In Support of the Practice of Discerning Abusive Dynamics and Behaviors

(As you can likely guess, I’m going to speak bluntly in this post about abusive behavior, which includes things like violence and oppression.)

I’ve written before about how part of being trauma survivor, for me, is about diligently working to recognize abusive dynamics and behaviors: in others, in institutions, and in myself. In this post, I want to talk about why I find this practice so vitally important for me, and to wholeheartedly endorse other folks (especially trauma survivors and folks targeted by oppression) in engaging in it.

This post is not intended to express my views about how communities should respond to abusive behavior; that subject is too complex and nuanced to also include in one blog post. If you are looking for resources on community accountability, I recommend the Support NY Pillars, The Revolution Starts at Home book and zine, this resource list, this resource list, and the Creative Interventions Toolkit.)

Nor does this post intend to give advice about what to do when you discern abusive dynamics and behavior in others, institutions, or yourself. These things are too complex, risky and situational for me to make useful recommendations.

Instead, this post focuses on our own individual practice of discerning abusive dynamics and behavior: why I think that’s important, and some of the discernment practices that have worked for me.

Discernment of abusive power is about figuring out what’s going on, teasing out the dynamics at work, getting clear about how power is working. The practice of discernment is about gathering information so that you can make effective judgments about abusive behaviors and dynamics. It is a good first step to making decisions about what to do, should you decide that a dynamic or behavior is abusive.

Why is it important to practice discerning abusive dynamics and behaviors?

Before I get into the nuances of why, I want to lay out some things I know and believe about abusive power and oppression. This is my framework; the rest of what I’m going to say spirals out from it.

  1. We are living in (and were raised in) a context of institutionalized oppression, which has deep, far reaching, and often not fully conscious impacts on our behavior and the behavior of folks we interact with.
  2. Violence and abuse are incredibly common and exist in all communities. There are no easy ways to tell who acts or will act abusively. Even when you are close to someone, they seem like a good person, and they are often nice to you, that person still may be acting violently and abusively.
  3. Abusive power is built into the framework of institutions, and we both interact with institutions and act within institutions every day.
  4. We are likely to reproduce oppression in our communities and our individual interactions with others, especially if we are not attending to the ways that oppression impacts our communities and our own behavior.
  5. We are likely to enact abusive dynamics in our communities and our individual interactions with others, especially if we are not attending to the way power is working in those communities and interactions.
  6. People who act abusively are often in positions of power, privilege and authority and are often well respected by many people in their communities. Positions of power, privilege and authority come with greater responsibility to recognize abusive and oppressive patterns within our own behavior and the behavior of our peers, and to work towards change.
  7. When we experience abusive dynamics and behaviors, we may be able to go to others for support, but we cannot count on others to protect us from violence, exploitation, and abuse, even if that is supposedly one of their roles (e.g. parents, teachers, cops). Therefore, it is each of our responsibilities (and our collective responsibility within communities) to learn how to recognize abusive dynamics and behavior, so that we can take steps to address those behaviors.
  8. One of the core ways that oppression and abuse thrive is that they are slippery and pervasive and burrow deep. Abusive power works both to normalize itself as just the way things are/always have been, and to hide itself. Both of these things make it difficult to discern abusive dynamics and oppressive behavior. Abusive power is also incredibly defensive and has a wide range of tactics that it uses in response to being identified or challenged.
  9. It takes knowledge and practice to discern abusive dynamics and behavior in others, institutions, and in ourselves. We need to work our ability to recognize abusive power and oppressive behavior like a muscle. (If you stop using it, it stops working as effectively.)

So, now that you have a sense of my larger framework for why it’s important to practice discerning abusive dynamics and behavior, I’m going to tell you why I personally care so deeply about practicing discernment and supporting others to practice discernment.

(As a heads up, in the rest of this section I am going to speak bluntly about my own experiences of abuse. I am not going to tell detailed stories, but I am going to refer to some specifics that are relevant to this conversation. If you want to skip this part, feel free to jump to the next section, which lays out strategies for practicing discernment.)

I experienced quite a bit of abuse and oppression as both a child and an adolescent. (Though I did also have a lot of privilege in many ways.) Abusive dynamics and oppressive behaviors were a central aspect in my experience of family, schooling, peer relationships and sexual relationships. This kind of childhood shaped me in many ways. It shaped my biochemistry, it shaped my education, it shaped my relationship to my body. Most importantly for this conversation, it shaped how I understood the world and my place in it.

