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We are often told that we can choose how to feel and that no one can actually control us. However, in emotional abuse and manipulation, that concept doesn’t seem to hold true at all.

In fact, it seems that we can be conned by our own brain as the manipulator finds tiny ways to break us down from the inside out.

In this episode, I share the signs of control and what you can do about it when it starts.

I received an email recently that said, “It’s interesting to me how you keep talking about allowing others to, “make me feel.” I can’t imagine something more poisonous than buying into the idea that others can control how I feel. That others have a magic button to control what goes on inside of me.

He says, “I think it’s important to understand how we feel something inside of us, it is something we can control, that we should never give our power to others.” I totally agree. I think that we should never give our power to others. Unfortunately, I’ve seen way too many instances where somebody can indirectly control how we feel.

I realize that is a disempowering statement. I realize that there are people right now saying that’s not true. I can choose how I feel, I can choose my responses. I can choose my behavior. I can choose my emotions. And I have free will.

All of the above is yes. Yes, you can. There are other people that know how to push your buttons. There are other people that know buttons that you don’t know you have. There are other people that know how to communicate in a way to make you make decisions that you wouldn’t have necessarily made, had it not been for them.

We could go back and say if you’re in that type of situation where someone is communicating in a poisonous way, then you need to see that poisonous communication and check in with yourself to make sure that you aren’t making decisions based on bad information.

People might tell you that if they’re being a bad person, or they’re showing you toxic behavior, then you should just get away from them. Yes, and yes, I agree with that. It’s not always easy, because sometimes you don’t know if they’re showing toxic behavior.

And sometimes it’s not always a matter of just leaving and everything will be okay. Sometimes there are obligations and responsibilities, or there are moments in relationships where someone is being toxic 1% of the time, and then the rest of the time, they’re fine.

I’m not saying a relationship has to end because there’s toxic behavior. In fact, I think it’s good to work on relationships until you’re exhausted trying to work on them, trying to save them, trying to grow with each other.

If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Then maybe you have to move on.

But what I’m talking about right now is poisonous communication that makes you think things, feel things, and do things that aren’t necessarily under your control.

How is that possible? Is this brainwashing? What is going on? 

What I mean is that I have been a witness to and have talked with clients who have been victims of coercive behavior that made them do or say things that they would not have done had they not been manipulated in some way.

Because that behavior came from them, because they initiated it, they were the ones who took action on it, even if it wasn’t what they wanted to do, as far as doing something that they would not have done or said otherwise had it not been for another person. Because they were the ones who did it.

This makes them start not trusting their instincts, not trusting their decision-making. Because of that, they are now more susceptible to manipulative behavior, coercion, and emotionally abusive behavior.

Because the person who was able to get them to doubt themselves now has their foot in the door even more over the days, weeks, months, and years. This happens. Pretty soon, they have full access to all their decision-making abilities, and they have lost complete trust in themselves.

What I’m describing is a typical emotionally abusive relationship where the breakdown of your own will, your own confidence, and your own trust in yourself, is exactly what creates the behavior I’m talking about, where you can be controlled.

Because there can be a point where you’re so broken down that your psyche is so disintegrated that you cannot trust yourself anymore, that the only person that you can trust is the one that is doing the controlling. Because you were instilled with doubt, you are instilled with doubt.

The manipulative, controlling person does one thing very, very well, and that is instill doubt. A lot of the clients that I’ve talked to who have survived emotionally abusive or manipulative relationships went into the relationships absolutely confident in themselves, absolutely sure of who they were, and had no problems making decisions.

Then they met someone who was an expert at breaking down their emotional state. It all started with a seemingly innocent comment. It almost always starts with some seemingly innocent comment. It can start with something that just sounds a little benign. And that could be something as simple as “No, you didn’t say that. This is what you said,” just to instill that little bit of doubt.

That’s all it takes, just that first moment, that someone who’s so sure of themselves and has developed a trusting, loving bond with someone, that when that person that they have grown to love and trust says something like, “No, you didn’t say that. This is what you said,” that is the first of many times that the victim of manipulation or emotional abuse is going to start questioning their own behavior, their own decisions, their own memory. Then this continues and repeats over time.

Of course, the secret is, if you are very aware of emotional abuse and controlling behavior that is designed to instill doubt in you, then of course, you can make the choice to go, “Whoa, you just instilled doubt in me. That’s not right.”

But it’s such a gray area, isn’t it? Haven’t we all forgotten something at one time or another? 

We’ve all heard someone tell us, “That’s not what you said,” at least one time in our lives. We’ve probably even heard that from someone that we trust and love. The argument might be, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t trust them 100%.”

That’s very hard to do when you become vulnerable with someone that has earned your trust and has done nothing to prove otherwise that they aren’t trustworthy.

This is how the typical emotionally abusive relationship starts. You’re with someone that earns your trust, proves they’re trustworthy, proves they’re kind, supportive, loving, and will do anything for you. There are no reasons not to trust what they say.

