Friday, April 4, 2008

Blame-Shifting or "I'm sorry you made me hurt you"

Blame-shifting is a classic technique of the abuser. It is used in the home, in the church, in the therapists office and even in government agencies (as I found out first hand today - but I'll get to that in a minute). It has even made its way into pop psychology and people who do not take the time to think things through and (heaven forbid) empathize, have swallowed it - hook, line and sinker. Anna Valerious, Kathy Krajco and Gale Warnings have all written on this or related topics. Personal opinion? Most people who have taken this idea up have done so because it absolves them of having to take the responsibility of looking evil in the eye and dealing with. If the victim is provoking the abuse, then the abuser is not evil. Ta-da - problem solved. BLEAH!

So, what is it? I will start with how it works in the home. Essentially, the target of abuse is abused in some way - yelled at, for instance. Then, when the target begins to cry or complains that the yelling is wrong, the abuser tells them that it is the target's fault for making them yell. Boom - the target has been abused, then told the abuse is their fault, deepening the abuse. 

Some examples that come to mind from my own experience are: once, my little sister walked behind me while I was lying on the floor watching TV. As she passed, she kicked me in the small of my back. This hurt - a lot. I complained to my mother. Response? "I warned you that if you tormented her when she was little, she would pay you back when she grew up." First, my sister and I have talked about this. I never tormented her when we were growing up. That was a calculated remark on my mother's part. Second, this remark, made often, taught my sister that it was okay to kick or disrespect me and get into my things because mom said I had it coming. (My sister has grown out of that, thank God.) Another example was once when I was about 11, I asked my mother if I could make myself a bowl of ice cream. She said no in a very irritated way. I asked why and she slapped my mouth. Even now, when asked about it, she says, "Well, you must have been mouthing off for me to have to resort to that." Do you see what happened? In both cases, being kicked and being slapped were my fault - blame-shifting. 

The same idea applies when the abuser is a spouse. "It's your fault I hit you - yelled at you - belittled you - scared the crap out of you. You provoked me." Provoked how? For suggesting that they might be wrong, for heaven's sake...

This is how it works in an abusive church. You are taught how wonderful life can be if you do things the prescribed way (that is, their way). If you follow their instructions correctly, everything will be just great. Now, what do they do with people that have real problems - problems like a husband that is beating the crap out of them or their children or cheating on his wife? They blame-shift. If you were doing things right, these things wouldn't be happening to you. Some examples: if you would just submit to your husband more, he would not feel the need to beat you into submission. If you just pray more God will fix it. Here are some actual quotes from the pulpit of the church I was a part of:

"Hurting people hurt people." 
"Depression is a sin. If you're depressed, repent and get over it."
"If you say to yourself every day, 'My husband loves me. My husband loves me,' and really believe it, it will be true."

Let's look at each of these. First the one about submitting more and he won't beat you. HOW MUCH MORE SUBMITTED CAN YOU GET THAN LETTING HIM BEAT THE CRAP OUT OF YOU??!! It is criminal to send someone with fractured bones and bruises back to an abuser with the counsel that the abuse is their fault. That could get someone killed - not to mention giving the abuser a free pass to abuse whenever they want. It is also criminal to send a woman who is so emotionally beaten down that she doesn't even know she deserves better back to that, adding to her wonderful self-image that the fault for her abuse is hers. 

The next one - just pray more and God will fix it. Again, you're not doing it right - you're not praying enough - not praying in the right attitude not blah, blah, blah. Therefore, what can you expect until you get yourself in line. Again, criminal. 

Now for the phrase, "Hurting people hurt people." Our pastor said this from the pulpit often. He is an abuser - in the church and at home and . . . I actually saw this statement on a billboard yesterday. Grrr! This demeans the victim by excusing the abuser. It also demeans every person who, though abused and hurt, never resorted to using abuse. Besides, not all abusers where abused. Being abused is NOT AN EXCUSE!

Okay - next. Depression is a sin. Repent and get over it. Words fail me. That is the kind of statement that could send someone suffering from depression over the edge to suicide. Grr! again.

And the lovely one, "Tell yourself that your husbands love you and it will come true." This is like some kind of superstitious magic something that I can't even . . . aaahhh! So, your husband says, "I hate you. You disgust me," and you're supposed to smile and say to yourself, "my husband loves me." He punches you in the face and you're supposed to say, "my husband loves me." This is called D-E-L-U-S-I-O-N-A-L. This kind of advice can actually drive someone into a form of insanity - thinking black is white - good is evil.

The way this is used in the psychological community has been well covered by the blogs mentioned at the beginning of this post and I won't re-invent the wheel on that one - just recommend reading them yourself.

