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The core principle of everything I teach hinges on the importance of self-respect. I believe self-respect is the most crucial form of nurturing one can provide oneself.

Exhibiting self-respect and erecting boundaries that demand others’ respect is a significant and empowering step in life.

When you firmly believe in deserving respect, you’ll either confront disrespect or distance yourself from it.

Avoiding those who disrespect you or addressing their behavior directly are viable responses. For instance, you might say, “That was disrespectful. Please don’t do that,” or choose to distance yourself, accepting their behavior as a part of who they are. Disconnecting from someone who treats you poorly is challenging, particularly if your self-respect or self-worth has been eroded by someone convincing you of your unworthiness.

Demanding respect becomes more difficult when you’ve been continuously undermined. Emotional abuse involves a constant, often daily, barrage of hurtful or controlling actions. This persistent negativity can lead your subconscious to internalize these harmful beliefs, convincing you that you are the problem. In emotionally abusive relationships, you are often groomed to believe that you are the issue.

In reality, anyone who truly loves you would not try to convince you that you are the problem. Instead, they would seek to resolve issues and work through them together. If they genuinely have an issue with you and it can’t be resolved, a healthy response would be to part ways.

In a respectful relationship, conversations about feelings of disrespect are essential. However, if the other person refuses to change and continues to be disrespectful, it’s reasonable to decide not to tolerate such behavior. I know I make it sound simple, but you know it can be extremely challenging, especially if your self-worth has been gradually eroded, leaving you feeling incapable of standing up for yourself.

Understanding this struggle, it becomes clear that rebuilding your sense of self-worth and internal strength is crucial. A strong foundation enables you to act from a position of strength rather than weakness. When you’re in a weakened state, it’s much harder to protect, honor, and defend yourself in a way that feels genuine and assertive.

Speaking up and asserting, “This needs to stop,” places you in a position of power. The daunting part is facing the potential consequences, such as the end of the relationship. This fear makes it difficult to voice your needs, as it brings uncertainty about what the future may hold.

If a relationship ends, questions arise about the division of assets and individual paths forward, and in the case of a romantic relationship involving children and a shared home, there are many factors to consider. My perspective, shaped by my experiences and observations from working with people, is that nothing changes unless you initiate that change.

In emotionally abusive relationships, the controlling, manipulative partner typically resists change. The victim often exhausts themselves trying to adapt and improve the situation, altering their behavior, schedule, and even mundane tasks like taking out the garbage, all in an effort to please the abuser.

However, in such relationships, it’s impossible to satisfy the abusive partner. They constantly demand more, finding fault in everything – a reflection of their unrealistic standards. However, it is not a reflection of your inadequacy. It’s their skewed perception of what’s acceptable, which, in their eyes, is perpetually unattainable. Never view yourself as not doing enough or being unworthy.

Many people fall into this trap of self-criticism. But it’s vital to understand that this is unnecessary. When someone’s expectations are impossibly high, and they can’t accept you for who you are, it’s clear that you will never, ever be sufficient for them. This isn’t a shortcoming on your part but a result of their upbringing, poor coping mechanisms, how secure they feel inside, and how they deal with conflict.

Almost all emotionally abusive behavior stems from fear and insecurity

If someone is walking around with fear and insecurity, they are more likely to be hurtful. The more hurtful a person is, the more they are hiding their internal struggles from the world.

For example, I used to be a people-pleaser, constantly adapting and changing for the person I was with. As a result, they couldn’t discern my true opinions, desires, likes, or dislikes because I was always responding in the way I thought they wanted. This behavior prevents others from knowing the real you, straining the relationship as they can’t connect with your authentic self, only a false image.

As a people-pleaser for decades, I’ve learned that presenting myself in a manner I thought others desired was actually a way to hide my true self. I did this out of fear of conflict, worrying that expressing my honest opinions might lead to negative consequences like being yelled at, broken up with, fired, or perceived as weak or bad. I didn’t want my insecurities to be visible to others.

In being the ultimate people pleaser, those I cared about couldn’t truly know or care for me in return. They couldn’t be sure of my honesty or my true personality, as I always played the nice guy without showing a range of emotions. I pretended that nothing ever bothered me.

There’s more to people-pleasing, of course, but by always showing what you think others want to see, they never get to see the real you. In my life as a people-pleaser, my insecurities and fear of conflict led me to adopt behaviors that helped me avoid transparency and honesty.

One such behavior was giving the silent treatment. When someone got too close or upset me, instead of speaking my mind, I chose silence. This type of silence, which withholds love, attention, and connection, is emotionally abusive.

There are different forms of silent treatment, like needing time to process information, but using it to make someone feel bad to gain more attention is emotionally abusive.

I’m sharing from the perspective of when I was an emotionally abusive person. At that time, I didn’t recognize it as emotional abuse; I thought that was the only way to get what I wanted. When I wanted my partner to do something, and she didn’t, I wasn’t honest about my desires, some of which were selfish or mean.

