7 Subtle Signs You Have a Backseat Driver in Your Life

For a long time (okay, even now), when my now-husband would vocalize his opinion about something that he thought would be good for me, I recoiled. It felt almost invasive.

Smothering.

Controlling.

Not because of what he was saying, but because of what I have been through.

My now-husband is direct, expressing his thoughts and feelings overtly and directly (a trait I very consciously looked for the second time around). Sometime I chafe, but I love the fact that it’s all on the table. And even though it’s not always comfortable, I love that he challenges me to defend my decisions and actions because it serves to help make me better.

My former husband was covert, passive aggressive and manipulative in his approach. Unflinchingly supportive on the surface of any thought or action I undertook, while silently steering me in the direction he wanted. He never questioned me, never told me what to do (except to relax while he tackled some chore on his own). His control was subtle, which is exactly why it was so powerful. My defenses were never triggered until it was too late.

The following strategies are commonly used by people who are passively controlling. Those who, rather than overtly take over the wheel of your life, cunningly influence how you turn the wheel. All of these signs can have multiple meanings; on their own they do not indicate control. But when more than one show up along with a sense that boundaries are being crossed, it warrants a closer look.

The tears may be real, but the emotion is not. This trick is learned in infancy, as babies realize how tears can halt punishment and bring attention. Some never abandon this trick and persist in using tears to manipulate those around them. Look out for waterworks that only come when something is desired and seem to halt as soon as the goal is obtained.

Affection and attention are doled out as a distraction and a pacifier. This was my ex’s favored ploy. It sounds crazy to complain about an attentive husband, but when I look back, the affection was increasingly used whenever I came dangerously close to the truth. His great big bear hugs felt protective at the time, now they seem more like a martial arts-style submission.

Decisions are held back. Waiting to make and/or communicate a choice is a particularly crazy-making form of covert control. Everybody else is held in limbo, their own lives and decisions delayed. Doing nothing can carry with a great deal of power when others are depending upon you.

Money is used as a mode of communication. Sometimes finances are used in overt control, such as when one spouse makes all of the financial decisions and doles out an allowance to the other. But it can also be more indirect, such as when purchases are kept hidden or the partner with the higher income feels entitled to make decisions for everyone.

Judgement is passed. This can be direct, “You look like you’re trying too hard when you wear that skirt,” or indirect, pronouncing something unacceptable in someone else. My ex took it a step further and frequently renounced choices and behaviors in others that he was guilty of himself.

The favors and gifts are given with some sort of reciprocity in mind. The stereotypical idea of a wife using sex to get her husband to do things comes to mind here, but it’s by no means the only modality used. Handouts can be used with great efficacy to shape behaviors. After all, there’s a reason we train animals that way.

They accuse you of being controlling. Projection and gaslighting at its finest.

 

In a healthy relationship, each partner challenges theother and accepts influence from the other. It flows both ways, balanced.

When there is controlling behavior present, the interange is not equal. One holds more power than the other.

And when there is a backseat driver, a more passive controller, this inbalance can be difficult to pinpoint.

Control thrives when you’re too close too it, too afraid to see it and unwilling to erect and maintain boundaries.

Take a step back, trust in yourself and practice making decisons by yourself and for yourself.

 

Related:

I Hate Mums

I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own

Subtle Signs You’re Being Manipulated By a Covert Abuser

The Misuse Of Affection

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Five Empowering Ways to Recover From Gaslighting

I’ve written about why gaslighting is the worst. Here’s just a snippet:

It’s horrifying when you realize that the person you love, you trust, has been slowly and intentionally lying and manipulating you. It’s like that nightmare you had when you were 5 where Santa Claus suddenly turned into a monster. Only this monster is real and you shared a bed with them

Of course, if you’ve lived it, you already know that.

So here are five things that you can do now to help you recover and to allow YOUR light to shine bright again!

There’s No Disappear Here (So When Will I Believe It?)

I had another…episode…a couple weeks ago. It was another convoluted mess of abandonment fears, distrust of my perceptions and feelings of not being enough.

