Instead of the Cult of Self-Improvement Cultivate Self-Respect

Self-respect is essential for survival. It is a form of self-love that solidifies our identities and protects us from dangerous pathologicals. Self-respect gives us definition and boundaries. Unlike the absolute narcissism of toxic indviduals, self-respect (and self-love) does not entail the exploitation of others nor is it a total self-absorption.  It is also very different from the idolatry that psychopaths commonly engage in during the luring phase of the relationship, when they flatter and love bomb you, in order to manipulate and control you.

In earlier posts I explained that a psychopath controls those who need him for a sense of self-worth and meaning in life. Any woman may be initially hooked by a psychopath during the seduction phase of the relationship. But those who stay with him of their own volition once his mask of charm comes off often suffer from an extreme form of dependency. They have little or no independent self-worth and need the psychopath’s periodic validation to feel sexy or attractive or brilliant or like a good mother and wife: whatever form of validation they need depends upon him.

 “Willing” victims of psychopaths and other control-driven individuals are not necessarily suffering from low self-esteem in a conventional sense of the term. In fact, they may have a very high opinion of themselves. But they do suffer from a highly dependent or mediated self-esteem. They need a “special” person’s control to feel good about themselves and to get a sense of meaning in life. These are the most loyal and promising  long-term victims for psychopaths, who stand by the disordered individuals no matter what they do wrong.  They give their psychopathic partners a kind of absolute power over the lives in a similar manner that cult followers do to their pathological leaders.

In so doing, they relinquish agency and control over their lives. Such highly susceptible individuals may stay with a psychopath even once he stops validating them on a regular basis, and offers only tokens of praise or fake “respect” from time to time. By that time, they’re already trauma bonded to the psychopath, which may keep them emotionally and mentally enslaved to him for life.  The psychopath uses such dependent personalities for his own destructive purposes. He never offers them any genuine love, though he may offer them the false validation they so desperately need.

In life, you gain peace and fulfillment from your own healthy self-esteem and from cultivating a respectful attitude towards others. This sense of balance is largely internal. Nobody else can give it to you. There are literally thousands of “how-to” and “self-help” books on the market. They claim to help people find their inner balance in all sorts of ways: through yoga, Pilates, other mind-body exercises, improving their looks or increasing their sexual stamina. I suspect that most of them work about as well as the perennial miracle diets. They may produce some immediate results. But they rarely fundamentally change a person or improve the quality of his or her life in the long run. Some of them, such as the retreats run by James Arthur Ray, a very popular self-help guru, are extremely dangerous, bordering on cults run by disordered leaders who enjoy controlling others, milking them of their money, and pushing their limits even to the point of death:

http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/r/james_arthur_ray/index.html

To improve yourself more enduringly, you need to cultivate a healthy perception of who you are and know what you want from lifeDysfunctional lives and relationships often stem from character distortions, such as the ones I’ve described so far, which leave you dependent upon the perceptions of others to gain a sense of self-worth. Those most likely to exploit such neediness or vanity are not those who have your best interests in mind. They’re likely to be individuals who want to use and control you. There’s no magical step-by–step procedure that can give you a healthy self-esteem. Just as losing weight depends upon having a healthy, moderate attitude towards your body, so improving your self-image depends upon having a healthy attitude towards your mind. “Know thyself,” the ancient Greeks advised. This, like so much of their practical wisdom, is very good advice.

This is not to say that moderation, or what Aristotle called the mean between two extremes, is always the answer to everything. Nobody can be equally good and equally bad at everything. We all have a combination of weaknesses and strengths. Knowing yourself, in my estimation, means using your strengths to improve your life and the lives of others rather than to appear superior to them or to gain their approval. Being an artistic or mathematical “genius,” or being very popular and beautiful–however exceptional you may be in some respects–doesn’t entitle you to special treatment. It also doesn’t justify you mistreating others in any way. In other words, your strengths shouldn’t feed your vanity, as they do for narcissists and psychopaths, just as your weaknesses shouldn’t cripple you.

Reaching an inner balance also requires having the right motivation for your endeavors. For instance, don’t create art to impress others or to become famous. Create to offer yet another instance of beauty and meaning to enrich your life and perhaps also the lives of others. Don’t write books to become rich or consecrated. Write to express a talent that makes you happy and that may contribute some human wisdom that is best expressed more creatively. Don’t give to charity or behave nicely to others to be considered generous and kind. Help those in need and be a genuinely decent human being.

If you have a healthy self-image, your strengths and talents will radiate primarily from within. They will give energy to others rather than being absorbed from without, by depending upon their external validation. Similarly, having a healthy self-esteem entails working on your weaknesses without allowing them to haunt you, to become deep-seated insecurities that malicious individuals can exploit. Such a healthy attitude towards yourself and your life therefore implies some detachment from the views of others: from how they perceive you, what they expect from you and what they say about you.

