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Shame experienced by abuse victims

– Posted in: Fear and shame

Speakoutloud.net shame Clare Murphy PhDDr Angela Jury conducted interviews with 25 survivors of intimate partner abuse for her PhD research. The following are extracts from a Massey University news release about her study:

Abused women – especially victims of psychological and emotional torment – are often so paralysed by what they see as the stigma and shame associated with their situation that they are unable to seek help.

Agencies working with them need to better understand how the profound shame the victims feel not only deters them from seeking help, but can be reinforced by educational and promotional messages aimed at trying to help them.

“My research was focused in one direction – finding the explanation of how it was that some women were able to remove themselves from the experience of abuse and maintain lives free from violence, whereas others appeared unable to do so, remaining with abusive partners for extended periods of time or eventually leaving, only to find themselves once more involved in violent relationships,” she says.

“It is most clearly illustrated in the use of language around choice and freedom in advice to abused women – ‘you don’t have to live like this’, ‘you can leave’, ‘there is help available’. All of these – while probably selected as terms offering empowerment to victims – can also operate to engender a sense of weakness on the part of victims…thus creating a sense of shame and self-blame.

“We need to shift the focus for dealing with abuse and violence off the victim. It should not be seen as her responsibility to decide she wants it to stop – nor should not doing so be seen as the victim’s shameful failure.”

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Mary 26 June 2015, 3:19 am

Thank you Helen for sharing such strong and wonderful insights these give everyone great hope, and to have, through your God given strength overcome the emotional tyranny which besets so many, your strength is empowering others to believe in their own goodness too and their own right to a happy life

Helen 7 September 2009, 8:43 pm

I know many people are tired of the need to be ‘politically correct’ and we may all have some ‘burn out’ from this. I know I feel like this sometimes. But even this article uses language that is value laden. “Women who were able to remove themselves from the experience of abuse and maintain lives free from violence” is a scary statement for those who grew up in abusive families, because abuse doesn’t end with childhood. So we may leave abusive partners, or stay with a partner who is actively seeking to be peaceful, but still have abuse in our lives, because of abusive family members.

My experience is this- I grew up in a violent family. My partner and I got education about DV, made changes, struggled with everyday life free of inadvertantly using ‘power and control’ ourselves. I’ve learned what abuse is, how to recognise it, how to deal with it. However, I’m left with not only shame, but isolation, as I have been forced to cut ties with family members still following old patterns of behaviour that are abusive.

I’m seen as the person with the problem, because I object to being treated in line with these ‘old patterns’ I am ‘shamed’ inside my family of origin and the extended family. I have been blamed for breaking up a relationship and told I’m disgracing the family.

And then there’s the mental illness diagnosis, that lists axis I II III IV etc and includes the abuse I suffered as a child and an adult as a symptom of ‘illness’ and then immediately assigns the term ‘borderline tendencies’ because that is the label used to illustrate the effects of childhood abuse. My struggle to keep safe boundaries, and the fact that I’ve chosen to separate from my family is used to label me with a pejorative psychiatric term – the one most dreaded by all. Indeed even the fact that I don’t see my family is recorded as part of my diagnosis.

So when we consider women living with an abusive partner, we could remember that the most dangerous time in an abusive realtionship is when it ends. More women are hurt by ex-partners than those they stay with. We could imagine that many women are isolated, because that’s what an abusive relationship does, so may only have family to call upon. If family are abusive, it may be worse for her to seek support from them than to stay with her partner, or to live without support. Indeed, it may be finacially impossible to be ‘independent’ as moving with children costs an enormous amount of energy, money and needs people to help physically move them.

At present, social institutions such as psychiatry using labeling that reinforces shame, failure to recognise ongoing issues with an abusive family situation, and ignorance about the reality of living with the aftermath of extreme violence all contribute to my shame, and to my struggle to overercome it.

Simone 6 November 2013, 3:36 pm

Thank you for not totally giving in to the shame that we are consistently told to own, to keep quiet, told we are the cause of family and friends walking away because they cling to a ‘fair world fallacy’. I need to see I’m not the only one who has experienced this, and I’m sure others do too.

No more victim blaming.