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:
- It goes on for a period of time that’s significantly disturbing to the party involved – Not talking to a casual friend for a week is NOT emotional abuse. Not talking to your third grader for a week is DEFINITELY emotional abuse.
- You don’t give the other person any opportunity to explain or understand what’s going on – I.e. they aren’t given any warning or notice that you’re upset with them, and that you’re not talking to them as a result.
- It happens at the beginning of a process, rather than at the end – If you’ve spent a whole year trying to resolve the issue and it’s just not getting anywhere, then maybe giving the other person a wide berth is the only option left. But, if you ostracize and ignore them BEFORE you’ve made even a basic effort to clear things up, then your cold shoulder is an emotionally-abusive power ploy.
- You ignore any attempts by the other person to try to fix the problem, make amends or apologize – That sort of rigid, unforgiving attitude is always a big, red flag that someone has some severe underlying mental illness issues going on. It’s a post for another time, but the people who can’t forgive others are usually the same people who believe (delusionally) that they themselves are perfect, and never do anything bad to other people, or make errors of judgment or mistakes.
- The whole thing is shrouded in mystery, and nobody else has any idea that there’s any problem – Again, this cuts to the core of what’s really going on, because when someone is genuinely interested in fixing the problem, and exploring how they may have also contributed to the issue, then open dialogue and discussion is the order of the day. There are no secrets going on, or politics, and you don’t have to fumble around ‘guessing’ what it is you might have done. By contrast, when there’s no discussion and a lot of two-facedness going on, then the silent treatment is part of an overall attempt to close any discussion down, and leave you feeling bad, guilty and inferior.
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.