“You can make a million excuses for the one who hurt you, but you’d still have to tend to the wound.”
Some people don’t like the word abuse, and I get it. In fact, I’ve been there. It’s really difficult to accept such a horrific label being used to describe what happened to you, especially if your pain was incited by those you love and trust. If these loved ones are parents, family, friends, or spiritual teachers, then you’re likely to feel even more reluctant to view their harmful behavior as abusive. The term abuse seems like such an overly simplistic term that it almost sounds slanderous.
Yet still, the wounds hurt, and the wounds need to be healed.
So how do you begin to make sense of what happened to you?
Was It Abuse? How Would I Know?
In my book, Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You, I discuss the question of whether or not what happened to someone could be categorized as abuse:
In seeking self-healing and self-protection, labeling abuse as abuse is not as crucial as recognizing harm as harm. Whether or not the harm you have suffered qualifies the relationship as abusive (or as merely dysfunctional or toxic) should not distract you from self-care in the form of healing and protecting the self from further harm. This is a particularly crucial point for those who feel as if they are slandering their parents or blaming loved ones for their suffering. Unfortunately, some survivors avoid healing and self-protection altogether due to their aversion to disrespecting parents, blaming others, and “playing victim.” Thus, in such cases, it is important that survivors do not focus on technical terms and labels and instead focus on their personal experiences and struggles. The latter focus opens the door to healing and subsequently maintaining their emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
Likewise, it is neither essential nor advisable for survivors to seek to “diagnose” an apparent abuser with a specific mental health disorder, irrespective of the abuser’s apparent symptoms. Nevertheless, labels such as abuse, dysfunction, and toxic relationships—as well as categories such as narcissistic personality disorder—are very helpful in finding relevant self-help literature and resources specific to survivors’ apparent circumstances. In this vein, specific terminology and labels can be viewed like a library’s categorization system: They merely point you to where you will find the information you need.
However, some people do not have a problem with labels per se. They simply do not understand what has actually occurred in their lives. Thus, they might ask: How do I know if the relationship with my parents or family is/was abusive or toxic? In cases of physical or sexual abuse, the abuse is rather obvious, but for verbal or emotional abuse, the harm and wounds are not so clear. In this case, it’s generally best to look at your own psychology and emotions to gauge if there is a problem.
As a general rule, when we are in a toxic or abusive relationship, our spirits alert us to danger. This alert happens whether the abuse is physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, or even spiritual. Signs of a “spirit alert” include an unnaturally heightened sense of any of the following on a consistent basis particularly whenever you are in the presence of the person: anxiety, fear, and the inability to relax or feel comfortable.
In this context, I use the term abuser to refer to the one inciting the negative feeling, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Generally speaking, however, abusers take deliberate steps to incite anxiety, fear, and discomfort in the victim, as this is how they ensure that the power dynamics remain in their favor. Nevertheless, it is relevant to note that these negative feelings can occur in non-abusive relationships, wherein the “abuser” is merely extremely intimidating to the “victim” for some unknown reason, but due to no fault of his or her own. This dynamic might occur due to the survivor being consistently triggered by the presence of the intimidating person because he or she reminds the survivor (even if unconsciously) of a previous abuser. Either way, when the negative reaction is severe and consistent, the relationship is most likely toxic at the very least.
Regarding knowing whether or not we are dealing with an abusive relationship: When the period of mental calm or feeling of emotional safety is the exception and not the rule, then we are most likely dealing with an abusive, toxic, or dysfunctional relationship. I reflect on this concept in my book Pain. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah:
If you have a relationship with someone, and every time you have a good conversation or interaction, you exhale in relief, saying “Whew! That went well.” Then there’s something deeply wrong or toxic in that relationship. Healthy bonds are, for the most part, effortless and enriching, at least as far as daily psychology is concerned.
