I spent the summer when I was 18 as a camp counsellor.
I had a group of four of us–two guys, and two girls–who hung out in the evenings when the kids were in bed (others were supervising!) and who did a lot of the games and music together.
We were good friends, and frequently teased each other and bantered back and forth.
One morning, halfway through summer, we were lining up with the campers in front of the dining hall, getting ready to go in for breakfast.
I was teasing one of the guys, whom I’ll call Dave for the sake of simplicity, and I went a little too far. I can’t remember what it was about now, but I know I was laughing and joking around.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, his whole face went red. He got right in my face and he yelled at the top of his lungs, “Stop laughing at me! No one should laugh at me!”
My heart stopped. I couldn’t breathe. Everybody was staring. I felt about two feet tall. He stormed off and I grabbed his arm to try to apologize, and he wrenched it away from me.
I spent the next week asking everyone’s advice on how I should make it up to him and how I could repair the breach. Everyone else offered wimpy advice, but no one really knew what to do. I felt so terrible. No one had ever yelled at me like that before, and I wanted to make it right.
It hit me a few years ago when I was reminded of that scene again (and I totally forgot about it for about twenty years) that what he was doing was totally inappropriate and actually abusive and bullying.
He was wrong to yell at me like that. I did not cause him to become angry; our conversation was actually quite natural and normal for people of that age. He suffered from a real rage disorder. Yet no one recognized it. And somehow it became my problem, because I could not stand up for myself and say, “what you did was wrong, and you had no right to treat me like that, even if I was pushing buttons I didn’t know about.”
And the reason I couldn’t stand up for myself was because it hit me out of left field.
I was just so utterly and completely shocked in the moment. I had never seen behaviour like that. And I felt such shame.
Looking back, it’s obvious that what he did was wrong. At the time, it wasn’t so obvious.
When someone does something awful to you that you were not expecting, and that you’ve never experienced before so you have no frame of reference, you tend to own the shame of it.
For some reason it’s hard wired into us to own someone else’s problems. Psychologists have said that it’s a way that we maintain the facade of control when something bad happens–if it’s my fault, then I can potentially figure out what I did to cause it so it won’t happen again. If we honestly realize that it isn’t our fault, in many ways that’s harder psychologically to handle, because it means that it could happen again.
(Obviously that’s silly, because it can happen again even if we do think it’s our fault, it’s just that this is the way our minds work).
I think a similar dynamic was at work with Harvey Weinstein and many of these actresses/models/assistants.
I’ve read several accounts this week, and over and over again women say something to the effect of:
“he showed up naked in his bathrobe and I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do.”
They say they were shocked. And they froze. And I believe it. I remember how I felt that summer morning, even though it was a totally different situation. When someone does something so wrong and completely unexpected, we don’t know how to handle it.
(By the way, I do believe more of these actresses should have come forward earlier, even if it was years after their own incidents, after they had had time to process it. If there weren’t a conspiracy of silence, many more women could have been spared this. But I totally understand freezing in the moment).
It is human nature to own someone else’s shame when they do something terrible, out of the blue.
Remember the United Airlines incident a while ago? A similar dynamic was there. People were just so shocked at what was happening they didn’t do anything. It’s not that they weren’t brave or they didn’t care; it’s that they were so shocked by abuse that they were almost paralyzed for an instant.
October is Domestic Abuse Awareness Month, and I know that many of my readers experience things like this–the rage, the rapes, the ridicule–in their own marriages and families. And it is natural to own the shame. “What did I do? How can I fix this?” But there is nothing you can do, because it is not your problem. When people are abusive, that is on them, not on you.
I understand that feeling of paralysis. I understand that feeling of such incredible shame. But as you’ve had a chance to look back and process it, please try to look clearly. I can see 18-year-old me, just joking around. Yes, I went a little too far. But the proper response would have been, “Hey, Sheila, cut it out.” And I would have. The proper response was not to go into a rage and lambaste me in public.
Maybe you look back and think, “but I hadn’t been very nice to him that day.” Or, “but we hadn’t had sex in a while and I know he thought he deserved it.” Or, “but I had annoyed him a lot leading up to that.” But just because you may have done something wrong does not mean that you deserved abuse, or that abuse was the proper response.
It’s taken a lot of years for many of the women Harvey Weinstein assaulted to come forward and name what happened to them. But once a few did, the floodgates opened.
Maybe it’s time for some of you to name what is happening to you.
You’ve lived with the shock. You’re carrying the shame. You’ve tried to fix it, but it isn’t working. Maybe it’s because it was never your problem to carry in the first place.
If you’re wondering what to do, here are some posts that can help:
- Ten Truths About Emotionally Destructive Relationships
- A Letter to the Woman with the Controlling Husband
- The One Sign You’re in an Abusive Relationship (from Emotional Abuse Survivor)
Have you ever felt paralyzed in the moment, because of someone else’s actions? What happened? Let’s talk in the comments!