My silence could last hours or days, making them feel isolated and unable to please me, so they would try to adapt and help me out of my silence, not knowing my true feelings. My behavior was definitely emotionally abusive, as it played on their emotions to get the attention and connection I craved, though from a place of deep insecurity.

I’m not proud of this behavior. And it took me a while to heal, but many people have used silence as a means to control others’ emotions.

In my case, I used the silent treatment to make the other person feel guilty and attentive so that they would make the effort to bring me back to a better state. This was manipulative. Behavior like this can and will exhaust someone, eroding the love until there’s none left. It’s a good example of how insecurity can drive emotionally abusive behaviors.

If someone in your life repeatedly uses the silent treatment, leaving you feeling sad and helpless, you will likely feel increasingly disconnected. This is because they are shutting you out despite your care and desire to support them.

The type of silent treatment I’m referring to is often a tactic used because they want you to change something or stop doing something to please them, but they are unwilling to express this. They might believe it’s too hard to tell you or that you’ll be hurt by their honesty.

It’s possible that their honesty could be hurtful or offensive, or you might find their needs selfish and unacceptable. This might be why they choose to remain silent. It’s a behavior to be aware of, especially if you find yourself dealing with it. When they’re silent, they seem emotionally distant, almost unreachable.

It’s very likely they have something on their mind that they’re reluctant to share. If they give you the silent treatment repeatedly, you might need to confront them and ask what’s on their mind, encouraging them to speak up, reminding them they do this often enough that you know there’s something more going on.

This cycle of feeling bad, going silent, and then having to work through it is unsustainable. The approach I recommend is to put all the issues on the table, discuss them openly, and accept whatever comes of it. A pattern like this cannot continue without doing severe harm to the relationship.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that the other person might be dealing with psychological issues like depression. It’s fair to give them the benefit of the doubt initially, but if the behavior persists, it needs to be addressed and discussed openly.

I wanted to offer you this topic to consider and also share a message I received, which aligns with our discussion today. The sender wrote:

“Thank you for all your advice. It has helped me speak assertively, not aggressively, with my husband. Over the past several years, he has become increasingly unhappy and on edge. During our arguments, he claims to have been unhappy for years because of me.

“When I question why he stays, he retracts, saying he didn’t mean it and was only speaking in the heat of the moment. But after repeatedly hearing that there’s something wrong with me in every aspect of life, it’s exhausting. Whether it’s not making the bed right, leaving a dish in the sink, or closing the curtains too loudly, he criticizes me constantly. He accuses me of not appreciating life and of giving up, though he never specifies on what.

“Recently, he even criticized my fitness because I wanted to skip a workout. I’m at my limit. After such outbursts, there’s silence for days until I approach him, and then he apologizes.

“Through your podcast, I’ve learned to remind him that he is responsible for his actions. He claims I also say hurtful things, but the difference is I own up to my mistakes and don’t attack his character. My criticisms are about actions or incidents, not his character.

“I’ve reached my limit. I can’t even get out of bed on weekends. I’m constantly crying and experiencing chest pains. Kissing him feels repulsive. He professes his love, but it doesn’t have the same effect anymore. I’ve suggested he seek help, but he reacts angrily to the idea of being diagnosed.

“I’m heartbroken and don’t know how to reach him anymore. I’m not sure if I still love him and fear his reaction if I don’t move past this argument. To illustrate my feelings, it’s like I’ve been building with blocks—my self-esteem, love, resilience—every time he says something hurtful, the blocks fall. I rebuild, but each time, some blocks are lost and never return. Now, I have no blocks left. I am empty. Thank you for reading this message and for your guidance.”

Wow, thank you for sharing that. I’m truly sorry you’re going through this. It seems like instead of the silent treatment, it’s more of a verbal onslaught. He’s criticizing everything you do, which some people do to avoid expressing what’s really on their minds.

Some people nitpick every little thing without revealing their actual truth. They never say what they truly want to say. They focus on every small mistake you make, making you feel terrible. But it’s likely because they want to say something else.

Some people keep you busy by making you believe you can’t do anything right

I believe that if someone criticizes you for every minor thing, they are trying to divert attention from themselves and their true thoughts. I might be wrong in this case, but it’s possible he’s behaving this way because he wants you to reach a breaking point and leave. This way, he doesn’t have to be the one to end things and can later blame you, claiming, “You’re the one who left the relationship. It’s your fault we broke up.” It’s a setup for you to fail. What you’re describing sounds like a setup for failure.

There’s one way to handle this, though you may not like it. I’m not insisting that you must do this, but it’s an option to consider. However, if he’s dangerous or aggressive, prioritize your safety, whether that means staying with someone else or using separate bedrooms.

My main approach in situations where someone cannot accept almost everything about you is to assert, “This is who I am. Deal with it.” This might sound like terrible advice, and it certainly depends on your situation, but there comes a point where when nothing you do seems right in their eyes, you might need to say, “That’s just how I am.”

Admitting this can be challenging because it might certainly lead to more conflict. I’m not suggesting doing this if you fear their reaction, but there’s a point where you can’t satisfy them no matter what you do.

