When Hurt Becomes Abuse and The Dimensions of ‘Hurt’

LouisaPower & Privilege

Another leader in my community has been accused of abuse; psychological, but all the more devastating for it. It's no surprise of course that those who aspire to leadership roles like power. I like power. And so as I read the extensive analysis of the situation on Facebook, I started to shake. I recognised so much of what he–who has been accused of abuse–claimed to be true. People in pain can cause pain (although, many do not). People in pain often seek power in order to assuage their insecurity. Again true.

I know abuse. I have been abused in the past. By my mother emotionally and psychologically. By my ex, emotionally, physically and sexually. I have been in extreme pain. I have fought for power. And so I asked myself...

  • Have I also abused?
  • Have I attempted to control the narrative, simply by writing my memoirs?
  • Have I also been guilty of gaslighting, blackmail and all those emotionally abusive behaviours?

I thought perhaps I had... but my grasp on past reality is fluid. A common side effect of being gaslighted for so many years. I couldn't be sure and I needed to be sure.

Those who abuse, learn abuse in many cases by being abused. It's the way they know and often the only way. It takes an awareness of the self to be able to call out your own behaviour. Those-who-have-been-or-are-being-abused are perhaps less likely to have awareness of the self–because awareness takes a knowledge of different perspectives and the only perspective many who inflict abuse have, is that life and human interaction is abusive. We live in a culture where few know about consent, where rape goes unreported.

"...you can be abusive intentionally and unintentionally, consciously and unconsciously. There are those who are complicit in perpetuating abusive systems, who “pay it forward”. Then again, some invent entirely new ways to abuse. These aspects of abuse are often conflated and tarred with the same brush. I am outspoken about my mother’s narcissism and my experience of abuse at her hands. I believe she was abusive, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. I don’t believe she was ever conscious of it, but I still call her abusive."

- How Can We End Abuse? (February 27, 2015)

So I had some ideas that abuse lay on the dimensions of intention and consciousness. That I could have been abusive, but unconsciously so was possible, and my first scribbles of what I named The 'Hurt' Matrix, looked like this.


The 'Hurt' Matrix - first attempt.

Could I find behaviours that fit in quadrant A? I could, because I see it on a daily basis between kids (and grown ups who are still mentally unaware). They are not aware, and sometimes they intend to hurt. But that wasn't abusive, or was it?

Quadrant B, the most extreme, was the easiest because it was intentional hurt. Surely abusive, I thought.

In quadrant C, the 'least' offensive at a personal level, you might say, I put accidental/ignorant behaviours which hurt others. Yet they could still be abusive. Widespread but acceptable ignorance has been used as a justification for systemic oppression. To my mind that certainly falls under the abusive category.

Could I find behaviours that fit in quadrant D? Could you be aware, but also hurt without the intention to hurt? Yes. Because part of who we are and how we maintain our integrity is to act in our own best interests which might hurt others. If we break up with someone, we are aware that we will probably hurt them, yet it is not our intention. Can it ever be abusive?

All four quadrants were hurtful. All four quadrants might contain behaviour that could be termed as or experienced as abuse, but not always. Many abuse victims like me, have also exhibited the same behaviours which can be tagged as emotionally abusive. Yet they are not guilty of abuse. Why? At what point does hurt become abuse?

I've learned that it's about the locus power. Where does the power lie? And so my matrix developed a third dimension–eight quadrants in all.

The 'Hurt' Matrix - second attempt

The 'Hurt' Matrix - second attempt


The Hurt Matrix (easier 2D visualization)

In the case with my mother, I lied to her and attempted to manipulate her reality often as a response to her gaslighting. She had the power, of course. I was dependent on her for love, for security, for my livelihood. I hurt her, but I do not think I inflicted abuse upon her. She hurt me, and I experienced it as abuse. From my perspective, if I was in quadrant A intentionally but unconsciously hurting her, she was somewhere in quadrant E; not fully aware, but intentionally hurtful whilst holding the power. Abusive.