Of course, none of us live in a vacuum. We’re all partially influenced by the views and expectations of our partners, our families, our colleagues, our friends and society in general, as we well should be. But those with a healthy self-esteem are not determined primarily by others. For as long as they behave decently to other human beings, they don’t fold under when their partners, family members, friends or peers criticize them. They also don’t lose their self-esteem when they fail at some of their own goals. Conversely, they don’t feel superior to others just because some people praise them or because they attain some level of success or even fame. Success and fame, like the criticism and praise of others in general, comes and goes. Knowing who you are and what you have to contribute can last a lifetime.

The main thing that can save you from a psychopath–or from any other manipulative person who wants to take over your life–is cultivating a healthy self-esteem. This may seem like a truism. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of common sense that many know but fewer actually practice. Any therapist will tell you that he or she stays in business largely because of people’s unrealistic perception of themselves. Character distortions not only damage our self-confidence, but also taint our relationships. They make us excessively vain, or needy, or inflexible, or too willing to bend over backwards just to please others. More seriously, character disorders, such as psychopathy and malignant narcissism, are unfixable in adults.

Fortunately, however, most people don’t suffer from such constitutive emotional and moral deficiencies. More commonly, we suffer from distorted perceptions of ourselves. This puts us at risk of falling into the clutches of controlling individuals. To find your compass you need to look within, as the Greeks wisely advised. Ultimately, nobody else can save you. You can save yourself by living well, which depends upon knowing your worth–neither underestimating nor overestimating it–and pursuing with a mostly internally driven self-confidence the path you want to take in life.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction



Moving On: Life After the Psychopath

Most of my posts have been about how to identify psychopathic traits and patterns of behavior and about understanding what drew the psychopath to you–and you to him–originally. I have also written several posts emphasizing the importance of no contact of any kind, passive or active, in being able to recover from the toxic relationship. But let’s say you now can recognize the features of psychopathy and narcissism. You are maintaining no contact. Yet you still ruminate obsessively about the relationship and you still feel trapped, somehow, inside of it. What do you do then?

My answer may sound somewhat circular: you’ve got to do everything possible to move on with the rest of your life. Fill your life with interests and activities other than thinking about the psychopathic ex. Focus on the relationships with people in your life who genuinely care about you and support you. Make new, genuine, friends. Find renewed energy in your job or in life goals, even those you might have given up on during the toxic relationship. Coming to terms with the truth about the psychopath and your relationship with him is essential to being able to let go of that person and your past together. But staying trapped in your past and ruminating endlessly about it–at the expense of other relationships or life goals–can become just another prison.

It can also foster negative personality traits that you may not wish to have, like paranoia or extreme distrust of all other human beings. In my last post, the review of Robert Conquest’s book on Stalin, I alluded to the atmosphere of mutual distrust cultivated under by a totalitarian dictatorship, where people started accusing family members and friends of deviationism–or of being traitors to the communist society and principles–and turning against each other. This phenomenon can happen anytime and anywhere, even if it’s more acute in dictatorships led by psychopathic tyrants.

Yes, it’s important to be cautious. Yes, it’s important to be aware of red flags in new relationships, or even older ones. Yes, it’s important to be aware of the signs of personality disorders. Yes, it’s important to cut off pathological individuals from your life. But what you want to avoid is you, yourself becoming pathological and living in an atmosphere of paranoia, pointing fingers at others left and right, and becoming consumed by the underlying hatred and distrust that characterized your relationship with the psychopath.

Moving on means, as Aristotle and other Greek philosophers urged, leading a well-rounded life. It means finding support and information about what you’ve gone through, both here and elsewhere, without neglecting all the other aspects of your life–family, friends, job, goals, exercise, enjoyment–that can free you from your painful past and help you escape the mental prison in order to live again.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 


When You Love Your Abuser: Stockholm Syndrome and Trauma Bonds

They say that when you get burned by fire you don’t put your hand in the hot oven again. But that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes, it’s the fact of being burned that emotionally bonds you to an abuser. In fact, studies show that emotional abuse intermixed with small acts of kindness can bond some victims to their abusers even more than consistent good treatment can. So far I’ve used the word “victim” to describe the women (or men) who suffer at the hands of psychopaths. Yet I don’t really like this word for several reasons. It tends to imply a certain passivity, as if the woman herself had nothing to do with the decision to get involved with the psychopath or, worse yet, to stay with him even once his mask of sanity started to slip. It’s rare that a psychopath physically coerces a woman to get involved with him or to stay with him. Although he intimidates and brainwashes her, generally the victim cooperates.

