stop emotional abuse

Can We Stop Emotional Abuse?

Part 1: Understanding The Mechanics of Emotional Abuse

Have you always thought that emotional abuse was something that you had to learn to live with or lose the relationship? Many people give up trying to stop emotional abuse because they have been told it can’t be done. This misunderstanding can lead those who have been emotionally abused to leave their spouse, their family, or in some cases their jobs. And for those who choose to stay in emotionally abusive situations, not knowing how to stop it can bring them years of unnecessary suffering.

The truth is there are strategies that work, not just to help you cope with an emotional abuser, not just to help you manage an emotional abuser, and not just to protect yourself from an emotional abuser. These strategies allow you to actually stop emotional abuse during an episode.

With consistent use, they allow you to put an end to this destructive behavior pattern for good. Just as learning a martial art can give you a sense of physical security, the strategies you are about to learn can give you a sense of emotional security in knowing you can protect yourself from any emotional attacker.

The Myths Surrounding Emotional Abuse

You may be wondering how anyone could possibly overcome what most of us assume is an insurmountable problem. The reason so many people give up trying to stop emotional abuse is because they often lack the understanding of what drives an emotional abuser to hurt those around them. Because of the confusion surrounding this behavior pattern, they fail to make a very important observation about emotional abuse that could give them the clues necessary to put together a plan to stop an emotional abuser’s negative behavior once and for all.

When we take the time to carefully examine the behavior pattern that all emotional abusers engage in, we discover a very important fact. Emotional abuse is actually a type of coping behavior that all people use at some point in their lives to escape from uncomfortable feelings. However, the abuser uses this coping mechanism at such an extreme level that we commonly fail to see this connection and along with it the solution to the problem.

Let’s now take a look at what causes these coping mechanisms and why all of us fall into this common behavior pattern from time to time.

How Defense Mechanisms Protect Us From Emotional Pain

Coping behaviors that take the form of defense mechanisms are most easily understood as defensive maneuvers or steps that our brain takes in order to protect us from unpleasant emotions. When the brain believes there is an emotional threat, it takes special precautions to cushion us from excessive levels of pain.

In emergency situations where our brain predicts there will be too much pain to handle, this control center is capable of literally blocking our awareness of things that have happened. But most of the time this cognitive machinery works behind the scenes. It monitors our pain levels and steps in only when necessary to help us out during times of emotional difficulty. Let’s now take a look at the method that this self-protecting part of our brain uses to cushion us from everyday emotional pain.

Because it is our thoughts that produce emotional pain, the way our brain steps in to protect us is to simply redirect our thoughts in ways that keep us from coming to painful conclusions about our situation. Our brains are very good at diverting our attention away from unpleasant truths and re-framing harsh realities in ways that protect us from the bad feelings that accompany them. It accomplishes this by feeding in thoughts to our conscious mind that minimize negative aspects of our situation and maximize positive aspects.

Usually these behind-the-scenes attempts to influence us are mild. However, when our brain begins to suspect that we are about to focus on something too painful to for us to handle, it will step up its efforts. It may even resort to manipulation and outright deceit in order to keep us from facing the truth.

When we are alone, we barely notice this influence. But when other people enter the picture, our control center may decide even more serious intervention is necessary. It may realize that not only does it need to maintain control over our thoughts, but that it also must control the thoughts of those around us who may threaten the rosy picture our brain would like us to use in place of reality.

The Role of Controlling Behavior In Defense Mechanisms

When our brains deceive us in an attempt to keep us safe, we enter into what could be called a fictional reality. We perceive our thoughts and feelings to be quite rational. However, those around us who are more rooted in real life may find our conclusions while in this fictional reality to be distorted.

When we express our distorted view of life, the people around us often become uncomfortable and may question our conclusions. The protective brain finds these questions very threatening to the fragile illusion it has created for us. Because it does not have the ability to influence the behavior of another person, it will try to manipulate us into controlling the person instead.

The way our brains accomplish this is by launching a quick smear campaign aimed at getting us to either disrespect what this person is saying or else verbally attack them so they are no longer a threat. We may all of a sudden have a thought that the person who is questioning us is actually just trying to give us a hard time and is not on our side at all.