They have set you up to fail. That failure is the continuing disintegrating of your self-trust, self-confidence, self-esteem, self-worth, the continuing breakdown of everything you feel good about in yourself. That breakdown happens over a period of days, weeks, months, and years until you get to the point where you have no choice but to trust the only other person that you feel like you can trust, which is the person being abusive, manipulating, or controlling. At that point, you are definitely in a space where someone can make you feel anything they want.

I know this again is not good news. This is not happy news. But this is one of the reasons why I cannot find enough professional help in the world for narcissistic abuse or emotional abuse. If you look for therapists that specialize in these things, they’re far and few between. They’re very hard to find.

One of the reasons for that, I feel, is because of the belief that no one can make us feel anything. I might be saying something very controversial here because there are probably philosophers and even neuroscientists out there that might say, “That’s not true. We can choose to feel anything we want to feel. We can choose to respond any way we want to respond.” I want to believe that, but I’ve seen too many instances where that’s simply not true. People might argue that when you first experience that manipulative or controlling behavior or action, that’s when you catch it.

I agree. Yes, and yes, that is when you can catch it when you feel confident in yourself.

Then someone says something that makes you lose some confidence in yourself. You can absolutely catch it if you know what you’re looking for, if you realize what’s happening, if you’re willing to let go of your 100% faith and trust in the person doing it.

That is a choice. But what happens if someone in your life – think of someone in your life that you trust 100%? If you can, some people can – if you can think of someone you 100% trust, respect, will support you, if they said, “No, that’s not what you said. This is what you said,” or “No, you didn’t put the dishes away? I did.” If they said something like that, you’re probably going to believe them. You’re probably going to question yourself instead of questioning what they’re saying because you trust them.

I agree that it’s still a conscious choice. That is still a choice you’re making, but it’s a cleverly disguised manipulation. It is so clever that it bypasses our critical filter and gets beyond it.

This is the point where someone can make us feel how they want us to feel. Most of us don’t go around in life with our guard up looking for this type of behavior because a lot of us haven’t seen it before or have never experienced it before.

It’s like picking a flower and not knowing it’s poisonous, and then breaking out in a rash. We don’t know what we don’t know. Therefore, in my opinion, people can control how we feel because we don’t know what they’re doing to us.

As someone who has been studying this for years, I come from the other side of it. I’ve talked about this in an earlier episode. I was emotionally abusive toward my wife. I know some of the tricks. I know what I was doing. I didn’t call it emotional abuse back then. I didn’t call it a trick.

To me, it felt normal to be the way I was, and that’s scary. It was scary looking at it now, but it felt normal to be the way I was because all she had to do was change, and everything would be better in our relationship.

Those were normal thoughts for me. I did things in a way like withhold love, use the silent treatment, be judgmental, make her feel bad, and make her feel guilty. Again, someone might stop me and say, “You can’t make her feel bad, you can’t make her feel guilty.”

I know there are people out there that believe that until you experience it for yourself – that breakdown of your self-worth, that breakdown of self-confidence and self-love, self-compassion, and especially self-trust.

Once you break that down, you’ve bypassed their critical filters, tackled and knocked out their guard – their defense – and you are now inside their brain. I make it sound insidious. It is. I make it sound impossible to fight or resist, or even know it’s coming. Often that’s exactly what’s happening.

Until you listen to a show like this, until you understand what’s happening, until you realize that the person you were is being altered, this is when you can raise your awareness a lot. You can kick it up a notch.

What I mean is, if you are always confident and sure of yourself, or at least most of the time, and you trust your own decisions, and you’re able to take action and feel good about that action, and even fail and still feel like, “Okay, I failed, let’s move on to the next thing,” but you never became overly doubtful in your decisions or overly untrusting of how you think and what you do, if that was never there, and then you met someone, and suddenly it was there. That’s the first sign. 

The second sign is something more specific, which is when someone instills doubt in you. This is a little gray area because people do it all the time, very innocently.

Somebody saying, “Hey, that’s not what you said,” could be an absolutely true statement. I want you to look for the patterns, though. Has it happened more than once? Does it seem to happen often? Do they seem to enjoy telling you that, like it fulfills them in some way for you to have doubt in yourself?

These tiny nuances can make the difference between an innocent comment and a series of comments that cause you to have doubt in yourself. Doubt in your abilities, doubt in your decision-making, doubt in your memory.

If these are being instilled by someone else, yes, it’s time to wake up. It is time to wake up to what’s happening because you are probably being entranced to believe this stuff. The person developed a relationship with you, and they earned your trust, so look for that pattern of instilling doubt.

Another thing you want to look for is when they don’t seem to support you being happy, and they actually seem to support and push you towards feeling bad about yourself. That is a huge, huge red flag of emotional abuse.

