It is the most prevalent type of terrorism. It isn’t coming from some foreign country or radical militia group; it comes from the people we call friends, bosses, co-workers, and often by those we can’t help but love.
I have had the pleasure of being the recipient of this type of abuse, on many occasions, from multiple persons. It is, in some ways, the most nefarious of abuses as the bruises are on the inside.
There is no one staring at you awkwardly, trying to figure out how to tell you to go to the hospital for that black eye you most certainly did not get falling down the stairs. No. There are no physical signs, save for anxiety and depression, but they are often overlooked as part of a different issue.
My biological father was guilty of this type of behavior. While he could be a charming, fun, and generous person, there was a dark side hidden from the public, but very real to me. He had a narcissistic personality disorder, was a borderline sociopath, and arguably bipolar. Any one of those should have led him to a therapist but coming from a generation that avoided self-reflection, he never got the help he needed and continued his abuse tactics.
These individuals live for drama. They use chaos as a means to create drama and, through this drama, doubt. This doubt in yourself, your talent, your relationships, and what you believe is real or farce allows them to control you. They trap you into thinking that you can’t live without them when in reality, you’ll never really start living until you’re without them.
Emotional abusers thrive on making you feel as though you’re always mistaken. They set you up to fail in every situation, and it truly doesn’t matter what you do; you can’t do anything right.
An example of this was when my father called and asked me if his then girlfriends ex-husband could come to Thanksgiving dinner, which I was hosting at my house.
“Of course,” I said, trying to be accommodating no matter how strange the whole thing was.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but do you have room?”
“Yes, of course! That is not a problem at all,” I said.
“Thank you, sweetheart; I really appreciate it,” they said, sounding somewhat relieved.
I got off the phone feeling good. I was happy to accommodate my father’s friend, and I am a huge fan of unconventional relationships, so what the hell. It was the respectful thing to do.
Thanksgiving came and went, and the dinner was a disaster. This ex-husband tried to humiliate my father’s girlfriend and flirted shamelessly with my friend, who was twenty-five years his junior. The night ended with my father’s inebriated date munching on my centerpiece, mistaking it for dessert, and my father rushing her out the door in embarrassment.
A few days later, I got the call.
“I can’t believe you invited him to your house for dinner.”
“What? I asked incredulously. “You asked me to invite him!”
“Yes, but I did so thinking that you wouldn’t actually say yes.”
“What?” I repeated.
“If you had just said no, goddammit, I wouldn’t have been humiliated like that. This is all your fault.”
The following five minutes turned into a wild rollercoaster of rage ending with me in silence at the other end of my phone.
Since most of us are so deep into these relationships, we rarely recognize it as abuse. Here are some common tricks emotional abusers will use to trap you in their endless games of emotional torture.
- DENIAL: “I never said that” is a hallmark of the emotional terrorist. “You’re crazy.” is another classic. They swear on anything and everything they pretend to believe in to convince their audience that it is, in fact, YOU that is the problem and NOT them.
- CRUEL WORDS: We have all been guilty of making a joke that might not be very nice. The emotional abuser, however, will consistently crack jokes at the expense of others. These are often cruel and demeaning, intended to humiliate and shame their victim. The frequency and level of cruelty make these kinds of “jokes” abusive.
- PUNISHING: When you do not behave in the manner that they believe you should, you get punished. Punishing can range from ignoring to snide comments to obvious attempts at excluding you from group activities and blatant disrespect. The abuser believes that if they punish you, somehow you will be so upset by the loss of them that you will acquiesce to their unrealistic demands.
- YOU’RE ALWAYS WRONG: The emotional abuser will always make you wrong. They twist, spin, dodge, and do almost anything to avoid admitting wrongdoing. And if they do admit to it? It still somehow remains your fault. They might be wrong, but you started it. You’re the problem. They will tell you all about yourself in detailed explanations that, to the sane individual, can only be a projection but, to the victim, can be dangerously harmful. Emotional abusers cannot have constructive conversations; they are juvenile at best and consist primarily of insults to your character.
- ANYTHING YOU SAY CAN AND WILL BE USED AGAINST YOU: It would be best to watch every word that leaves your lips when in the company of an emotional abuser because as sure as the day you were born, it will all come back to you. Remember that thing you did in 1992? When were you 12? Well, it’s coming back at you and full speed ahead, so you’d better be prepared for it.
- LECTURING: Emotional abusers love an audience mostly to hear themselves talk, so lecturing is number one on their list of loves. They can lecture you about anything. They will tell you all about life and how to live it, what you should believe in, and how you should act. In most cases, their lives are total wrecks, and they feel very out of control, so telling you how to live yours is a way of dominating you. They feel a sense of power where they otherwise have none.
- HABITUAL LINE STEPPERS: Emotional terrorists know no bounds. They feel free to say and do whatever they want to you and in front of anyone. My father had no problem shit-talking me to my husband, which made my husband very uncomfortable. While my husband fantasized about punching my father in the face numerous times, he always found humorous ways to navigate his way out of the conversation without conflict. Now, if you said anything about my father’s girlfriend? Whoa, baby, you’d better watch out. This leads me to the next point…
- DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO: This is the ultimate sign of an abuser. An emotional abuser can say anything to you and behave any way they want, BUT if you repeat that behavior towards THEM, you might as well start world war three. They will lose their minds. Emotional abusers can dish it, but they can’t take it. This is usually the first sign that something is off. Banter is a back-and-forth exchange but remember, an abuser wants to control and dominate you with the intent to belittle and humiliate, so you can NEVER do to them what they do to you, or they will flip the fuck out, and you will be wrong, wrong wrong, wrong. See number 4.
- IT’S ALL ABOUT ME: Abusers think your whole world revolves around them the way theirs does. They are deluded into thinking that you are always talking about them, thinking about them, or creating sorties about them. This is due once again to projection and an overinflated sense of self. They have difficulty understanding that the world does not revolve around them.
- LOOKING FOR A FIGHT: Abusers love to trap their victims into a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. This ensures that no matter what you do, YOU NEVER WIN. They will keep lying, manipulating, and twisting the truth to serve their purpose. When confronted with this behavior, a victim might lash out in defense of themselves, which is EXACTLY what the abuser wants. They want the fight, a reason to verbally, physically, or otherwise assault you. Whatever you do, please do not give it to them. This is where they thrive. It makes them feel powerful, vindicated, and self-righteous and will leave you feeling frustrated and defeated.
After many years of therapy, I have concluded that the best way to deal with these people is to cut ties and walk away. This is especially true if they are family. After my father abandoned me for the second time in my life, rather than try to reach out, beg, or cry, which is what he was looking for, I never contacted him again.
For the first time in fifteen years, I felt RELIEVED. My heart was heavy, but my soul was free. I would now be able to heal.
It’s taken me a long time to understand that I do not have to win the approval of those who are not worth my time. Those who have been abused seem to attract these types into our world over and over again until we finally learn the lesson.
Our time here on earth is not very long. Please don’t waste it away at the hands of frightened, small-minded people. Cut the ties and move on. Remember, you’re stronger, braver, and smarter than you think. And you deserve respect.