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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Essays and Blogs Concerning Mental and Emotional Health

Some Thoughts about Victimization, Anger and Abuse

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 16th 2016

Woman with bruised eyesI've been reading over comments made about abuse. There are many sad stories posted. Some are difficult, even painful to read. There are also a number of hopeful stories which suggest that truly negative situations such as abuse can be overcome. As I consider the various comments, I'm struck by how people handle similar situations so differently; by how some people are able to transform themselves over time so as to leave an abusive situation, while others don't seem to be able to get unstuck from the bonds that hold them in place.

It's not always the case that people can leave an abusive situation. Some people are trapped economically, or politically. Some people cannot leave easily because to do so will cause them to have to leave their children behind, for instance. Other people cannot provide for themselves easily. These sorts of situations are difficult to do anything about, at least in the short term. However, there are also many reasons people use to justify staying in abuse situations that are potentially under their control to change.

It strikes me that part of becoming able to leave an abuse situation involves learning to change the way that you think about yourself. In particular, the way that abused people relate to the idea that they are victims seems to be important. As a way to organize my thoughts on this subject, I've come up with three stages that some abuse victims seem to move through as they work their way through their difficulties.

Stage 1: Realizing abuse is occurring

It actually is not clear to many people that they are being abused. Such people need first to become aware that they are being abused before they can do anything about that abuse. The first significant change that people make, then, happens when they begin to understand that they are, in fact, being abused.

Some comments have been written by abuse victims who aren't sure if they are victims or not. At least, they aren't sure whether they are deserving victims or undeserving victims. Various people find it okay to be slapped, punched, kicked, or pushed, even to the point of damage, if there is some reason why they believe they deserve this damage. The distinction between a deserving and an undeserving victim is critical, because (so some people, not myself, think) if you deserve to be abused, it isn't really abuse; it's just punishment. Abuse only becomes easily recognized as abuse when it isn't deserved.

This sort of attitude is always a bit of a shock to me. I personally tend to think that there are absolute standards of abuse; that it is never really okay for one person to physically or emotionally beat on another person. I can't really think of a situation where it is ever all that appropriate for one relationship partner to physically strike another when that strike is not desired by the receiving party. But what seems like clear abuse to me is not recognized as such by someone who is in the middle of an abusive situation. So there is an attitude evolution that occurs, wherein abused people grow to see themselves as abused people; as true victims. The shift that occurs here is that they go from seeing themselves as deserving victims to undeserving victims.

Stage 2: Becoming angry about it; leaving the relationship

The majority of comments are from people who feel undeservingly abused. The defining feature of such comments is that they are emotional and upset in nature. These authors express an awareness that their situation is fundamentally unfair; that there is no reasonable justification for what has been happening to them. The emotion expressed over this unfairness is not consistent, however. Where some authors are angry, others feel hopeless or frustrated.

The main difference between whether people end up feeling hopeless or angry seems to come down to whether they end up blaming themselves for what is happening, or their abusers, and also to a lesser extent on how much control they feel they have over their situations. People can become angry regardless of whether they feel they have control or not, but it is easier and safer to feel angry when people feel that they have a little control versus when they feel they have no control.

Being able to feel angry about being abused is, in general, a good thing. Anger has the capability of acting as a motivating force. Anger's ability to motivate is never stronger than situations in which people feel they have been put down unjustly and that they have a right to take action to correct their situation.

So here is another step in the evolution of understanding what it is to be a victim. When you identify yourself as an undeserved victim, you may start to feel angry about your situation, and that anger can become (and often does become) the rocket fuel you need to get yourself out of a terrible abuse situation. Here is a case where seeing yourself as a victim can have a positive outcome.

Anger as rocket fuel. I like that analogy, because though anger can fuel someone's escape if that anger is properly channeled, it is always a potentially dangerous thing as well. If handled poorly, the same anger that can motivate someone to leave a dangerous relationship can also cause that person to attack the person who has abused them, increasing the chances that they are harmed, and making that relationship ever more volatile and dangerous. It doesn't help abuse victims much if they attack their abuser directly. Such action may provoke violent retaliation and/or physical attack. Legal complications may occur as well and it is not always the abuser who goes to jail (sometimes the police get it wrong and the abuse victim goes to jail!). Better to use anger as a motivation to simply leave the relationship. Perhaps simple is the wrong word. It is seldom a simple thing to leave a relationship. Sometimes it needs to be done, however.