In other words, the usual.

Not the usual as in that I usually feel that way. But the usual in that whenever I have a rough day, that’s always what it’s distilled to at the end. And I’ve learned that these rough days don’t usually occur in isolation; there’s a smattering of them over a period of weeks or months until the particular offending mental remnant is identified and hopefully neutralized.

I always end up feeling sorry for Brock in these exchanges. He ends up having to deal with the effects of my tsunami divorce – my lack of belief in words, my distrust of the security of a “good” marriage, my continual struggles with self-doubt and my conviction to never allow myself to be in that same position again.

The morning after (no emotional hangover this time!!!) this particular exchange, I found sticky notes with various declarations of love and affection around the house.

And then I saw this one. And I felt another layer of my old wounds close.

IMG_4965

It referenced a statement he made the previous night when I mentioned my continued difficulties with trusting my own perceptions and judgment.

There’s no disappear here.

Four words. Big meaning.

A promise to face problems rather than to run away.

A promise to refrain from stonewalling or retreating.

A promise to put effort into the relationship.

A promise to step up rather than step out.

Those words don’t expect perfection. They don’t deny that there will be challenges. They accept that we will have hard times and that we can overcome most anything if we both make the promise to show up and speak up.

And for some reason, even though Brock has expressed similar in words and actions for the duration of our relationship, this simple phrase resonated in a way that I could actually hear it.

And hopefully even start to believe it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Reasons Being Gaslighted Is the Worst

There’s a reason governments utilize psychological torture techniques on suspected terrorists.

It works.

It’s a way of controlling somebody discretely. Without obvious threats or harm. Simply by controlling their reality and steering their perceptions. Planting seeds of doubt and carefully nurturing them until a dependence upon the manipulator is created.

And you don’t have to be a prisoner suspected of treason to face this torture.

It can happen in your own home.

In your own marriage.

Only there, it’s not called torture (although maybe it should be).

It’s called gaslighting.

And here’s the top ten reasons why it’s the worst-

10 Your Protector Becomes Your Persecutor

It’s horrifying when you realize that the person you love, you trust, has been slowly and intentionally lying and manipulating you. It’s like that nightmare you had when you were 5 where Santa Claus suddenly turned into a monster. Only this monster is real and you shared a bed with them.

9 It’s Invisible While It’s Happening

The whole point of gaslighting is to control somebody and distract them from what is really going on. As a result, it’s very difficult to identify when you’re in it. Generally, all you recognize is a sense that something is off and perhaps a sense of generalized anxiety. In some ways I’m glad I never spent time in a “bad” marriage. But then again, it’s scary to only realize after the fact that I was in one.

8 Your Memories Are Tarnished

I have 16 years of good memories with my first husband. And at least part of that history is false. But I have no idea what parts. So it’s all damaged. Ugly water stains on beautiful wedding photos. Was any of it real? I’ll never know.

7 It Doesn’t End When the Relationship Does

Some of this is by design. Often the abuser defames your character to others, leaving you in the position of either trying to convince them of a new truth or cut them out. But even without the character assassination, gaslighting persists. It’s in you, an unwanted tattoo imprinted upon your doubting brain.

6 Impact Is Hard to Recognize Until It Builds

The flood of feelings that led to my emotional hangover the other day was building for some time. But I couldn’t see it. It becomes very difficult to separate the implanted thoughts from your own. And sometimes the false ones take the lead for a time.

5 It’s Difficult to Explain to Others

Because until you’ve been there, you don’t believe that somebody can really have that much influence over your thoughts. Like much abuse, gaslighting starts slowly, ramping up the distortions until your reality is altered. And when you try to explain it, you either get judged or dismissed.

4 Words Are Meaningless

When somebody does try to comfort you or convince you of something, you find that words have become meaningless. Because you’ve learned that words can be used to paint a picture of a fictional reality. And although we should always trust actions more than words, it’s hard to communicate when you immediately shrug off somebody’s utterances.

