To Tell The Truth

I’ve been pondering for a number of weeks (years, really) how to describe narcissistic/emotonal abusers to those who are ignorant about the dynamics of abuse. Dr. George Simon has said that what he calls “character disturbed people”–manipulative people such as narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths–are on the increase so the chances are high that you, or someone you know, will encounter these people in your life. The more ignorant you are about these people and their tactics, the higher the likelihood is that either you will become a victim yourself or you will end up defending and supporting the abuser.  If you support the abuser, even ignorantly, you add to the victim’s confusion and torment. So it’s really quite important to educate yourself.

Years ago there was a game show on TV called, “To Tell The Truth.” In the show, three contestants all identified themselves with the same name, for example, “My name is [John Smith]. Celebrity panelists had to identify which was actually the real “John Smith.” When the panelists questioned the contestants, the two “impostors” could lie whereas the real “John Smith” had to tell the truth. I think that identifying an abuser and victim is somewhat similar. The victim tells the truth, but the abuser skillfully uses all sorts of manipulation, deceit, gaslighting, and other tactics to make himself appear to be an innocent victim.

There is a huge difference between an abuser and a victim, but an abuser’s tactics are so powerful that even victims can have trouble recognizing abuse. It’s difficult to describe an abuser and his tactics when so much of it is hidden. For example, one advocate shared on his blog a true story of an abusive husband and his wife who went to counseling together. After several sessions, the counselor observed that they seemed to be at an impasse and they would make more progress if the wife spoke up more. So the wife shared the struggles she was having in the marriage. The husband broke down, and with choked voice and tears in his eyes confessed that he hadn’t been a good husband and that he would try to do better in the future. The counselor felt that there had been a real breakthrough and now the couple could make progress in healing the marriage. Sounds good, right? However, on the way home, the husband repeatedly slammed his wife’s head into the dashboard of the car, angrily yelling, “I told you to never say anything!” What do you think will happen in future counseling sessions? I’ll tell you: The wife won’t dare to speak up and she will be blamed for refusing on the marriage while the husband will appear to be the one really trying. This sort of scenario–and others–happens all the time. 

“I think a servant of the enemy would look fairer and feel fouler.”  ~ Frodo Baggins

Because appearances really are deceiving, I have often wondered how to explain to others–or even myself–how to recognize abusers.

  • There are some genuinely good people in the world who are kind, loving, and a delight to know, but abusers also often appear very charming and loving when you first meet them because they want to draw you into their web. They only start their abuse later. It can be a challenge to tell the fake from the real when you first meet someone.
  • Advocates say “always believe the victim” and this is truly essential. Disbelief actually validates and empowers the abuser, which causes the victim more confusion, makes her blame herself more, makes her try harder. It also isolates her from support, makes her more vulnerable to the abuser, and makes it more difficult to escape and recover.  Yet, abusers often “play the victim” very convincingly. So how does a person who is ignorant of the dynamics of abuse tell the difference between a true victim and an abuser who is pretending to be one? I think that maybe some of the reasons people disbelieve the victim is:
    1. They don’t understand the dynamics of abuse.
    2. They don’t see everything that is going on because the abuser is so skilled at hiding it.
    3. They assume cruel actions must be “unintentional,” because they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that anyone could be so deliberately cruel and enjoy causing others pain.
    4. If, as they believe, the abuse is unintentional then the victim must surely be over-reacting, negative, bitter, petty, judgmental. So it’s all her fault.
    5. They assume there are easy fixes: If you (the victim) just stop holding grudges, if you just unconditionally love and forgive him (the abuser), or pray for him, or have the right attitude, then he will miraculously transform into a better person.
    6. They don’t realize that abusers consider people who are forgiving and loving as “sheep to be sheared,” as vulnerable to exploitation, and…go back to #1.
  • Abusers often torment their victims until they can’t take anymore and then they condemn them for their reactions as if their reactions are the problem and not the abuse. The abuser’s anger is a deliberate tactic. A victim’s anger is a natural reaction to abuse and injustice. But how is an ignorant person supposed to tell the difference when they just see the anger of the victim? I don’t know how to explain it.
  • Advocates point out that abusers use the Silent Treatment. Victims are urged to go No Contact. On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much difference between the Silent Treatment and No Contact. The difference is that the abuser uses the Silent Treatment as a manipulative tactic while the victim goes No Contact to escape the abuser. Usually, after a period of silence, an abuser will try to re-establish contact with his victim because he doesn’t want to lose her any more than a spider wants a fly to escape his web.

So what is a fool-proof way of telling the difference between the real victim and the pretender? I’m not quite sure. It may be that abuse is something a person can’t understand unless she experiences it–at which point she becomes the person being ripped apart by the wolf with no one to help. Maybe the abuse information is mostly just helpful to the victims–helping them see through the confusion, helping them to understand what’s happening, helping them to get support. Maybe advocates are like the people who were part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, secretly helping slaves escape while most people were ignorantly living their lives. Maybe it’s useless trying to inform the ignorant.

And, yet, as I said at the beginning of this post, people who are ignorant of abuse are themselves at risk for abuse and/or for empowering the abuser. Sometimes helping the abuser can have dire consequences, such as when people urge a victim to return to her abuser and she ends up getting murdered. So it matters. The very basic advice I’d give to people is never, ever, pressure someone to “forgive” and reconcile with a person she has cut off contact with–whether it’s a spouse, family member, friend, or whoever. No matter how wonderful you think that other person is, you might have no idea what he’s doing when no one can see. Also, don’t try to “fix” an abuse victim, don’t tell her she will recover if she just does these few steps, and don’t tell her to just “move on” or “get over it.” Narcissistic/emotional abuse is not easy to recover from because, as one advocate wrote, “it affects the very core of your heart, mind, and soul.”

In my next post, I will describe some of the Red Flags I have developed, based on my own experience, to help me personally recognize toxic/abusive people. They are behaviors that I will be alert for, behaviors that will help me set boundaries about what I will or will not tolerate. Maybe my list will help someone else.

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