The Abuser's Body Language: The Tocsins of Abuse

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Many abusers have a specific body language. It comprises an unequivocal series of subtle – but discernible – warning signs. Pay attention to the way your date comports himself – and save yourself a lot of trouble!

Abusers are an elusive breed, hard to spot, harder to pinpoint, impossible to capture. Even an experienced mental health diagnostician with unmitigated access to the record and to the person examined would find it fiendishly difficult to determine with any degree of certainty whether someone is being abusive because he suffers from an impairment, i.e., a mental health disorder.

Some abusive behavior patterns are a result of the patient's cultural-social context. The offender seeks to conform to cultural and social morals and norms. Additionally, some people become abusive in reaction to severe life crises.

Still, most abusers master the art of deception. People often find themselves involved with a abuser (emotionally, in business, or otherwise) before they have a chance to discover his real nature. When the abuser reveals his true colors, it is usually far too late. His victims are unable to separate from him. They are frustrated by this acquired helplessness and angry that they failed to see through the abuser earlier on.

But abusers do emit subtle, almost subliminal, signals in his body language even in a first or casual encounter. These are:

"Haughty" body language – The abuser adopts a physical posture which implies and exudes an air of superiority, seniority, hidden powers, mysteriousness, amused indifference, etc. Though the abuser usually maintains sustained and piercing eye contact, he often refrains from physical proximity (he maintains his personal territory).

The abuser takes part in social interactions – even mere banter – condescendingly, from a position of supremacy and faux "magnanimity and largesse". But even when he feigns gregariousness, he rarely mingles socially and prefers to remain the "observer", or the "lone wolf".

Entitlement markers – The abuser immediately asks for "special treatment" of some kind. Not to wait his turn, to have a longer or a shorter therapeutic session, to talk directly to authority figures (and not to their assistants or secretaries), to be granted special payment terms, to enjoy custom tailored arrangements. This tallies well with the abuser's alloplastic defenses - his tendency to shift responsibility to others, or to the world at large, for his needs, failures, behavior, choices, and mishaps  ("look what you made me do!").

The abuser is the one who – vocally and demonstratively – demands the undivided attention of the head waiter in a restaurant, or monopolizes the hostess, or latches on to celebrities in a party. The abuser reacts with rage and indignantly when denied his wishes and if treated the same as others whom he deems inferior. Abusers frequently and embarrassingly "dress down" service providers such as waiters or cab drivers.

Idealization or devaluation – The abuser instantly idealizes or devalues his interlocutor. He flatters, adores, admires and applauds the "target" in an embarrassingly exaggerated and profuse manner – or sulks, abuses, and humiliates her.

Abusers are polite only in the presence of a potential would-be victim – a "mate", or a "collaborator". But they are unable to sustain even perfunctory civility and fast deteriorate to barbs and thinly-veiled hostility, to verbal or other violent displays of abuse, rage attacks, or cold detachment.

The "membership" posture – The abuser always tries to "belong". Yet, at the very same time, he maintains his stance as an outsider. The abuser seeks to be admired for his ability to integrate and ingratiate himself without investing the efforts commensurate with such an undertaking.

For instance: if the abuser talks to a psychologist, the abuser first states emphatically that he never studied psychology. He then proceeds to make seemingly effortless use of obscure professional terms, thus demonstrating that he mastered the discipline all the same – which is supposed to prove that he is exceptionally intelligent or introspective.

In general, the abuser always prefers show-off to substance. One of the most effective methods of exposing a abuser is by trying to delve deeper. The abuser is shallow, a pond pretending to be an ocean. He likes to think of himself as a Renaissance man, a Jack of all trades, or a genius. Abusers never admit to ignorance or to failure in any field – yet, typically, they are ignorant and losers. It is surprisingly easy to penetrate the gloss and the veneer of the abuser's self-proclaimed omniscience, success, wealth, and omnipotence.

Bragging and false autobiography – The abuser brags incessantly. His speech is peppered with "I", "my", "myself", and "mine". He describes himself as intelligent, or rich, or modest, or intuitive, or creative – but always excessively, implausibly, and extraordinarily so.