Stage 3: Letting the anger go

The third step, which cannot readily be accomplished until after one has become free of the abusive situation, is to let the victim identity go, and with it, the need to be angry.

Becoming a victim - identifying one's self as a victim - is a true achievement for many abuse victims. It is an achievement of personal independence to realize that you are not simply an extension of someone else; not there to be a punching bag, but rather that you are an independent person who is entitled to be treated decently by others. The anger that comes from such awareness helps to motivate the courage to escape. It is not a good thing, however, to live your life angry all the time. Prolonged anger is literally bad for your health.

Ideally, anger motivates people to leave abusive situations and then resolves so that people don't remain chronically angry. However, it often doesn't work out this way, as we all know. Abused people may end up feeling angry about being abused, but still feeling too helpless and scared do something about it. A sort of paralysis can set in and the situation may worsen. Now, not only are people being abused; they are also aware that they are not feeling brave enough to act to save themselves. Such people become upset with themselves and may start beating up on themselves. Such people end up beaten up from without and from within.

Victims that escape abuse may remain chronically angry and self-tortured too. Having extracted themselves from difficult relationships, such people may remain backwards-looking and focused on the fact that they have been abused, continually picking at their scabs, so to speak. It's understandable when this happens, but not a good thing, just the same.

Once anger has propelled you out of an abusive situation, its primary reason for being goes away. To the extent that anger hangs around after abuse is over, it ceases to be useful and simply becomes a mental, physical and social health problem. People who spend their time ruminating about past injustices tend not to be happy. And – life is short. It's far better to be happy (provided your circumstances warrant a little happiness) than to be bitter, and this remains true even if you have ample reason to be bitter. When a person remains identified as an angry victim after having extracted themselves from an abuse situation, they are at that point oppressing themselves.

Abuse memories don't fade easily. Abuse tends to change people – often for the worse. People feel humiliated, taken advantage of, made less than. They may bear physical and emotional scars that will never go away. The emotional impact of abuse memories may or may not fade with time, but no amount of time will erase the knowledge that abuse has occurred. Memory is a one-way street. Stuff goes in, but nothing really gets erased (at least until senility sets in).

Given that abuse memories persist, it is quite a trick for people to shed their victim identity, lose the angry "rocket fuel" approach to life that has served them well in the past and move on towards becoming happier people. This is a difficult movement to accomplish. There are various strategies one can take. A few popular ones are reminding yourself that "living well is the best revenge" (and then doing your best to live well), and cultivating a spirit of forgiveness towards abusers to the extent that forgiveness is possible. Working towards forgiveness is best done when your abuse is safely distant in time and space; it may be too much to ask when abuse memories are fresh. It is true that many abusers themselves have been abused, and it isn't therefore very hard to view one's own abuser as someone who has been abused. However, having been abused is not an excuse for abusing. It takes a special sort of person to be able to really forgive someone who has harmed you.

I don't have answers to offer here really. Just some observations: It is good for people who are being abused to develop awareness that they are being abused. It is good for that awareness to turn into a righteous and self-protective anger which one can use to motivate one's self to leave the abusive situation. However, care must be taken when applying this anger. It is easy for anger to turn into something self-destructive. The best use of anger is as a motivator to promote your escape from an abusive situation. When anger is used as an excuse for attacking an abuser, that is a misuse of anger. Attacking one's abuser generally becomes self-destructive in a hurry, and it is by definition destructive of the person or people you are attacking. Once you've gotten away from abuse your anger will hopefully reduce in intensity (as it is no longer needed). Anger that lingers on for years after abuse has ended will reduce rather than enhance the quality of your life. When your anger is no longer needed, it is worthwhile to work hard to let it go.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Presently, he is an Oakland Psychologist (Lic#PSY25695) in private practice offering evidence-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and addressing a range of life problems. Contact Dr. Dombeck by calling 510-900-5123, send Dr. Dombeck email or visit Dr. Dombeck's practice website for more information.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Human Mind And How It Works - Aditya S - Oct 12th 2011

I am a 60 year male and was going through your articles and comments.

