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Invalidation and learned helplessness as victim training

November 3, 2009

I haven’t been keeping up with other blogs very well lately–limited attention–and only now ran across some excellent ones over at Shapely Prose. Thanks to Lindsay for pointing out one on the everyday kind of harassment and lack of respect we’re just supposed to ignore!

When I was trying to catch up over there–the last thing I read was the wonderful Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced–I ran across one post from August that really got me thinking: “She didn’t fight back because you told her not to”. The comments are well worth reading, too.

Wow. I had wanted to think that I’d mostly escaped this bit of socialization too, in the face of all the evidence. This is what invalidation and learned helplessness will do to you. There’s enough of that going around culturally, when it comes to women getting treated disrepectfully or outright violently. Picking up still more through more personalized emotional abuse does not help.

Warning: this post may be triggering.

One comment, in particular, described some of my experiences to a highly triggering extent–this paragraph in particular:

And it was horrifying to me that people didn’t get that my pain counted. I was upset about it for days. It still scares the shit out of me, because that’s still me. Sure, if someone leapt out of the bushes at me and grabbed me I think I could probably turn the pepper spray on them and kick a few times, but that’s like the “stranger danger” crap for children, it’s not what I really need to be afraid of. How do I fight someone I know? Someone I’ve been talking to all night, who seemed nice enough? Those are exactly the sort of people I am least likely to try and confront. My only defense is that I don’t follow those first rules, the ones where you’re not supposed to ignore a man or walk away. I’m real good at walking away from unwelcome advances and reacting to flirting in awkward, unflirty ways. I don’t know what I would did if I weren’t.

As I mentioned before here, I picked up some very specific (and perniciously victim blaming) training in handling straightforward physical assaults. (‘It took me a while to get it through my head that it is not somehow my responsibility to teach Bubba to keep his hands to himself–through a kneecapping or the old iron skillet treatment, if that’s what’s required–if the people responsible for his raising failed to get this crucial point across. Or, if he’s caught the wétiko and chosen to disregard the “inferior, backward” code of conduct he learned growing up.’) I was very clear on how to handle stranger danger, or blatant physical abuse.

I have given men who threatened/assaulted me physically a good kicking, on more than one occasion. I grew up believing that I had a responsibility to step in if I saw or heard another woman getting hurt or threatened–both as gadugi, and because I’m well equipped to handle it–and have needed to do so more than once. My grandfather made sure that the girls in the family got extra self defense training, starting early, because he knew we were likely to need it. (He died before he could teach me throws, and I’d still like to pick up that knowledge.) If anybody had jumped out of the bushes at me, he’d have been one sad and sorry man, but that has never happened to me. My physical confidence has scared off more than one creepy lurker–and made me feel bad for the next woman to go that way.

OTOH, with my upbringing, I got an extra dose of feeling like I just had to put up with emotional abuse and people disrespecting my feelings and wishes (a wonderful post, BTW). Somehow, men who wouldn’t keep their hands to themselves in a sexual context did not warrant the same response as ones who tried to hit me. This was only reinforced by the sexual harassment/groping* we were expected to put up with–and giggle at–in school, when my initial impulse was to lay hands on them. Three different guys “date raped” me when I was in college, and I just froze up; afterward, I blamed myself for not just kneecapping them, and did not even consider it Real Rape for a good while. It was just paying for my bad judgment. I also did not tell my family for years, because of the blaming I’d heard applied to other people. One of them ended up stalking me, and I had very little idea how to deal with that either. I knew how to say no, and did so repeatedly; I’d just been thoroughly trained that it was better for me to put up with other people completely disregarding my wishes in a lot of situations than to get aggressive about it.

My mom had her own reasons to feel like she needed to live with two different emotionally abusive men. My biodad raised his hand to her once, not long after they got married, and got a heavy stoneware bowl cracked over his head for his troubles. That did not make him less abusive once he came to, just sneakier. (This is also a prime example of how much harm can come from wider societal messages; he did not pick up the idea that it was OK to treat people–especially women–this way at home.) I could recognize the fact that he hit me when he thought he could get away with it as abusive, well before I could see how much more damage the emotional elements did. To both my mom and me. Her own mother’s response to their divorce? “What did you do to make him leave?! I knew you were impossible to live with! [long string of insults about her personality and appearance]“, while my grandfather did his best to calm her down. I heard that with my own ears–Mom’s flaws were apparently so obvious to my grandmother that she started screeching right in front of me–and it made quite an impression when I was 6. (Still, I was tempted to censor it, in case someone in my family, who wasn’t even there, reads this and insists it never happened–or if it did, that the attack must have been provoked. Ouch.) My stepdad was “just” emotionally abusive.

