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.

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Covert Abuse

I’ve never thought of my ex as abusive.

Then readers tell me they recognize their (very much abusive) spouses in my descriptions of my ex.

And I wonder.

I read a story in the paper about a domestic murder in the county where my ex and I lived and I always half expect to see his name.

And I wonder.

Then I discover that security procedures were altered at my old school during my divorce.

And I wonder.

He certainly was never overtly abusive. There were no strikes or shoves and never any threat of physical harm. He never belittled or yelled or uttered lines designed to wound. I was not discouraged from seeing friends or enjoying excursions without him. He didn’t exhibit excess jealousy and always demonstrated respect. He was the same man in public with me as he was behind closed doors – attentive, affectionate, loving. I never feared him while we were together.

So then why was I afraid for my life when he left?

I inquired about a restraining order, but since there was no history of abuse and no threats of physical harm, I was denied. However, the police were concerned enough that they performed drive-bys at the house where I was living as well as the house where he was staying. The chief of police told me I was lucky; he related that many cases of marital fraud he encountered resulted in a murder/suicide.

I couldn’t imagine the man that had always touched me so lovingly intending to harm me. But then again, I couldn’t have imagined the rest of it either.

I didn’t know the man I was married to.

Was he abusive?

Domestic abuse, also known as spousal abuse, occurs when one person in an intimate relationship or marriage tries to dominate and control the other person. From HelpGuide

When I read descriptions like that, it seems clear. He certainly was controlling me through his deceptions.

But then I see this:

Domestic violence and abuse are used for one purpose and one purpose only: to gain and maintain total control over you. An abuser doesn’t “play fair.” Abusers use fear, guilt, shame, and intimidation to wear you down and keep you under his or her thumb. Your abuser may also threaten you, hurt you, or hurt those around you. From HelpGuide

Control? Check.

Doesn’t “play fair”? Check.

Fear, guilt, shame and intimidation? No.

At least not until he left.

And that’s when I realized I was terrified of him.

I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that he was abusive. Not overtly, but undercover. His was a clandestine abuse, hidden even to me until the covers were ripped back when he left, revealing the buried machinations.

His abuse was financial, embezzling from the marital funds while covering his tracks with ever-shifting balances, hidden credit cards and fabricated stories.

His abuse took the form of gaslighting, altering my reality to match his goals. He took it a step further by assassinating my character through lies told behind my back to those around us.

His abuse didn’t use whips; it used a gentle leader of manipulation. Velvet trimmed lies whispered into trusting ears. No need to threaten when I easily followed along.

His abuse gained in cruelty when he abruptly abandoned me with no money and no explanation, refusing all contact. Protector turned persecutor.

During the divorce, he upped the ante, painting me as the controlling one. Falling right in line with the favored “You made me do it” excuse of the textbook abuser.

He never hit. He never yelled. He never isolated.

But behind the scenes, he was pulling the strings I didn’t even know existed.

I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own

In all of the pain after my ex husband left, there is one pain that stands out as more acute than the rest. After being arrested for bigamy and bailing out of jail, my ex decided to overdose on sleeping pills. It appeared to be a sincere suicide attempt, but he made sure to cover his bases in case he survived.

He composed and emailed a suicide letter to both his new wife and to my mom. I read that email while sitting outside the DA’s office waiting to meet the victim advocate. He was recovering in the ICU.

I felt reality slipping away as I processed the words that distorted the world I knew. In the letter, he speaks of me being “impossible to live with” and “negative.” He talks about my irresponsible spending habits and how I “just had to have my way” and he “couldn’t tell me no.”  Our last trip together – that he initiated, planned and executed – was recast as my demand for a vacation. He spoke of my insistence on building a deck when he counseled that we couldn’t afford it. He tells my mom that she “would love [the other wife]” and that he hopes they get to meet.

His words hit like a punch to an unguarded gut. I spent hours dissecting them, talking them over with each of my parents in turn. I knew they weren’t true but they still caused me to doubt. I feared that others (including my mom) might think his words were genuine. It felt like a vicious, spiteful attack on my character. And it wasn’t even factual.

