“Subtle Abusers are experts at twisting things around so that everything is your fault, and since they do not take responsibility for themselves, they are always the victim. An abuser minimizes or denies their abuse if you call them out on it. They frequently blame you for things that you did not do, when in fact, they are guilty of having done them. Whenever you confront an abuser, you come away feeling like you are in the wrong.” - Avery Neal
Psychotherapist and author Avery Neal just published the latest book on abuse and manipulation: If He's So Great, Why Do I Feel So Bad. I finished it in a day — it's one of the most well-written and validating resources I've ever read in the field.
Avery was kind enough to do an interview with PF, and you can read her answers below! All quotes are directly from her book.
JM: Avery, thanks so much for doing this interview! Could you start by telling us what inspired you to write this book?
Avery: Thank you so much! You have been such an incredible resource for so many people that it is really an honor to interview with you today.
For a very long time I vacillated about whether or not I should share my own experiences. Some advised that I should not because it made me seem like less of an authority or it undermined the legitimacy of what I had to say. But, I finally came to the conclusion that if I didn’t stand up and say, “Look, this happened to me too, even in spite of all my training,” then it wouldn’t convey the very message that I was trying so desperately to relay.
This can happen to anyone.
I know what it is like to feel reduced to almost nothing. To have lost myself in my partner because the alternative was more than I had the strength to confront. I have been deceived, lied to, controlled, and manipulated…without even knowing it. I know what it is like to question my own sanity as my partner arrogantly smirks while watching me struggle. I have attempted to stand up for myself only to be knocked down again and again. I don’t just know about this subject from my patients. I have lived every minute of it. And…I’ve never been hit.
I have been fortunate enough to work with some amazing women in my practice over the last 11 years. These women have shared heart-wrenching stories of confusion, self-doubt, merciless self-criticism and blame, fear for their own safety and that of their children. Some have even wanted their lives to come to an end because they saw no other way out. As I listened to their stories, I began to notice the same patterns surfacing. Not only the behavioral patterns of an abuser, but common shared characteristics of the people who ended up in these types of relationships. And, the worst part of it was the sense of isolation and shame that the victims all shared.
The whole thing was so compelling that I began to write down the patterns I was observing. Sometimes I could hardly type fast enough! It turns out I had quite a bit to say because I ended up with a large body of work, which is now this book.
JM: How would you define Subtle Abuse, and how is it different from other types of abuse?
Avery: I have defined subtle abuse as the indirect use of threat, force, intimidation, or aggression, through humor, manipulation, criticism, or punishment in attempt to control or dominate another, occurring on its own or in between verbally, physically, or sexually abusive episodes.
Other forms of abuse tend to be easier to identify. For example, in the case of verbal abuse you may be degraded through name calling, cursing, or overt put-downs. Physical and sexual abuse are a direct violation of your body, which is a clearer boundary. With all of these forms of abuse, subtle abuse plays a part in between the overtly abusive episodes, but subtle abuse can also exist on its own, making it that much harder to identify it as abuse.
Subtle abuse falls under the umbrella of emotional abuse since it attacks a person’s psychological health, confidence, self-esteem and well-being. However, not all emotional abuse is subtle. Some emotional abuse is quite obvious, which can make it easier to identify.
Covert abuse is very closely related to subtle abuse, but subtle abuse can remain in plain sight, with the behavior seeming inconsequential or insignificant—not only to you, but to others as well. Combining emotional abuse and covert abuse was the closest thing that I could find that would describe the nature of subtle abuse, even though it didn’t quite cover all of the bases.
JM: Your book does a great job of identifying red flags of subtle abuse. One thing survivors frequently ask is how they can spot and avoid types of people like this in the future. What are some early warning signs you’re dealing with a subtle abuser?
Avery: Thank you. I think some of the earliest warning signs of any type of abuser are intensity, over involvement, and hyper-focusing. It’s easy to be flattered when someone is immensely taken with us, and while attraction and excitement are normal, it can be indicative of trouble down the line when it is way over the top.
Weeks or months into the relationship you want to be looking for certain characterological patterns.
Does the person take responsibility for him/herself? Does the person always blame problems on others? Or does he or she make fun of, degrade or name call other people or former partners?
Also, is the person empathetic toward others? Does he/she have the ability to put him or herself in someone else’s shoes or acknowledge differing points of view?
