Emotional Abuse: The Rules of Engagement
Zak Mucha, LCSW
The old man tells his boy, "A beating ain't the same thing as being made dirt of. Being humiliated. So don't be telling me it didn't hurt you, 'cause it hurts me. Inside me, it hurts." This exchange cradles both the diagnosis and potential solution to a complex type of abuse too often simplified as "bullying."
Bullying is often mistaken as an issue restricted to childhood and adolescence. Despite the potentially fatal results, we continue to euphemize the abusive behavior which continues into adulthood and can exist in any relationship.
The stereotype of the bully—the oafish young man, too big for his age group and too purely mean to belong to any crowd—is one factor blinding us to the truth about emotional abuse. "Bullying" exists along a continuum where all acts of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional—fit a simple description: "A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker."
As clear as that definition seems, we accept the half-truths of the culturally acceptable aggressor (i.e. Caucasian, female, middle-class, and non-violent). The mother of one pre-teen created a cyber-boyfriend to befriend and then cruelly dump another 13-year-old girl, who subsequently committed suicide. "In my view," the mom said, "it was proper this case was dismissed, primarily because I did not do what the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles accused me of doing."1 This tautology ignores the woman's contribution to a young girl's suicide. She meant to demean the girl, not prompt her death.
Similarly, Tyler Clementi’s attackers never touched him; they invaded his privacy and attempted to webcast his most intimate moments. They meant to hurt him, not kill him.
Another mom posted a 9-year-old girl's phone number on Craigslist amidst the adult escorts. "Her biggest concern," this mom's lawyer said, "has always been that this not materially affect the victim or her child. She wants to make sure the way it's being handled doesn't make that worse."2 Only after arrest is this mother allegedly worried the media will traumatize the child's family. She didn't intend to hurt the girl, but implied the media attention would be detrimental. Her lawyer attempted to shift the target, from the child to the parent, in order to lessen the perception of the aggression.
Why does the aggressor get the opportunity to define the cause of the pain? Because the weapon is emotional, rather than physical, the aggressors attempt to change the perception of the aggression with a cycle of excuses: "I didn’t do it," "Maybe I did it," "I did it, but I didn’t mean to."
William James suggested that we measure saintly acts by the actual behavior, not the belief system prompting the behavior: "... [I]f her theology can stand these other tests, it will make no difference how hysterical or nervously off her balance Saint Teresa may have been when she was with us here below."3 Teresa knew, however she came to her beliefs, that she would be judged for her behavior, not the justifications supporting her: we are what we do, not what we say. Why wouldn't malicious deeds be measured in the same manner?
The definition of emotional abuse provided by Andrew Vachss fits the template for bullying: "Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a choice of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child's self-concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy...."4
The victim of emotional abuse dismisses his own pain: The victim learns to not trust his own feelings. He ignores his own flushes of rage and shamefully swallows words he wished could be spoken. Never feeling safe from criticism or safe to tell the truth, the victim remains vigilant for the slightest sign of disapproval, waiting for the whisper of collusion among peers. The victim grows accustomed to distorting his feelings to appear properly socialized.
When aggression is non-violent or passive and the damage is emotional, we justify and pathologize the aggressor's behavior until we do not recognize our own pain. Later, if the victim adopts the same behavior, her own past victimization is used to justify her aggression.
In social circles, the injuries start off as testing measures: small slights, ignored phone calls, text messages, and blog entries. The attacks are sweet-voiced whispers in a world where a "friend" qualifies with one mouse-click and an attack spreads like a virus through an entire social network, becoming both spectator sport and Internet mob action.
If the victim defends herself, the recriminations begin: "Well, it's not like she hit you," "Oh, you're too emotional," or, "You shouldn't feel like that." This is a vital component of the culturally acceptable bullying: the victim is at fault for misunderstanding the acts of the aggressor. The victim feels guilty for making the aggressor angry, even guiltier for feeling his own anger. The victim dislikes himself for being in pain, then uses that pain as proof he is inadequate. The injury, he is told, consists of "only words."
The well-meaning bystander tells the victim: "Stay away from the bully," "Go find other interests," "Tell someone," "Be nice and maybe they'll relent." The pervasiveness of emotional abuse has disguised the aggression so thoroughly that the standard "solutions" ask victims to capitulate. The directive to "be nice" asks the victim to regress to a previous state, to be a child dependent upon those in power. When that advice brings no solace, he's told, "That's a part of growing up"—instructions resembling the tautology of the cyber-bullying mother. Factually true, but a lie of omission.
