An abusive act is one that can be expected to hurt someone (physically and/or psychologically). The abuser could be doing it consciously or subconsciously, and so he might not know that his act is hurting someone. The other person may or may not get hurt depending on his interpretation of the abusive behavior and depending on the contextual details of the specific situation. Interestingly, in situations where the abuser is doing it consciously, if the intended victim doesn't get hurt as intended, then the abuser may try to find other ways to hurt him until he succeeds (and even then he might not stop searching for new ways to hurt the victim).
People usually learn these abusive ways (aka habits) from their parents. They experienced abusive behavior as victims and now they commit the behavior as abusers, but this is not automatic. By that I mean that not every child of abusive parents learns abusive behavior. Often, children experience abusive behavior and reject it as immoral and so they don’t do that sort of behavior to *their* children. This happens on a case by case basis, so a kid might learn some specific abusive behaviors and not others. Sometimes a child is abused at such a young age where he doesn't have enough rational sophistication to know to reject the behavior as immoral, in which case he could make it a habit, and he may never criticize that habit in adulthood. And so he'll do it to his kids, and his kids may learn it, and the cycle continues. This idea of abusing people as a means to an end is a meme that has been replicating in the human population since the first time that parents abused their children.
Another way people learn abusive behavior is by using their own creativity to design new ways of abusing with the intention of hurting someone. In these cases it’s definitely a conscious thinking process.
Abusive behavior is closely associated with the emotion of anger. In most situations, if a person isn’t angry, then he won’t be abusive (that’s not to say that every case of anger towards someone is abuse).
In most situations of anger, the person wants to hurt someone. Sometimes the person is angry at a situation, rather than a person, in which case they say things like, “I’m not angry at you, just my situation,” and “I’m just venting.” But sometimes even in these situations, he’s *also* angry at the victim. An example of this is where a parent is angry about something that happened at work, and he comes home wanting to relax and wind down, and immediately his child makes a request, and parent snaps at him saying, “I JUST GOT HOME!!!” Then afterwards he might say to his child that he wasn't angry at his child but actually he was -- he’s angry at his child for not allowing him to relax and wind down, but he fools himself into believing that he wasn't angry at his child -- he's shifting responsibility.
So how does someone improve himself so that he stops hurting people? He must realize that abuse and anger hurt people. That abuse and anger are habits that we learned. And that we all have the capacity to change our habits.
Then we must accept responsibility for our habits, and other problems in general -- not necessarily that we are at fault for learning our habits or causing our problems, but that we are at fault for not working to change them now. If we deny responsibility, then we are living passively, allowing our habits to control us, and allowing our problems to cause hurt on ourselves and on others. Instead, if we accept responsibility, then we are actively trying to change our habits and to solve our problems. Now there's a lot of bad conventional ideas that claim that we are not responsible for some things, and then people use these ideas as rationalizations to deny responsibility (i.e. subconsciously fooling themselves). Sometimes they do it because it’s easier than accepting responsibility. Sometimes they do it because it helps them feel better that they are not to blame. But the reality is that by accepting responsibility we are giving ourselves the opportunity to correct our mistakes and prevent them going forward. And without that then we are allowing our mistakes to continue to hurt ourselves and others.
Another necessary component to changing our habits is knowledge of how to change habits. It requires noticing problems in our actions, thoughts, and emotions. And the only reliable way to notice problems is to reflect on our actions, thoughts, and emotions. This act of reflecting is itself a habit. It’s something that we have to learn. It’s something that will take a lot of effort and a long time before we get good at it. And like all learning, its incremental. Each time we do it, we are solving a problem. And with each solution, we are incrementally improving our ability to change our habits.
If we don’t learn this habit of reflection, then we won’t notice a lot of our problems, problems that are causing hurt on ourselves and others.
So the most important thing is the right attitude. The wrong attitude gives people the psychological motivation to fool themselves. The right attitude gives people the psychological motivation for finding their flaws so that they can improve themselves without limit. This is one important and necessary layer of error-correction against the common mistake of fooling ourselves.
More on psycho-epistemology
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