Everyone is capable of being a jerk now and then, but a select few seem to make it a lifelong career. Perhaps it's an undermining coworker, a jealous friend, or a controlling boss that's the source of your frequent emotional abuse. Regardless of the situation, it's time to put a stop to it now. Here's what to do.
A few personal experiences of my own have taught me a fair amount about dealing with abusive people, but I'm not a professional. Enter Roger S. Gil, a marriage and family therapist who has plenty to say about getting out of an abusive situation. I spoke with him to learn about the telltale signs of manipulation and abuse and how to fight back when you find yourself a victim. With Roger's help, we're going to take a look at how you can easily detect the signs of emotional warfare and how to deal with the problem so that you can live a happier and healthier life.
How To Detect The Signs Of Emotional Warfare
While it's easy to recognise when we're in a problematic situation, we're often reluctant to label it as (emotional) abuse. That's a strong word, and so we generally justify the behaviour as just a negative personality trait or two. In this section we're going to look at a few common traits found in and strategies employed by emotionally abusive people.
They Exploit Your Sympathies
If you ever want someone to do something for you, it's very simple: make them feel like you desperately need their help. Master manipulators will play on your sympathies because they know it's one of the simplest ways to get what they want. Even if you know you're being manipulated, it's very hard to turn someone away who appears desperate. If they've successfully deceived you in the past by exploiting your good nature, you know what kind of person you're dealing with. Don't let this behaviour continue.
They Conceal Evil In Altruism
The difference between good and evil is often intention. When an abusive person does something bad, it's easy to spin that bad thing into a positive by trying to convince you they did it for a good reason. Perhaps a coworker took credit for one of your ideas but claimed to cover for you because your boss thought it was stupid. In reality they probably just stole the idea for their own benefit, but when conveying the outcome to you it sounds like they took a bullet on your behalf.
You'll have a hard time proving what really happened because if they're telling the truth you'll end up looking bad and if they're lying you'll look petty to your boss. Either way you lose and you can't know either way. You can feel when someone is really watching out for you. When you have doubts, it's more likely to be manipulation. Watch out for concealed altruism. It plays on your doubts and puts you in a stalemate. If you encounter this behaviour, aim to put a stop to it immediately.
They Play On Your Guilt
Guilt is an awful emotion that punishes good people and ignores the bad. We feel guilt because we don't want to hurt others. People who don't care know you feel this way and will exploit it for their own gain.
For example, they may ask you to take care of something for them. Perhaps you have plans one night but they claim to have an emergency and need you to come over/help them with work/babysit/whatever nonetheless. They'll beg and plead and try to convince you how awful things will be if you don't help them, all the while ignoring the impact it will have on you. If this happens, remind them of that impact and do not help them if they're the type to never return the favour.
They Charm You When You're Upset
Few people are going to let themselves be manipulated by a dull, boring individual. Most abusive people are able to do what they do because they're charming. If you confront their behaviour or argue with them, they'll pull out that charm to make you feel important and loved. This is a kind of misdirection that will stop you from thinking too much about why you're mad and remembering all the things you like about them. By the time you're done talking, you'll have a smile on your face and the problem won't have been discussed at all. If this happens, you were being manipulated.
How to Deal With An Abusive Person In Your Life
If those elements describe someone you know, it's time to confront the situation head-on. First, you have to figure out what to do. Here are the steps you need to take.
Recognise That The Problem Is Them, Not You
First things first: you need to accept that there's a problem. We often make excuses for the abusive people in our lives because they're not just abusive — they have good qualities, too. The bad stuff is hard to quantify and so it's easier to try and shove it under the rug. Roger suggests that we recognise that it isn't just a problem for us, but a serious issue for the abusive person as well:
Manipulation, exploitation, and other worthy-of-a-soap-opera-character behaviours are often indicators of the kinds of traits that make up a personality disorder diagnosis. (Note: not all people who exploit, manipulate, or demean have a personality disorder.) Barring any type of equally-maladaptive behaviour on your part that might have provoked said person's "wrath", being the target of these types of behaviours probably means that the "mean person" likely has more issues than Sports Illustrated.
Generally, this means your sympathies are misplaced. Often a manipulative individual will play on your sympathies, and you'll feel bad for them because of one of many specific hardships that seem to turn up like clockwork. Instead of feeling bad about that, have compassion for the likelihood that they're very troubled individuals. You may find that your relationship with this person needs to be severed, but that doesn't mean there must be hate between you. Understanding that 1) it isn't your fault and 2) they're dealing with serious problems of their own helps provide much-needed context to this rough situation.
Assess Your Relationship And Weigh The Outcome Of Addressing The Issue
Some people are worse than others, and you may come across abusive people in situations that are particularly difficult to get out of. Before you sever your relationship with an individual or resign yourself to misery, you need to assess the damage your actions may cause. Roger elaborates:
If your boss is the one manipulating you, exploiting you, etc., then you may have to weigh the pros and cons of taking matters into your own hands (although I'm always one to advise people to put an end to these behaviours by any means necessary). When you address the issue in these types of relationships, you run the risk of provoking more harm to yourself because the person has power over you. If you can't tolerate the treatment, however, then you may have to bite the bullet and do something. If it's someone with whom you have a social relationship (e.g. family or friend), then you can probably be a little more assertive. Nonetheless, you still need to exercise caution because anyone with the power to cause you emotional harm can probably make your life somewhat difficult. Proceed with caution, but if the person is causing a great amount of distress you will need to address the situation head-on.
Basically, consider the angles before you move forward. If there's a problem, deal with it, but think about what you're going to say and do before you make your approach. A fallout may be inevitable, but you can often mitigate the damage by simply being prepared.
Be Direct And Consistent In Your Confrontation
When you accuse an emotionally abusive individual of wrongdoing, it's rare that they'll readily admit that you're right. If you've been holding off on this confrontation, chances are you're going to go into the conversation a little nervous. As a result, it might become pretty easy to derail you. Roger suggests that you need to be as clear as possible and be consistent with what you're saying:
I find it helpful to clearly identify what specific behaviours the person is doing that are bothering me and letting them know how they make me feel. Then I follow it up with a demand to change the behaviours. Example: "The fact that you always ring my doorbell at breakfast time makes me feel like you're only using me for my bacon. I would appreciate it if you came over after breakfast or come over with your own bacon." This may sound a little fake, but it keeps charged emotions to a minimum and keeps you from stooping down to their level. Also, be aware that some people's "reality distortion field" (therapists like to call them "cognitive distortions") may lead the person being addressed to deny that anything is amiss. Example: "What are you talking about, I come over to see you. It just so happens that you're always making bacon when I come over." As a result, it's vital that you 1) stick to your guns, 2) keep your cool, and 3) keep the discussion moving.
Chances are that you've thought about the problem at hand and the resolution you'd like, so don't let yourself be deterred by a manipulative argument. This isn't an everyday conversation — you're providing an ultimatum in a calm, cool and collected manner.
The recipient of this ultimatum may try to make you feel guilty for your actions, or argue that they're compeltely unwarranted, but remember that you're having this conversation because of that kind of behaviour. If you stay on message and keep a level head, you should be able to make it clear that the unwanted behaviour will not be tolerated going forward.
If you've decided you need to sever a relationship it's generally best to be brief and not leave much room for discussion. Doing so just opens up the possibility for argument and further abuse. It's hard to reduce a long relationship with another human being — even a bad one — to a brief moment, but ultimately it's better than falling into an emotional battle that will leave you feeling far more hurt.