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The abuser's biography sounds unusually rich and complex. His achievements – incommensurate with his age, education, or renown. Yet, his actual condition is evidently and demonstrably incompatible with his claims. Very often, the abuser's lies or fantasies are easily discernible. He always name-drops and appropriates other people's experiences and accomplishments as his own.

Emotion-free language – The abuser likes to talk about himself and only about himself. He is not interested in others or what they have to say. He is never reciprocal. He acts disdainful, even angry, if he feels an intrusion on his precious time.

In general, the abuser is very impatient, easily bored, with strong attention deficits – unless and until he is the topic of discussion. One can dissect all aspects of the intimate life of a abuser, providing the discourse is not "emotionally tinted". If asked to relate directly to his emotions, the abuser intellectualizes, rationalizes, speaks about himself in the third person and in a detached "scientific" tone or composes a narrative with a fictitious character in it, suspiciously autobiographical.

Most abusers get enraged when required to delve deeper into their motives, fears, hopes, wishes, and needs. They use violence to cover up their perceived "weakness" and "sentimentality". They distance themselves from their own emotions and from their loved ones by alienating and hurting them.

Seriousness and sense of intrusion and coercion – The abuser is dead serious about himself. He may possess a fabulous sense of humor, scathing and cynical, but rarely is he self-deprecating. The abuser regards himself as being on a constant mission, whose importance is cosmic and whose consequences are global.

If a scientist – he is always in the throes of revolutionizing science. If a journalist – he is in the middle of the greatest story ever. If an aspiring businessman - he is on the way to concluding the deal of the century. Woe betide those who doubt his grandiose fantasies and impossible schemes.

This self-misperception is not amenable to light-headedness or self-effacement. The abuser is easily hurt and insulted (narcissistic injury). Even the most innocuous remarks or acts are interpreted by him as belittling, intruding, or coercive slights and demands. His time is more valuable than others' – therefore, it cannot be wasted on unimportant matters such as social intercourse, family obligations, or household chores. Inevitably, he feels constantly misunderstood.

Any suggested help, advice, or concerned inquiry are immediately cast by the abuser as intentional humiliation, implying that the abuser is in need of help and counsel and, thus, imperfect. Any attempt to set an agenda is, to the abuser, an intimidating act of enslavement. In this sense, the abuser is both schizoid and paranoid and often entertains ideas of reference.

Finally, abusers are sometimes sadistic and have inappropriate affect. In other words, they find the obnoxious, the heinous, and the shocking – funny or even gratifying. They are sexually sado-masochistic or deviant. They like to taunt, to torment, and to hurt people's feelings ("humorously" or with bruising "honesty").

While some abusers are "stable" and "conventional" – others are antisocial and their impulse control is flawed. These are very reckless (self-destructive and self-defeating) and just plain destructive: workaholism, alcoholism, drug abuse, pathological gambling, compulsory shopping, or reckless driving.

Yet, these – the lack of empathy, the aloofness, the disdain, the sense of entitlement, the restricted application of humor, the unequal treatment, the sadism, and the paranoia – do not render the abuser a social misfit. This is because the abuser mistreats only his closest – spouse, children, or (much more rarely) colleagues, friends, neighbours. To the rest of the world, he appears to be a composed, rational, and functioning person. Abusers are very adept at casting a veil of secrecy – often with the active aid of their victims – over their dysfunction and misbehavior.

This is the subject of the next article.

Continue ...

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How can I Trust Again?

 

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Our natural tendency is to trust, because, as infants, we trust our parents. It feels good to really trust. It is also an essential component of love and an important test thereof. Love without trust is dependence masquerading as love.

 

We must trust, it is almost biological. Most of the time, we do trust. We trust the universe to behave according to the laws of physics, soldiers to not go mad and shoot at us, our nearest and dearest to not betray us. When our trust is broken, we feel as though a part of us had died and had been hollowed out.

