power under abuse

“the classic gaslighter is a sociopath, calculated and relentless in breaking down their victim’s self-confidence, self-esteem, self-trust, and even sense of sanity. this sort of gaslighting is extreme and, one hopes, relatively rare. but i see a much more common, subtle and insidious form of gaslighting all the time in my work and life. i’ll call it “shadow gaslighting.”

it’s generally understood that we each have an unconscious aspect of self that influences us and drives our behaviour, beneath conscious awareness. this unconscious self is sometimes called our shadow. our shadow consists of the parts of our self that we have disowned or denied because they are frightening, disappointing, socially unacceptable, or because they threaten our positive self-image.”

-from gaslighting, shadow, and abuse – how protecting our unconscious can sabotage our relationships by justice schanfarber


please keep in mind before you read this...

the incredibly complex dynamics explored in this piece often feel impossible or terrifying to name. my hope is that a phrase like “power under abuse” (which is similar to but also distinct from the concept of lateral violence) will allow us to more easily identify and communicate the abuse we are experiencing and witnessing. and at the same time, i feel cautious offering this kind of short hand phrase as a tool to talk about abuse. so much of my work is about embracing complexity and buzz words are so often reductive.

so please know: i am trusting you here dear audience.

i am trusting you to hear the carefulness in my words and i am asking you to hold that carefulness too.

here we go:

when thinking about abuse most people imagine someone holding power over someone else. we envision a masculine person standing over a smaller, quieter feminine person - often they are yelling or being physically violent. undoubtedly, this stereotypical kind of abuse is prolific, and: power over abuse is decidedly not the only kind of abuse that exists.  

in my online class hawthorn heart: boundary skills and protection magic for femmes, witches and healers, i define abuse as “irreparable harm caused in relationship.”

by ‘irreparable harm’ i don’t mean that healing from abuse is impossible. healing from abuse is a kind of death and rebirth. abuse involves harm that haunts. abuse limits our sense of freedom and safety and it shapes the terrain of our capacity to love, trust and connect.

power under abuse occurs when someone who has less power behaves abusively towards someone who has more power.

sometimes this difference in power is real and concrete (for example a feminine person being abusive towards a masculine person). sometimes this difference in power is tenuous, or falsely constructed (for example someone lying about or downplaying how much financial privilege they have in order to manipulate someone into giving them money). sometimes it feels almost impossible to track the difference in power between the two parties because they both hold so many different identities, privileges and complex experiences of oppression (this is where power under abuse can be similar to lateral violence).

power under abuse dynamics happen when the person who is behaving abusively perpetually identifies as a victim, and as a result of identifying this way becomes unwilling/unable to take accountability for the harm caused by their actions. and at the same time, the person with more power (real, perceived or falsely constructed) often tends to feel incapable of setting boundaries or asking for accountability because they feel a strong sense of shame or guilt because of their (real/falsely constructed) sense of privilege/power.

in coming to understand power under abuse, it’s important to note that trauma perpetuates and enables black and white thinking. trauma reduces the brain's ability to understand and hold nuance. when we are traumatized (which we all are to some degree) it becomes harder to track these kind of nuanced power dynamics. many of us, when confronted with abuse, find well worn comfort in labelling one person as the victim and one person as the oppressor or abuser. often we apply these labels based on the identities held by the people who are in conflict. the person with more power is quickly labled as abusive and the person with less power is quickly perceived to be a victim. evidence that runs contrary to this binary label system can lead to extreme anxiety, confusion and denial that clings to simplicity.

and yet: understanding power in such a one dimensional way disempowers us all.

before i move onto the list of what power under abuse can look like i want to note that in this piece i am stepping out of my typical voice as an author. i don’t tend to write things like abuse checklists. more often i write personal narratives, a genre that lends itself more easily to nuance and complexity than checklists do. 

i wrote this piece, which employs a checklist, definition and short hand phrase, because i believe it is desperately needed.

it’s possible this list will make you feel defensive. that’s ok. this work is confusing and difficult but it’s also necessary and brave. take a deep breath and take care of yourself as you read this. if you notice yourself becoming triggered and activated set the boundaries you need to feel safe: including disregarding what i have to say, if that's what feels true or needed for you. and please know: my words are imbued with an intention toward healing, not an intention of enabling abusers.

it’s important to name that the abuse tactics i’m about to list stem from survival mechanisms that are related to trauma and oppression. many of these actions have a way they can be executed where they are healthy and even necessary. what i am listing here is examples of actions that lead to more harm, and more abuse, rather than clearer boundaries, repair or conflict resolution.

here we are called to notice causality, responsibility, intent AND impact.

i also need to acknowledge that i could not have written this piece alone. this piece is a result of deep personal learning that comes from within my intimate relationships. this piece represents what i've learned from my work witnessing and supporting community to survive and heal through violence. this work came through support from my counsellor, my partner, my friends and colleagues (brilliant and generous folks like tada hozumi, rain crowe and molly meehan).

i don’t claim that this piece is definitive or applicable to everyone’s experience.

here i am simply attempting to mirror back what i have witnessed, in myself and others. I’m offering you what i have learned, in the hopes that it will help you better understand your own experience and encourage you to pursue justice and repair.

and with all that in mind...

this is what power under abuse can look like:

