Abuse is Like an Iceberg: The Cruelty and Pain You Never See

“What we see is only a fractional part of what really is.” ~Unknown

In the public eye it may seem insignificant. You might think it is harmless humor from a friend or child. They may joke about the words or stupid mistakes they make. You might make silly mistakes, like wearing a shirt in reverse, losing your keys, or even burning something in the microwave. Everybody makes mistakes.

Sometimes abuse can sound like harsh judgments that seem to be coming from a place where there is compassion. You might like comments such as:

My daughter doesn’t apply herself; she’s lazy, and I wish she would care about her education so she can make something of herself.
At the moment she likes girls, but I’m sure she’ll grow out of it because I just want her to be happy and get married and have a family.
It would have made him so happy if he had plans to stick with them and not change his career every five minutes.

Sometimes abuse sounds like frustration, even though it may appear to be just that.

She should just clean up; I find it annoying that she has to live with me in a pigsty.
She doesn’t do well in school, which is embarrassing for me because I am a teacher.
He never has any time for me; he’s so selfish, and all he thinks about is his work.

Sometimes, abuse can sound just like compassionate control.

If she doesn’t do better in school, I’m not going to pay for her cello lessons.
If he doesn’t help out around the house, I’m not going to make time for him.
If she doesn’t try to dress nicely, then why would I make time for date night?

I’m not saying that all teasing or comments expressing frustration necessarily mean that someone is being abused. These are only my suggestions to you and I encourage you to pay more attention.

You might get subtle clues from the victim. You might get subtle hints like these:

My parents really don’t care what I do; my parents only care if I do well in school and that’s all.
My partner is only happy when I’m doing things for him.
I don’t get a lot of me-time because me-time is selfish.

Sometimes, the victim may show you texts or emails that their abuser wrote. These emails and texts can appear benign, or may contain subtleties that are easy to overlook. You might receive a couple of verbally abusive remarks and some demands. Or they could be disguised to send messages of concern.

These messages can sometimes be so convincing that you end up siding with the abuser. Or wondering why the victim gets so mad about something so small.

There is a whole world beneath the taunting, frustration and deprecating remarks disguised as compassion. This abuse you don’t want to see.

Behind closed doors, the teasing becomes verbal abuse or putdowns.

Nothing will ever be enough.
You’re incompetent.
It is easy to be lazy.
Your fundamental failure is you.
It is impossible to provide for yourself.
You’re a fag.
What is the point of being so ignorant?

Although these harsh words can come along with violence or physical harm, they are still devastating.

A lack of compassion or control may indicate financial neglect.

I have the money for music lessons, but you’re not doing what I want, so I’m not going to support you. I’m not giving you money for shampoo because it wouldn’t change the fact that you look ugly.

You have not become the person I had hoped you would become, so I’m not going to pay for your educational opportunities.

Sometimes you might look at abuse victims, like me, and wonder why we don’t wear better clothes, get regular haircuts, or take better care of ourselves. These simple decisions were often out of our control.

Many victims of abuse make self-deprecating remarks. Comment like this:

The task was easy enough for anyone..
I’m not good at a lot of things.
I can’t do anything right.

Our culture has taught us to see ourselves as less than we are. The abuse stories have become so ingrained that we don’t see our self-esteem or talents anymore.

Victims of abuse often don’t know how to accept a compliment and at times can feel uncomfortable in the spotlight. We’ve learned to make ourselves small and build you up so that we can keep ourselves safe. The kindnesses and favors that we’ve shown to others don’t get as much attention. We have come to realize that other people are far more valuable than ourselves.

We become overly anxious when we made a mistake, when we’ve expressed an opinion contrary to yours, or when we think we might have offended you.

Your needs are our top priority. We’re easygoing and friendly. We don’t mind where we go or what we eat when we are out with you. We don’t tell you if we’re feeling tired or cold, and we hyperfocus on you because we have learned that our needs don’t really matter to anyone.

Since we’ve been deceived and gaslit over and over again, we’ve learned to play down the abuse or even to deny its existence. Sometimes we might even say the opposite about our abuser.