If nothing you do works for them, you might need to say, “Well, that’s just how it is. You’ll just have to accept me as I am.” This means acknowledging that sometimes you might leave a dish in the sink, let the trash overflow, miss a workout, or be lazy. That’s just how it is. And if they can’t accept that, there’s nothing you can do because “that’s just me.”

By admitting your imperfections, you’re showing that if he can’t handle imperfection, he needs to decide what he wants. He has to choose whether he wants an imperfect person and a potentially great relationship or something unattainable.

Because he is nitpicking everything you do, he might have something difficult he wants to share but is choosing not to. He could be trying to push you away so he can blame you for the relationship’s problems.

That’s why I suggest shifting the focus back to him, making him responsible for his next actions. After you say, “I’m imperfect, and it’s going to happen again. I’m going to make mistakes,” it puts the responsibility on him to decide what he wants for himself and from the relationship.

You can say, “I’m going to do things you don’t like; it’s inevitable because that’s who I am. I can try to make improvements or try to change in the ways you want, but I’ve learned it doesn’t really make a difference. So, this is me, and you’ll just have to get used to it.”

When you say something like that, what you’re doing is removing the resistance he depends on for his strategy to work. His tactic is to keep you on the defensive, being self-protective and self-focused, shifting all the attention away from him.

If you simply say something like, “I’m imperfect. This is who I am, and I’m sorry if you can’t accept that,” where does that leave him? Where can he go with that? Is he going to say, “Try harder”?

If so, you can say, “I did, and it didn’t work.”

“So, you’re not going to change?”

“Nope. Sorry. This is who I am; I can’t be anyone else.”

When there’s nothing left for him to try to change about you, his focus will need to turn back on himself. He will need to confront the fact that you aren’t going to change and ask himself, “What do I want to do now, knowing I can’t control her?”

I don’t believe this realization will come easily to him. He’ll likely find another way to emotionally abuse you or trigger you, prompting you to give in even more.

You need to remain aware of this and reaffirm, “This is who I am,” even if you don’t fully believe it. Acknowledge that you can’t make him happy no matter what you do, and present yourself as you are. Ask him, “Will you accept me for who I am?”

He might refuse, wanting someone different, believing you’re deliberately being difficult. But by accepting their perception of you, you’re showing him that you really can’t change and that you are who you are.

Wait, is that supposed to be a good thing?

Believe it or not, this can be a positive step! Why? Because if the emotionally abusive person thinks you can change (because they’ve been able to pull your strings many times before), they will continue trying.

But if you assert, “I’m not changeable. This is who I am,” what can they do then?

Sure, they might claim, “You can change!” but you must stand your ground. You’re either accepted as an imperfect person, or they must make a decision for themselves – which means they might have to make a change they don’t want to make.

If they really don’t want an imperfect person in their life, fine. If they want perfection and want to get away from the imperfect person, don’t stop them.

I make this scenario sound easy. I know it’s not. You may not be able to say these things to certain people. But there is power in owning what someone perceives you to be, even if you know it’s not true – or even if you believe it might be.

When you embrace their perception of you, they lose their control over you. If they perceive that’s really who you are, they have nowhere to go with their manipulations.

When they used to rely on you, wanting to improve and please them, but now they see there’s no room for you to improve, they can’t exploit you anymore.

This concept might need to become part of your philosophy when dealing with people who want to control you. It’s a mindset that prevents others from exploiting your emotions. After all, it’s nearly impossible to control or hurt someone who believes they’ve done all they can.

You know in your heart you can always do more, adapt, and try to make things better. But when your efforts continually fail to please them, there comes a point where you have to say, “I’ve tried enough. I’m done.”

Tell yourself you’ve done all you can and there’s nothing more you can do. If they can’t accept you, imperfections and all, then that’s as far as you can go. You’re imperfect. And if they can’t accept that, then that’s the limit of what you can offer, and they’ll have to figure out what they want in their life.

I know that’s not the extent of who you are. And hopefully, you know that too! But by letting them believe you have no more to offer, you’re challenging them to confront their own limitations.

I’m trying to get you to the point where they believe there is no way to control or exploit you. When you show them you have no room for improvement, that’s the barrier you place in front of them.

As strange as this might be to read, this can be quite an empowering statement:

It’s easier to be controlled when you believe you can do better.

Again, that’s a strange comment. But if you honestly believe you can do better (be a better partner, try harder at meeting their impossible standards, etc.,), and they believe that you can do better too, you are more susceptible to being controlled.

This, of course, only applies to the emotionally abusive relationship. But my point is if the emotionally abusive person knows you’re the type of person who wants to improve yourself and wants to be the best you can be, they can use that wonderful quality about you to manipulate and control you.

Sometimes, your only option is to let them know that this is the extent of who you are: “This is all I can give. You’ll just have to accept me as-is.”

Just remember, your “as-is” is amazing. If they don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not true. It just means they are incapable of seeing what’s good, even when it’s right in front of them.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Host of Love and Abuse and The Overwhelmed Brain

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