Or, does the person have a sense of entitlement? Does he or she believe others “owe” him/her?
These are just a few of the early warning signs of an abusive relationship. It is important to take your time getting to know someone and observe who they are as a person and how they interact with others. It’s essential to look at a person as objectively as you can rather than getting blindsided by their attention and how they make you feel in the very beginning of the relationship.
“Abuse truly is a game for the abuser. They make the rules, and they will not stop until they have won. It's all about the win." (p.28)
JM: Could you tell us more about this “game”? Why do they play it and what are the rules?
Avery: Most of us strive to have a harmonious relationship where our partner’s needs are met as well as our own. Even if we disagree, there is some attempt toward resolution. This is not the case in an abusive relationship.
You may be confused as to why you are unable to come to mutually satisfying resolutions in the relationship. You’re focused on finding a way to fix the actual problem. You may even work harder and harder trying to come up with appealing solutions to present to your partner, hoping that both of your needs could be met. A win-win solution. But, this is not how an abuser thinks.
An abuser has a single goal, power and control. He or she does not want to do anything that could possibly boost your confidence, enhance your support system, or give you emotional strength because these things would make you less dependent and more likely that you would leave the relationship. To an abuser, meeting your needs might mean giving you the upper hand, which could jeopardize his/her standing as the dominator.
An abuser will divert your attention, go off on different tangents, twist your words against you, make false accusations, or any number of other tactics to get you off balance so he/she can gain the power. Many abusers even blame you for thinking about something they don’t like. It is important to know that there is nothing that you can say or do about the actual problem at hand, because the abuser will keep changing the rules of engagement so that you cannot possibly “win.” An abuser must win at all costs.
When you step away from the actual issue you think that you are discussing and look at the bigger game that is being played, you level the playing field. No longer are you led astray by various tangents and accusations, but you actually see that the game is rigged. When you can see the whole, big picture, and accurately see what is really going on, you can better determine your next move.
JM: Playing the victim seems to be common in the realm of Cluster-B abuse. Your book had some fantastic quotes about false victimhood that I wanted to share here:
“A typical scenario is when the abuser gets angry about something and resorts to calling their partner names or putting them down in some way. The partner may take it for a while, but eventually they reach their breaking point and say something out of line back. The abuser will very quickly (and often calmly) step back and claim they are the victim, and their partner the perpetrator.” (p.67)
"If you get defensive and confront [a subtle abuser], they are likely to turn things around on you, claiming that you are “too sensitive,” “can’t take a joke,” or some version of this. You begin to question yourself . . . “maybe I did overreact?” This is the beginning." (p.37)
Why do subtle abusers play the victim? Do they genuinely believe they are the victim, or are they trying to gas-light their partner into doubting themselves?
Avery: I think that both are true.
We all genuinely believe our own story to be factual and abusers are no different. The difference is that most abusers generally seem to think that they are being wronged at every turn and they are also unwilling to question their role in the story, which most of us have the capacity to do. They use this belief system to justify or to rationalize their maladaptive behavior.
An abuser wants power and control above all. They gain this power and control by making you more helpless and weak. One of the ways in which they are able to achieve this is through methods such as gas-lighting, which make you question yourself, your sanity and your worth.
JM: I thought your book did an amazing job of outlining one of the longest-lasting issues after subtle abuse: self-doubt. Here are a few examples:
“However, the depths of the manipulation can be one of the most destructive behaviors because it causes you to question and lose confidence in yourself. This wound is often so deep that it leaves a pretty significant scar, even if the relationship comes to an end.” (p.52)
“Because an abuser is so convincing with their put-downs, this leaves a constant question in the back of your mind, wondering if their statements and accusations are actually true.” (p.141)
In your personal and professional experience, what are the best ways to release this debilitating self-doubt?
Avery: I believe the most empowering thing we can do to release self-doubt is to understand the patterns of abuse. When we take the time to educate ourselves about these patterns and step back a bit to see our relationship more objectively, we then have the potential not to take what was thrust upon us so personally.
The abuse is not about you, it is about the abuser and his/her attempt to gain the upper hand in the relationship. In order to establish dominance, your abuser had to reduce you, otherwise you would have gained the confidence and strength to leave the relationship. You were caught up in an abusive dynamic, which is set up in such a way that you cannot win (reach peace, master communication, have a loving, respectful and supportive relationship) no matter how hard you try.