If you experience apprehension, anxiety, or fear each time you speak to or are in the presence of someone, then the relationship is likely unhealthy and toxic. In these harmful connections, there is no such thing as a “good” conversation or interaction. There are only the intermittent (and surprising) pauses in the consistently bad. So you must find a way to improve the relationship or limit your interactions with the person—or remove yourself from the relationship altogether.
God has made the earth spacious for a reason. Move on (2016, p. 21).
The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists
In the book The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, author Eleanor Payson gives a list of questions that help identify whether or not the person the reader is involved with has narcissistic personality disorder. She suggests that focusing on one’s own feelings is more helpful in making this determination than analyzing the behavior of the potential narcissist himself or herself. She asks:
- Do you frequently feel as if you exist to listen to or admire his or her special talents and sensitivities?
- Do you frequently feel hurt or annoyed that you do not get your turn and, if you do, the interest and quality of attention is significantly less than the kind of attention you give?
- Do you sense an intense degree of pride in this person or feel reluctant to offer your opinions when you know they will differ from his or hers?
- Do you often feel that the quality of your whole interaction will depend upon the kind of mood he or she is in?
- Do you feel controlled by this person?
- Are you afraid of upsetting him or her for fear of being cut off or retaliated against?
- Do you have difficulty saying no?
- Are you exhausted from the kind of energy drain or worry that this relationship causes you?
- Have you begun to feel lonely in the relationship?
- Do you often wonder where you stand in the relationship?
- Are you in constant doubt about what’s real?
- Are you reluctant to let go of this relationship due to a strong sense of protectiveness?
- Are you staying in the relationship because of your investment of time and energy?
- Do you stay because you say to yourself the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know? (2008, pp. 8-9).
Humor, Exaggerated Praise, and Narcissism Cover Abuse
“I will no longer allow anyone to manipulate my mind and control my life in the name of love.”—Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
In my book, Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You, I go on to discuss further signs of abusive, toxic, and dysfunctional relationships:
Sometimes the clearest signs that the relationship with one’s parents or family is abusive, toxic, or dysfunctional occur outside the context of the relationship itself. Oftentimes sufferers are so accustomed to the abuse and toxicity that they are not even consciously processing the anxiety and fear that they feel around parents and family. Or worse, the sufferers have grown so accustomed to the abuse that they now behave abusively toward other family members. Naturally, both groups—those who continue to be victims and those who have become abusers themselves—are aware of consistent family problems or squabbles, but they do not understand the gravity of the dysfunction and harm that is occurring at the root of them.
In abusive, toxic, and dysfunctional families, humor is often employed to make light of terrifying memories or of the expectation of explosive episodes by the abusive parent or family member. Statements that allude to this fear are often phrased as jokes instead of direct admittance of the severe anxiety that the person actually feels: “Remember when I pissed my pants when Dad walked in!” or “I couldn’t walk for days after Mom gave me that beating!” or “You know I can only handle talking to them once a year, or else I have to up my meds!”
While these humorous statements may be intentionally hyperbolic in healthy families, they are thinly masked confessions of genuine fear and anxiety in abusive families. Additionally, abusive and dysfunctional families that carry a respectable public image and/or a generational family legacy—whether due to political, religious, or socioeconomic standing—often operate in primarily two family narratives: 1. joking about, dismissing, or denying serious problems or incidents of abuse, and 2. speaking excessively about the greatness and superiority of their parents, family, social status, and legacy. When a problem becomes so obvious that it must be addressed, it is almost always discussed in the context of the second narrative such that it achieves the goal of the first.
In other words, problems such as a parent inflicting severe harm on a child can only be addressed while at the same time emphasizing the parents’ superior wisdom, knowledge, and standing in the family and community. This approach implies that the problem had to be handled in such a severe manner because the parents had their reputation and image to consider; that the child was so evil that he or she forced the parents to react as they did; or that the problem is insignificant in light of what families with “real problems” or “lowly status” go through. In all three explanations, the actual problem is effectively dismissed or denied.