The same I believe to be true for my ex-boyfriend. I hurt him intentionally in the end just in order to escape, but he was both physically and mentally stronger than me. He bound me to him against my will, with a whole bag of manipulative tricks.

The 'Hurt Matrix' - Possible Tags

The 'Hurt Matrix' - Possible Tags

Yet it is often not easy to figure out where the power lies in relationships. And more confusing still it doesn't have to be power in the absolute, it can be simply about the perception of power. Two people can simultaneously perceive that they are powerless, and both experience the other as abusive.

In the case of my mother, I often wonder whether she regretted adopting me. I was certainly a handful. She may not have perceived herself to have the power. Social rules prevented her from getting rid of me and maybe, she felt quite powerless in the face of my rage. I struggled to leave her hurting her in the ways she had taught me, and managed to by the time I was fourteen. Similarly with my ex, I don't regard my actions as abusive because I had less power, once more I was trying escape and he beat me for it. Did he experience me as abusive? I don't intend to contact him to find out.

The nature of awareness, or consciousness, is still an enigma to us. Why are some people aware and others not? Why do we have blind spots? Biologically the brain needs adequate development of the pre-frontal cortex to be aware, but the presence of adequate development of the pre-frontal cortex itself is not a guarantee for consciousness. The average age for pre-frontal cortex maturity is around 25 years of age–theoretically the average age at which you pass from left to right on the consciousness dimension–but development can be impeded by trauma which creates toxic stress. The brain is too busy revving on survival mode to concentrate on developing the pre frontal cortex (and for good reason). Some people don't reach consciousness at all and for many other reasons I'm sure, but which are unknown to me.

Thus as schoolyard bullies grow up, all things equal, they may be more likely to turn into adults who inflict abuse. They could remain in quadrant E, unaware of their own abusive behaviours, or worse move into quadrant F and be mindfully, intentionally abusive. This is the territory, I would guess, of serial killers.

Whilst I cannot be sure, I believe my own consciousness has come, through fits and starts, in the last five years or so not coincidentally coinciding with the time I stopped working in the corporate rat race. I received maternity pay, I was no longer fighting on the financial front for my survival. I started writing. It gave me a different perspective on my life, both the third eye and feedback from those who read it. Would I have developed consciousness earlier if I'd started writing earlier? Trauma in my early years, compounded by a severe car accident as a teenager, more abuse and then alcohol and drugs to drown out the pain... probably not. It's wonder to me that I've become conscious at all.

For if the mind is geared to avoid pain, then consciousness often brings more pain. You have to have been at the very bottom for your mind to figure out that consciousness, with all the pain it brings, is the better path to survival. My first polyamorous relationship brought me down to the bottom. And I believe, prompted my growth into consciousness. I've concluded that none of us were abusive, but we definitely hurt one another badly.

Which brings me round once more to that leader in my community, who is now going through a very public accountability process for his own abusive behaviours. He had the power. And now his livelihood as a relationship coach is under threat. It must be painful, but as he can no longer stay unconscious of the fact he has inflicted abuse, it is the only choice he has.

As a community, I believe we have a responsibility to grow and learn, we have more chance to become aware of abusive behaviours simply because multiple relationships mean many mirrors. Part of the growth includes eradicating those insidious behaviours such as victim blaming and gas-lighting those who have experienced abuse. They need voice. Their experience is valid. And just as importantly, we are accountable for supporting those who inflict abuse by acknowledging their pain, and hearing their voice. They too will need support through their process to repair their tendency to abuse. We cannot gaslight those who abuse, lest we inflict abuse ourselves. I know first hand.

Finally, as clear as I have tried to make this for my own analysis, I can only draw on my own experience. I am eager to flesh this out with experiences outside of my own. So I open it up to your evaluation–and hopefully spawn further thinking, analysis and discussion for us all.

Edit 2019: This is only a first part of analysis, I've learned more about DARVO (which you can read about offsite here, as well as reactive abuse which you can read about offsite here). I'll be updating my material on these two aspects as soon as I feel more confident in my knowledge about them.