Another important step is to learn to honor your feelings instead of overriding them. Your feelings are important. In order to survive in an abusive relationship, you have to suppress your feelings. There is no safe space to voice your needs or concerns and doing so typically makes things worse. Over time, you learn to ignore your feelings and needs, losing yourself in the process. One of the most basic, but necessary, steps on the road to healing is to give yourself permission to acknowledge how you really feel, without self-criticism or judgement. This sounds much easier than it is after an abusive relationship, but it is absolutely possible to regain and redevelop your sense of self.
“Withdrawing is a common punishment, leaving the abuser blameless and the recipient fearful and anxious. When an abuser withholds himself entirely, he passively aggressively sends you a very clear message that he is angry. You may work hard to try to understand what caused him to withdraw. The harder you work the more he resists you. You learn to avoid doing whatever you believe triggered his response, thinking that if you can only avoid certain landmines, you can avoid the silent treatment.” (p.87)
JM: Can you talk some more about the silent treatment? Do survivors have personalities that are more likely to self-blame when their partner withdraws? How can survivors learn to stop fearing and managing the reactions of others?
Avery: The silent treatment is just one form of punishment from the abuser. It constitutes a withholding of love and affection for the purpose of control and compliance. Most of us are wired for connectedness, so this form of punishment can be exceptionally painful.
Survivors are more likely to blame themselves for their abuser’s reaction because they are the ones in the relationship who are more likely to examine their own behavior and culpability. One of the personality characteristics typical of survivors is a strong sense of responsibility. This means that they are likely to take on more than their fair share of the blame in the relationship.
It’s easier said than done to learn how to stop fearing and managing the reactions of others, especially after enduring an abusive dynamic! With that being said, self-awareness and education are key. When we know that we have adopted the pattern of managing others’ reactions as a way soothing our fears, we can begin to identify when we are being triggered and consciously address the fear, rather than unconsciously reacting in response to that fear. In time, practicing setting boundaries and speaking up for yourself in safe relationships is imperative in helping to overcome the fear.
“For an abuser, your needs are, at the very least, inconvenient. They detract from their own needs and require them to think about how someone else is feeling. The abuser does not step outside of themselves to see your needs over their own. Their primary concern is that they get what they want in the relationship, and if you happen to get something you need along the way, they may or may not let you have it again.” (p.47)
JM: A lot of survivors struggle with feeling guilty and anxious about standing up for their needs. What role does this play in becoming involved in a subtle abuser. If the survivor becomes more comfortable with standing up for their own needs, will that serve as a natural deterrent to subtle abusers?
Avery: It is understandable why survivors feel anxious and guilty standing up for their needs. At best, in an abusive relationship needs go ignored, at worst there may be a severe punishment for voicing those needs. We all have the tendency to wilt away as our needs go unmet. As this process occurs, it gets increasingly difficult to stand firm and speak up for what we need, especially if there’s fear involved. The smaller we become the more guilty and uncomfortable we feel about taking up any space at all, which is one of the more difficult challenges to overcome after an abusive relationship.
As we gain strength and we are less afraid to speak up, set boundaries, voice needs or call out unacceptable behavior, we are far less likely to be victimized. Remember, abusers are bullies and they prefer an easy mark because not only is that easy mark easier to control, but they are also less likely to make noise and call attention to the abuser’s bad behavior, thus allowing the abuser to remain incognito. When you stand up for yourself and will not tolerate or go along with the mistreatment, you leave very little room for the abuser to get away with the abuse and he/she is more likely to move on to someone else who is easier to control.
“The belief that if you can ‘just love them enough’ they won’t behave so hurtfully and the problems in the relationship will get better is another dangerous misconception. It reinforces the notion that the abuser is a victim and his partner simply needs to be more accommodating and ‘loving.’” (p.25)
JM: How can we break these patterns? How can we maintain a loving and forgiving heart, without tolerating any kind of abuse? How can we differentiate between promises of change, and actual change?
I think it is important to get really clear about what is acceptable treatment and what is not. I often ask my clients, “Would you ever treat someone else the way your partner treats you?” The response is always horrified, “no.”