My mother loves me; she just doesn’t know how to express it.
Yes, that was a nasty thing that he said, but if I had been kinder to him or done a better job, he wouldn’t have felt the need to say that.

Sometimes, we might express frustration at the treatment received by our parents. Sometimes you might be able to hear us expressing frustration at the way our parents treated us. In response, you could find yourself saying something like:

Your mother really loves you; she just wants what’s best for you.
I know you’re frustrated with your dad, but you should really try and forgive him.

We might express frustration over our partners, and maybe you will hear us saying the following:

For all they’ve done for you, be thankful.
I don’t believe you; he or she doesn’t seem like the type of person to do a thing like that.

If your comments make us feel inadequate, we will be silent.

Although abuse was obvious, you couldn’t see beyond the tip. This tip was easy to normalize, justify, and discard.

These are some simple steps that you can take to safeguard someone from being abused.

First of all, the victim might not be aware that they are being abused and that their treatment is unfair.

They are often taught that abuse happens because they deserve it. They may not realize they are being abused and will be unable to take action. Therefore, denial is a temporary solution. It is best to show kindness and compassion.

You can ask questions to encourage them to talk about their emotions and needs. One example: I observed that your mother often makes negative remarks about you. This makes you feel. Oder, your partner made harsh remarks about you last night while we were out. What did you think? It seems like you are thirsty. You would like to drink water.

Encourage them to feel their emotions and validate them. This will help you recognize the inadequacies of their treatment. Encourage them to pay attention to their own needs and encourage self-care. They can regain control and realize they are worthy of better treatment.

Sometimes, asking simple compassionate questions can lead to them taking small steps towards reducing the abuse and then eventually taking drastic action to eliminate the abusers completely from their lives.

If someone you see is being teased or shamed in a social setting, be firm with the perpetrator. To give the victim a break, invite them to join you in walking to another room.

Don’t join in the bullying or criticism of the victim, even if it is fun.

By joining the perpetrator to tease you’re engaging in benign abuse, reinforcing your power, and encouraging their control. Unknowingly, you’re teaching the perpetrator to use the victim as a weapon. Additionally, you are affirming and normalizing the perpetrator’s opinions of the victim, making it hard for the victim to break free from toxic narratives and limiting beliefs.

Talking about victims with perpetrators is not a good idea. Abusers often use those who are closest to victims to get them to agree to certain things. Some conversations disguise themselves as concerns for victims’ well-being and financial security. You should not be able to engage in conversations like this if you feel you might have been used. Your communications should be brief but firm.

Do not confront your abuser, or say that you believe their abusive behavior. They may then encourage their victim to end your involvement in their lives. You can call your abuser and express your disapproval at their behaviour or explain why they are not right. If you suspect that the victim is in serious physical danger, contact the police, a social worker, or a local women’s shelter for professional advice.

To maintain control of their victims’ lives, abusers tend to isolate them. You can invite them to enjoy activities that you love together so that you can have quality time and provide a break from your home.

A friend, family member, or relative who frequently cancels invites at last minute may be not making it on their own. You should not take the abuser’s behavior personally and keep them out of your lives. You should not do this.

Instead, continue to call your friend and invite them to social events even if you  think that they will not attend. Feeling included in your life can reduce isolation.

It is important to make it known to family members or friends that they are available if needed. You can make it clear to your friend or family member that you are comfortable with them and let them know they will always be welcome at your house if they need to talk. In the event that they ever feel unsafe, you could offer to assist them in creating a safety plan.

These small actions will allow you to recognize the abuse beneath the surface and help your loved one to make it to safety.

Jen Hinkkala

Jen Hinkkala has a PhD in education and is also a researcher. It is her goal to find out what circumstances and events lead to higher levels in wellness, resilience and self-care, both for students and arts educators. Jen also works as a coach in the areas of self-care and well-being. She specializes in anxiety and career path and abuse overcoming, anxiety and time management. Jen runs a support group for estranged adults and a group to support personal development. Follow Jen on Twitter.

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Tiny Buddha’s first post, Abuse Is Like an Iceberg: The Pain and Cruelty You Never See appeared on Tiny Buddha.

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