Hindsight is 20/20. Once you been through the mess and the muck it all becomes clear in ways that were once clouded. When you're in the midst of the chaos that is an emotionally abusive relationship it can be very difficult to see just how bad it is. I know it was pretty hard for me. Now, years later it's obvious and all the signs were always there along the way. All I had to do was know what they were, which realistically is easier said than done. If you're not familiar with what the signs of an emotional abuser are then you might not realize that you're being abused. The flip side is that awareness for these situations continues to rise as victims everywhere refuse to be silenced. Psychology is listening and today we have a pretty clear idea of the signs you're not in a healthy relationship.
The tactics listed here may be troubling to read about, especially if you weren't expecting puzzle pieces to fall together today but maybe it's just what you needed to hear to be validated, to know that you're not alone and that you're right, that feeling that something is off isn't all there is to it.
How many of these signs resonate with you?
Psychology Today says that gaslighting is "used by psychologists to describe the use of deflection and distraction and blame by one person to hide some truth, or to benefit in some way, at the cost of another." Another doctor says that gaslighting is "psychological abuse whereby a perpetrator manipulates a victim into doubting his or her own sanity or reality."
Gaslighting is a lot more common than people realize. Imagine expressing something to your significant other, you're upset and it makes sense well and good to you that you would be upset about the subject at hand. Yet somehow by the end of the confrontation your significant other has convinced you that you're the problem, you're wrong, or that whatever you're upset about is all in your head and not really a problem. This probably sounds familiar, and if it does it's because many people experience it. It exists outside of relationship scenarios as well but it can be particularly traumatizing when someone you love or care about is manipulating you in a way that causes so much self doubt.
The best way to combat gaslighting is to have a strong support system and to be well-grounded in your reality. A community of trustworthy friends and family who support you through a difficult experience and validate your feelings is a great way to help you not lose focus when dealing with the situation at hand.
Dr. Linda Martinez-Lewi describes projection as:
A projection is an unconscious defense mechanism in which the individual ejects aggressive, negative feelings and thoughts on to another person.
She adds that most people are unaware of their projections but a narcissist is different. While the average person is inclined to respond reactionary, almost in self defense and self denial, a narcissist creates their own world where literally everything revolves around them.
When the person in your life is consistently unwilling to see their faults or shortcomings and uses every tactic they're capable of to not be held accountable for anything, that is a toxic sign. Additionally, an abuser or narcissist would rather take all of their problems and dump them onto someone else, you, in a manner that is exceptionally aggressive and cruel to the victim.
A narcissist's projections are more like confessions. When they refer to that notoriously honest person as a liar, it's projection. When they accuse you as the faithful spouse as being a cheater, that's projection. It can be as simple as disregarding your hard work and effort by calling you lazy and useless when in truth they are the one not contributing their fair share.
Dr. Mark Ghoulston says that narcissistic rage does not result from low self-esteem but rather a high sense of entitlement and false sense of superiority. In the eyes of a narcissist, they can only ever be right and this tends to lead to a preemptive attempt to save their face by blowing things easily out of proportion.
In the eyes of the narcissist they are never wrong and anything that suggests otherwise is cause for immediate action. They often have a high guard up that leads them to preemptively respond to potential threats.
When your abuser, the narcissist can't think of any other way to manipulate you they resort to the lowest common denominator, the lowest of lows... they resort to name-calling. Name calling can manifest a few different ways but ultimately it degrades something about you, whether it be your appearance, intelligence, life choices, or even behavior and mannerisms, your abuser is simultaneously insulting you and invalidating you. Sometimes name-calling is just cruel criticism; criticism of your opinions or beliefs usually. It doesn't matter how well researched you are when you voice your stance or opinion, the abusive narcissist will mock and humiliate you for it and it's usually because they feel threatened and simply cannot offer anything constructive or respectful as a rebuttal.
The best thing you can do to combat these low-blows is to not respond to it. Walk away, disengage. Do not give them what they want.
Narcissistic abusers and toxic people lash out when they feel threatened and they're not hard to set off. Dr. Steve Bressert says these abusers are set off when their "excessive sense of entitlement, false sense of superiority and grandiose sense of self are challenged in any way." This leads to unreasonable demands and punishments. There is no mature or rational way for these toxic individuals to handle disagreements, arguments, or confrontation. Instead, they threaten you. It may not be an obvious threat, like a threat of violence, but instead "to divert you from your right to have your own identity and perspective by attempting to instill fear in you about the consequences of disagreeing or complying with their demands."
Ultimatums are a common practice for abusers and their ability to manipulate their verbiage can frequently make it not sound like a blatant ultimatum, which can be even more emotionally traumatizing. If your significant other says anything that lands you with the understanding of "do this/say this or this will happen," then you're dealing with an ultimatum or a threat.
Threats, whether well hidden through manipulative wording, or blatant and scary, are one of the biggest red flags of an unhealthy and unsafe relationship and that you're dealing with someone who will not, or cannot, change, and has no intention of doing so or trying so. Document or keep track of threats and report them to the authorities as applicable. Do not keep silent, threats are very serious.
