At the gym yesterday, there was a man near me who was using his headset to have a phone conversation. Hearing the one-sided discussion about inane business matters made me irrationally angry. I kept trying to tune him out, to let the music and other voices drown out his, but my attention kept being drawn back to him.
Science has studied this phenomenon and has confirmed that we find one-sided conversations particularly distracting. It’s proposed that this is because our brains detest a void and so they are working overtime in an attempt to piece together the missing part of the exchange.
I partially credit this fact with my obsession of having my voice heard after abandonment. It felt like an important conversation, interrupted. He said his piece and my brain was desperate to fill in the response. When all of my attempts at establishing a dialog were ignored, I became desperate to be heard.
I was first asked to write a victim impact statement by the district attorney’s office in association with the bigamy charge. I actually had to have my mom help with the first iteration, as I was not yet able to articulate the extent of the emotional, financial and physical fallout of his actions.
I was more prepared for the second impact statement, part of the required documentation by the IRS for Innocent Spouse Relief. As I composed the statement, I imagined I was speaking to my ex-husband. As I detailed his egregious acts, I started to feel a little better as my reply to his side of the conversation was recorded. And when the federal government validated my response by grating me relief, I felt even better still.
Not all victims are recognized by the legal system and given the opportunity to compose a victim impact statement. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t choose to write one yourself.
When you have been victimized, there is a power imbalance at play. You feel like you’ve been disregarded, disrespected and even dismissed. A victim impact statement is a way of taking back some of that power. Of saying, “I have a voice and my voice matters.”
An impact statement both highlights the injustices committed and describes the impact that those acts have had upon you. It gives you the space to say, “What you did was not okay and it hurt me.”
Being victimized often carries with it some shame. Abuse flourishes when people are too scared or too embarrassed to speak out. By writing your statement, you are saying, “I have the courage to speak up and take a stand against your behaviors.”
And finally, composing a victim impact statement can be the first, critical, step of taking ownership over your own life again. It’s a way of saying, “You hurt me, but you did not silence me. You harmed me, but you cannot stop me. You tried to keep me down, but I will rise again, stronger and even better than before.”
In some ways, this blog and my books have become an extension of my own victim impact statements. My way of refusing to be silenced.
Unless you’ve been there, you simply cannot understand how well a covert abuser can lie. The stories are so cunningly crafted and so expertly delivered that even the professionals can be fooled. It’s one of the harder – and more frustrating – parts of emerging from this type of relationship, as you feel like nobody else gets what you went through or even believes what you are saying.
These manipulators all seem to follow common scripts and utilize similar tactics. These are the ones that I repeatedly see:
1 – They Choose Someone With Integrity
My ex knew from the beginning that I’m terrible at lying. In fact, I’m so bad at it that I would make him say “no” to an invite that we weren’t interested in and it was his role to return items to the store because I was too uncomfortable to say that it didn’t fit instead of, “It’s ugly.”
Covert abusers seek out honest people. They look for those with loyalty and integrity. Those positive traits are exactly what the abuser needs because those people will believe the best about their partners and don’t readily assume deceit.
2 – They Stay Close to the Truth
When my ex was in Brazil on his honeymoon, he claimed that he was working a car show. The exact same show that he worked the previous year. It was only later that I discovered that this particular dealer was no longer even a client of his. But I no reason to doubt his claim at the time, as it fit neatly into my expectations.
The best liars stay close to the truth. Not only does this make their stories more plausible, it also makes it more difficult for them to get their storylines mixed up. They may give you partial truths, leaving out critical information. Or they may replace certain facts while keeping the basic tale consistent.
3 – They Provide Plentiful Details
My ex walked into the kitchen with a MacBook box under his arm. And apparently with a story under his belt. For the next thirty minutes, he detailed how there was a raffle at the job fair (yes, he was unemployed) for a computer. He initially didn’t want to enter, because he didn’t think he’d win and he didn’t want to receive the endless ads that accompany such events. Finally, he said, he decided to throw his card in before he left. He was already in his car, three intersections away, when his phone rang and he learned he won. Except, years later, I found the charge for that very computer on a credit card statement.
Good fabricators use details to make their stories more believable and to distract from any implausibility. They use their words to paint a picture and to envelope you in its imagery.
4 – They Elicit Your Sympathy
On that same Brazil trip, I received a short voicemail where my husband told me he had been stricken by food poisoning. He sounded terrible and, even more worrying to me, he sounded concerned about his situation. Unable to get through to him, I began to panic. For the next two days, I was so consumed with worry for him that I hardly thought of anything else.
