#1277: “Abuse, agency, and the limits of advice.”

Behind a cut for mention of physical and emotional abuse of adult children by parents as well as some frustrations and victim-blaming attitudes that are common in friends and support networks of people who are embroiled in abusive situations.

Abusers ruin everything, pretty much.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I (31, nb, he/him) have a friend who we’ll call Shokyou (30, f, she/her). We got in contact via fandom stuff over social media (she lives in America, I’m in Europe) and we’ve been friends for over 5 years.

The thing is, Shokyou’s family situation is totally horrific. Her parents abused her constantly as a kid, beating her and subjecting her to hellfire-style preaching at their churches from when she was absolutely tiny. She’s told me that before she was in double digits she was already convinced that she was so bad she deserved to burn in hell forever. Not surprisingly, she’s got some really serious mental health problems that…well, this wouldn’t be the only reason why she has them, but it sure seems like a key factor, especially given how much stuff she heard from parents or pulpit factors into the things she says about how terrible she is. (I’ve been her closest confidant for years; I’ve had something of a ringside seat.)

I’ve been telling her for years that the way she was treated wasn’t okay, the way she still is treated isn’t okay (she still lives in their house because she can’t afford to support herself and leave-her mental health problems are just crippling, she can’t hold down a job), and sometimes she seems to begin to believe me…but she always falls back into making excuses for them.

“Dad only really hit me once, the other times were just spanking!” (With a leather belt.)

“It wasn’t religious abuse, because they do sincerely believe in fundamentalist Christianity-from their point of view they were trying to save me from going to Hell. Given they thought that was a real danger, what else could they do?”

“It’s not their fault they’re right-wing queerphobic racist anti-feminist Trump supporters who go on fascist screeds at the dinner table, they can’t help it. I’m probably being unreasonable by being secretly queer and liberal.”

“All the stuff they did was normal in our subculture, and a lot of other parents were far more harsh that they were. You just don’t understand because you’re an outsider.”

“They love the person they think I am. They’ve supported me financially and let me live with them when they didn’t have to. It would be ungrateful to call them abusive.”

Worst of all? “But I still love them.”

It’s driving me completely fucking nuts. And not helping my mental health, either, especially since I’m also a survivor of parental abuse and a lot of her brainweasels are similar to mine. She keeps hitting me as collateral when she starts tearing into herself.

I don’t want to ditch Shokyou or cut off support; I care about her, and she needs me. I’ve been abandoned by close friends before and I don’t want to break her like that. (And she would break.) But it’s just so frustrating. I understand that she can’t physically get away from them right now (especially right now in the middle of a pandemic), but she needs to defend herself emotionally against them…and she just won’t do it, because she can’t make the leap to thinking of them as enemies. I’m pretty sure that’s a big part of why her mental health issues haven’t improved even now she has medication and a therapist; she’s refusing to address the elephant in the room, the thing that fucked her up to begin with.

But nothing I say seems to make any lasting impact. She always just resets to blaming herself and insisting that her parents are normal. I just want to know what to say, what approach to take. Surely there must be a way to get through to her properly?

-Tairté (Who Is Just So Tired)

Hi Tairté The Tired,

Thanks for your letter. The subject line of your email was: “I’m trying to help my friend, but she clings to her abusive parents,” which I’m including because it says a lot about the framing of this question.

For abuse survivors and people with mental health issues (two things that often carry a lot of stigma and are not well-understood by people who haven’t experienced them), finding other people who have survived the same thing can be life-changing. Someone who believes you! Someone who finally understands what it’s like! A friend who can compare side effects, scars, escape plans, a friend who can cut through all the secrecy and shame, can be like a drink of water in the desert.

Shokyou’s home life sounds horrible, and I hope she will be free of it someday. The problem I’m spotting in your friendship is a different problem, though, and it’s one that sometimes plagues friendships that are forged in sharing and surviving trauma:

  • You are undoubtedly the expert on your own mental health and the things you survived, and you undoubtedly know more about what it’s like to be abused by a parents than someone who hasn’t.
  • Shokyou is the sole expert on her own situation. What you’ve survived gives you insight and empathy, but it doesn’t make you the expert on the right course of action for her. If her parents say awful things to her and she “finally stands up to them” the way you think she should, what happens if things get even worse? It’s so entirely possible that what you see as foolish rationalization actually works as strategic de-escalation in the trade-offs that she and not you must negotiate daily. Any way forward has to be grounded in Shokyou’s being the boss of her own life. She’s the one who has to live it, after all.
  • Friendships that are forged in the act of sharing trauma sometimes break under the strain, because the friendship becomes all about the trauma. Being there for a friend in crisis is good! Being in a friendship that is entirely about managing a crisis can get really unbalanced and airless for everyone involved, especially as the power dynamics of “who is the helper” and “who is the helpee” get more and more calicified. Once you decide you’re a natural-born fixer, it’s easy to objectify people, even people you love, into problems to be solved. To save this friendship we gotta get you out of that role.