Normalizing the abuser's behavior doubles the victim's pain: you're inferior for being targeted and more so for being upset. The advice to "get over it" isn't instructive or soothing to any degree; it's merely the statement of a desired result. No one says how to "get over it."
These words don’t heal; they compound the hurt.
Collaborators make excuses for the aggressor's behavior, providing weak advice to avoid their own discomfort while simultaneously adding merit to the aggressor's behavior. Defending the aggressor merely moves the collaborator out of the line of fire, until the aggressor wants something from the collaborator.
When victims repeatedly receive such advice, the advice becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as to how the world really works. When aggressors go unchallenged, it is how the world works. Emotional abuse demands others alter their perceptions of themselves in order to accommodate the aggressor's self-perception. Those who do diminish themselves to meet the aggressor's needs become victims.
One narcissistic bully held an entire social work program hostage with whisper campaigns, exclusionary tactics, verbal sniping, ultimatums, and mixed messages. All this erupted from a person who, on the surface, fit every criteria of "nice": well-mannered, polite, and holding the appropriate political beliefs and tastes for his socioeconomic status. His sniping demanded the office alter operations to meet his emotional needs. When challenged by co-workers, he countered: "That's not what I meant," "You misunderstood me," "I never said that," and "Let's forget it and start over."
Each statement demanded his co-workers amend their memories, question their own comprehension skills, and accept a denial that the offending events ever happened. When the office openly refused to accept those choices, the aggressor began looking elsewhere for employment.
Those responses are the standard deflections aggressors use when challenged. Each one tells the victim: you are at fault for being hurt. This cycle of responses is another attack, more passive than the first.
Passive aggression is still aggression. "Passive" describes the aggression; there's no way to be aggressively passive. Often, passive aggression is more effective than outright aggression, as the camouflage (of being "nice") aids the aggressor. Some justify non-physical bullying to be the aggressor's attempt to re-establish his equilibrium. That may be true, but why is it acceptable that other people lose equilibrium so that the aggressor gains his?
Can the person who punches another in a tavern be emotionally hurt by the disrespect of someone taking his barstool? Possibly. I'll even support the idea that aggression is a response to a freshly (or not-so-freshly) wounded ego. But so what?
Being hurt does not justify a person lashing out in any direction. Being hurt does not permit us to cultivate the suffering of other people. Were that so, then, wouldn't it be fair for the victim to assault an innocent third party? Following that model, each of us can say, "Alleviating my pain is more important than causing yours"—thus meeting criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.5
Individuals with this disorder spend "considerable energy evaluating their status relative to that of other people. They tend to defend their wounded self-esteem through a combination of idealizing and devaluing others. When they idealize someone, they feel more special or important by virtue of their association with him or her. When they devalue someone, they feel superior."6 The narcissist's measurement of his worth is a fluctuating distortion prompted by self-absorption, but not hindered by empathy.
Recent studies of narcissism among college students have posited that narcissism and "bullying" behavior do not stem from what had been previously hypothesized as "low self-esteem." Rather, disproportionately high self-esteem correlates to emotionally abusive and aggressive behavior. The aggressor feels his or her own needs can and should be achieved at the expense of others. One study states, "These findings suggest that the dangerous aspects of narcissism are not so much simple vanity and self-admiration as the inflated sense of being superior to others and being entitled to special privileges."7 The diagnostic distance between overt narcissism and psychopathy depends on the criminality of the behavior, but a lack of empathy is required for both.
The narcissist does not seek self-improvement, but demands unconditional approval. Our popular culture reflects the narcissist's aspirations for near-universal recognition in the proliferation of reality television shows where self-aggrandizement is the modus operandi of all Survivors, cage-match contenders, Interventioners, and Bridezillas. Daytime-talk-show audiences erroneously bark, "You got low self-esteem!" to wannabe players who deny paternity while promoting their escort service. Our celebrity culture runs on a parallel track with our ever-expanding sense of entitlement wherein self-esteem slogans preach each and every one of us is special just for being alive. The goal is to be recognized.