Firstly, nothing happens without a cause. Some times you may not be the cause but the cause is still there.

Secondly, there is always a reaction to action which leads to another reaction.

All forms of abuse except physical abuse is either tolerated or blown out of proportion as per our own thinking. Its a blissful state when we don't even know that we are mentally or emotionally being abused.

We mostly start feeling that we are being abused when we are influenced with others thinking where that person is narrating his/her situation and strongly feels being abused.

When we interact with people, their opinion also influences our thinking process.

Human tendency is that we ignore right advices but pay 10 times more attention to sympathisers opinion.

When we start feeling abused, it is a kind of sickness which requires an attention. Sometimes we can find remedy to that and sometimes we need help. If we take help from an incompetent person who you feel is the best adviser just because he is sympathising with you, it is like going to a quack. Our own relatives are mostly quacks and serve to worsen the situation most of the times.

When we react to abuses, many times it is in the form of hurting the partner in a different way like denial of sex, taking actions or decisions knowing that it will hurt the other partner.

If the other spouse is not evil minded, all it requires is identifying the root causes and taking actions to remove them to get the best results.


"The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress." - ~willow~ - Jun 16th 2011

~Frederick Douglass

Congratulations to all those who have made, or are making it out of abuse, and into healing. You are  powerful and beautiful! Now reach back and give back, to complete the circle.

Cant - Dyiashia aka Die - Nov 7th 2010

you said that people have to realize their being abused and that tey have to leave. i know im bein abused but i cant leave. i know i may sound stupid but i really cant leave im 15 and my mom phiscaly and emotionaly abuses me and i cant stand it but then i hae to worry and take care of my brothers and sister. i mean i know its bad but then my grandparents get mad at me an so does my sister since were 8 months apart. and i cant talk to hem or anyone and i dont like to talk i like to write but dont really let anyone read my writing i have a site i go to so  can write my username is xxdyiashiaxx not everyone can leave and if i hit her i wont be able to stop i mean we do fight and i protect myself the best i can she slapped and called me a lair when i tried to tell her her boyfriend tried to rape mo d i was molested so know i drink and i might start smoking and drugs i want to fight underground cuz my grandpaerts check me so i cant burn or cut myself or try to kill myself again

thanks - halffull - Oct 15th 2010

Thanks so much. I was very enlightened to read your article, while i was working on anger management for myself. I am given to intense and frequent anger spells, which are quite destructive.It was very useful to read about anger and overcoming it to find happiness from the perspective of a abuse survivor. I was especially helped by the idea that even though emotional, physical scars and memories would persist life-long, we have to take charge of finding happiness. Surely, quitting victim identity and remaining angry makes space for  positive, creative and successful  strategies to give ourselves happiness that we have been deprived of. Indeed, i have a way out...

CONFUSED - kl - Sep 16th 2010

I am married for 25+ years to my H. He is verbally, emotionally and physically abusive to me since I got married, he name called me, cursed at me, kicked me in my stomach, slapped me on my face, choked me with manual strangle on my neck. He did not trust me he name called me very badly. He most of the time said that I have no brain or I am stupid. He put my self-esteem too down that I am not seeing myself worth I can only see that I am worthy if I with him. He abused me all type of abuses then call to his brothers and sisters and complain about me and children then his relatives called me and scolded me harshly. This happened all the times. I always forgave him for hitting me and giving me all verbal abuses and act like it is ok I tolerated physical and emotional pain and then pleasing him whatever he wants. This type of my life was until 2007, and then I started to think why I am tolerating all this abuses. Then again I think that he has problem that is why he is abusing me, if I will not tolerate then who will? Then again my conscious tells me but he can get help for that. So I told him we need to get help and he told me that I have no brain and I am stupid.

