First the Sizzle then the Pain: Understanding Emotional Abuse

By Bonnie Harken, NCLC,Your Story Confidential Provider

Humans long for acceptance and love.  How does the excitement and thrill during the initial stages of a relationship change into a pain that destroys our sense of self-worth?  Pain that keeps us from moving forward and risking to love again or keeps us in a relationship that is dysfunctional and destructive.   Have you assessed the relationships in your life, both past and present, and wondered why you attract the same type of man or woman over and over?  Have you identified yourself as codependent but still don’t understand what has happened in your relationships?  A lot has been written in the field of psychology about the attraction between codependents and narcissists.

At some time in our lives, each of us may feel overwhelmed and need help dealing with our problems. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 30 million Americans need help dealing with feelings and problems that seem beyond their control — problems with a marriage or relationship, a family situation, or dealing with losing a job, the death of a loved one, depression, stress, burnout, or substance abuse.

  • Those losses and stresses of daily living can at times be significantly debilitating.
  • Sometimes we need outside help from a trained, licensed professional in order to work through these problems.
  • Through therapy, millions of Americans of all ages live healthier, more productive lives.

We assume that everyone has a conscience and the ability to empathize, but according to Harvard psychologist Martha Stout 1 in 25 people in the United States are estimated to be sociopaths. There is a spectrum of the inability to empathize represented from narcissistic personalities to the extremes of sociopaths and psychopaths.  These traits are not gender specific and often the individuals are extremely charismatic.  Even if you didn’t know it, it’s very possible you’ve had a co-worker, family member, significant other, or a friend with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder. Let’s examine the stages of an unhealthy relationship with an emotional abuser.

So how did you become a victim and lose your sense of self-worth?  It didn’t happen by accident.  The cruelty is deliberate and designed to make you the victim.  You gave that person your trust and got manipulation, control and anger in return.  There are stages in the process that takes you from the sizzle of a new relationship to the pain of self-devaluation and overwhelming insecurity.  During the idealization phase of your relationship you may have revealed your deepest feelings of anxiety or insecurity about yourself. You may have shared that you are overly sensitive about some flaw in your physical appearance, events from your past, or your heartbreaks. These things are music to the ears of your soon to be abuser. An open wound is an invitation to cut deeper and the narcissist can and always will cut a wound even deeper.

During the idealization stage of your relationship, the narcissist loves your strengths and brags about you to friends making you feel wonderful about yourself.  During the devaluation stage of the relationship all those strengths are now turned against you as flaws and faults.  Before you were “intelligent and successful”, now you become a “know it all and aggressive”. Your abuser will degrade and minimize you, your dreams, your beliefs, your talents, and your appearance while they build up their own.  This is traumatizing and vicious.  And eventually you turn on yourself, destroying and sabotaging yourself.

You need to please them but they need to be displeased. Your abuser cultivated your need for their validation and approval early on in the idealization phase making you dependent on their praise. You were groomed to seek the excessive admiration that only they could give. Now, as they devalue you, they use your need for validation to their advantage by withdrawal, brooding and hostility at every opportunity.

  • Changing every generous thing you do for them as a failure on your part that falls short of their expectations.
  • Nothing can meet their high standards and every wrong will be pointed out.
  • There’s a good chance that even the things they do wrong will be blamed on you.
  • When you attempt to make your abuser accountable, they turn your words against you, rage, or give you the silent treatment.

After all, they have created the language of abuse and they know how to use it against you.

If you are reading this and relating to it as truth in your life and your relationship(s), you may be in the realization and decision phase of the emotional abuse cycle.  There is hope for a better life in the future.  You can replace the language of your abuser with the language of your own truth.  “Diagnosing” your abuser and trying to fix them is not the answer.  Stop reading self-help books trying to understand the whys of that person’s behavior.   They have to seek their own healing.  You cannot change them.  You are a target of their dysfunction, anger, and cruelty but not the source of it.  A counseling professional can help you understand your own behaviors, validating and supporting you through the process of healing.  The only power your abuser has in your life is the power you have given.  Your future is in your hands.  It is your choice.

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