The self-esteem-building maxim of childhood, "I'm special because I have the ability to be so," has morphed into, "I can do whatever I want because I'm special and I’m special because I say so." This inability to discern "unique" (like fingerprints) from "special" (which denotes a value judgment) adds to the hypocrisy that threatens our capacity to empathize with others.8
Empathy is needed for our species to survive. Biologically, we were not made to live alone; we depend on each other for survival and our brains tell us how to do this. The human brain begins adapting to survive relationships as soon as the infant begins recognizing her own needs. Bruce Perry wrote, "The neural systems which allow us to create relationships—and think, feel, and act—are the product of the interactive, dynamic processing taking place during the history of each individual. These neural systems, then, are created, organize and change in response to experience throughout the life-cycle."9
A study at the University of Chicago hypothesized that adolescents diagnosed with Conduct Disorder (aggression, manipulative lying, theft, sexual assault, bullying, running away, and property destruction) responded differently to the pain of other people. Functional MRI tests were performed while subjects watched video clips of people being hurt, either accidentally or intentionally. In those adolescents diagnosed with Conduct Disorder (CD), the pleasure centers of the brain lit up and, "When observing pain intentionally caused by another there was no activation in adolescents with CD in the neural regions that contribute to self-regulation and metacognition (including moral reasoning)…" Simply, they felt little or no empathy while simultaneously deriving pleasure from witnessing others' pain.10
That pleasure response does not negate the choice of behavior each person makes. The brain automatically and instantaneously tells us what will feel good; our conscience tells us whether the cost is worth the pleasure. Without any sense of empathy informing this cost-benefit analysis, we end up with the question bullies ask: "Can I get away with this without paying a high cost?"
No difference exists if the aggression is physical or emotional; the criteria for the aggressor measures whether they will have to fight. If the aggressor thinks he will have to fight following each assault, he does not step forward. He does not want to fight; he only wants to win (i.e., meet his own emotional needs at the cost of others).
Among groups of people (family, friends, classmates, co-workers), the unspoken rules may allow a rotation of emotionally abusive behavior, shared roles of aggressors and victims, conflicted or mixed messages, and hinted recriminations. When these behaviors cycle within a group, the directive "be nice" can ultimately mean, "Accept a certain amount of pain and guilt and you, too, can dish it out when you have the leverage." Those who refuse to play along within this dynamic, accepting their "share" of guilt, are often seen as having a social-skills deficit.11
Popular culture portrays the adolescent daughter, slamming her bedroom door against her parents' intrusions, screaming, "I didn't ask to be born." Which is true. No child "owes" their parents for being parents. No child should carry a sense of indebtedness for her own birth and caretaking: what other options did the child have? Much like the idea of original sin, where the sinner—born guilty for the sins of all humanity—cannot be forgiven until his deathbed, many children are taught they owe their lives to their parents and are thus in debt forever.
This emotional loan-sharking forces the child to pay the interest on the loan, but never free herself from debt. The adult child who realizes the debt cannot be paid off and then defaults on the loan is perceived as "ungrateful."
To avoid that accusation, generations can each pass the burden of this guilt onto the next: "My mother did this and it was good enough for me...."
Guilt as the primary bond between parents and children will hinder a child's ability to detect manipulations later in life. This may leave her susceptible to other unequal relationships where she feels she must always seek approval and will devalue her self-perception in order to meet the needs of others.
Describing how the brain changes according to a child's experience, Bruce Perry wrote, "Children are not resilient, children are malleable."12 Trauma, neglect, and abuse influence how synapses develop pathways, how neurons fire, how we translate incoming information. The interaction between mother and child is based on reciprocity. Each learns from the other. The baby coos and the mother responds, reflecting the child's affect—he giggles, she giggles; he wiggles his fingers, she wiggles hers. The reciprocity is clear and while pre-verbal, the infant still communicates, influencing the world around him. The baby learns how the caretaker will respond to his emotional needs, and from this, the baby begins generalizing his experiences and defines his world.
The failure to consistently meet the infant's needs (emotional or biological) impacts the child's sense of self long before the pain influences her sense of the outside world. "Unfortunately, the child will interpret this as a product of its own inadequacy," J. Konrad Stettbacher notes. "To realize that it is being neglected in the moment of its need is for the child insupportable."13
To believe, "The people who love me are hurting me," is unacceptable, and the child fights to avoid that realization. Dependent upon others for survival, the child believes the cause of her pain is her own self and she tries to adapt (they must be right, therefore, she is wrong). In response, she minimizes or relabels her own pain: "It's not so bad." Pain is always a signal that something has to change—how we respond to that pain reflects what we've learned across our lifespan.
