Tough Conversations: Can Abusers Heal?

Content Warning: Rape, sexual assault, references to abuse

This starting guide is for people who have harmed others and those who share space with them (e.g. relatives, friends, co-workers, associates). Accountability is still valid when we treat others with compassion. Healing is an experience that requires commitment from the individual and their community. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or is a survivor in need of support, please consider sharing the following resources:

Source: developgoodhabits.com

Image Description: Greyscale background of a hand reaching out from underwater. Quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, which reads: “When another person makes you suffer, he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help.”

The Short Answer

People who harmed others can heal. Healing can look like making sure they themselves will never repeat that violence, and promoting that message to others. Healing can look like making amends with their victims, and/or following their leadership and wishes for reparations. Healing can look like coming to terms with their own experiences with abuse and violence, forgiving their own abusers.

However. Before that can truly happen, that person needs to realize, acknowledge, and accept that what they believed to be acceptable actually harmed someone and they have to answer for causing that harm. If you have harmed someone and were looking for a quick list of things to “fix” the situation, here:

  • Check in with the people who love and support you. No one can heal alone. Talk to them about keeping you accountable for what you did and committed to addressing the harm. Invite them to support you in healing the harm you caused. Understand it might be hard for them, some people might need space from you or won’t have a relationship with you anymore. Talk about setting boundaries and expectations when it comes to addressing the harm you caused and the work you have to do to be better.
  • Actively heal yourself. Find a regular therapist, talk to your spiritual advisor, look for a support group for you and for your family/friends supporting you. Consider enrolling services that specialize in treating people who have abused others in the specific way you harmed your victim.
  • Financially support organizations that provide healing, resources, and support for survivors of abuse. (see list above for suggested hotlines, to start) This can look like making personal donations or organizing a fundraiser.

Abusers can move on. They can make amends and restore peace from violence. They can have healthy intimate relationships, families, careers, and be a positive part of society. Some parts of their life they cannot regain, or will have a different relationship with. Some abusers and survivors can reconcile, while others can never face each other. For these things to be true and really matter, this involves accountability, responsibility, unlearning, discomfort, and commitment to non-repeat. Otherwise, the thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs that enabled that person to choose abusive actions will continue to be an easier choice for them to make.

I’m Not an “Abuser,” I Made A Mistake

“Abuser” is like the term “schizo” or “retard,” in that a person’s choice or condition defines them like a title. I encourage use of the word “abuser” as a shorthand to reference “someone with a known history for causing harm/violence on someone else.”

What makes healing for abusers hard? Well, raise your hand if you’re willing to go on TikTok Live and admit every negative thought, every prejudiced belief, and every sin and lie you ever got away with. With a Green Screen filter of screenshots. Admitting weakness, guilt, and fault is hard for anyone. Also, that person may likely hold on to beliefs about themselves and what happened that excuse their actions or blame others as explanation for their choices. Those excuses keep you stuck as part of the problem. These messages may look like:

  • “It wasn’t that bad. They smiled, they didn’t say no. If anything, they enjoyed it.”
  • “They acted like they wanted it. They should have been grateful for the attention.”
  • “That’s my girlfriend/boyfriend/partner. It was just a relationship issue, it’s not anyone else’s business.”
  • “Okay it was a mistake, but it wasn’t abuse.
  • “I’ve acted like this before and no one’s complained until now.”
  • “I’m a good person. This was just one incident, one mistake. Let’s just let it go.”
  • “My dad/brother/uncle/mom/sister/friend/etc. treats people this way. This is fine.”
  • “I told them to be quiet because people might get the wrong idea about me.”
  • “I don’t deserve my life to be over because of this loser. I’m better than them, that should count for something.”

For loved ones of abusers, you are essential because the core ingredient of any abuser’s healing process is whether or not they develop empathy for the person they harmed and the community that is reacting to their violence. We can love people and still give criticism, reject harmful behavior, and challenge them to do better. We can support others in building empathy by modeling it in our relationship with them. That can look like: taking time to ask deeper questions about how someone feels and what they believe, joining local causes that benefit others, and being candid about how our privileges allow us to ignore harm in other communities or harm others for our benefit. They need to practice acting on empathy, let them start with you.

Connecting is Key

Source: @aolanow

Image Description: Small black dot labeled “Everything I know” and a larger black circle labeled “Everything I don’t know.”

Thich Nhat Hanh is a world-renowned Zen Master, Vietnamese monk, and founder of Plum Village Tradition, a Buddhist monastery in France where people can learn the art of harmony with people and the Earth. One struggle he and his team were called to support were residents of refugee camps that were raped by sea pirates in Southeast Asia. As part of his response, he wrote the poem “Please call me by my true names.” The poem examines the incident from the perspective of a girl who drowned herself after her rape, the sea pirate who raped her, and himself as a bystander. Without making excuses for the pirate’s behavior, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to consider the social, systemic, and historical environment that allowed someone like the pirate to make those choices. Just like peace, violence exists because it is fed and allowed to exist.

