One benefit of being in the mental health field for a couple of decades is the ability to step back and notice large-scale changes over time. One change that stands out is a tremendous increase in the use of the word abuse or abusive. Historically, the term abusewas reserved for the most grievous actions against a person’s dignity – sexual abuse and physical abuse being the most apparent.
With the acknowledgement that humans are actually very creative in how we can hurt people, more credence was given to the occurrence of verbal abuse, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse, etc. This shift, along with other cultural shifts in how we perceive and manage pain, seemed to open the door to labeling many actions as abusive. It is not uncommon for adult clients to seek therapy and in the midst of describing their experience, they say their husband, mother, or romantic partner is abusive. But when pressed for an example, it becomes clear that the treatment is certainly unpleasant, but not abusive.
Being treated poorly is categorically different than being abused. There are many categories for how others treat us less than ideally. Here are a few:
- Push around
- Call names
- Yell at
- Treat unfairly
For the sake of contrast, child abuse in Colorado includes (but is not limited to):
- Causing an injury to the child’s life or health (or putting the child in a situation where this could happen)
- A pattern of malnourishment, lack of proper medical care, cruel punishment, mistreatment
- DUI or DWAI with a child in the car
- Performing or allowing female circumcision or genital mutilation
- Allowing a child to be anywhere drugs are being illegally manufactured or certain drugs or precursors are present
- (Keep in mind, this is referring to children, who have no power to change their situation)
Here are four reasons to be more cautious about using the term abuse.
- Reserving the term is a way to honor folks who have experienced severe abuse. They have an experience that is significantly different than the norm. It is not best practice to use the same term to describe years of sexual abuse by an uncle, and to describe the bad behavior a couple uses in marital conflict. The acts are not similar and have very different ramifications.
- It provides clarity when intervention is needed. Mental health professionals are legally required to report certain abuse (even when the person telling us about the abuse is an adult), and are highly attuned to the word abuse. But when the matter is one of mistreatment versus abuse, authorities may be alerted when it is not necessary. This puts a tremendous strain on the system and makes it harder for children who are in desperate need to get help. For example, a family in our area was recently reported to CPS because their daughter was not in therapy. There wasn’t evidence of mistreatment, neglect, or harm in this case. The professional simply thought the daughter should be in therapy, so she called it abuse.
- Being more judicious with the term abuse encourages humility. When we call someone abusive, we’re saying they are doubtlessly worse human beings than ourselves. The fact is, however, that we all have the potential to hurt others even when we don’t intend to. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve treated others poorly. Would we want someone to call us abusive?
- Finally, it empowers us. When we call someone else abusive, there is an implicit assertion that the abusive person is the one with the problem. Frequently, it implies that the one abused didn’t influence its occurrence and couldn’t do anything to stop it. He or she is a victim of abuse, after all. However, when someone treats us badly, the question is “What are you going to do about it?” Using different language than abusehelps us take ownership of the difficulty we are facing and empowers us to do something about it.
Consider it. See what happens within you if you hold back the term and use something a bit more descriptive.