We may have a thought that what we are saying is so obvious that we don’t have to listen to any other opinions. We may even have a sudden surge of anger and find ourselves hurling an insult at the person which stops the conversation entirely.

can we stop emotional abuse

Defense Mechanism Triggers

So what is it that triggers or sets off this protective coping mechanism causing it to engage? The protective brain only seems to step in when we are not able to manage emotional pain on our own. Most of us learn as we move through childhood how to regulate our emotional states. We learn from our early caregivers how to take care of our emotional pain, soothing ourselves in the same way our parents used to soothe us when we were afraid or upset.

Emotional abuse occurs when we either lack the skills to regulate our emotions or when feelings come up that are so difficult to handle that the emergency control center must take over to get us through. The feelings that most often trigger this defense mechanism are feelings surrounding shame. They usually center around the fear that others will reject us for having faults or weakness.

All people have weaknesses that cause them to do things that make them feel bad about themselves. Whether we are able to face our weaknesses and admit to them in front of others depends on how strong we are feeling. When we are feeling strong, we find we can still like ourselves even though we have faults. Feeling strong also allows us to believe others will still like us even when we show them our weaknesses.

When we are not feeling strong, our fears about our flaws can easily take over and produce very high levels of emotional pain driven by the fear of social rejection. It is this fear that triggers the self-protecting part of our brain to step in.

Common Patterns of Blame-Shifting

Let’s now take a look at the mild version of this coping mechanism that most of us use in our everyday life when we are not feeling strong in order to try to hide from our flaws. Here are a few situations where any one of us might have a lapse in self-esteem that causes us to blame another person instead of facing our faults:

We stay in bed until the last possible minute, and then when we find ourselves late for our meeting we get angry at the other drivers on the road instead of getting angry at ourselves.

We find ourselves chronically missing deadlines at work. When our coworker gets the promotion we wanted we tell ourselves that our boss is a jerk instead of taking responsibility for our procrastination problem.

After we are rejected by what we thought was a promising love interest, our previous perception of their flawless personality all of a sudden becomes riddled with character defects.

For most of us these defense mechanisms only come into play when we are having a particularly hard time facing our feelings related to a sensitive area or on days when we are struggling more than usual to cope with the upsets of our daily life. Although these are minor examples of shifting blame to another person so we can ward off feelings of shame, this pattern, when taken to extremes, is the same behavior pattern that emotional abusers use.

Let’s now take a look at what happens when this behavior pattern gets out of control resulting in a potential pattern of emotional abuse:

When Blame-Shifting Becomes Abuse

The emotional abuser does not need to use the excuse of being late to get angry at those who are in their way. Any action taken by another that could be perceived as a power play over the abuser triggers immediate retribution in the form of denigrating language or threatening gestures or words aimed at psychologically disabling those around them from taking advantage of the weakness they are hiding from.

The emotional abuser is the most vulnerable in the arena of romance. This is where we are all at highest risk for emotional pain through humiliation. The emotional abuser senses that their love interest will always possess the ultimate power over them. In order to guarantee they will not be humiliated and betrayed they will go to any length to denigrate and demean their romantic partner to ensure they never feel strong enough to take advantage of the abuser’s glaring vulnerability in this area.

Understanding the Similarities And Differences

Emotional abusers have a lack of skills necessary to manage their painful emotions along with chronic low self-esteem. For them, using protective coping mechanisms often becomes a way of life. However, it is important to remember that each of us is capable of throwing our ethics to the wind temporarily when we are feeling self-protective. Understanding how our protective control center steps in to take over during times of low self-esteem provides us insight into the motivation and the means of the emotional abuser.

Although we may tend to try to distance ourselves from the emotional abuser, in reality it is much more challenging than we might imagine to keep conscious control over our behavior towards others. It is very easy, when our emergency control center takes over the helm, for our relationships to become a breeding ground for emotional abuse.

In Part 2 of the blog series Can We Stop Emotional Abuse, we will be exploring another hidden vulnerability in each of us that leaves us defenseless against the tactics used by the emotional abuser. In discovering where we are open to these attacks, we can also learn how to shore up the chinks in our protective armor, leaving the emotional abuser unable to take advantage of us again.

If you would like to skip to the techniques that stop emotional abuse, you can move directly to that link, which will take you to Part 4 of this blog series.

If you would like to learn the Nicola Method so you can put an end to the high conflict situations you may be experiencing, click on this link to the welcome page of this website where you will find the resources you need.

If you want to try out some of the basic techniques of this method for free to see if this method is right for your situation, you can learn them from an intro guide flip-book here or a PDF version of the intro guide here.

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