How do you recognise emotional abuse?

One of the hardest things to recognise and understand as an untrained person is: what is emotional abuse?

Some similarities here to bullying, which has slowly come to be highlighted through public awareness campaigns over the last twenty years; emotional abuse is perceived as a relatively recent issue to be discussed.

Emotional abuse can consist of very subtle, easily disguised or dismissed verbal behaviours and non-violent physical actions which have to be seen as a whole pattern. This makes it particularly hard for people with experiences like mine to pinpoint when abuse started, or even to define it as abuse in later life. When someone has grown up with a dysfunctional or abusive parent(s) those behaviours will simply come to be seen as “how X is” or “how my parents are”, if they’re not challenged by other adults or by seeing clear examples of others’ lives that reinforce what is wrong.

Unfortunately, my mother’s behaviour and actions were never pointed out to me as wrong or inappropriate and it has taken a very long time to realise what precisely was happening. That includes having experienced bullying at school, and then later on in the workplace, and still not understanding what I was experiencing through my relationship with my mother.

What should be stressed is that there is no 100% absolutely accurate checklist that you can fill in to find out if your mother is an emotional abuser. Nor does visiting a counsellor or therapist necessarily provide instant help. I’ve visited websites and read books documenting different experiences and information about mental health issues and personality disorders. It is only by comparing information from different sources, alongside my own experiences, that I became certain I’d been a victim of emotional abuse. Without having a professional diagnosis of my mother’s mental processes; the closest fitting and apparently most likely explanation is that she has some form of narcissistic personality disorder.

Perhaps one of hardest things about finding out that that my mother’s behaviour is identical to some which are typical of a person with NPD is that she is unlikely, at this point in her life, to ever be capable of expressing genuine love or empathy for me. Or indeed anyone else.

To keep engaging with her in the hope that her behaviour might improve for the better, that she might be a loving mother as other people’s mothers are, would be a complete waste of my time and emotional resources, no matter how much I might wish things were different.

So what kind of behaviours and actions did I notice?

As mentioned above, the pattern of behaviour only became apparent to me over forty years with an acceleration or increase as she became older and once I moved away and there was a greater physical distance between us. The following covers the major aspects.

