A significant source of pain for survivors of abuse is the never-ending internal conversation: What happened?, Did it really happen?, Did what happened rise to the level of abuse?, and How bad was it?
Answering these questions is difficult for two reasons. First, abuse is recalled in fragments because it registers in the older, nonverbal parts of the brain (the reptile brain). Second, there is no commonly understood scale of “badness” or “realness” outside of ourselves to help make sense of the past, and sometimes the present as well.
The good news is that there are objective ways to evaluate your experience. They are derived from new understandings about how human beings develop, the nature of trauma, the mechanics of memory, and the components that make up resilience.
In this article, we will pick one of the most easily understood evaluation tools, a list of Basic Human Needs. This list is a compilation of what every human, in every culture, needs to have in order to live a healthy, well-adjusted, complete life. Meeting them does not depend on wealth, access to electricity or plumbing, age, or gender. Significant gaps or failures of access have consequences for the human being who experiences them.
Here’s a typical version of the list:
How to use this list to evaluate your experience:
Read the list to yourself, preferably out loud. Look up words you don’t understand (like empathy or efficacy). Notice how the words are grouped under larger categories. People who try this are often surprised to see how large the “Connection” and “Meaning” categories are.
Pick one period in your life, like childhood or your current situation, and cross out the words on this list that you don’t feel were (or are) available to you. Notice the pattern of what’s missing and what remains.
One woman who was leaving a long-term romantic relationship said she crossed out everything but air and water, and “sometimes I even felt there wasn’t enough air in the room because he was so controlling.”
In many families, especially ones where being seen and not heard is the standard for behavior for children, food, shelter, and a place to sleep covers the parental responsibilities. The rest is the job of school, a sports team, and then whomever you hook up with. There is no recognition that a child can’t wait 18 years to feel belonging, hope, or nurturing.
Take a few minutes to look at the picture that emerges from crossing out/what’s left on the Basic Human Needs List. The visual image you have created by crossing out what was missing for you provides a new kind of information about what you have, and have not, experienced. Often, it’s a picture that feels very sad. If you can tolerate it, sit with the sadness for a few minutes. This is a sadness you’ve been holding onto, without acknowledging or feeling it. Part of you already knows what this picture is showing.
If this were a list of vitamins and nutrients, the next step would be to see where your diet is lacking and add supplements to improve your health. This list works the same way. Now that you see what has been unavailable for you as a person, you can make changes to fill in the gaps. For example, if sharing and mutuality are not part of your experience, you now know that these things are important (not frivolous demands made by needy people), and you can look for safe ways to bring more sharing and mutuality into your life.
If you are unable to make changes, the picture you’ve made using this list can show you how bad things are, and validate your sense that things aren’t right by naming what’s going wrong. Use it to answer the questions in the first paragraph:
What happened?/ What’s happening?
Did it really happen?/ Is it really happening?
Did what happened rise to the level of abuse?/ Is it abuse?
How bad was it?/ How bad is it?
Where this list won’t help you: Abuse and neglect are like yin and yang, two interconnected sides of what can go wrong for human children and adults. When you are planning how to fill in the gaps, it doesn’t matter whether you classify “lack of honesty,” for example, in the relationships you are looking at as abuse or neglect.
Before you fill those gaps, you might feel not only sadness but also anger at those who failed you. How normal of you! You might want to take this list and show it to your parent or partner to prove their treatment of you is wrong and hurtful. Again, how normal of you! In fact, the more abuse and neglect you have suffered in your life, the greater the urge to confront or punish those responsible.
But the odds are, the reality you’ve discovered in the list won’t help you get through to those who have failed you. Confronting an evil parent, or even a guilt-ridden apologetic one, has a backlash of guilt evoked by our universal code of honoring parents that is worse than walking away. Happy endings are rare, and the burden of repairing the damage still falls on the child.
If you look to the justice system, you’ll have a long wait and a great possibility for disappointment. Even people whose perpetrators get the death penalty rarely report they feel better, let alone have the missing pieces restored.
The course of action that works well for most people is to remake their lives with the help of diagnostic tools like the one above. The world is a diverse and lively place where you can find people who will respect and validate your needs. There’s no reason to look back.
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