From reading the title, you might be wondering what this post is going to be about. I am writing this for the family and friends of survivors of psychological abuse. Why? Because I hear from many survivors who say that it is incredibly hard for them to describe the insidiousness of the abuse they experienced and many family and friends just don’t know how to support their loved one through the steps of recovery. There is so much to be said on this topic but I am going to try and just hit the highlights.
For those who aren’t familiar with me, I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Supervisor and I am the owner/lead therapist of a private practice. One area of my counseling work includes specializing in recovery from psychological abuse from a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath (aka toxic person). These relationships can either be romantic, family members, friends or in a work environment. For the purposes of today, I am going to focus on recovery from abuse within a romantic relationship.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and if your loved one was romantically connected with a toxic person, he or she was the victim of abuse. I know that may be hard to comprehend because the type of abuse your loved one experienced didn’t leave visible bruises or broken bones. It did, however, leave your loved one very harmed and much different from when they began the relationship with the abuser. You may even have witnessed behaviors from your loved one that you never thought he or should would do. Their reactions to the psychological abuse may have even left you questioning if your loved one might actually be losing their grip on life or might be “crazy.” For some reason, toxic people love to accuse their victims of being crazy. I hear it again and again. Not sure why that particular word but it is a favorite go-to for narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths.
I hope to shed some light on why your loved one is or has been struggling with finding stability post-breakup with a toxic person. Let’s start with the basics of why this breakup is not like any other relationship your loved one has been in previously or maybe you have experienced:
It Was All A Lie:
Your loved one met someone who they had fully and truly fallen in love with and wanted to spend the rest of their life loving. Your loved one was authentic in his or her feelings towards the other person.
However, your loved one met a con-artist. The other person only pretended to have feelings for your loved one and strategically set up the entire “relationship” in order to meet his or her own abusive needs.
Toxic people derive great entertainment out of taking a healthy and happy person (your loved one) and completely ruining their life. Hard to imagine right? As a therapist, I can tell you it is 100% true. Your loved one may have tried to share this information with you but it was hard for you to believe. You may have even liked the toxic person. Guess what? You were scammed too. Luring in the family and friends is all part of the staged affection the toxic person exhibited and it is done to gain your trust that they are a good honest person. How does this work to their advantage? When your loved one comes and tells you all the nasty and horrible things that happened to them, you question them and their perspective. Maybe you even unknowingly sided with the toxic person against your loved one. Nice move by the abuser, right? It’s all part of the calculated attempt to destroy your loved one and even their relationship with you. Pretty scary if you ask me.
Not A Normal Break-Up
Telling your loved one to go date again or even better, to go hook up with someone new isn’t going to help the situation at all. So, please don’t tell your loved one anything close to that advice. The reason that your loved one isn’t ready to get out there is because they are a shell of human being right now. Their grief is so complex during the stages of a breakup and recovery that a survivor has no idea which way is the ocean floor and which way is the surface. They are literally drowning in their emotions. Why? Is it because they are weak and need to just get a grip on life? No. Their entire personhood was systematically stripped down and replaced with abuse. The exact traits that your loved one exhibited that the toxic person found appealing, then became the target for destruction.
Your loved one’s self-worth and identity have been scrambled by a master manipulator.
For example, if your computer got a virus, would you just expect the computer to keep functioning like normal? Why can’t the darn thing just work like it did before?! No you wouldn’t. You would realize that your computer had been infected by malware that took over its operating system. This is what has happened to your loved one. They have been poisoned by the exact individual who they thought was their special person in the world. Their rock, their go-to person, their happily-ever-after. It is going to take time for your loved one to deprogram from the abuse; like when someone leaves a cult. Their entire way of seeing themselves and the world around them must be torn down and correctly rebuilt. Just getting out there and dating isn’t going to help your loved one at all. It actually can stunt their recovery in many ways.