He was rejecting reality and substituting his own.

He was gaslighting – using deception and manipulation to cast himself as the sane and balanced one and to make me look unstable and vile.

And it wasn’t his first time.

He was a master at creating and convincing others of his own reality. And, as trusting of him as I was, I was easy to convince. When you’re being gaslighted and you are unaware of the sleight of mind tricks being applied, you feel crazy as you begin to doubt your own perceptions and conclusions. It’s disorienting as the friction between what you see and you’re told you see don’t quite line up, almost like the view through 3D glasses when you turn away from the screen.

For months, I hated that letter. Every reading caused me to feel ill, like I’d swallowed something that needed to be purged. I shared it only with my parents and the close friend I lived with that year, finding comfort in their assurances that his words were mere deflection and trickery.

But still I wondered.

You see, he had trained me well. I still struggled not to believe his words over my own memories.

I struggled, that is, until I rejected his reality and found my own.

I picked apart each of his claims and refuted them one by one with physical evidence:

I spend too much? Then why do I read library books while he spent over a hundred dollars a month on Kindle downloads as evidenced by the checking account registry. And why do I drive the old, paid for car (that I still have!) while he insisted on buying a new one that came complete with a $500 monthly payment. I made a list of his possessions vs mine. It wasn’t even a contest.

I demanded the vacation? I unearthed an email sent to my work address where he proposed the cruise and described its details.

I insisted upon the deck? I found a trail of emails that covered everything from the summer school income I earned being used to pay for the costs to his enthusiastic sharing of his deck designs.

As for me being difficult and negative, that was harder to disprove. But the fact that I had many friends offer to take me in that year told a different story. I bolstered their offers with the hundreds of notes I had received from students over the years, praising my passion and positivity.

And as for my mom wanting to meet the other wife? Well, that was just plain funny.

Eventually, the letter lost its sting as I saw it for what it really was – an attempt to save his image by destroying mine. I wavered over whether to include the letter in the book. I was afraid I would be seen as the hateful woman he described. I decided to include it, even at the risk of his words being believed by people who did not know me. I knew that many of the readers would relate to being controlled by lies and I wanted to share a rare physical manifestation of gaslighting. Because the most painful part of gaslighting and what makes it so effective is that the evidence usually disappears like smoke in the wind, leaving you with only doubts and questions.

Gaslighting is a subtle yet relentless abuse. It’s one person using power and manipulation to control another. The damage is hidden and persistent, the worm of uncertainty taking up residence and calling everything into question. The effects linger as memories collide with new understanding, the deceptions fighting for dominance over the truth.

Gaslighting is often paired with physical abuse or addiction, the repainting of reality used to keep the partner calm and in place. It is a favored tool of narcissists and sociopaths. Those that are adept at its use tend to be charismatic and intelligent, lending a believability to their assertions. It is deliberate and cruel and can be immensely damaging.

Recovering from gaslighting takes time. Even recognizing that you were gaslighted takes time.

No one should have the power to create your reality other than you.

And your trust in another should never be greater than your trust in yourself.

Gaslighting thrives on doubt.

Starve it by believing in yourself.

Why I Refuse to Call My Husband a Narcissist

Character Assassination

Covert Abuse

How to Apply Labels

As a teacher, I am quite familiar with the application of labels. Each summer, prior to ever meeting my new students, I study the rosters. Many of the names have associated labels next to them: ADHD, learning disability, autistic, ESOL, etc. These labels are helpful when these children are nothing more than a list of names. It is a starting point.

When I learn that hypothetical Johnny has ADHD, I use that information when I create my first seating chart. I know that he might be a good choice to run an errand to the front office or to help me hand out papers. I won’t be surprised at an off-topic outburst and I’ll have strategies at hand for how to handle one if it occurs. Before ever meeting Johnny, I can have an idea of some of his characteristics and I can plan ahead to meet his needs. However, it would be completely inappropriate for me to stop there. Johnny may have ADHD but he is not his label. As I get to know him, the label loses its importance. The diagnosis tells me nothing of Johnny’s strengths and weaknesses, his adaptive behaviors, his likes and dislikes or especially his personality.

