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Why Do Some Victims Of Abuse Become Abusers Themselves?

    * I generally write using the pronouns he/him when referring to narcissists, but females are just as likely to be narcissists or exhibit narcissistic traits. So please don't think just because article uses the word him or he that it could not be a woman in that same role.

    It should come as no surprise that abuse can be cyclical – wherein the effects of abuse suffered domestically or in childhood manifest themselves into further abusive behavior down the line.

    Why Do Some Victims Of Abuse Become Abusers Themselves

    While this isn’t the case for some, there are a percentage of the population who take the pain they have experienced, and pass it on to future partners, their children, or indeed people they encounter in the world. 

    But why exactly do some victims of abuse become abusers themselves? 

    The Line Between Victim & Abuser

    Many experts suggest that the ‘line’ we draw between victims and abusers to separate them from one another, is in fact illusory.

    While it is never fair to compare the victim to their abuser, much evidence has suggested that some who have suffered devastating abuse at the hands of another, can then go on to inflict further abuse on a new target of their own. 

    Emotional Reactivity

    One such phenomenon that can occur within abusive relationships is emotional reactivity. 

    In any emotional relationship – whether it is a romantic one, a close friendship, or the relationship between parent and child – imbalances of power and dominance can become rife.

    While this often isn’t much of an issue to the overall functionality and happiness of most relationships, there are cases when this escalates to abuse. 

    Emotional reactivity is where the victim of abuse develops their own defense mechanisms within themselves – manifesting themselves in preemptive ways, such as shouting (if they have been frequently shouted at by a partner for no apparent reason), violence (if they are used to being struck or punished for no apparent reason), or any other volatile emotional display. 

    Victim Identity

    In modern society, there is a lot of good, honest change being made to the way victims are treated, breaking away the once commonplace notion of victim blaming, and choosing instead to empower and believe the stories of those brave enough to come forward. 

    However, in some cases, the feelings or social side effects associated with victimhood – such as emotional support, sympathy, or indeed attention from friends and loved ones – can manifest themselves into a repeat behavior which in itself becomes toxic and abusive, particularly as future relationships develop. 

    Ultimately, these seemingly positive feelings associated with being perceived as the ‘victim’ can give a sense of power – which to someone who felt powerless, could be an attractive thing indeed. 

    This blurring of the line is a central belief within modern psychology, and holds worrying insights into just how devastating the effects of abuse can be. 

    Primary Societal Mistakes Regarding Abusers

    Of course, it is often the case that an abuser was in fact a victim themselves, be it from their parents, or from a former relationship.

    However, the worrying thing about this realization, and the professional application of this notion to the abusers themselves, is just how quickly it can turn from a factual reason to a behavioral justification. 

    Just as the victim turned abuser can grow to revel in the sympathy they feel from others, this form of justification of the abuser’s actions can make them feel vindicated in their toxic behavior – with the past reasons for their toxic personalities being used to excuse what they have done in turn.

    The Blurring Of The Line

    This too relates to the above concept of the line between victim and abuser being illusory or somewhat blurred.

    In this sense, the abuser themselves has their victim identity reinforced, creating the same situation as mentioned above. 

    Why Do Some Victims Of Abuse Become Abusers Themselves (1)

    According to experts, there are four main mistakes that can be made when addressing the past trauma of an abuser: 

    • Emphasizing childhood mistreatment or similar instances. 
    • Validating resentment and anger as appropriate behavior – creating warped perspectives. 
    • Reinforcing their sense of entitlement – telling them they should be respected, which in their mind could mean their partners must submit to them. 
    • Confronting them in ways that induce shame, before they are able to regulate that feeling of shame with compassion and understanding. 

    Likewise, when it comes to victims, there are mistakes that professionals and loved ones can make when helping them through their trauma – namely methods that convince them the only way to get ‘better’ is to think like their abuser. 

    These can include: 

    • Minimize or justify their own aggressive behaviors. 
    • Dismiss their partner’s perspective. 
    • Put malevolent spins on their partner’s positive behavior. 
    • Use negative labels (eg selfish, controlling etc). 
    • Pathologize their partners and their behavior. 

    How To Successfully Break The Cycle

    There are however ways that professionals and loved ones can help to break or prevent this cycle of abusive and toxic behavior from reoccuring. 

    For Victims

    No good can come from telling the victim to abandon their compassionate nature – or by telling them to become more like their victim. 

    This in itself contributes to the abandonment of understanding, tolerance, and the compromise involved in healthy and loving relationships, and could just fuel the cycle to continue into their future relationships. 

    Treatment should attempt to build on the positive traits they have as a person, such as their compassion and kindness, and this will help to not only empower them and make them feel good about themselves and their attributes, but it will also help to pass those good traits forward to their future relationships with partners, children, and family. 

    It is only through the abandonment of this anger, resentment, and need for power, that victims do not turn into the very things they suffered through. 

    For Abusers

    Likewise, there are ways and means to reestablish positive behaviors in people who have been abusive. 

    This begins with an acknowledgement and the pursuit of the innocent sense of compassion they had as young children, before they suffered abuse – or indeed the traumatic events that led them to become toxic in later life. 

    This pursuit of positive values, and the positive effects they will experience from people they encounter in their lives, will help to show them that they have more important things to fuel than their own egos. 

    They must be helped to realize that the pursuit of the ego and power are not in fact who they are, but what they have become – merely a path they went down to destroy the feelings of shame and weakness they have come to associate with the innocence and compassion they once felt. 

    Final Thoughts

    While these scenarios might not apply or work to every instance of abuse – after all there are always anomalies – it is only through the pursuit and reinforcement of positive traits and behaviors that people can break away from the negative or toxic. 

    By associating the ego with the negative, and the pursuit of compassion and kindness with the positive, this is the best way to establish long lasting patterns of behavior that will stand the best chance of breaking the cyclical pattern that abuse tends to follow. 

    But remember, if you or someone in your life are experiencing abusive behavior, or indeed inflicting it, then the best course of action is to urge them to seek help from trusted medical professionals.

    If you need a crisis hotline or want to learn more about therapy, please see below:

    For more information on mental health, please see:

    If You Need A Crisis Hotline Or Want To Learn More About Therapy, Please See Below:

    • RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) – 1-800-656-4673
    • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255
    • National Domestic Violence Hotline – 1-800-799-7233
    • NAMI Helpline (National Alliance on Mental Illness) – 1-800-950-6264

    For More Information On Mental Health, Please See:

    • SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) SAMHSA Facebook, SAMHSA Twitter, SAMHSA LinkedIn, SAMHSA Youtube
    • Mental Health America, MHA Twitter, MHA Facebook, MHA Instagram, MHA Pinterest, MHA Youtube
    • WebMD, WebMD Facebook, WebMD Twitter, WebMD Instagram, WebMD Pinterest
    • NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), NIMH Instagram, NIMH Facebook, NIMH Twitter, NIMH YouTube
    • APA (American Psychiatric Association), APA Twitter, APA Facebook, APA LinkedIN, APA Instagram

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