In my last article I wrote about the power of public shame and humiliation in turning around an abuser’s behavior and though I mentioned that it “may seem politically incorrect, immature or unprofessional” to impose, I thought I should talk a little more about that for anyone who might disagree with this course of action.
Context is everything so before we go forward, let’s take a step back to evaluate the bigger picture.
The Victorian Era (late 1800s – 1900) was a point in time where it was considered provocative and scandalous for a woman to bare her ankles in public. It was the 1980s when I heard this and my immediate thought was “Really?” because the contrast between “then and now” was so drastic. If it was considered obscene for a girl to show her ankles, what would they have thought about the girls who were running around with their bras on the outside of their clothes thanks to Madonna? Just a few years earlier if your bra strap accidentally showed, it was cause for embarrassment and gossip – a few years later and an exposed bra strap meant absolutely nothing.
And speaking of Madonna – does anyone remember how Madonna was considered THE standard for “pushing the envelope” on sexuality? Compare her to some of today’s celebrities and she was just being flirtatiously modest! The point is, we’ve gone from embarrassment over an exposed ankle to no shame over an exposed thong in a little over 100 years and like the clothes of the past, shame and humiliation have generally become outdated. An abusive situation appears to be the only context left where shame, embarrassment and humiliation can exist because it seems to have “gone out of style” and become irrelevant every place else.
For victims of domestic violence shame, embarrassment and humiliation are almost constant, unwelcomed companions that work with her abuser to keep her from asking for assistance, sharing the truth with those who could support and help her and from leaving him. Abusers are quick to use and have no problem in shaming and humiliating their victims because it works and it’s no skin off their nose – THEY’RE not the ones squirming in the hot-seat. Because abusers have no empathy for their victims their victim’s suffering means absolutely nothing to them – her suffering is not his problem.
If an abuser “can’t relate” to the shame, embarrassment and humiliation he’s caused, perhaps letting him “walk a mile” in her shoes might provide him with some perspective on how bad it actually is. Interestingly enough, those who know how powerful shame, embarrassment and humiliation are seem reluctant to impose it on an abuser because it would be “inhumane” yet at the same time, these same people view a victim-survivor’s shame and embarrassment as inconsequential; the double standard is often hard to ignore once it’s noticed.
Victim-survivors are more attuned and self-conscious about the potential for embarrassment, seeking to avoid it and placing a large value on what others think of them. As long as the abuser has his victim under his control, he could really care less about what others think of him – it’s only when he starts to lose control over her and the relationship that what others think of him starts to matter.
Sadly, abusers aren’t the only ones who can make victim-survivors feel embarrassed or ashamed which is why it’s so important to be appropriately educated about domestic violence. Domestic violence is never the victim’s fault; the responsibility for violence and abuse remains solely on the person who chooses to use it but if you don’t know any better, it’s too easy to go down the “he said/she said”, “there’s two sides to every story”, “it takes two” route and that’s when good and/or well-intentioned people can actually do harm and re-victimize a victim.
For those survivors who were given “the parting gift” of shame, embarrassment and humiliation, there is actually some good news (although you might be hope for an alternative once I say it). At some point, you’ll reach “saturation” where you’ve been SO embarrassed, SO ashamed and SO humiliated that you just can’t be anymore then you already are. Now you have a choice: you can crawl away and hide from humanity fretting over what everyone’s thinking of you the rest of your life OR you can just give it up and not care anymore (and from personal experience, Option II is much better then Option I although it does take some getting used to).
When I began my advocacy work, it took months for me to say “Domestic Violence Survivor Advocate” out loud and in public; I’d “brace for impact” anticipating the other person’s judgmental and rejecting stare. Now it doesn’t phase me at all and I could care less. Actually, not too long ago I got one of those judgmental stares that once upon a time would’ve made me go home and cry, but it felt more like a familiar after-thought of “Why am I being looked at like that? Ohhh, I remember! Not my problem” and I just walked away. If you’ve done NOTHING WRONG you have nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about so don’t own someone else’s discomfort. (On the flipside, if you HAVE done something wrong, you’re supposed to feel embarrassed and ashamed – if not, it’s time to pull out the moral compass and have a good look at it.)
For those who may come into contact with victims and/or abusers who might have a little trouble in telling whose who, here’s a few “give-aways”:
- If the person is embarrassed, ashamed and would rather eat their own foot then tell you the details of what happened, you’ve got the victim.
- If the person looks like they’re going to have a nervous breakdown if you don’t believe him/her and consistently seeks third party validation, you’ve got the victim.
- If the person is justifiably angry over violations and fighting for/insisting upon boundaries, you’ve got the victim.
- If the person boasts, brags or insists that he/she is a victim, you’ve got the abuser.
- If the person is insistent upon engaging the other parent, co-parenting and holding the other parent responsible for his/her relationship with the kids, you’ve got the abuser.
- If the person has no empathy for others or is completely blind to the feelings of others, you’ve got the abuser.