He never respected me or not even care for me, if I am in pain. He owns his own bank account, there is not my name. Financial is all on his name He refused to pay household expenses since 5 years. I tolerated because of my in laws who sees my faults and for my children, Children are now grown up. My children got abused too. My H is very highly educated and has a professional job. Outside home, he is very generous and well behaved. Recently last year more than2 times he physically abused me. August 2009 he manually strangles with both his hands and I got severe pain on my right side neck and shoulder and head. It is 1 year still I am taking physical therapy for the pain. Recently, month ago he abused me so my son pick me at his home let my H know he is taking me for safety. I am at my son’s home since then. He did not call me to come back. Should I go back? I do not know what to do? I love him but my all love died during 25+ years of abuse. Now I care for him but I do not know when love will come back. After verbally and physically abusing me he behaves like nothing had happened and why I am sad. He did not care for me or children and abused them too. I do care for him, Since 4 years I put boundary that if my h is name-calling me, verbally and physically abusing me, then asking for sex right away, I am no giving, that make him more violent and I got more physical abuse. There is no intimate relationship, my H just want to get reed of his stress or pain by having sex, I am the object. After physically abusing me, no regret from him, instead of that he is saying you deserve the abuse because you started talking.

Right now I feel hurt but I do care for him, should I go back? Which I feel very sad. I do not know what to do? When I went my home I checked on computer, there were plenty of prone and other adult live chats sites that I saw he went on the computer. I do not know, since my marriage, he has always tendency to touched girls in inappropriate way (specially girls whom he knows and girls who do not complain about his behaviors) I knew from the beginning of my marriage, but at that time all my society blamed only woman’s, so I should tolerate it. He impulsively acted to girls touching and other things but only those girls who do not complain about his behaviors. I told many times that it is not nice to behave like this after marriage, and he hit me very hard. And I was helpless, I could not do anything, I was thinking it is ok to hit me as I am his wife. I feel very guilty, because it is my duty to fulfill my h needs anyway but now sometimes I say no to sex to him when he is abusing me, make me feel very guilty, I do not know what should I do, Yesterday I was very sad; I was thinking he is ill, so I should do what way he wants me to do. But sometimes I think it is wrong to be treated like this. I am very confused. Thanks, in this kind of situation how I can behave that relationship will get better.

Now I am at my son’s home, but I do not know that I can survive this relationship or just I have to live my life alone at this age as I am married more than 25 years.

Reading this post I became aware that it is not my fault that I got abused by my Husband. I have good childhood.I was good at my academics, got degree in chemistry.I have worked in my country and here too.


I was understanding all situations at all the times but I had not courage to confront it.
but still I need some validation that I left my home and came to my son's home is appropriate decision  or not?

I have written comment on other board of this site too.

Thanks for reading my long post


coercion by mental health workers - - Aug 18th 2010

in this vinfen halfway house i find some staff purposely make me angry taunting teasin etc. if this is really true i.m not exactly sure wha they;re motivation sare

after one of thses purposely taunting they gave mean eviction notice which to anybody would seem to harsh i;d like anyone hopefull proffesional feedback on this

Wow - - Mar 13th 2010

Great article. I am adding this one to my favorites.


Still confusion exits..but not really...but it does - - Dec 4th 2009

I am in the process of recovering from years of emotional, mental, and financial abuse.  He never hit me, though he came after me when I finally knew I was leaving and he did not.  I locked myself in the room where our baby was.  I did that and know it wasn't right.  He used to call me all sorts of names, including "stupid cunt."  It's the way he said it that hurt, at the time, the most.  So when he came home from work one day, after not talking to me for days and not helping with our baby, he poored himself a scotch on the rocks, downed some vicodin (this was not his excuse; he is abusive and narcisstic at all times) he opened his door and laid on his bed as he usually did.  Then he would whistle (yes, whistle...I can still here it in my head) to let me know it was okay to approach him.  I knew not to discuss anything about me, our baby, or my day to him (after all, he worked for a living and needed his relaxation time).  But I got so tired of being alone even though I loved our baby and took care of him.  The man would ask me to have sex.  If I did, it wouldn't be good enough.  If I didn't, I had "problems."  So, I knew I wouldn't being having sex with him this night.  After he whistled, I came to his door.  After some short chit chat he asked me to join him in bed.  The baby could wait and he didn't even have an interest in even seeing him.  I said no firmly, but without anger.  He said something belittling and for the sake of me I can't even remember what that was.  I walked to the kitchen and stood there for a while.  I walked back to "my room" and when he saw me he made some sort of comment in a jokingly manner...but it made me feel sick.  So I said to him, the way he always says it, "You stupid fucking cunt."  He ran after me.  I locked myself in the room where my baby was.  It didn't end there.  I did move out.  We "tried" to make it work.  The abuse didn't stop there.  I feel so sick to my stomach for trying to keep his abuse at bay by pleasing him.  There is no pleasing him.  Until recently, I used to have great "relief" when he stops his games or whatever.  When I stopped trying to please him, it got worse.  My story here doesn't even touch upon the entirety of the situation.  Now we are in an never ending custody battle...and it hasn't been me initiating all these things.  It doesn't end.  I can never go back and would never go back to trying to please him or be with him.  He's too abusive. He is a smart man and incideous with his behavior.  For anyone suffering, the sooner you can recover the better.  It has took me too long to get to where I am now and I have a ways to go.  Please GET PROFESSIONAL HELP NOW if you even think you are somehow a victim of abuse.  It doesn't need to be physical abuse.  DO IT NOW and save yourself and children from this.  I wish I had truly tried harder earlier on to get professional help.  There are shelters and support that are available if you can't afford to pay out of pocket.  The sooner it all makes sense to you the easier your life will become, but maybe not at first.  The crazy making they can do and how they can fool others around them can make you think it is all you or that you are crazy.  Don't buy into this so quickly.  Bounce it off someone who can help. 

