Two Headed Monster
There are two attitudes towards having suffered emotional or physical abuse that are complementary and show up so frequently in therapy that they seem universal. These are taking personal responsibility for what happened, and that in retrospect it really wasn’t that bad. To have a real chance at healthy relationships and a happy life it is necessary for a person to challenge the veracity of these viewpoints, accept the truth, and in the process slay what we call ‘The Two Headed Monster’. Both heads have to be chopped off or the beast will stay alive, infecting perceptions and worldview. We will look at some psychological reasons a person constructs false narratives about abuse.
Let’s start with believing oneself to be responsible. An important psychological consideration is that abuse is about instilling self-doubt in order to maintain control. When you doubt yourself and your own capacities you become malleable and easily manipulated, and this is exactly what an abuser wants. Abuse where a perpetrator overtly admits to being evil, sadistic, or controlling does not really occur. There is always some rationalization, and it centers around the defects in character or behavior of the person being abused.
This leads us to a fundamental existential consideration where, already in a state of self-doubt and uncertainty, a person chooses personal responsibility in order to temporarily lower anxiety. If you are responsible then you are the one in control. This means that either you had the power to make the abuse stop if you had acted differently, or your inherently bad character made the abuse justified. Either way the anxiety that always accompanies uncertainty is lowered.
However, we can use this existential reality for growth since we have isolated self-doubt and uncertainty as two of the most potent factors in making a person choose to accept responsibility for abuse. He or she can decide on self-confidence and self-worth, and choose to place the responsibility for abusive actions where it belongs, which is of course with the abuser. There is a fundamental truth that every person who has suffered through abuse must come to believe. Nothing you could say or do, and no part of who you are, warrants abuse. Abuse is never acceptable, under any circumstances, regardless of what prompts it. This life decision is just as effective for lowering anxiety because uncertainty goes to zero with this attitude also. The difference is that your certainty sets the foundation for positive relationships and a happy life rather than the constant nagging at the edge of your consciousness that you are somehow evil or defective.
The second head of the two headed monster is retrospectively deciding that the abuse really wasn’t that bad, or that other people have suffered far worse so you shouldn’t be complaining, or that your memory of it was just faulty, or any other variation along these lines. This is a quite understandable protective function that all humans share to one degree or another. Without the ability to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and minimize the importance of unfortunate experiences we would be unable to move forward in life.
The difference is that abuse cuts to the core of who a person is, altering personality and worldview, making subsequent abusive relationships likely. Recognizing abuse for what it is and taking the time to emotionally and intellectually come to terms with the severity and horror of what happened is the only way out. A person who is insane no longer experiences objective reality. He projects his subjective fantasy world onto the objective world. There is always a fine balance between subjective experience and objective reality, and the more we are able to see the world and people in it for what they are instead of what we want or need them to be, the closer we are to mental health and the further we are from insanity. Even though it is extremely painful, remembering abuse accurately is a decision to be sane. A person can no longer be tricked and will quickly spot abuse in current relationships.
As you can see we have a very potent melting pot that includes self-doubt and self-recrimination, taking the burden of responsibility for actions outside of one’s sphere of control, and distorting the truth of events months, years, or even decades later so that even more self-doubt is created about what actually transpired in the first place. The two headed monster will do everything possible to bar the path to happy relationships and a happy life. A person can accept abuse for what it was, accept the severity and horror of it, place the responsibility where it actually belongs, and then be freed to take full responsibility for creating healthy relationships of love and equality.