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Self-Blame and Perceived Control in Abusive Situations » Self-Perception and Health

Self-Blame and Perceived Control in Abusive Situations

February 12th, 2009 by bria Leave a reply »

Why do women often place the blame for physical, sexual, or emotional abuse on themselves? What factors lead to self-blame, and when do women decide that what they are experiencing is clearly wrong and solely perpetuated by their violent partner? I was particularly interested by this topic in our readings about domestic abuse because it applies to all three categories of abuse: physical, sexual, and/or emotional. In addition, this phenomenon seems to people who have not been abused as odd and shocking: it’s hard to understand how one can become so psychologically warped.

What is self-blame, and why does it occur? Self-blame includes “assuming personal responsibility for the occurrence of a traumatic event,” often when it is clear from an outside viewpoint that the person who engages in self-blame is actually the victim. Some psychologists have characterized self-blame as an “attributional response predictive of poor adjustment,” however, other theorists have indicated that self-blame “…may enhance the perception of future event avoidability,” (Janof-Bulman, 1979) suggesting that “perhaps the perception of future events as modifiable may be preferable to the admission that life occurs haphazardly” (Porter, 1983). This indicates that battered women may attempt to challenge feelings of powerlessness and helpleness by assuming responsibility: this perceived reality, where she is in control of the situation, may seem to be something that can “aid” her in coping psychologically with the abuse. Obviously, this is also rather maladaptive and not the desired situation, but this theory offers an interesting perspective on why women may engage in self-blaming behaviors.

In genereal, research indicates that there are two distinct different kinds of self blame: “characterological” self-blame, where the victim blames aspects of their personalities or themselves that are causing the abuse (i.e. He slapped me when he got angry the other day, but I deserved it since I’m not really a good girlfriend) or “behavioral” self-blame, where the victim attributes the blame to certain or specific behaviors (He hit me last night, but I shouldn’t have asked questions about his work). As you can imagine, women involved in abusive relationships have been shown to have a high tendency towards self-blame compared with those who have left their abuser. Furthermore, women who engage constantly in characterological self-blame tend to have lower self-esteem and lower perceived self-control, Within this article in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence,  “Attributions of Self-Blame and Perceived Control as Moderators of Adjustment in Battered Women,” the authors argue that it is this key factor of perceived control that can significantly alter how a battered woman reacts and recovers psychologically from extreme abuse situations.

As they elaborate, appraisals, or how a woman assess the experience, influence many aspect of the violence experience including the degree to which “the violence is experienced as stressful, interpretations of the cause of the violence, and the meaning of one’s experience with violence” and “subsequent attributions are central in the management of emotional and physical reactions.” This perceived self-control that leads to an increased ability to manage the psychological components of abuse is thus argued to be a central factor in resiliency to abuse.

We’ve seen it before, and we see this theme again here: empowerment, empowerment, empowerment. When women believe that they have a greater degree of self-control, regardless of the situation, they may be able to more accurately cope with the aftereffects of abuse. Although it is of course important to focus on prevention techniques and to raise awareness of abuse, it is also interesting to look at what can be done for women now who are in abusive situations and who are coming from abusive situations; as the authors note, “increasing perceived control may be one mechanism for counselors to use before abuse reaches critical and potentially fatal levels.” Depression and other mental health issues have shown to be extremely prevalent in women within and exiting from abusive situations, and mental exercises, encouragement, or pamphlets may help increase perceived self-control.

The article does not offer concrete strategies for “increasing perceived control,” but it has convinced me that it affects resiliency and is extremely important for the psychological health of battered women. The question is, how can we, as outsiders, most effectively empower battered women so that they can shift the blame, rightfully, to their perpetrators, increase their perceived self-control, and successfully exit harmful situations?



  1. sunree says:

    I understand how perceived self-control would impact an individual’s ability to interpret and cope with an abusive encounter. However, I am unclear as to whether mechanisms to increase perceived self-control are necessarily productive in helping a woman to deal with the heart of the conflict and free herself from an abusive relationship. I could see perceived self-control, interpreted as self-blame, as the very mechanism that keeps a woman in a violent setting: “if I don’t do XYZ again, then he probably won’t hurt me”. As such, how can interventions empower women to feel that they have control in their relationship and thus feel inspired to address the wrongdoing instead of rationalize it away as an act that they provoked?

  2. nmh says:

    Based on my own experiences with this, I would say that I believe people tend to take the blame in a way to find an answer to this situation. At least for me, it’s hard to experience something and not know why it happens. If I can provide a rationale for it, then it won’t stick in my mind all day long. If the rationale is “my partner is abusive”, there is an internal imperative to do something about it, which is overwhelming (like you discussed), particularly if you love the person or you have kids or you don’t have the economic ability to do so. Therefore, it is less self-hating to attribute abuse to yourself (”I shouldn’t have said that one thing that one time”) than to tell yourself “I’m in an abusive relationship, but I don’t respect myself enough to leave” or “I’m too much of a coward to leave”

  3. mlizzard says:

    I think you raise a few really interesting ideas and points in your blog topic this week. Perceived control is a topic I also addressed in my blog, and it has been shown to lower stress levels and dramatically improve health levels. However, how do you create a sense of perceived control? My answer would be from social support and social outlets and if women can develop a network they are one step closer to feeling like they in control and improving their quality of life now.

  4. sarahconstance says:

    I think that there is a major point that is being left out in this discussion: manipulation by the abuser. I would argue that the woman doesn’t necessarily blame herself as a way to cope with the situation, but that abuser manipulates her psychologically to make her believe he’s not really that bad, blame situational aspects rather than the abuser’s character, or just put her down so much that severe depression additionally warps her mind to create such negative self-talk. It is truly difficult to understand and comprehend unless you’ve experienced it, but psychological manipulation is one of the most powerful tools abusers can use to keep their victims trapped and isolated.

  5. bria says:

    For future commentators, a few clarifications:

    1.) this article, nor I, does/do NOT support self-blame as a mechanism to enhance perceived self-control. The article points to self-blame as a maladaptive coping mechanism to try to attain greater perceived control, which it then goes on to argue as an essential component for resiliency.

    2.) Sarahconstance — Within this context, it is assumed that the perpetrator IS, most of the time, psychologically manipulating the woman in some way, shape or form; however, at the same time, the article argues that this is not the sole reason for self-blame. One can imagine that psychological abuse would almost always in “characterological” self-blame, the more severe of the two.