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Getting inside the head of the abusive mentality

By Steve Becker, LCSW, CH.T

Editor’s note: The author has a private psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and clinical consulting practice in New Jersey, USA. For more information, visit his website, powercommunicating.com.

Let’s get inside the head of the abusive mentality. But first let’s define abuse. Abuse in a relationship reflects a pattern(s) of behavior that is manifestly (or passive-aggressively) bullying, demeaning, manipulative, intimidating, threatening, coercive, and/or restrictively controlling.

The key word is pattern. Most non-abusive individuals perpetrate insensitivities from time to time that may be experienced as abusive. This may make the behavior abusive. But it is the pattern of behaviors that makes the individual abusive.

What do we know about abusive personalities? We know that they are controlling. Then again, aren’t most of us controlling at times? Sometimes very? What, then, separates your garden variety controlling personality from an abusively controlling personality? The answer, fundamentally, is motive. Where the motive is to coerce—to remind one’s partner who’s in charge—this suggests the machinations of the abusive mentality.

What else do we know about abusers? We know that underlying their “requests” is often the lurking threat, “Cooperate with me…or else!” The subtext is, “You don’t want to disappoint me. Consequences will follow from your disappointing me!” In other words, appeals that may seem reasonable on the surface are often, beneath the surface, less appeals than warnings, demands.

Let me stress: Abusive individuals rarely makes requests. More often, they make demands disguised as requests. When you frustrate their demands, you are defying them. There is no middle ground: either you are cooperative and accomodating, or else perceived as defiant. Their thinking goes something like this:

I’m asking you to stop hanging out with that guy.

Translation: I demand that you stop hanging out with that guy. I expect you to meet my demand. Less than your full compliance with my demand means that you are defying me, Your defiance of me is punishable.

The abusive person, in this case, doesn’t just want things; he or she feels entitled to what he or she wants. Again, the thinking:

I want.

Translation: I must have. I’m entitled to have!

As in all narcissistic/sociopathic disturbances, an inflated self-entitlement informs, indeed drives, the abusive mentality. Not only do abusers feel entitled to what they want, but also how they want it, and when and where they want it.

Merely by virtue of their wanting it, abusive individuals will feel automatically entitled to your cooperation, undivided attention, compassion, tolerance, respect, compliance, admiration, you name it. And because they feel entitled to these things, they feel they don’t have to earn any of them.

This, of course, is the very nature of entitlement. Theirs are unearned privileges, yet their unearned status in no way diminishes the abusers’ perceived right to them.

The abuser’s rage feeds off his or her sense of entitlement. He or she thinks:

I want this.

Translation: I am entitled to it. You owe me what I’m entitled to. If you withhold it, I’m entitled to be enraged. In my entitled rage, I’m not responsible for my destructive, abusive response!

The abusive clients with whom I’ve worked are consistently stubborn, dug-in rationalizers. They chronically see themselves as victims. Their sense of themselves as victims is deeply entrenched and invested. They may feel “the victim” of many, many things, including being inconvenienced.

It is from their self-engendered victim status that blame flows so naturally; from blame, the anger/rage; from the anger/rage, the rationalization of aggressive/abusive responses.

It’s also the case that once abusive individuals have established a pattern of their self-perceived victimization, their threshold for feeling subsequently victimized decreases; now, it takes less and less for them to feel victimized, perhaps only a minor disappointment or frustration. This is why many abusive individuals can find almost any basis to complain, to feel slighted, thereby tripping (and licensing) their abusiveness.

Abusive individuals, at bottom, feel entitled not to be burdened by whatever feels burdensome to them. It is your job, your responsibility, to alleviate their burden. Your failure to do so, from their self-centered perspective, is an abdication of your duty, a form of betrayal.

Not surprisingly, many abusive individuals tend to think in paranoid and problematically rigid ways. They tend to rigidly attribute malice to those who disappoint them. Deploying spectacular powers of rationalization and projection, they see themselves ironically (and, of course, conveniently) habitually as victim—as the betrayed, exploited party—a warped perception that ratchets up their anger, lubricating their impending abusive response.

Sometimes underlying abandonment issues (including borderline personality disorder) fuel the possessive/controlling behaviors of abusive individuals. In such cases, their thinking chain goes something like this:

Don’t leave me.

Translation: Alone, I am nothing! For this reason, you can’t leave me! If you leave me, you will be defying me. If you defy me, I’ll make you pay!

