s because they are. Perpetrators have a way of fostering total dependence and making it so that leaving them would wreck or seriously compromise someone’s capacity to survive and get basic needs met.
Find ways to support your friend when they are making choices you don’t agree with, because that’s when they need your support and love the most—when it’s the most difficult both of you.
This is another instance where it’s really important to take care of yourself, and know where your boundaries are, especially if you can decide in advance what you will and will not do. If possible, let them know these things early on, that so it’s not a wrenching blow when those boundaries come up.
Make it clear to your friend that if you’re not able to be there for them, it’s because of your own discomfort and not because of some fault or lack of worthiness in them. Encourage them to draw other resources and people that they’re finding helpful. If you don’t know what those are, ask. Sometimes just being asked what would help me is the only prompt I need to remind myself of what does help, so I can go do it.
See also ‘How to Help a Loved One Who’s Being Abused By Their Partner.’ Though this article specifically names partner abuse, a lot of these tips are universally applicable no matter where the abuse is coming from.
What About Your Experiences?
Have you been a frequent target of abuse? Do you have a friend or loved one who is? What was helpful or unhelpful for you or from your allies and friends? Please comment and share!
List of Resources I Found Helpful Along My Way:
- Everyday Feminism — lots of excellent articles on surviving with links to further information, as well as a wealth of articles addressing issues of different identities and oppressions
- Real Social Skills — also lots of excellent posts on social issues of all kinds, as well as issues around autism
- Captain Awkward — best advice column ever, with many posts on abuse and survivorship
- The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex PTSD by Pete Walker — An excellent article that illustrates an often overlooked and misunderstood fourth reaction to traumatic stress, in addition to fight, flight, or freeze: fawn. Like many survivors of childhood abuse, I learned to survive by trying to please my abusers and captors, and this can lead to a lot of shame and self-blame when you don’t understand that this is a normal human response to survive tyranny and that it in no way makes you complicit in your abuse nor does it invalidate the fact that it was abuse.
- The Missing Stair. by Cliff Pervocracy — excellent article about communities failing to address abusers in their midst
- Abuse and Relationships
- Psychology Today — a truly staggering number of articles on all subjects of psychology, although often can be too academic and privileged, and many contributors contradict each other
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy — tools for mindfulness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance; you can also search online for information about DBT groups in your area, there are LOTS
- V-Day: A Global Movement to End Violence Against Women and Girls
- Stop Street Harassment
- ‘Why domestic violence victims don’t leave’ TED Talk by Leslie Morgan Steiner
- ‘How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are’ TED Talk by Andrew Solomon
- TED Talks playlist on violence and abuse
- OUT of the FOG — tools for coping with and recovering from abusive relationships
- Gift From Within — a wealth of articles for survivors of trauma and victimization
- Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) — includes a hotline and online chat for survivors
- Trauma and Recovery: the Aftermath of Violence, from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Hermann
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
- Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker
- Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem by bell hooks
- Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story by Lewis Mehl-Madrona
- The Nice Girl Syndrome: Stop Being Manipulated and Abused, Start Standing Up for Yourself by Beverly Engel
- The Nice Factor: The Art of Saying No by Joe Ellen Gryzb and Robin Chandler
- You Can’t Say That To Me : Stopping the Pain of Verbal Abuse by Suzette Haden-Elgin
- The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker — content/trigger warning: this book contains unsettling accounts of violence; it’s one of the very few books that has deeply unsettled me enough to warn people, but was also one of the most essential and influential books for me early in my survival process
- The Gift of Anger: 7 Steps to Uncover the Meaning of Anger and Gain Awareness, True Strength, and Peace by Marcia Cannon
- The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook by Glenn Schiraldi
- The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis — for survivors of childhood sexual abuse
- Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide for Managing Drugs and Alcohol by Patt Denning, Jeannie Little, and Adina Glickman — hands down the best resource for dealing with substance abuse I have ever found EVER, packed with suggestions for other books and resources