One thing that we at SwanWaters.com have learned is that while survivors may be thousands of miles apart, the strategies used by their emotional abuser are eerily similar.
There seems very little difference in how the abuse is perpetrated. This means that we are pretty confident that the below list of traits and the accompanying examples will help you spot the emotional abuser(s) in your life.
1. An Abuser Takes No Responsibility For Their Faults
“Stone cold denial was very common for my mother. As soon as you would bring up something she had done that was obviously hurtful, she would just deny it ever happened. It did not matter if a year had past or only a day. She once called my brother-in-law ‘the devil’, and denied it ever happened no more than 12 hours later”.
Read more about responsibility and blame.
2. An Abuser Expresses No True Emotions
This is especially when their target does. In emotionally charged situation the abuser can seem to switch off.
“I remember a time when my partner and I were having trouble with my parents, and decided to sit down for a conversation with them. I was very open about how I felt about our relationship. I even told them that – given the choice – having the relationship we had, or not having a relationship at all; I would prefer not to have a relationship with my parents at all. I told my mother that I just felt like I wasn’t good enough, that my parents didn’t love me for who I was. My mother just sat there and never responded. She didn’t look at me, she didn’t scream at me, she didn’t contradict me… My father meanwhile was shooting death stares at my partner.”
3. An Abuser Drains the Energy Right Out of You
“Whenever I knew my mother was coming to visit I would be agitated for hours beforehand. I always tried to be on my best behavior, but honestly by the time she left my house I would be a nervous wreck! I tried to keep everything as pleasant as possible; making sure the children and the dog did nothing to cause criticism; and, ensuring everything she wanted was put in front of her at the moment she required it. It was just a monumental headache. I found that meeting her out in public was usually a lot better, as she felt everyone would see her as a wonderful mother.”
4. An Abuser is Charming, Flirty, and Overly Confident
“Whenever we had visitors, like people from overseas (which wasn’t often I hasten to add) she would put on her brightest smile and she would proudly regale details of her children, hence gaining admiration from her guests. Then afterwards she would remind us of how impressed her guests were … with her! She reveled in taking the credit for anything good the children did. But, if we did something she didn’t approve of, we all became the image of our father.”
5. Abusers Are Lovely One minute and Lash Out the Next
“There was this girl I shared an office with that drove me insane. Her mood would swing more often than I could count. I always felt for her husband. He would come by to pick her up and spontaneously buy her some flowers. If the bunch was not big enough she would start screaming like a banshee. She would post things to her social media like: if you do that again, I will drag your face across the driveway. Then the next day she would be telling me he was the best thing that ever happened to her (which he probably was admittedly).”
Find out more about how toxic people use rage to their advantage
6. Abusers Usually Do Not ‘Communicate’
They talk about everyday stuff, but never their feelings or challenges.
“During the time I lived many miles away from my mother she would often phone daily. But, she called to brag about she had done and who she had done it with. When she had enough of the conversation about herself she would ask if I watched a certain television program and that was the cue for her to end the call because she wanted to see it. When I had a breakdown she would phone several times daily and cry about how depressed she felt! She was never really concerned about how I felt.”
7. Abusers Often Lack Maturity
“My abusive boss would throw a tantrum every time he would not get what he wanted. A supplier might tell him some weird idea he had was unfeasible. Next, he would start yelling and stamping his feet – seriously he looked like a toddler erupting into a crying fit.”
8. An Abuser Likes to Divide and Conquer
“Throughout my life it was never encouraged that my siblings and I should really get along with each other. We were always told that if our toxic mother died, then we would only have each other and to be nice. Yet, when she was angry with one of us we were totally isolated. We would be ignored and the others would be told they were loved. How proud she was of them whilst all the time scowling at the ‘bad one’.”
“When I worked for an abusive boss, he used to play the staff against each other. He would gossip about us like no other. The worst I remember is when he spoke at a staff meeting about one girl who was on holiday. He told us he was going to fire her, and asks us for reasons to do so. That in itself was inappropriate, but on top of that he then did not fire her for months. So everyone walked around with this knowledge about one of their colleagues without her knowing about any of it.”
Read more on how abusers influence the dynamic of their targets.
9. Abusers Don’t Talk of Their Past but Often Have Issues
“I know that my extended family held a lot of secrets. One of mother’s brothers has cut contact with the whole family and my father’s family has more or less split down the middle. Although these things happened when I was already a teenager, I have no idea about the underlying troubles of my extended relatives, but I am certain they explain a lot about the abuse that my parents put us through.”
10. Abusers Show Jealousy
“When my sister was pregnant and found out she was expecting a girl, my mother told her it was not fair because she hadn’t been able to find out the sex of her babies when she was pregnant. Of course that was just because the technology was not available at the time. So why was she upset with my sister about that?”