It Takes As Long As It Takes:
I know you want your old loved one back. The one you remember pre-toxic relationship. I know you can see glimmers of her or him at times and then get your hopes up that this nightmare is finally behind you all. In reality, many survivors of psychological abuse develop post traumatic stress. There are triggers that bring on intense anxiety and certain times of the year that are harder than others for your loved one. This is normal. Sad, but normal. Why does the abuse cause trauma and a long recovery? Your loved one experienced systematic and repeated covert abuse. The toxic person set out to destroy your loved one. No matter how nice she or he presented to you, listen to what your loved one tells you about the true character of this person. Really listen. Educate yourself on terms like Gaslighting, Smear Campaigns, Triangulation, Flying Monkeys, Idealize/Devalue/Discard Stage and Love Bombing. Do yourself and your loved one a huge favor and read the book “Psychopath Free” by Jackson MacKenzie. It is from a survivor’s perspective and really truly excellent.
Above all, believe your loved one when they confide in you that they were abused. Forgive yourself for not noticing the abuse and come together with your loved one to move forward. The toxic person wanted to destroy your loved one and all of her or his relationships. Please do not let that plan succeed.
I wish you all the best as you support your loved one in their recovery. I truly believe better days are ahead for you both.
Keep Dreaming Big!
Sometimes the best counseling moments happen when working with kids and teens. There are helpful insights that are so universal that people of different ages can benefit. I find that the simpler explanations that work with kids also make it easier for us “complicated” adults to grasp and apply to our lives. One of these truths is what I refer to as Green, Yellow and Red people.
These are the people in our lives that are the most emotionally safe for us. We can be really honest with our personal short-comings and not water them down so no one in the room is uncomfortable. We can be ourselves around them and don’t feel the need to put on a fake front. If we are miserable, we say we are miserable. If we are proud of something we have overcome or accomplished, we say it with self-confidence. If we have failed in some area of life, we don’t hesitate to share it because we know our transparency will be met with love, support and hopefully humor to lighten the mood. Green people are amazing! We all could use more greenies in our life.
Stop what you’re doing and go get a piece of paper. Put “GREEN” at the top of the paper and write the name(s) of whoever comes to mind when you think of a friend that you can bare your soul to and they still love you. Go ahead. Go do it. I’ll wait…Done? How long is your list? Is it long or short? Having counseled with clients for many years now, I have had the privilege of hearing about the most intimate parts of people’s lives. For most folks, the list of green people is going to be short. Real short maybe. That’s perfectly ok. If you can put one person on your Green list, you’re lucky. Any more than that is a huge blessing. True friends are a gift and they should be valued for what they bring to our lives.
Ok, so we now know what Green people look like so Yellow is the not reliable cousin of Green. Yellow people are a little like playing Russian Roulette with our own emotions. Sometimes we can pull the veil back on our public persona and it is met with all the wonderful qualities of a Green. However, other times, we do the exact same thing and watch out because the green friend has awaken on the wrong side of the bed and now is yellow. They now want to tell you all the reasons you and your life are broken. Ouch! Perhaps they are not that blunt and rude but instead of being supportive of your messy life, they seem impatient or maybe go so far as to not even reply when you start to talk about a tender subject to you. Instead, they change the subject to something they are more comfortable with. Ever been there? I have. I can remember it clearly because it stung so much. Did I ever really share my heart and life struggles with that friend again. Nope. I closed up just like a clam and don’t plan on opening back up. Are we still friends? Sure. But from a further emotional distance. It just has to be that way.
Yellow people are where a lot of hurt feelings occur in the world of relationships. It’s the uncertainty that causes the damage. We are uncertain if the person will be a friend or a foe. It’s risky to miscalculate and fall into a ditch. Yellow people are unreliable with our emotions. They may not just flip-flop on their support of us, but they might flip-flop on the amount of time they spend with us. The yo-yo of being super available to then almost disappearing. There are a lot of ways someone can be a Yellow. Can you think of some other yellow-like behaviors? Go back to your sheet of paper that has Green written on it and the people who are greens in your life. Now do the same for Yellow. This list will be a lot longer.
