An excerpt from
SEVEN STEPS TO SELF-FULFILLMENT
It would be far easier for me to skip ahead right now than to discuss the next topic, which is the abuse of love. I lived in fear as a child and, because of my personal experience, I am especially sensitive to the subject. I know from teaching The Confidence Course, however, that this section is critically important for many students and should be included. If you have been hurt, I hope this helps. If you have not been hurt, I hope you learn something in this passage that will enable you to help someone who has been a victim—and will discourage you if you are ever in a position where you have the power to make someone a victim.
Emotional abuse is "the systematic diminishment of another," says the New York attorney Andrew Vachss, a man who has devoted his life to protecting children. "It may be intentional or subconscious—or both—but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child's self-concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children: love and protection."
It is a nightmare: It is abuse of a parent's power. It is the abuse of love.
The abuser bullies and demeans the child's efforts: "Can't you do anything right?" The abuse can include physical pain—but the deeper, lasting wound is emotional: The child is encouraged to believe "I'm no good."
Some years after I had served in Vietnam, I was amazed at how readily my fellow Americans who had never served in a war accepted the diagnosis that veterans can suffer "post-traumatic stress syndrome"—what soldiers in earlier wars called "shell shock" or "combat fatigue." Yet it seems so difficult for many of the same people to grasp that the abuse of a child's love has the same consequences—and those consequences can last a lifetime. The abused child is the victim of a war as surely as the fellow who is awarded a Purple Heart. The truth is, Marines in war fight more for one another than they fight for flag or country. In combat, they have each other for support—but who is more alone than an abused child?
When my father got drunk and beat me when I was a boy, I'd say later, "I wish I hadn't made Daddy so mad."
My words, it's easy to see today, were those of a victim.
I would try to "explain" what my father did to me by assuming the blame—the guilt—for my own abuse. In hindsight, of course, I know now that I wasn't responsible for what my father did to me; he alone was responsible for his behavior.
Inevitably, though, victims are made to feel guilty, made to believe, paradoxically, that the abuse they suffer is somehow their fault.
No one ever has the right to abuse you, whether you are a child or an adult.
When I asked Andrew Vachss one day to define the difference between sick and evil, he told me, "When a pedophile lusts for a child, that's sick. When the pedophile touches the child, that's evil."
On the one hand, most adults who were victims as children do not become abusers as adults—although they are experts at abusing themselves. On the other hand, it's extremely rare for an adult who's an abuser not to have been abused as a child.
A television talk-show host once speculated that I would not have had the success I've enjoyed if I had not been wounded as a child. I told her the truth: "I am who I am today despite my childhood, not because of it." If we toss a handful of seeds onto a concrete sidewalk, one seed despite all odds may take root and a flower blooms. Imagine, though, the flowers we'd have if that same seed were planted in fertile soil and nurtured. Every child deserves somebody to be crazy about them, to nurture them.
Abuse is always wrong. Some parents, who should not be parents at all, do something particularly pernicious: They withhold their love until their children "earn" it. These children are made to fulfill their parents' unreasonable demands. For such youngsters, life is a never-ending, futile quest to make their parents "proud"—to perform as their parents insist. Unlike the children of truly loving parents, these children face a range of challenges that can include, in one home, pathologically strict standards; in another home, responsibility for "caring for" their parents; and in yet another home, violations of labor laws, drug abuse, and prostitution. Often they're forced to be little adults, not allowed to be children.
You may know adults who've been raised in such households; they constantly seek approval. I've known famous stage performers who confused applause from an audience—approval—with love. That's probably why when our daughter, Melinda, was a young teenager and had an opportunity to model and to perform onstage professionally, her mother and I suggested that she decline. She followed our advice, and years later, as I was writing The Confidence Course, Melinda reminded me of what we had told her: "You said young models and actresses tend to confuse affection with attention."
Whenever a powerful corporate executive, a senior military officer, or a high public official abuses a subordinate, he or she is a predator, using the power of the position to create a victim. It is what it looks like—it is abuse —and it feels like abuse. The attention is not affection; in fact, the abuser fails to see the other person as a person.
Well, what do we do?
First, we tightly embrace number one of the Seven steps to Self-Fulfillment: "I am responsible for my behavior." Next, we accept that we are not responsible for our abuser's behavior. And we admit to ourselves the most important truth of all: We do not deserve to be abused—which, of course, is exactly the lie every abuser tries to sell.
"Honey, don't you know how much I love you? You shouldn't have said what you said. Can't you see? I get mad, baby, because I'm crazy about you."
Should you forgive?
That's up to you.
Forgiving doesn't mean that the abusive behavior is excused. Forgiving does mean that, first, you admit you have been hurt; second, you accept responsibility, if any, for exposing yourself to hurt; and third, you tell the person who hurt you that you no longer hurt. (The second step is not to suggest that a victim should assume responsibility for the abuse but to encourage the victim to look for an exit and, when possible, use it.) I believe that if you take the third step—actually decide to forgive—it should be to release yourself from your own anger and not to free from guilt the person who hurt you. A counselor who tells victims that they must forgive their abusers in order to heal themselves is, in my opinion, further abusing the victims.
You are not responsible for your abuser's rehabilitation.
Whether you decide to forgive is up to you alone. No one has the right to insist that you forgive. I've never heard this truth expressed better than in a summation Andrew Vachss gave to one jury: "The right belongs to the wronged."
© 1998 Walter Anderson. All rights reserved.
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