  1. The sole subject she could talk about at length was herself. Okay, so talking about yourself isn’t necessarily an immediate sign of a serious personality disorder. Plenty of people do this. The key thing with my mother is that this was her default conversation at all times. Discussing books, music, films and t.v., crafts, food and cooking, clothes, sports, etc., was very rare, unless it was something that directly affected her or her interests. Otherwise she would simply use me as a convenient ear for her problems (see below). An example of when she did talk of other topics that interested her would be a passion for watching tennis on television. Despite many years of telling her that I didn’t watch tennis she would always talk to me as if I did, ignoring my repeated mentions that I was not interested in that particular sport. If she was interested then I had to be too.
  2. Extreme negativity, criticism and undermining.  Few people, subjects or situations would ever be talked about in a completely positive or enthusiastic way. Any experience that my mother had, be it going out to the local shops or having a luxury holiday in a fabulous location, nothing would ever occur without some detail, usually fairly minor, which was turned into a major point for drama and criticizing the entire thing. No matter how expensive or thoughtfully planned an event or trip or gift, nothing was ever quite good enough for her standards. This also applied to me with the feeling that nothing I could do or say would ever be sufficiently good enough to receive praise or attention. People she claimed as being her close friends or family she liked best would be ruthlessly criticized for incredibly petty things; a woman who chose to have two different cakes at her birthday buffet; “She was ripped off there by the caterers, think of the expense, no-one needs two whole cakes!” Or my cousin on her wedding day; “If I’d been her mother I would’ve had a word with her, she’s far too thin for that dress, poor thing, it doesn’t suit her at all. She looks terrible.” The list could go on and on. When I started my own business, although she was was quick enough to want jewellery for free that she liked, she would belittle what I made overall as “these are for kids, really aren’t they?” or making it clear it was below the style of her wealthier acquaintances and therefore herself too. Not once would she ever spontaneously offer a kind word, a supportive gesture or genuine enthusiasm, unless it was in public and would either garner her praise for being such a “caring person” or would’ve been commented on if she didn’t and then make her look bad.
  3. Any emotional experience I talked about would either be ignored or have to become about her. This was perhaps the single most damaging aspect to our relationship when growing up; that my mother couldn’t show empathy or offer positive physical and emotional support, especially when I experienced emotionally difficult situations. Whether that was bullying at school to the time when I had my first bout of depression in my twenties. This shifted somewhat over time; in pre-teens and teenage years she would claim that my father’s chronic and terminal illness and her role as primary carer meant that she was too stressed and overworked to look after me too. This can be extremely legitimate as a problem because being a carer is highly stressful and it was also at a time that carer support networks were not as widespread or funded as they are today. It is no slight on struggling carers who are parents and face incredible financial and emotional difficulties. However, narcissistic parents have very different motivations and leaving any pre-teen or teenager to sort out their own emotional well-being and health-giving support is not usually a recipe for success. During my teens I became her primary emotional support, which she was incapable of being for me. In later life talking of any personal difficulty would have the conversation turning to focus on her problems and a default ignoring or dismissal of what I’d just said. Alternately it would be; “You think your problem is bad, wait until you hear what happened to me!” which would lead into a situation that I couldn’t possibly refute without seeming callous, unloving or entering into an escalating competition. My problems were never as severe, dramatic or, in her mental perspective, important and valid compared to her own situation.
  4. Being an emotional vampire.  I’d never understood the relish she displayed in retelling stories of friends and acquaintance’s personal problems. It always seemed to be verging on sheer delight for a woman who rarely showed obvious happiness or joy at anything. The simple answer I avoided acknowledging was that there was nothing she enjoyed quite so much as oozing fake sympathy for those who had suffered. In relating someone’s tragic tale of loss, illness or accident she had the spotlight of attention and the sympathy that was being invoked for the person involved. It breaks my heart to think of the many people she has managed to fool and pull into her circle over the years. Those who have shared their problems thinking they had found a caring, listening friend would be devastated to know she only did that to use their words as a way of getting people to pay attention to her, to bolster her social standing with gossip and taking private, malicious glee and pleasure in the pains of others.
  5. Breaking friendships. As an isolated child, it was rare for me to form lasting friendships at a young age as this was another aspect that both my parents exercised varying degrees of control over. One friendship did manage to last through various storms of separation and adolescence from the age of eight until my early twenties. Then my mother decided to break it up as revenge for being slighted. In hindsight; it seems likely that my mother’s interference and manipulative behaviour towards my friend caused a massive disagreement. My friend decided it was best not to tell me. Unfortunately my mother used my friend’s silence to get her story in first. After a routine health check, she said she was going to need further tests for cancer after abnormal cells were found. On the very same day as the initial test report, and apparently for no obvious reason, my friend had launched into an unjustified verbal attack during a phone call and said she didn’t want any further contact with my mother. This forced me into having to make a choice, did I support my apparently callous friend or my emotionally distraught, possibly seriously ill mother? I didn’t see through my mother’s lies and manipulation then and never spoke to my friend again. It was years later that I found out that my mother had lied as she had completely forgotten (or blanked) about the incident and accidentally revealed she had never received an abnormal cell result or ever been referred for cancer tests.
  6. Lying/re-writing events to suit her internal narrative. As the above shows: when feeling threatened by external circumstances, my mother had little compunction about constructing her own version of events that suited her needs. This also was one of the earliest signs, to me, of the difference between her perception of reality and mine. She was, in her own mind, never wrong about anything. This obviously caused some serious contortions of the truth to make things fit, either consciously or unconsciously. This was a pattern that repeated itself over and over. When confronted by something that would put my mother in a harsh or unsympathetic light, she re-imagined it so she was the wronged party. This massively effected family and friend relationships for years.
  7. Consistently ignoring boundaries. I’d only become aware of the severity of this once I’d instituted a more controlled contact method. It was the inability to respect my stated boundaries on the frequency of phone calls and letters that made me go no contact, as I realised that my mother simply did not believe that it could apply to her. Unfortunately, this can be a very common and exceedingly stressful behaviour to deal with.
  8. What others thought of her was always more important than my feelings. The last time I saw my mother one of the things that stood out the most was her obvious inclination to pretend all was “normal” according to her standards. In coming back from the painful meal I discussed in this previous post she spotted the adult daughter of one her neighbours walking up the road. Eager to show off her absolute control of social matters by revenge humiliation; she yelled out my old (dead)name for half the street to hear as a means of calling me over to be introduced. I refused to do so, ignoring her calls and giving her “angry looks” as she later called it. When she later ranted at me via letter about this incident her single concern was that I made her look bad in front of the neighbours. This was not new behaviour as her primary concern throughout my childhood was less about me as a child, my feelings or healthy development than “what the neighbours think”. Her anxiety and snobbish fears about her level of social status and being caught out, exposed as an abuser and penalised might have contributed to constraining her from consistent physically violent abuse, which I had experienced on two or three occasions. I am grateful for that, at least.