There are different degrees of yellow and some people on your list might be yellow with a hint of green. On the other hand, some people will have some yellow and red!
These are the truly emotionally unsafe people. They may have moments that are ok but we can never forget that ultimately these are relationships that should be in small dosages, if we must see them at all. Red interactions leave us feeling drained, confused and often times anxious. I am a huge advocate of limiting contact with people that cause our lives to flourish less because they are in it. There are times when we can’t or don’t want to completely cut contact with Reds so what should we do? We have to spend time with the Greens in our lives before we interact with the Reds. We have to make sure our emotional well-being is taken care of before exposure to Reds. For the love of all things, we can NOT seek acceptance or affirmation from Reds. Some of them actually enjoy rejecting us and will do so at every opportunity. They don’t think we see the games but in fact, we do. It is up to you whether you share with the Reds in your life that you’re on to them or to simply take measures to maintain your own self-care while interacting with Reds. Go ahead and write RED on your list and fill in the names that you know belong there. It could be sad to write the names down but the truth is the truth. Might as well just acknowledge it openly and honestly with at least yourself.
The bottom line is that we must recognize who are emotionally safe people and who are not. We make the biggest mistakes when we confuse colors and have expectations that are not realistic. There is nothing rude or mean by allowing our true feelings to be put down on paper for us to reflect on. It is in this transparency that taking care of ourselves and boundaries can really take place.
It’s funny how age doesn’t change some things in life. In one day I spoke with a tween and two adults about the exact same topic but three different counseling sessions. They had the same concerns, same challenges and the same solutions would work in all three situations. It made me realize that if we don’t learn better ways of handling things as kids and teenagers, we are probably going to still be struggling with the same life challenges as adults.
On that particular day, the topic that both young and older were dealing with was how to not allow other people to affect their happiness, self-esteem and behaviors. That’s a big dilemma for a lot of people. How do we not function like human sponges soaking up the opinions of others and to our own detriment? If we are ever going to be free from being emotionally brought down by others, there are a few basic facts that we must accept as reality.
1) Certain People Will Never Like Us
Harsh? No. Just a true statement. We can’t win all people over to be our friends or even to be cordial to us. For a variety of different reasons, some people will never accept us. They will gossip about us, complain about us and basically never let their guard down enough to find our redeeming qualities. They want to dislike or even hate us. There are also those people in the world that need one person to be their target for releasing frustrations and sometimes that person is us. We must factor in our life mathematical equation people who won’t like us. By allowing this to be a normal part of being human, we will have an easier time when we run into those people who will not consistently be nice. We can, non-emotionally, put them in the Doesn’t Like Me box and happily move on. Who is on your list that doesn’t like you and are you learning to be ok with it?
2) It Isn’t Personal
At times, folks are not our fans because of our own behaviors. We need to be willing to take an honest look at that possibility and correct ourselves where and when needed. But if after a personal inventory, we can not find a true valid reason for someone to be rude to us or intentionally try to cause us stress, then we must realize that their attitude towards us isn’t personal. There are a lot of reasons people behave the way they do. Sometimes it’s because they are jealous of something we possess and they don’t. Other times, they could be acting out of a subconscious dislike of someone else that we remind them of so we get the full brunt of their frustrations. If we are truly not causing discord, then we have to remind ourselves that it’s not about us but them. We might have to repeat this often in our heads. When people are mean, it’s easy to take it on personally but it’s incredibly freeing when we truly grasp that their attitudes are not personal to us. They are probably rude to many other people in their world too.
3) Be Aware Of Our Own Hurt Feelings
There are times when we react to rude people in a more amplified way because really, we wanted to be friends with them and they clearly don’t like us. Or if we didn’t want to be friends, maybe we were seeking out respect in the work place or a promotion we felt was ours but someone else received. When we interact with all people, but especially those who are rude to us, we have to be consistently mindful of our own emotional temperature. Are we well-rested or tired? Happy in life or chronically disappointed? Lonely or feeling included? All these factors play into how we approach other people and respond to them as well.