Similarly, the victim of emotional abuse thinks, "If I were better, they wouldn't do this to me," rather than, "This other person is causing me pain and if she doesn't stop, she has to exit my life." No infant has the ability to make that distinction—they blame themselves in order to hopefully fit the caregiver, alleviate the pain, and preserve that bond.
In extreme cases, no bond is created and the infant's lack of confidence in the environment develops into a suspicion of hypocrisy across all relationships. When a tiny human learns his needs will never be met and his efforts to connect throughout childhood are in vain, he may ultimately decide, "I'm not one of you," and in this adaptation, he learns human relationships are not created by reciprocity, but only power.
Carl Panzram gave us one of the clearest views into the dynamics of power long before serial killers became a subcategory of celebrity. Panzram learned from a young age that people would do to him what they wanted if they could get away with it. Writing from prison, he saw no reason to reform: "I would not reform if the front gate were opened right now and if I was given a million dollars when I stepped out. I have no desire to do good or to be good. I am just as mean now as I can be, and the only reason I am no worse is because I lack the power and the proper opportunity for meanness. If I had the power and the opportunities, then I would soon show you what real meanness was."14
Before being sentenced to death in 1929, Panzram killed 22 people and promised himself he would never be a hypocrite like those who raised him in the orphanages, training schools, and prisons. Satisfied with what he became, he made certain the world would not accept him.
"You caused me to do this," Seung Hui Cho informed us of his final act at Virginia Tech, mailing off his missive between shootings. "You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today." Journalists later found the killer suffered a lifetime of mockery at being an outsider but none found any friends or acquaintances who could inform the bloggers of his proper first name.15
Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris, far from the Columbine "loners" they were originally portrayed as, were unable to define their own lives, but attempted to participate in the cultural hierarchy of the school. Unsuccessful, like Cho, they calcified their status as outcasts.16
The child who cannot fit in, who cannot find reciprocity with the world, and who perceives life as an "all or nothing" gambit, doesn't always erupt in a narcissistic or psychotic rage. The overwhelming majority of victims do not blame the entire world for their pain, but blame only themselves and contain the hurt, anger, and disappointment in order to maintain a relationship with others.
The more vital that relationship is to the victim, the less clear the imposition of the aggressor becomes. The victim adapts to the aggressor, blocking painful feelings and remaining confused about encroaching depression. The more desperate a person is to be accepted, the more pain he is willing to accept.17 Often the cost of that acceptance is the ability to identify one's own feelings.
Alice Miller describes a prototypical response of the emotionally abused child: "He cannot rely on his own emotions, has not come to experience them through trial and error, has no sense of his own real needs, and is alienated from himself to the highest degree. Under these circumstances he cannot separate from his parents, and even as an adult he is still dependent upon affirmation from his partner, from groups, or especially from his own children."18
Unable to acknowledge their own feelings, victims struggle with a discomfort that can't easily be assuaged or diagnosed because they also sense that they're still, somehow, doing something wrong. D.W. Winnicott wrote of these victims, "who feel that in some way or other this makes them feel unreal... that in order to establish a sense of feeling real, they become uncomfortable members of society; you can see them almost deliberately doing badly and disappointing everybody."19
That sense of unreality, an inability to define one's self, represents a facet of the rigid "all or nothing" thinking that doesn't result in a murderous rage, but an equally painful sense of self-loathing that cannot be reconciled with a hypocritical world in which one wishes to belong.
Some families do not, by choice, protect their own, but still declare their behavior counts as "love" only due to the type of relationship. ("I'm your mother, you have to love me no matter what I do.") The concept of "unconditional love" ends up wrongly defined by shared DNA and nothing more—as if love can exist without correlating behavior.
Unconditional relationships do not exist between adults, though people often mislabel intimate or passionate relationships as such. Unconditional love cannot be "earned" and cannot be measured with tallies or trades: "If you do this for me, I'll do that for you," and conversely, "I did that, you must do this...," which creates obligations and guilt—not gratitude—for the person at the receiving end of the passive ultimatum.
