Resources for Allies

How to spot abusers and their victims

Hello, Allies & Supporters!

 

Likely most of you are on this page to make sure you are not a part of the cycle of abuse. The best way to be a part of the solution is to know the basic principles of how abusers operate their distortion campaign. This information is key to knowing how to help your loved ones as they navigate their next steps--whether they are leaving an abusive relationship or engaged in their healing process.

The main ingredient used by those who abuse and harm others is GASLIGHTING. Gaslighting is an insidious erosion of your sense of reality. It creates a mental fog of epic proportions in the twisted “funhouse” of smoke, mirrors and distortions that exist in an abusive relationship. Gaslighting enables malignant narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths to exhaust you to the point where you (the helper or the victim) are unable to fight back.

My Quiet Cave Talks Mary Ellen Mann on Complex Trauma

 

Someone who is operating a distortion campaign against their victim is GASLIGHTING YOU. I have broken down the complexity of this psychological game into the phrases listed below. When chronically used in the context of an abusive relationship, these statements serve to demean, belittle, and distort the reality of abuse victims. Once victims believe that they are unlovable and crazy, they are prone to isolation. This is one of the main goals of an abuser. Isolate your victim and you can do whatever you want to them. As helpers you are a part of the shame based isolation if you don’t speak up and cry BS to the tactics used by these GASLIGHTERS. Check on the victims, and size up what the gaslighter is saying against the experience you have of the victimized person. The symptoms of depression, exhaustion and personality changes are more important than what the gaslighter is telling you about the victim.

 

Let’s look at some of the things you might hear from a gaslighter who is operating their distortion campaign.

 

You will hear them refer to their victims in the following way:

  1. “S/he’s crazy. S/he has spiritual and psychological issues that you need to pray about and help her/him through.” This is said by the smirking malignant narcissist who is playing “doctor” to their victims, treating them like unruly patients or in some religious contexts as broken, lost and untruthful. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, some abusers will even actively drive their victims to the edge to concoct proof of their instability.

  2. “S/he is just insecure and jealous.” This is said to engage the victim’s belief that their feelings and needs are a part of their lack of confidence. Creating an illusion or their desirability leads to this mythic need to be a part of love triangles, harems of women/men who desire them and so on. Victims of this tactic report being told that they lack an “aura of desirability,” because they are unhinged and unlovable. This often creates a belief in the victim that they are nothing without their partner, who is more attractive, realistic and simply better at life. This is also a part of manipulating victims to doubt that their partner is in fact inappropriate and flirtatious or even having affairs.

  3. “S/he’s too sensitive. S/he overreacts.” This technique effectively overrides a victim’s certainty about the severity of the abuse they are experiencing. Whether or not someone is sensitive is irrelevant when it comes to cases of psychological or physical violence. Abuse affects anyone and everyone of varying sensitivity levels. A mark of a healthy partner is that they give the victim space and acceptance to feel their emotions and provide emotional validation--even if they don’t agree.

  4. “It was a joke. S/he has no sense of humor.” This is depraved wit in action. It’s also a key feature of something inherent in every abuse scenario: THE DOUBLE STANDARD. Would the person complaining about the victim’s lack of humor want someone making fun of them; calling them names; putting them down? Playful teasing takes a certain amount of rapport, trust and mutual enjoyment. This tactic can leave the victim and those supporting the victim believing that the victim is unable to appreciate the humor behind their cruelty.

  5. “S/he needs to let it go. S/he dredges up the past to make it look like the problem is bigger than it is.” In some organized religious circles, the abuser may say: “They don’t forgive. All of us are imperfect; what right does s/he have to judge me?” In any abuse cycle, it’s common for an abuser to engage in a hot and cold cycle where they periodically throw in crumbs of affection to keep the victim hooked and to renew hope for a return to the honeymoon phase. This is known as “intermittent reinforcement” or “love bombing.” And it’s common for an abuser to terrorize the victim only to return the next day (or later that day) and act like nothing happened. When the victim does recall the abusive incidents (or s/he feels that the apology was not sincere because it was prompted by the victim), an abuser tells the community that s/he doesn’t forgive or let it go so s/he can sustain the cycle.

  6. “S/he’s the problem here, not me. Look at their past. Look at their family. S/he has issues with _____.” This is malignant projection because it is naming the victim the narcissists and abusers. This is blaming the victim, which can be quite effective because victims tend to be conscientious about their behavior, which often leaves them stunned and disoriented.

