What Is Abuse?


Growing up in my family I was mentally, emotionally, physically, sexually & religiously abused. I have spent the last 30 years trying to learn how to recognize abuse when it happens to me, and learn when to walk away from people who are abusing me. How do you tell the difference between abuse that you need to walk away from versus difficult people that you need to learn how to get along with? I feel my partner is mentally abusive but I’m not sure if I’m being overly sensitive. Define abuse?



Dear Friend,

I’m not a professional psychotherapist with a ready-made definition of what behavior constitutes “abuse” from a clinical point of view. But as a metaphysician and spiritual counselor, let me begin with the simple acknowledgment that the world we live in is filled with conflict and differences. When one animal seeks to eat another, is that abuse? When two people disagree, or have opposing points of view, is that abuse? If one person asks or demands that another person do something or behave differently, is that, too, abuse? There comes a point, you see, when it becomes difficult to distinguish abuse from the simple differences in behaviors, attitudes, and points of view between individuals.

The stories of disciples and gurus are such that it is easy to imagine that — under today’s view of abuse — that some gurus would be accused of abuse when, with wisdom, they apply the cauterizing surgery of soul-wisdom to ego’s ignorance. An example would be Babaji who struck a chela (disciple) with a burning stick from the campfire and injured the chela’s shoulder. The pain of the wound saved the chela from much past bad karma and soon thereafter Babaji healed the chela’s shoulder. The chela was deeply grateful.

So let us say, then, that the intention behind my words and actions toward you is the starting point. Am I using the force of my will and emotions to take advantage of your weakness, my authority over you, my power over you for my own ends, or to harm you or to keep you in submission to my will? Surely it is not so difficult to attempt to “define” abuse. The real question, however, isn’t the behavior of others but our response to it.

If my parent or partner has a certain way of behaving, let us say “controlling” from my point of view, that does not necessarily constitute abuse — unless I, by virtue of my own tendencies (perhaps passivity, fear, even my desire to be and do good), submit repeatedly to the other’s authority which oversteps the bounds of our relationship. So, here again, the boundary between the legitimate differences in our roles and personalities must confront intention.

A parent has a different relationship to a child than exists between two partners. Yet I’ve seen the opposite, where a child behaves more like a parent toward the actual parent who has certain emotional needs. I’ve also seen cases where one partner behaves more like a parent toward the other partner — sometimes for valid reasons and sometimes by the force of past karma. But no matter: it always goes back to intention and to the actual harm (physical or emotional) inflicted.

Well so much for my avoiding a definition! When you are steeped in a tight relationship it is challenging to know where the other person ends and you begin. Meditation is excellent, for it can, over time, develop in you the intuition needed to respond naturally with wisdom and even-mindedness to another person’s behavior. There is no definition or formula that governs ethics or psychology. We have to deal with the karma we are faced with (a difficult person, for example), and spiritually our goal is not to create more karma — but by calm, even-minded, reasonable, loving, and, most importantly, wisdom-guided words and actions, release our soul from the entanglement of the past.

Thus it is that the modern trend of learning how to respond with respect, consideration for others, yet resisting without anger or violence the importunities of others is excellent. Intuition and devotion are better, but using reason is a good start. Reason tells us that responding emotionally generally does very little good. Yet even here, in dealing with a child or a crisis, a strong emotional response, centered in righteousness, is occasionally the valid and spiritually right response! Always we return to the soul’s centered and wisdom guidance and therefore always to prayer, meditation, and right attitude.

Should we just “run away” from abusive situations? If that were true, people would more frequently do just that. Often they do not run away. While it is easy to say that they are stuck or forced into the situation, it is delicate to admit (but it might also be true) that sometimes we have to pay our dues, karmically speaking. This often comes up in marriage counseling: “Should I leave? Should I stay and try to make things better?” These are not simple questions with simple answers. There is no pat answer. “What doesn’t kill us can make us stronger!” History is filled with at least a few heroes who survive and then thrive under the worst circumstances. Pleasant and comfortable relationships seem “nice” but are not always that helpful to the soul’s spiritual awakening.

Do you see, then, that it’s often an “inside job?” It’s how our soul responds to the challenge that makes the difference. Courage might mean walking away; courage might mean confronting; courage might mean loving or accepting. One thing you can “take the bank:” anger, fear, resentment, and any other negative emotion is a sure sign the soul has been eclipsed. The soul is calm, even-minded, wise, and, yes, courageous. Only the ego can be abused; not the soul. Live by soul consciousness.

You have to experiment with different responses to see during which ones the soul shines and during which ones the ego shouts or wilts. But lastly, only through deep, daily, guru-guided meditation and prayer, and the goodwill of your heart, can you open the channel to the soul’s innate wisdom.

I wish I had an easy answer for you, but perhaps these thoughts will help you.

Nayaswami Hriman