Home > Abusive relationships, Borderline Personality Disorder, Marriage, relationships > Emotional Abuse and Bullies: If You Don’t Like What You See When You Look in the Mirror, Don’t Blame the Mirror

Emotional Abuse and Bullies: If You Don’t Like What You See When You Look in the Mirror, Don’t Blame the Mirror


93435443_a7db1dfa6e_oDo you like what you see when you look in the mirror? If you don’t, do you confront it and change if necessary? Or do you get mad at the mirror, threaten to destroy it or drape a cloth over it, and deny what you see?

Since beginning this blog a month ago, I’ve received both positive and negative feedback via comments. Many of my posts describe emotional abuse and bullying behaviors, which are typical of those who have Borderline, Narcissistic, and/or Antisocial personality traits.

People who abuse others maintain their power by keeping the truth of what they do secret. When you speak the truth, they begin to lose power and control. That’s what abusive personality types are after–power and control over you. When you speak the truth you also tick them off big time and there are usually negative repercussions–for you, not for them.

A friend described my blog as “waving a red cape in front of a raging bull” and asked why I’d deliberately try to antagonize people who are like this. The friend also pointed out this is a pattern for me.

This was hard feedback to receive. It felt a little bit like blaming the victim. Instead of becoming defensive and lashing out, I held the mirror up to myself and saw this to be accurate. I’ve provoked bullies in my personal and professional life in the past to expose them for who and what they are and made myself a target by doing so.

Even though I didn’t like having this reflected back to me, I didn’t get mad at the mirror. I didn’t denounce the mirror as irresponsible, tasteless, or cruel. I didn’t break the mirror or cover it up to deny what I saw. I looked into it and said, “Yep, that’s right.”

There’s something that compels me to say, “This is wrong. The emperor’s naked. We’re not the crazy ones. You are. Stop it.” I had a parent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder traits who bullied us. Having a bully in the family meant you couldn’t speak the truth for fear of setting them off. Confronting a bully, especially if they’re not afraid of you, is like throwing gasoline on a fire.

And what am I doing exactly to provoke them? I’m not naming specific bullies I’ve encountered in my life. I’m not outing anyone’s identity. I’m describing what emotional abuse and bullying are in general terms, the etiologies of these behaviors, and the effects and damage to those on the receiving end.

I’m telling men who have been abused and bullied they’re not alone, that the way they’re being treated is wrong, and they don’t have to accept it. You can find this information on other websites, psychology and self-help books, and professional psychiatry and psychology journals. The only difference is I’m tailoring this information for men who are emotionally abused instead of portraying women as the only victims of abuse.

And that’s why the emotionally abusive, professional victims/bullies don’t like what I write. It’s not their highly controlled and distorted spin on the truth. It’s the truth as I see it and as many people who have been bullied and hurt by these people see it.

The worst thing you can do when you’re involved with an abusive person, at work or at home, is to speak the truth. You get brutalized for it and they gun for you all the harder. It’s like the schoolyard bully who takes your milk money and then threatens to beat you up if you tell anyone.

In order to keep the peace and get along, should the rest of us surrender our “milk money,” our truth or our well being, so we don’t trigger the bully and get beaten up? I don’t know. Maybe.

When you’re bullied as a kid you go to your teacher, a parent, or some adult who’s in a position of authority to make the bully stop. But what do you do now as an adult when the person bullying you is your boss, co-worker, wife, girlfriend, or ex? Who is there to step in and say, “Enough?”

1350759978_82f0ebc145Since bullies won’t take responsibility for their actions and won’t stop until someone with authority makes them stop, the rest of us have to take responsibility for ourselves. Why did we become involved with them? Why do we stay with them? Why do we allow them to get away with their bad behaviors? Why is it so hard to speak the truth? (Actually, I know the answer to the last one. It’s because they get even nastier).

I used to try to get along with the bullies in my life by not having the “audacity” to disagree with them, have a better idea than them, or point out that they were being hurtful and unfair. “Just trying to get along” made me physically ill and depressed after a while.