No one wants to be the villain in anyone else’s story, much less their own. Embarrassment is uncomfortable. Shame is uncomfortable. Vulnerability is uncomfortable. Discomfort has its benefits in terms of finding answers and motivating change.

A key component of healing is to really look at the person who was a victim of your harm. There is a difference between the assumptions you made about that person, and who they really are. There is a difference between the stories you made up about the experience and their perspective of the experience.

If you have harmed someone and are struggling to accept that you did, consider asking yourself some of these questions:

  • Who in my life acted this way? Where did I learn this was okay?
  • How did I make this person feel, based on their own words? How is that different from how I wanted to make them feel?
  • What was I supposed to gain from doing this? Does it matter now? Could I have gotten what I wanted another way?
  • Who do I need to love and/or support me? What do I need from them, and what do I need to do for myself?
  • This thing I did doesn’t define who I am, and I am responsible for making it right. What can I do now?

Healing Can Hurt and Still Work

The cycle of change process is a cycle because it never really ends. The goal is to spend more time in actively succeeding and changing than sitting in failure or doing nothing.

Cycle of Change: Enters at Pre-Contemplation, moves to Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance, and Relapse. Lasting Exit is from the Maintenance stage.

Part of change is accepting that things can’t or won’t “go back to the way they were.” You may lose people, privileges, and opportunities. You may likely need to disclose the harm you caused for every future intimate relationship, job opportunity, group, and community space you enter. Understand that this experience is paralleled by your survivor, who also has to navigate disabilities, triggers, and discomfort that were caused by your harm. Understand that the people who love and support you will have to endure ignorance from others about why you are still worthy of love and how you continue to change for the better. Be part of the solution and give them something hopeful to talk about.

Research seems to support that abusers who engage in treatment for their abuse are drastically less likely to repeat the offense. Two main components of therapy for offenders include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), that addresses the thought and behavior patterns that encouraged and enabled the abuse; and relapse prevention, which teaches offenders how to anticipate and cope with problems that can lead to reoffending.

The research on treating abusers and offenders is small but growing. Treatment for all forms of abusers and levels of severity have a shared set of general goals:

  • Identify your specific risk factors (e.g. substance use, feelings of low self esteem, certain people or environments)
  • Recognize and decrease the use of manipulative behavior patterns
  • Address denial
  • Accept full responsibility for past and present harmful behavior
  • Develop healthy attitudes and behaviors towards relationships and society
  • If appropriate, explore own history with surviving abuse and normalizing harm

Where to Go From Here

Source: @aolanow

Image Description: Yellow circle on a tan background with the words “people need people.”

People learn, unlearn, and relearn all the time. “Doing something over and over again doesn’t just make it easier. It actually changes the brain. ” (Source: Science News for Students) This applies for abusers, survivors, and the community that shares space with all of them.

There is a difference between punishment-based justice and restorative-based justice. To punish an injustice is to use violence in response to violence. To restore justice is to repair the harm that has affected the victim, community, and the abuser. Abusers have a duty to heal so the harm does not repeat.

For leadership of organizations, especially fraternities, that are dealing with members that have abused others: before you terminate their membership, consider enlisting them to support your learning process while you still have a professional relationship and obligation to each other. Listen to them describe the environment and conditions in their office or chapter that enabled them to abuse their victim. Examine how they and members around them are choosing to react — whether in denial, anger, or shame — and what opportunities that provides you in terms of topics for workshops, discussions, and statements. Consider the needs and requests of the survivor, taking their leadership into account when it comes to identifying these gaps between your organization’s core values and the beliefs and actions of a few individuals.

For family members, friends, and supportive associates of an abuser: Stay focused on the goal of supporting this person to be safe for themselves and others. Be honest about your own limits and needs, this relationship doesn’t become a one-way street just because this person is on their own healing journey. Find your own ways to take care of yourself that aligns with healing, peace, and forgiveness.

For survivors and supporters of survivors: I apologize that it isn’t guaranteed you will receive an apology or be able to know for sure whether your abuser has changed. I celebrate you for your bravery to share your story as part of your healing process. We might not be able to say the “exact right thing,” but we are dedicated to giving you our best. We are here for you.

For abusers, people who have caused harm: Maybe someone shared this article with you because they wanted to let you know they support you, but don’t know what they can say or do to be helpful. Maybe you’re reading this for a timeline so you can estimate when the public harassment will end, or a to-do list of steps to complete so you can be forgiven and forgotten. What I do know is that you have a right to be healed from what led you to harm. Do the work. You can do it.

Resources for Abusers:

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