One of the most common misconceptions I see online in the abuse recovery community are people posting that psychological abusers are just wounded people who don’t know any better. Victims to their childhood abuse who went on to hurt people similarly. You know the saying, “wounded people, wound people.” As a certified trauma therapist, I find this assumption to be false about psychological abusers and would like to unpack the topic a little more than can be done in an Instagram comment section.
I want to make it clear that both forms of abuse, emotional and psychological, are damaging to the victims, create life chaos, and are unacceptable in any relationship whether that be in a family, romantic relationship, among peers, at work, or in a place of worship.
The driving motivations behind emotional and psychological abuse are where the two topics split from one another and victims need to be well-versed in the underlying reason for the behaviors.
Can someone be both an emotional and psychological abuser? For me, the clinical answer is no. It is one or the other and depends on why the individual is behaving in harmful ways.
Let’s look at the differences.
Emotional abusers react out of their core wounds that have never been healed. They can trace back where they learned maladaptive coping skills and are continuing to hold on to them into adulthood.
Emotional abusers are authentically remorseful for their actions. They know something is wrong in the way they react to every day stressful situations. They are truly embarrassed by their behaviors.
It’s not that emotional abusers don’t know any better. They don’t know how to do any better. There is a huge difference between these two.
Emotional abusers hold a deep sense of shame about their brokenness and how it manifests in their life and those who are close to them. They know they are perhaps repeating verbal abuse patterns they loathed while growing up in an unstable home.
Emotional abusers may have an untreated, or poorly regulated, mental health diagnoses that can make maintaining stable moods a true challenge. I do not include personality disorders in this criteria. Diagnoses such as bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, or major depressive disorder can cause someone to have unregulated emotions that can cross over into unintentional emotionally abusive behaviors.
Emotional abuse is a common byproduct of addiction and chemical dependency. The addict’s life focus is on feeding their addiction and can become incredibly emotionally abusive in the singular pursuit of their drug of choice.
Emotional abusers often have chaos in many areas of life functioning. Maintaining a stable, calm existence is a challenge for many people who are also emotionally abusive.
Emotional abusers can change.
They can learn new coping skills that give them the tools to stop themselves before lashing out verbally. They can go to addiction treatment and live a peaceful life, clean and sober. They can do the daily work to maintain their mental health in a way that keeps them emotionally stable and regulated. I will say it again for emphasis, emotional abusers can and do permanently change for the better.
Psychological abusers never change.
Psychological abusers believe their assessment of you, and everyone else around them, is correct. They are not open to learning new coping skills and why would they? In their assessments, they are as close to perfect as someone can be and it is everyone else who needs the help.
Psychological abusers will pretend to be remorseful for some of their abusive behaviors, but no lasting change ever comes. They always return to their toxic baseline. Their “regret” is a façade to keep the victim in the relationship and available for more abuse.
Psychological abuses blame other people for their actions. They rarely give an authentic apology for being abusive because to do so would be to admit they are flawed just like everyone else.
Psychological abusers enjoy the game of making people frustrated. They create chaos on purpose because they find it entertaining to watch those around them react.
Psychological abuse is rooted in power and control of those around them.
Psychological abusers do not have other true mental health or addiction issues that could be the cause of some of their abusive behaviors. They choose to harm out of their free-will. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not the same diagnosis category as bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, or major depressive disorder. NPD is not a true mental health, biochemically-based, condition. It is a personality disorder. I believe NPD is not a brain-based malfunction, but repeatedly choosing not to express empathy for others. If trauma can change brain function, not living in an empathetic manner could, and does, as well.
Psychological abusers know when to turn on and off their abusive behaviors. They are always trying to fly under the radar so no one can pinpoint their actions and accurately accuse them of being an abuser.
Psychological abusers are in control of their actions. Their lives tend to be high-functioning, or at least normal functioning. They can manipulate people around them into meeting their needs, while selfishly not being concerned by the needs of others.
These are but just a few of the differences between emotional and psychological abuse. The motivation of behaviors should help victims better understand what they are facing and make life choices that are right for them.
There are no excuses for any abusive behaviors going untreated or unchanged.
Remember, keep dreaming big!
Have you ever read a book and either the timing was just perfect in your life or the material in the book highlighted a topic that was extremely intriguing to you? It’s an amazing experience to gain knowledge right at the exact moment that you need or want it. That happened to me when I read “Psychopath Free” by Peace.
The anonymous author, Peace, does something that is as hard as describing air; Peace shines light on the insidious nature of being in a relationship with a psycho/sociopath. The reason this is quite an impressive feat is because the psycho/sociopath intentionally mimics aspects of a normal relationship but with very different hidden intentions. Therefore, it is incredibly hard for a normal person to see the abuse happening while in the middle of the confusion manufactured by the psycho/sociopath.
As a counselor, I have been witness to many unhealthy relationships and sometimes they were the garden variety of a coupling between a jerk and a nice person. Other times, the relationship dance was very toxic. I do not buy into the belief that all relationship ills are “fifty-fifty” responsibility. I have seen time and time again that one person is usually dragging the relationship down. I would put the percentages closer to 60-40, 70-30 or even 80-20% of who is causing the issues and who is not. We all play some role when our relationships are struggling but usually there is one person that is the weaker link of the two. Feel free to visit my previous blogs on this topic at Weakest Link and Not The Weakest Link.