If someone is not only instilling doubt in your own abilities, but they’re also making you feel bad about yourself, like ‘you shouldn’t do that, you’re going to hurt the kids,’ or one that I heard the other day of, “I can’t believe you don’t get along with your sister. I don’t know if I can be with someone who can’t get along with their family.”

It was just an odd comment, but what it does is instill doubt in the person being told this, because, “Well, maybe I’m doing something wrong. I thought I was doing this because that family member was toxic, but if he’s telling me this, maybe he’s right. He seems to be right about a lot of other things. I trust him.”

It’s also making the person feel bad about themselves, about their own decisions. That might be a minor example or a major one, if you’ve ever experienced this. But these little comments that are part of a bigger picture of the disintegration of who you are are all part of a bigger machine of control.

Once you start believing all these things about yourself that are being instilled in you, then more and more control comes into your life, and you’ll have less and less power in your life.

Regarding this person who wrote the email, who says, “I can’t imagine something more poisonous than buying into the idea that others can control how I feel,” I am with you. I don’t like buying into that idea. Maybe you can’t buy into that.

The reason that people say, “We are in control of our feelings,” is so that we know we can keep our power. It is to give us something to hold onto that no matter what happens in our life, we still have us. We are still whole inside. We are still in control of ourselves.

But I wouldn’t have this show if that were 100% true because there are people that aren’t in control. That’s because somebody has found a way in. People can find a way in. They look for vulnerabilities.

Believe me, sometimes relationships start with someone gathering data on you for months. They’re asking questions, they’re looking for anything they can eventually use against you. This does happen.

The worst part is, if you’ve never experienced any type of manipulation or control like this, you’re going to miss it. It’s easy to miss. If you miss it, then you could get sucked into that toxic relationship again.

Look for the signs I told you about. That’s how you can tell when someone’s starting to make you feel bad. When someone’s instilling doubt in you, look for those red flags and take a step back out of the feelings that you have, and start to look at the bigger picture. Ask yourself if this is happening more often than it should. Ask, what’s going on here?

To this person who wrote the email, this is how we can stop someone from controlling us. Even if you don’t believe that anyone can control us. This is how we can prevent things like this in the future.

I have a feeling a lot of people that listen to this show probably haven’t been able to prevent this because they never knew it existed. They never knew someone could act like that. They have empathy, but their partner or someone else in their life doesn’t, or they’re not using it. They are in a situation now that their partner, whoever it is, doesn’t care if they’re happy or not.

Look for these signs. Does my partner… does my mom… does my sister… does whoever care if I’m happy or not?

That’s a great question. Do they care if I feel good about myself? Do they care?

These are the kinds of questions that keep you aware without being paranoid and without having your guard up all the time. Because we want to be able to have relationships where we can be vulnerable and trusting and loving and feel loved and feel trusted with someone else. That’s what makes relationships work. They don’t work when all this other stuff comes up because someone else had an agenda.

There are other signs that you can look for when the relationship is starting too. Those signs will be the feeling that something isn’t right. A lot of the stuff I talk about in this show – love bombing, gift bombing, ghosting, breadcrumbing, crazy-making, gaslighting – all kinds of labels that once you get familiar with them and you are educated, then even if you’ve never run into them before, now you understand what they are.

We get blinded by love sometimes. We’re just so happy that this person fulfills everything that we want. But when we find out they have an agenda, a purpose behind them showing up as everything that we want, ah, now we have something to look at.

But I don’t want this to deter you from getting into relationships and actually enjoying your time and enjoying the person that you’re with because there are so many good people out there. There are so many good people that do not do many of the things that I talked about here.

It’s just a matter of being aware that when you start feeling bad, it’s time to start questioning. It’s time to start questioning yourself. It’s time to take a step back out of the feelings, out of the emotions, and look at the big picture just to understand what’s happening. 

When you feel bad or you think there are red flags, that doesn’t automatically mean that you’re with a bad person. It just means that you might need to start having a conversation or two.

The question I asked earlier, “Do you want me to feel bad about myself? Do you want me to start doubting myself?” – those are good questions to ask.

I don’t know how effective those questions will be for the person that has an agenda and actually wants to control you, but they are definitely a good questions for yourself so you can start to notice things.

It’s not about being paranoid when something is going great or that it could just fall apart at any time. I still believe in living in the present, being with the people that you love, fully, not thinking about a future that could turn into a disaster, not thinking about past relationships that were awful and now you have your guard up all the time. It’s important to enjoy what you have today.

Don’t take action until something happens that does raise a flag. At that point, you can make decisions that are right for you so that you can stay safe and let others know that you are in control of you, not them or anyone else.

To the person who wrote this email, thank you. It is a great subject. I don’t know if you agree with me or not, but I’m glad you wrote this because it is an important topic to talk about and spread into the world.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Paul Colaianni is a Behavior and Relationship Coach, and the host of The Overwhelmed Brain and Love and Abuse podcasts.

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