Now to the experience I had today. To set it up, I came out of an abusive church where I was a leader about 14 months ago. I was abused growing up by both of my parent - mostly emotionally, but occasional physical. My mother is - I believe - a malignant narcissist and my father just criticized and yelled and blah, blah, blah. I was also, growing up, sexually abused by an older cousin. I have been in therapy for about 4 months and have been working hard to get myself out of the hole I have spent my life in. Next step - getting a job and getting independent from family. So - off to Vocational Rehabilitation I go. This is a state agency whose purpose is to help people with disabilities (mental as well as physical) get the training and assistance they need to get and keep a job - a good one that makes enough for them to live on. Believe me, those who have been emotionally or physically abused are disabled. It is not a permanent disability if they get help and get out of the situation, but part of getting out of the situation includes being able to work and support yourself. So, voc rehab, here I come.

Now, I was a little nervous going in. I am gun-shy about talking to strangers about my problems. Those in my church were NOT helpful and treated me like I was trying to catch a disease and might already be contagious. So I follow the counselor into her office and the first thing she does is look at my application and say, "It says here that your disability is depression?" 

I nod. 

"Well," she says, "we are not here to provide medicine or counseling." 

Well, duh. But I am already in a defensive mode and this confuses me because my therapist said to come here for help in getting a job. I wasn't there for medicine or counseling - except job counseling. Then came questions about why I was depressed. Abuse. A ton of questions about the abuse. 

Then she looked at me with a look that dripped with condescension and said, "Grown-up adult women get out in the world and take care of themselves." 

I felt like I had been punched. By this time, I was already crying and shaking. And she implies that the abuse at home must not be too bad or I would get out. Bingo - shift the blame for the abuse to the victim. As she processed my paperwork, she continued to make comments along this line. Finally, she asked me how old my dad was . . . was he retired . . . yes . . . what did he do. Uh-oh. After all this - nearly an hour's worth, we discovered that she used to work with my dad - thought the world of him. She then suggested that his behavior was a "generational thing." WHAT?!?! Since when does someone's age give them a free pass to be abusive? Now, she is suddenly kindness itself - although I think, for a minute that I may end up trying to comfort her, she is so distraught over the fact that my dad would do that.

Mind you, I didn't realize this was what was going on at the time or I would have said something (I hope). I was in a state of confusion and fear - the kind abuse creates in it's victims. Like I said, I was crying through most of the interview and shaking through part of it. It was several hours later, after thinking about it, that I realized what had happened. I am glad I told her that this (her knowing my dad) created a conflict I was uncomfortable with and asked to be assigned another counselor.

When dealing with the victims of abuse IT IS NEVER OKAY TO TELL THEM THAT THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ABUSE. Don't shift the blame for abuse onto the one being abused. It is like telling a mugging victim that they are to blame for being mugged. It's like telling the family of a murder victim that the victim was to blame for their own death. It is wrong. It excuses evil. Period.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post....a LOT! I guess what helps me the most is to read your reality in the aftermath of the abuse. I, too, have been reading as much as I can about WHAT is is....HOW I can relate to it....and that is so helpful. But, the reality of my life now is full of fragmentation, inarticulation, depression, anxiety, and fear. While I DO trust God, I feel pretty damn worthless in the wake of all that has been. When one gives up their life in compounded increments for decades...well? We don't come out of it smoothly. Bravo for you....step by step....working through the 'basics'. Me, too! I am thinking that many of us are left uneducated, unskilled, socially isolated, and overwhelmed. Not a pretty picture. So....thank you for sharing so personally. It takes it to another reality which many of us need to that we don't feel so alone. Mind you..I'm not saying we have an excuse to sit on our butts and remain in a litany of 'woe is me' back and forth...but this IS part of the healing. It is a process...step by by day....prayer by prayer...choice by choice...and it takes TIME. We need all the support and validation we can find....and to give 'in kind' to our fellow sufferers. We might never get over certain hurdles but we sure can continue to move in the right directions. It's a lot, eh?

Anonymous said...

This is an 'add-on' to my first anonymous post from this morning.

I think what I was trying to say is that many of us had to leave the ONLY world we knew and were 'trained' to survive in. Some of us have no supportive husband, church, social network, job, extended family anymore. We left it. Now what? Even if it is the best thing we ever did..(leaving them)...there is still an ENORMOUS GAP. Perhaps we had given our WHOLE life (from a child) to the abusers...for whatever reason or excuse.....and feel pretty darn 'empty'. Not all of us have an education, job, supportive husband...or even good help us help ourselves. Most days, we don't even have the WORDS to describe what happened to us. All I can hope and pray for is that God creates SOMETHING out of this 'void'. I believe He can...and that He will. But, man! Any given day....any given moment...can be excruciating.