I encourage those of us who just smile and swallow it, to collectively stand up for each other and say, “This is wrong. The emperor’s naked. We’re not the crazy ones. You are. Stop it.”

It’s scary to do this, but it can and must be done. When enough people take a stand and say “we’re not going to tolerate and excuse these behaviors anymore” the bullies lose their power and their control, which means they can’t hurt you anymore–well, they can try to, but it’s a little harder to do once you’ve de-fanged them.

by Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD

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I provide confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. My practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit Services and Products for professional inquiries.

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Photo credits:

Woman in a mirror by alex itin on flickr.

Man by Matthew Ahern on flickr.

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  1. Tiffany
    July 29, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Your site seemed to be the most honest and hit the tip of the quesstions Ive been asking myself.

    I think I am in an abusive relationship and I say think because I dont really know. I was looking online about depression and relationship problems and everything kept pulling up verbal and emotional abuse. I never really concidered that but as I was reading these different sites I could relate to about 90% of what they were saying was true to my situation. All of the research I had done kept saying it makes the victim feel this way or that way and it was exactly how I feel.

    Now dont get me wrong I completely recognized something wasnt right in our relationship but I always thought it was just me. Which is what he always tells me. I am more and more convinced that this is an abusive relationship.

    I went about trying to confront him and what you said makes sense I wish I would have read it yesterday because oh man was that the wrong thing to do. He flipped out. Started saying that I was the abuser and that I do all that stuff to and that I need to stop beleiving all the things I read on the internet and that if I think him doing that stuff makes him an abusive person Im crazy. This went on for most of the evening with the excetion of when he ignored me or walked off and went to play video games at that point I am not aloud to bother hin because he cant play the game with me yapping in his ear. Then when he took a break it was like nothing was ever said. He was trying to be sweet and kind and play around but if I said something about it he turned imediately around and said he would just leave. When he said that I said fine leave Im not holding you here he would reply with whatever and go back to the video games.

    So I guess I have 3 questions.

    First what do you do when they wont leave or let you leave? No he isnt holding a gun to my head saying I cant go but he controls all the money and we have kids how am I supposed to leave with them and our stuff and no money and nowhere to go? I cant get him to take me seriously that I am done and dont want him there anymore.

    Second I dont know what to do about needing to feel closure on this we have broken up and he has moved out 4 times in our relationship and I never felt it was over. While he was gone I was still blaming myself. I always thought I could do more or be more and it would work and it didnt work because I wasnt a strong enough woman to hold us together. So when we got back together I tried the best I could and things would be great for a short time then back to the same old stuff. I told him this last time that if the name calling started happening again that we would be forever done and its been a year with things being great. Ive never been so happy but then I started feeling down and noticing he was saying hurtful things more and more and blowing it off as I was a drama queen or to sensitive and I needed to deal with my past and stop blaming him for hurting me when it was all in my head. Im afraid that when I do find a way to get him to leave that I wont feel like its over again and I will take him back again. I have a strong urge to make sure he knows and understands and feels bad for what he has said and done to me but he never does.

    Third every site I read says that he blames you for his actions. Well he has only really done that a couple of times he always passes it off as it never happened or Im over reacting. He says Im taking it the wrong way and its because of my childhood. I was physically and sexually abused as a child and he says thats why I think he is so bad. Im the one that does the blaming. When Im moody or upset or crying or reach me end ropes and flip out screaming and yelling Im the one that blames him. I tell him its because he pushed me to far and I couldnt hold it in anymore. He made me feel so bad I lost it. Ive been in alot of counciling in my years and I tried to commit suicide when I was 15 and they all say the same thing I hold to much in and I need to tell people how I feel or it will just eat away at me. Which it does. I cant tell him because Im scared he will redicule me for my feeling or thoughts which he occasionally does and I cant tell anyone else because he gets upset that I didnt trust him to tell him. So I do explode at times and it is because of him and I cant take it anymore, but I dont degrade him I just tell him you hurt me you said this or that and I cant handle feeling how it makes me feel when you do this or that. So he says that I am the abusive one because I blame my actions on him. So are we both abusive?