Here again we see how the abusive individual automatically codifies the failure of a partner’s compliance as “defiance,” which, in the abuser’s eyes, justfies the forthcoming mean, vindictive, abusive response.

From a gender standpoint it is clear that men have no patent on abuse. Women, like men, can be abusive in their relationships—to their partners, children and others. But men are better leveraged, in general, to exercise their abuse more harshly and dangerously, if for no other reason than their comparative physical strength advantage over women. There are many exceptions to this rule; but the rule holds as a generality. Accordingly, you’ll find more women seeking (and desperately needing) shelter from abusive men than men from abusive women.

What percentage of abusive individuals are out and out sociopaths? There is disagreement on this question. Clearly many abusive personalities meet the criteria for sociopathic personality, and many who don’t nevertheless share with the sociopath the alarming tendency (in their actively abusive states) to view others as objects whose principal purpose on earth is to meet their needs, however excessive, inappropriate, unilateral and selfish.

In other words, at the heart of both relationship abuse and sociopathy is an exploitative process in which one individual’s utter, contemptuous lack of respect for another enables the former’s self-justified exploitation/abuse of the latter.

In this sense, when abusive individuals are unleashing their abusiveness, they are objectifying, and demeaning, their victims in much the same (if not identical) way as sociopaths.



103 Comments on "Getting inside the head of the abusive mentality"

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  1. JaneSmith says:

    Odette,

    Yeah, OxD has a gift in being able to truly empathize with everyone’s tragic experiences. She helped me months before I started blogging on LF. But she knows that already as I’ve told her that constantly…haha.

    And I wish I could express to you as wisely, and eloquently as she does in her comments how much compassion I also feel for the pain and suffering your poor, loving, generous heart is going through at this time.

    Please realize that we are here for you and will read, listen, hear, and understand you any time, day or night.

  2. takingmeback says:

    Henry,

    What a beautiful post! I loved what you wrote! You have such great meaning in this world and I’m excited to hear that you’re shinning your light for all to see and didn’t let the “darkness” of an S take that away from you! As the light surrounds you as you heal I hope that you know that your light has been shining all along in your posts and bringing great things to all of us!

    Oxy,

    I can breathe a sigh of relief here. It is so good to see you posting today! You had me worried. I can’t put into words how much your posts help me and how much I look forward to reading them. God bless.

    Gillian,

    God help me as I have never been good at keeping my mouth shut. Please know that what I have to share is written out of love and for some food for thought for EVERYONE. I am choosing to specifically write this to you as I feel that I can relate to the hurt that I hear in your posts.

    I truly hope that what occured between you and Oxy is over. I have no desire to rehash anything as you’re both truly valuable women who deserve to be respected. But I choose not to be silent on this one as I hope that by sharing my observations and experience that something good might come of it for someone along the way.

    I don’t know specific details except what I read posted on this thread. I don’t need to know the details to hear that two people got their feelings hurt. As with all of us, I too have been hurt a lot in this lifetime and the ways that I’ve chosen to respond to the hurt- well some ways have been effective and some have hurt me more.

    Gilllian, I read your last two posts on this thread and I say this gently but I feel that you have done the very thing you said you dislike. You may not even recognize it. I know because I have done the same thing before. No one likes an apology with a “but’ attached to it. That is true. Intentional or not it somehow invalidates the apology. Yet quite honestly I heard you do the same thing in your post where you said you understood there was no ill intent “but” then went on to imply that Oxy should have known not to call you “dear” and “of all people” should have understood your boundaries and respected them. As much as you I hear you say that you feel she invalidated and disrespected you, you did the same to her. In as much as you feel she contradicted herself, unfortunately so did you. It does no good to say you understand and then place more blame. In as much as it does no good to apologize with a “but”.

    I think we all get tempted to explain ourselves at times to show that our intent wasn’t harmful or to tell why we did what we did. Yet an apology pretty much sums that up. It’s not saying that we didn’t have good intent, it’s just saying that I respect that what I did offended you intentional or not. It took me a long time to realize this for myself. I have done the “apology… but” thing before. I have also been on the receiving line as well.

