Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

When Abuse is
Not Abuse

The difference between
abuse and aggression

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/abuse.htm

  Updated  01-18-2015

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      This is one of a series of articles on Lesson 4 - optimize your relationships. This article...

  • clarifies the difference between abuse and aggression,

  • proposes the value of knowing when to use each of these terms;

  • describes four types of abuse; and...

  • suggests key options for responding effectively to abuse and aggression.

      This brief YouTube video clip previews what you'll read here. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons - I've reduced that to seven.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • this sample Bill of Personal Rights, and

  • this perspective on interpersonal boundaries

      Have you ever felt "abused"? Would anyone say you have been "abusive" to them or someone else? Do you know an "abusive" person? Keep your answers in mind as you read...

Abuse vs. Aggression

      Before reading further, think of someone you feel has been abused. Then say your definitions of abuse and aggression out loud, and compare them to what follows...

      Abuse is an inflammatory word which is often misunderstood and misused. Three things must be clearly true for behavior to be abuse. Otherwise, the behavior is aggression. "You were aggressive with me" feels less insulting and provocative then "You abused me!" to most shame-based people. Which would you rather hear?

Three Requisites for Abuse

1)  One person (A) must control something that the other person (B) depends on and can’t provide for themselves. In child and elder abuse, this manifests in a person being significantly dependent on their caregivers for shelter, food, clothing, health care, education, transportation, protection, and other necessities.

2)  The provider (A) must intentionally gratify some personal needs by using the dependent person (B) in a way that significant harms the dependent person emotionally, mentally, physically, and/or spiritually.

      For example, gratifying sexual needs against a dependent person’s will always causes major psychological + spiritual + (sometimes) physical harm (trauma).


3) The dependent person (B) must be unable (vs. unwilling) to defend themselves or withdraw from the harmful behavior. Some people ruled by false selves may believe that they can't protect themselves or leave an abusive relationship safely, so they endure harm that they really could avoid.

      Do you know anyone who would dispute this three-factor definition? What would they lose if they accepted this as accurate?

Four Kinds of Abuse

      One person can abuse another verbally, physically, sexually, and/or spiritually. Often these occur simultaneously. They can occur suddenly or gradually - e.g. caregivers who significantly neglect the developmental (vs. physical) needs of dependent kids over some years can be said to be "gradually abusive." The resulting psychological wounds are the same either way.

      If an adult yells obscenities, threats, or shaming insults at a dependent child (verbal abuse); or whips, burns, starves, or chains them up (physical abuse), that is clearly "child abuse." So is an adult intentionally scaring a naive child with vivid forecasts of a demanding, wrathful God vengefully punishing them for being "bad" by forcing them to "burn forever in hell" (spiritual abuse).

      Each type of abuse causes the receiver significant shame, guilt, fear (anxiety), confusion, and physical and/or psychological injury and pain. And abuses usually hinder the receiver from filling some key needs, like dignity, security, and self respect.

      By definition, significant caregiver neglect of dependent kids, disabled adults, and themselves is passive abuse. Other common examples are abandoning, scaring, excessive threatening, starving, confining, intentionally embarrassing, deceiving, bullying, harassing, and excessive teasing.

Verbal abuse is any vocal or written behavior that causes excessive or chronic hurt, shame, guilt, anxiety, confusion, disappointment, loss, or injury in the receiver. Common examples:

  • threatening ("If you don't stop bawling and blubbering, I'll give you something to cry about!")

  • name-calling ("How did you get to be so incredibly spineless, stupid, and ugly?"),

  • scaring (vs. alerting) ("If you play with yourself, young man, your eyes will fall out!");

  • shaming ("It's clear to me that no sane person is going to love you - ever!");

  • disparaging ("You'll never amount to anything! Who would want to hire you?"); and...

  • disappointing  ("Sorry I missed your game. I know I said I'd come, but, well, you know...") etc.

Physical abuse is any intentional or thoughtless behavior that causes significant bodily harm or pain to a dependent or helpless receiver. It is usually emotionally abusive too.

      Examples: whipping; severe pinching; excessive tickling; burning; poisoning; cutting; forced feeding and/or enemas; starving, unnecessary injections; smothering; holding under water; tripping; non-playful punching, slapping, kicking, and hair pulling; pushing down stairs; etc.

