I am almost 25 years old, and the life I have lived thus far has been characterised throughout by abuse. The form of this abuse has changed over the years, often splitting up into multiple incarnations which become a presence in one’s life all at the same time, like unwanted neighbours. Yet abuse is the most constant theme in my life. It is abuse that has been with me ever since I can remember; my politics have changed over the years. My aesthetic has evolved and shifted and regressed. My interests have fluctuated and broadened and narrowed. But the abuse has never gone away.
A phrase I hate more than any other, I think, is “you should be ashamed of yourself.”
The reason I dislike this phrase is because there is a big, and extremely important, difference between guilt and shame. Guilt, as I understand it, is about feeling bad for something you did. Shame, on the other hand, is feeling bad about who you are.
Guilt can be a healthy thing to feel. It’s a sign of taking responsibilities for the things you have done wrong. Shame, on the other hand, fragments your sense of self, and implies that the only thing you can do to make things right is to be a complete different person.
As a child, I was always made to feel shame about who I was. No amount of good deeds could ever get me any sort of approval in the eyes of my parents. Had my parents not been insane tyrants, perhaps I would have developed a healthy ability to feel guilt for my wrong doings. If a child does wrong, we encourage them to “think about what they’ve done,” not think about “who they are.” We use guilt as a means of teaching life lessons. If shame is used instead, we end up with an adult who simply hates themselves.
I think the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is about actions, and shame is about identity. If someone is guilty, it’s for the things they do, whereas shame is felt for who, or what, you are. Think about it linguistically – I feel guilty for saying that is a very different statement from “you should be ashamed of yourself.” You can make amends for actions, it’s very hard to make amends for who you are without no longer being you.
I’ve been involved in a number of abusive relationships in my life, and I can usually tell the relationship is abusive because I sudden feel awful for being me. Not for what I do, but I feel bad because the core of my being was simply not good enough for people who mattered to me. My parents were a good example of this – because of my lack of religious belief (a fairly important aspect of who I am) I was not really their son. I was an imposter. I lacked personhood in their eyes. In a desperate bid to get them to care about me, I even considered pretending to find my faith again, just so I could have a place to call home. Of course, if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have been me. I certainly, rightly, feel guilt about some of the things I said to my parents when I was growing up. But should I have felt shame for who I was? No.
Abuse of trust and dishonesty
We hold close people we believe that we can trust. Our partners, girlfriends, boyfriends, best friends, housemates, mothers, fathers, siblings are some of the kinds of people, and by extension the kinds of relationships, we hold close. We bring these people close to use because we place our trust in them, and when that trust is misplaced, it is a form of abuse.
For instance – we presume that our parents will provide certain things that we need – nurture, safety, security, validation, and love. So sure are we in this presumption, that we are shocked when parents do not provide these. When they, like my parents, provide scorn instead of nurture, instability instead of safety, fear instead of security, contempt instead of validation, and insanity in the place of love. Children are meant to trust that their parents will provide these things, and when they do not, the ramifications can be left for years, decades even, afterwards.
Dishonesty is another form of abuse in these close relationships. If we draw someone close to us, we want them to be honest with us, especially if we are honest with them. Far too many of the incidents of abuse I have experienced have come from those close to be simply not being honest with me. Sometimes they lied directly. Other times lies were by omission, or implication. It doesn’t really matter in the long run. Dishonesty on the part of those close to us is abuse, without excuse.
Dishonesty, especially that one the part of someone close to you, can scar you deeply, and also firmly change the way you interact with others. I was recently romantically involved with someone who became increasingly dishonest. Their dishonesty was one of omission. We began to have an open relationship, predicated on the agreement that we would share all the details of our interactions with others. A few week after that, they told me they’d met someone, which was fine, but strongly implied that nothing had happened. A few weeks after that, I found out that they had in fact slept with this person. I found this out during a drinking game at a friends party. My then partner used this opportunity to tell me something she should have said long before. I, rather foolishly, forgave them for it, and hoped they would realise how much that had hurt me and never treat me like that again, never make me feel as humiliated or betrayed again. Sadly, that was just the first in a series of lies by omission. To this day, I find it hard to trust others.
Denying nurture, warmth and safety.
What, ultimately, do we want from the people closest to us, the ones most likely to abuse us? Why do we seek out close relationships with other people? It’s not simply for company. We want the people close to us to provide for us nurture, warmth, and safety. We wouldn’t want friends or partners or families who don’t provide these things.
Yet more often than not situations of abuse can arise when we are in relationships which should provide us with nurture, warmth and safety, and do not. Often, this can be unintentional. We take people for granted, neglect them all the time without really thinking about it. Intention can come into it, though its debatable to what extent.
What do I mean by denying safety? I’m not just envisaging it as parental safety, if you like, but as an act or series of actions that makes someone feel uncertain, always on the back foot, on edge, around you. I’ll give you an example. I used to be close to someone who had a habit of finding reason to blame others for everything. For example, if someone called them out on their behaviour, they would immediately come up with a reason for it being the other person’s fault. Several times, I would confront this person about things they had said or done which had been hurtful, only to find out that it was, in fact my fault. I was too depressed, I was too needy, I was the route cause of their behaviour. They were acting reasonably and I was not. It got to the extent that, through a combination of this deflecting behaviour, and this person’s quite aggressive temperament, that I simply stopped telling them when they upset me. I kept my mouth firmly shut. I hoped, rather naively that if I gave them spaces they would eventually realise that their behaviour was harming me, they would have an epiphany moment and change. It never happened.
Macro and micro abuse.
The point I’m trying to get at is this: we live in a society structured around abuse as a form of a oppression. Society abuses women; it abuses people of color; it abuses non-binary and trans folk; it abuses disabled people; it is structured in such a way that certain people are forced to the bottom of the social strata and then subject to appalling institutional abuse. How else can we account for the number of murders of trans people of colour? Or the systemic racism in the American police force? Or the idiocy of countries like Ireland where an abortion can land you in jail? We live in an institutionally abusive society, and that is tragic.
But I must add this other, more sobering fact, which is this – while on a macro level, white, heterosexual, cisgender men are immune from societal abuse, on a micro level, anyone can abuse anyone. This is not a culture as such, or a society – it’s just a fact of relationship. On an interpersonal level, white people abuse people of colour who abuse white people who abuse other white people. Being part of a marginalised group means you are a target of macro abuse, but it does not, in anyway, prevent you of being a perpetrator of interpersonal abuse. On an institutional level, my mother, a disabled woman of colour, cannot be an abuser. On a micro level, she tried to murder me. These two realities co-exist, and being a member of a particular category does not exempt you from trying to treat your fellow human beings with love, care and respect. We’re a society of abusers and abused, and sadly, those can be the same people.