Shaming is an effective and damaging tool used by emotional abusers. A profound way of chipping away at or completely destroying a victim's self esteem and self worth, shame is a go-to tactic of the abuser. Anything that the toxic person feels challenges their sense of power will be turned against you, whether it is an accomplishment or task you are proud of or how you see yourself in general, shaming you is one of the easiest ways for them to elevate themselves and take you down at the same time.
A regular phrase heard in these scenarios is, "you should be ashamed of yourself." While this phrase is no exclusive to abusive individuals, it's certainly a very common one.
That's not where it ends, a sociopath, psychopath, or narcissist may even use your past experiences of abuse and pain against you. These cruel methods of shame that suggest you are at fault as a victim are exceptionally painful to hear, not to mention degrading and traumatizing.
Upon any suspicion you're dealing with someone who may exploit your vulnerabilities, avoid exposing yourself to them. Do not give them fuel to the fire against you, you are not at fault for being a victim no matter how intensely they may suggest otherwise.
There's nothing a toxic person or abuser is better at than belittling and degrading you. As if name-calling wasn't bad enough that condescending tone they use daily is soul-crushing. Don't get it wrong of course, sarcasm can be fun when used in jest among two individuals who both enjoy sarcasm but a narcissist and a manipulator uses sarcasm habitually or chronically and inserts it everywhere, almost constantly. Your abuser likely enjoys belittling your thoughts, words, and actions and sarcasm is a powerful tool in doing so.
They'll treat you as if you're hypersensitive when realistically they are the one having regular melt downs and lashing out constantly. Over time this deliberate and condescending way of communicating with you tends to slowly wear you down, which is ideal for your abuser who has to put in less effort to controlling and manipulating you.
If you feel safe, confront this behavior. If someone is talking to you as if you're a child and using condescending tones and sarcasm at every which tone, let them know that you don't appreciate it and you're not a child. As well, if you feel the need to silence yourself because of the way someone else is treating you and talking to you then that is a pretty big red flag to pay attention to. In a healthy relationship you should not have to silence yourself.
I'm sure we've all experienced this sort of behavior one way or the other. A cruel joke at our expense is not really very funny and sometimes we're just absent minded when we slip our so-called jokes out of our mouths. However, an emotional abuser uses these aggressive words as a tool and masks them as jokes. It's their way of trying to get away with being cruel while they maintain a demeanor that shows them as being laid back and humorous and any objection or outburst from you will be lashed out against. They'll accuse you of not having a sense of humor, being offended by "everything," or simply just call you uptight and well, not fun.
The difference in how most people say these things and don't usually mean to be so cruel and the narcissist, or the abuser, is that it's clear they enjoy being cruel. Maybe it's the smirk on their face or a twinkle in their eye, but you can tell pretty clearly that they aren't being cute or funny, they're deliberately being cruel and they enjoy belittling you afterwards for not finding it funny. In fact, it's more of a way of gaslighting you when they convince you that you're the one who is too sensitive and that they're just having fun.
When it comes to an abuser, situations like this don't always call for addressing the "joke" head on. If they're gaslighting you then confrontation only makes thing worse. It's best, instead, to end communication.
When a strong individual dates an abuser the truth is that it doesn't stop them from doing what they can to hurt you. If they can't hurt you directly they hurt how others perceive you. Anyone who pays them mind will hear a tale of the abuser being a martyr or a victim while you are painted enthusiastically as the toxic one. This smear campaign is an effective tool for an abuser because when you go to seek support your reputation is tarnished. They occasionally go so far as to stalk you and those around you to get their point across and repeatedly lay in that you are the bad guy. They are essentially projecting their own abusive tendencies onto you to the outside world.
These toxic people in your life will often pit the world against you and then deliberately and methodically abuse you, effectively building a campaign against you and about you that displays you as the imbalanced one.
Truly, the best way to deal with these behaviors is to be mindful of your reactions. Don't let your emotions get the best of you and stick to the facts instead. Document abuse and protect yourself.
While early warning signs are often present in the beginning of what will be an unhealthy and abusive relationship, they can be very hard to notice considering the abuser has a tendency and compulsion to begin a relationship with enthusiastic affection. It's like a phase where they aim to get you hooked, convinced that this is a healthy and happy place to be.
Some of the ways this manifests in red flag ways include putting you on a pedestal while tearing down others, especially their exes. Yet slowly and surely they begin to tear you down and devalue you about the very same things they once seemed so proud and enthusiastic about.
A good suggestion at the beginning of a potential relationship is to slow down a little bit and take strongly into consideration how this person talks about other people. No one wants to assume that this person who speaks so highly of you is lying about an ex, after all we know terrible exes exist, but if they are constantly putting other people down then there is a good chance it won't be too long before they are also constantly putting you down. Someone who seems to hate everyone probably does hate everyone.
One of the most important and significant things an emotional abuser does is control you. It's not always in your face, either. They deliberately and sometimes slowly isolate you. They isolate you from your friends and your family. They isolate you from social media, even. They will eventually control your finances and may even try to control the very clothes you wear. In fact, they seem to micromanage every aspect of your life.
Other ways of controlling you include manufacturing problems and disagreements, fighting over every little thing, especially insignificant things, and raging over perceived slights. Then, they begin to withdraw, only to go straight back to the love bombing and pedestal behavior to suck you back in.
The truth is that the more you know and understand about yourself, your emotions, and your reality, the easier it is to avoid these relationships or exit them safely.