    Any help or insite to this would be helpful I am so confused and depressed and lost. I dont know what to do anymore.

  2. rebecca
    April 14, 2009 at 10:12 am

    I can’t stop reading your site. It is so refreshing and honest. Thank you. I really love what you had to say about waving the red cape in front of the bull. I’d never heard it put that way, but I totally relate. I have had many incidents in my life where I have somehow confronted a systematic injustice in the workplace or even in family dynamics. This never earned me points with my narcissistic father or my BPD/abusive older sister. (I am speculating on these diagnosis, but they sure sound spot-on!)

    Like you, I’d rather confront the situation and deal with immediate fallout than spend all of my days pretending that everything is all right when it isn’t! Consequently, I have gotten a few egregiously nasty people fired or demoted in my professional life. I have no guilt about this, seeing that they were horrendous characters. Of course, after they were gone, other employees thanked me for standing up to the system that kept them in place.

    These same people were not backing me when I went up against the system, though. They would grumble in private, but not face down the problematic characters with me. At first this pissed me off, but I’ve grown to accept their behavior as “just the way it is.” In order to do the right thing, you sometimes have to be a bit of a social deviant. (A social deviant in a GOOD way, I mean!) Few, if any, people will back you until you’ve gotten good results. That’s ok, they have their reasons and it isn’t my job to judge them.

    You are doing some truly amazing work here. Thank you so much and please keep it up.

    All the best,
    Rebecca (again)

  3. Bryce
    February 14, 2009 at 8:18 am

    Well, I havent seen that movie.

    But I can certainly agree, it would probably take a noose around the neck or being strapped in the electric chair for most emotional bullies to get a conscience…lol

    By the way. Mine asked for forgiveness a lot, and then she would turn around and hurt me harder the next time.

    How many times has yours asked for forgiveness?

    Something to think about.

    • shrink4men
      February 14, 2009 at 4:57 pm

      There’s a lot to learn from being involved with an emotionally abusive partner. There’s a lot to learn about yourself and why you were drawn to this person, that there are sick people in this world who build themselves up by tearing others down, and that you can’t “save” someone who doesn’t want to be saved. That person would have to recognize they have a problem.

      I take issue with therapists who see people week after week, month after month, year after year, encouraging them to keep working on a relationship with an emotional predator—all the while taking their money.

      Predators don’t get better. Oftentimes, they use therapy to manipulate their partners with the help of a mental health “professional.” It’s great that the fictional movie sociopath had a moment of conscience right before he was punished for his crimes, but I would never encourage a man or woman who is being actively abused by their partner to hang in there, keep trying, and have faith in the underlying goodness of humanity. It is rare that the emotionally abusive person sees “the light.”

      • D
        August 5, 2010 at 11:06 pm

        A lot of people sense that the pigeon holes we place people in with labels of psychological disorders is de-humanizing to them. I think this is a valid intuition, but an incomplete sense of the whole truth.

        Usually I find that we can have useful explanations of the same thing from separately spiritual or scientific standpoints. On this, with limited space, I think focusing the the scientific will be most profitable – though I acknowledge the spiritual view that is referred to Dean Man Walking.

        Anyway – to be very short: when personality disordered people or drug addicts are placed under and MRI or a PET scan, researchers tend to find that the pre-frontal cortex is operating hugely sub-par, while “older” areas of the reptilian and amphibian brains are very much alight.

        A think about reptiles and amphibians: their behavior tends to be very predictable, much more heuristic or rule-based, if-then, and then too, highly based on eat/sleep/reproduce and flight/flight.

        Psychiatric and psychological treatments and therapies typically attempt to “activate” the pre-frontal cortex.

        People with active pre-frontal cortex are capable of all kinds of “human” behaviors: reciprocal moral thinking, empathy, circumspection as well as art, creativity and innovation.