Covert abusers like to make you feel sorry for them. Because as long as you’re sympathetic, you’re not suspicious. Additionally, these manipulators really do often see themselves as the victim and believe that life has not been fair to them.
5 – They Utilize Supporting Evidence
After my ex’s arrest for bigamy, I found a copy of his car insurance card in the center console of his vehicle. There was only one problem. The space where my name was on the electronic copy of the PDF, was blank on his card. He had Photoshopped my name off my card so as not to arouse the suspicions of his other wife.
Good manipulators do not only rely on words. They will use evidence, either gathered or fabricated, to support their claims. They understand that a little goes a long way here. If you have “proof” of one piece, you’re more likely to go along with the rest.
6 – They Employ Distractions
When interest rates dropped in the mid 2000s, we had agreed to refinance the house. He brought the paperwork to my work and had somebody cover my class so that I could sign the papers. All the while I was signing, he was trying to engage me in a conversation he was having with one of my coworkers. I was so distracted by the environment and the circumstances, that I never realized that the paperwork didn’t specify the terms that we had previously discussed.
It’s an old trick, but an effective one. When you’re busy looking at one thing, you can’t focus on another. Deceivers are experts at this technique and they make sure that you’re always looking exactly where they want you to. And then they take advantage while you’re gaze is turned elsewhere.
7 – They Use Gaslighting
Once my ex was arrested, he turned the gaslighting up to “high,” claiming that we had been divorced for years and that I was just having trouble accepting it. He painted me as vindictive and greedy and “impossible to live with.” In other words, he tried to make me look crazy in an attempt to escape from his lies.
Covert abusers are experts at, “You didn’t see that” and “I never said that.” By making you question yourself, you get so lost that you refrain from questioning them. And even when they are caught, they will continue to lie and deny. After all, at some point it became their most fluent language.
For the prior thirty hours that had elapsed after my former husband disappeared with a text, I was still making excuses for him. He must be depressed. Or acting impulsively. He’ll come to his senses soon and we’ll discuss what’s going on. I still believed in him.
And then I saw the bank statement.
Days before, I was with my dad and his wife almost 3,000 miles away from my home when my debit card was declined at lunch. Shocked and concerned, since my calculations had the balance well into the black, I texted my husband. He seemed to as surprised as I was and told me he was pulling up the account on his computer as we talked since my flip phone wasn’t up to the task.
“Oh, crap,” he grumbled, “Southeast Toyota did it again.” Only there were a few more expletives involved. He went on to explain that they had pulled his car payment out of the account four times that day, an apparent glitch in the automatic payment system. “Let me call you right back.”
Twenty minutes later, he phoned and related the news that Toyota would fix the error and return the funds but that it would be three business days before they were available.
It just so happened that my husband disappeared three days later.
After making my way back across the country and into the shell of my marital home, I pulled up the joint checking account (after resetting the password that he had apparently changed).
Southeast Toyota had never made an error. My husband had made a choice.
My card was declined because my recent paycheck went towards buying another woman’s engagement ring.
And that’s when it hit me.
Anything that I thought was real through my husband’s words or actions was suddenly suspect.
And somehow in the midst of his fiction, I needed to find my own truth.
Gaslighting surrounds you with lies, trapping you in web of deception and clouding your vision of your own reality. Make no mistake, even with no iron bars and no locks on the doors, gaslighting is a trap. The prison is initially woven from the words of another, yet it eventually keeps bound by your own beliefs.
And that’s the true danger of gaslighting. Because even if the one responsible is removed, the web remains. And that’s when the work of clearing away the debris and finding your own truth begins.
After gaslighting, your vision of your world and even yourself is clouded and distorted. Over time, you have begun to rely less on your own senses and beliefs and more on those of another. You doubt yourself, question yourself. Do I believe this because it’s real or because I’ve been told that it’s real?
Removing the gaslighter from your life is only the first step in recovering from this type of emotional abuse. The next step is evicting them from your head. Only then can you begin the process of rediscovering and trusting your own truth. Here are five empowering ways to begin this journey.
Narcissism has gone from the relative anonymity of Latin mythology or the contents of the DSM to mainstream headlines. Much of this increased awareness is helpful to those who have been affected by narcissistic abuse, but there are some downsides to be aware of.
The PROS of the increased awareness about narcissistic abuse:
Helps You Find Your Community
“I’m not alone,” is usually the first response when somebody first finds others have a story as twisted and crazy-making as their own.
