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Week 1, Session 2: Naming Abuse & Coercive Control

Hello and welcome to Week 1, Session 2.

If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!

You’ll need your thought diary for the homework this week so make sure you have that with you. Hopefully you’re all doing well - we know starting anything new is tricky enough on its own - let alone something so heavy and personal - but remember: you’ve got this, and you can take this at your own pace. 

Now, let’s cover today’s goals!

The goals for this session are...

  • To learn to define and identify different types of abuse, including coercive control. 

But first, we start with our grounding exercises! You’ll remember that grounding exercises are a set of strategies that can help us stay in the “present” and not “dissociate” or get lost when pain is overbearing. 

Again dissociating means that you “zone out” or disconnect from your body as a protective mechanism. Sometimes this can happen during traumatic events (i.e. it can feel like you are watching an experience or floating above yourself, or it is happening to someone else). Over time, it can also happen, like when you go into an automatic mode or response as you go about your day and lose sense of time or place. Grounding exercises can help because they use our five senses to feel around our physical environment, using our body, and tap us back into the present. 
Today’s grounding exercise will be…
Find any object near to you. It can be smooth or rough or soft. Anything with texture works, even your own carpet! Focus on what this item feels like in your hands. How would you describe it? You can even talk out loud about what you are thinking or doing. Using our senses, whether it’s sight, touch, or sound, can remind us of where we are and what’s real. 

Fun question: Write out the title of a movie you like in emojis. Extra: get someone to guess it!

What do we mean when we talk about abuse?

It’s easy to forget we’re dealing with abuse when our abusers constantly lie or reframe their bad behaviours. So we want to continue with our myth-busting by calling these habits what they are, in an absolute: abuse. 

In explicit definition, according to UK Charity Refuge, abuse is: “the repeated, random, and habitual use of intimidation to control a partner or family member - regardless of gender or sexuality.” It occurs in any relationship where one person must change how they act, what they believe, or how they think to match the wishes of another because of intimidation or fear. When we’re made to tiptoe around the moods of the person we’re with to prevent them from hurting us, getting upset, or lashing out, that’s abuse. 

In an abusive relationship, ultimately, one OR more persons is always adapting to appease the other; they’re changing who they are to be safe. In abuse, there can be no equality.

Another thing we wanted to emphasise: 

You might have been made to feel as though your own actions were abusive if you’ve hurt your partner or family member’s feelings - but this just isn’t true. 

Harm is a one-time act of violence or pain, whether intentional or unintentional. Abuse is about a continued and repeated use of violence - whether that violence is verbal, physical, or psychological - that forces that alteration of self. Over time, these criticisms and intentions can damage our sense of reality so much that we no longer see ourselves or the world around us as we actually are. 

Abusers mistreat, disregard, and take advantage of the body, being, and/or feelings of the person in their care - and includes any one of the following. With abuse, it is important to remember and focus on the actions or patterns of your abuser rather than their words - which is why we’re covering each type with examples today. 

If you are repeatedly or consistently experiencing any one of the following, regardless of the occasional good gesture or kindness, you are dealing with abuse:

Physical Abuse: such as hitting, pushing, or being physically restrained or choked; it involves bodily damage and hurt. Most of our lives, we’ve been told this is the only type of abuse - but that isn’t true. 

Financial Abuse: includes having money, property, or personal possessions taken away or stolen; being pressured into giving people money or changing a will; not being allowed your own money or access to accounts; withholding money from you or your children.

Sexual Abuse: includes any sexual act to which the other has not consented or can understand - including any touching or kissing when it isn’t wanted (which is actually sexual harassment), being made to touch or kiss someone else, being forced to have sex, or being forced to listen to sexual comments or pornography.

Psychological or Emotional Abuse: This happens when someone is verbally abused or threatened into silence and isolation. Emotional abusers use bullying behaviours to lower a survivor’s self-esteem. Emotional abusers constantly criticise, shame, blame, or otherwise humiliate us to get what they want. It is often the hardest form of abuse to detect - but, if you commonly find yourself hurt, frustrated, confused, misunderstood, worried, upset, anxious, or worthless any time you interact with the other, it is likely the relationship is emotionally abusive. It feels like “walking on eggshells” when you are with them, to avoid setting them off.
Neglect: includes ignoring or withholding physical or medical care - such as failing to provide the needed food, housing, heating, clothes, hygiene, and personal attention to feel human.