I survived my childhood and adolescence by accommodating abusive dynamics, and dissociating so I could survive abuse. I learned early on what would happen if I challenged abuse or attempted to talk about abusive dynamics, and I repeatedly made the choice to accommodate. To contort myself around the demands of abusive power and give it what it wanted, waiting it out so I could get away. It worked. I survived. And eventually got away, after I graduated high school.

18 years of accommodation had its toll, though, especially because they were the first 18 years of my life and the context within which I formed my sense of myself and relationships. The regular practice of accommodation made it very difficult for me to discern abusive dynamics and behaviors. I tried to hold onto my sense of what was real, even as I accommodated, but it was damned difficult. No one supported me in a practice of discernment; everyone in my life was invested in denying, obfuscating, and supporting abusive behavior, from family to friends to therapists to teachers at school. Any attempts I made to talk about abusive dynamics came with intense backlash and gaslighting. I had myself, and I had books, and they weren’t enough. If I’d had tumblr back then, it would have been an invaluable support.

When I got away (privilege made it possible for me to escape to college across the country), I focused my entire college career on learning about abusive power and oppression. That’s where it began for me, where I first learned about a feminism that was interested in addressing violence and abuse (unlike my mother’s feminism), where I came to consciousness around racism and fat oppression and started working on my own internalized oppression and grappling with my white privilege, where I came out into a group of queers who were invested in challenging oppression within queer communities. I don’t think you need to go to college to learn these things, but it was where I learned them, and it was possible for me to learn them partly because I was across the country from my abusive family.

In those early learning days, I worked hard to develop tools to discern when abusive dynamics were at work and to name abusive behavior in others and in myself. It was difficult; the act of naming abusive power often created intense trauma responses. I would get nauseous, vomit, get pounding headaches, have intense experiences of panic just writing something down in my journal. It is not easy to name these things, even just to yourself.

But it felt (and feels) intensely necessary to do anyway. Learning to read the way power is operating, to recognize abusive dynamics, is a critical survival skill, and it is very hard-won for me. That learning began when I got away. It takes a long time, a lot of practice, to learn how to read power and oppression. And I started late.

I wish I’d had support in learning it when I was younger. I wish I’d been able to talk these things through with peers as an adolescent, to attempt to discern how abusive dynamics might be part of our lives. I wish I’d had something like tumblr or livejournal or twitter to connect with other teenagers who were trying to figure out what abusive dynamics look like, who might be creepy, and how oppression might be operating. I wish I’d had adults who attempted to teach me how to tell when I might be in danger.

Instead, I was taught from a very young age that I was not allowed to have boundaries with adults. I was not afforded privacy, or bodily autonomy, or the capacity for refusal of anything an adult requested, including emotional intimacy, emotional labor, and sex. I wish I’d been supported in recognizing adults who acted inappropriately. I wish I’d had access to conversations with peers about which adult behaviors were creepy or not ok or outright abusive. Partly because I didn’t, I didn’t attempt to avoid connections with creepy men. When I was 14, I made friends with the teacher that was widely known to sleep with his students, because I didn’t get that it would be wrong if he did sleep with them. When I was 15, I began to have sexual relationships with men who were in their 20s, and never thought to question whether those men were acting inappropriately.

I didn’t have the skill to discern abusive dynamics back then. The abuse I experienced set me up for more abuse, including abusive dynamics that I could potentially have avoided, had I been practicing discernment of abusive power, had I known that I could set boundaries with people and should be able to expect that those boundaries would be respected. Practicing discernment of abusive dynamics and oppression is something I wish we taught kids early, practiced with them often. It’s a skill that I, as an adult, have a responsibility to support children and adolescents to learn and practice. It’s something I want to support everyone in doing. I particularly want to support folks to practice discernment of my own behavior.

Practicing discernment of this sort is not foolproof prevention, nor is it going to get rid of the ways abuse and oppression are embedded institutionally. There is no safe place for me to get away from oppression and abuse. I’ve gotten better at discerning abuse and oppression, but it is still a part of my life. But now I have the tools to recognize it, and can act from that recognition. Can consciously choose something other than accommodation and dissociation, can more actively manage the risks I’m dealing with every day.

