How the emotional abuser takes your empowerment tools away from you
What is one of the most effective forms of emotional abuse? When the abusive person takes everything that empowers you away from you. All your tools and resources become their tools to use you and hurt you.
When that happens, you feel like there’s nothing left for you to do.
(The following podcast transcript has been modified for easier readability and to benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing)
This episode is a follow up to the last episode called Glossing over the first detail in an argument will make it fall apart fast. If you didn’t hear it yet, it’s about when you’re in an argument and somebody brings up something like “Hey what you said really hurt,” or “that feels really disrespectful,” and instead of talking about how disrespect is a bad thing, it gets glossed over or invalidated.
When that happens, it can really squash the first and sometimes most important point that somebody is trying to make like, “What you’re doing is hurting me. This is what I’m feeling. This is what I’m going through. Let’s address this first.”
I received an email about that “Glossing over…” episode that I wanted to address right away just in case you had the same thoughts about that episode as this person does. She wrote, “I’ve been listening to your podcast for a while now, and I generally find them to be insightful. However, I was troubled by your last show about glossing over the details in an argument. The man sharing his story sounded very much like my ex who was abusive.
“He would regularly tell me that I wasn’t validating his feelings, or that I was focusing on his reactions rather than why he was upset. I have no idea if that was the case with the man who wrote to you but that description did not do justice to what was occurring in my relationship. My ex was constantly upset with me over things big and small.
“When he was upset, he would lash out and do something he knew was hurtful to me like yelling, insulting me, breaking things, threatening to break up, or date other women. And he would insist I spend an extended period of time apologizing for what I did wrong and glossing over his reaction.
“The infraction and the reaction seemed wildly out of balance, and it seemed that I was always the one who needed to “own it”, because I “caused it”. For example, I would get a glass of water and he would be upset that I didn’t get him one and storm out of the room. All he had to do is ask for one and I would have apologized and got him one, but he had to punish me and I had to be sorry.
“He’s canceled trips because I’ve heard his feelings. He says I didn’t care about him, only the activities. Our final breakup was because he didn’t like my tone. And even though I didn’t think I snapped, I just apologized anyway. But I wasn’t apologizing in the right way, a way in which he wanted me to apologize.
“In all these cases, I would have been happy to discuss his feelings and apologize, but he always had to be mean first. I wasn’t allowed to bring up my feelings because ‘I wasn’t validating him’, or he says I was trying to focus on his reaction instead of what I did wrong.
“I constantly felt like I was being punished and told to shut up because I was the one that caused it in the first place. While I do think it’s important to recognize someone’s feelings, how do you do that when the person is constantly upset, treats all things big and small as huge offenses, and feels justified and being hurtful whenever they are upset?
I want my partner to feel heard, but I want to be heard too. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I did wrong and how to improve my reactions so that he felt heard and didn’t blow up. But I finally realized there was nothing I could have done differently. He was just abusive. Being hurt does not justify hurting someone else.
I know your answers were based on the man who submitted but I just want to give you the other side of it as I experienced it.”
Alright, there is the message. First off, it is a very valid message. I am so sorry you had to go through that. Any type of emotional abuse in a relationship, especially when it’s just a constant putting you down and belittling you and making you feel like nothing, making you feel less than nothing, it shouldn’t be the norm. It shouldn’t be a relationship at all. It doesn’t even sound like this was a relationship. It just sounded like a one-sided thing that someone wanted to control you and maybe they were nice sometimes, but the rest of the time, like you just explained, they were very hard to deal with. And I’m so sorry, you went through that.
Let’s talk about these points that you brought up, or at least the one major one, which is ‘What about when the person who’s abusing you wants you to do the very thing that you described in your last episode? What if they want to address their emotion and gloss over it, which is the very thing that you are talking about? The very first emotion that comes up with them you’re saying needs to be addressed before the whole thing falls apart.’
Let me throw this at you: When it comes to this kind of stuff, emotional abuse is one of the most difficult experiences to explain to anyone. It’s challenging to describe what’s happening to you to someone without them saying what your describing is normal behavior. In other words, some people won’t be able to identify what you’re experiencing is emotional abuse. Plus, if you’re receiving emotional abuse, the abuser might tell you that you are the one that is emotionally abusing them.
This happens way too often. It is one of the techniques that they use. It’s not really a technique, it’s just something they’ve learned to do, a survival mechanism that they’ve learned to use, or manipulation that they’ve created.
When they understand the label or the description of emotional abuse, they will use it against you.
This is just like a narcissist calling you a narcissist.
This is just like the infidel calling you the cheater.
This is the very same thing. This is one of the major reasons why I do this show is to give you as much information about emotional abuse so that when it’s done to you, you recognize it and you can differentiate between real emotional abuse and someone trying to manipulate you.
As for the person who wrote to me, what he was doing to you was a manipulation. He was playing on your ability to feel guilty. He was playing on your compassion. He was playing on everything that makes you a wonderful person to make you feel bad. That’s all he was doing.
He was using the word “invalidation”, he was telling you that you are glossing over his feelings, or whatever words he used. He was doing the very same things that victims of emotional abuse will do and say to the person that’s abusing them, because he knew it would work.
So you have this behavior that can be used as a way to explain to someone how they’re hurting you. And the same behavior can be used to hurt. This is why emotional abuse is so hard to explain to people, and why it’s so hard to tell if you’re even being emotionally abused, because somebody will come along and say, “Well, you’re invalidating my feelings!”