So I got an extra dose of “crazy women letting men beat them, which is entirely unlike my own situation, because they’re weak and crazy”, along with some extra trouble seeing emotionally abusive behavior from men for what it is, rather than just what you have to put up with to be around them. Separatism has looked awfully appealing at times. Especially with my mom feeling compelled to parrot the “of course you want to get married, everyone really does even if they don’t think so” line, when I’d have rather gnawed off a limb than gotten into either of her marriages.

Unfortunately, those examples are not so unusual, and you don’t have to live in seriously dysfunctional situations to pick up a lot of hideous messages about what women are supposed to put up with. That is also part of why some of my posts have been relying heavily on personal experiences of which I was trained to be ashamed. These things happen a lot, and we’re supposed to be afraid to talk about it.

I’m sure that, like Ailbhe, in some ways I screamed “victim”, and functioned as a freak magnet. (Seeing someone I’ve met IRL express the same idea also brought this closer to home, in a weird human way.) For a long while there, I also had a serious problem with feeling like I had to go out with guys who were creepily persistent when I’d made it clear that I was not interested, so was more likely to end up in bad situations.** My self esteem was so bad that I did not always register it when more normal-acting, respectful guys were interested (neurodiversity probably comes in here, too.). That is not self blame, it’s recognition of really shitty programming. Even without more emotional abuse piled on, enough women run into similar problems. It’s screwed up in so many ways.

Things were bad enough that, after multiple assaults and the associated PTSD and helplessness, I completely avoided romantic relationships for better than five years. (And fought feelings of unattractiveness and “loneliness”–i.e., running up against a brick wall of social expections–for most of that time.) Even at a low point, I knew that what had been happening could not continue, and I needed to get my own head straightened out. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

When the IBTP forum was still up, women there kept recommending a couple of books: Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, and Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men (yes, the male author admits that it’s mostly men who feel like they can behave this way). I picked them up, and would have a hard time recommending them enough.

In The Gift of Fear, de Becker keeps driving the point home that if someone ignores our wishes or refuses to listen to us, that’s a clear sign that they do not mean us well. That shows a dangerous mental imbalance, right there. We should pay attention to our perceptions that these men–and he does specifically address most of this advice to women–are indeed dangerous, and they have forfeited any right to politeness. He also offers some excellent advice on dealing with these self-absorbed jerks, including when they start stalking women. One of the best strategies: refuse to engage them at all. Do not answer the phone, even to tell them to fuck off and die; they’re insane enough to take that as encouragement. (I’ve found that just refusing to engage also works in other abusive/controlling situations. You don’t have to help them interfere in your life.) The author specifically addresses the problems of invalidation and learned helplessness, repeatedly pointing out that if you are perceiving a threat from someone else, you’d do well to take it seriously instead of rationalizing it away–and that once you start paying more attention to real vs. imagined threats, you’re unlikely to feel as overwhelmed and helpless. Learning to recognize and deal with true threats lets you take back some power over your life. I wish I had been able to read this book when I was still in high school, or even before that.

I echo the suggestions on the forum that if you are currently in the middle of a controlling, abusive situation, you might want to keep Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? where the other person can’t see it, lest they go apeshit when they see that you’re onto them. It describes, in excruciating detail, different subtypes of controlling behavior. On the first reading, I kept nodding and getting chest pains, and having to put the book down and take a break. This is a truly helpful book, but can be very triggering indeed if you have been living with (and trying to excuse/ignore) abusive behavior. It forced me to recognize some harmful behavior from family members which I’d tried to excuse away, besides helping me understand the abuse I’d been aware of.

In a similar vein, I’d also recommend Marie-France Hirigoyen’s Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity. Once you get past some of the author’s Freudian slant, it’s not a bad source at all if you’re trying to understand emotional abuse. She stresses some excellent points, including the vampiric element, and the use of purposeful destabilization to discredit the victim and make them less able to resist. I’m not sure where my copy is to quote, but it helped me a lot, seeing the author specifically point out that an emotional abuser sees positive qualities in the victim which s/he does not possess, so just tries to take them–while convincing the victim that s/he never had them in the first place, and making resistance very difficult indeed. This applies to bullying, as well: the victim may get characterized as weak and possessing all sorts of negative qualities after a while, but was actually chosen because this was not true.

Looking more deeply into Native spirituality/philosophy has also helped me untangle some things. J.T. and Michael Garrett have written a decent bit on the psychological end of things, from a Cherokee perspective. Their books are remarkably non-fluffy for something largely intended for an unfamiliar audience. From a mini-review I wrote back in February:

One point I appreciated seeing reiterated–what with the amount I’ve been having to consider similar themes of late–is what they’re referring to as the Principle of Noninterference, and how that relates to respect, honor, and control. (Acceptance also ties in.) This interlocking complex of ideas is also addressed in The Cherokee Full Circle, with a more specific aim of trying to comb out some of the snakes arising from these things, including some of the things other people have managed to put on you.