Self-Worth - Melinda - Nov 9th 2009

Hmm...I'm 26 years old.   I'm married to a wonderful guy.  I'm enrolled at university.  I'm simply trying to heal and survive.   Before I met my husband, I was in an extremely abusive relationship.   I dated my ex-boyfriend from the time I was 16 until I was about 21.   We were high school sweethearts.   I won't disclose all the details, but he was very abusive and it was a very painful experience.  I suffered both verbal and emotional abuse.  Deep down, I knew that I deserved better.

I knew that I deserved to be loved and treated with respect.  However, I come from a somewhat dysfunctional family.  My parents divorced when I was little.  I had limited contact with my father because he lived outside the United States and he didn't seem to care whether I lived or died.   My mother loved me.   She always took care of my physical needs with food, clothes, and a roof over my head.  But she was also emotionally needy and this included her boyfriends, most of whom did not like having a kid around.  Sometimes I felt that my mother resented me despite the love she showed me.  As a single mom, she had lots of responsibilities.  I was 13 or 14 when she met my stepfather.   She married him when I was about 16 or 17.     He didn't want me around...this was obvious. 

He was very cruel to me.  I decided to live with relatives when I was 14, but that didn't work out the way I had hoped it would.  When I moved back to my mother and stepfather, he treated me more harshly.  I became very lonely and isolated.  I suffered with severe depression.  Suicide was constantly on my mind.  I didn't have friends.  I felt like no one could be trusted.  My ex spotted my low self-esteem and immediately honed in on that.  He knew that I was shy and lonely.  He knew that people bullied me at school.  He knew that I was unpopular.   He was kind to me at first and then it all went downhill after a few years.  We broke up a few times but I always felt desperate.  Who would love me if he didn't?   I had no one to turn to.   By then, my stepfather had convinced my mother that I was "bad" and that I had a "discipline problem".   He would tell her that I was having sex with boys in our home after school, but this wasn't true.  He told her that I needed to find a job or he would force me to live on the streets...I was only 16 years old.  Despite being very intelligent, I have a severe learning disability that shuts me out of most types of employment.   He would constantly belittle me with the most obscene language. 

There was no way I could move out because finding work was impossible, especially in my town.  I had no money.  I couldn't tell anyone about my problems at home.  No one believed me.  My ex provided some escape from my home life, even if he was abusive too.   I made several mistakes because I didn't love myself.  I didn't believe in myself.  I didn't see myself as beautiful or worthy or special.  I wound up having 4 abortions.  I started drinking heavily.  I became a prostitute on a temporary basis.  I wanted to die.  No one loved me.  My mother, the one person who had always told me how much she loved me, always took my stepfather's side in every situation.  No matter how hard I tried to be a good daughter, it was never enough. 