Often that person dependent on the relationship is the child with no autonomy. But in adult relationships, autonomy dissipates when any person is trying to "catch up" to the other, to "earn" their way out of the debtor's obligations. Children have little or no autonomy and if unconditional love is meant for any, it should be for them. Unconditional love allows a person the opportunity to reciprocate, but it does not demand they feel obligated by guilt, tally, or debt.
In Heart Transplant, the boy, Sean, presents a negative-mirror image of Pop's biological son; Sean could do nothing to earn the unconditional love of his mother, and Pop’s biological son could not kill the love of his mother, Pop's beloved Maggie, though she died continuously pouring all emotional resources into a bottomless vessel. Just as Sean was willing to grab onto any affection available, Pop's biological son felt he himself deserved every ounce he could drain from others, and when one source went dry, he found another.
Pop curses the corpse of his biological son in the moment he adopts Sean. He didn't see the adoption as an obligation, but a chance to be a father, possibly to make amends to his Maggie, who unconditionally kept protecting their son who couldn't or wouldn't reciprocate. Why Pop adopts Sean is not explained, but his anger over his wife's death cannot be ignored. He describes her mistakes with the boy, but not his own, and blames his son's narcissism for Maggie's death.
Unconditional love is a sacrifice that becomes a gestalt. Pop's bond to Sean possibly saves two lives. He begins the titular "heart transplant" by bearing witness to the boy's pain, providing the most concise definition of empathy: "It hurts me, too."
Prior to meeting the man he came to call "Pop," Sean taught himself how to numb the pain; a beating from mom's boyfriend didn't physically hurt him. Numbing the pain—telling himself it didn't hurt—teaches him to accept the hypocrisy of a world he does not trust and prepares him for later victimization. Silently repeating the abusers' taunts began the development of a pain tolerance that only displaced, but never erased, the pain.
Sean's definition of himself evolves within the bond created between him and Pop. No longer is the boy scared of losing the fragile connection he had to others. No longer does he dream of the fantasy father. He eventually refuses to accept the definitions placed on him by classmates, his mother, and her last boyfriend. His bravery is not in physically defending himself at school; brawling is easy. Many adults would rather take on a barroom of knife-wielding assailants than take one moment to assess their own feelings. Pop asks his son to perform the difficult task: honestly acknowledge his own pain.
Acknowledging pain is the vital first step in any self-defense. Acknowledging "what hurts" defines our boundaries and our relationships. The young boy's bravery grew not from throwing a punch or taking a beating, but from his willingness to acknowledge emotional pain and, from that point, fight against "only words."
If the first step is to acknowledge pain; the second step demands conflict. The aggressor does not want conflict, does not want to pay a cost to meet his own needs.
The dynamics of emotional abuse require that victims ignore their own pain to meet the aggressor's needs.
Emotional abuse demands adult victims remain malleable, ever-shifting to fit the aggressor's needs, while conversely demanding children remain resilient, able to absorb any pain without complaint.
If we expect children to be resilient, they will not be so as adults. As adults, they will be malleable, always susceptible to aggressors.
If a victim can recognize the camouflage of abusers who he is "supposed" to trust and "should" love, if he can recognize the feeling of being engulfed by another's narcissism, then he has the resiliency to emotionally defend himself. If a victim can decide whom to trust and then act on those decisions, the fallout will repel aggressors.
Resiliency acknowledges the world is not an "all or nothing" proposition. Resiliency acknowledges that everyone will have conflict—emotional or physical—throughout his or her life. Resiliency acknowledges there will be a cost. The former victim may lose a "friend," may "cause problems," and may even be perceived as "not nice." These may seem like monumental challenges, but if the victim's own self-diminishment does not eliminate the pain, he must, logically, look outside of himself for the cause of the pain.
Doing so lifts the burden the victim assigned himself, but also presents a hard decision: to define one's self, there is a cost. Accepting that cost separates "us" from "them," for "they"—the aggressors—always measure risk and reward, remaining unwilling to fight, but only win.
The courage to withstand those conflicts is necessary. We must be willing to accept conflict, win or lose, to begin creating our own self-definitions.
A different version of this essay originally appeared in Heart Transplant by Andrew Vachss and Frank Caruso (Dark Horse, 2010). Text and art has been reprinted with permission of the authors. "Emotional Abuse: The Rules of Engagement" © 2010, 2012 Zak Mucha. All rights reserved.
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