Sexual abuse is characterized by the abuser satisfying sensual and/or sexual needs in a way that injures the other person psychologically, spiritually, and/or physically. This type of abuse does not have to involve physical contact - e.g. forcing a child to witness or listen to sexual behavior or language before they're developmentally ready to understand it. Depending on many factors, sexual abuse - specially incest - can be exceptionally traumatic to average kids. See this for more perspective. 

Spiritual abuse is any intentional behavior that uses spirituality or religion to cause excessive shame, guilt, anxiety or terror, or unhealthy, dangerous, unhealthy, or criminal activities. Some people also consider willful behavior that blocks healthy personal spiritual growth in a dependent person as abusive. See this article for more perspective.

      Abusive behaviors - specially if habitual - usually indicate that the abuser survived a low-nurturance childhood and is psychologically wounded. Self-motivated personal recovery via Lesson 1 or similar can significantly reduce abusive and neglectful behaviors over time. Learning to apply effective communication skills - specially assertion (boundary-setting and enforcement) - can help (some) abuse victims defend themselves, within limits.

      Note that recent research suggests that childhood trauma like abuse can activate genes that promote physical, cognitive, and psychological problems. We can wonder if such genes then pass on to the next generation...

Aggression, Submission, and Assertion

      Most social behavior can be typed as aggressive, submissive, assertive, or "disengaged." Can you describe the difference?

      Think of someone you feel is often aggressive. What criteria do you use to judge this? Are you aggressive at times? What do you feel and do when someone is aggressive with you? Do you feel aggression is usually or always "positive," "negative," or neither? How does this compare with what your child-hood caregivers thought? Here, "aggression" occurs when person A tries c/overtly to fill their needs by using person B, without caring about B's needs or feelings.

      Now think of someone you feel is submissive. How does this behavior affect your respect for the person? Would others describe you as submissive at times or often? Premise - submission is choosing to put someone else's needs, opinions, or values ahead of yours in order to avoid discomfort. In excess, this is self-abuse. Habitual submission invites social disrespect, discounting, and exploitation (being used).

      Chronic or compulsive submission is often a sign of being shame-based and ruled by a tireless false self. Such people often are ineffective communicators, because they feel inferior  and steadily broadcast "I'm 1-down" R(espect) messages.  People suffering the condition of codependence (relationship addiction) are often compulsively anxious and submissive.

      Now think of someone you'd say is notably assertive. What's the difference between them and the aggressive person you identified? Would people who know you well say you are often assertive? Premise - assertion is "the learned skill of knowing how and when to (a) identify and state your current social needs clearly, and to (b) handle expected resistances effectively." How does this compare to your definition?

      Typical victims of repeated aggression and abuse can't assert effectively (get their needs met), because...

  • a dominant false self promotes self-distrust, shame, guilts, and fears, and the person doesn't  know that or what to do about it. And...

  • victims lack effective-communication knowledge and skills (Lesson 2).

Could this describe you?

      Clearly knowing the difference between aggression, submission, assertion, and abuse is essential for avoiding and effectively resolving many relationship "problems." Do you agree?

      Pause and reflect - how do you usually respond to aggressive or abusive adults and kids? Is your way effective (get your needs met well enough)? Compare your normal behavior to these...

Response Options to Aggression and Abuse

      Some responses to these stressors are more effective than others. An effective response will...

  • preserve the receiver's dignity, integrity, and self-respect; and...

  • enforce effective boundaries and consequences with the aggressor/abuser. 

Does this describe how you usually respond to abuse or aggression?

      An ideal response to aggression and abuse also raises the other person's awareness of...

  • what they're doing, and...

  • the effects of their behavior - e.g. "I'm losing my trust in and respect for you"; and...

  • why they're behaving like this - (e.g. because a false-self dominates them now which doesn't know effective communication skills),

      and an ideal response would...

  • motivate the abuser/aggressor to want to learn more effective ways of filling their needs.

      Habitually abusive and overly-aggressive people need to hit true bottom before they're genuinely motivated to change their attitudes and behaviors. So trying to use logic, persuasion, threats, hints, and manipulation probably won't promote permanent changes in abusive or aggressive kids or adults.

