Monday, October 6, 2014

The Psychology of Abuse

[Johnathan Clayborn]

As I was cleaning out my emails I came across a conversation that was relevant to the post I made a while back about abuse. Someone once asked me to explain how jealousy, obsession, and control work in the mind of abusers and what makes them so intense in those areas. Since this was relevant to the earlier conversation, and good information to know, I thought that I would edit the conversation and share it.  

First, an understanding of these behaviors helps. All three of those emotions are symbiotic. Abusers are jealous of everyone because they are insecure about themselves and they have a low self-esteem. They might try to deflect this or hide this by exaggerating their exploits or acting with "machismo" in public, but in truth, they are not confident about themselves and/or have many things about themselves that they don't like. They feel inferior internally so they view everyone as a potential threat.  

And that insecurity leads in part to the control. People in that type of situation try to seek out people that they can control easily enough, either through emotion or circumstance, or both. Being able to exert control like that over another person makes them feel powerful and boosts their self-esteem. This is why they like to be in control and often try to act as the leader, or “Alpha Male” (even if the abuser is female, they will try to take on this mantle); to mask their insecurity. 

But that leads to the obsession. Once people have a person that they can successfully control and make compliant to their will, then that makes them feel better about themselves (because they are subjecting another person and thus are proving to themselves that they aren't weak). They like this feeling, so they become obsessed with the person that they control because that person becomes the gateway to this feeling, but in all cases it's almost always temporary.  

There's a psychological principle called the Hedonic Treadmill. Basically, what it means is that everyone will have an "average" level of happiness in their life. They might lose a bit of their possessions or money, and that might make them sad and they might become depressed for a while, but that will balance out as they learn to adapt to their situation. Or they might suddenly get a lot of money and have more money than they know what to do with. This would allow them to be temporarily happy, but eventually they would tire of their "toys" as they search for meaning (Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs – self-actualization) and their happiness would average back out again. 

This relates because there's something about themselves that they don't like. Rather than facing these flaws and accepting them as they are or trying to improve them, they’re trying to simply band-aid them by making themselves feel better in the short term; in this case through abuse and control. They might feel better now, but eventually the Hedonic Treadmill will set in and that happiness will fade. Then they'll require more to make themselves happy. This is why serial killers always escalate their kills over time, and why substance abuse addicts always require more and more drugs to feel the high. 

All behavior is made extinct through positive or negative reinforcement (this is not punishment and reward, per se...a punishment can be a "positive reinforcement"). Basically a negative reinforcement is anything, good or bad, that causes the behavior to decrease. 

Many abusers have very high social-emotional intelligence and will often lash out viciously with hateful words. They use this social intelligence to try to manipulate the people they are abusing. They try to goad them into a specific emotional response that they're looking for. Maybe it's pity, or praise, or compliance, or whatever. The point is those lashings out are a tool in their toolbox designed to achieve something specific.

If the person being abused respond correctly the abuser may continue the behavior because it worked. If they responded incorrectly the abuser might try a different tactic; a different emotional or logical argument, or a physical attack. In all cases they're trying to establish their superiority or make their ego and self-esteem feel better. 

If they feel better about themselves they may tire of controlling and just leave (but this is rare because they usually don't ever actually work on fixing what's wrong with them because they're too busy controlling the person they are abusing). Or, if the person they are abusing just stops providing any emotional responses at all of any kind and completely ignore them, their need to feel the control will be minimized and they will move on to someone else that they can control. But, in the process of doing that the victim is likely to make them mad and they're likely to resort to physical violence to appease their low self-esteem and prove to themselves that it's the victim’s fault that they feel bad about themselves. 

Abusers often turn everything around and make it the victim’s fault. This is another way of protecting themselves from their own perceived flaws. It's not their fault that they feel bad about themselves; it's the victim’s fault. It's always the victim’s fault. This is why they lash out. It protects their fragile psyche from further damage. 

Small children actually try the same approach as abusers when they are trying to get something that they want. They ask mom. Mom says no, they ask dad. Dad says no, they cry, they use the puppy dog face, they say please and butter you up, they try to bribe you....all are behaviors designed to elicit their desired response from you. This is exactly the same thing. With adults they'll lash out and blame you, they'll try to physically control you or hit you, and if that fails, they'll try to appeal to your sense of compassion by making you feel sorry for them. 

Some people who abuse are capable of improvement and growth, but in order for that to happen they need a catalyst, not a reactionary agent. Someone that they can control and exploit will never force their behavior to change. Someone who stands up to him and pushes him and makes him look hard at themselves will facilitate that change, as with everyone. We all grow by being around people that push us to be better every day.  

It's a shame that many abusers do not have the propensity to bring about change in their behavior. That's honestly one of the biggest reasons why so many counselors and therapists burn out in their jobs so quickly; they all go into it with a huge heart and a desire to help everyone and to make everyone better. The reality of it is that there are some people that they will not be able to help. Some people cannot accept that very well and they make themselves crazy trying to do it and burn out, which is a travesty because it robs all of the other people that they could have helped from their skills and experiences. Psychology professionals haven't learned to triage clients in the same way that medical professionals have. 

Trying to point out the abusive behavior to an abuser typically does not go over well. They generally hate it. They would hate it especially so because you're trying to point out the one thing that they're trying to hide from themselves.'s akin to asking a bank robber who's taken hostages to calm down.  

Experience always does seem to be better at teaching than does learning from someone else's perspective. Most people learn about some things within themselves, things they recognize, things they want to work on. Those are signs of a healthy psyche and a strong ego; good self-esteem. They're not threatened by perceived weakness because they know that they have the capacity to improve it. 

Our families make a huge impact on our adult development while we are young children. They set deep rooted beliefs and behaviors, perceptions, etc. that can be hard to overcome. Sadly, many abusers are, or were, victims themselves. It certainly doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it should be a lesson to everyone that your actions have lasting ramifications.


No comments:

Post a Comment

These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.