I know I felt that way. I was certainly no stranger to divorce when my ex left, but the template followed by other parting spouses was meaningless when applied to my ex. He not only disregarded the rules, he kept making up new ones at every turn.
I felt so alone. So isolated in my experience.
Until I first stumbled upon a community taking about sociopathic behavior. And I read stories from others who had experience with people like my ex. I remember feeling giddy with the discovery, flying down the stairs and announcing to my friend, “I’m not the only one!”
When I thought I was the only person that had been subjected to the upside-down world of covert abuse, I took the entire experience personally. I believed that I was the target of, and the purpose for, his twisted lies.
Once I learned more about narcissistic and other similar traits, I started to see the common patterns and understand that these behaviors occur no matter who is in their way. And once I understood the universal nature of the favored tools of manipulation and control, I started to feel less like a target and more like collateral damage.
It’s interesting how the term “gaslighting” is rarely known until it is lived.
Once you find yourself in the world of recovery from narcissistic abuse, you’ll learn the language that describes your experience. Maybe for the first time, you’ll be able to put words to what you lived through.
And there is something so powerful about assigning a name to something – it begins to give you some dominion over your experience. And having some semblance of control after emotional abuse is a powerful and healing feeling.
Reassures You That You’re Not Crazy
So many people who have been affected by a narcissist refer to their story as, “Hollywood.” That’s because the character(s) and the plot twists are often so extreme that they should only exist in a movie.
And yet they’re real. Fiction crashing into real life. The resulting debris can make you feel as though you’re crazy, like you don’t have a grip on reality and you’re living in some hellish limbo between worlds. Finding out about the characteristics of narcissistic abuse can provide welcome reassurance that you’re not crazy and that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
Gives a Framework For Understanding
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome after suffering from narcissistic abuse is how to handle the internal questions –
Once assigned, the label of “narcissist” gives a framework for beginning to understand these seemingly unanswerable questions. As you study, you learn about the gaping holes within a narcissist and how they strive to fill them. You glean some insight into their lack of empathy and their attempts to manipulate and deceive those around them. You still can’t quite grasp it (nor do you really want to be able to understand that frame of mind), but you feel like you have at least some comprehension about how and why this happened.
Offers Tools and Ideas For Recovery
When you’re dealing with a narcissist, the normal rules of engagement do not apply. It can leave you feeling isolated and hopeless as you try to navigate back to yourself. The increased awareness of narcissistic abuse gives you signs and even guides that can help you find your way.
This is perhaps the greatest gift of the expanded insight into this phenomena – the creation of an informal database of ideas and strategies to help you recover from the covert abuse. Breadcrumbs left from those who have been there to help you find your way through the darkness.
The CONS of the increased awareness about narcissistic abuse:
Can Encourage a Narrow Focus
Imagine you’ve been hit by a car. You’ve survived, but you have some serious injuries that will require months, if not years, of rehabilitation and therapy. How much of your time are you going to spend researching the make and model of the car that hit you? And much of your energy are you going to dedicate to your own healing?
Once a label of “narcissist” has been assigned, it can be tempting to act like you’re writing a doctoral thesis on the disorder, researching and analyzing every last detail and interaction. Yet energy is finite. If you’re focusing it on the narcissist, how much are you leaving towards your own recovery?
Furthermore, it can be concerning when laypeople conclude a psychiatric diagnosis without formal training or clinical diagnostic instruments. It often ignores the role that addiction can play in the appearance of personality disorders and it may confuse other similar or overlapping conditions. The label of “narcissist,” when informally applied, is better used as a construct for understanding than a definitive diagnosis.
May Promote Victimhood
When something so life-altering happens, it’s easy for it to become your identity. To begin to see yourself – and project yourself – as the victim of a narcissist. And yes, you have borne the brunt of the narcissist’s attack. You have weathered the emotional abuse. Yet you are more than what was done to you.
One of the problems with labels – any labels – is that we try to use them to describe the entirety of a person or situation when really they are simply a type of shorthand. The quandary with the term “narcissist” is that the other side of the coin is “victim.” And that’s not what you are. You’re a survivor who is going to use what happened to become better and stronger and wiser and more compassionate.
The Community Can Become Enabling
Support communities for narcissistic abuse (or for anything really) can cross the line from helpful to enabling. This happens when the focus becomes on the stories, each person competing for the “Most Likely to Become a Soap Opera” award. It occurs when victims are overly coddled and encouragement to move forward is lacking. And it happens when the shared identity becomes more “victim” than “yeah, this happened but I am the driver of my life and I’m not going to let this detour keep me off course for long!”
