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.
Friendships are at the core of our support and what enriches our lives in numerous ways. Our friends are the family members that we get to choose. A good friendship will be like iron sharpening iron and I recently saw a quote that said “You become like the 5 people you spend the most time with – choose carefully.” We are changed and help others change while investing in solid friendships.
Since friends have such personal access to us and our private thoughts, choosing wisely is critically important. We all have had a friendship or two (or more sometimes) when we wonder why we let a particular person close to us and ended up hurt in the relationship. It’s inevitable that we will have some friendships that turn badly and we have an opportunity to learn from the experience. As a counselor, I get to hear lots of stories of friendships done well and not so fabulous. I often write about toxic people and their influence in our lives because I truly believe that all personal growth is hindered (or completely ruined) by one of two things: 1) our own inner thought life and 2) the attitude of the people we surround ourselves with on a regular basis.
With that in mind, I’d like to share five of the more damaging friendship types that I have come across:
“My Life is Perfect”
This is the friend that always has to portray themselves, their families and their life in general as the personification of perfection. They may even go so far as to tell you outright that their lives are “perfect.” Their declaration of an ideal existence is often followed by you having shared a hard time, a struggle or a let down in life. This friend will comfort you in all your loserness (I am being sarcastic) and then immediately share a story about what a great promotion their husband just got making oodles of money or how one of their children made the most exclusive sports team in the community or some other version of success. These friends feel compelled to project an outward image that can not be true for anyone. Perfection isn’t reality. Having a life you love and appreciate is reality but these type of friends take it a step further. They don’t want you to see their flaws or if they do share some struggle, it will be something watered down and helps to maintain their self-image. The damaging aspects of having a friend such as this is that no matter how close we may think we are to this person, there is an invisible wall between us and them. True authentic relationships involve transparency and where transparency is lacking, friendship doesn’t really exist.
“Here Comes Trouble”
Watch your back. Better yet, watch your back, your front, your sides and every other entry into your life because this friend is looking for drama and has no trouble dragging you into a relational mess. The motivation for these trouble causing friends often varies but frequently I have seen that these folks want to alienate us from other people and do so by gossiping about this, that and the other in order to get us angry at the other person and are therefore more loyal or devoted to the trouble causing friend. Rather than just letting life sift itself out and letting people choose who they want to be friends with, the trouble starter passive aggressively tries to control the dynamics and trouble is the by product. Now some trouble causing friends are just bored in life and need a good fight to wake themselves up. The challenge to having a trouble causing friend is well, they cause trouble! They create hurt feelings and triangulate (therapy word for pitting people against one another) those around them and there is no harmony or peace when a trouble maker friend is in your life.
“I Am Always Right”
When a friend is always right, guess what? We are always wrong. We raise our kids wrong, we vacation in the wrong places, we make decisions about our careers wrong and on and on it goes. Their over inflated ego whispers to them they know best for themselves and us and if we would just listen to them, all would be well. The limitations to this type of friendship are endless because they don’t make room for our own thoughts, beliefs and hopes to come through. There is one way to do things correctly and that is their way. This friend might have the best intentions for us and truly want to help us become better parents but the problem is that we might not agree that they are the ideal parent and may want to do things our way. Gasp! Shocking huh? To this type of friend, our independent thoughts are annoying to them and if we dare express that we see things differently, the relationship will be strained because we have rejected their over-bearing ways in our life and that usually doesn’t sit well with an always right friend.
“Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”
Ah. The competitive friend. Gotta love them. Unlike the Always Right friend, the Competitive Friend wants us to live independently from them and give it our best shot, as long as they come out on top in every situation. Got a great promotion at work? They got a better one. Parenting your child in a way where they are thriving? Your competitive friend could do it better and has no problem telling you so. My personal favorite is when friends are not even parents yet and believe they could raise your kids better than you do. This friend can be a double-edged sword because they will encourage all kinds of personal growth in you and cheer you along but inevitably the competition you weren’t aware of between you starts to show and it’s damaging to the bond of friendship. It very difficult to do life in close proximity to someone who at the end of the day, just wants to be better than you are and has no issue with either aggressively or passive-aggressively letting you know.
