It’s Not that Bad: When Survivors of Domestic Violence Minimize Their Experiences

By Amy Thomson

Regardless of the types of abuse someone endures, surviving domestic violence carries with it profound emotional and physical damage. Many survivors minimize the harm they experienced when hearing stories of other survivors or when relating their own stories. Some common ways this is expressed:

“My abuser never hit me, so it wasn’t as bad as what you went through.”

“You’re stronger than I am; I can’t imagine having to take care of children while also trying to put my own world back together.”

“I shouldn’t be complaining! Look at how hard things are for him/her. I’m lucky.”

Each case of domestic violence is inherently traumatic, and trying to quantify that against others is detrimental, especially when the actual effects are taken into consideration. Unlike popular misconception, both physical and emotional forms of domestic violence be debilitating. Emotional and physical trauma from domestic violence has been linked to chronic fatigue, headaches, inability to concentrate, depression, increased risk of suicide, PTSD, anxiety, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, decreased metabolism, obesity, diabetes, chronic insomnia, and other conditions.

Where Does Minimization Originate?

Conditioning During Abuse – Perpetrators of domestic violence use an arsenal of tools to manipulate, twist, and overwrite our thinking. Beginning early in the relationship, abusers interject small amounts of negativity in the form of verbal abuse to normalize the impending change in dynamics between the two parties. Once they establish their “unfailing and genuine love” in the bonding phase, they begin to employ emotional abuse in combination with the verbal abuse to erode the victim’s self-esteem and make them more susceptible to the gaslighting and manipulation. The victim almost entirely disappears as their own separate person and fades away into the background. Their needs no longer matter, and the abuser regularly tells the victim they are not being treated as poorly as they claim.  

Survival Mechanism – Recovering from trauma is a difficult war many of us fight internally due to the severity of the damage that results from intimate partner violence. It often becomes overwhelming to face the reality of how severe the abuse and its impact is all at once because it affects so many areas of our lives. Rarely does any survivor have to fight a battle on just one front. The reality is that we often deal with physical injuries and illness, depression, anxiety, PTSD, profound emotional damage, and fallout from financial abuse. Many survivors also have children they need to care for while working on their own healing.

To digest all of this at once puts our mental well-being at risk, and initially, it might become necessary to “minimize” our experiences to cope. It can be a survival mechanism to help us get through the most critical phases of our recovery, but the danger of continuing to deny the actual severity of the abuse long term can also be a source of damage.

Comparing Experiences to Other Survivors – Many of us look to others as a benchmark of progress in many areas of our lives. Also, we habitually categorize things in ranking order of increasing degrees. While it can encourage healthy competition and motivation in our jobs, hobbies, or school, comparing our stories to those of other survivors can harm our ability to reconcile our trauma and work on healing. Additionally, comparing the severity of abuse undermines our unique emotional responses and experiences. Just as none of us experience abuse precisely the same, our path to rebuilding our lives and the timetable on which it occurs are unique to each of us. It is important to recognize that our individual stories and progress are equally valid and worthy of being acknowledged.

How Can We Stop Minimizing Our Experiences?

Counseling/therapy – Trained therapists can help us process and reconcile our experiences while also providing coping strategies to work through depression, anxiety, and PTSD.  Even if we never share our stories publicly, engaging in various therapy programs can help us develop an understanding of the trauma we endured while providing a base on which we can begin to rebuild our lives. Counseling also helps us nurture the growth of self-confidence and trust, both of which are critical in recognizing the severity of abuse we endured.

Ask Medical Personnel for Guidance – Talking with our family physicians, nurses, and other medical specialists can help us gain an understanding of how injuries and emotional trauma can put us at risk for various physical conditions. In general, many people see the urgency with burn, gunshot, or puncture wound injuries. However, it is not uncommon for them to lack sufficient information about brain injuries, mental illness, insomnia, and stress and how they can impact our physical health.  

Research – If you are emotionally able to perform research on domestic violence without being triggered, look for information on dynamics of abuse, the methods abusers use, and how each both individually and used in combination with others affects us. This can help survivors gain further understanding assigning blame (with the abuser), medical conditions, available resources, and self-care.

Connect with other survivors – This is a profound way to reduce the isolation and shame that often follows leaving an abusive relationship. Hearing “Me, too!” as we share our stories helps us know that we are not alone. Healthy support systems help us heal, and other survivors can also aid us in understanding how serious our abuse was, and therefore, also help us stop minimizing what we endured.

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