Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

Resolving Expectations of Compassion Toward Abuse Perpetrators

A fellow blogger, Alexis Rose, shared an excellent post about her feelings on the word forgiveness.  As I read her post as well as the replies, I felt like the veil finally lifted on what I felt I had been accused of lacking in relation to my abusers by the various people with whom I’ve shared my story. It wasn’t forgiveness as no request had made to do so. Rather, it was compassion. Those of us who have been subjected to the most heinous acts humans can perpetrate are expected to feel empathy and to practice understanding for those who harmed us. In today’s #EmbodiedHeart and #SurvivingnThriving post, I will explore why this expectation may exist and outline best practices in responsiveness for those who wish to support trauma survivors in relation to this topic.

*Please note that I do dichotomize the condition of survivors and perpetrators in this post. I am aware that an individual could fall into both categories; I will not be fully addressing that complication.

But They Had a Rough Life Too…

To me, the function of pushing compassion towards abusers on trauma survivors is that it serves to dismiss any grappling with grief, pain, horror and estrangement by the commenter. If victims and perpetrators can reconcile, what need is there to fully acknowledge the awfulness of the actions and the destruction they cause for their victims? Within this mindset, the discomfort can be wrapped up quickly to move on to a world with less injustice.

As strange as it may sound, those who view abusers with complete hatred and malice—for instance, those who hope they get raped in prison—are simply the other side of the same coin. If the abuser is either monster or another form of victim, we are spared the gut-wrenching realization that all of us have the potential for evil within us as well as the difficult work of having to make meaning out of the actions of those who succumb to it.

Sex offenders (and, to a lesser extent, parents who physically abuse their children) are one of the few true pariahs of our society. The main impulse people seem to have towards them is that they should be banned from everywhere and imprisoned for life, if not outright killed. The hypocrisy, though, is mountainous when it comes to survivors, who are expected to be the ones to redeem them through their acts of forgiveness and compassion. I see value in restorative justice models; however, it is not my job as a survivor to fix the system or the situation for those who violated my being. I view it as an act of cowardess to extend an expectation of reconciliation to those who have been most wronged while absolving one’s self of any need to struggle with issues of evil or to create pathways to restoration. I suspect many such expectations are coated with a little bit of soot-shame: sure, it was the perpetrator’s fault, but isn’t the victim a little defective as well? And, if so, I (speaking here as if I were a non-sexually abused human) can leave the whole messy bunch to figure it out amongst themselves.

The current movement to rehabilitate the men rooted out by #metoo will, I suspect, fall victim to the “fix it yourself” crowd. If such an ill-conceived project as Charlie Roses’ talk show occurs, I fully anticipate a woman who has been sexually harassed in the past will be paraded out to make nice with her former boss or co-worker. I do not have any answers for the place at which the fallen (mostly) men who harm others sexually should arrive, and it isn’t my calling in this lifetime to grapple with this burden. Every time someone tells a survivor they should forgive their perpetrator, or wonders to the survivor what awful things must have happened to the perpetrator to lead them to their behaviors, they thrust some of the most challenging moral questions a person may face: Why do some people defile others? Does evil deserve compassion? Is everyone able to be redeemed socially, and, if so, how do we make it happen? at the people least deserving of pondering them.

To take this one step further, I think again about calling. If there is any justice in this world, I feel there needs to be a 50-1 network of supporters of trauma survivors to supporters of perpetrators. I do genuinely believe some people’s mission in life is to work with perpetrators and I support them in their efforts. At the same time, numbers and substance matter. I was deeply disappointed earlier this year when I learned a Pagan conference I wanted to attend regularly welcomes sex offenders and holds specific meetings for them, while paying little attention to the needs of trauma survivors. I am not saying these programs shouldn’t happen, but the fact that one group’s needs were clearly more valued than another’s turned me off to the whole enterprise. Trauma survivors themselves are not overrun with resources and educated supporters, that much I can ensure you.