What was that sound, you ask? That, my friend, was the sound of the bus running you over because your other “friend” threw you under it! This type of friend will have no problem scapegoating you when it’s convenient to their agenda. This friend might really like you and want to be your confidant but the moment that their neck is on the line or an offering to the volcano is needed, guess who is getting throw into the pit? You! They know the dynamics of the environment just enough to know exactly how to toss you under the bus in the most effortless and effective manner. The limitation to this friendship type is that what you thought was a nice connection was really a two sided coin; pleasant in one way and completely self-serving for the other person in another way. There is no trust in this type of friendship.
As you think over these five friendship types and the friends you currently have in your life, how are things measuring up? Did reading this list make you grateful for the wonderful and supportive friends you have or did you see someone you know in one or more of the five listed above? Whatever your current state of friendship may be, it’s important to remember that healthy people attract healthy people. So continue on your own journey of personal growth, whatever that may look like, and trust that the right friends will join you and enrich your life in amazing ways. If you already have a great group of supporters, go tell them you appreciate the goodness they bring to your life.
A week doesn’t go by that I don’t hear at least one person say during a counseling session: “I can’t do this anymore.” Now the “this” might be about a variety of different things but the statement is still said collectively often enough that I think it’s worth spending more time pondering over.
I think those words, “I can’t do this anymore” are powerful and should serve as an early warning system that change in some form or fashion is probably on the horizon or should be. I think overload on emotional capacity is the reason people get to the point where they feel that they can’t continue either staying a certain relationship, at the same place of employment, in a one-sided friendship, struggling with financial pressures, trying to meet unrealistic family obligations or whatever else might be at the core of a “I can’t do this anymore” statement. Emotional capacity. We all have it in vary degrees and it influences our ability to continue down a path that isn’t best suited for us.
I think our emotional capacity, say for anxiety or stress, is greatly influenced by our past experiences of these draining emotions. Lets say we grew up in a chaotic home and were chronically dealing with stress and waves of anxiety, our capacity for those emotions later down the road as adults might be less because, well, we have been there done that and our nervous system is crying out NO MORE! If we have been in an abusive or even toxic romantic relationship, our patience for such nonsense will be limited (as it should be actually) and we might find ourselves coming to the end of our ability to deal with dysfunction quicker than say someone who might be fresher in the game, if you will.
I don’t think getting to the point of feeling like we can’t continue doing something is necessarily a bad thing. I have repeatedly watched amazingly strong men and women make some significant and needed life changes after they were able to get to their own couldn’t do it anymore point. I think the challenge is knowing if we have really arrived a point of no return and change will come eventually or are we just having a wave of disappointment or frustration and we honestly really can do it more? I tell clients to never make any permanent decisions without feeling consistently convinced of the decision for at least a few months. If their mood fluctuates within that time frame and they have good days and think they can continue with the relationship, job or other area of life, then they do have more in the emotional capacity tank and they are not ready to change things. Regret is a very heavy load to carry around and I always advise clients to stay clear of it when at all possible.
The other side of this coin though is that if someone consistently feels that they can’t continue as things are, then they owe it to themselves to make the changes needed to lower their anxiety and stress levels, no matter how complicated it might seem in the beginning to pull away from the status quo. Just because we can force ourselves to continue down a certain path does not mean our nervous system or physical health will be ok with it. I strongly believe in a mind/body connection and if we continue doing “this” when we know we shouldn’t continue doing “this”, our well-being will suffer at some point. It’s inevitable.
Is there an area of your life that you’ve felt like you can’t do anymore? If so, how long have you consistently felt this way? If it’s been some time, what’s holding you back from taking baby steps in the right direction? It’s scary, I know.