It was as a victim of sexual assault and then as a therapist where most of my clients had experienced some form of sexual violence that I became fascinated with the subject of control. Much of what I researched about sexual assaults and sexual abuse led me to understand that this abuse was most often not about the sex act but about control issues. Often, men who felt their lives were out of control in other areas would use sexual assault as a way to “regain” a sense of control. Of course, this does not work, but it does leave us asking why is control so important that men would engage in such risky and violent behaviors?
There have been increasing numbers of courses or programs to teach women and children how to defend themselves. There are books that have been published that teach children how to say “no” to inappropriate sexual touching. Some examples may include,
I Said No: A Kid-to-kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private – Kimberly King (ages 3-8)
My Body Belongs to Me – Jill Starishevsky (ages 3-8)
Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept – Jayneen Sanders (ages 3-8)
All of them have a common theme to teach children to take back their power and that they can have a right to and can take control over their own bodies. We see the same principles playing out in women’s courses that teach self-defense. Women learn how to stand on toes, knee an offender in the groin and how to break a tight grip among other physical skills. It is all about overcoming a more powerful opponent by focusing on their weak points, but underneath it is about taking back personal power from an aggressor.
So, my question is, do these same principles apply to more than our physical safety? The answer must surely be a resounding “yes”. If we can teach control over our physical bodies then we can also learn to have control over emotional safety, including our thoughts and beliefs. Emotional abuse comes in many forms such as gaslighting, being treated dismissively, racism, and constant criticism. If we arm our children and women with methods to deal with physical abuse, are there tools to help us deal with emotional abuse? Firstly, we can see that some of the same concepts apply to training to combat emotional abuse.
1. Escaping victimhood.
One of the saddest things about current society is not only individual victimhood but also community-wide victimhood that is prevalent. While systemic issues need to be addressed in so many ways what we are not teaching is that we can and should take our individual power back.
What holds us as a society and as individuals in victimhood? Fear certainly holds us back. There is also a degree of easiness in proclaiming ourselves to be a victim. It enables us to avoid making necessary personal changes when I can blame someone else for my woes. At the other end of the spectrum, being a victim can be a powerful position and a controlling influence. However, staying in victim mode is ultimately debilitating and will rob us of true personal power. It is an illusion of power. As victims blame others, they are giving their power away.
Getting out of the victim mode requires for us to do less finger pointing or blaming others and more introspection about what it means to have personal responsibility.
2. The more sure I am about myself, the easier it will be to set personal boundaries to protect myself.
It is hard to set personal boundaries that are to be respected if those very boundaries are a moving feast because we don’t know ourselves. While personal boundaries may change over time, manipulation can be avoided if we are clear about who we are. Our self-confidence can help us deal with our fears of what will happen if we refuse to be controlled. This does not mean that our lives will necessarily be easy when we are firm in our boundaries. History tells us of many examples where people have suffered some pretty severe consequences for standing firm. People have been imprisoned and have died for their personal principles. While this may be the case, as Viktor Frankl, the famous survivor of Auschwitz, said,
3. Teaching self-control and confidence should start young.
One of the delicate balances we must manage in parenting is how to teach children that they are powerful to keep them safe not only physically but emotionally, while at the same time wanting our children to be obedient to us, to be ready to “share”, to be giving members of the family. How do we balance teaching the ability to say “no” with the principle of being a contributing member of our family? While I am still working on the answer to this question, I was fascinated by a quote in the book “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
“When parents teach children that setting boundaries or saying no is bad, they are teaching them that others can do with them as they wish. They are sending their children defenseless into a world that contains much evil. Evil in the form of controlling, manipulative, and exploitative people…. Blocking a child’s ability to say no handicaps that child for life…This type of boundary conflict is called compliance. Compliant people have fuzzy and indistinct boundaries that “melt” into the demands and needs of other people.” (p.50)
If it is important to teach children physical safety from potential sexual harm, then it is equally important to teach children about having other kinds of boundaries to keep them from being harmed emotionally.
4. We must both understand and confront our fears: It takes two to create the manipulation dance.
Controlling or manipulative people tend to prey on our fears more than using any other technique, sometimes overtly and sometimes in response to the stories we tell ourselves. Are we too frightened to confront a loved one about their manipulative behavior because we are worried about losing that relationship or losing their affection? Are we frightened of losing our ideal family or even the image of an ideal family if we dare to rock the boat with a controlling member of the family?
It is an oddly typical technique of sexual abusers of young children to threaten their victims with withdrawing affection but also to threaten their other loved ones around them. Manipulators can continue to play on our weaknesses and on our greatest fears because they believe they have experienced success with these methods previously. Let me be clear, however. This is because the controlling behavior is accompanied by a “victim” who has handed over their power to the controller as a participant in this process. There is no inherent ability for one person to control another on their own. It takes two people to participate for this controlling behavior to work.
If we want to escape the manipulations and control, then we need to be willing to walk head on into our fears. We must be willing to accept the consequences of standing firm. To be totally honest, if we lose the relationship with a controlling individual then we have not lost a great deal. It was not necessarily a true and caring relationship from the beginning if one seeks to take the power from the other. If we face our fears and the consequences don’t occur as feared then we have the possibility of creating a relationship based on mutuality, respect and caring for each other.
This even applies in our work environment. It is true that our employers can make certain threats, up to and including losing our employment, if we are not compliant. But even here, being able to establish reasonable boundaries provides clarity for all concerned in the workplace and is of benefit to both the employer and the employee in the longer term.
5. If we are sure of and maintain our boundaries, this also means we can respect the boundaries of others.
It is a natural extension of these principles that if we expect others to respect our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, that we in turn will be more likely to respect theirs. The consistency of this principle is important. It applies to all, bar none.
Respecting others may not come naturally or easily as this is a learned skill that takes practice and time. If we have not learned this in childhood, then it will be that much more difficult to achieve as an adult, but not impossible. The results will be well worth the effort, not only for us personally but for our families and all of society.
I have a long way to go to fully understand the issue of control in human behavior. It still fascinates me, and I want to learn more. I do know that I am excited to stand in my personal power, to take responsibility for my actions and beliefs, and to allow others to do the same. My children are all grown now but I have an opportunity to walk alongside them as adults as we each establish good boundaries and avoid victimhood. It is my hope that my grandchildren and their children will have a legacy of strong identities that translate into avoiding the controlling and manipulation trap.
We'd like to thank Marianne Downing for contributing this article to Discover Identity