11. An Abuser Loves Playing the Victim
“My mother’s favorite response to any perceived criticism is: ‘oh, it must be awful being my daughter’. Of course we would all tell her she was overreacting, and then do what ever she wanted us to do. Perceived criticism could be something quite ordinary. Like telling her you did not have time to help her today, but you would come by tomorrow. Or, if you would ask that she call before coming over.”
“My mother told me repeatedly she would “just work herself into an early grave to pay for my education” whenever I struggled on an exam or essay for university…”
12. Abusers Lack Emotional Self-Control
“When I was a teenager I often got into discussions with my mother. When she would get frustrated with my opposing opinion, she would scream at me to stop yelling at her. “Do not raise your voice at me” she would yell. Even though she was the person who started screaming in the first place. I think she showed her true frustration with my developing individuality and the first cracks in her control over me.”
13. Abusers Make Superficial Judgments About Others
“When in my early twenties I briefly dated this guy who was one of the most kind people I have met in my life. He was my first kind of serious emotional connection so it was a big deal for me. My mother was quick to judge. Not only was he older than I was, he had only enjoyed vocational training as a carpenter. She never actually met him, as I lived far away in college and I had no desire to have her ruin things for me. He just did not fit the picture of the perfect family she had in mind. In that sense I think all her children have failed in the relationship department. All our spouses have been judged harshly and negatively no matter how happy they make us.”
14. Abusers Are Often Cruel
“One day my sister called me to tell me the tragic news that she had miscarried. My mother’s massive birthday party was the next day, and my sister said she would not attend. And she asked me to inform my parents of her tragic news. So I went to see my parents and asked them to sit because I had some bad news. I told them of the miscarriage, and to my horror my mother actually smiled while I was delivering the sad news. As disturbing as it sounds, she seemed to gain some sort of satisfaction from my sister’s pain.”
15. An Abuser Will Try to Come Off As Perfect
“My colleague always looked immaculate in perfect clothes and perfectly groomed. She wore a perfect smile and was always hard at work. She was horrible to me, but I always thought she was at least good at her job. When she left the organization one of the service providers told me she was glad she had left, and described her as “impossibly bad at her job.” She had pretty much everyone in the organization convinced she was great at what she did, and had managed to expertly deflect blame for any problems on the consultants and companies that she worked with. It was a real eye-opener for me.”
Read more on how abusers twist the facts to come off as perfect.
16. Abusers Are predominantly Concerned With Image
“My mother always bragged that her daughters were married before they produced children, because it reflected well on her. She had obviously brought us up ‘properly’, with a high moral standard. Imagine my surprise when I recently discovered her Marriage Certificate! She was 6 months pregnant when she tied the knot! No doubt that is partly the reason we did not have contact with the extended family!”
17. An Abuser Thinks You Only Exist For Their Needs
“When my mother would call or ask you to help with something, saying: “I have time tomorrow” or “Can I call you back in 5 minutes” were unacceptable answers. Even as an adult, I was not in charge of my own time. When she needed you, you had better jump and stand to attention. She once told me she thought my partner was autistic, because he had refused to throw his whole schedule around and inconvenience a lot of people just to accommodate my mother’s last minute plans. It seems in her mind we only come into existence when she has a need for us.”
18. Abusers Abhor Compliments
Of course they are fine with compliments about them, but let me explain.
“Not only would my mother not give me compliments, she would also make sure the ones I got from other people did not count. When I was about 10 I sang a solo in my choir’s recital. A picture of me appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, and the article discussed how well I had done. The only comment my mother gave? Did you have to wear that outfit? You look stupid!”
“After I spend three days in the kitchen baking an elaborate high tea for my mother and her 60 birthday guests, I got a compliment from a neighbor who teaches at a culinary college about the achievement. My mother spent the rest of the party center stage telling the most embarrassing stories about my childhood.”
19. An Abuser Always Aims for Deniability
“Whenever I would confront my parents with their behavior they would have a perfect excuse up their sleeve. When it came to my partner (who is from another country) they would always claim it was just the language barrier. Like when my father told him: Don’t worry about your father’s cancer, you live in a different country now. When we confronted him, he said that it must have been that he made a mistake in his English. How convenient…”
20. Abusers Are Drama Addicted
“My mother would often provide enough information in her stories so that she wouldn’t look bad. But, at the same time, she would leave out enough of the story to create drama and emotional upheaval in the family. I suppose this satisfied some sick emotional need of hers that always seemed to need quenching.”
“My partner and I share our birthday, and so we celebrate together. One year my mother invited two of my aunts along to the party, because they happened to be staying at her house that day. No problem in essence, but of course she had not informed me of the two unexpected guests. If you’ve made it to the end of this list, after reading all the stories above, you can probably guess what I’m about to write next. Mother had told my aunts that they would have to tag along to MY birthday party, but had failed to mention that it was also my better half’s birthday. So my aunts showed up with presents for me alone, and nothing for him – consequently creating discomfort, hurt feelings and drama for everyone involved.”
Find out how you can cut the drama.