Michael Garrett expresses this pretty well, in Part Two which he wrote, to the point that I ended up quoting more than intended:

The highest form of respect for another person is respecting his or her natural right to be self-determining. This means not interfering with another person’s ability to choose, even when it is to keep that person from doing something foolish or dangerous. Every experience holds a valuable lesson–even in death, there is valuable learning that the spirit carries forth. Noninterference means caring in a respectful way. And it is the way of “right relationship.”

Interfering with the activity of others, by way of aggression, for example, cannot and should not be encouraged or tolerated. This is not only disrespectful, but it violates the natural order of harmony and balance in which each being has to learn and experience life in his or her own way. Each person, each living being on Mother Earth, has his or her own Medicine that should not be disrupted or changed without that
person choosing it. . .

“Pain” is really nothing more than the difference between what is and what we want it to be. To be respectful of all things, we often must sacrifice expectation. This is the real beauty of noninterference. It gives us the ability to release some of the things that would otherwise bind us or weigh us down and disrupt our own natural flow…Besides, what others choose is none of our business, and we should never assume that it is. This shows lack of wisdom and respect. It also shows a lack of trust in others’ ability to choose, to experience, to learn.

. . .

J.T. Garrett does a good job expressing the closely related idea of acceptance, which again requires a fairly long quote:

It was also difficult for me to live the traditional Medicine, then put on the suit and tie and be a hospital administrator in the white man’s way. My first mistake was to present myself the way I was told to do. It broke the Native American way of presenting myself as a helper. I overheard a tribal member say, “He is going to be like the rest,” and I knew that she was talking about control. The Native American person accepts you as you want to be. However, they respect you for how you are with others. Humility and the Rule of Acceptance helped me to cope with criticisms…One of the important lessons for me to learn was having the negative energy move around me, instead of internalizing and reacting to criticisms. The Rule of Acceptance is the ability to accept anything said or done with the realization that it is what another says or does, not what we say or do. In this case, an action does not necessarily require a reaction, but an interaction. This interaction may be with the person or persons creating the action, or it can be with someone else to clarify or resolve a state of nonacceptance. As a student and apprentice, I was to accept everything and learn to listen. This can be very difficult in an environment where we are taught to be assertive, to analyze, critique, and “take charge.”

This was another concept I had trouble understanding, from older relatives, who were no doubt as exasperated in their own way as I was at the time. 🙂 Seeing it stated very clearly and expanded upon was helpful. Getting another perspective on how these concepts fit together was even more helpful.

It was necessary to quote more than I’d intended there, to make sense. 🙂

I’m having to do a lot more thinking about control, noninterference, and acceptance–and learning not to misuse them destructively against myself. It’s more pressing when you’re dealing with the effects of outright abuse, but a lot of other people could stand to develop a better understanding of how these things work together and can be misused. From a similar viewpoint, Thich Nhat Hanh also has a lot of useful advice on healing our own emotional damage, and hopefully the rest of the world.


* I still fail to understand how, if one accepts the idea of hate speech, sticking a “Fuck me, I’m pregnant!!!” sign on someone does not count. Oh, wait…

** Heck, one totally whacked-out emotional vampire I met online (in my late 20s) invited himself to come and visit me, and I spent most of the week freezing up and bursting into fits of hysterical laughter and facial twitches. (Which then got criticized.) His behavior was so horrible I had no idea how to deal with it, but I still felt compelled to try to be nice. I had also made it abundantly clear that I was not romantically interested, but I suspect he still considers me his ex-girlfriend. I blamed myself for encouraging him, disgusted as I was trying to deal with this guy. It still makes me nauseous that I did end up in bed with him, just to get him to shut the hell up; not surprisingly, it didn’t even work. Now I know I had a narrow escape, getting shed of this vampire at all, no better than I knew how to deal with things at the time–even after I took that 5 years to breathe. Thinking about it still gives me the shivers.

Even better, I got blamed and called crazy–a manic episode was suggested, even though I have never in my life experienced one***–by the same people who helped train me to accept emotional abuse. Only lately can I see that none of this was my fault. None.

*** No, that did not prevent the earlier bipolar diagnosis. Apparently I couldn’t be trusted to know whether I’d ever been manic.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. The Proofreader from Hell permalink
    November 4, 2009 4:00 pm

    About the bipolar business: a psychiatric diagnosis is a powerful way to discredit someone in our society. Once a person has one, nothing that person says deserves to be taken seriously. Goodbye, respect. Goodbye, actual personhood.

    • urocyon permalink
      November 4, 2009 5:01 pm

      Exactly! That’s bringing out the big invalidation guns, right there.

  2. November 19, 2009 10:06 pm

    Just so you know, you’ve got an unclosed bold tag in the second footnote, making everything on the page after it stay bold.

    • urocyon permalink
      November 20, 2009 12:33 am

      Thanks! I must not have scrolled all the way to the bottom, checking things over, when that kind of thing drives me wild. 🙂 It should be fixed now.

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