      Let's use these ideas to explore your response options when (a) someone is aggressive or abusive with you, and when (b) you witness aggressive or abusive behavior between other people. Think of any recent examples of each of these, and keep them in mind as you read.

  Prepare Yourself

       To get the most from what follows, read these articles on assertion and "I-messages" and return here. Then get ready to respond effectively to abuse or aggression by first...

  • confirming that your true Self is guiding your other subselves. If not, make empowering your Self and reducing significant psychological wounds (Lesson 1) a high ongoing priority. Then...

  • affirm your rights as a unique, worthy, dignified person - i.e. "promote yourself to equal."

  • if your attitude about you and the other person is genuine mutual respect and compassion, go ahead. Otherwise, suspect that a false self rules you, and wonder whether your attitude may be unintentionally provoking the other person's behavior;

  • commit to gaining competence at effective-communication skills by studying Lesson 2 here;

  • learn how to judge whether the other person is ruled by a false self; and what to do if they are;

  • learn how to tell abuse from aggression (above), because they merit different responses.

  • If the aggression or abuse is significant and chronic despite your best efforts, question why you're in this relationship (i.e. which of your subselves is choosing to endure the disrespect and stress, and why);

  • Keep your current life priorities in mind, and use them to guide your responses;

  • Use these wise guidelines to help you decide what you can affect and what you can't; and...

  • Study and try these response-options.

Is there anything preventing you from preparing to respond to abuse and aggression like this?

      Now let's look at your...

Response Options if Someone is Aggressive with You

      Think of a recent situation where you feel another person was insensitive to your needs and feelings - i.e. they put their needs, dignity, and worth ahead of yours. Recall your emotional and behavioral response to them, and how you felt about yourself. Imagine what would have happened if you had decided to...

  • Use these traits to decide if the other person is ruled by a false self. If so, affirm that you didn't cause that, and can't change it;

  • Recall that aggression means the other person...

    • has a 1-person awareness bubble focused on themselves, and is unaware of that and what it means; and...

    • their dominant false-self ranks its needs, worth, and dignity higher than yours right now (feels superior to you) so...

    • you probably cannot communicate or problem-solve effectively with this person now.

  • Assess whether the other person's E(motion)-level is "above their ears" so s/he can't hear you now. If so and the situation permits, use patient, respectful empathic listening (hearing checks) to bring the level below their ears and restore their hearing.

      If the situation doesn't allow this, shift to asserting and enforcing clear boundaries and consequences without guilt or anxiety, per your personal Bill of Rights.

  • Choose among options like these to suit your situation:

    • Clarify what you need now from the other person, and compose a respectful I-message to assert your need or boundary. Expect resistance, and calmly respond with empathic listening. Then re-assert your I-message until

      • you get what you need, or...

      • you shift to problem-solving, or...

      • you withdraw.

    • If you feel you're in physical danger and assertion isn't working, call 911 or some other helper, or leave.

    • If you're feeling significant guilt about your attitude and/or response, consciously decide if it's warranted or not, and act accordingly - if your Self is clearly guiding you.

Response Options if Someone is Abusing You

      Note that all abuse is aggression, but not all aggression meets the three criteria for abuse. If you decide that you and another person clearly meet the three criteria, then review your options, starting with those above. Take as many of those preparation steps as circumstances allow, and...

  • review your version of this Bill of Personal Rights. Use it to justify your attitudes and responses to the abusive person.

  • check your assumptions. Are you really unable to defend yourself or leave, or are your dominant subselves too scared to do so? If your true Self is disabled, you'll probably get a protectively-skewed answer to this vital question.

A common crippling assumption is that there are only two options (black-white thinking). There are always more than two choices!

  • admit that passively avoiding firm, respectful confrontation with your abuser is enabling them - i.e. you are half the problem. Restated - face the possibilities that...

    • the way you have responded to the abuse (if it's chronic) is probably half the problem, which means...

    • you are probably controlled by a protective false self, which is the primary problem. Enduring abuse is a symptom of it. Feeling and thinking "I'm helpless" is a sure sign of false-self wounding and denial.

      When your Self is solidly guiding you..

  • face what enduring the abuse is doing to your self-esteem and your identity ("I am a person who doesn't protect myself"). A powerful option is to ask your Shamed Child subself what s/he feels about this. If you are an able adult, enduring abuse is self abuse.