It doesn’t sound like enough, does it? It’s not easy. There are no saviors here, or havens. Even if I were to find one (and believe me I’ve tried that route), abusive dynamics and oppression would also exist in those supposedly safe spaces, and with those rescuers. Just as they exist within me.

It is hard work, and it is constant work. And it is the most important, most vital work I do for myself, to honor myself and take care of myself. To work towards preventing harm I might do and addressing harm I have done. To discern the reality of the life I lead.

How Do You Practice Discerning Abusive Dynamics and Behaviors?

The Creative Interventions Toolkit calls this practice of recognizing abusive dynamics and behavior within interpersonal relationships Getting Clear and they have a whole section devoted to it. I find that language for it very helpful at communicating the main goal: clarity, so that decisions can be made about what to do next.

Here are some of the ways I practice discernment of abusive power:

  • I assume that abusive power and oppression are present, everywhere, in every community and institution, in many social interactions. If I work from that framework, I’m better able to see where and how abusive dynamics are occurring.
  • I look for abusive and oppressive behaviors and dynamics, instead of looking for abusive and oppressive people. If I look for abusive or oppressive people, I get caught up in a mess of tangles and have trouble getting clear about what is happening. We often have mixed feelings and complex relationships with people, even folks that are abusing power in their relationships with us. And when attempting to discern these things in ourselves, it can really help to focus on behavior, instead of getting caught up in whether we are a good person.
  • Similarly, it can help to focus on the impact of behaviors and dynamics, instead of the intent. Intent is messy and difficult to discern. It is likely to lead you to confusion. Focus on intent is often an entry point to excusing abusive and oppressive behavior. Impact is a way to get clear about what the behavior or dynamic does to people, which can be a helpful avenue for discerning what is happening and how abusive power may be at work.
  • Looking for patterns can help you understand whether and how an abusive or oppressive dynamic is at work. Looking at one behavior divorced from its context will rarely help you discern what is happening. You always have the option to store the information you have now and watch for more information in the future.
  • I’ve spent the last couple decades learning about how oppression, privilege, and abusive dynamics work. Reading, listening to people, educating myself, accessing formal education. That learning doesn’t end. The more I’ve learned about this, the better I’ve been able to discern patterns in abusive and oppressive behavior. I do a lot of my learning on the internet now. I read tumblr because it has so many folks practicing discernment on it, and reading their words helps me practice, keeps the muscle limber. I have twitter lists that also give me access to conversations focused on discerning abuse and oppression. I look at them regularly, engage in conversation where appropriate, but mostly I just listen. I want to mention a good place to start if you are looking for resources about violence and abuse: the Creative Interventions Toolkit for addressing interpersonal violence has a section on some basics everyone should know about interpersonal violence (section 2.2 of this link).
  • Giving myself permission to explore and make mistakes is one of the core things that has made it possible for me to learn discernment (and really to learn anything). This is not something we automatically know how to do, and in fact we are often discouraged from doing it, which makes it even harder to learn. So, an essential part of my learning process has been to give myself permission: to try things, to not use the most perfect language, to name things as potentially abusive or creepy or oppressive and not be sure, to go at my own pace in learning how to discern how serious a situation is, to fuck up. I’ve definitely made mistakes in this learning, and still make them. I’ve made them publically, and will likely continue to do that. Expecting that of course I will make mistakes has helped me manage when I make them.
  • Talking about abuse and oppression, even within a process of discernment where no clear judgement has been made, is intensely loaded and risky. Individuals, communities, and institutions are often extremely defensive, so it has been helpful to expect and plan for backlash if I choose to do it openly or to support others in doing it. (I expect quite a bit of backlash from this post!)
  • I spend a lot of time reflecting on my own internalized oppression, my own behavior, and in particular on the way I act in relationships. I’ve been lucky to have folks in my life who call me on the ways I’m enacting oppression. I’ve also been lucky enough to have a lot of practice at reflection, both personally and professionally, and to have folks in my life who are interested in reflecting with me. Reflection about my own biases particularly helps when I’m practicing discernment of abusive dynamics.
  • Making breaks conscious and chosen has also really helped. Pausing my fairly continual practice of discerning power dynamics and taking a break for my own well-being (e.g. reading a book for comfort, being silly with friends) is an important part of taking care of myself. I have found that if I make the break conscious, it can help me return to regular practice afterwards. I have learned the hard way that taking a long and especially unconscious break from looking at abusive and oppressive dynamics is very harmful to me, and can result in me staying in abusive relationships longer. In fact, it is so closely connected that one of the warning signs for abuse that I now look for in relationships is when I suspend my practice of discernment.
  • Practicing discernment with trusted allies has been and continues to be invaluable to me. I cannot measure how critically important it is for me to have relationships where we analyze books, movies and TV for oppression and abusive dynamics, where we talk about workplace dynamics and the ways that abusive power is working on the job, where we discuss our shared communities and how power is working in them, where we talk about personal relationships and practice discernment of abuse and oppression. This has been where much of my best learning has taken place, and not doing it alone but in connection with others has bolstered me a lot in continuing to practice discernment. To give a specific example, one of the main things that helps me manage the kind of ableism I experience in my daily life is being able to talk about it with other disabled folks with whom I have access intimacy, if only just to exchange a couple texts about a terrible thing that went down.
  • Talking openly about my own relationship dynamics with the folks I’m in relationships with has also helped tremendously. This can be fraught, because these can be relationships where abuse and oppression is occurring. I have still found it valuable if I do it judiciously, take a long look afterwards by myself or with a trusted friend, and watch for where it may escalate abusive and oppressive behavior. I have especially found it useful for looking at the ways I may be enacting abusive power.
  • Thinking actively about the ways I engage with consent and power in my sexual relationships, and working on consent and communication challenges has been really important for me, particularly as a survivor of sexual violence. Engaging with power consciously in my BDSM practice has also helped my discernment, because I am actively engaged in thinking about how power is working, in establishing consent, and in communicating with my partners. (I want to add that this has only been helpful with partners that are interested in discerning abusive power and enacting power consciously and consensually. Doing kink with partners that are focused on getting off, and are not interested in consciously engaging with power, have not been experiences where BDSM has been helpful in building my ability to discern abusive power, they have been neutral at best and mostly been a hindrance.)
  • Writing it down has helped me so much. Because abusive dynamics and oppression are slippery and complex, and it is hard for us all to look at our own behavior, it can be difficult for me to get clear without writing it down. This especially helps when I’m looking for patterns. It is often helpful for me to write it to someone else, to try to tell them the story or the pattern, even if I decide not to show that person. Just imagining someone else is witnessing often helps me get clear, in a way I can’t when I’m writing just for me. Sometimes writing fiction about it can help me understand what’s going on, too.
  • Analyzing my own stories for oppression and abusive dynamics continues to be a really good resource for discerning abusive power. It gives me so much information about the ways I think about relationships and power and my own internalized oppression. And because I primarily write BDSM erotica and erotic romance, it gives me particularly important information about the ways power is playing out in sex within my own thinking.

