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.

Sacred Spiritual Growth

Mistaking the Familiar for the Safe: On Whose Path are You?

There was a major snow storm in my area this winter. My Yorkie, despite his diminutive size, typically vies for the lead with me when we go for a walk, ambling wherever his little heart desires. After the snow, however, we ended up with snow drifts three or more feet deep after shoveling the driveway and walkways. As I walked him, I became nearly claustrophobic as I sensed how much his world had temporarily shrunken. He could only go where I had cut a path for him. As I observed his behavior, I wondered about the extent to which each of us might engage in similar behavior in terms of our life choices. For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I will be exploring the implications of making decisions based on what we’ve known, rather than in relation to what is possible.

In another post I have coming out soon, I wrote something to the effect of “mistaking the familiar for the safe.” This line brought chills to me as it hit at the core of much of my existence. How often do I make decisions that are comfortable because they line up with previous choices I’ve made, only to later realize that I was unnecessarily limiting myself? Or, alternatively, when might I try the opposite of a frequent course of action, not because I really buy into it, but because it allows me to rebel against my own norms?

Psychological theories of social learning and conditioning provide ample explanation as to why we might act in ways that curtail or cut off the truly revolutionary choices and actions in our lives. We can easily become habituated to a particular series of events, ones that to an outsider would appear frightening or “crazy.” This is of particular concern for childhood abuse survivors, who may allow individuals into their lives who act harshly or in a demeaning manner, simply because that is what they have come to expect from people. In addition, the rewards offered by individuals who are abusive in the form of “sincere” apologies, contrition, promises to do better and literal gifts are often sufficient to entice survivors to believe that this time will be different or to question even their own perception of the abusive incident that now seems dulled under so much “love” and hope.

How do we go about making decision and interpreting events in ways that expand our horizons rather than contract them? A concept on which I’ve been mulling for some time now is that of an “Inner Goddess.” This is one of many ways of stating that I believe there is a wisdom in the universe into which we can tap that is greater than the sum of the parts of ourselves. Something about perceiving it as housed inside me reduces my fear of it, although thealogically I see Source/Self/God(ess) as both within each of us and intertwining through every piece of existence, permeating space-time without the normal adherence to the laws of classical physics. The nature of this energy can be endlessly debated; my interest instead is with the practical lived experience of centering myself in Her and instantaneously being granted a clear-sighted vision of my life that I know at my core shreds my normal limitations of habit and conditioning. My main obstacle is that I return repeatedly to living without accessing this higher consciousness. I follow the path that either my own fear and anger or another person has decided to carve for me, tracing and retracing the same worn footfalls. My earnest hope is that I can now root myself in Being that is somehow the trajectory of path itself, the sum of everywhere I’ve already wandered, the birds-eye view of the pattern my wanderings have and will whittle out, and the ground on which I walk.

Where has your path in life led you to mistake the familiar for the safe? Do you have a sense of an energy that transcends your own learning history? If so, what has been transformed in your life as a result of the guidance that this energy has provided to you?