  • decide how and when to identify, assert, and enforce specific needs, boundaries, and consequences with your abuser within the limits of your situation.

  • consider discussing your options with a skilled objective life-coach or counselor, and/or your wise Future Self. Your can see this situation as a learning opportunity (glass half full), or a stressful problem (half empty).

  • if your physical safety is at risk, consult with local police and perhaps legal counsel to clarify your rights and options. If you choose to invoke the law (e.g. an order of protection), first consider the long-term pros and cons - specially if you're responsible for dependent kids.

  Response Options if Someone Abuses Another Person

      Check to see if your true Self (capital "S") is in charge. If not, make freeing your Self your first priority unless the abused person is in immediate danger. Then use the three criteria above to make sure the behavior is true abuse, vs. aggression. This will guard you against biased attitudes ("Abusers are despicable morons!"), using provocative language, and overprotecting an able person.

      If time permits and you feel hesitant about intervening, reflect: "How will I feel about myself later if I don't take action now?"

      Identify the specific abuse is and what you want the abuser to change, so you can compose an effective verbal intervention. For example, "Stop abusing that little girl!" is more provocative and vague than "When you scream obscenities at that girl, you're harming her and destroying her trust in you. Calm down and tell the girl what you need."

      If the abuse is chronic (repeated), plan your intervention and consider if you need help in making it. If you choose to intervene (assert), expect "resistance" from the abuser - e.g. "Mind your own business" or equivalent. If you get resistance...

  • calmly say back what you hear with good eye contact ("You feel I have no right to interfere.") and then...

  • firmly reassert your intervention with steady eye contact.

      Avoid the temptation to get into a power struggle ("I'm right! No, I'M right!") or screaming match - lose-lose-lose! Also avoid...

  • name-calling ("What a poor excuse for a parent you are!"),

  • insults ("You have the brains of a doorknob!"), and

  • threats that you don't mean or can't enforce.

       Sometimes just looking steadily at an abuser without speaking creates enough discomfort to stop their behavior. Depending on the situation, use options like those above to guide your attitudes and choices.

  Status Check

      If you're ruled by a false self and/or feel at risk of major harm (i.e. you feel you can't protect your-self and/or an abuse victim), you may agree with the ideas in this article and not act on them. Answer the following honestly to see if this may be so. "T" = true, "F" = false, and "?" = "I'm not sure," or "It depends on ___ (what?)"

I _ can tell when a false self is controlling me or someone else now, and I _ know what to do when that happens.  (T  F  ?)

I _ can tell abuse from aggression now, and I _ know why differentiating them is important. (T  F  ?)

I'm motivated to confront people who use the terms "abuse," "abuser," and "abusive" incorrectly and inform them of this important difference. (T  F  ?)

I believe I was significantly abused (including psychological neglect) as a child.  (T  F  ?)

I am abusing someone occasionally or regularly now. (T  F  ?)

I have been tolerating significant abuse from someone recently, rather than asserting and enforcing appropriate boundaries and consequences. (T  F  ?)

I know someone who is abusing another person now, and I am motivated to intervene - or - I am ready to find appropriate help on intervening. (T  F  ?)

I view people who abuse others as wounded and unaware rather than bad, evil, immoral, selfish, and/or "sick."  (T  F  ?)

I  view adults who tolerate being abused as (a) wounded (e.g. shamed and scared) and (b) unable to assert personal boundaries, rather than pitiful, weak, spineless, cowardly, or self-neglectful.

I'm sure my true Self is responding to these statements now - or if not, I know which of my well-meaning subselves are responding. (T  F  ?)


      This article describes three conditions that must be present for behavior to be abusive. If they're not all present, the behavior is aggression. Aggression is a less inflammatory personal and social judgment. The distinction is important to minimize aggravating relationships by mis-labeling someone as "abusive."

      The article describes four types of abuse, and gives examples of each. It briefly explores the difference between aggression and submission, and concludes by suggesting practical response options to aggression and abuse.

      Unless you're morally or legally responsible for the other person (like a child) or you depend on them for health and security, (a) choosing to endure abuse or aggression and (b) how you respond to it are the real problems, not the other person's behavior.

      Reflect: why did you read this - did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self or ''someone else''?

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