One of the most common things I hear from survivors of psychological abuse is their confusion about why they didn’t notice the red flags sooner in the relationship. It doesn’t matter if the toxic person is a parent, co-worker, friend or love interest, almost all survivors seriously doubt themselves for not seeing the toxicity earlier. Once a survivor’s eyes are opened to the abuse they have endured, they wonder why they didn’t set better boundaries before they found themselves in a world of hurt from the psychological games. Survivors of this type of abuse have their lives completely rocked and thrown into chaos. The common question is “how did I let this happen to me?”
The truth is that this form of abuse is difficult to specifically pinpoint and that’s what makes it so insidious. The abuser works hard to hide their true motives so they lie and shift the blame onto the survivor. In order for the pattern of abuse to be really seen, it takes a survivor many episodes that leave them deeply hurt. It is not a one-and-done type of abuse.
Psychological abuse is a pervasive pattern of covertly harming another person. I often relate the process that survivors go through as collecting pebbles. One pebble represents a negative encounter with a psychological abuser.
In the early stages of a relationship or an awareness that something isn’t right, a survivor will have a few pebbles in their metaphorical bag. The bag isn’t very heavy and only carries a couple weird or hurtful moments with an abuser. Certainly not enough evidence of abuse to cut a family member out of your life, quit your job, break up with a boyfriend/girlfriend and most definitely not enough to end a marriage. It’s only a few negative moments, right? At this point, survivors will rationalize that nobody is perfect, everyone has character defects and good days/bad days. It is human nature to not take too seriously one or two or three or four unpleasant moments with people. We often shrug it off and move on.
However, after time of collecting “pebbles,” the bag becomes very heavy. Too heavy to carry anymore and many survivors describe being crushed under the weight of the abuse and chronic dysfunction of the abuser. Survivors experience physical and emotional issues due to the weight of the bag of pebbles and toxicity of the environment. Some survivors share their During and After the abuse pictures and it is stunning to see how each and every one of them looked overwhelmed and exhausted during the abuse. The After pictures are extremely encouraging that recovery can be complete and permanent.
Are you collecting pebbles of odd or outright abusive encounters with a toxic person? How heavy is your bag right now? If there are just a few pebbles, take note of any patterns of behaviors that are starting to emerge. Be prepared to set boundaries if or when the pebbles start to pile up.
What do you do if your bag of pebbles is so heavy you can’t even lift it anymore and feel suffocated by the bag? First, breathe. Take a minute and pause. You are not crazy. You more than likely have been spun into such a chaotic state that you’re not sure which way is up anymore. Taking care of yourself physically is a great first step towards recovery from psychological abuse. Going to bed earlier, getting enough exercise and eating a little healthier are all helpful towards finding your way out of a dark pit. There are different aspect to being in recovery and each survivor has to figure out what is right for them and their specific situation. Finding a therapist or online support group that specializes in healing from psychological abuse is often vital for people to begin the healing process.
I wish that no one needed to be on the lookout for pebbles of abuse but the reality is that toxic people exist and trying to get a survivor to not notice the pattern is part of the dysfunction. Collecting pebbles helps gather the moments in one place so the true weight of the situation can be recognized.
Keep dreaming big!
** The Project Is Now Closed **
I am very excited to announce that my research project on Psychological Abuse has received approval and ready for participants!
The anonymous survey can be found at:
You can also visit us on Facebook at A Study on Psychological Abuse
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!