    For all of us who’ve dealt with the PDIs in our lives I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I’m not the only one who felt a need to repeatedly explain my very existence. PDIs don’t understand what is “typical” or “normal” behavior as they function differently than we do. As a result, they take offense to anything that in their distorted perception is a slight against them. That is a very painful thing to experience as we end up justifying what was “normal” in what we did. Justifying what didn’t need justification and being put on the defensive over and over again until we were made to feel as if something were wrong with us.

    My experience taught me that I do not need to explain myself to the world at every turn. It is my choice on whether or not to do so. This took me some time to realize after my experience with the S. Nobody really got what I had been through and I even felt a need to explain myself repeatedly and jusitfy why I was struggling so much even after the S was gone from my life. What a nightmare! Does anyone relate?

    I had to eventually learn that I didn’t need to do that. I had to understand that I was sensitive if anyone asked me for an explanation or seemed to hold me in unfair judgment from what happened to me or if they did something that hurt me. A word, an expression, etc. Actually I say sensitive but for awhile it made me angry and anxious as it triggered my experience with the S.

    For me, I had to find that validation in myself and from God. I had to put up boundaries with others that struck a nerve for some reason. Like someone calling you “dear” Gillian. But I also had to understand that my reaction to those triggers and things I disliked was my responsibility. I could not expect others to understand. Even if they’ve had a similar experience. That understanding was part of my recovery. I had to tell myself that no one was intentionally trying to hurt me even if I was hurt by their misunderstandings or words.

    The bottomline is that I know who I am, God knows who I am and that’s all that matters. Many of us are on that journey of figuring out who we are again and perhaps take things to heart based on our experiences. I have come to the understanding that I no longer NEED to justify my existence to anyone or hold onto the hurt I felt by any misunderstandings that occured along the way. If I justify anything it is by CHOICE.

    I also realized that I didn’t need to chastise others for not doing what I asked regarding boundaries or of what felt like them making light out of them. They didn’t and don’t mean to hurt me. The realization of all this came when I started to see myself do things that resembled my ex. I’m NOT suggesting that anyone here has done this but this was a big part of my recovery. I wonder if anyone else has experienced anything similar.

    For example, twice I said to my ex, “I love you more” in response to his statement “I love you”. Now this was a cutesy, harmless little game my good friend and my family and I sometimes do. The “I love you more”, “no love you more” thing. It is intended to be endearing and not a competition in the least. Woooo, bad thing to say to an S! I remember him yelling at me months later that he had told me he didn’t like it and I kept saying it over and over again. I said it once and he told me he didn’t like it. I accidentally said it once more out of habit, caught it and apologized IMMEDIATELY before he even said anything. I NEVER said it again. But to him it’s as if I said it every day. He wouldn’t let go of it and held onto something that I consider quite small. To hear him rage about it you would have thought that I had done something tragic. Of course, all the huge things he did were never met with an apology or any change in behavior. What he did was tragic but there I was explaining and defending myself. Ugh!

    The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t want to be like the S- EVER! I don’t want to hold someone accountable and punish them for something they didn’t intend to do. I was on the receiving line of that for far too long. I recall him saying that, “Even if you didn’t intend to hurt me, you did!” So was that justification to punish me relentlessly? Abolutely not. In my recovery I’ve spent a lot of time looking at myself and recognize that I’ve done similar things like that to others before. Not by exaggerating as the histrionic S did or by taking it to such extremes, but I’ve held things against others before for hurting me when they didn’t intend to. Perhaps they didn’t apologize the way I felt they should have, or did something I asked them not to do, etc. Holding on is obviously not letting go. It is freeing to recognize the control we do have to let go and to forgive. That is what makes us who we are and separates us from the Ss of the world. But when we are not settled with ourselves and feel we’re still struggling to get our perspectives back we may end up being overly defensive. I had to catch myself in this and then learn to trust when I needed to put up a boundary after an intentional hurtful action and when I needed to let go.

    I realize that we are all at different places in our recovery and that we have different needs as a result. I hope that as we spend time here on LF we have a safe place to share how we feel and to respect the differences in each other. I intend to continue to read and learn from others and share in hopes that it can help someone else. I hope that both you, Gillian, and Oxy continue to do the same out of love.

    To whomever reads this, thanks for tolerating another novel. God bless.

  3. henry says:

    OXY My above post ( I will hunt you down) sounded kinda predatory, wasn’t meant that way. The time for me to leave here is coming soon, but not yet………!

  4. This is a good time to end this thread. I’ll soon be posting on the discussion that took place here.