I would be interested in hearing about your practices of discernment, if you wanted to share. What works for you?

A Note About the Context For This Post

This post is written partially in response to a recent situation on tumblr where some teenage girls were discussing a YA author and whether his behavior was creepy, and the author and a number of other YA authors were extremely defensive of him. In addition, the author tagged the original poster in his response and thus invited a large number of others to target her for writing what she did. She was targeted so intensely in the space of a day that she now has deleted the post, closed the account and left tumblr.

It is my belief that these girls were attempting to practice discernment of abusive behavior and dynamics. The backlash they received for doing so publically was incredibly intense and simply not ok. In fact, this backlash mirrors the common responses that folks get when they name abusive behavior and dynamics. Essentially, these authors took part in reproducing an abusive dynamic by slamming these girls for attempting to determine whether an adult was creepy. I find this particularly sad and awful because discernment of whether adults are creepy is an essential survival skill for teenage girls. One I wish I’d been able to practice when I was one myself. (Or as near to one as a CFAB genderqueer person can be.)

It is my firm belief that adults (particularly adults in positions of power and authority like YA authors) have a responsibility to support teenage girls (and all youth) in their practice of discernment, even if it makes us personally uncomfortable or our own behavior is being analyzed. In fact, I would encourage anyone who learns that folks are trying to get clear on whether they are creepy or abusive to take a good hard look at the behavior that is being discussed and think about whether they might want to change it.

(cross posted on tumblr)

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