3 Over Analyzing Becomes Second Nature

Determined not be a victim of gaslighting again, you over analyze everything. It’s like being a detective 24-7, always looking for proof and validation. It looks like A to me. But is it really A? Or do I only think it is A because that’s what I was told for so long? And here’s the crazy part, some of what allowed you to be gaslighted is that you ignored your intuition. And now the excessive scrutiny can cause you to fail to observe your gut again.

2 It’s Difficult to Trust Others

Because the abuse was invisible while it was carried out, it’s hard to trust that others are not trying to do the same to you. It’s tempting to wall off, to refuse vulnerability. Trust becomes a daily intention and a huge leap of faith.

1 You Don’t Trust Yourself

And this is the worst. You don’t trust yourself to recognize if it’s happening again and you don’t trust your perceptions and conclusions. There’s a skepticism and a confusion woven into your very fabric. And you have to slowly tease it out. One little thread at a time.

 

Emotionally Hungover? How to Get Through the Day

I had an emotional hangover today. Much like the more familiar hangover, it’s caused by excess. Only in this case, the hangover is brought about by too much of the feels than by too much of the booze.

But it sucks just about as much.

An emotional hangover is characterized partially by physical symptoms. The eyes are swollen and bloodshot from tears and lack of sleep. The belly is also swollen from swallowing too much air and perhaps even from the diversion of blood flow if the flight or fight system was activated. Its bloat is accompanied by a queasiness that either demands unhealthy food or rejects any thought of sustenance. The senses feel dulled at the same time the emotions are still in spasm.

And the emotions. While suffering from an emotional hangover, you feel raw. Residuals of the emotional flood bob to the surface yet you’re too tired to process them, letting out their air so that they can again sink to the bottom. Tears may be near the surface and can erupt even at the slightest provocation. You feel bruised from the strength of the released feelings. Sore.

Working memory is compromised, both because of a lack of sleep and because it’s busy trying to make sense of all that arose the night before. You may say or do things that are out of character as you simply try to make it through the day.

So what’s the key for surviving an emotional hangover?

Sleep

First, recognize that everything feels distorted when you’re short on sleep. And when you’re processing heavy emotions, you need even more sleep than usual. If you can, sleep in or snag a nap. If you can’t, make an early bedtime a priority. Work with your brain here. If you try to force sleep while you’re still worked up, it won’t work. Instead, find a way to comfort yourself, distract from the intensity or bleed some of the emotion until you feel like you can rest.

Hydrate

Yeah, I know. This sounds like a tip for the other type of hangover. But it’s important here too. If you’ve been crying, you’ve lost fluids. Even if you’ve just been operating at an aroused emotional state, you’ve stressed your system. And even just a little dehydration can make you feel even more awful.

Eat Nourishing Food

Not crap. You feel what you eat. Much like with sleep, a good meal can provide perspective and optimism. Make an effort to nourish yourself. Your mind will take notice.

Breathe

When you’re in an emotional storm, your breath becomes short, fast and irregular. As soon as you can, work to calm it and deepen it. It’s using the body to tell the brain it’s okay.

Limit the Social Demands

Reschedule some stuff. Call in sick if you need to or at least take a break when you can. You’re not operating at 100%. Don’t try to pretend that you are. Oh, and be ready to explain away the red eyes and sluggish demeanor with an excuse of allergies or an oncoming cold. Even if you have things you want to talk about, they’re usually best tabled until your hangover has lifted and you can think again.

Gentle Movement

You’re wrung out. This isn’t the time to tackle the interval training or hit the squat rack. Take a walk or do a little yoga. It helps to unstick some of the emotional residue.

Escape Into a Story

Much of surviving an emotional hangover is just being patient while the body and brain start to relax. This is a great time to through yourself into an engaging book or movie (I don’t suggest binge-watching a series here; that is an escape which will keep you from the sleep you need).

Be Kind to Youself

Don’t try to force any difficult conversations or decisions. Don’t beat up on yourself for your current (and temporary) state. You’re human. You feel. And sometimes those feelings can leave you feeling pretty wasted the next day. It’s okay. And you’ll believe that once you’ve had the opportunity to sleep and the time to let the residue fade.