These are some of the general behaviours and problems I encountered, others I may write about as I process memories.

If any of these points seems familiar, then I thoroughly recommend doing more reading and investigation into mental health topics and learning from your own experiences. The hardest part can be in believing yourself, but the more you learn the more you can try to fight against being manipulated by emotional abuse in future. Fight on, my friends.

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What’s in a name?

In my previous post about past Mother’s Days/Mothering Sundays I gave an outline of what my mother’s general behaviour had been when I visited in person.

It’s strange to think back. Would I have begun to understand just how long and consistently my mother had been emotionally abusive to me if I hadn’t gone through the process of changing my name?

To give some background: I’m a non binary person and I’ve known that I didn’t fit into the CIS, exclusively male or exclusively female categories since I was six years old. The names and definitions were unknown to me then, although of course all kinds of people with different binary orientation or other genders existed. That was the 1970s and 1980s in provincial England, there wasn’t much of what you’d call an open or progressive attitude towards gender, sexuality or relationships, or at least not in our family. I learned to keep my mouth shut about any differences I felt regarding my gender or sexuality. I kept it firmly unacknowledged and hidden until around 2014.

I came out to my partner and my best friend in 2015, and although there was some surprise, there was more of an immediate acceptance than I expected. What I didn’t do was tell my mother and stepfather. I knew that acceptance and support was the last thing that was likely to be offered. However, my slow and ongoing transition had a starting point and that was changing my given first name. I’d never liked it or felt it reflected the person I knew I was on the inside.

I’d decided to inform my mother of my name change after it had been legally processed.

Why wait? Well, I was very aware (even without consciously realising the extent of the emotional abuse) that our relationship had never been particularly close, encouraging or emotionally supportive.

What I hadn’t expected was that it didn’t go badly, at first. Over the phone and via letter  it appeared that, apart from some initial surprise, my mother was okay with the news. At this time I’d already introduced limited contact with her, so that perhaps delayed the later problems.

The first visit after my name change was not a full-on disaster but it was clear that only a month on from announcing it neither my mother or stepfather were practiced at saying my new name. They never say it aloud once. I wondered if my mother had concealed this from my stepfather as he made absolutely no indication that he knew my name had changed. It should’ve been a big, red flag, but I allowed for the fact that it was a new and potentially distressing situation for them. As people in their seventies and eighties they might need more time to get used to using my name and patience from me in allowing them that time. I let the matter be without saying anything.

Five months later the issue exploded in everyone’s faces, and finally began to peel away the levels of defense I’d constructed to deal with years of abuse.

It was a lunch at a restaurant for my mother’s and my partner’s birthday, which falls on the same day. Every year we’d get together around that date to celebrate. Being out in public was usually a lot less stressful than being invited to lunch at their home.

This time it was an utter nightmare, for me and for my partner.

I immediately noticed that both my mother and stepfather were not calling me by my name and this time it was grating on me to say nothing. There was not a single apology made for getting my name wrong. During the three hours that followed I counted that my mother used my deadname sixteen times, compared to my stepfather who used it only three times. It was far more than my mother would ever usually have called me by name in a week, let alone a day.

What followed on from that was almost a masterclass in the range of emotional abuse and negative, manipulative behaviours that I’d grown used to since I was a child. There was belittlement of my achievements and appearance, emotional vampirism, forced teaming, as well as general levels of negativity.  It was enough in itself to leave me depressed and unhappy but it was her letter to me, some weeks later, that finally made me realise how bad things had been for a long time.

I’d written to her a week after that painful afternoon. I’d gone through version after version to try and find a way to vent my anger, and then, when calmer, to explain how I felt to be called by the wrong name. I tried to keep my tone hopeful and conciliatory but I still hadn’t understood at that point just how deliberate her emotional manipulation was.

