What can we do when dealing with Psychological Abuse?
One of the things that I often get asked about, from both clients and clinicians alike, is what do I do, or what do I instruct my clients to do, if they are in a situation where psychological/emotional abuse is happening? How should I respond? How should I not respond? Though each situation is different, each person is different, there are some ways that are recommended when dealing with a high conflict personality or in general, when facing abusive situations. Of course, the below suggestions need to be taken as that, suggestions, used to the degree that they fit your situation. As always, I recommend working with a therapist trained in abuse recovery, working with high conflict personalities, and/or working with high conflict family dynamics.
No Reaction Is Your Best Reaction
When it comes to high conflict personalities, minimizing your reaction and responding in factual, non- emotive ways, is often the best practice when they are trying to entice you into conflict and chaos. Often times, high conflict personalities are using abuse tactics to insight reactions from the victims, they are baiting you into conflict with them, usually so they can put you down or use it as evidence that they are the ones being victimized. I always recommend that client's try to respond in ways that are factual and concise. This is something that is harder done than said of course. The very reason that we bite and become emotive is because high conflict personalities tend to target the very things that are hurtful and/or we are passionate about. If we can try to remember what their purpose is, that can be helpful to remain neutral and not let the conversation or behaviors get a rise out of us. This is commonly referred to as the grey rock method. Being as bland and neutral as possible. Psychological/emotional abusers rely on our reactions, being bland and boring is the perfect way of beating them at their own game.
The Art Of Disengagement
Though similar to the grey rock method, disengagement refers to your actions, rather than your emotional reactivity. When we talk about disengagement in these circumstances, it's a polite (grey rock way) of saying, "sorry, no I will NOT participate in this." There are different ways to disengage from conflict with someone who is trying to goad you into chaos and arguments. The first way is to say something to the effect of, "we need to take a break from this and once we can communicate better, we can resume." After this has been firmly stated, you disengage with the conversation. That can include leaving the premise to go for a walk or a drive or ending the texting. In disengagement statements, it is important to communicate with them as calmly as possible (think grey rock from above), but to also include a desired result- "once we can communicate better"- and that you intend to return to this conversation. Highlighting the issue with communication between the two of you acknowledges that there is behavior occurring that you are unwilling to continue. Stating your intention to return to this conversation when that is resolved does not allow for a deferral of accountability and shows intention to actively find a solution. Sometimes the opposite occurs in conflict with these personalities and instead of ragefully reacting to conflict, you end up being punished with the "silent treatment", which is called stonewalling. If the high conflict person uses tactics such as stonewalling, which feels a lot like ghosting you, this can be a great time for you to re-direct your energy and re-engage with yourself. In times where the person has disappeared to punish you, take that time to treat yourself to activities that bring you peace and joy. Book a spa day with friends, go for a hike in nature, go to a movie with friends, etc. Do not sit alone, waiting and texting, hopeful for a reply. In a sense, when the person has stonewalled you, disengage with them by re-engaging with yourself. Similarly to above, the conversation would look something like; "we need to take a break from this, you can let me know when you are ready to communicate." Once this boundary has been clearly set, you are free to go do things that make you feel good about yourself. The second way we can disengage is used in cases where the person is using psychological abuse tactics, like baiting and feigning, gaslighting, projection, misrepresenting your thoughts and/or feelings.(For more information on the psychological abuse tactics read here https://www.tynebuchyrcc.com/post/the-20-tactics-of-psychological-abuse) In these circumstances you can also choose to disengage by saying a statement such as "you are gaslighting me and I will not continue this conversation until that behavior stops." This is a more blunt and abrupt way of calling out behavior and asking for change before communication continues. If they do not stop that behavior, you will choose to disengage in the same method as above- going for a walk, a drive, ending the text or phone call, etc. For this method of disengagement, it is paramount that you feel safe doing so. You know this person best, and if you feel that this person would escalate and you cannot simply hang up the phone or leave the room and be safe, you do not have to use this method. This style of disengagement works on the premise that the aggressor/abuser/high conflict person, knows and understands what they are doing, when they are doing it. Although they may be shocked that you are challenging their behavior; overtime, challenging these behaviors and disengaging when they are present is a strong boundary (I'll speak to this more below) and can help influence future behavior and communication styles. After all, it is okay for you to label and address behaviors that are harmful to yourself and others involved (i.e. children and other family). Again, safety always comes first, so keep that top of mind when practicing disengagement.