And as to what caused my emotional hangover today? Let’s just say gaslighting is the gift that keeps on giving. Ugh. And now I’m off to a hot bath and a welcoming bed. I’m ready for this hangover to be over.

Why I Refuse to Call My Ex Husband a Narcissist

If anyone has the right to call her ex a narcissist, it’s me. While on the surface, he was a giving and caring man everyone loved, the man behind the curtain was another story entirely. He crafted false financial documents and insurance forms to support his lies as he bled our accounts dry. He wooed women, eventually wedding one without attending to the detail of obtaining a divorce from me first. He neglected the requirements of the criminal court system, earning a felony warrant. Even the judge in the divorce case asked my ex’s attorney if his client was “psycho.”

And maybe he is. Not a psycho necessarily, but a narcissist.

But, despite all of the evidence, I intentionally choose to not label my ex as a narcissist.

It seems like “narcissist ex” is the gluten-free of the relationship world – all of a sudden, it’s everywhere. But is it really that pervasive or are we just using the label too recklessly?

Just over 6% of the population has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) based upon the criteria set forth in the DSM-5: seeking approval from others, viewing oneself as exceptional, blaming setbacks on others, inability to identify with others’ needs and/or feelings and superficial relationships based upon manipulation.

Even though my former husband’s actions seem to check every box, I am bucking the “my ex is a narcissist” trend. Here’s why:

 

If He’s the “Attacker,” Then I’m the Victim

This was certainly my mindset early on – I viewed him as some Machiavellian perpetrator, deviously plotting ways to hurt me from his basement lair, cleverly disguised as an innocent office. In some ways, it was a comforting mindset as it pardoned me from any culpability. But it was also limiting.

Because if I was a victim, I was powerless.

In order to claim responsibility for my own well-being and create a sense of possibility for the future, I disarmed his memory. He’s no longer my attacker; he’s just the man I used to love who traveled down a dark path.

Preservation of Memory

By the time he sent the text that ended the marriage, my ex and I had spent sixteen years together. It was a lot to lose. If I accepted the proposal offered forth by many who dealt with him in the months to come that he was, in fact, a narcissist, it essentially would discount the thousands of positive memories I had of our time together.

From what I knew, we did have a good marriage with so many happy memories. I decided that those moments were real enough to me at the time and I chose to allow them to remain (as much as possible) unsullied by the idea that they were all orchestrated for some great plot.

It Ignores the Unknowns

 

Even the DSM-5 offers the disclaimer that a personality disorder cannot be diagnosed in the presence of addiction or physical illness, as both can mimic the mental condition. My ex admitted to a drinking problem after he left and he was suffering from some pretty substantial medical complaints for the last year or so of the marriage.

It is impossible for anyone, especially a layperson, to diagnose someone with a personality disorder without all of the information (much less the presence of the actual individual in question). Just because a person exhibits certain behaviors does mean that they automatically deserve a diagnosis.

We Are All More Than a Label

 

Calling someone a narcissist is reductionistic; it distills them down into a list of traits and ignores the complete person. Yes, my ex-husband lied, cheated and stole. But he also showed me (and others) great kindness and tenderness. He was the man that cried at our wedding and nursed our dogs back to health.

By not assigning him a label, I am able to remember the whole man – from loving husband to cruel persecutor and everything in between.

Peace is More Important Than a Reason

In the beginning, I struggled to understand why my husband acted that way and how he could be so cold and calculating. I assumed that once I had a reason, I would be able to move on. I tested out many possible labels (narcissist among them), but none managed to make the pain okay.

Finally, I decided to view him as lost. Hurting. Desperate and in pain. And with that shift, I found compassion, which led to being able to release the anger that held me back. So rather than see him as the evil antagonist in some twisted plot, I try to see him as human. Imperfect rather than malevolent. Not for his benefit, but for mine.

