Abuse Victims and Dissonance
Abuse victims often experience “cognitive dissonance.” That is, they witness behaviors appearing to make no sense. So, naturally, they try to make sense of things. They just want to reduce the pain associated with dissonance. But in trying too hard to understand, they inadvertently perpetuate more victimization.
The Unfortunate Legacy of Traditional Psychology
Some theories of human behavior have been around a long time. And one of the more dominant theories is that deep wounds, insecurities, fears, etc., cause us to do the hurtful things we do. This theory also asserts that we’re largely unaware these underlying motives. Now, such a theory has its place. It even has validity in some situations. But every theory has its limitations. And, unfortunately, holding traditional perspectives can be very dangerous for an abuse victim.
The abuse victims I’ve worked with all had the same initial question: Why?. Why does he (she) treat me this way? What’s going on inside her (him) to make him (her) do these things? And I’ve found these abuse victims to entertain the same fatal fantasies. If they could only figure out what makes their abuser “act out” they might be able to fix things. Moreover, if they could just get their abuser to see what’s really going on inside, perhaps they’d stop abusing. Traditional psychology taught them to think this way. It taught them to look for root causes. Unfortunately, in so doing the theory contributed to their victimization.
The Perils of Trying too Hard to Understand
When we try too hard to understand we inadvertently revoke the power we have. We have power to choose and to act. And we can observe and evaluate behavior. Moreover, we have the power to set limits and enforce boundaries. Try as we may, we can’t control others. And when we try, we only waste precious energy. That’s why it’s so important to direct our energy where we have power. We can judge behavior on its own merits and take appropriate action in response.
A woman once told me her boyfriend didn’t really seem to match the profile of an “abuser.” He only got physical once, and that was because he was drunk. And he wasn’t generally abusive with his words. In fact, she found him witty and charming most of the time. But all that would change when he lost his temper. But that only happened when he was “really stressed” or had been drinking. So, she just knew that if they could both just understand what was “really bothering him,” things would change. Clearly, however, her strategy wasn’t working.
A Different Perspective
This woman and I began focusing only on behavior. When things don’t go his way, he lashes out. He calls her names and says other hateful things. He throws and breaks things. And he rarely apologizes. Moreover, when he does, he still insinuates others are really to blame. All his behaviors worsen when he drinks. But he finds no reason to curtail his drinking. Still, her big question in the beginning was “why?”. My answer took her aback. “It doesn’t matter,” I asserted. “Besides,” I inquired, “whose responsibility is it to understand and fix these problem behaviors, anyway?” This question really piqued her interest.
True, I wrote my 4 books so folks could better understand the nature of character disturbance. But understanding doesn’t itself bring empowerment. Only taking action empowers. You can set limits on certain kinds of behaviors. And you can take self-protective action when someone crosses a critical boundary. When it comes to destructive behaviors and the “stinking thinking” prompting them, it doesn’t matter why. You have to judge behavior on it’s own merits. And you have to regard past behavior as the best predictor of future behavior. That will help you take proper action.
I’d like to give all the victims and would-be victims out there the same message. Stop wondering whether it’s his (her) ADHD, past trauma, fear of abandonment, etc.. You don’t need to understand what’s prompting a maladaptive behavior to correct it. Besides, the best insight comes with correcting behavior first and experiencing the consequences. (I’ll have more to say about this in future posts.) And perhaps most importantly, remember where the burden for changing problem behavior lies: on the person exhibiting it.
Two different producers have fashioned brand new videos for America, My Home! Check them out on the song’s page. This song opens and closes my Character Matters program. (The program will air live Sunday, May 6, 2018.) And you can hear the song in its entirety Memorial Day weekend.
Look for more workshop dates soon on the Seminars page.