Barb said...

I spoke to a pastor the other day who told me that he gets a printout of the ones in his services who gave large amounts of money into the offering and then sends them a personal note of thanks. After a moment of speachlessness that this man would actually do this (it was done in my church and was being taught in the broader movement that I was in) I asked him how he could do this when a single mother could have given $20.00 and would have given so much more than the man who gave the $5,000 offering. Imediately, he turned it on to me and said that I was looking at it with wounded eyes because of the abuse that we had been through at our own group. I am so mad at myself for falling for this tactic again. I backed off and "tried to understand how I could be seeing it wrong."
When will I learn the game enough to stop the blame shifting and say "NO, JESUS SAID NOT TO DO THIS?" "It has noting to do with my hurt." This line absolves those who have been hurt to never be able to have an opinion on what is right or wrong.
The good news is that I am going to get good at their game and be able to stop the blame shifting and actually speak to the problem that is being addressed.

Katherine Gunn said...


Yeah. I think it is a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. I think it is more than we were taught was okay to take credit for. Moving in the direction of independence is the point. The movement may be bumpy - jerky - but it is movement and THAT is the point. I WISH I had told the counselor that I WAS doing something to get out of the situation - it was why I was in her office.

I grew up expecting that everything I felt and that happened was my fault. That is part of why blame-shifting by counseling professionals is so insidious. It reinforces that you deserve the abuse because it's your fault. It's what the abused are used to hearing from their abusers. It is criminal that the people they go to for help reinforce the abuse.

Barb -

Yeah. There were 'special offerings' where people gave in front of everyone and how much they gave was announced on the spot. Bleah. Getting the strength to stand up for yourself is a process. It doesn't happen overnight. That you see it is growth. I was aggravated that it took me a couple of hours to recognize what had happened in that counselor's office. BUT, I DID recognize it - the same day, even - and that is the point - is progress. I think those who have been abused have 'examined themselves' for flaws far more than most.

God bless and guide you - us - as we move further and further into freedom.

Anonymous said...

Yes, put the blame exactly where it belongs, on the ABUSER, not the abused. Anyone who has been/is being abused must stand up and say NO MORE, even just to themselves, if they're not ready to say it to their abusers. Work a plan to get out. It's amazing how many abusers are also cowards and will run when you stand up for yourself.

Thanks for another outstanding article. And thanks for making it personal, it helps a lot to know such a good writer can struggle with the same questions the rest of us have.

Katherine Gunn said...

Thank you. We do all struggle with the same questions. I may do a blog on that soon . . .

Tyler Dawn said...

Wow, that is RUDE (the woman at the vocational place).

Why do we do this to each other, why do we support shoving the pain down inside to fester instead of encouraging it out into the open with love? Wounds don't heal on the inside, they only fester.

Your family sounds too similar to mine, I was wincing as I read it.

Thanks for the post. It is good to have that uncomfortable feeling inside, means I still have garbage in there that needs to be dealt with.

Katherine Gunn said...

Tyler Dawn-
Yeah. Thanks, isn't it odd that even now, I wonder if I'm being 'too hard' on her?

And yes, that uncomfortable feeling inside - a form of fear. Yeah, the best thing is to look it in the face and deal with it. My aunt is at the place where she has said 'No more secrets!'

Danni said...

Sounds about right. She needs some job counseling herself! Good grief!

Barb - sounds like your pastor missed the bit in the Bible about the widow's mite. But she made honorable mention in the Bible! Woo-hoo!

-- Danni

Katherine Gunn said...


Yeah. I got a new counselor who is really nice - but is so overbooked she has only been able to see me about every 6 weeks... *shaking head*

lietofine said...

The other comment that I got a few times was "your parents love you and are doing the best they can". It took some time to let go of the anger over people I was close to refusing to see that it wasn't love. Even now sometimes I'm still not sure...should have feel sorry for my parents that they couldn't express their love in an appropriate way, or angry with them for the way the treated/treat me.

Katherine Gunn said...


Yeah, I still get the, "your parents love and did the best they could." I am at the place now where (mostly) I can say, "That may be true, but that doesn't mean they didn't hurt me and it doesn't mean it wasn't abuse."

I still have guilt twinges, though, wondering if I should be more forgiving or kinder. But I can't even talk with them about it. They will not go there. So... I have distanced myself. And that is a good thing. It is the only way I will be able to heal. After that, who knows.

lietofine said...

