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  • Esther Ruth Friedman

PSA: 10 red flags--beware! Potential abuser

Hi Folks, It's been a while since I posted, but I have a good excuse. Many of you know that I've been writing a book. Well, the writing part is complete and it's mostly edited. Please stayed tuned about publication!

Recent sessions with clients who are recovering from abusive relationships, as well as discovering Dr Ramani's YouTube channel, motivated this post. Dr Ramani is a psychologist & narcissism expert & a FANTASTIC resource for information and advice!

So, for years I've been wondering if there's a secret summer camp for aspiring bullies and abusers. Imagine the marketing: have you always wanted to manipulate, badger and control others into giving you what you want? Have we got the camp for you!

Over and over, a wide variety of clients describe the same behavioral tactics from the exploitative people in their lives. Abusers seem to work from a template. If I got paid a dollar every time a client, told me something like, "... (he / she) said I was selfish because I wanted some space" ... I would be super rich.

So, please consider the list below a public service announcement. Feel free to share widely. Do the following behaviors sound familiar? If so, stay alert! Possible manipulation in process:

1. Consistent inconsistency: there are many versions of this tactic. Someone alternates between love bombing and random character attacks. They claim certain values, or principles, but their behavior contradicts those stated values. They promise things, but never deliver. When you ask about the thing, they make excuses, then more promises and you, again, wait for nothing to happen. They promise and disappoint, over and over. Additionally, when you request something, or set boundaries, they pretend to listen and respect you--smile and nod--but then they either do what you've specifically asked them not to do, don't do the thing that you've asked them to do, or ignore the boundary that you've specifically set. They get more brazen over time as if saying, "I dare you to call this out." If this strategy plays out repeatedly, it's intentional. It keeps you off balance.

2. Disappearing acts: in this tactic, someone starts going M.I.A, intermittently, and unexpectedly, never explaining why. They make plans with you, but start showing up later and later. You never really know when you can expect them to arrive, or if they will arrive. Eventually, they blow you off at random. Another version of the disappearing act: They shower you with text messages, or phone calls, then go radio silent.

If you find yourself repeatedly waiting for someone to not show up, not call, or not text, unreliable is the best thing I can say about that behavior. Beware! Red flag!!

3. Engagement control: step two of the disappearing act, someone who started engaging with you by showering you with affection becomes less and less available while you wait for them and wonder ...what's wrong? Eventually, they control ALL communication, engagement and interaction. When your relationship operates their terms, or not at all, you're being set up for a trauma bond. This strategy is called intermittent reinforcement. Research indicates that it triggers the same brain chemistry as an opioid or cocaine addiction does. If you increasingly have to shove your needs, schedule, tasks, etc aside to accomodate their convenience and whim, there's a BIG red flag waving!

4. Increasing shadiness: naturally, these behaviors will make you questions this person. If their responses start feeling off and sounding increasingly implausible; if more often than not, you're left scratching your head, noting that their half-truths don't hang together, that this person deflects your concerns, and that their responses grow from little lies into full-blown fabrications; if they lie about strange things, red flags!

If, when questioned, you notice they consistently change the subject, deny and dismiss you, try to dissuade, or attack you, while offering increasingly ridiculous, complex and convoluted excuses and justifications, emmmm... many, many red flags!

5. Instigates conflict, then plays victim: This is a distraction strategy. When you get too close to the truth, they attack your character and then pout when you confront them. When you defend yourself, they then feign "hurt". They wield guilt to shut you up and shut down your justifiable anger at their inconsiderate and disrespectful behavior.

6. Hypocrisy: This is a gaslighting strategy. If someone accuses you of stealing, while picking your pocket; or, in a romantic relationship, accuses you of cheating, while they are cheating, the red flags are a wavin'. If you notice that they project all of their misdeeds onto others, as a practice, never taking responsibility--never at fault, and the world is out to get them--BIG. RED. FLAG.

7. Secretiveness and vagueness: If someone's stories don’t hang together and there are always holes in their history, or circumstances; If, when you ask, they contradict themselves from one day, to the next, or one hour, to the next; if they evade, dismiss, change the subject or circumvent direct questions with deflections, distractions or, when you're getting close to the truth, heed the red flags!

8. Gaslighting: Someone who tries to convince you that you did not hear, see, or experience what you saw, heard or experienced. They will say something insulting or offensive, then deny it when you confront them. "I never said that..." The more you argue with them, the more they claim that, "No the sky isn't blue, it's neon pink. Everyone knows that!" They will tell you that you are “overly sensitive”, “crazy,” or “think too much.”

If, more often than not, you leave interactions with certain people questioning your sanity, the sirens are screaming: step away from the gaslighter!

9. Character assassination: Someone who can never be wrong will blame all relationship problems on your alleged weaknesses and defects. If they start saying things like, "If you had not [fill in blank] then I would not have had to [fill in blank]..." while you mull over how maybe you could have "said things a little differently", or "been more direct", or "less confrontational" Or, "more understanding and kinder" etc, beware! This dynamic will make you insane.

If you find yourself twisting your brain into a mental pretzel trying to find the right way to bring up issues, while someone continually hammers you with the same mental sledgehammer, criticizing, attacking, and accusing, if you can't win for losing. Red. Flag. Pump the brakes and step away.

10. Meddles in your personal business: Someone who inserts themself into your private affairs, or personal passions. For example, you've told them that early mornings are your creative time and you need solitude, so they consistently call, text or show up, when ... you guessed it ... in the morning. Or they critique your work as though an expert, even when they've got no background or experience. Or they tell you what you should or shouldn't be doing with your work, or how to engage with family members, or friends or co-workers. Or they attack you for your passions, calling you "selfish" for wanting to invest time into your personal interest. All. Red. Flags.

Here are the themes that echo through all of these reports: a certain someone intentionally disorienting a target, by leveraging uncertainty, to assert control. I hear these ten behavioral strategies over and over, and they are the strategies I experienced myself in past circumstances.

Narcissistic and controlling people inflict a lot of pain and cause a lot of damage. And, unfortunately, our society enables many selfish and entitled people. Fortunately, people like Dr Ramani are starting to call them out. She has millions of YouTube followers - the sheer number of people watching her videos tells you something. I'm optimistic because of the extent of her audience. Maybe, someday, we will stop putting up with abusive behaviors and coming up with effective consequences. But, in the meantime, protect yourself.

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