“There are far too many silent sufferers. Not because they don’t yearn to reach out, but because they’ve tried and found no one who cares.” — Richelle E. Goodrich
People’s definition of ‘abuse’ varies, but all of us have experienced abuse at one point or another. For example, bullying, physical attacks, intimidation, neglect, emotional manipulation, verbal abuse, ganging up, triangulation, character assassination, etc., are all common and typical forms of abuse. People experience abuse in their relationships with their parents, siblings, other family members, teachers, peers, classmates, coworkers, friends, acquaintances, romantic partners, neighbors—anybody, really.
Many people listening to victims wonder, “If it was so bad, then why didn’t you say something?” Or, “If it actually happened, you wouldn’t have stayed silent for so long.” The truth is, however, that many people hide their abusive experiences from others.
In this article we will explore the reasons why people stay silent and hide their abusive experiences, and why they sometimes even dissociate and deny that the abuse was just that, abuse.
In our society, so much of what should be openly considered abuse is normalized. Narcissistic behavior is normalized as “competition” or “high self-esteem,” physical abuse of children as “discipline,” neglect as “character building,” intimidation as “being assertive,” triangulation as “seeking support,” character assassination as “telling the truth,” bullying as “just joking,” gaslighting as “just my side of the story” or “alternative facts/truth,” and so on.
So, when people say that they’ve been abused, their experiences are not recognized as traumatic. Many instances of abuse are simply brushed off as “normal,” which makes the person feel even more invalidated and traumatized.
Minimization is closely related to normalization, where the abuse is kind of, sort of, maybe recognized, but not really. Bullying is a common example. Even if the authority figure recognizes that the child has been bullied, nothing really happens, or it may even get worse because the child has to go to the same toxic environment the next day. And if the abuser is in the family, especially if they’re a primary caregiver, the child has to continue to live with them for years.
Many victims of abuse internalize the blame and responsibility for the abuse and unconsciously or even consciously think it’s their fault that it happened. In other words, that they deserved it, at least to some degree. Moreover, many victims, for example sexual abuse victims, feel dirty, violated, broken, defective, unworthy of love, of empathy, or even of existing.
A lot of people feel ashamed of their experiences. They don’t want to bring it to light and let others know about it, especially when they believe that it was their own fault or knowing that our society tends to normalize and minimize it.
People who have suffered abuse are usually afraid of talking about their experiences because they are afraid of what will happen if they do. Sometimes the fears are exaggerated, but they are often very real.
For example, children are frequently in a position where they are dependent on others, so they are unable to protect themselves or remove themselves from their abusive environment, whether their school, neighborhood, family, or all of it.
As adults, being abused by your boss or a colleague, or someone who has a lot of power and influence over you is extremely difficult to tell others about. Even when there is enough evidence, sometimes things don’t go the right way and the perpetrator can get away with it without any or with minimal consequences. Then they may retaliate—just like a bully in school who gets punished with detention or being grounded and then you have to face them the next day.
5. Isolation, Betrayal, and Lack of Support
Many abuse victims don’t talk about being abused because they don’t have anybody who would listen. Either they are lonely and isolated, or they are dependent on their abusers.
When a person decides to come forward and talk about their hurts, they may not be taken seriously, which leads to feeling betrayed either by an individual person, by the justice system, or by our society.
Men, for instance, may not be taken seriously when they try to talk about being abused, even by the police. It is not commonly accepted in our society that women can be abusers. Consequently, when men who have been abused seek help, they are laughed at and never receive justice or the support required to heal. Or they are told that men can’t be sexually assaulted, that it’s conceptually impossible. Here we have female teachers sexually abusing boys or women raping men, but many people think it’s okay or even funny, or that the victim wanted it, or that it’s a good, positive experience.
Women and girls face similar problems and other social issues where many victims are female and most violent abusers are men. We live in a world where men hold most of the power in society and more often than not have more resources.
Then there is all the hoop-jumping that is the legal justice system, and the fact that the perpetrators tend to shamelessly lie about everything or threaten the aggrieved party, all of which may leave you drained emotionally, physically, and financially.
And, sadly, many people who seek therapy, regardless of their age, gender, location, social status, and similar factors are often betrayed and invalidated by their therapist, the person who is supposed to help them overcome their hurts and be on their side.
Summary and Final Thoughts
Abuse and trauma are common experiences that everyone relates to, at least to some degree. However, talking about it, and especially seeking justice, can be complicated and challenging. We live in a broken society where abuse is normalized, played down, or invalidated, and the abuse victim is isolated, betrayed, or afraid of the consequences of their just, brave, and necessary actions. Even the very people who are supposedly there to protect us and help us, such as parents, family members, therapists, only make things worse so we end up feeling even more isolated and betrayed.
As I write in the book Human Development and Trauma:
“In most cases, society denies children the right to talk about the abuse that they have endured. This continues into adulthood due to people fearing others’ reactions. After all, people who speak of being abused are regularly mocked, minimized, condemned, or shunned outright. Alternately, they may be met with arguments that justify their abusers’ behavior—or just met with incomprehension.”
It’s also important to remember that trauma is not a competition of who has it worse or better. All abuse is abuse, and all trauma is trauma. It’s important to recognize that our societal structures are messed up for everybody, and that everyone deserves validation and justice.