In a nutshell, if we don’t want to absorb all of the negativity that some people hurl towards us, we must learn these essential boundaries. Otherwise, we will internalize things that we shouldn’t and in doing so, our own joy and self-esteem will diminish greatly.
The behaviors that we see our children and teens doing now are often the habits, hang-ups and routines that they will be doing many years down the road. As a counselor, I chat with adults all the time who tell me that they remember starting a certain pattern or patterns in their life way back when they were much younger. If we are honest with ourselves, I am sure we can look back to the past to see many of our personality quirks (some cute, some not) did emerge when we were running around the elementary playground or strolling through the halls in high school.
There are a few habits or ways of living life that I would like to highlight because I see the long term issues and honestly, much of the damage could have been avoided. I believe that good parenting involves recognizing the ways in which our children go through life that might hinder them later and working towards solutions while they are still young enough to be pointed in a new direction.
A few of the most negatively impacting habits include:
1) The creation of phobias:
There has been an increase of children who won’t wear this sort of clothing or must not have buttons on any items they come in contact with or will only eat from a list of 5 foods and on and on. As parents, we must be mindful to watch that our children’s world doesn’t become so confined to only the items they will tolerate or we are aiding in their development of phobias. Young children must not be allowed to dictate what they will wear or not wear. When a fuss is made about buttons, we as the parents calmly and lovingly explain that buttons are a part of life and there’s no getting away from them. We do not shift our wardrobe choices for our kids to not include any form of buttons. We push through and insist that our children be emotionally flexible. Now I do have to say that certain diagnosed mental health conditions make it very hard to simply push through but that is a very small percentage of the large group of children nowadays who have begun living very confined lives of only a few acceptable items in their world.
2) Good hygiene can’t not be ignored:
While our kids are young, we must instill in them the routine of caring for themselves on a regular basis. I know this sounds absurd, but you’d be shocked at how often I have come across young adults and middle aged folks that do not respect themselves enough to maintain good hygiene. Almost 100% of the time, the low self-esteem started in childhood when parents or a parent did not teach the youth to present their hair, teeth and body to the world in a way that reflected a healthy self worth.
3) Good manners can’t be ignored either:
Ever work with someone who didn’t know how to regulate themselves during a business meeting or heated discussion? I would take a wild guess that for the vast majority of these folks, speaking to others in a disrespectful manner was common place in the homes they grew up in. Ever come in contact with someone who almost always has a snappy tone, even when talking about something non-confrontational? That was probably how their family of origin spoke to one another and so it comes flying out of their mouth even before they know it.
4) Learning to hear NO when needed:
Ever wonder how narcissists are created? They either didn’t hear no enough growing up or they heard is so much that they learned to meet their own needs. There is a healthy balance somewhere in between never hearing it and hearing it too much. As parents, we will be doing our children a service if we allow them to experience disappointment and frustrations while they are young and the topics are about ice cream or bed times and not bigger adult issues down the road. Emotional flexibility is vitally important to all human beings and children who didn’t hear no enough growing up, become adults who expect everyone to cater to them.
The bottom line is that the environment we grew up in and then raise our own kids does have lasting implications. Let’s reflect on where there are areas we need to re-do from our own childhood and areas that as parents, we need to start addressing today so our kids have a better chance of having good habits that will last a lifetime.
When you read the title of this blog, I hope you do so in the same sing-song manner as if you were watching “The Wizard Of Oz” and the gang is frightened while on the road to the Emerald City and singing “lions, tigers and bears, OH MY! lions, tigers and bears, OH MY!” but now say “18, College and First Love, OH MY!”
My purpose of writing this blog is that I often see loving and nurturing parents stunting their youth’s normal development in the area of dating and every summer, I worry about those graduates who will be headed off to college like sheep to a slaughter. The idea that parents are sheltering their children from experiencing the NORMAL developmental stages of attraction can be controversial because for every opinion there is a counter-opinion. Since this is my blog, I will share with you my opinion; throw it into the mix of others out there and the reader can decide for themselves what works for their own children.
