We’ve all heard about the horrific levels of sexual abuse perpetrated on children. However, there’s a form of abuse that largely flies under the radar undetected: emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse isn’t only confined to places like the workplace or school. Abuse isn’t only the in-your-face-type of abuse where someone screams at you. Most of it is much more subtle and insidious—so subtle that abusers are often able to recast themselves as victims while craftily recruiting knowing supporters. These supporters act as a cadre of toxic barrackers who are more than happy to vilify, scream at, intimidate or abuse the unfortunate target.
So why is this important? Studies have shown that emotional abuse is by far the most common form of abuse. However, we live in a society where people choose to believe that it’s not a problem because it’s common for people to hurl insults and abuse at others.
This is why there has always been a compelling case for better education about emotional abuse. We’re taught maths, English, social sciences, and that’s fine, but given that understanding ourselves and others is key to success in life, we need a better understanding of how to recognise and deal with abusers. We can continue to subscribe to the belief that all we need to do is to stand up to abusers, but quite frankly this doesn’t always work.
But you’ve still got to be pretty dumb if you’ve been fooled by an abuser, right?
But instead of recognising this fact, that the abuser owns most of the problem, society blames victims. It’s traditionally, been assumed that abusers are easy to spot. It is not so. There are some types of emotional abuse which are obvious—for instance, if someone hurls abuse at someone out of the car window. But the fact is that most emotional abuse is far more subtle. Often, it occurs behind closed doors, and only the victim suffers, while the perpetrator goes unpunished. Or it can occur with the assistance of a group of consenting abusers as in mobbing.
Because many blame the victim rather than the perpetrator, there are a number of ridiculous beliefs about victims. One, for example, is that being targeted by an abuser makes you a fool because abusers are so easy to identify. Right? Wrong!
Actually, abusers are not easy to spot; in fact, covert aggressors are often very difficult to spot. If they were easy to spot, they would never attract other people. That would defeat their game if they had flashing lights labelled ‘Abuser’ on their foreheads. But they don’t. They never have.
Also, if they’re easy to spot, why do we have an epidemic of domestic violence, workplace bullying, mobbing, and other forms of harassment? Because few of their victims saw the red flags at the outset. Or, if they did, they did what most victims do and ignored the warning signs. They rationalised the abuser’s behaviour, thinking we all have faults, and no one is perfect. That’s true; we all have faults. However, abusers know full well what their faults are, they just aren’t going to fix their issues.
But there’s another good reason why victims cop a backlash—narcissists are often able to convince others that they are in the right. Narcissists are incredibly skilled actors who could give Academy Award-winning actors a run for their money. They make themselves out to be victims of your dysfunction. They also have a group of flying monkeys (toxic barrackers) who think nothing about spreading gossip they know is rubbish. They also recruit the naïve, who don’t even know that they’ve been recruited by the abuser.
Society enables abusers and blames the victim for the abuser’s behaviour. Many also believe in the idea of equal fault. This is the idea that both the abuser and the victim probably abuse one another, so they’re both at fault.
It’s just gossiping, it’s just white noise that you learn to screen out
Whether emotional abuse is done by a group or an individual behind closed doors, none of us like being abused. Yet we minimise abusers’ behaviour by saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
We’ve heard this so many times, we all now just accept it. It isn’t true; negative words always hurt, and victims internalise the taunts, the aggression, and barbs thrown at them by their tormentor.
Kind friends, family members, and relatives, who are keen to soothe their friends’ feelings, say stuff like “just ignore them, they’re just a bunch of bastards,” etc. This advice is often well-intended, but it doesn’t take into account that a highly-sensitive victim who’s probably suffered multiple verbal assaults doesn’t feel all right. This is because if they’ve been shamed, humiliated and attacked repeatedly, the victim then goes on to internalise these comments.
Abusers have many methods to ensure that victims internalise and take on the perpetrator’s toxicity. One of these methods is shaming. This is where an abuser or abusers uses a series of looks, gestures or sarcastic remarks and pair or group bullying to shame an innocent target. Perpetrators like using this technique to punch the victim and put them in a daze. A common way of doing this is to take the victim by surprise and make a series of gestures or sarcastic remarks while the victim is present in the room.
And if you think this must be because the victim has done something to deserve it or is weak – think again. They target people – some people because they can, and many in society see nothing wrong with their behaviour. Many would assume that victims have done something to deserve this type of behaviour. (Actually, no one deserves this sort of behaviour.)
While the targeted victim is unnerved by the abuser, the abuser has already recruited influential barrackers into their corner. To make it worse, most of these barrackers often amplify this with gossip, knowing full well that it’s wrong.
In a further act of triumph, the abuser persuades the followers that the victim is the abuser. This is known as DARVO, which is short for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.”
There is nothing accidental about the targeting of the innocent victim. Abusers are sophisticated and stealthy, with an in-depth knowledge of how to taunt, humiliate and psychologically maim an innocent victim. They’re also very difficult people to win against in court—and they know it.
The problems in holding abusers accountable go deeper than the court system. The problem extends to fields like psychology. Traditional psychological paradigms are so deeply ingrained in our culture that we’ve integrated a major one into our thinking. This is the idea that people react in a certain way because someone else did or said something. Sometimes, it can be incredibly hard not to criticise or attack another for their abominable behaviour. However, the way that we react comes down to us.
So, where does this theory come from if it’s wrong? These ideas came from Freud. The ideas were based on neurotics—that is, people who suffer from anxiety, fear, frustration, etc. The problem is that narcissists aren’t neurotic at all; they’re covert aggressors who relish being horrible who perpetrate many dirty deeds.
Having done their dirty deed, abusers and their accomplices love to propagate the idea that victims were stupid for being taken in and so they deserved it. This applies even if the perpetrator was caught in the act. Do you think that being caught in the act would prompt them to think again? Not on your life. For them, it’s still the victim’s fault for being too stupid to see what they (the abusers) were doing. This flawed thinking is then readily accepted by the abusers and their barrackers, and the victim is blamed.
Society is increasingly waking up to various forms of abuse. We’ve seen the horrifying revelations about what happened to sexually abused children. We know of the experiences of the #MeToo movement. However, most people still know next to nothing about emotional abuse or how pervasive it is.
To combat emotional abuse, part of the answer is to teach teenagers about emotional abuse—what it looks like, how to handle it, and what is normal behaviour and what’s not. As soon as we gain a clear picture of what it looks like, it’ll be easier for victims to know who the real problem is, and they will not fall into the trap of internalising the abuse.