 

To not trust is abnormal and is the outcome of bitter or even traumatic life experiences. Mistrust or distrust are induced not by our own thoughts, nor by some device or machination of ours – but by life's sad circumstances. To continue to not trust is to reward the people who had wronged us and rendered us distrustful in the first place. Those people have long abandoned us and yet they still have a great, malign, influence on our lives. This is the irony of being distrustful of others.

 

So, some of us prefer to not experience that sinking feeling of trust violated. Some people choose to not trust and thus skirt disappointment. This is both a fallacy and a folly. Trusting releases enormous amounts of mental energy, which is more productively vested elsewhere. But trust – like knives – can be dangerous to your health if used improperly.

 

You have to know WHO to trust, you have to learn HOW to trust and you have to know HOW to CONFIRM the existence of a mutual, functional sort of trust.

 

People often disappoint and are not worthy of trust. Some of them act arbitrarily, treacherously and viciously, or, worse, offhandedly. You have to select the targets of your trust carefully. He who has the most common interests with you, who is invested in you for the long haul, who is incapable of breaching trust ("a good person"), who doesn't have much to gain from betraying you – is not likely to mislead you. These people you can trust.

 

You should not trust indiscriminately. No one is completely trustworthy in all fields. Most often our disappointments stem from our inability to separate one realm of life from another. A person could be sexually loyal – but utterly dangerous when it comes to money (for instance, a gambler). Or a good, reliable father – but a womaniser. You can trust someone to carry out some types of activities – but not others (because they are more complicated, more boring, or do not conform to his values.)

 

We should not trust with reservations: this is the kind of "trust" that is common in business and among criminals and its source is rational. Game Theory in mathematics deals with questions of calculated trust.

 

If we do trust, we should trust wholeheartedly and unreservedly. But, we should be discerning. Then we will be rarely disappointed.

 

As opposed to popular opinion, trust must be put to the test, lest it goes stale and staid. We are all somewhat paranoid. We gradually grow suspicious, inadvertently hunt for clues of infidelity or worse. The more often we successfully test the trust we had established, the stronger our pattern-prone brain embraces it. Constantly in a precarious balance, our brain needs and devours reinforcements. Such testing should not be explicit but circumstantial: your husband could easily have had a mistress or your partner could easily have robbed you blind – and, yet, they haven't. They have passed the test. They have resisted the temptation.

 

Trust is based on the ability to foretell the future. It is not so much the act of betrayal that we react to as it is the feeling that the very foundations of our world are crumbling, that it is no longer safe because it is no longer predictable.

 

Here is another important lesson: whatever the act of betrayal (with the exception of grave criminal corporeal acts), it has limited and reversible consequences if you do not let it get out of hand.

 

Naturally, we tend to exaggerate the importance of such mishaps. This serves a double purpose: indirectly it aggrandises us. If we are "worthy" of such an unprecedented, unheard of, major betrayal we must be worthwhile and unique. The magnitude of the betrayal reflects on us and re-establishes the fragile balance of powers between us and the universe.

 

The second purpose of exaggerating the act of perfidy is simply to gain sympathy and empathy – mainly from ourselves, but also from others. Catastrophes are a dozen a dime and in today's world it is difficult to provoke anyone to regard your personal disaster as anything exceptional.

 

Amplifying the event has, therefore, some very utilitarian purposes. But, finally, blowing things out of proprtion poisons the victim's mental circuitry. Putting a breach of trust in perspective goes a long way towards the commencement of a healing process. No betrayal stamps the world irreversibly or eliminates all other possibilities, opportunities, chances and people. Time goes by, people meet and part, lovers quarrel and make love, dear ones live and die. It is the very essence of time that it reduces us all to the finest dust. Our only weapon – however crude and naive – against this inexorable process is to trust each other.

 


RESOURCES

How to Spot an Abuser on Your First Date

The Toxic Relationships Study List

"Trauma Bonding" and the Psychology of Torture

Coping with Your Abuser

Traumas as Social Interactions

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