What you’re asking me to do, to give you a way to finally convince Shokyou to see the light, to finally stand up to her parents, to define her experiences a certain way, to make the leap that her situation and her mental health are intertwined just so, isn’t just impossible (b/c Shokyou is the boss of herself), it’s also unethical (b/c Shokyou is the boss of herself). It puts Shokyou in a terrible position because it traps her between her parents, who treat her like she is wrong about everything, and her close friend, who has just told me that she is wrong about her family.

People do eventually leave abusers and abusive situations, but they don’t seek out the “supporters” who make them feel small and like they were getting it wrong the whole time for help if they can possibly help it.

Abuse spirals out, it almost never affects the victim and only the victim, and I want to say that the  frustration and anger and worry and exhaustion and time sink of being the go-to person for someone who cannot leave an abusive situation, is very real. Left unchecked, an abuser can colonize everything around their targets like a parasite, until it feels like they are at the center of every decision and every breath, even when they’re not in the same room or even the same country, and even when you’re not the one in their clutches. It’s maddening to be on the sidelines of an abusive relationship and not be able to help, and I don’t think it’s victim-blaming to admit the collateral wear and tear that abusers place on social circles, families, and entire communities, as everything becomes more and more about managing the moods & whims of the biggest asshole everybody knows.

The worry and frustration for bystanders is real, it’s just that none of the worry and frustration supporters feel is worse than actually being in the grip of abusive people and unable to get out, nor are these feelings the deciding factor in what a victim of abuse needs to do next. As helpless and frustrated as you may truly feel, your feelings aren’t the most central ones when it comes to Shokyou and her choices. That can be very hard to accept, because it means accepting that there are limits to what we can do for people we love, and accepting that things might not change any time soon.

Feeling frustrated isn’t automatically victim blaming, but it becomes victim-blaming when you take your frustrations out on the targets of abuse because you don’t have power or access to the person actually doing the harm. And I think you are doing some of that, Tairté, every time you step in to try to redefine the situation in a way that erases your friend’s choices about how to survive her house and how she should feel about her past and her family. When you advise her and get increasingly frustrated with her refusal to take your advice, you’re not potentially defeating her abusers once and for all in the battleground of her feelings and her will, you’re actually erasing her feelings and her will in favor of what you think they should be instead.

And then, because the situation is echoing your own so closely that it’s opening up all your wounds, you’re blaming her perceived failures for how you’re feeling:

It’s driving me completely fucking nuts. And not helping my mental health, either, especially since I’m also a survivor of parental abuse and a lot of her brainweasels are similar to mine. She keeps hitting me as collateral when she starts tearing into herself.”

She’s not hitting you (metaphorically or otherwise) and this dynamic has to stop.

I think a healthy, supportive friendship with Shokyou means that instead of trying even harder to convince her, counsel or, or save her (armed with just the right words this time), you must instead disengage from solving the problem of her abusive home life and her mental health. To do this you must put some boundaries in place, for yourself and with her, so that this does not consume your friendship, and so that she is re-centered as the expert on her own experiences.

Some ways to do that:

Spend more time talking about things you enjoy and much less talking about abuse.

That doesn’t mean shutting down any and all heartfelt chats, or avoiding your friend (which is going to feel like a punishment for not taking your advice) but it does mean being more intentional about how you spend time together and maybe breaking some habits you have around venting to each other.

Could you be more proactive about inviting her to do fun, slightly more structured activities like watching a film or show together and comparing notes, playing a game, working on fanfic or art, or starting a book club?

Be honest with your friend and apologize.

  • “Shokyou, I’m glad you can trust me with your family stuff. I feel like I’ve been talking over you a ton and getting mad at you when you won’t take my advice, and it’s making us both feel bad. I’m so sorry, I’m going to try to be a better listener going forward.” 
  • “Shokyou, you know how I feel about your family, but I’m going to stop telling you what to do about them. I understand that you love them and you’ve chosen to live there for the time being, and I’m sorry I talked over you and made you feel like you weren’t handling things right.” 

You can also tell her if you would like to spend more time doing fun stuff than you would dealing with family stuff, not because you don’t want to ever listen, but because you want to hang out with your cool friend, not fix her life. And absolutely ask her for her thoughts & help in figuring out better ways to hang out with her.

Set limits for yourself about how much of other people’s woes you can realistically absorb. 

If your traumatic history is re-surfacing in a way that’s bad for you when you talk to Shokyou about her family, that’s something you can hopefully take to your own mental health support team. If you’ve got ideas about parental abuse and mental health and underlying causes, or frustrations that a friend won’t take advice, that’s a your-therapist topic (therapists know allllllll about persistent not-advice-takers in my experience 🙂 ), not a your-friend topic, especially now when you’re trying to disengage from that fixer role.

