Abuse can take many forms, ranging from violent and life-threatening to subtle — sometimes so subtle that even the target barely notices it.
No type of abuse is “better” or “worse” — indeed, any situation where a person (man or woman) uses their power to control or hurt another person can create deep wounds and lasting scars. Sometimes, these get handed down for several generations.
What can we do when we experience abuse? Common coping strategies include: Hide and feel ashamed. Appease and enable the abuser. Pray. Make ourselves small. Deny and look away. Stuff down our emotions and build protective walls around ourselves. Use work, alcohol, drugs, food, exercise or other “oholisms” to help us zone out. Hope time will take care of it.
Alas, such strategies bring but temporary relief, and sometimes create even greater problems like addiction, depression and various stress-related disease states. So instead, we must summon our courage and begin to live in truth with ourselves and with others.
Living in truth
First, it’s important to recognize the offending behavior as unacceptable. That’s not always easy because many destructive behavior patterns are socially sanctioned. In many instances, we have endured these behaviors for so long that they have become part of our normality.
Next (assuming we are autonomous adults), we must recognize that we may be perpetuating the abuse by using the above-mentioned coping strategies, which may offer short-term pain relief, but no long-term cure. There are many “good reasons” for collusion, and I’m the first to admit that for more years than I care to remember, I accepted unacceptable behavior from romantic partners, bosses, business partners, friends and family members. (More on this in future posts.)
Taking responsibility for participating in unhealthy relationship patterns can bring up scary feelings: Shame, fear, regret, more shame, confusion, self-blame, self-doubt, and loneliness. This can be so painful that we run back to our comfort zone (our abuse-enabling coping strategies; see above), even though it’s increasingly becoming a “discomfort zone.” Because once you finally see the truth, there’s no going back.
Third step: Talk about it — with a trusted friend, a caring relative, a therapist, at a support group or spiritual retreat. If you don’t know a person you can entrust with your truth, start by journaling daily. Speaking our truth can help us see that we are not unique in our suffering, and that many others have had similar — or similarly painful — experiences. And just like that, we lift the veil of shame and create nurturing, uplifting connections.
Now we are ready to start making real changes: Setting boundaries, taking better care of ourselves, confronting our abusers, ending relationships that cannot be salvaged and replacing them with healthier relationships.
None of this happens overnight, but every little step can help lessen the pain and heal the wounds.
Their time is up
This brings us to Oprah, who said this in her powerful Golden Globes speech tonight: “… what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. …
“But it’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace. So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.
“And there’s someone else, Recy Taylor, a name I know and I think you should know, too. In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and mother walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped, and left blindfolded by the side of the road coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice. But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted. Recy Taylor died ten days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.
“Their time is up. And I just hope—I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on. It was somewhere in Rosa Parks’ heart almost 11 years later, when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery, and it’s here with every woman who chooses to say, “Me too.” And every man—every man who chooses to listen.
“In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome. I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”
Thank you, Oprah.