The thing with covert emotional abuse is that the tactics used by the one causing harm are tactics we see in many of our relationships, even those that are not abusive. And so it can be very confusing to those within the abusive relationship as well as those hearing about it from the outside. Minimization, one of the covert tactics abusers often use, is something most of us have experienced. And, If we are being really honest, every one of us probably could raise our hand to confess that we have been guilty of minimizing someone else at some point. While it is never a good thing to do, it does not necessarily mean you are an “abuser.” In an abusive relationship, the one causing harm is regularly dismissing, ignoring, or downplaying the victim’s thoughts, feelings and experiences. Abusive Minimization is the belittling of the victim’s perspective with the intention to make what the victim values unimportant, thereby killing their confidence, creativity and individuality. When this happens within our primary relationships it is a form of Covert Emotional Abuse. It’s extremely important to understand tactics like minimization when you are responding to someone’s story of abuse, so that you are able to recognize the harm they are experiencing and respond knowledgeably and compassionately.
Unfortunately, too many of us do not understand Covert Emotional Abuse, and through our ignorance we risk responding in a manner that causes significant harm to the victims in our care. While minimization is a common form of Covert Emotional Abuse, it also is a common form of Double Abuse. “Double Abuse” is a term The M3ND Project created to define the harm caused when those individuals or organizations who are responding to a disclosure of abuse dismiss, shun, silence, put down, judge, disbelieve or wholly disregard the victim. While minimization is a tactic used by an abuser to gain power or control, it is also a common form of Double Abuse that a first responder can knowingly or unknowingly engage in. This can happen for a few reasons. Many people are very uncomfortable with conversations regarding abuse, especially if they know the person who is causing the harm and can’t imagine they could be capable of abuse or don’t understand how to make the victim feel better. Through minimization they may be avoiding a deep conversation about something that makes them feel uncomfortable. It is all too common for people to use minimization in an effort to soothe the victim’s distress. Others may have cultural or gender stereotypes that make them believe claims of abuse are exaggerated, or even untrue, and they are unwilling to help, their unbelief manifesting through minimization. Whatever the reason, it’s important to understand how damaging minimization is and how harmful Double Abuse is to the victim experiencing it.
Minimization is one of the many ways a responder doubly abuses a victim. When the person responding undervalues or dismisses the importance of what the victim is disclosing, they do not realize it profoundly exacerbates the victim’s anxiety and trauma symptoms. For example, if a victim shares their partner’s pattern of giving them the silent treatment or calling them names when they don’t agree with something the victim has said and the first responder says, “I’m sure you just said something to make them mad” or “I’m sure they were just in a bad mood, tired, or had a bad day.” Maybe the first responder simply tells them “You’re always so sensitive, I’m sure everything’s okay.” This is minimization. It leads the victim to either be silenced, feel “crazy”, not trust their own discernment, or learn that their wants and needs aren’t important. Any response that doesn’t create a safe place for disclosure ignores the victim’s experience, excuses the abuser’s behavior, and sadly, successfully keeps the victim shut down and feeling alone in their experience.
For those of us who are not abuse survivors to understand the power we have through our responses it’s important to learn what the victim is likely experiencing when they reach out for help. Victims of emotional or physical abuse most often spend considerable time, energy, and emotions on trying to make things work within the relationship perhaps even for years. They hang onto hope as long as they possibly can. Oftentimes, without even realizing it’s abuse they are dealing with, they take incredible measures to figure out how to end the harmful behavior without any success. Over time, they begin to feel like they are the one who is doing something wrong, that there’s no end in sight and likely wonder if they are the crazy one in the relationship. Internally, they experience unrelenting stress and anxiety on a daily basis trying to resolve unending conflict. They reach exhaustion from trying to sort out the incredible confusion about what is reality and why they cannot achieve a healthy connection with their partner. If the covert abuse has escalated into physical abuse or is causing fear of physical harm, the victim may feel truly paralyzed and desperate for a lifeline to get them out of the dangerous environment they live in. Victims often decide to reach out to others before fully giving up on the relationship in the hopes that someone else will understand, help them make sense of what they are experiencing, and provide the support and restorative justice they need. But because of the chronic stressful confusion, they are ill-equipped to fully describe their situation. So when they throw a lifeline to you as a first responder and your response is minimization, it completely shuts them down and extinguishes that last flame of hope they felt.
By becoming more knowledgeable about covert emotional abuse and healthy ways for responding, you can feel more comfortable responding to victims in your care. The M3ND Project has developed a tool called The Healing Model of Compassion which walks you through simple to understand steps for responding (the link is in the resources section below). First and foremost, please know it’s okay to feel sad or uncomfortable about abuse. It is so confusing and devastating to know people you love or care about are going through this in their relationships. But don’t avoid responding well due to your discomfort with the topic as this will cause significant harm. The first step in responding is to simply listen with a closed mouth. And, if that’s all you do over and over you are doing enough and providing a much-needed safe place for a victim to process all they are going through. Don’t feel like you MUST say something. Simply listen. If you feel you need to say something you can say, “I am so sorry this happened.” Allow them to share their whole story. Even if it doesn’t sound like the person you know who is their partner is capable of abuse, choose to believe it to be true and continue to listen.
Finally, take a look at some of the resources we have to help you in your journey as you learn more about abuse and about healthy responses to those who have been harmed, and spread the word. The more you share, the more it increases our ability to help others.