Best Practices in Supporting Trauma Survivors in Regards to Abusers

I cannot recall another blog I’ve written where I’ve spoken to those who might be support people to trauma survivors; nearly all of my work is directed at trauma survivors themselves. If you read a hint of anger in this post, it’s there. I’ve been hurt far more than I’ve been helped by others when I share my story. The ones who get it, though, are invaluable.

  1. If you feel compelled to mention forgiveness or compassion for an abuser to a survivor, ask yourself the following questions: Have you yourself volunteered or worked with perpetrators of violent crime? Have you supported restorative justice efforts? How many sex offenders or parents who have had their children removed from them do you care for in your daily life? Perhaps you can exercise your compassion muscle towards the individuals you so strongly feel are in need of it directly, rather than expecting the victim of a crime to do the work for you. We are not your tools of healing; it is up to you to create the changes you think society needs.
  2. Respect the survivor’s boundaries. Do not act as an intermediary between the survivor and the abuser unless it is at the survivor’s request and with their permission. Even then, examine your motives and be prepared to set your own boundaries if you feel compelled to do so. I was betrayed by an individual who knew both my parents and me after I started to come to terms with the abuse. This person gave away my new address to my parents which resulted in them stalking me and me having to go to the police. We don’t need heroes like this; those who know when to say “I’m not comfortable talking to so-and-so for you” may do much more to help us heal.
  3. Know that healing is a process. Part of the recovery from childhood abuse often involves long periods of depression and anger. Feelings of helplessness and hopeless may crop up in you. To some extent, these may be projections onto you by the survivor as they relive and digest their experience. As weird as it sounds, it could be a sign that they really trust you, enough to let you see them “messy.” It is completely understandable that you will need your own support system during this time. With attention to confidentiality, it is vital for you to have others to whom you can turn to help you through your reactions and emotions. We cannot heal ourselves and you at the same time; you doing your own inner work is one of the most compassionate acts you can undertake.

Cultivating compassion towards an abuser is largely irrelevant to the work of being a supporter of a trauma survivor. People may be able to operate in both spheres (one of my most helpful therapists did so), but these types of callings are exceedingly rare. If you are someone who wishes to help trauma survivors, expect them to raise their own questions of forgiveness and reconciliation, and offer them the unfailing belief that they are capable to navigating these waters themselves with you as a steady hand to their shoulder. Do not, under any circumstances, believe yourself more able to paddle through these silt-filled bogs yourself. If you instead believe it is your task in life to support the rehabilitation of those who have harmed others, have at it.

I have varying degrees of compassion for those who harmed me most. As my spiritual journey has evolved, my feelings have grown as an outcropping of the inner work I’ve done, not as an intentional shift in direction. To trauma survivors, my main message is that self-compassion is vital to healing (ironically, it is also the topic on which my free Goddess Spirituality circle this summer will focus). The ways in which you work out your feelings towards those who harmed you are sacred waters; the only people with you there should be those you invite.

Goddessing Self Care

No Permission Needed

Cross-posted at my SageWoman blog.

Do you know yourself wholly? Do you fully inhabit your body? Are you who you believe you have to be, or are you settled into yourself? For today’s #GoddessingSelfCare Sunday, I invite you to take a few minutes to reflect on self-care through the lens of freedom from shame.

Perhaps you find yourself boxed in by the “should’s”–the limits others place on us in order to define their own needs through our self-abdication. The messages they relay are that you should behave, belief, feel, want and look the way another wants you to. Or, the mustn’ts: don’t do, say, emote, think or appear in a displeasing way. Over time, if we order ourselves by these commands, others need not state them overtly; we self-shame our being into tiny compartments.

The religion of my youth taught me that I was bad, and that my inherent badness separated me from the Holy. There was nothing I could do to remove this stain; I had to accept another’s sacrifice in my stead. I was unworthy. I find myself contemplating whether, for some people, this dichotomization of Holy and unclean then becomes an inner separation into parts. Some parts are pure and some parts are tainted. Within such a system, I could never become whole because half of me was unwelcome.