A reply arrived. There was not a single word of apology. There was no mention of her feeling any sadness that I’d felt hurt. Not even as lip service to us ‘getting along’. Instead it was a full-on attack of how wrong I was to even dare mention how I felt because it was, of course, all about her. She’d been ill in the previous months! She was an elderly person! She deserved understanding and sympathy and I was just being selfish and demanding. Why all her friends, who had been so amazingly supportive during her illness, had told her she was a wonderful person! I had to be making it up to accuse of her of being anything less than completely marvellous at all times.

And it was with that I was forced to recognise how little she actually cared for me. It was one of the unhappiest Eureka! moments of my life. All her previous behaviour became clear to me, at last. Which I will write about further in my next post.

Mother’s Day – How to avoid and cope with it as a survivor of emotional abuse

Having decided on keeping a no contact policy with my mother in 2016: it meant that for 2017 there would be no Mothering Sunday expedition. I thought that would be quite easy. What could be better than not having to spend time walking on eggshells around an emotional abuser?

I had not truly understood before the sheer megaphone volume of Mother’s Day in everyday life, it felt that every single place I turned online seemed to have the same message; “YOUR MOTHER IS THE MOST WONDERFULLY SPECIAL PERSON IN YOUR LIFE AND YOU MUST ADORE HER!”

The answer to that in my case is: No. She isn’t and I don’t.

Having searched for ways to block this distressing consumerist and societal message I found there was not as much I could do as I’d hoped. At least not without reprogramming the entire internet.

Most written articles I’ve seen when searching for ways to avoid or cut down these reminders are either more consumerist “advice” under misleading headers or are meant for people grieving the death of their much-loved parent. Understandable and necessary as it is to help those who have lost a loved one, it does enforce an invisible narrative that to raise the subject of abusive mothers is a) not usual and b) not wanted.

Given that situation: I am writing my own guide from my experiences and here it is for the very first year of no contact-

  1. If you haven’t done it before; the best time to start blocking content on social media is probably three or four weeks before Mothering Sunday in the U.K or Mother’s Day in other countries that mark the same event. I’ve found it is the sheer number of ads, articles, idealised imagery and so on, for weeks on end, across multiple platforms that is just too much to take.
  2. Set aside some time to put in place as many filter terms as you possibly can on e-mails and social media feeds. You may have to look carefully at what terms are most widely used, which means readying yourself mentally. I have noticed on Twitter when I view it in my desktop browser that any re-tweets will get around hashtag filters, so if you’re following a feed that is likely to post a lot of Mother’s Day items (e.g handicraft/artisan promotion feeds, clothing, cosmetics, food or drink- related companies) then you’re better off to temporarily mute or unfollow that account.
  3. Try to find a decent ad-blocker for your browser, if you haven’t already. Unwanted web ads are everywhere and cutting out ads that are for seasonally themed holidays and celebrations is a help for more than just Mother’s Day.
  4. If you find you cannot feel safe or happy online then try to be clear as you can to friends, family or other loved ones that you will be taking a break from being active on social media as much, or at all, during these kind of events.
  5. If you’ve already gone non-contact and set up filters; the next key thing is to think about how you want to spend the day. Any thoughts you’ve ever had of where you’d rather be, or what you’d prefer to be doing, rather than sitting in a room with someone who wants to emotionally hurt and manipulate you, then this is the time to do it. I chose to go with a combination of reading books and cooking from recipes I’d been wanting to try. Whatever it is that you do make sure it is what you enjoy doing, as much as possible for your given circumstances.
  6. It is okay to feel hurt, angry, upset, disappointed, grieved or even not to feel anything at all on what is supposed to be a “special” day. I am not a qualified mental health professional, so I cannot give specific advice on an individual’s emotions and experience. However, I do know how I felt for years and it was that I should not feel negative emotions or express them, because it was me who was wrong. Find whatever helpful, constructive support you can to remind yourself that you are not alone in what you have experienced and that what you feel is valid, whether that is through a partner, friends, understanding family members, a counsellor/therapist or other trusted advisor.

I hope what I’ve written here will be a help to those who have experienced similar abuse and who are trying to heal their lives. If there are any suggestions on coping with difficulties around Mother’s Day or other family-related holidays that could be of help, please do leave a comment.

Mother’s Day – Why I hate and avoid it as an emotional abuse survivor

I started to notice over the last month just how much society, especially via social media, gives out an extremely pressurizing message on mother and child relationships and how they are supposed to work.

