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Abuse, and how to avoid it

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PSYCHOLOGISTS have spent many years studying the techniques that can be deployed to control behaviour. It’s an inglorious science. The organism under investigation is treated as an object, pushed and lured by the various rewards and punishments operating in its environment.

Such an outlook belittles free will, morality, purpose. If you can get a rabbit to do what you want by dangling a carrot, who cares what the rabbit wants or feels? As long as it leaps in the desired direction. Such control can go to people’s heads in a hop, skip and jump.

Control is attractive to alienated, damaged people. Such people fear life and deplore weakness. When young they were unwanted or resented. In many cases they were eclipsed by a more attractive or gifted sibling who received all the attention and praise. Some suffered physical abuse from their family, or were sent far from home to an institution where cruelty was routine.

Such experiences deny a child the opportunity to learn the value of empathy and kindness. Life becomes a matter of survival, and an astute child observes the methods of control and the strategies needed to avoid punishment and pain, and how to gain advantage.

These techniques become automatic. The person becomes cunning, untrustworthy; and techniques which get results are reinforced and persist and produce a person who is, unfortunately, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

Once such characters are unleashed on society they continue to survive using the techniques they have learned. They are not ‘evil’. The word ‘evil’ doesn’t explain anything. They are not really human beings any more, through no fault of their own. But survive they must, and to survive in their ugly, pitiless world, they abuse others, systematically.

For them, the sight of a happily alive, loved human being fills them with murderous envy and awakens a bitter and intolerable self-loathing. They urgently need to expel these vile emotions, and they do so by acting cruelly towards or destroying a convenient, defenceless victim.

A victim needs a weakness which can be exploited. Almost anything can serve: scant income, nowhere to live, low intellect or lack of confidence. Abusers seek out the vulnerable. Some weaknesses are more eagerly sought than others. Extreme naïvety and gullibility are the top prizes.

Abusers will isolate their victim from family and friends, making all outside contact difficult. They manoeuvre to disrupt any support networks and create complex barriers. The abuser will be impossible to pin down, saying one thing one moment, and then saying the opposite the next.

The abuser intends the victim to doubt himself. To disbelieve his own eyes. To render the idea that the abuser is hostile to, and working against the victim, unthinkable. The abuser will talk up the failings of outsiders who are beyond control, labelling them ‘idiots’, ‘conspiracy theorists’ etc. The abuser aims to make the victim feel guilty and ashamed, stupid and inadequate.

Abusers must control all that their victims see and hear. The same messages and ideas are repeated, to the exclusion of all information to the contrary. The abuser moves to dismantle the victim’s familiar world and replace it with a world of the abuser’s creation. The victim is made to feel a foreigner in a foreign land, totally dependent on the abuser and the abuser alone.

The abuser will arrange that the victim’s freedom is severely curtailed. He cannot go on holiday, he cannot buy his own clothes, he cannot go to a restaurant with friends. He will be required to perform absurd and demeaning rituals such as washing the dustbin, or wearing a yellow bobble hat on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The abuser will move to squeeze all joy out of life.

The abuser must loosen the leash from time to time in order to be able to snap it back again. The victim will be indulged occasionally. A little reward here; a bit of consideration there. None of it is authentic or sincere. It is a calculated easing of the noose. These indulgences come at a time when the abuser senses having gone too far, and suspects that the victim has had enough of the nonsense.

Abusers are frightful cowards, but they can be dangerous if challenged and vicious if cornered. They use threats to avoid using physical assault, but will have no hesitation in lashing out if no other option is available. Their threats need to be credible. When they attack, the attack will be deemed proportionate, just and inevitable, because the victim has been incorrigible, and has forced the abuser to administer punishment. The victim got what he deserved.

Some people are immune to abuse and manipulation. They will not tolerate being harmed for one moment, and are not afraid to retaliate. They ridicule deception and trickery. Such people are a minority. Most can be swayed. Everyone wants to fit in and get along. Who wants a reputation of being an awkward so-and-so?

To be unassailable, a person needs a robust sense of self. This sense of self has to be rooted in internal, as opposed to external, assets.

External assets are: Career, status, fame, money, physical appearance, access to influence, material possessions, sexual prowess, a high life of fine wines and haute cuisine.

Internal assets are: Intelligence, good health, creativity, ability to love and be loved, a sense of purpose, loyalty, belief and confidence in oneself and one’s judgment, independence of thought, honesty, compassion, wit.

Alas, no one is invincible and life can be unkind to any of us. There are no guarantees. Terrible things happen to the nicest people and there is no recompense. But there are defences against abuse:

1. Identify your priorities. What is the most important thing in your life? What would threaten it? Define your red lines. Act decisively and irrevocably when they are crossed.

2. Do not reveal to ANYONE what the most important thing in your life is. Do not give an abuser any sensitive information. If pressed, tell lies.

3. Protect your ‘Self’. Your real Self may have to go underground for a while, in rather the same way as a rabbit eludes a fox. Once the danger has passed, your Self will be able to re-emerge unscathed.

4. Constantly monitor your connections with friends and family. If you sense contact weakening, reconnect immediately by phone, message or personal visit.

5. Avoid permitting an abuser to manhandle or injure you. Do not eat, drink or allow unknown substances into your body that they have prepared. Never be a passenger in their car.

6. Do not open a joint bank account or allow an abuser access to or control over your mail, finances, laptop, personal details or mobile phone.

7. Do not let an abuser administer medication. Count the tablets out yourself and never exceed the recommended dose.

8. Identify a bolthole in case of emergency. Keep a bag packed with essentials. Move to your safe location immediately if you are in danger, or when you judge that the time is ripe.

9. Remember this above all else: the abuse will never end. If an abuser has abused you once, it will happen again. Abusers cannot be reformed. They do not want to reform. They can only abuse. It’s all they know. Their very survival depends on it. They are not fully human. They are damaged. Their only stratagem in life is to damage others. Do not grant a second chance. Not even once.

10. Always listen to your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right. Feelings are funny things. They are not facts. But your feelings will never lie to you. They will not tell you what to do, but they can be relied on to tell you how you are feeling, and that an adjustment is required. They cannot tell you what that adjustment needs to be. Only you can work that one out. But when your feelings are on transmit, be sure that you are on receive.

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Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik (pseudonym) was a student of psychology in the seventies, before ditching it to work in television.

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