As I’ve exercised my heart through Goddess spirituality, I’ve found release from some of these restrictions. I suspect that the belief that Goddess is both in me and in everything helps to diminish my personal shame. Nothing in me is off bounds or unneeded. Should’s and mustn’ts can be replaced by invitations and openings to Divine in myself and in all there is.

I find myself wondering, though, what to make of the malevolent forces both inside and outside of myself. Our desire for accountability, sought by wishing for karma and trusting in human systems of justice for transformation of these evils often falls short, holding only the weakest and poorest in us and others to disproportionate punishment. In compensation, I’ve gripped ahold of the idea that Nature takes back her own as a concept of justice, of righting wrongs. It may take a minute or millennia, but eventually those who occupy their lives with conquests and domination endanger both themselves and their descendants through their selfishness. All the monstrous human beings who’ve ever existed died within a century or so. I’m not convinced we need heaven and hell; our molecules will eventually be repossessed by Nature in particle form. We are already Her’s as we cannot live without Her breath, Her warmth and Her liquid. She will be here, with or without our species. For now, each generation birthed from Her womb has an opportunity to unscript the destructive norms of its parents and to gentle the earth with its presence.

We need no one’s authority but our own to inhabit the full breadth and width of who we truly are. To honor the existence of Source in each of us, even if some are dispossessed of our awareness of Her.  To allow Goddess to soften, in Her gentle way, the calluses with which punching at life has left us. The more I permission myself whole, the more I extend that freedom to others in their Inner Being.

Where do you need less self-constriction? In what ways have you internalized shame from others? To what extent does the concept of Nature holding the cards at the end of it all satisfy your desire for justice?

Goddessing Self Care

Reconciling Compassion and Healthy Boundaries

For today’s #GoddessingSelfCare Sunday, I will be examining what it means to be compassionate within the context of healthy boundaries. Compassion includes feelings of empathy and acting in ways that are caring and kind to others. It does not apply solely to other people, in fact, I believe it has to start with compassion toward ourselves. In this way, self-care and compassion are intimately related.

Compassionate behaviors are habits I am forming, not ones that comes naturally to me. I’ve shared about some of my personal journey in my #Embodied Heart posts. The traumatic experiences I’ve faced, among others, have made it difficult for me to respond with empathy to others, even though I can intellectually see things from different perspectives. I am especially afraid of acting like a martyr or being taken advantage of by others to whom I might offer gentleness. Given my struggles, I felt a desire to determine what it means to be compassionate and to remain boundaried at the same time.

Compassion Antidotes and Their Function

Before I fully explore what it means to be compassionate, I first need to look at what I’ve held in its place inside. In my studies of social psychology, I’ve come across several concepts that can serve to blunt or mute our responses of compassion. These include at minimum hatred, prejudice, self-righteousness, dehumanization, self-importance, greed and detachment. My particular drugs of choice are hatred and self-righteousness.

I have been able to hate with the same intensity with which others love. A part of me is actually proud of the sustained force with which I can hold grudges and feel anger towards certain people. When I sit compassionately with this part of myself, what is revealed to me is that my hostility serves as a yardstick, shoving away any attempt to treat me with disrespect or to humiliate me. Somewhere in me, I believe that if I am filled with sufficient hate, no one can hurt me or take advantage of me. The truth, thought, is that my Inner Being, which is infused with love, is much stronger than any outside individual’s attacks could ever be. No one can possess my soul or the core of who I am, no matter how they treat me. Now I just need to convince the hateful part of me of this truth.

