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Inside The Mind Of A Victim: 8 Steps In Which Emotional Abuse Plays Out

The one question that gets ever-so-often slapped in the faces of emotional abuse victims/survivors is ‘why didn’t you leave?’ As someone who has seen emotional abuse up and close, I know. I’ve heard that question over and over.

While answers to that question have varied from a stunned silence to a fully fleshed list of reasons and everything in between, the ‘actual’ answer to why victims are unable to leave lies in the emotional abuse cycle itself.

These are the eight steps (as identified by Dr. Robert Jay Lifton) in which emotional abuse plays out for most victims:

Suggested read: Are you in an abusive relationship? Here are the warning signs

Stage I: Breaking down the victim’s sense of self

1. Assault on identity

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Any abuse starts out as a series of subtle to powerful attacks that create persisting doubts about self-worth in the mind of the victim. Constant repetition of these attacks that deflate a partner’s sense of self and negate their worth as an individual on parameters that gauge their value as an individual, partner, mother, sister or even a professional leaves the victim disoriented. ‘You can never be a good mom if you keep working, not that you are any good at the job either’ or ‘you are so ugly, nobody’d have taken to you, if not for me’ are a case in point. The victim gradually takes to the same reiterated notions about self and starts to suffer from low self-esteem, thereby, validating the attacks and spiraling their way into a chronic case of self-doubt and persisting feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.

2. Establishment of guilt

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Once the victim starts to suffer from nagging doubts about self, guilt is tactfully injected into the equation. The abuser will start to blame the victim for his own transgressions. By shifting the responsibility of his own abuse to the victim or justifying his actions by blaming the victim, the abuser will successfully transpose all guilt to the victim.  ‘You made me do this’ or ‘if you hadn’t talked back, I wouldn’t have hit you’ are examples of the kind. Even non-existent flaws or issues will be amplified by the abuser to use as a guilt-inducing weapon against the victim. This can be for slights as small as disagreeing with the abuser or having a different opinion to instances of not being able to scale up to the abuser’s unrealistic expectations. This guilt soon morphs into shame. When this happens, the victim begins to internalize guilt and in turn, destroys all her confidence. He/she begins to feel culpable all the time and feel that nothing they say or do can ever be right. When shame sets in, they no longer feel bad about things they do but feel that they are inherently bad.

3. Self-betrayal

Once overwhelmed by guilt and shame, the victim begins to abandon his/her own needs and make self-destructive choices. This self-harming behavior often involves cutting all communication with family and friends and spending all of one’s time to appease the abuser so he/she can invest the victim with some traits that will make them feel worthy again. This deluded/false train of thought quickly spirals into a dangerous chain of isolation and a betrayal of all the beliefs that once made the victim the individual he/she was. The more isolated he/she becomes, the more dependent he/she is on the abuser.

4. A push beyond the breaking point

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By changing themselves completely for the abuser and distancing themselves from all known folks, the victim reaches a point where he/she is no longer recognizable in the mirror to himself. At this stage, it is easy for the abuser to use the last, fatal method to push the victim over the edge. This method is called gaslighting and involves an attempt to overwrite another person’s reality. ‘That never happened, you are making it up’ or ‘it’s all in your head, stop being crazy’ are a few examples of gaslighting. This furthers the victim’s disorientation and lands him/her in a seemingly inescapable fog of confusion. The victim feels depressed, anxious, traumatized and burdened by other negative emotional and physical symptoms like insomnia and paranoia. They may even reach the point of nervous breakdown -the point of exhaustion reached after an extended period of extreme anxiety. The overwhelming anxiety, depression, and stress leads to a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, and absolute exhaustion. The victim’s ability to think and reason at this stage is severely compromised and they become temporarily unable to function normally in day-to-day life.

Stage II: Possibility of salvation

5. Guised leniency and pimped opportunity

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At this stage, the abuser presents himself like a Messiah and offers a small act of kindness amid all the psychological abuse. The victim, relieved temporarily, feels an enormously magnified sense of gratitude toward the abuser- completely out of proportion against the deed. This skewed perception of the victim, then, causes his/her emotions to shift into a false sense of relief and admiration for the abuser. This lands them in another deluded land of false hopes to try and be better or act better so that these acts of kindness become more frequent. The false hope pressures the victim to act better but the unpredictable pattern of the abuser has a detrimental effect on the victim’s skewed perception, twisted and deluded chain of thought- thereby, furthering and worsening the stress and anxiety.