Create And Enforce Boundaries
Having boundaries is an important part of your mental health and relationships in general. Many times client's struggle with boundaries, they struggle with being able to ask something of someone. Boundaries are NOT about punishing someone, they are about SELF-LOVE. When we have boundaries we are showing an act of love towards ourselves. With toxic people and high conflict personalities, we NEED to have boundaries to protect ourselves, our peace, and our safety. Boundaries will look different depending on the context and relationship you are in. A high conflict employer might warrant a boundary that you will not check your email after work hours. For a high conflict sibling, the boundaries might expand to include other methods of communication, or even language that is used. For example, "I will not tolerate being called names, therefore, if you call me names, this conversation is over." Boundaries are really hard and confusing for some clients, especially when finding the line between what is too porous or too rigid. However, boundary work is so important. It is one of the things I address most often with clients in abusive situations or when navigating relationships with high conflict personalities. To be completely honest, there is no way to have a safe and emotionally healthy relationship with a high conflict personality if you do not have boundaries. Keeping in mind, high conflict personalities can be boundary trespassers. This can make establishing and reinforcing boundaries really difficult for anyone who is trying to establish a healthy status quo. Depending on who you are establishing boundaries with, this can be a lengthy, emotionally challenging process for yourself. Having support from loving friends or family and/or professional support around boundary setting is integral to maintaining self care through this process. If you are having troubles getting started, nuancing or maintaining boundaries, I highly recommend contacting a professional counsellor/mental health therapist, who has experience in psychologically abusive relationships and/or working with clients who are involved with high conflict personalities.
Document As Much As You Can
I always recommend that clients document conversations that they have with people who are baiting them into conflict. There are two purposes for this. Firstly, it helps the client process the events that they are experiencing. Writing helps the brain filter information and make sense of it. It helps us organize what just happened and assign our thoughts and emotions to what just happened. It also helps the client remember what they experienced. When subjected to chronic psychological abuse or in high conflict- traumatic situations, clients can lose touch with their own realities. Clients can become disoriented with the narrative the high conflict person is trying to sell to them, which will almost always run the lines of- "this is not my fault, it is your fault, somehow." Being able to review arguments that did happen, how you felt in those moments, is a factual reminder that you were not wrong, you were not overreacting, you were not misunderstanding, when it is called into question later. Secondly, documentation can provide useful to establish patterns of behavior, provide evidence when needed, and to help clients recall the information verbatim, if needed later. This can be helpful if allegations are made, if the allegations are escalated to legal proceedings, or in your own therapeutic sessions. Some clients choose to record interactions with the respective partners as a means to protect themselves, though I do not specifically recommend audio and/or video recording because of scope of practice, some clients feel it is necessary for their cases and safety.
Leave If You Can
If the situation is escalating to where you feel physically or emotionally unsafe and it is possible to do so, leave. Get out of the situation. You do not have to stay if you feel it is within your best interest to not. Many clients look at me perplexed, like I just gave them permission to leave the situation, but you have always had permission. You are allowed to disengage completely and remove yourself from situations which are not safe. This is not stone-walling, this is setting a physical and emotional boundary. If you cannot remove yourself completely, remove yourself as best you can by going into another room, or taking space within your environment to the best that you can. This may be locking the bathroom door and not responding back at the continued baiting. As you can see, leaving combines both disengagement and boundary setting mentioned above. Of course, if there is any threat of physical violence phone 911 or your local authorities.
Have A Safety Plan
For all my clients, in all my consultations and in all the workshops that I teach, we ALWAYS go over safety planning with the clients/clinicians. Anytime there is abuse happening, regardless of whether physical abuse is currently absent, I encourage clients to have a safety plan. Safety planning is about making sure that if things take a step over the line and there is now an immediate risk to your safety, there is a pre-established plan. Even though research shows that there are many abusive situations that involve solely emotional or psychological abuse where physical abuse is not present, if there is any abuse happening, there is a risk of escalation. If you are involved in a relationship of this nature, I highly recommend that you seek professional therapy to have someone a) know of your situation, and b) help you create boundaries and a safety plan. Your safety plan should include trusted people or a person that you can message that will get you help, in case you are unable to do so yourself. This is something that is predetermined and discussed. For example, many of my clients have safety words or phrases that they text to their parent(s) or a trusted friend, which means "call the police now, this is not a drill." For some, safety planning, may include having emergency funding in place, whether that's through friends or family, through a credit card that is not kept that their immediate house or cash that is kept in a to-go bag. The plan can also include a safe place that you would go should you need to leave immediately. It can also include things like, where you keep your personal journal (especially if you are documenting incidents) or other important documents. For some, their plan includes a recent consultation with a lawyer to discuss next steps should they have to leave immediately and there are children involved or things like assets involved. Safety plans are also very nuanced and influenced by the situation and level of threat/escalation of the situation, so tailoring the plan to your situation is important (i.e. not everyone is going to have a to-go bag or be consulting with a lawyer).
To summarize, there are ways that you can engage in conflict with a high conflict personality that can minimize damage to yourself and help to keep you more safe. Being a grey rock that practices the art disengagement and boundaries when necessary. Remove yourself and take space if things escalate or feel unsafe to you in any way and establish your own safety plan that hopefully, you will not have to ever use. Work with your own therapist or professional counsellor that can help minimize the impact from any traumatic events and psychological abuse tactics that are occurring.