Self-righteousness is especially complicated for me because I was raised in a religion that eschewed even “false humility.” We had to be humble, really humble, and even acting humble wasn’t enough. The odd thing was, there was a lot of arrogance and I-know-best guised in “God told me…” My scientific education has only served to increase my propensity to self-righteousness, because I can quickly pull on my body of knowledge to correct any errors in logic that I perceive when another person is talking with me. A good part of my internal dialogue during conversations with others, especially when they are sharing a struggle, is “shut up, shut up, shut up” not because I doubt myself but because I can tell I am speaking from “I know best” instead of “what do you need right now.” After a few decades of low self-esteem, my high self-confidence is all too happy to make herself known. What self-righteous behavior protects against, at least for me, are feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. I feel a ton of uncertainty about how to fix the things I don’t like in my own life, but I often believe that I have ten solutions at the ready for anyone else who needs help. I have a lot of work to do to form a solid trust that other people know what is best for their own lives and that building them up with a compassion that celebrates their Inner Being is the truest solution of all.

Acts of Compassion That Respect Our Inner Beings

With the ways in which I normally disengage myself from compassion in mind, I turn now to ideas about how to elicit compassionate behaviors. I opened this piece discussing boundaries, but I’m also inspired to conceptually consider Inner Beings as a point of departure. I feel very confident that I am my own best healer, and I am beginning to see that this is true of other people. In this light, choosing actions becomes simpler.

In cases where someone is acting in a way that provokes feelings of hatred in me, I can respond with love. I believe that we each have a responsibility to turn to our own Inner Being first, so I first would need to engage in self-care and seek the wisdom of my Inner Goddess (this behavior would take on different forms, depending on someone’s religion and culture). This would often mean that I would not respond immediately to a provocation but would take my time to soothe myself and remind myself of my worth first. From this empowered and embodied place, I can set boundaries and speak my truth, doing so in a way that broadcasts genuine care for the other person as well as myself, instead of malevolence. If the other person is not treating me in a way that I feel is respectful of my Inner Being, I can speak to them in a way that acknowledges their “best self” in the hopes that they will then access this part of themselves. If this fails, I can stand firm in my expectations that I be treated respectfully and can show them this same respect. As I write this, I realize that I do actually already engage in this behavior in professional settings in terms of how I hold boundaries, but I frequently forget to turn to my own Inner Being and acknowledge myself first. In my personal life, I’ve put minimal effort into doing any of these behaviors. It is much, much easier for me to hate than to love. Recognizing the energy that it takes for me to be compassionate seems like a positive self-care step I can take right now.

In cases where my self-righteous, fix-it-now, and intolerance of incompetence are heightened, I can sit with the part of myself that resists any feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. I can remind myself that other people have access to their own Inner Being who is standing by, ready to help them at any moment. Perhaps, in relating to others who are feeling overwhelmed or indecisive, encouraging them to check in with that part of themselves is wise. In addition, if I do give advice, I need to do so from the place of my Inner Goddess, not from a place motivated by impatience, anxiety, arrogance or frustration. When someone makes a mistake, I need to show them the same kindness I would want to be shown in the situation.

As I write these thoughts, I find myself wondering why other people, in fact, a good number of people with whom I’ve become acquainted, are so much more able to show compassion than I am. As I listen to my Inner Being, I see immediately that I was not shown genuine compassion growing up, likely because my parents did not receive it earlier in their lives either. Within my religious context, compassion came with a huge price tag of self-desecration. In order to be cared for by a higher being, one had to believe that they were scum and unworthy of being loved. I cannot stomach this viewpoint and I think it is a perversion of true compassion. Compassion honors and cherishes; it does not demean and demand a discarding of all parts of self.

Empathy and compassion are likely, at least in part, learned behaviors. If there was no one who taught us how to act in these ways growing up, I suppose we must teach ourselves. With the viewpoint of an Inner Being in each of us, it has become clearer to me as to how to navigate boundaries and needs when engaging in acts of compassion. I believe I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. What is your relationship to compassion as well as to compassion “antidotes?” How do you determine how to act in situations that cause you to feel anger or helplessness? What for you represents your “Inner Being” and how do you access this part of yourself and/or Divinity during times of struggle?