What makes you so hard on yourself?

23 Jun 2020

This week, I want to tell you about a lovely client, let’s call her Jan. Jan typifies the kind of person – possibly rather like you – who has already made leaps and bounds in her awareness about emotional abuse and how it affects a person. But she still has something holding her back.

Jan has come so far in not very long. Nevertheless, she still she has blind spots about the effects of the emotional and narcissistic abuse that she has undergone. The problem with blind spots is that we just don’t see them.  So, we keep hitting our heads against the walls that we just do not see.

The effects of Jan’s blind spots were causing her to suffer a lot from pain that she should not have had to feel.

One of the many weird things about emotional abuse is that you can take great leaps forward and still suffer on account of internalized abuse that you do not even see as abuse. Rather, it just feels like your normal.

Being hard on yourself can become your normal.

When you have been around an abuser for a while, being hard on yourself can easily become your normal.

In Jan’s case – and not just Jan’s – being hard on herself, very hard on herself, just felt normal.

In fact, it felt like doing the honourable thing and at least holding herself accountable for her own shortcomings.

Jan started the session by uttering these worrying words:  she had been worrying if she was “The Toxic One” (aka The Narcissist or The Abuser) because she was “No Angel”, either.

“No angel”

I’ve heard “No Angel” many times before, both from my clients and my own lips.  In fact, I grew up knowing that I was “No Angel” – primarily because I heard it so often, first from my parents and then from “my” toxic partner.

Jan clearly felt that she had behaved in ways with her abusive partner that put her beyond the pale.

I asked her about one such instance.  She had, she said, completely “blown her top”.

Now, my own experience of abuse meant that I could find many unpleasant interpretations of what that might mean.  Putting them carefully to one side, I asked her what it meant for her.

It meant, she said, that she had got very angry with her partner and said some hurtful things that left her feeling less than proud of herself. The things that she said didn’t fit with her beliefs about how she needed to behave in order to be a decent person.

I asked her to tell me more about the context in which she had “blown her top”.

It turned out that her partner had kept on goading and abusing her. When she felt that she could take no more, she attempted the commendably civilized approach of taking ten minutes out so as to calm down.

The problem with 10 Minutes Out

She didn’t know that taking 10 minutes out does NOT work with a toxic person.

Abusers absolutely HATE it if you try to do that. They do not approve of you in any way de-escalating their hostilities.

Hence their much–loved line, “I haven’t finished. Don’t walk away while I am talking to you.”  They see your response as sedition.  For them, it represents a weakening of their power and control over you.

You are meant to stand and take a toxic person’s abuse for as long as they choose to visit it on you.

The partner prevented Jan from walking away.  As a result, Jan “blew her top”, was duly labelled, “The Toxic One” and the episode ended in… another glorious win for her abuser.

Never underestimate how much of a win it is for an abuser when they get you to stoop to anything like their level.

Jan still couldn’t forgive herself.

An unlikely parallel

A story of my beloved, now long departed, little dog Sharon kept pushing itself to the front of my mind.

One day, when my daughter was small, a couple of her little friends came to play. They were an incredibly noisy brother and sister who I always found hard work.  On this occasion, the brother came into the kitchen to tell me that Sharon had tried to bite him.

Now, I knew my dog.  She was incredibly gentle. She loved children.  She obviously had not bitten him as he had not even a scratch to show for it. Nor did he appear distressed, at all. I thanked him for the information and he went back to play.

A few minutes later, when the noise levels were predictably high, I tiptoed out to where the children were playing.  The brother and sister had backed Sharon into a tiny space between an open door and the wall.  They were making a lot of noise, and crowding her.  From her perspective it was very stressful and threatening. It showed no sign of stopping any time soon.

Sharon was baring her teeth, in a last ditch attempt to make it stop. She couldn’t get away.  What else could she do?

I rescued Sharon, gave the terrible twosome about 10% of the telling off I thought they deserved and  warned them never to treat my dog like that again. They had their own dog so they didn’t even have the excuse of ignorance.

Being cornered triggers a reaction

My poor Sharon had reacted out of character – hostilely but not viciously – because she had been backed into a corner.

That really resonated with Jan.  She could see that and see that she, too, had been backed into one corner too many by her abusive partner.

People just don’t respond well when they have been cornered.

Jan managed to let herself off the hook for that one.

In fact, the whole situation in which she had “blown her top” had been a set-up, a carefully choreographed set-piece designed to leave her feeling awful about herself.  Or, more accurately, her abuser labored the point about how very badly Jan had behaved, in order to erode her sense of her own worth, still further.

Abusers set you up

Abusers set you up and keep goading you until you react.  When you do, they can “prove” that the whole thing happened – allegedly – because you are The Abusive One.

Sadly, this doesn’t just happen once or twice. It is an ongoing feature of an abusive relationship.

Each time that it happens, the abuser subjects you to their best Blame and Shame programming. You get to hear that you are “No Angel”, or “The Abuser/Narcissist/Toxic One” or whatever form of words they use, over and over again, to reinforce your awfulness.

Most of the instances disappear in the mists of time.

Sadly, the poison that lies within those words does not.

Rather it seeps slowly into your system and grossly distorts your sense of who you really are.

Could you have been too hard on yourself?

In the light of all of this, let me ask you again, is it possible that you are being too hard on yourself? Is it possible that the horrible judgments that you are still carrying around from an abuser, who may well now be in the past, are still hurting you?

You were taught that judging yourself harshly was the only way you could keep from becoming even more…

Take your pick from the following multiple choice:

  • Awful
  • Selfish
  • Abusive
  • Narcissistic
  • Toxic
  • Greedy
  • Needy
  • Demanding
  • Heartless
  • Unlovable
  • Ungrateful
  • Cruel
  • Rejecting

Repetition doesn’t mean truth

It doesn’t matter how many of those labels you heard.  It doesn’t matter how often you heard them. No amount of repetition makes them true. The people that need to keep telling you these things are doing so to project their own awfulness onto you.

Jan blew her top because she wanted more access to her partner’s heart. You may have fought with your partner because you wanted that partner to be more present to you.

But toxic people use their abuse to maintain their emotional distance from and control over you.  That is very different thing.

Toxic people leave you with some very damaging beliefs about yourself that are not true. Don’t be so hard on yourself.  You have already been punished hugely for wrongs that you never committed in the first place. You may still have a lot of negative beliefs about yourself but be aware of what they are.  And don’t take them so seriously.  Those beliefs are toxic. But you are NOT.

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Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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