Having honest conversations about abuse is polarizing (as taboo topics always are), but abuse is polarizing for more reasons than that. The sad truth is that abuse segregates and ranks people—even among the abused. Unfortunately, when I’ve shared my own abuse experience, I haven’t just been met with support. I have also received comments like:
- “at least there wasn’t much physical abuse, you should have met my dad”
- “at least you weren’t sexually abused, pedophiles should be put to death” and
- “it could be worse you could be chained in a basement for years like those girls who escaped their captor in Ohio.”
Why do we do this? I say “we” because in the past, I myself have made similar statements when trying to get people to understand the twisted nature the abuse I suffered. But comments like these reflect something larger than individual opinions. These comments reveal what I call the Hierarchy of Abuse. Society has ranked types of abuse in an order society considers most to least bad, and even buckets abuse into legitimate and illegitimate categories. Society’s Hierarchy of Abuse might look something like the following:
I have heard more than a few times in pretty direct terms that verbal or emotional abuse isn’t really abuse because there isn’t a physical component or that it just “isn’t that bad.” I have heard people say that financial abuse is fiction, even though I have witnessed it myself more than a few times. What’s even more shocking than society putting these judgmental and hurtful labels on abuse is that people who have been abused themselves often also buy into the Abuse Hierarchy!
Why is that? I believe the answer is in the Archetypal Victim. The Archetypal Victim, like the Ego and the Inner Child are parts of the human psyche. Think of life as a play, and these various archetypes as characters that can step forward into the spotlight in different situations. At work you may be channeling your Warrior archetype and at home, the Matriarch. The various archetypes you possess vary from person to person with a universal truth: when triggered, we all step into our Victim archetype. The trouble for abuse survivors is that because we were truly victimized in life, we have emotional inflammation that makes it easier to cause our Victim Archetype to step forward. When our Victim is in the spotlight, we can feel hurt and judged and feel that others just don’t understand and as a result, we are more likely to say things that imply ‘I had it worse than you.’
You know that saying “hurt people hurt people?” I have a slight reframe: “often hurt people can’t hear hurt people.” That is, because our Victim is preventing us from being able to, because when we are in our Victim, we feel our own pain so profoundly, that we cannot be truly empathetic to another person. And I believe this lack of empathy is the foundation of the Abuse Hierarchy.
The problem with the Hierarchy is that it turns abuse into a competition, which segregates people instead of bringing them together. The Hierarchy prevents people who need support from receiving that support from people with similar experiences. The Hierarchy keeps us alone, which keeps our Victim alive and exponentially increases the chance of us continuing the abuse cycle. This is why, as abuse survivors, we need to commit to doing away with this toxic mentality. But what can we replace the Abuse Hierarchy with? We can replace it with what I call the Abuse Coin. The center of all abuse is profound pain. And we are all on the same coin, whether you have been sexually, culturally, financially, physically and/or emotionally abused.
We are all valid. All of our experiences are valid. To be abused is to go through something horrible, regardless of the particulars. Hurt is hurt. My hurt does not negate your hurt. And your hurt doesn’t negate mine. We dismantle the Abuse Hierarchy with empathy. We dismantle the Abuse Hierarchy by noticing when our Victim has stepped forward and refuse to make any abuse discussions a contest. We dismantle the Abuse Hierarchy by honoring the pain that others have experienced while knowing that honoring them does not take anything away from us or our own experience. In fact, the more empathy we can give, the more we take ourselves out of Victim and into Healer. Please join me in the pledge to do away with the Abuse Hierarchy. Collective changes on an individual level spells big change on the macro.
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Writer and Coach
Azure Moyna is a writer and coach about issues relating to food, body, mental illness, familial dysfunction, societal treatment of overweight people, and the healing journey. Azure is the author of her memoir, Fullness.