Labels, such as narcissist, have their place in public discourse. They help to provide a framework for understanding and a shared language to discuss important issues. It’s shorthand for a list of common experiences and emotions. I know when I read posts from people that use the term “narcissistic ex,” I will relate to stories of manipulation, gas lighting and projection. I can expect to see similarities between their stories and mine. In fact, I found books about narcissists and sociopaths helpful during the healing journey to provide information and perspective that helped me make sense of my own situation.

Labels are like Cliff Notes. We use them as shortcuts as we develop our own understanding or to help someone else develop theirs. Just like Cliff Notes, they are not the entire story, full of detail and nuance. If we stop at labels, we are limiting ourselves and others. We may be blinded by assumptions as we fill in the gaps in our knowledge automatically.

So your ex may be a narcissist, but that’s not the entire story. Don’t let the label limit you; it’s just the beginning.

The Entitled Ones

We all start out believing that we are the center of the world.

And then as we grow, our sense of our place in the world shifts.

Until we realize that we are not the center of the world. but a part of the world.

With a responsibility to step and speak with kindness and care.

Except some people never develop the understanding that they are a part of the world.

They persist in their belief that they are the sun and the rest of us are mere satellites.

And rather than stepping with kindness and care, they stomp on boundaries and crush others beneath their unfeeling feet.

And rather than speaking with kindness and care, they use words as weapons to harm and tools to manipulate.

They are the entitled ones. The self-crowned kings and queens of our realm.

Many were raised to be empowered, showered with excess and unearned praise by parents afraid of setting and maintaining boundaries. They held dominance in their families and assumed that their sway extended outside the familial home. They never learned how to hear a “no” or contend with a limit. They asked and they received.

Parents stepped in and cushioned consequences, so cause and effect was never mastered. They never received education in empathy, so they held on to a young child’s lack of understanding. And perhaps worst of all, these infant monarchs learned how to shuffle blame and avoid responsibility.

Some of the entitled ones earned their badge with an assist from genetics, given a biological limit to their abilities to empathize with and understand others.

In school, these entitled children don the label of “bully” as they use power, fear and manipulation to control the other students. In their world, the ends justify any means necessary and they are quite adept at pulling out every mean possible.

As they grow into adults, the entitled ones often find themselves successful. After all, when you’re ruthless on the ladder to success, you can leave quite a pile of bodies behind you. They can be charismatic, hiding their entitlement behind charm and practiced words. They’re just putting on a show for the benefit of their lackeys while they take what they believe they deserve.

And some of us fall for this charade. After all, it can certainly be a great show.

But these are the people that will pledge fidelity while actively pursuing another. They will set a household budget, yet feel entitled to break it. They will tell you what you want to hear while doing what they want to do.

The only reason needed for any action is,”I felt like it.”

But at some point, the curtains part.

And we see the special effects for what they are.

And we become aware of the strings tied around our own wrists.

Making us an unwilling participant in the entitled one’s play.

And for those of us that understand that we are all in this together, the realization that we were perceived as nothing but minions and pawns is a painful one.

But better to endure the pain of having the strings cut.

Than to never see them at all.

Be stronger than your pain.

Build your boundaries with your entitled one and enforce them with everything you have.

Let them be the center of their world.

But refuse to let them be the center of yours.

The Faux Commute

In the book I’m reading right now, the main character continues her weekday commute into London months after she was terminated from her job. Part of her motivation seemed to be habit and a lack of purpose and direction. But the main reason she continued the act is because she was too ashamed to tell her landlord/flatmate that she was no longer employed.

When I drove to work Friday morning, the book fresh on my mind, I peered at my fellow commuters, wondering if any of them were burning fuel and hours on a faux commute to a job that no longer existed. If any of them were keeping up the pretense while using up the savings. I pondered spouses back home, blindly secure in the belief that their partner was gainfully employed and unaware of the daily play-act.

It seems like something meant for fiction.

But it’s not.

My ex husband did it too.

He was too ashamed to concede that he could not find work. So he pretended that he could.
For years, he simulated a job. He invented clients and projects. He manufactured payments from lines of credit. I’m pretty sure he even falsified an award. Apparently, he was the best at his pretend job.

And he’s not the only one.

