Abuse of any kind is complicated and difficult to understand, navigate, and identify, but this is especially true for emotional abuse. Emotional abuse can involve extremely sophisticated — and more importantly, toxic — game-playing, like inconsistent, unpredictable displays of affection or love (there’s a firm line between jealousy and possessiveness, for example). And while the warning signs can seem more ambiguous, psychological and emotional abuse can be just as damaging.
According to Beverly Engel, author of The Emotionally Abusive Relationship, the parameters are clear: “Emotional abuse is defined as any nonphysical behaviour or attitude that is designed to control, subdue, punish, or isolate another person through the use of humiliation or fear.”
Often times, the emotionally abusive relationships are more subtle, she explains. “The other thing is that a lot of times in an abusive relationship, it’ll start out wonderful, great, and fabulous, and the problems evolve very slowly over time so that it gets worse and worse and worse, and each time you’re getting more adapted to [the negative patterns] so that it gets more difficult to [see as well as to leave].”
If you eventually find yourself taking their emotional outbursts as proof of how intensely they care about you, because if they didn’t care, they wouldn’t get so angry — right? You’re likely in the throws of an emotionally abusive power struggle.
Covert Narcissism and Abuse
Abusers can convince you that they are treating you this way to “help” you, because they know better.
Most abusers put a lot of effort into telling you how wonderful they are. They are “wonderful” people yet their own family walk in fear of them. They are superior human beings yet they may have a problematic history of mediocrity, failure or drama. They are so outstanding that they are met with hostility rather than acclaim. They are so outstanding that they meet with universal jealousy. They exert an irresistible animal magnetism over the opposite sex (despite all evidence to the contrary) .
Vulnerability and low self-esteem are at the core of the narcissistic abuser. If you find yourself in a position where you can question their thoughts or opinions or you aren’t doing exactly as they expect you to, they could be feeling the effects of a narcissistic injury (ego based fear of being “found out”). A narcissistic injury occurs when narcissists react negatively to perceived or real criticism or judgment, boundaries placed on them, and/or attempts to hold them accountable for harmful behaviour. Although they may not show it outwardly, criticism may haunt these individuals and may leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow and empty. They react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattacks.
The lack of accountability in the narcissist is astounding. When you expect they will see the error of their ways and apologize, you will find them defending themselves. Somehow, they find a way to make it all about you and it becomes your fault: “You made me react that way.” “You did this or that to create my behaviour, I wouldn’t have to do this if you didn’t act the way you do.”
The Perfect Target & Emotional Manipulation
So what personality type is more susceptible to this form of abuse?
People pleasers and perfectionists have a compelling need to conform to the expectations of others. With their shaky self-worth (which is made shakier by their abuser), they strive to behave in a way they think the other will favour. People pleasers see an idealized self in their irrational imagination; they struggle with self-criticism and anxiety and ultimately have a perpetual need to win the approval of their partner. Ultimately, they are pressured to think, feel, and behave in a way that is not their own, molding themselves into something they are not, being careful not to “rock the boat”.
Some individuals enjoy “intellectual bullying” their people pleasing partner by presuming to be the expert and most knowledgeable in certain areas. They take advantage of you by imposing alleged facts, statistics, and other data you may know little about. By presuming expert power over you, the manipulator hopes to push through her or his agenda more convincingly. Some people use this technique for no other reason than to feel a sense of intellectual superiority. They know that you have very little knowledge in this particular area and often remind you of their expertise (why I’m right and you’re wrong), despite you having your own internal sense that something is not quite right.
By targeting the recipient’s emotional weaknesses and vulnerability, the manipulator coerces the recipient into ceding unreasonable requests and demands.
Psychological or emotional manipulation involves influencing someones thoughts and emotions as a way to control them. This can be done through crafty and abusive practices, oftentimes unhealthy to the victim.
Manipulators will try to control people by using their weaknesses or vulnerability against them. They exploit these vulnerabilities to achieve their own goals, regardless of the harm they do.
The purpose of manipulative victimhood is often to exploit the recipient’s good will, guilty conscience, sense of duty and obligation, or protective and nurturing instinct, in order to extract unreasonable benefits and concessions.
Master manipulators are the worst kind. Their tactics are hardly obvious. And what’s worse, they make you feel like it’s all your fault.
Why is this so harmful?
Chantal Heide, a relationship expert and dating coach, it creates mental and psychological havoc:
“Guilt, shame and fear are very negative emotions that make us feel uncomfortable, and people who use emotional manipulation in negative ways trigger those feelings to incite avoidance, getting their partners to choose alternate behaviours in an attempt to feel more comfortable emotions within the relationship and to avoid any upset. If you’ve ever heard the term ‘walking on eggshells’ this is the abusers ultimate goal for their partner”
“Staying in a situation where control is constantly being applied means one will lose the ability to think for themselves, and will instead always take their cues from their partner in an attempt to avoid negative emotions.
“This stunting of their emotional growth reduces their sense of accomplishment, and eliminates opportunities for important validation. In turn, their self-dialogue will be, ‘I’m not important, I’m not worthy… I’m not loveable, I’m a loser.’”
Rebuilding Self Love After Abuse
It’s most important to show yourself compassion and to remember that nobody willingly chooses abuse. The great thing is that these difficult experiences are the ones that help us to build character, strength, and resilience. By diving into our experience and choosing to learn from our trauma, we can come out on the other side more powerful and in a position to stand up for others in similar situations.
Instead of looking for someone or something to blame, choose to claim your self-worth and recognize our courage — both in the moment of our experience and in the aftermath. Tap into your inner compass and take the learning that comes with the lesson. Don’t dwell on what you could have done better or differently in retrospect, think about how “every moment in life gives you the opportunity to start over and to learn from whatever life has dealt you.” Most importantly, remember that you can get through it and move forward into a more loving, full life where you trust yourself and others again.
Until next time,
Rebuilding Self-Love After Emotional Abuse