        So, from a scientific standpoint, we can say that there is a human being in there, but that’s not what the PD is. The PD is the relative over-capacity of the lower brain versus the PRC. We shouldn’t think any less morally of the person suffering the PD, and it is possible in a motivated individual to activate the PFC, but we also shouldn’t fool ourselves: if you are dealing with the reptilian brain, you’re dealing with the reptilian brain. You cannot force or control a person to use their human endowments.

        • shrink4men
          August 5, 2010 at 11:33 pm

          Funny you mention the reptilian brain, D. I was responding to an email this morning and used the expression, “trying to figure out what’s going on in her little alligator brain.” Their behaviors are reptilian—no empathy, no remorse and, of course, crocodile tears. I know crocs and alligators are different, but you get the point. Reptiles don’t have sympathy for their prey and neither do these folks.

  4. February 14, 2009 at 7:44 am

    Thanks Bryce,
    you are helping me define better what I’m searching for. I refuse to accept that abusers don’t have finally a point where they own soul learns something.
    It’s the issue in “Dead Man Walking,” all the time that the nun is there, with him, and then both walk to his death and then, only then, he has the moment when he
    a) recognizes the damage done and
    b) asks for forgiveness.

    If I can’t believe that there is this spark of humanity, (even when, in the end, you end up having to leave him), then there is no hope that we are in relationships to learn something….and we should begin campaigning against marriage!

    thanks again

  5. Bryce
    February 14, 2009 at 7:34 am

    “I’m beginning to think that the missing peace hides the empowering factor involved in being able to do something that really, really, stops the bully and makes him stop and recognize and pay the price of his behavior.”

    Hi Nora

    I understand your statement above, as well as your desire to “control the controller”, and “humiliate the humiliator”

    These are feelings I think anyone whom has suffered from abuse can identify with.

    You want your abuser to feel what you have felt.
    To hurt the way you have hurt, and you want them to feel bad about hurting you. What you want is justice.

    But Dr. T is right in everything she says here. It’s hard stuff to accept. I was once where you are and maybe my take on it will help.

    Your frustration stems from seeking something that does not exist.

    There is no “missing piece”.

    More precisely, there IS something missing, but it is missing because it doesn’t exist, and therefore can’t be found.

    All abusive personalities, to one degree or another, have an impaired conscience.

    A mature, fully formed conscience is what allows us to have empathy, experience remorse, and restrains our behaviors towards others. It is what makes us human.

    A mature, fully formed conscience in your abuser is the “missing piece” you seek.

    They don’t have one, you can’t buy them one, and you can’t beat one into them.

    Without it they can’t feel what you feel, there is no recognition, no remorse, and no empathy.

    This is very hard for a normal person to wrap their head around. It is totally alien to us.

    In the end, the only way out from the pain, anger, and frustration is to accept that you have been in a one-way relationship with someone who is not fully human, as we understand humanity to be.

    This is not easy to do. It is repulsive to us. But it is necessary to move beyond the abuse and away from the abuser. I know because it is the path I had to walk.

    Therein lies the “empowering factor” you seek.

    Good luck on your journey.

    Bryce

  6. February 13, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks for your ideas. I have been reading 18 books about emotional abuse, bullying and this kind of behavior, very nice and good books….and I was left empty-handed.
    What are the solutions for the humiliated, bullied partner? no more than know yourself, recover yourself…and then be ready to leave.
    THIS is 50 % of the answer, and my frustration grows! why in this politically correct society nobody is teaching victims (in this case women) to implement strategies to control the controller, humiliate the humiliator and in general, to be able to stop this behavior cold.
    Of course, no, once you recover your brain, or what’s left of it after years of abuse, you need to leave. I’m beginning to think that the missing peace hides the empowering factor involved in being able to do something that really, really, stops the bully and makes him stop and recognize and pay the price of his behavior.
    In this case, you can also leave, but knowing that you are NOT only running away, that you developed strategies to defend yourself. I want to have that power restored to me in my hands, when I do leave!

    • shrink4men
      February 13, 2009 at 5:23 pm

      Hi Nora,

      You appear understandably frustrated and angry, which is how many people who suffer emotional abuse feel. I’d be frustrated and angry, too. On your site, you write, “You can learn to transform any relationship into acceptance, recognition and love.” I disagree. You cannot do this with a partner who is an emotionally abusive bully.