We need to cut through the excuses and rationalizations that allow abuse to recur. Making excuses that allow mistreatment is not a loving thing to do, for yourself or for anyone else, despite how it may seem on the surface.
Look to see if your partner’s words are consistent with his/her actions. With most abusers, their actions greatly differ from what they say, which is one reason the relationship can feel so confusing to the recipient of the abuse. The words and the actions must align for real change to occur. Unfortunately, the very characteristics that allow an abuser to abuse mean that there is very little possibility of real change over the long term.
Sometimes one of the kindest things we can to is to release with compassion. It doesn’t mean that we don’t care or that we don’t even love the person. We may have compassion for someone, but that does not mean that we can leave ourselves unprotected and vulnerable to getting hurt.
JM: In addition to identifying signs of subtle abuse, your book also encourages a great deal of introspection, which I think is super important!
“If you know you tend to overcompensate for others’ shortcomings, for example, consciously stop this behavior. Even though it may feel uncomfortable, sit back and let the other person carry his or her own weight. Protect yourself by steering clear of people who will exploit your vulnerabilities.” (p.183)
Can you share any additional personality traits of survivors that are helpful to become aware of?
Avery: Yes! I think that self-awareness is key in recovering from an abusive relationship and in protecting ourselves from ending up in another destructive dynamic. The very characteristics that allowed us to be abused in the first place make it more likely that we will be abused again, unless we consciously choose to change how we interact with others.
Most literature states that there is not “profile” of a victim of abuse because abuse happens across all races, genders, religions and socioeconomic groups. However, I believe that there are some personality characteristics that most victims of abuse tend have in common.
For starters, most people who and up with an abuser tend to be highly empathetic. Empaths are more likely to feel sorry for their abuser and sympathize with the excuses the abuser gives in attempt to justify the abusive behavior. Empaths are also more likely to want to “heal” or “rescue” their abuser, believing that with enough love and positivity, change can occur.
Most survivors also have the tendency to take on more than their fair share of the responsibility in the relationship. This means taking on more day to day responsibilities when it comes to housework, taking care of the kids, and financial responsibility, but it also means accepting inaccurate amounts of blame, criticism, and fault in the relationship, which only perpetuates the abusive dynamic.
And, most survivors tend to dislike and avoid conflict. Even if a person starts out unafraid of healthy conflict, after failed attempts to engage constructively with an abuser, most survivors become afraid, and knowing that no real resolution will be reached, they shut down. This of course makes it easier for the abuser to abuse, as the survivor’s confidence plummets and self-doubt is reinforced.
JM: Your book also identifies some inspiring signs of a healthy relationship:
“Everyone has the right to feel free to speak up and assert themselves in a relationship without fear of punishment. Everyone has the right to feel respected and valued.” (p.28)
“You should feel that your partner is looking to understand you, not to disprove you. You deserve to feel like your partner is truly a partner, someone to go through life with, not against.” (p.51)
For many survivors, this sounds like a blissful dream. What can we look for in dating and friendships to make this dream a reality?
Avery: I know these things sound too good to be true and they may even seem unrealistic to expect after an abusive relationship. However, these need to be basic requirements in a relationship.
It is important in friendships and romantic relationships to pay attention to how you feel when you are around that person or shortly thereafter. I think most of us can relate to spending a bit of time with someone, thinking we are having a good time, but then walking away feeling a bit insecure, guilty, self-conscious, or intimidated, even though we may not be sure why.
These feelings should not be dismissed, but quite the opposite. It doesn’t matter if we can put our finger on it and objectively identify why we feel badly around that person, what matters is that we pay attention to those feelings. We then need to honor those feelings and either walk away from the relationship if possible, or if not, minimize contact with that person by setting strong boundaries…unapologetically.
When we eliminate or reduce the contact we have with those who make us feel poorly, we have more emotional energy to invest in the relationships with people who make us feel good, loved, supported and confident. Surrounding ourselves with these healthy, positive relationships builds confidence, boosts-self esteem, and radically improves life quality.
JM: Thank you so much for your time, and for the great work you're doing for abuse survivors!
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Warning Signs of Subtle Abuse and Manipulation
Subtle Abusers are experts at twisting things around so everything is your fault. They do not take responsibility for themselves, they are always the victim.
Article Author: Peace