You know, I’ve spent the best part of four years studying personality disorders, and all the related mentally-ill behaviors and traits that people display when they’ve got a serious screw loose.
I can quote whole parts of the DSM by heart; I’ve been exploring the links between trauma, and particularly the fight/flight/freeze response and emotional and mental illness; I’ve written a few books on the subject too, looking at how emotional difficulties and physical health problems go hand-in-hand.
And yet last week, it still shocked me to realize that certain patterns of behavior that I’d been on the receiving end of (and also, to my deep dismay, reflecting along the chain to others) – was actually emotionally abusive.
I’ll give one example: for the past couple of years, certain people have been giving me the cold shoulder. To my knowledge, I haven’t done anything ‘bad’ to them, and I’ve spent the last two years reaching out, apologizing for ‘whatever it is’ I might have inadvertently done, and generally beating myself up over clearly being a horrible person.
Last week, as I was researching all the information for the ‘Emotional Abuse’ infographic that I posted up yesterday, it suddenly struck me that given someone the silent treatment for two years, and completely ignoring them – without any explanation or reason – is classic emotional abuse.
And then my jaw really dropped, because once I realized how warped it all was, I could finally stop beating myself up over the issue, and get the clarity that the problem, whatever it is, wasn’t mine: it was 100% the other person’s.
Here’s where it’s important to clarify a little, as if there’s one thing I’ve learned with all my work in trying to separate out what’s emotionally normal, versus emotionally toxic behavior, the devil is ALWAYS in the details.
Sometimes, I also don’t respond to people’s emails, phone calls or overtures.
Sometimes, I haven’t got the energy or ‘space’ to deal with the second person, even if I love them to bits. Sometimes, I get random emails from people I’ve never even heard of asking me inane things that are not relevant to my life in any way, shape or form – and I often ignore them, or just delete.
But here’s the difference: even when I’ve taken a week or two off from ‘correspondence’ mode, if I know the person in any way, or if they’ve asked me something that genuinely requires a response, even a short, negative one, I always try to give it to them.
Sure, I’ve also been very upset at certain people in my life, and haven’t wanted to hear from them in any way, shape or form if they weren’t ready to apologize, or make some move, however small, towards opening a meaningful dialogue and discussing the issues we might have had.
But if they even made just the tiniest move towards reconciliation, I have responded as fast and as positively as I could.
So what’s the difference between an emotionally abusive cold shoulder, and a too-tired / stressed / upset-to-deal-with-you right now cold shoulder?
Here’s my take on it:
The Silent Treatment is Emotionally Abusive When:
I mean, I know all this stuff cold, and I was still shocked to realize that (yet again…) I was on the receiving end of some seriously mentally-ill behavior for years, without even knowing it. And then, the really hard work begins, of spotting when I might have 'cold shouldered' others in an emotionally-abusive way, as described above.
So, dear reader, I’m going to continue writing about it, and doing infographics, and trying to find other ways of helping us all to join the dots about what types of behavior are literally making us crazy and ill.
And hopefully, one day soon, it’ll stop coming as such a surprise to us all to realize that so many of our friends and relatives are certifiably bonkers, and that if we want to be really happy and healthy people, a lot of stuff has to change in terms of how we treat each other.
Recently, I picked up a book called 'The Anger Diet' from my local second-hand book shop. (I know, I start a lot of my articles that way - ask my husband what a fortune I'm costing him with my obsessive reading habits. But I digress.)
Anyway, this book had a few interesting things in it, but the main 'Eureka!' moment showed up in the section on guilt, where I read the following:
"One of the main consequences of being in a relationship with a martyr is feeling guilt. Martyrs thrive on creating guilt in others, and love making others feel both guilty and inadequate. Implicitly they are saying, "Look how wonderful I am, and how poorly you're treating me."
I've been thinking about, and writing about, and talking about, guilt for years' already, but this was the first time that the penny actually dropped about what's really causing the guilt in the first place.
Once God very kindly made that connection for me, I started to see the scourge of 'suffering martrys' much more clearly, and I started to appreciate the tremendous damage they do to the people around them.
You see, nothing is ever enough to assuage the obvious pain of the suffering martyr. They sacrifice SO MUCH for you, at such high personal cost, and then you let them down by not being perfect; or not always doing what they want; or not always giving them what they expect.
So you walk around feeling permanently flawed, 'not good enough' and a burden to these people who obviously care for you SO much, and who you are always letting down and disappointing (normally, just by breathing).
To make things worse, you can never discuss the dynamics of your relationship with the suffering martyr, usually for two key reasons:
1) You bought into their 'perfect' pity party a long time ago, and it's unthinkable that the suffering martyr's own behaviour or attitudes should be somehow causing you problems; and
2) If you dare to mention that hanging out with them is not making you feel so good about yourself, you'll get another huge, heaping dose of toxic guilt aimed at you (implicitly), for being so ungrateful and complain-y.
You can hear it now, can't you?
"After everything I've done for you…"
"I have SUFFERED so much…"
"I can't believe MY OWN CHILD (spouse / friend / sibling / whatever) could say such cruel things to me…"
Or, there'll be the big, mournful, suffering look they'll shoot at you across the coffee cups.
But who's really suffering, here? You are. Who comes away from every encounter eaten up with guilt and self-loathing? You do. Who starts beating themselves up, and feeling like they never do anything right, and they'll never be able to give the suffering martyr in their life what they really deserve? You do.
And that's where some huge emotional problems can begin.
Here's the good news: you can fix the problem, and it doesn't need to take a long time, or be a long, drawn out process, once you manage to accept that you're actually not causing it. 'Talk to God and Fix Your Health' can guide you through most of the process of eradicating unhealthy guilt, and I highly recommend doing the course.
But in the meantime, let's try to sum up the problem and solution as follows:
That's it! And if someone starts making you feel bad about yourself again, you have my permission to make a guilt-free dash for the exit, as fast as you can.