When you do talk to Shokyou, I do suggest interrupting repetitive self-deprecation and shame-loops if that is a thing that happens a lot. Not to tell her how she should be feeling, more, “Sorry, let me interrupt, I don’t feel like listening to you say mean things about my friend Shokyou today. Resolved: I think you’re great even if you don’t, and you can’t stop me :bangs gavel: New topic!” Does that make sense? Make it about listening to your feelings vs. fixing hers.

You can also say “Hey, I’m at capacity for this today” when you know that’s the case. Shokyou has her own therapist, it doesn’t have to be all you, all trauma, all the time. You can be a supportive friend and also take care of your own mental health, and sometimes, “Hey friend, I’m just not in a good listening/processing place today” is necessary self-care and self-awareness.

Stop giving advice to this friend. We can pause for the irony of that coming from me – in the form of advice – but I am serious.

The habit you have right now is that she vents about her home life and you give her advice about how she should handle her home life, yes? How exactly does that switch happen in your conversations, as in, literally what are the prompts or the words or signals that mean it’s Tairté Advice Hour?

Be honest, when was the last time she actually asked you, “What do you think I should do about my family ?” or “Hey, can you give me some advice about what to say to my dad?” 

Reset the dynamic where you are the expert on abuse and mental health and Shokyou’s journey and she is the supplicant seeking counsel. One way to do that is to not ever give advice unless she says the words “What do you think I should do?” You can always ask “Are you looking for advice or are you just telling me what’s up?” before you jump in to catch yourself, but remove yourself from the role of Shokyou Advisor right now.

Even if she does ask, when somebody keeps coming to you for advice about the same topic but they never take your advice or change anything, instead of going through it all again with them, sometimes you are allowed to say, “Well, you already know what I think” and not dig all the way in.

Be her friend and listen as much as you are able, and don’t automatically jump in to comment on or shape her feelings or course of action unless explicitly invited.

Replace the advice with other stuff that emphasizes Shokyou’s agency. When in doubt? Ask questions, but only questions that she is free to answer or not answer, and for which there is no wrong answer.

  • “Wow, what a mess, I’m so sorry you had to deal with that. What do you want to do now?”
  • “Would it help to talk about it more or do you want to play some video games and relax for a bit?” 
  • “Whoa, that’s awful! What do you think you’ll do?” 
  • “What does your therapist say about that?” “Have you told your therapist?” 

Above all, emphasize her agency. She’s the boss of how she feels, who she loves, what she wants, what she’ll do. Her parents aren’t going to treat her like the expert and the boss, but you can absolutely do this.

Redefine “help” so that it’s about Shokyou, not about you.

Right now you help Shokyou bear her home life by listening and advising her. We’ve already addressed the advice part, but what other kinds of help could Shokyou use? Specifically, if Shokyou does ever want help, what kind does she think will actually help her the most?

  • Information & guidance from places like Loveisrespect.org?
  • Money toward a new place to live someday?
  • General listening & friendly hanging out?
  • When she tells you stressful things, is there something she wants you to say to reassure her? Try “What do you need to hear right now?” when you don’t know what to say (but you know that it can’t be advice).
  • What kind of stuff is Shokyou great at, are there areas she could be the expert and help you? Sometimes abuse can make your world so small, and make your sense of yourself so small, and you start to forget what you are worth. Snap out of the fixer/fixee role and remind your friend where her talents lie.

Sometimes defining help shows you the limits of what you actually can offer, and that can be sad or scary, because you want to fix it so very bad, and the stakes are so very high. In your case, I think confronting these limits is a healthy thing, one that will stop you from over-stepping into trying to live your friend’s life for her.

Before we go, I want to say that your question helped me, an advice-giving sort of person, to gain perspective on both the beauty and the limits of what we do.

The beauty is in the trust and the story. You trust me with your story, in return I tell you a story that might map some places you can go from here.

The limit is that advice – when asked for and given with consent –  is a gift, and gifts are by definition things we give away.

Once you ask and I give, any gift is yours to do with as you will. You can use it, you can can pass it on to someone else, you can cut pieces off until it’s the right shape for you, you can roll it in glitter or cookie dough or just-cut grass, you can sell it on eBay, or you can leave it in the dumpster a few streets away so nobody will ever know that you didn’t actually even take it home. Once given, it’s not mine anymore, and you are the boss of what’s useful to you.

If the advice you gave Shokyou was truly a gift for a beloved friend, then she gets to do what she likes with it. We probably shouldn’t give gifts that we can’t bear to give away, ones that come with a secret expectation of doing exactly what we intended with them. That’s too much like control, a topic Shokyou already knows far too much about from what I can see. You can’t fix her family, but I think you can break the cycle between the two of you, and I wish you all the luck doing it.