This also has timing worthy of a black comedy. Having reached the point of understanding I’d experienced years of emotional abuse it coincides with that marketing frenzy for all things maternal; Mothering Sunday on 26th March (as Mother’s Day is traditionally called in the U.K).

I’ve thought about what I’d be usually doing at this time of year. I’d already be mentally bracing myself for a barely comfortable, at best, lunch visit at my mother and stepfather’s house.

The event would typically run like this: it takes two hours to reach where they live and my partner has always driven there (as I cannot drive). We’d have to hurry through our morning routines, with me slow and reluctant to go through the ordeal for yet another year but without being open about why. I didn’t think about why very much at all, in hindsight, just that it made me feel stressed, unhappy and guilty that I didn’t want to go.

On arriving there would be the very cheerful greeting on the doorstep, the hug and cheek kissing, quickly followed by the dismissive/disinterested attitude of my mother towards whatever gifts I’d bought for her. No matter how carefully chosen, according to her tastes and what she declared she liked, it would be treated with all the delight and enthusiasm of having presented her with last week’s crumpled newspaper.

I’d been trying for years to give exactly the right gift that would make her face light up and her say to or show me her reaction of; “This is so lovely!” It never happened and it never would because that’s not how it works with her. Nothing I could give was ever going to be good enough.

I’d be herded into the kitchen by my stepfather; “so your Mum can catch up with you” which would turn into the usual litany of all the problems she’d recently had, most of which would have her cast as the poor, misunderstood, victim of events. Criticism of my stepfather for whatever failings had made her life even more difficult and then emotional vampirism in delightedly relating the pains and tragedies of friends and relatives.

If she managed a break from this it was so I could talk about what I’d been doing. Not because she was truly interested in my life. I’d learned over the years to be cagey about giving information, as it would trigger an outburst or some other response that made it clear that whatever I did; if she could draw the maximum drama out of it, whilst twisting it to make it all about herself, then she would do so.

Then it would be a sit down buffet meal with her, my stepfather and my partner where the conversation had to be steered as carefully as possible onto neutral topics or unpleasantness would ensue. To finish up there would be dessert and passive-aggressive sniping towards me for never staying long enough, often with a sexist flavour of supposed female ‘bossiness’ towards my partner because of mentioning; “Gosh, is that the time? We really should be going.”

If I could make it through the visit without feeling explosively angry or completely inadequate, or both, it generally counted as a win, although the whole thing would be physically and mentally exhausting whatever happened.

Year after year, with little variation, it sapped my will and what remained of my positive feelings towards her.

The first step

It was just five days ago that, after over forty years, I finally felt in a position to acknowledge that I had been on the receiving end of emotional abuse from my mother.

This is the first time I’ve ever consciously and deliberately written about my life as a survivor of emotional abuse. It’s not a decision that came without careful thought and also some feelings of anxiety and fear, especially when I’m looking for the right therapist/counsellor to help me deal with the thoughts and emotions I’ve been hiding or sitting on.

Why write publicly about it? Well, primarily, starting this blog is for me, knowing that I am writing what I no longer wish to keep quiet about. Silence does not make abuse go away, or rather it never has in my experience.

My secondary reason is the hope that by writing specifically about the effects of emotional abuse from a mother it will perhaps reach others who have never realised what was, or is, wrong with their relationship, who may have always felt it is their fault and responsibility that they cannot seem to build a close and happy bond with their mother no matter how hard they try, just like other “normal” people do.

Unsurprisingly; there is still a huge taboo in various cultures and society that mothers can be anything different from the ideal of always being healthily loving, wonderfully supportive and incredibly encouraging to their children. Which is not to say that many mothers do not have those qualities and more. But there remains a heavy silence when it comes to emotional abuse being talked about in general in the U.K.

When I started to search for information on abusive behaviour the more well-publicized and prominent information was for those who have suffered physical and/or sexual abuse. Emotional or mental abuse appear, intentionally or not, to fall lower on the scale of abusiveness although there is little doubt to me that all forms of abuse are abuse and the harm and pain they cause are incalculable to the individuals who experience it.

As I start the process of understanding what has happened during my life and how to cope with the effects of that abuse; I will share here what I have learned, or tried to unlearn. In my  future posts I will be writing in greater detail of my experiences and how I, finally, understood it was abuse.