The book “Psychopath Free” states that it is for those “recovering from emotionally abusive relationships with narcissists, sociopaths and other toxic people.” I will say that everyone should read this book! Young, old, married or single. The reason I feel this way is because we all need a knowledge base of what is normal behaviors in a relationship and when should red-flags be going up. Being in a relationship with a psycho/sociopath throws all our previous understood laws of relationships out the window because the psycho/sociopath is intentionally wanting us off balance so we don’t see their game. Books like “Psychopath Free” help to show the pattern of what it is like to be in a very damaging relationship and therefore we are wiser when dating, giving advice to family or friends or within our own relationships.
Reading a book is like looking at a piece of artwork. Everyone will come away with something slightly different, even while looking at the same material. I encourage you to read “Psychopath Free” yourself but I will give you what were the main take-aways for me and paraphrase what I think the author was trying to share with the reader. There is so much goodness in this book and I am only highlighting a few of the points that jumped out for me.
The idealization stage for a psycho/sociopath is critical. This is where he/she will target a particular person to win them over and essentially brainwash them into thinking they had met the person of their dreams. Peace says “they will feed you constant praise and attention through your phone, Facebook timeline and email inbox.” Within a matter of weeks, the two of you will have your own set of inside jokes, pet names and cute songs.” Now, this might sound like the early stages of all normal relationships but the intent of the psycho/sociopath is very dark. He/she “never truly feels the things they display. They’re observing you, mirroring your every emotion and pretending to ride this high with you.” The psycho/sociopath “love-bombs” the target in order to quickly gain a hook into their victim. Not all psycho/sociopath do this overtly. Some are smart enough to know not to come on too strong or the normal person will flee. A psycho/sociopath is a master of reading people and figuring out just the right amount of attention to give during this idealization stage in order to gain the results of the victim believing that something very special is taking place between them.
During the idealization stage, Peace states that six major points will be employed by the psycho/sociopath:
1) We have so much in common
2) We have the same hopes and dreams
3) We share the same insecurities
4) You are beautiful (handsome)
5) I’ve never felt this way in my life
6) We are soul mates
That all sounds really great right? Sounds like two people falling in love and the normal beginning of a relationship. Sadly, for those involved with a psycho/sociopath, it’s all lies. The normal person believes they have met their soul mate who is so much like them, but in reality, they have met a con who is manufacturing love feelings within the normal person. The psycho/sociopath wants the normal person to be hooked on the attention because guess what is coming next? The stage in which the psycho/sociopath begins to create heartbreak for the normal person. It’s all part of the game and entertainment for the psycho/sociopath. Crazy right?
Once the psycho/sociopath is sure that he/she has the normal person on the hook, they will begin testing the level of dependency they have created within the normal person. Peace shares that the psycho/sociopath will flood the normal person with emails, phone calls, social media posts, texts or other forms of communication that creates an expectancy and routine but once the normal person is brainwashed enough, the psycho/sociopath will suddenly go silent for hours or days at a time and sits back to watch the normal person panic by the sudden change in behaviors. If the normal person says something to the psycho/sociopath, he/she will begin blaming the normal person and name calling such as needy, dependent, crazy, psycho, jealous and other unpleasant things. But the truth is that the psycho/sociopath did it all on purpose to create chaos for the normal person.
During the devaluing stage, the psycho/sociopath will utilize methods to cause distress in the normal person. The silent treatment is one but so is triangulation. According the Peace, this is where the psycho/sociopath will ignore you but spend lots of time on social media interacting with exes and people the psycho/sociopath had previously told you were “crazy” or of no importance to him/her. But they are ignoring you to engage with them so something must be going on. The bottom line is that the psycho/sociopath wants to emotionally destroy the normal person for their own entertainment and in the process make the normal person feel and look crazy.
Another favorite trick of a psycho/sociopath is called gas-lighting. This is where the psycho/sociopath out right denies previously known facts and will attempt to make the normal person doubt their own memory and re-counting of history. This type of brainwashing can take on different forms but the ultimate outcome is that the psycho/sociopath has fun by suddenly changing the facts and watching the normal person squirm in confusion. Remember though, the normal person thinks he/she has met their soul mate and is deeply committed to the relationship so all these games are intensely painful for the victim.
Wait for it…the bottom is about to fall out for the normal person. The psycho/sociopath had successfully love-bombed the normal person into believing they had found their soul mate, started pulling the strings of the normal person for their own entertainment and now the psycho/sociopath is ready for the next victim so he/she must discard the useless one or the one who started to see the game. According to Peace,
“the psychopath carefully selects the most indifferent and heartbreaking way imaginable to abandon you. They want you to self-destruct, cleaning up any loose end as they begin the grooming process with their latest victim. They destroy you as a way to reassure themselves that their new target is better. But most importantly, they destroy you because they hate you. They despise your empathy and love – qualities they must pretend to feel every single day. To destroy you is to temporarily silence the nagging reminder of the emptiness that consumes their soul.”
See why I love this book so much? It describes a hidden agenda within some relationships that is so hard to pin-point that it often leaves the victim blaming themselves and deeply wounded. But there is recovery from intensely toxic relationships with a psycho/sociopath. The last section of “Psychopath Free” goes into great detail of how to walk out of an abusive relationship with a psycho/sociopath and how to get your feet firmly planted back on the ground and actually come out of the experience healthier, wiser and truly happier.
Due to the hidden and dark agenda of a psycho/sociopath, it is important that people educate themselves on the warning signs that these types of people put out and to follow through on No Contact with such individuals. If you find yourself relating to some of what you have read above or have a family member or friend who may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, please reach out to a counselor or trusted confidant and share your story. Isolation is one of the main tools used by abusive people and breaking out of that loneliness can be just the thing that starts the healing process.
Finally, a big THANK YOU to Peace for your work in writing the book, keeping the Facebook page and website going and everything else you are doing to help people heal and be restored from psychopathic abuse. You are a gift to many…
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.