  7. “I never said or did that. S/he’s imagining things.” This teaches allies and supporters to doubt the victim’s perceptions and memories of the abuse s/he has experienced. This has been called the “illusory truth effect,” which defines how repeated falsehoods are more likely to be internalized as true simply due to the effects of repetition. This is why continual minimizing and denial can be so effective in convincing victims of gaslighting that they are indeed imagining things or suffering from memory loss or mental illness, rather than standing firm in their beliefs and experiences.

 

Once we know better, we do better. Teaching those to operate distortion campaigns that they are entitled to do as they wish, “to each their own” is to participate as an accomplice in what breaks down the worth and meaning of the victim. To engage your knowledge and speak up for the victim is to teach the victim that they are believed and worthy. They are worthy of being fought for, comforted and most importantly that they belong in your life. They are then no longer isolated, which is the primary goal of the abuser.

 

As an ally and supporter, know that victims rarely invent stories of mistreatment and abuse. The presentation of a victim is usually one that assumes too much responsibility for the actions of the abuser. Here are the signs to look for when you’re concerned that someone you love is being abused:

 

  1. Usually there is significant depression.

  2. A person’s self concept is in the dumps, and it often shows through poor grooming habits, messy or disorganized spaces, lack of routine or intensely rigid expectations of themselves (black and white thinking) and sometimes others.

  3. There can be moments of clarity, but they’re often quickly forgotten or suppressed under denial, minimization and self-blaming.

  4. There can be spiritualization to justify the abuse, under the guise of being sharpened or set free from sin.

  5. We will typically hear victims say things like:

 

  • I think that I am making this up because I have trust issues.

  • I have problems from my past so I know that it is my fault when we struggle with conflict.

  • I need to be more confident about myself when I think s/he is flirting with someone. Being suspicious is a sign of insecurity so it’s my problem if there isn’t confidence in our relationship.

  • I need to be careful not to become bitter, because my partner is just doing their best.

  • We all have problems so I don’t want to blame anyone here.

  • I always take things too seriously. I get defensive and need to learn to receive the input regardless of how it’s being said.

  • There are times I feel like I can’t take it anymore and want to leave but I made a vow to stay no matter what.

  • I can’t leave them because they had such a tragic childhood.

  • No one gets relationships right so it’s important to just let it go.

  • Marriage is hard. (Allies, I urge you to check to see whether they mean challenging or demoralizing.)

  • They say that relationships teach you to compromise so I  need to have the courage to let myself change what doesn’t work in this relationship--even if that means forfeiting my values and priorities.

As you walk through the process of supporting your friend or loved one in trauma or abuse, here are some additional ways we as allies and support people can help and hurt.

Ways we help:

  1. Believe the story of the victim. You are not the investigator, neither am I. The person seeking help is very different in purpose and presentation than those who defend themselves. In fact, a tell-tale sign that you’re working with a victim of violation is that they approach you feeling sympathetic, if not at fault, for the aggressor’s behavior.  

  2. Learn how to detect those who violate. They are commonly known as those who deny, deceive, deflect and dismiss.

  3. Tell the victim that you want to learn how to be a safe person, who strengthens them to fight their battle their way. And then, define what you can do. Be careful not to overpromise and underdeliver.

  4. Non-invasively check in with a text, a greeting card, or leave a little gift where they can find it. These overtures communicate that you are thinking of them and stand with them. No strings attached.

  5. Think of sensate calming and comforting things like something to drink, eat, a blanket, a stuffed animal, calming music, lower lighting.

  6. Convey that you trust that they are doing the next right thing for themselves and that you believe that they will know what to do each step of the way. Remember, they have a right to make mistakes with this.

  7. Define your job description. I may be a therapist professionally, but outside of the office, I am only the friend, the sister, the wife, the mom. Not an advisor or treatment specialist.

 

Ways we can enable or harm:

  1. We tell them what to do. “You need to leave, report, get counseling, get a divorce.” “You need to forgive.”

  2. We ask them invasive and/or doubtful questions. “Are you sure?” “Why now?”

  3. We get keyed up (reactive) and reflect on our own stories in front of them, rather than remaining calm and comforting. “Me, too. And this is what I needed so I think you should..”

  4. We give them services/help they never asked for and then blame them for not improving the way they can or wish to. “I hired a house cleaner.” “I am having my pastor/priest visit you for healing prayer.” “I set up a counseling session.”

  5. We doubt their process for change rather than letting them decide what that needs to be.

  6. We don’t define our job description so in our rescue attempts we look for the victim to define us. Ultimately, this can lead to burn out and possibly resentment.

*Credit given to PsychCentral.com, “7 Gaslighting Phrases Malignant Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psychopaths Use To Silence You, Translated", for the valuable information incorporated into how to spot abusers and abuse victims.

Gain greater understanding as an ally in this interview with Mary Ellen on complex trauma - how to recognize, address and be a part of healing.

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