I want to tackle a subject today that for some of us will be uncomfortable.
In our last two posts, Love Yourself and Tell Anger Where to Go, we explored how becoming your own best friend and processing your anger leads to emotional fitness. Protecting yourself from abuse is the third piece of the puzzle.
An abusive person is one that harms you verbally, or emotionally, or physically, or sexually, or spiritually. They refuse to allow you to hold an opinion contrary to their own. This type of individual seeks to manipulate you through coercion, false guilt, and fear. Their primary interest is not to have a real relationship with you, their primary interest is to control you. And in some cases, to intentionally hurt you.
Our goal today is to learn how to deal with abusive people in our life who operate at any of those levels mentioned above. We’ll only skim the surface today, so for a fuller explanation of this most important subject, pick up a copy of Unshakable You: Five Choices of Emotionally Healthy People.
I want to start by giving a biblical perspective on abusive people.
The apostle Paul warned his young apprentice Timothy about an abuser named Alexander:
“Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.”
The phrase: “Be on your guard” comes from a Greek word that suggests “to keep away from.” Apparently, Alexander the metalworker was a dangerous guy to be around. Paul’s advice? Whenever possible/practical, avoid him.
But what do you do when you can’t detour around a toxic person? Sometimes they’re your boss, or they live under the same roof with you. When it’s impossible to avoid them, here are five safeguards to protect you:
Safeguard 1: Be convinced that standing up for yourself is the right thing to do
This is the cornerstone of protecting yourself from abuse – if you don’t believe it’s the right thing to do, you’re going to struggle. When you’re confronted with abusive behavior, you have the right to refuse to be treated in a demeaning and harmful manner.
Safeguard 2: Understand the difference between persecution and abuse
Jesus told his disciples, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” Protecting ourselves from abuse requires us to distinguish between being persecuted for our faith vs. simply being in the path of mean-spirited bullies. Don’t confuse the two scenarios—they are not the same.
Safeguard 3: Keep loving yourself when facing abuse
When the Alexander-the-metalworkers of the world try to intimidate or victimize you, keep telling yourself “I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I am a capable person. I don’t deserve to be treated this way.” When we respond this way, we create a fence around our emotions. And it helps us to understand the abuse is their issue, not ours. Our post Love Yourself will help you implement this third safeguard.
Unfortunately, abusive personalities live with their own skewed version of reality. No matter how inaccurate their version of an event is, they are absolutely convinced their version is the gospel. Protect yourself from people who operate at this level of self-deception by practicing healthy self-talk when they attack you.
Safeguard 4: Understand what “loving your enemy” really means
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies.” He was addressing a misinterpretation of the OT Scripture in Leviticus 19 that simply stated: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Somewhere along the line “hate your enemy” was added to the end of that verse . . . probably by the teachers of the Law. Jesus took issue by declaring “Don’t love only your neighbor – love your enemy too.”
Confusion comes when we misinterpret Jesus’ intent here. What was He trying to teach us? Two things stand out to me. First, Jesus was teaching us not to allow hatred to lodge itself in our heart because hatred is cancerous, and left unchecked it destroys us. The second thing that stands out to me here comes in the form of a question: what does it mean to genuinely love our enemies? The unvarnished truth is when someone abuses you, he or she is sinning. Is it loving to let them continue to sin against you? Is that truly in their long-term best interest? Nope.
Loving people who abuse you means you care what happens to them and hope the best for them and maybe even pray for them. However, it does not mean you allow them to take advantage of you.
Safeguard 5: Consistently addressing abuse when it happens
Let me tell you the story of Lou Ann (not her real name). I was teaching in her church several years ago, and after speaking on the subject of protecting oneself from abuse, she came up to chat. Lou Ann was in her mid-to-late 40s and lived with a verbally abusive dad. He was a recent widower, and once his wife was gone, Lou Ann became his new verbal punching bag. She told me, “if I just put up with it a while longer, maybe he’ll come to the Lord.” I asked her, “Has he gotten noticeably closer to following Christ in the last year?” Her response was, “Well . . . no.” Then I asked her: “And how are you feeling?” She responded, “I’m exhausted. I’m running on fumes.”
Will someone please explain to me how that scenario can be right? Both parties in the deal are losing. The reality is if we don’t tell the truth to the abusive people in our life, if we tolerate their abuse without standing up for ourselves, deep down we end up resenting them anyway. And I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time even wanting to be near someone I resent, much less win them to Christ. There is a better way: tell the abuser how you feel about their behavior—directly and in love.
Now let me say something that may be difficult to accept. If the abuse has gotten physical in nature, you must understand that a line has been crossed. You need to put some geographic distance between you and your abuser, so they can work on themselves and hopefully get better. The longer you subject yourself to physical mistreatment, the more likely you’ll believe the lie that you deserve to be mistreated. That somehow the abuse is your fault.
Getting and staying health emotionally requires us not only to love ourselves and tell our anger where to go. If we want to get healthy/stay healthy, we must learn to protect ourselves from people whose mission in life is to hurt us
The good news is that with practice, and God’s help, and the support of loving friends, and often with guidance from a counselor, we can develop this skill. And when we learn to live this way, we’ll experience more joy. More peace. Our confidence will grow. A sense of control will be restored to us.
You may be thinking to yourself, “John, nice post, but you don’t understand my life. I’ve been living in an abusive situation for so long I don’t see a way out and I don’t think I can actually do what you’ve suggested.” Yes you can. I’m not suggesting it will be easy or risk-free. But you can learn how to protect yourself from abuse.
Love yourself. Tell anger where to go. And protect yourself from abuse. These behaviors will help you get and stay healthy emotionally. If you are suffering with depression or anxiety, don’t try to overcome them on your own. Get to your doctor. See a qualified counselor. Surround yourself with people who will love you, pray for you, and laugh with you.
There is one additional building block you will need to lay in order to truly take charge of your emotional health . . . refueling emotionally. We’ll tackle that subject next week
Rooting and praying for you!