  • using shame and social justice language to justify entitlement to someone else’s time, skills, resources or capacity
  • telling someone that their basic needs or boundaries (which is distinct from their comfort) are not valid because they hold an identity that is more privileged than yours
  • pressuring or forcing someone to have sex with you and then making claims about their politics when they say no or name that you were sexually violent towards them
  • accusing someone of controlling or abusing you because they are requesting accountability or transparent conflict resolution with you, for harm you caused or participated in
  • accusing someone (often publicly) of harming you in ways that did not happen
  • refusing to absorb or validate reality checks offered by friends and loved ones who witness abuse in your dynamic and justifying this deflection by stating that abuse "can only exist when power or privilege is held over someone else"
  • refusing to accept support from anyone other than the person you are being abusive towards and leveraging shame or guilt at their power and privilege to pressure them not to set boundaries with you
  • denying, erasing or minimizing the support you receive from the person you are being abusive towards, both in private and in front of other people
  • acting confused or dismissive when the person whose care you have erased or minimized expresses feeling frustrated or hurt by you (often this is done in front of other people and the person experiencing the abuse is framed as over reacting or just having an unrelated hard time)
  • accusing someone of abandoning you when they set boundaries or reach limits of capacity to care for you
  • refusing to set your own boundaries (when it was possible for you to do so) and then making statements like “you made me do this”
  • calling for ostracization or punishment that is not proportionate to the harm done (ie. 'going nuclear' when situation does not call for this or simple conflict resolution would have sufficed)
  • constantly accusing other people of being oppressive, while simultaneously being unwilling to unpack your own privilege or examine how you harm or hold power over others
  • not acknowledging the oppression experienced by the person you are abusing and/or convincing the person you are abusing that they have more power (in general and specifically over you) than they actually do
  • refusing to acknowledge care, labour and resources given to you by the person you are in conflict with and instead characterizing them as only ever having had harmed you
  • refusing to address conflict in a way that honours the integrity and humanity of everyone involved
  • stealing from the person you are being abusive towards and either denying you stole, or claiming you have a right to the thing you stole because you are more oppressed than the person you stole from (which may or may not actually be true)
  • accusing someone of triangulating or breaking confidentiality when they seek witnesses or support to navigate the abusive dynamic they are in with you
  • claiming to be 'getting support' and 'calling in witnesses' when you are spreading rumours and triangulating
  • weaponizing and applying pop psychology terms like "toxic", "narcissist" and "empath" to create a hyper simplistic narrative of what happened between you and the person you were abusive towards, where in you lack an understanding of what these terms were intended to describe.
  • labelling confusion, miscommunication or difference of opinion as gaslighting

power under abuse relies on (often deeply unconscious) gaslighting that leaves the person who is experiencing the abuse feeling like they are an abusive or oppressive person, when the situation is often not so black and white.

people are not born abusive. abuse results from cycles of trauma, cycles that are often many generations in the making. abuse originates from maladaptive coping and attachment mechanisms that we learn from our parents, our friends, our lovers, the patriarchy; the deep home wounds of colonization; and from the profound separation and dehumanization of oppression. 

and: none of what i just wrote is meant to excuse abuse.

if there is anything you can take away from what i’ve written here, it’s this: compassion for trauma does not excuse the need for accountability. 

compassion for trauma might make the use of abusive tactics understandable, but it does not make them excusable.

when people are experiencing abusive harm they are allowed to set boundaries with the person who harmed them: even if they hold more power than the person who harmed them.

what i crave is more tools and models that teach us how to step into our “right sized power”. i want us to be able to name without shame, but not statically inhabit, both our victimhood and our power and privilege. being victimized is a tender and powerful state and while i believe we should offer deep empathy and compassion to ourselves and others when we experience victimization, i don’t feel it is just or fair to enable someone to continue enacting abusive patterns because they have been abused or disempowered themselves.

enabling or ignoring abuse simply allows abuse to continue. where as confronting abuse and (as much as is possible within our capacity) holding everyone involved in abusive dynamics as whole human beings with complex histories can sometimes allow abuse cycles to be stopped and healed.

if you are experiencing a dynamic like this i highly recommend you seek support from a counsellor or mediator (check out the hawthorn heart boundary resource doc for some suggestions of people you can work with). restorative justice and community accountability processes can also be instrumental here. Healing from this kind of abuse, whether you enacted or received it or both, requires sitting with what happened and untangling where you have done harm to others and where harm was done to you.

this is not easy work, it’s best done in community.

if you want to unpack how power under abuse has impacted your life you can continue your learning with the following resources:

justice schanfarber's work, particularly:

gaslighting, shadow, and abuse – how protecting our unconscious can sabotage our relationships

toxic relationship. toxic partner. is your relationship unhealthy?

is victim a dirty word? on victim blame, victim denial, victim mentality and what the victim archetype can teach us

trauma in relationships – recognizing and managing trauma and triggers in love and marriage


chai chats podcast
specifically these episodes, where they move through a conflict between the podcasts hosts. here you can see a healthy way of addressing conflict that we can all aspire to:

episode 50: conflicting feels pt i
episode 51: conflicting feels pt ii
episode 52: feed yourself the sweet

kelly anne maddox's video on healing and thriving after abuse

the revolution starts at home edited by ching-in chen, dulani and leah lakshmi piepzna-samarasinha

tada hozumi’s piece setting boundaries as a white ally

kai cheng thom’s piece 7 ways social justice language can become abusive in intimate relationships

episode one season 21 of south park shows cartman creating a false victim identity and enacting power under abuse.