Every so often I come across a book that’s not about eating, but whose subject matter may cause us to turn to food for solace. Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse by Shannon Thomas, LCSW is such a book, and I’m grateful that a client recommended it to me. If you’re in any kind of relationship with a toxic person who abuses you psychologically—friend, colleague, family member, lover, spouse, boss, neighbor—you need validation, understanding of the dynamics that are occurring, and practical solutions, all of which this book provides.
Thomas, an abuse survivor, calls hidden abuse “chronic and repetitive secret games being played by an individual, or a group of people against a target. These actions are so well disguised that their venom frequently goes unnoticed” by others while crushing its victim. This happens when someone is “present physically but checked out emotionally,” leaving you feeling invalidated, confused, betrayed, insecure, inadequate, hurt, or incompetent and doubting yourself to the point where your self-trust is eroded.
Toxic people are on a personality disorder continuum—narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths—none of whose basic character will ever change. Their key common trait is lack of empathy for others and, in the case of sociopaths and psychopaths, an inability to feel remorse for harming others, and feeling pleasure inflicting it. Narcissists are more than self-centered. You simply are not on their radar as someone who has needs or feelings of your own, often different from theirs. Sociopaths and psychopaths must always be in psychological control and, to differing degrees, value and enjoy the pain that others suffer at their hands. All are master manipulators and toxic people.
Because most of you are normal and nice, it may be hard to imagine individuals being so heartless, ruthless, or cruel, and that’s why you might get seduced into relationships with them or be unable to physically or emotionally disengage. I’ve had personal and professional experience with all three of these disorders (not by choice, mind you). If ever I’ve doubted that people can be sociopathic, all I need to do is recall a family member, a boss I once had, or look to some of our grandiose world leaders. It’s no use saying to yourself that “he can’t be one” or that “she couldn’t possibly have such a diagnosis.” They are out there in droves doing great damage.
Thomas uses the following descriptions to help you identify hidden abuse patterns:
• Gaslighting: “Setting up situations to make the target doubt their own memories and assessments of situations.” You know full well what you said or did and your abuser intentionally manipulates the conversation to make you mistrust yourself.
• Smear Campaigns: Trying to “turn the opinions of others against” you. The abuser puts you down in front of others or tells lies about you behind your back.
• Flying Monkeys: Like the simian lackeys of The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, these folks ally with or are used by the abuser to put you in a bad light. Some are aware of being abusive and others are in denial about their complicity.
• Narcissistic Offense: Unable to ever tolerate their flaws or faults being pointed out, abusers blow your accusation of a wrong they did out of proportion. They blame you for what they did, deny their flaw or error, or say that you are this way, not them.
• Intermittent Reinforcement: Sometimes the toxic person is nice to you and other times they’re not. This is an intentional cycle engaged in to keep you off balance and hooked into the relationship, always hoping for the “nice person” to reappear.
There is so much more that is educational and enlightening in this book that I strongly encourage you to buy it if any of the above rings true for you.