Survivors who come from families that protect their positive image at any cost—even at the cost of the children’s mental and emotional health—often internalize these narcissistic views of themselves and their families. Consequently, their own admiration for their parents and family may prevent them from processing their true feelings while they are in the presence of parents and family. If family gatherings generally include laughter and joking (or drinking and partying), which serve to mask fear and anxiety, it is easy for the survivor to assume that “family times” are generally “fun times.”
Nevertheless, the suffering of the spirit demands to be acknowledged. Thus, the signs of abuse will likely manifest themselves in other areas of the survivor’s life. These survivors are often plagued with social anxiety, trust issues, and the constant fear that something will go wrong even when everything appears to be going well. When they face personal problems and fears (as all humans do), they generally do not confide in even other family members or seek their help (at least not without trivializing their requests for assistance). Oddly, they feel they must keep up the façade of perfection and excellence even in front of their own family members.
Complex PTSD in Children of Abuse
To the world, many adult children of narcissistic abusive family systems are successful, intelligent, and overachievers, but they often suffer from complex PTSD (CPTSD), as author Pete Walker describes in his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma:
Recurring abuse and neglect habituates children to living in fear and sympathetic nervous system arousal. It makes them easily triggerable into the abandonment mélange of overwhelming fear and shame that tangles up with the depressed feelings of being abandoned.
A child, with parents who are unable or unwilling to provide safe enough attachment, has no one to whom she can bring her whole developing self. No one is there for reflection, validation and guidance. No one is safe enough to go to for comfort or help in times of trouble. There is no one to cry to, to protest unfairness to, and to seek compassion from for hurts, mistakes, accidents, and betrayals. No one is safe enough to shine with, to do “show and tell” with, and to be reflected as a subject of pride. There is no one to even practice the all-important intimacy-building skills of conversation.
In the paraphrased words of more than one of my clients: “Talking to Mom was like giving ammunition to the enemy. Anything I said could and would be used against me. No wonder, people always tell me that I don’t seem to have much to say for myself.”
Those with CPTSD-spawned attachment disorders never learn the communication skills that engender closeness and a sense of belonging. When it comes to relating, they are often plagued by debilitating social anxiety—and social phobia when they are at the severe end of the continuum of CPTSD (Walker, 2013).
The Tragedy of Unhealed Wounds
In my book Pain. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah, I reflect on the harms of avoiding healing one’s wounds out of fear of wronging parents, family, and other loved ones:
Many Muslims do not seek healing from childhood wounds because they think that to do so is blaming their parents. In this, they are like ones struck by accidental gunfire, but they refuse treatment because the person didn’t intend to harm them. So the wound festers until even those around them suffer, as the person remains in pain and agony while refusing any means of treatment.
When asked about their pain or illness, they respond by speaking of the good traits of the one who inflicted it, imagining that this makes them pious and “respectful.” But they eventually die from health complications incited by an infected, untreated wound. They thereby leave behind no legacy except learned helplessness and the “honor” of harming the self in the name of piety.
And here is the tragedy. Muslims, African-Americans, and other oppressed groups learn that suffering is something they must endure “for the greater good.” So private abuses and traumas are kept quiet so as to not upset or disrupt an already fragile reputation and tenuous image.
You don’t cry out when you’re in pain, and you don’t seek outside help when you need it, because this (you’ve come to understand) is itself a crime. And what right do you have, sufferers ask themselves, to commit a “crime” while seeking healing from another?
Heal Your Wounds and Don’t Feel Guilty
No, you don’t have to put the label of abuse on the emotional pain you are feeling. But you do need to address the pain itself. And no, you don’t have to blame anyone as you seek healing, even if the pain was incited by a specific individual or group of people. But it is important that you seek healing.
And self-care is nothing to feel guilty about.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Her latest novel His Other Wife is now a short film.
Copyright © 2017 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.
Payson, E. (2008) The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists. Royal Oak, MI: Julian Day Publications.
Walker, P. (2013) Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma. An Azue Coyote Book. Kindle. Retrieved from Amazon.com.