How to tell if you are being abused

Some people have doubts as to whether or not they have been abused for various reasons:

  • There are good moments mixed with abuse.
  • Their ‘normal meter’ is broken.  For people who have been brought up by “strict” parents, they may have difficulty spotting abusive behavior because it was normal to them.

Important questions that you should ask are:

  1. Was the intent malicious? It’s one thing if your antagonist is a little misguided and doesn’t know when to admit that they are making a mistake.  It’s another thing if your antagonist is trampling over you and not acting with your best interests in mind.  If you are being criticized by your antagonist, ask yourself: is the criticism meant to help you (constructive criticism), meant to use you as an emotional punching bag, meant to devalue you, or meant to hurt you?
  2. Physical abuse (if any).
    • In romantic relationships: Domestic violence clearly is not ok and is a crime.  While you may not have been a perfect and flawless partner, violence is not a healthy, legal, or reasonable way of handling problems in the relationship.
    • From parents: Physically hitting a child is abuse. Culture is not an excuse because spankings and beatings happen in all cultures.  If a parent is spanking their child (which is not a healthy parenting technique), the question comes down to whether or not the intent was to abuse the child.  Was the parent trying to devalue the child?  Was the parent trying to make the child feel worthless or defective?
  3. Emotional abuse IS abuse.  While society stigmatizes those who cannot handle “light” abuse, emotional abuse is still abuse and typically causes far more damage than any physical abuse.  A broken bone can heal and will not affect your future ability to make money or to have healthy, happy relationships.  Emotional abuse can leave scars that affect your ability to make money and to have healthy relationships even long after the abuser is dead.  To figure out if something is emotional abuse or not, go back to asking yourself what the intent of your antagonizer’s actions were.

The Abuse Olympics don’t exist

Do not worry about the severity of your abuse relative to other people who “had it worse”.  Abuse is not a competition.  Your best interests matter regardless of what has or hasn’t happened to other people.  Just focus on you and making your life better.

Common tactics of abusers

Gaslighting – Gaslighting is when an abuser uses psychological manipulation to convince the target that an alternate version of reality is true. They may even reverse their position and claim that the exact opposite is true if the new version of the truth better suits them. They might be hypocrites and accuse their target of doing something that they regularly do, as the alternate realities are all about shifting blame onto others and never admitting to having a flaw.

Delusions of grandeur – Narcissists have grand fantasies about themselves. In their alternate reality: they are the best, their failures are because of external reasons, and their lack of achievement is because they haven’t bothered to try. They may boast about themselves and their achievements all the time as they are constantly seeking admiration from others. Because they want to see themselves as better than others, they need to devalue others until they are better than those around them.

Illogical conversations that make you want to rip your ears off – Narcissists crave validation. The flipside of that is that they can’t stand criticism, being humiliated, or being devalued. They will deploy their full arsenal of tricks in an attempt to confuse, aggravate, and blame shift their way into “winning” an argument. They may shoot the messenger or try to gaslight their way out of an unflattering situation. They may try to dominate a conversation or constantly change the topic to avoid having a conversation head in a direction that they don’t like. They may refuse to address criticism directed at them because they can’t handle it.

Coping behaviors that don’t work very well – Narcissists are extremely insecure and sensitive people. They become emotionally unstable when others invalidate them. Unfortunately, they are unable to use healthy social strategies for dealing with somebody pointing out their flaws. They may have a range of maladaptive strategies for dealing with criticism:

  • Rage. The narcissist may throw a tantrum until they get what they want.

  • Attacking the messenger.

  • Fantasy and alternate reality. They may adopt a new worldview where their critics have some bizarre agenda or imagined flaw that affects their credibility.

  • Denial.

  • Bury their head in the sand and hope that the criticism goes away.

  • Drug use, which can turn into substance abuse.

  • Suicide. While rare, some narcissists hate their life enough to end it.

Devaluation – When a narcissist is stuck with somebody who doesn’t play along with their games and praise them, they will resort to devaluing that person so that the narcissist will have a “higher” social standing than the person they are bullying. In front of other people, they may try to humiliate the person. When alone with their target, they will try to constantly criticize the victim, try to downplay the victim’s successes, and/or shame the victim so that they feel worthless.

Smear campaigns – Narcissists may preemptively smear your reputation if they feel threatened by what you might do (e.g. expose them, affect how others view them, etc.).

Abuse by proxy (using other people to abuse the target) Narcissists and sociopaths may recruit others to gang up on their victim and to bully, devalue or gaslight them. Sometimes the abuse by proxy may be subtle. They may spread lies to get others to see the target in a negative light.

Stalking – Narcissists may stalk people who have abandoned them because they can’t stand the humiliation of that person leaving them.

Control – Abusers may try to keep somebody captive by cutting them off from their friends and family. They may be against the idea of their victim going to therapy because they don’t want their victim to heal and slip out of their control. They may try to cripple their victim financially so that they become financially dependent on the abuser.

They may cement their control by punishing the victim for developing defenses against abuse. They may abuse the victim for standing up for themselves, having an opinion, questioning their authority, etc. They may violate the victim’s boundaries so that they feel powerless and defenseless. They may attack their victim’s self-esteem with constant criticism (even if the criticism doesn’t make a lot of sense) so that the victim doesn’t feel like they are somebody worth defending.

In romantic relationships, abusers often try to control their partner by isolating them from friends and family.  They may discourage their partner from going to therapy (or may try to sabotage it) because they don’t want to risk their partner slipping out of their control.

Instructing the victim not to tell others about what is happening – The abusers often know that what they are doing is wrong so they will take steps to hide it. They may try to convince their victim that others won’t believe them, that they will retaliate if the victim speaks up, that what happens in their relationship should stay a secret, that the victim is somehow responsible for the abuse, etc. etc.

Hoovering – Hoovering refers to a brand of vacuum cleaners (Hoover). An abuser attempts to suck the victim back into their life by showering the victim with love, sympathy, affection, and/or attention. After that happens, the abuser goes back to their old ways until their victim begins to stray again. This leaves the victim on an endless roller coaster of good times intermingled with abuse. The roller coaster of emotions usually makes the victim stay in a relationship far longer than they should:

  • The victim erroneously believes that they can change their abuser if only they were better. In reality, abusers almost never change. If they do, it’s usually after they have hit rock bottom and they have lost all of their close relationships.

  • The victim becomes desperate for the abuser’s validation.

  • People will value something more if it’s hard to get. Because the abuser’s love and affection seem difficult to obtain, the victim values it more.

Charm and love bombing Abusers will shower their target with gifts, attention, and insincere love so that the target will get caught in the abuser’s web.

The bottom line

Remember the golden rule: treat others the way that you want others to treat you.  If your abuser would be unhappy if your positions were reversed, it is almost certainly abuse.

2 thoughts on “How to tell if you are being abused”

  1. Oh gawd this brings back memories. I always thought I had pretty good parents until I started going to college…


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