      Furthermore, isn’t your desire to learn how to “control the controller” and “humiliate the humiliator” antithetical to the advice you espouse to others?

      Although I’m confused why you would post your comment on my site, given the products you offer on your site for a fee and the conflicting statements you express in your comment here, I can share what I know from my own experiences and former patients I’ve worked with.

      1) You can’t control anyone else. You can’t change anyone else. You can’t make an emotionally abusive person treat you nicely.

      2) It’s highly unlikely that you can make a bully understand that the way he or she treats you is abusive. These people can’t take ownership for their bad behaviors. They always have a justification and rationalization. It’s your fault. In order for the emotionally abusive person to see their behavior for what it is, they have to be able to tolerate cognitive dissonance.

      Abusive personalities think of themselves as good, exceptional people who are above reproach (especially if they’re the NPD variety). Years ago, I dated an emotionally abusive man with NPD traits. When I ended the relationship, I told him exactly what I thought of him and the way he treated me. He was able to hold the information in his head for maybe 30 seconds, and then went back to blaming me for the hurtful things he did and said during the course of our relationship. The lesson I learned: Don’t waste your breath. You’ll feel triumphant for one hot second and then the bully retreats behind their favorite wall of distortions.

      3) “Controlling the controller” and “humiliating the humiliator” makes you just as bad as an emotionally abusive bully. Learning to out bully a bully is not a solution. The only person you can control is yourself and trying to humiliate a bully will only incite him or her to new lows of nastiness and decimate what’s left of your dignity. Narcissistic bullies in particular love to push your buttons until you react with hostility. This gets you to sink to their level and then they flip the situation and say, “Ah ha! See! You’re the angry crazy person! You need help!” The NPD bully is usually unconscious that this is what they’re doing, which makes it all the more maddening.

      4) Figure out what attracted to you to this person, why you’ve stayed, and what your fears are about ending the relationship. If you’re too scared to leave this person or can’t stand to be without him, then you have to make your peace with the way he is. I repeat, you can’t change the emotionally abusive bully. I read a great line on Narcissists Suck yesterday that you can’t move a wall by banging your head against it, but you can give yourself a concussion (or something like that).

      5) If you do end the relationship, keep exploring the same questions above. There’s often a secondary gain to remaining in an abusive relationship. Figure out what you want, need, and deserve in your next relationship. That will help you break the cycle of emotional abuse.

      6) Ending a relationship with an emotionally abusive bully isn’t “running away” or abandonment or admitting failure or anything to be ashamed of; it’s the sane choice. It’s the healthy choice. Living with an emotionally abusive person is like living next to a radioactive waste site. You wouldn’t voluntarily choose to live somewhere where the air and water was contaminated and making you sick, would you? Same difference.

      I wish you the best, Nora. Looks like you have some cognitive dissonance of your own to wrestle with.

      Kind Regards,
      Dr T

  7. dbear
    February 13, 2009 at 12:23 am

    Love your website. I am getting ready to confront my bully with BPD/NPD.

    Your last comment is the opposite of what I saw and now see. You have to stand up to the Terrorist Bullies.

    Also I see the ‘new’ emperor as the one with no clothes!

    • shrink4men
      February 13, 2009 at 1:08 am

      Good luck. They don’t like being confronted. Typically, they’ll deny everything you say, then blame you and/or accuse you of being the bully and insist they’re the victim, and then yell, scream, demean, burst into crocodile tears or dismiss what you say.

      Confronting them doesn’t make them see the reality of what they’re doing; it just makes them angrier. Be prepared and ask yourself what you’re getting out of this relationship, why you stay, and what you can do to make your life better–which probably won’t include the bully.

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m delighted you find my blog helpful.

      Best Wishes,
      Dr T

  1. September 11, 2011 at 5:21 am
  2. December 17, 2010 at 6:44 pm
  3. December 2, 2010 at 10:55 am

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