Survivors of abuse are often faced with the use of denial to minimize their experience. Sometimes the abuser uses denial to deflect and deflate the emotional responses of their victim. Sometimes helpers and healers can dismiss the impact on a survivor of abuse because they don't recognize the emotional wounds. And sometimes our social systems don't come along aside survivors of abuse in a way that validates their rights.
In my article, What Is Emotional Abuse, I outlined how someone may be impacted by another powerful individual. Power can be used in beneficial and generous ways for the good of others but we are all aware of the ways that some people use it to tear down and destroy others.
When this abuse of power happens, an abuser, the survivor, or others involved, may be drawn to use minimization as a way of avoiding and hiding the real ramifications of the abuse. Denial is used to shift the blame, hide the real impact, or re-victimize the victim.
Denial is used to shift the blame, hide the real impact, or re-victimize the victim.
Understanding the ways that minimization and denial is used may help us recognize when someone may be using their power to avoid the reality of abuse.
Six forms of denial are most common:
Denial of responsibility takes place when the abuser attempts to shift blame from themselves on to others. The abuser denies responsibility by claiming the abusive act was an accident, or by arguing that it was secondary to stress, alcohol, or just a bad day.
Denial of injury occurs when the abuse is dismissed since it didn’t cause significant pain or because it was in response to someone else’s action.
Denial of a person’s rights occurs when the survivor of abuse is told they are deserving of this treatment. This is difficult for some of us to understand but many abusers will make the people they hurt feel like it was something about them that invited the abuse.
A form of denial by limiting others happens when somebody outside of the situation tries to help and, as a consequence, the abuser blames or attacks the potential intervener. Doctors, teachers, counsellors, social workers, can often be questioned and dismissed by an abuser in an attempt to avoid addressing the impact of their behaviour.
When the survivor's deep love and loyalty towards those he or she loves hinders movement toward healthy change, the abusive behavior is denied for a “higher” reason. Sometimes all the good qualities of the relationship are used to dismiss or forgive the abuse. Many survivors are caught between addressing the abuse of power and maintaining the relationship.
Lastly, the denial of abusive behaviours sometimes takes place because it is merely seen as a negative transaction on a ledger of behaviours. Here, someone may claim to have a sufficient “supply” of good behaviours to justify indulging in damaging behaviours. "It's not all bad," may be a phrase that is used to cover over the abuse that is bad and needs to be addressed.
Over the years, I've see people engaging in many of these ways of denial. Often it is obvious that most people want to avoid facing up to the real impacts and ramifications of abuse. Perpetrators are trying to shift blame away from themselves and keep things the same. Vulnerable persons are trying to seek change but also can be concerned about losing relationships, security, or other benefits that the abuser may promise or provide. Denial is an effective way to to keep the status quo. Unfortunately for the abused, denial hides the need for something to change.
But again and again, I also see people who are engaging in conversations and other forms of resistance because they want the abuse to stop. Avoidance, problem solving, engaging in conflict resolution, seeking help, creating safe places for themselves, or doing all they can to leave the abuser, are some of the ways that denial is overcome and the vulnerable person is able to distance themselves from the abuse.
It takes a lot of strength and courage to face up to abuse and to counter denial. It sometimes involves a careful dance between speaking up for change and protecting oneself or one's family in the face of a powerful abuser. We must recognize and come alongside those that have experienced abuse in a way that validates and encourages this strength.
And, while we would all like to imagine a survivor of abuse having the power and ability to take these actions on their own we mustn't re-victimize them by blaming them for a reluctance to change. We don't know the safety concerns, financial restraints, or various other factors that make it difficult for a vulnerable person to stand up to an abuser.
Ultimately, to bring safety to the relationship, the powerful one must acknowledge their misuse of power, take responsibility and seek help to change the way of being in relationship. But as long as the abuse is denied or minimized this kind of acknowledgement is unlikely.
If the abuse of power can be seen for what it is and honestly addressed, there is hope for change. Sometimes the only real option is for vulnerable persons to separate themselves from the abuse, even if it is for a temporary period of time. This distance may allow them to recognize the ways that power has been used and abuse minimized through denial.
If the abuse of power can be seen for what it is and honestly addressed, there is hope for change.
Sometimes this distance may result in both abusers of power and survivors of abuse recognizing ways in which they would like to move toward a better relationship. Understanding the patterns of power and changing behaviour takes a lot of intentional hard work. The dynamics are complicated but if we are committed to seeing the truth of the abuse then it can be named and addressed rather than denied and ignored.
I've been privileged to help many people recognize when an abuse of power has been minimized. This recognition is a step of courage toward better relationships and a better way of life.
If you think that yourself or someone else is affected by the denial and minimization of abuse, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.