Sexual harassment, domestic violence, school bullying and child molestation share two notably powerful ingredients: the layered effect of Covert Emotional Abuse and Double Abuse.
Covert Emotional Abuse has many layers. It is confusing and easy to deny. Those who employ it, unconsciously or knowingly take steps to avoid being caught. Rewriting history is one way they step out of the story. Practicing oneupsmanship, causing others to feel inferior and reversing blame, shifting guilt onto the innocent, allows them to feel little or no guilt themselves.
Covert abusive behaviors serve as way of life for perpetrators who don’t know how to relate authentically. They know only how to power over and hide. Covert behaviors can also be inadvertent, but those with good conscience, when confronted, are able to tolerate their own defenses and respond with an eagerness to change. Perpetrators however, will scapegoat victims to cause others to join in. They may do a molehill of good to cover up a mountain of bad managing their own denial as well as their public image. This all has a tremendous gas lighting effect that causes victims to doubt their own reality and memory.
Any single covert behavior, when repeated in a pattern, is lethal to a relationship. Multiple behaviors are exponentially more confusing, which is why covert emotional abuse is so powerful. Further, the longer it takes to name and define the abuse, the longer the victims remain in ‘stressful states of confusion.’ They develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which further diminishes their ability to communicate and think.
Let’s look at a seemingly benign example of how such abuse can find an early opportunity to occur. Just before the holidays, your child comes to you and quietly says, “Mom, I don’t like Uncle so and so.” You reply, “Honey, just try to be nice. Give him a hug. You only have to see him once or twice a year.” What more might the child be trying to tell you? When we minimize, deflect, or shut down the conversation, especially in the developing child, we not only miss finding out more, we don’t help the child to feel secure in their value or in their environment and the opportunity to validate correct discernment (a necessary life skill a child needs adult affirmation to attain) is lost. In the long run, ‘minimization’ can inadvertently groom a child to become a victim.
The Layered Effect of Double Abuse
What I (2015) have named “Double Abuse” occurs when victims, young or old, try to speak about their experience, or reach out for help, but then, rather than being believed, victims are criticized, minimized or even ostracized from family, church, or professional communities.
Tragically, suicide is the third leading cause of death in children, many originating from some form of bullying. When I read numerous stories more closely, it was the Double Abuse, intentional or inadvertent, that tipped the scale. In some cases, the parent inadvertently did not handle it correctly. In others, the child was in a violent household or told to ignore the schoolyard problem. There were teachers who lied to cover up their poor supervision and principals who were indifferent or refused to intervene. What each case had in common was layers of Covert and Double Abuse.
We are currently learning intimate details in media headlines about sexual harassment. Again and again we hear, “She was afraid to come forward because she did not want to lose her job.” What is missing in press accounts is a much larger concern than the relocation of one’s job. The victim instinctively knows that she risks loosing something much greater; the support of friends, the support of her family, and that her entire professional community may ostracize her. Telling, will be far more traumatizing than staying silent. The same is true in child molestation.
At the precise moment when these Double Abuse responses occur, PTSD exacerbates into Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, CPTSD. In the developmentally aged child, it is far worse. That is why there is a proposed new diagnostic term to upgrade CPTSD in children ages 0-12 to Developmental Trauma Disorder, (DTD).
Double Abuse causes ‘learned hopelessness,’ CPTSD, DTD and emotional and physiological collapse. It leads to serious, yet sometimes unexplained medical illnesses and, to desperation, depression, having to live a “false life” of appearing okay (even successful), when the victim is actually suffering “unspeakably.” What lie ahead in these traumatic circumstances is isolation, mental illness, shame of the past, and overwhelming fear of the future.
In my research interviewing initially more than fifty victim survivors, it became overwhelmingly apparent that clarity was the first step that leads to their empowerment and healing. The MEND Project website’s glossary of terms was created for this reason, to give names to experiences.
Since we are all first responders at numerous points in our lives, and are often expected to embody knowledge beyond our experience, how might we mitigate doing further harm? I developed a simple “Healing Model of Compassion” that anyone can follow. It’s available in detail at The MEND Project, www.themendproject.com. In brief, first, we listen, over and over without expectations or demands. We accept the story without doubt. We empathize. We validate feelings, including a right to be angry. We identify by offering a short personal example and without hijacking the conversation. We ask, “How can I help?” as we encourage them to keep processing. When a victim has a high expectation that a first responder with an academic degree or title will insure a compassionate and expert response the greater the fall into traumatic injury when the opposite occurs. Further, it is not helpful to over confront victims, nor is it kind to delay their process by under informing them. By simply knowing how to ‘do’ compassion well, we might change the trajectory of a life. (Information on our website is downloadable in PDF format for free).
Two sample definitions from The MEND Project glossary.
Defensive Deflections-the perpetrator refuses to authentically communicate, instead establishes what can be discussed, withholds information, changes the topic, invents a false argument in another area, all of which stonewalls resolution and scapegoats the victim.
Gas Lighting– Perpetrators alter or deny a shared experience or reality so that victims feel they are wrong in their perceptions. They are told that their reality is imaginary or inaccurate. This activity inspires feelings of confusion, craziness, isolation and hopelessness.
Annette Oltmans is the Principal Founder of The MEND Project; a 501c3 organization that seeks to educate, equip and restore those impacted by primary and Double Abuse. She is a survivor and philanthropist. Her research on child abuse, domestic violence, and especially the traumatic consequences of Double Abuse has propelled her heart for compassionate advocacy and accountability. Annette is certified in batters prevention and victim advocacy. She is a speaker and trainer, working with churches, NGOs and educators. She is a member of the advisory board for Boone Center for the Family at Pepperdine University, an organization that seeks to strengthen marriages and relationships. Annette believes we are all first responders at some point in our lives therefore her passion is to raise awareness, equipping the public to respond more compassionately and to avoid doing further harm. She has been married to her husband Joe, for twenty years. They have a blended family of four children and eight grandchildren. They live in Southern California.