Is it any wonder I ended up in a relationship with somebody like him?  My ex is just like my stepfather in many ways.  When I cut off communication with my ex, it was because I needed a change in my life.  I was sick of being mistreated.  I wanted to learn to love myself.  It is important to take care of yourself, especially if you've been in an abusive situation.  I decided to turn my life around.  I stopped allowing men to hurt me.  I became motivated to do well in school.  I want to be somebody.  I married a wonderful person and I hope to raise a happy, healthy family.   I love my own biological family very much...but my contact with them is limited.  My relationship with my mother and stepfather has improved.  I want to prove my worth to MYSELF.   It isn't about anyone but me anymore.  I have to heal myself.  




A decade of abuse - Melissa - Mar 22nd 2009

I was abused verbally as well as physically by my husband for almost ten years. I was afraid to leave him because I depended on him financially, and I was also afraid I could not find anyone better. I had very low self-esteem, and felt that this was how I would spend my entire life.

I cannot explaine exactly why, but the last time he abused me, I called the police and decided this was going to be the last time, no matter what. I packed some of my clothes, and some of my 6 year-old son's clothes in garbage bags, and bought a bus ticket to Alabama where I had family. I was living in Michigan at the time. I had twenty dollars to my name, and did not know how I would survive, but I did. 

It has been twelve years now, and I have been happily married for four years now. I have a four year-old daughter, and I am attending college full-time. I paln to be a nurse when I graduate. For me, I will never forget the abuse, although I no longer have anger from it. I do sometimes reflect on the pain that I felt, and that only lends to my feel of well-being, and gratitude for what I have now.

I often tell myself, "The best revenge is living well". A proverb that I live by, and have since that day I left is "Whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger", and I am much stronger having survived this horrible pain.

One last thing, many people asked me initially how I could leave everything, all of my material posessions without fighting for them and to them I say, I have gained more than any earthly posessions could ever fill. I have gained a life, happiness, my own way, and my very own high level of self-esteem!

victim of past abuse - Sandi - Jul 31st 2008

Thank you so much for this insightful information. I am 2  years out from being away from the constant day-to-day abuse, mostly not knowing what was being done "behind the scenes."  I was married 23 years and my now ex-husband filed for the divorce and left me for a 15-year younger woman who was simply "trash."  With the help of my family, I was able to get a great attorney who helped me get a fair deal.  I did not want revenge.  I simply wanted my personal belongings and signed everything away. He was making a fortune and spent a fortune, none of which I knew about until I reviewed records my attorney was able to acquire 1 year into the divorce proceedings.  I simply "shut down" after I saw on paper what had been going on.   Getting through the divorce, I was able to stand up to him which helped me get the anger I needed so that I could come out of the depression. 

I believed that hanging on to his "this and that" would only fuel my own anger.    I carry still so much anger and sadness.  I really wish it would all just "go away", but it has simply lessened.  At least I have found something that makes sense as to what happened.  I could not, for the longest time,  wrap my brain around what and why everything had happened.  I sunk into a very paralyzing depression for a few years before I got the courage up to seek professional medical help. 

Now that all that is in the past, I suffer with a lot of post-traumatic symptoms.  It is very encouraging to know that so I can hope to heal, but it is exhausting at time to know it is a very long process.  It's a real tough deal to have the slightest amount of energy these days to fight off the continuing symptoms.  I tried medications, and that seemed to only make me feel worse.  Unfortunately, you don't just wake up one day and everything's alright. That is not reality.  Understanding and accepting is very hard, but then choosing to rise above the situation is even more of a of which I hope to achieve gracefully....thank you again!

Militant Thinking - Someguy - Jul 6th 2007

Reward and punishment seems to be a militant, spartan way of thinking. If you do well, you're rewarded or left alone. If you do poorly, you're punished or verbally abused.

It's extreme behavior with extreme consequences. But in real life, if you do poorly, you're just simply ignored and neglected.....unless you're in a predatory environment  where people are looking for victims? Predatory environments look for people that they feel are 'inferior' and deserve to be 'punished'. Usually it's for self gratification of the abusers, who usually had this same predatory environment perpetuated upon themselves.

There's a difference between poor performance and bad performance. Poor performance means you tried. Bad performance means intent. If both are treated equally, then one is being abused, the other is punishment.

If one is performing poorly, that's a confidence issue. Now how is abusing somebody going to help their confidence? Generally, abuse just compounds and perpetuates inept behavior.

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