A label should be an anchor, not a limitation.

Whenever I plan a lesson that introduces a new math concept, I start by anchoring the new material to prior knowledge. When I tell students that the new concept is like something they have seen before, it gives them a place to start. Then, as they learn the new material, they can adjust the expectations laid out by the early comparison.

Labels work that same way – they initiate expectations that should be tempered with experience.

When I tell you I am a teacher, you have a starting point for understanding me. You know that I’ve been to college. You can assume that I’m a people person. Maybe you think of a particular teacher in your past. Then, I tell you I grew up in the 1980s. Maybe that causes a revision of your earlier expectations or maybe it just allows you to flesh things out, as you make decisions about what music I may listen to or how I wear my hair. We can continue that process, with each label adding more information and more clarification. Eventually, you would know me and those labels would be inconsequential. Until you were trying to describe me to someone else, that is.

Labels can help us find understanding.

When I went through my divorce, I grasped at labels to describe my husband. I realized that he was not all of the things I thought he was. He was a stranger. So, like we all do when first getting to know someone, I turned to labels to try to develop a framework to anchor new understanding. My favorite designation for him was sociopath. It explained the callousness and extreme nature of the betrayal. It was a starting point. But not the end. As with all labels, some parts fit and others didn’t. As I worked to get to “know” him again, I revised my views, adding some terms and removing others, until the labels no longer mattered.

I use labels when I write about my story. I temper the word ‘divorce’ with ‘tsunami’ to capture the suddenness of my experience. I use the label ‘trauma’ to convey the overwhelming loss. I recently introduced the term ‘PTSD,’ not as a diagnosis, but as a framework to discuss the anxiety and flashbacks that permeated my existence. Those single words hold pages of information. It is a kind of shorthand – a broad strokes sketch of the entire story.

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.

Don’t be afraid to use labels but also be careful not to apply them with superglue. They should be used to anchor understanding, not to limit understanding.

Labels

In the early months of the divorce, I was obsessed with labels. I needed to be able to classify everything, to make sense of the nonsensical.  It reminded me of a time when I was a kid.  My parents bought this little label maker that would print out stickers of what you typed.  I spent a day labeling everything in sight before the cost of the sticky paper brought my challenge to an end.

An electronic label maker, depicting buttons, ...
Image via Wikipedia

Most of my labeling energies went towards my ex.  Was he a narcissist, indifferent to those around him, viewing me as merely an object.  Was he an addict, as we found out after he left that he had been hiding alcohol consumption.  Perhaps he could be a sociopath, devoid of any sense of right or wrong.  Maybe he was depressive, and unable to make clear decisions. Of course,  he could just be a jerk.  Each of these labels had evidence to support their application, but there was also evidence against it.  I went round and round, sure that if I just knew what to call it, I would find understanding.

I fought against the labels that may have been applied to me by my psychiatrist.  Each visit, biweekly at first, she would ask me if I was suicidal.  I bristled at the thought that she contemplated applying that label to me.  Each visit, I denied it vehemently, hoping that my insistence would keep that word from my file.

Even the divorce itself had labels.  I was the one to file, as he just planned to run away.  Originally, I was going to do a divorce by publication, as we did not know where he was.  That progressed to a no-fault divorce once I found him, but before we knew of the bigamy.  The bigamy changed the label again to a fault divorce.

None of these labels mattered.  My ex is who he is, regardless of what I call him.  My psychiatrist supported me with the medication I needed no matter the words she wrote on my file.  And divorce is horrendous, despite the category it falls under.  Just like those sticky labels I applied as a kid, labels can be applied, removed, and reapplied without changing the object beneath.  Apart from a little residue, that is.