Abuse also covers forced marriage and honour-based violence. Honour-based abuse can take many forms, including threats or perceived threats, physical assault, rape, kidnapping, forced abortion, and false imprisonment - all in the name of so-called ‘honour’, perceived immoral behaviour which is deemed to have brought shame on the family.  

If your body has also been altered without your consent or understanding - such as in instances of Female Genital Mutilation - that is abuse. 

We know going through these details can be difficult - as it should be! These behaviours are abhorrent and vile, and it’s hard to remember our past (or present experiences), but our hope is that you can use these examples as guiding points – like sailors might use a bright star in the dark sky. When we remember what abuse looks like, we can reassure ourselves of our reality, remember our strength - rather than our weaknesses - in what we have dealt with or what we face down each day. And, like sailors, we can keep ourselves aimed towards a truth. 

Remember: our abusers’ actions will give them away. We know the truth. We can name it.

Coercive Control

It is also incredibly important to say these threats do not have to be direct or obvious to be effective or abusive. This is actually known as coercive control (which is the implied use of violence). 

More often than not, we know our abusers better than anyone - and they know us, because we’ve shared the most intimate parts of our lives with them. We can interpret their smallest gestures - like the motion of a hand or the slight pause at the mention of the wrong subject at the dinner table - in public or private - we know they’ll call out later. 

Coercive control is when abusers manipulate us to do exactly that - control us. This often involves isolating us from people who can support us, limiting our independence and the freedom of our lives - we’ll go more into this in Week 4. They threaten by intimidation - shouting, threatening physical harm to us or our loved ones, even to themselves, maybe switching between loving attention and cold rejection to coerce the behaviour they want.

But this control can also happen through the smallest action - using that comment at dinner, a minor change in plan, an unexplained text from someone else at an unexpected time, the tiniest of occurrences as evidence for something we’ve done wrong. 

All the while they are denying that this is what is taking place. 

The more subtle the gesture, the crazier we feel. After all, it’s just the quirk of an eyebrow. That couldn’t actually mean they’re going to hurt us, right? 

Or, the more extreme the threat or insult, the harder it is to believe, and so we doubt ourselves even more. After all, no normal person would actually say or do what they just did or said. So it must be us—we just misheard them, or misread their intent. It must have been a joke, or they were just having a bad day!

But you aren’t crazy, even when you might feel anxious or over-alert. Coercive control - the subtle implication or violation, humiliation, or shame - is absolutely abuse. 

The issue becomes, of course, when surviving the day affects how we feel in the long-term. But know that you can always relearn new habits if you are now somewhere safe, and - for those still in contact with their abuser - there are always tools to cope and to care for your wellbeing.

We haven’t gone through this list so you feel powerless. Your abuser overestimates their own abilities - and we, as survivors, can notice them, name them, and build the resources to cope. 

There is always, always something we can do. 

We wanted to end with a positive note about the next few weeks: 

Over the rest of this programme, we will be discussing the biology of fear, trauma bonds, and the ways our abusers keep us dependent. 

Throughout, we will focus specifically on this role of self-esteem in abusive relationships - not because you are responsible for how you’ve been treated, but because our abusers rely on lowering our self-esteem so they’re able to dominate us (and, really, to feel good about themselves). 

This is why it becomes important to take care of our self-worth when we’re recovering from (or living with) abuse. It’s also why Bloom’s model is to inform and to empower; the second is just as important as the first. Caring for yourself is actually one of the most powerful tools to undermine any encounter with abuse. 

The homework for this week is…

We’re going to continue with our thought diaries! Throughout the course, we want you to stay with your thought diaries, and try to write a bit each day. 
For those of us who have been abused or if we live with abusers, these journals are important because they offer a look back into what we’ve felt or been through. When we begin to rationalise what’s going on around us, or maybe begin to doubt what’s real, it’s good to have somewhere we can go to and trust for information. We don’t want to write anything that would put us at risk if it were found - but we don’t need dangerous details to remember what we’ve experienced.

Today, we want you to write down what stood out to you from this video or from the last. What are some truths or bits of information you want to remember? Put a star next to them! Again, just like sailors use the sky to steer their ships, try to memorise these messages and use them as guiding points so you don’t get lost in the face of abusive situations.
Feel free to write other things you’d like to remember that don’t have to do with trauma, too! Build your own night sky. 

Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this. 

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