What do you do when you’re getting emotionally abused? I’ve said this before, and it’s important that you made sure that you know this through and through:
Emotional abuse isn’t a single behavior. It is a combination of behaviors that create a bigger picture of an abuse cycle.
When you take this one behavior, “You’re invalidating my feelings…” and all the other stuff that he was doing, yelling at you, making you apologize all the time, threatening you, dating other people. He was off the map! He was on the emotional abuse map but off the relationship map.
This was not a relationship for him. This was somebody he could push around and use. I don’t mean to say that to invalidate what you did have in a relationship. If you have a good time in the relationship most of the time, then I don’t want to take that away from you. There was probably something there, there’s probably a reason that you connected in the first place. But it sounds like he turned it into something that was toxic. And when it’s toxic, then we have to add up all these components and realize there’s something else going on here.
What I just talked about is a great example of looking at a single behavior and making sure not to define anything from that single behavior. You can’t look at someone who is “normal and healthy”, then see an emotionally abusive behavior, and then say “They’re emotionally abusive.”
You can’t say that. Well, you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it because a single behavior that doesn’t repeat, that is not mixed in with a pattern of other bad behaviors, doesn’t necessarily make someone emotionally abusive. It just makes them a jerk for that day.
If they’re a jerk for that day, and that behavior doesn’t repeat, or it does repeat, and they realize it and they apologize, and it doesn’t happen again, then we’re looking at somebody who just slipped up one day.
But if this is a repeated behavior with a pattern gets played over and over again, and it’s part of a bigger picture of other behaviors that all add up to making you feel, bad putting you down, invalidating you, then we have to step back, zoom out, and see the bigger picture of what’s really going on here.
To the person who wrote to me, first of all, you’re absolutely right. What you were experiencing, the other side of the coin where the abusive person was saying, “You’re invalidating my feelings. Let’s talk about that,” that’s going to feel completely different from the episode I just had, where the victim of emotional abuse is trying to get their feelings validated but they can’t.
The relationship you’re in is a lot different than the relationship I talked about in the other episode. Meaning, there’s more bad behavior in your relationship from the emotionally abusive person.
So we have to look at all of their behaviors so when they suddenly say they’re being invalidated, we can step back and observe what’s happening. We can say to ourselves, ‘I see what’s happening here. They’re saying things that I would say as the victim of emotional abuse in order to gain my pity, or my compassion, or my guilt. They’re trying to put me in a more vulnerable state. They’re trying to take my power away. And they’re doing it in a way and in a language that I understand.’
If he said “You’re invalidating my emotions,” it’s probably likely that you said that to him at one point. In fact, this might be the main point of this episode is that what you say to someone else about the behavior that they’re doing to you, the emotionally abusive person will reflect it back to you, and make you feel bad about it.
This is why we have to be really careful about the language we use, even though I tell you the language to use in every episode. Everything I teach on this show is valid, but you have to be careful because it can be reflected back to you.
That’s why I give you the second step, which is always, “Okay, you’re right. Let’s talk about that, but let’s talk about this thing first.”
This validates them, but it also let them know that you require validation too. “Yes, I’ll talk about that with you, but we have to talk about this first.” If they want to divert you, redirect you to another subject, or to their own agenda, then the conversation will fall apart.
The conversation falls apart as soon as they try to redirect to what they want to accomplish. Why that tends to work over and over again is because the victim of emotional abuse will say, “Okay, fine, we’ll do that first.” But then they never get back to their own thing. The conversation never goes back to what the victim is experiencing because it becomes all about the person playing the victim.
There’s a real victim, then there’s the person playing the victim. The emotional abuser can play the victim well. They play the victim so that you’ll feel sorry for them, you will dote on them, take care of them, and do more for them. In the meantime, your needs never get met.
This was such an important email and I am so grateful that you wrote to me and shared this with me. I took out some details to keep your confidentiality of course, but I want to make sure that the listeners of the show heard this, because the point you make is so valid. It reminded me of the fact that emotional abusers will use the very same process on you.
You have probably said the same things to them, and now they’re using it against you, even though it’s something that’s causing you to feel bad. It’s a fascinating observation from outside the relationship, but a terrifying observation from inside the relationship because what they’re doing is they’re taking your tools away from you, then using those tools against you.
This is another way to look at emotional abuse, is that the tools that you use for yourself, that are healthy, and good, and wonderful for you, and they help you with your boundaries, and they help you get your needs met, those tools get turned around and are used to make you feel bad. The abusive person will also make you feel like those tools aren’t valid anymore.
Quite frankly, they probably aren’t. Because once the abusive person who doesn’t want to change knows about your tools and uses them against you, it’s very difficult to use those tools against them because they already integrated them into their abusive behavior.
It pains me to say that! It really does because that makes you feel powerless. It makes you feel like no matter what you do, you can’t change anything. In some cases, that’s true. In some cases, you can’t change their behavior. Some of these people are always looking for the inside track. Some of them are always looking for a way to take your power away.
You want to know how to stay out of emotionally abusive relationships? Keep your power.
That is a huge subject, I know. And that is very difficult because if you’ve already had your power taken away, where is it? This is one of those things where you might have to look back in your life, find out where your power went, and figure out how to get it back. But, it’s not about getting it back from them. You can only get your power back from you.
That’s the only way this works. Your power is in you, and you have to get it from yourself. Don’t expect anyone else to give it to you. That’s tough for me to say because sometimes it’s tough to believe you have any. But you do. It’s in there.