6. Compulsion to confess

The victim, at this stage, is thriving on the kind act and would do anything to recreate those moments of relief. As such, the victim will agree to his/her ‘proposed’ flaws, agree to all criticism levied and even, work to remove the ‘evil’ the abuser says they possess. This leads them directly into a ‘new’ identity- one that will alienate them further from who they really are.

7. Channeling the guilt

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The victim does not know what they have done wrong, they just know they are wrong. They begin to feel guilty for who they are and about the beliefs they’ve held. This creates a blank slate so the abuser can attach the guilt to whatever belief system the abuser is trying to replace. The more the victim comes to accept the abuser’s terms, the more guilt it evokes and the quicker it turns into shame.

Suggested read: How important is it to set boundaries in a controlling relationship?

8. Releasing the guilt

As of now, the new belief system becomes so ingrained that it is difficult, nay impossible for the victim to revert to the former belief system without an attached sense of pervading guilt and shame for being ‘bad.’ Victims are completely brainwashed by now and held into the darkness to prevent any possibility of escape or reverting. They are made to feel that as long as they ‘choose’ what the abuser deems right, they need not feel guilty.

However, the important thing to remember about abuse is- that it thrives on silence. Once informed about what’s happening to you, speak up. There’s always hope.

The abuser often uses eight covert or overt subversive techniques to exert control over a victim. These eight strategies, as identified by Dr. Matthew McKay, include:

1. Discounting

By denying the importance, the magnitude, or the legitimacy of your needs, the abuser is going to question their validity. He/she will ingrain the concept into your psyche so that you may begin to think along the same lines. The idea is to shame you into acquiescence.

2. Withdrawal/abandonment

“The message here is ‘Do what I want, or I’m leaving.’ The threat of abandonment is so frightening that a partner may be willing to give up a great deal to avoid it,”says Dr McKay.

3. Threats

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“With this strategy, a partner commits to actively hurting the other as a means of control,” says Dr McKay. For example, if a certain sexual wish is not being met, reciprocated or favored, one may resort to saying, “Okay, I won’t ask you, maybe I will ask someone else.” This is a subtle, yet potently fatal threat of blatant infidelity. This shall automatically coax the partner into acquiescence lest he/she lose out on the loyalty of his/her partner.

4. Blame games

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“The method here is to make your need into the other person’s fault,” says Dr McKay. If you are constantly being made to feel guilty for little or no fault of your own save than trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to voice your needs and not giving in to any demand that causes you discomfort, a toxic blame game is at play.

5. Belittling

By belittling your worth and denying you your needs, the abuser is attempting to plunge you deeper into an abyss of negative self-worth.

6. Guilt-tripping

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This is a strategy that sends across the message that the other partner is inconsiderate for having a conflicting desire. This is often a powerful manipulation technique used to make the other person feel guilty for harboring a different opinion/desire.

Suggested read: How to set boundaries in an abusive relationship

7. Derailing

This one is a covert tactic that demeans the desires of the victim by attempting to change the focus of the conversation altogether. Any attempt to address the partner’s needs is tactfully deflected by the abuser by shifting gears in another direction. This implies that the abuser deems their partner’s needs as unworthy of any consideration.

8. Deprivation

This is the ultimate strategy used by abusers that involves depriving the partner of their support system, autonomy or pleasure. This is a potent removal of all means by which the victim may make any attempts to escape the abuser’s vicious clutches.

Knowing about the patterns in your relationship and understanding a lopsided power dynamic can be key to recognizing abuse and thereby, escaping abuse. Be informed, be safe!

Featured image source: Google, copyright-free image under Creative Commons License

Article Name
8 Steps In Which Emotional Abuse Plays Out
Emotional abuse is worse than physical abuse...
Sejal Parikh

Sejal Parikh

"I'm a hurricane of words but YOU can choose the damage I do to you..."