The needs of narcissistic abuse survivors evolve over time. At first, the primary needs are the reassurance that you’re not alone and the almost compulsive drive to tell your story. As the shock begins to fade and the rawness of the wound begins to scab, there is a need for understanding and hope. Often around this time, encouragement (even in the form of some tough love), may be needed to move through the events of the past. A healthy community provides support for those at every stage and discourages people from staying in the early phase for too long.
Can Distract From Personal Responsibility
The abuse you endured is not your fault. You did not deserve what happened to you and you are not the cause of what happened to you. I am so sorry that you’ve been thrust into this nightmare against your will and that now you’re struggling to heal from the inflicted psychic wounds. It sucks. It’s not fair. And it’s something that you will never forget.
The narcissist’s issues are theirs to deal with (or not, as they tend to do). Their choices, and the associated consequences, are theirs to own.
I’m having a big old trigger attack today. My heart is racing. My gut, nauseous. My brain is split between two years – 2009 and today.
And all because I bought a computer.
This one’s going to require a little back story.
In the suicide note (He’s still alive, as far as I know. Go here to learn more) that my ex left to his other wife and my mother, he described how I always needed the latest and the greatest. He painted me as needy, whiney and horrible with money.
That statement was far from true. Not only was it gaslighting, it was projection. My ex bought an iPhone months after they were first released. Had a first generation Kindle. And always had multiple Apple computers, each one the top of the line at the time.
He always justified the computers by saying they were for work. In the final few years, he was supposedly using them for graphic design. Although since I learned that most of his “income” came from credit cards (including ones in my name), I now doubt that the machines did much more than run World of Warcraft.
When he left, I gathered up a few belongings and escaped to my friend’s house. One of my excerpts from my old life was a tired MacBook Pro that my ex had deemed too slow for his purposes. This machine held me until 2012 (even though I wanted to vomit every time I saw his name as the computer’s “owner”).
At that time, I was writing and needed a basic machine for that and for school purposes. I bought the cheapest Mac I could find – a two-year-old refurbished 11″ Air. And it felt good. I paid cash and I had a machine that was all mine. And it didn’t trigger me because the old one was really quite dead and the new one was bargain basement.
But now is different.
My little MacBook Air is still chugging along for writing. But as my eyes get worse and my writing and curriculum projects more numerous, the small screen has become a challenge. The memory struggles to manage working with images or even MathType (not good for a math teacher). And the clincher? iMovie won’t even pretend to function anymore.
I knew it was time for an upgrade. I looked at my budget and made a conservative plan to purchase a desktop this winter once I could save up enough to pay cash.
But then this morning, frustrated with a movie idea I couldn’t act upon and dreading the final edit of my book on a minuscule screen, I decided to see if I could act early.
I logged on to the Apple page, navigated to the educator section (woo hoo for teacher discounts!) and selected the machine I wanted for my purposes. I then clicked on “special financing” and noted that, if approved, I could get 18 months with no interest. And the monthly payment would be well within reach.
I called my husband to talk through the idea of buying now. He was wonderfully supportive, both emotionally and financially.
I decided to pull the trigger.
And now I feel sick.
In my head, I hear my ex’s voice whining about I always need the lastest and the greatest. And this time, I didn’t buy used or the cheapest model. Although it’s still FAR from the top of the line.
When my parents both noted that I am a writer and that a computer is a key tool of my trade, I hear my ex’s excuses that he “needed” his computers for work. And I think about how I could continue to scrape by with the old one.
With another credit card in my name (and ONLY my name), I’m reminded again of all the debt my ex racked up and left me with.
I know this is different than his spending. I CAN afford this. I’m NOT hiding the purchase. I WILL pay this off before the grace period ends. And I DO need this (and no, not for shooting warlocks).
Yet the damn gaslighting is still doing a number on me. Between trying to prove his stupid voice wrong and having to live so lean while I paid off his debt, I have a really hard time spending money. Especially on technology. And even more so on a Mac.
It just feels too close to what he claimed I was. And I feel like I have to climb my way out of his mind games yet again. And added to it now is the fact that I’m angry at myself for reacting this way. I should be happy I can do this. I should be excited for the new machine. I should be past this shit already.
For tonight, hot yoga. There will most likely be tears. Of anger. Of confusion. Of gratitude. Of relief.
And tomorrow, when that box shows up at my door, I hope that I can be excited for today and leave yesterday in the past.