Perpetrators don’t always want to be. I cannot begin to tell you how many parents, for example, say, “I would never want to hurt my child.” Then they do it anyway. It takes FOUR steps to recover from being a perpetrator:
Part I: Admitting you have done wrong
Part II: Hating what you’ve done
Part III: Resolving never to do it again, no matter what
Part IV: Recovering from your own abuse
Part I: Admitting You Have Done Wrong
The first, I think, is the hardest, especially for victims of abuse. The victim is always used to being, well, the victim. It is shocking, disconcerting, and disturbing to learn that you have been hurting someone you love when all that time you thought you were the one that was hurt. Doesn’t matter. If you hurt someone, you’ve got to own up to it.
Not only is this hard because it changes your perception of yourself to a perpetrator–ugh–but also because you may be dishing it out in an entirely different way than you got dished out to. Let’s take an example. Suppose your mom beat you, neglected you, didn’t even make your lunches. You came to school raggedy with unbrushed hair. In those days they didn’t call the Department of Children and Families and it just went on and on. You were, indeed, a victim. You got married, had a kid and resolved never to do that. So you stuck to your resolutions and you got up to give your child breakfast, brushed her hair, and never laid a hand on her. But you did it with a frown, not love, some of the time. And you are trigger-happy. When you think she’s being disrespectful, you pounce on her! Bam! “You nasty little ingrate!” you scream.
Well, guess what? You may still be a victim of abuse and neglect, but you also turned into a perpetrator. Calling your child “nasty” is a harsh label to pin on her. Ditto “ingrate.” And you’re not even sure if she is an ingrate. Because that’s mind-reading after all. Maybe she meant it differently than you interpreted it.
So, admitting it is the hardest.
Part II: Hating What You’ve Done
The second point is very, very tricky. Really important not to hate yourself. Really important to recognize that you made a mistake because you weren’t brought up by people who could teach you what is abuse from what isn’t. You goofed, yes. But don’t go hating yourself because if you do that, what happens?–You have gone and revictimized yourself. You don’t want to do that. Ok. Maybe you do want to, but you shouldn’t. It is pointless. Whipping yourself over the mistakes you make will do you no good at all–and it won’t make your victim feel any better either.
So, how do you hate the act and not the actor? Like I said, very, very tricky. I once had a client who was a recovering alcoholic who said, “I’d rather die than take a drop of alcohol.” I was scared she would commit suicide if something bad came up. But I was wrong. She was making a statement that she would hate the act of taking that drink so much that she would have to be tested with a choice of death. Thankfully, she never was faced with that test and it is now eight years since she made that statement to me–and stayed clean, sober, and living her life.
The idea is to not give lip service to the resolution. Don’t do the New Year’s thing. It’s got to come from the heart and soul and if it doesn’t, it isn’t real and won’t stick. Reject the action, not yourself.
Part III: Resolving Never To Do It Again, No Matter What
Part three is not obvious either. Here’s why: The unconscious mind works by positives, not negatives. There is no negation in the unconscious. For example, did you ever have a dream about something that wasn’t there? Nope. Can’t. Another example, if I said, don’t think of a pink elephant, your mind will rush to think of a pink elephant. Your mind is not being uncooperative. It’s just that negatives don’t really exist in the unconscious. And it is the unconscious that is the seat of creativity, resolution, and solutions. So if you have to figure out a way not to do something, the only way that will have any chance of working is to do something different. Make sense?
Here’s an example. A client I am very proud of decided never to yell at her daughter again. I suggested she bite her tongue if the temptation arose. She was quite shocked at the idea, but this grin went over her face because she saw it had real applicability. And you know what?–She actually did it several times. Quite proudly, she told me the various occasions when she didn’t yell because she could do something to head it off at the pass. It worked!
So the basis of part three is: Be creative! Find a way to do something that would take the place of or come before the thing you don’t want to do. One frequently used and very successful way of not having a big fight with your girlfriend, for example, is to take a time-out when things look like they will get rough. Another idea is to breathe long, slow, deep breaths when you’re angry because the physiology of your body when it’s in a slow-breathing mode is the opposite of all that arousal when you’re angry. See? Try it. Put your creativity to the test. Now.
Part IV: Recover From Your Own Abuse
Regarding part four, I once had a client who took three parenting classes and one anger management class and passed them all with flying colors. He did great! In class. Except he still yelled at his daughter. Then he came to see me and worked on healing from his own abuse. I should say, the oddest part here is that he didn’t even realize he had been abused. It took a few sessions just to get that clear. And many sessions of me reminding him to be nice to himself. He got it, but he didn’t. Then once day, when he had decided to ignore his daughter’s misbehavior instead of yelling at her for it, and I suggested instead he find something positive to praise, I could see a light bulb go on over his head and he said, “My dad never praised me that way.” Thoughtfully, he added, “So when I say something positive to my daughter, I can say something positive to myself as well.” Wow! What an a-ha experience. Indeed, that is just what he did, and the abuse–for the first time–started to diminish.
It may be counterintuituve to work this way and I am probably the only therapist who does. You won’t find it in the anger management literature. In fact, in the State of Florida, it is required for people who want to apply to become official teachers of anger management classes for legal system referrals to sign an agreement that promises not to bring up the abuse history of the perpetrator for fear that he or she might use it as an excuse to not take responsibility for the abuse.
That is the most ridiculous nonsense. Trust me, no one wants to be an abuser. If given the choice, most people who get angry wish they could get it under control. But they often can’t. That is because the brain is constructed with the feeling parts of it not too well connected to the thinking parts of it. The emotional part acts up in fractions of a second before the thinking part has a chance to put into practice all those good cognitive skills. That’s one reason why nationally, only 2% of people who start anger management complete the class and learn the skills. It just doesn’t address the real need of the person. What is needed is a rewiring of the brain in the feeling centers. That’s the purpose of healing. The exercises, when done right, rewire the emotions connected with memories taking out the pain. Once the emotional charge is gone, the perpetrator is at peace inside and no longer has the urge to abuse. Do you see how it’s so much better to not have the anger than to manage it?