Hi Katherine, I get the guilty twinges too and sometimes even the hopeful twinges. I've distanced myself from my parents, but it's still hard to keep myself from falling back into the old rhythms of talking to them too often or something. Of course, my mom doesn't admit anything was ever wrong, but she is a little more careful at the moment because I hold a bargaining chip...grandchildren. And that in itself is sad too, I want my kids to know their grandparents, but I really don't want them to have to deal with my parents "stuff". Then again, I sometimes think I'm just being mean about it.

Sometimes I really want to go back to the people from my past (especially the ones who said something like "your parents love you and are doing the best they can") and try to make them see - things weren't right and it's not normal and why didn't you see it? And for the other kids I used to know, to be able to tell them I wasn't crazy and I wasn't willingly "joined at my mother's hip" and just because I had to do what she said it doesn't mean that I was/am her...I'm my own person now and I'm doing my best to be normal.

Katherine Gunn said...

I understand wanting to go back and try to make people see - ask them why they didn't do anything. I think that is a natural part of the anger coming out - and is normal. I can't speak for what is best for you. only you can know that. but I have had to drastically reduce contact with my parents for my sanity's sake. And I am doing better than I can remember. But I do not have children. That can make it hard. I pray that Papa give you wisdom and strength.

lietofine said...

Hi Katherine, While my emotions say I should go back to say things to people and make them understand, my rational mind always reminds me that it wouldn't do any good. To all of these people I will always be my mom's daughter and oh yeah, my mom was so great. I've pretty much left behind anyone that has to do with my mom because I just can't be a part of that anymore. I've also cut down contact with my parents a lot. It helps that I live 5 hours away from them. I see them every couple months and talk to them maybe once a week. Of course, anytime I see them there's a good month beforehand of trouble emotionally for me (mom starts calling more and more and tries to pick fights and stuff). I just haven't been able to convince myself to cut off all contact yet although I think about it quite often. After reading a few of the links you posted on Narcissism, I have a bit more understanding of what my mom starts doing and the different patterns. Sometimes I still think I just have to be more assertive and put my foot down a little more, but I never know if the effort it worth it. I don't think it'll make anything change. Oh well, we all deal with it the best we can and make the best decision we can for the moment.


Katherine Gunn said...

Hmm... I don't know if he effort will change your mom. Probably not. But it might help you. There is something about standing your ground that breaks down fear. And when we are no longer afraid of them, their antics don't wound as deeply. At least most of the time.

James said...

First thanks for the thread.

Blame shifting is something I also refer to as re-victimization. Like adding shame and pain on top of shame and pain.

When someone is first abused our instincts (defense) kick in and we react with a normal reaction of hurt and confusion. A victim might do many things some one at a time and/or all at once. They might complain stating to the abuser he/she has no right to abuse them. They might become confused and might say nothing or very little giving the victim time to think, “what just happen?” (Remember abuse doesn’t always come with a punch in the face, it can be silence or hidden in meaning) They may also attack themselves in defense or they might run away from the abuser. We call this the fight or flight reaction.

But when a victim is re-victimized when they tried to get support and/or help. This abuse can be worst yet for the victim. Whenever the victim is re-victimized they might become so confuse that they will start to feel “maybe it wasn’t so bad” or “maybe I as over reacting like my abuser told me”. It’s a know fact that if someone tells you, you look sick and then another person tells you the same thing you will start believing you are sick. Anyway, this no doubt does more damage because it set the victim up to become abused yet again and this time they might not react normally with their own defense instincts kicking in. In short what isn’t normal becomes normal and acceptable behavior to the victim by this Blame shifting/re-victimization.

Sometimes in re-victimization that victim tale is downplayed and/or dismissed in its entirety. The victim starts to believe and/or told that it is their fault or partly their fault and then the victim will do and say things so the abuser won’t abuse again. This process makes the victim walk on eggshells around their abuser.

Of course this never works and the abuser will abuse again. (ALWAYS) Abuse itself always comes in cycles. The cycle begins with the abuse then the abuser might display some regret (maybe) to the victim and/or some other type of emotional manipulation then peace for awhile and then the abuse happens again and then again and etc... But because of re-victimization this allows a cycle of abuse to continue until ether the abuser goes to prison victim leaves or the victim dies. One point of interest is the abuser “never” leaves unless the courts and law gets involved. Because of this re-victimization/Blame shifting the victim doesn’t get the support and help they needed to stop the abuse, in short the victim never gets the chance too.

This is way I believe re-victimization/Blame shifting can be an even worst kind of abuse then the abuse itself. Because it ignores the abuse hides it away and then allows the abuse to continue again and again.

Abuse starts with us and only we can end it.