I had been planning to write this blog all week and like many people, I was busy and just never got around to it and then poof! out came the headlines about a young woman getting married after “supervised courting” and receiving her first kiss as a married person. Now, I had no intention of piggy-backing these headlines with this blog but the timing works, I suppose.
Do I think it’s fabulous that a young couple got married in a way that works for them? Absolutely. As a counselor, even a Christian counselor, do I recommend a similar courtship for all young adults? Absolutely not. I don’t know the young couple (I am referring to the Duggar daughter and by the way, 19 kids is a lot in my opinion) so I can’t say whether it will work for them or not. What I do know is that I would be terrified to send my own young adult off into the world, especially college life, without knowing first hand that he or she knows how to handle all the emotional strings that come along with falling in love.
I believe that there are stages to normal development that must be experienced along the path as a tween becomes a teen and a teen becomes an adult. I do not agree with saving all the experiences for when the youth is a “magical” age of 16 years or 18 years old. I get very nervous when parents tell me that they will allow their teen to date at 16 years old and not a moment before. Let’s think about this…give the youth a car, car keys, a long-awaited love interest, no experience in setting boundaries in real life situations as opposed to hypothetical scenarios and that sounds like a good idea? Not to me. What does sound like a good idea to me is to parcel out small dosages of “dating” and “being in love” experiences as is right for the tween/teen and let each experience serve as an opportunity for parents and children to have honest conversations.
This year by 4th grade son said that he wanted to buy a Valentine’s Day gift for two girls at school. We talked about why he wanted to buy them each a gift, what it would mean to the girls and since the girls were friends would that cause conflict, etc. It was a wonderful discussion about friendships and boy/girl expectations. Eventually he decided that buying just one gift for a girl was a better idea (that was probably after we did a pre-purchase swing through Kohl’s to see just how much of his allowance he would have to shell out on these gifts). He and I talked about whether the girl’s parents would be ok with her receiving a Valentine’s Day gift as a 4th grader and I directed him to ask the girl beforehand and have her ask her parents. Once it was confirmed that she was allowed, he and I went back to Kohl’s with enough of his allowance saved up and he began the process of buying his first treasure for a girl; which is a normal desire that I want to foster in raising a gentleman.
The time at Kohl’s also served as a great learning opportunity because he was drawn to the flashiest, largest, gaudiest jewelry Kohl’s had to offer during the month of February. He said the girl liked “sparkle” so he was going for a lot of sparkle! But I explained she was a young girl who deserved something that was sweet and dainty, like her. He understood what I was saying and ultimately selected a very pretty little Cross. He knew the girl was a Christian because since that was a quality that was important to him, he had on his own gained this knowledge at school one day. You should have seen the tender care in which he carried the little bag that held this precious possession he had selected and bought with his own money for a girl he thought was very special, in a 4th grade way. I believe all that to be really normal and healthy. Some other adults might disagree but there were so many amazing conversations that took place during this Valentine’s Day purchase that I am so glad my son, and us as his parents, didn’t miss out on them.
Each parent has to decide what is right for their family. That’s the bottom line. As a therapist and a mom, I really want to see young adults launch off to college-life away from parents watchful eyes already having had the experience of learning boundaries even while in love, having learned the art of balancing school work and a love interest, having learned what is an unhealthy relationship and how to leave it when necessary and on and on. Keeping our youth from dating at all until they are 16 years or 18 years old or only dating towards marriage (which is another topic for another blog, but I completely disagree with this philosophy) only delays the developmental stages that all youth must go through as it relates to healthy attraction to their peers. I would much rather a 12, 14, 16 year old act their age, than have an 18, 20 or 25 year old acting much younger than their chronological age because they were never allowed to develop normally.
What are your thoughts about preparing young adults for dating life?