A friend’s first husband pretended to be enrolled in school full time while spending time in bars.

A coworker’s husband fabricated a start-up business while engaging in an affair.

And there’s a woman in my periphery who spent her time shopping while maintaining the facade of employment.

Here is a related piece I wrote for The Good Men Project that explores how this shame around employment can grow and spread through families.

But the problem isn’t just that the secret is kept from the partners.

Often the person can’t even admit it to themselves.

Continuing the faux commute and maintaining pretense even for themselves.

Now obviously most of us will never hold down a pretend job and engage in a daily trip of make-believe.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t engage in our own faux commutes.

That there aren’t truths we’d rather not face and so we keep us the pretense, even for ourselves.

That we don’t catch a ride going nowhere because we’re afraid to admit that it’s a dead-end run.

That we don’t pretend that something is still working for even when we no longer work for it.

So take an honest look at your life.

And make sure all of your commutes are authentic.

The book is called The Girl on the Train and it is a great thriller, especially for anyone who has experienced gaslighting.

I Never Loved You

The gaslighting doesn’t necessarily stop when the relationship ends.

 

“I never loved you.”

“I haven’t been happy for a long time.”

“You’re impossible to live with.”

 

Those were some of the words my ex chose to leave me with in the correspondence he exchanged with my mother. They were little bombs hooked to a timer set to detonate after he walked out the door.

At first, those words devastated me. Could they be true? Was I a wretch? Impossible? Unlovable? Piled on top of the rejection, they were an added kick when I was already down and out.

But then they made me angry. If he never loved me, why would act otherwise so consistently? If he hadn’t been happy for a long time, that was his responsibility to say something and change something. If I was so impossible to live with, why did he live with me for 14 of our 16 years together?

Those parting words were nothing but further fabrications. Gaslighting from a safe distance to try to tamp down any resistance. Perhaps blowtorching would be a proper term here? I’m picturing the scene from Alien:)

Perhaps part of the intent was to maim, but I believe the main goal was to rectify his own cognitive dissonance.

Because when you tell a lie frequently enough, it starts to become your truth.

 

If he believed he never loved me, it made it easier to hurt me.

If he claimed he wasn’t happy for a long time, he could blame it on the marriage.

And if he made me impossible to reside with, it made it easier to walk away.

 

Before you believe the hurtful words your ex threw your direction, make sure to see what they had to gain by them.

Which Pill Do You Choose?

My ex used to be obsessed with The Matrix. I think he somehow saw himself as Neo, an invulnerable character who was able to manipulate reality and was the one chosen to save the human race. I grew tired of the movie after so many repeated viewings and so, after my ex left, I pushed the series out of my mind.

Until today, that is, when an article referenced it in passing and made me remember one scene from the first movie in particular.

For those not familiar with the movie, the majority of humans are so-called bluepills who live their lives hooked up to a machine where a virtual reality is fed into their minds to keep them placid and peaceful while the machine uses their bodies for power. They are glorified batteries. Happy, but enslaved.

Some of the humans are able to break free from the illusion. These are the redpills. They are independent and aware, but also have to face the harsh realities of the world dominated by evil forces. They are fully sentient yet also fully responsible for creating their own realities.

In the scene above, Neo is given a choice: take the blue pill and re-enter the contented slumber of the ignorant or ingest the red pill and learn the entirety of the truth. Whichever choice he makes, there is no going back.

In my first marriage, I was taking the blue pill. I was as ignorant and prone to suggestion as those that are slaves to the Matrix. Within days of his leaving, it was as though a red pill was forcibly shoved down my throat, reality body slamming me to the floor. And there was no going back.

I’m not generally one for what-ifs, but I find it interesting to ponder what I would have chosen if I had been given the option at some point in my marriage to see the whole truth or to remain blissfully unaware.

Now that I’m a redpill, I can’t imagine going back. I want to live my own reality on my own terms and deal with the consequences.

But when I was a bluepill, I don’t know if I could have imagined the other option. After all, life as I knew it was good. Why risk it?

How about you?

Red?

Or blue?