This isn’t to imply, at the opposite end of the spectrum, that the women who get involved with psychopaths are “guilty” or deserve the mistreatment. In fact, that’s the other main reason why I don’t like the term “victim.” It evokes certain notions of moral purity that put the victim on trial. There used to be a conventional prejudice, for example, that if a victim of rape dressed in a provocative manner or walked around alone at night, then she wasn’t really “innocent” and somehow “asked for it.”

We realize now that this perception is false and prejudicial. Women can be targeted and abused without being perfect angels themselves. Analogously, one shouldn’t have to have to prove one’s perfection in the court of public opinion to gain sympathy for being used and abused by a psychopathic partner. Nobody capable of empathy and love deserves the kind of brainwashing, intimidation, lying, cheating, manipulation and distortion of reality to which a psychopath routinely subjects his partner. Despite the fact that I don’t like some of the connotations of the word “victim,” however, I use it because I believe that the women who become involved with and stay with psychopaths of their own free will are, in some respects, being victimized. To illustrate how you can be victimized while colluding in your own victimization, I’ll rely upon Dr. Joseph Carver’s explanation of Stockholm Syndrome in his article “Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser.” (drjoecarver.com)

Carver states that he commonly runs in his practice into women involved with psychopathic partners who say something to the effect of, “I know it’s hard for others to understand, but despite everything he’s done, I still love him.” While cultivating feelings of love for a partner who repeatedly mistreats you may seem irrational, it’s unfortunately quite common. Psychological studies show that molested children, battered women, prisoners of war, cult members and hostages often bond with their abusers. Sometimes they even go so far as to defend them to their families and friends, to the media, to the police and in court when their crimes are brought to justice.

This psychological phenomenon is so common that it acquired its own label: “Stockholm Syndrome,” named after an incident that occurred in Stockholm, Sweden. On August 23rd, 1974, two men carrying machine guns entered a bank. They held three women and one man hostage for several days. By the end of this ordeal, surprisingly, the victims took the side of their captors. They also defended them to the media and to the police. One woman even became engaged to one of the bank robbers. Another spent a lot of money for the legal defense of one of the criminals. Those who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome develop an unhealthy positive attachment to their abusers. They come to accept the abuser’s lies and rationalizations for his bad behavior. They sometimes also assist the abuser in harming others. This psychological condition makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the victims to engage in behaviors that facilitate detachment from the abuser, such as turning him in, exposing his misconduct or leaving him.

This unhealthy bonding solidifies when the abuser alternates between the carrot and the stick conditioning, as we’ve seen in the case of Drew and Stacy Peterson. He interlaces the abuse–the lying, the cheating, the implicit or explicit threats and insults, and even physical assault–with acts of “small kindness,” such as gifts, romantic cards, taking her out on a date to a nice restaurant, apologies and occasional compliments. Needless to say, in any rational person’s mind, a cute card or a nice compliment couldn’t erase years of abusive behavior. Yet for a woman whose independent judgment and autonomy have been severely impaired by extended intimate contact with a psychopath, it can and often does. Such a woman takes each gift, hollow promise and act of kindness as a positive sign. She mistakenly believes that her abusive partner is committed to changing his ways. She hopes that he has learned to love and appreciate her as she deserves. She wants to believe him even when the pattern of abuse is repeated over and over again, no matter how many times she forgives him. This is what trauma bonding is all about.

A victim of Stockholm Syndrome irrationally clings to the notion that if only she tries hard enough and loves him unconditionally, the abuser will eventually see the light. He, in turn, encourages her false hope for as long as he desires to string her along. Seeing that he can sometimes behave well, the victim blames herself for the times when he mistreats her. Because her life has been reduced to one goal and one dimension which subsumes everything else–she dresses, works, cooks and makes love in ways that please the psychopath–her self-esteem becomes exclusively dependent upon his approval and hypersensitive to his disapproval.

As we know, however, psychopaths and narcissists can’t be pleased. Relationships with them are always about control, never about mutual love. Consequently, the more psychopaths get from their partners, the more they demand from them. Any woman who makes it her life objective to satisfy a psychopathic partner is therefore bound to eventually suffer from a lowered self-esteem. After years of mistreatment, she may feel too discouraged and depressed to leave her abuser. The psychopath may have damaged her self-esteem to the point where she feels that she wouldn’t be attractive to any other man. Carver calls this distorted perception of reality a “cognitive dissonance,” which psychopaths commonly inculcate in their victims. He elaborates:

“The combination of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and ‘cognitive dissonance’ produces a victim who firmly believes the relationship is not only acceptable, but also desperately needed for their survival. The victim feels they would mentally collapse if the relationship ended. In long-term relationships, the victims have invested everything and ‘placed all their eggs in one basket.’ The relationship now decides their level of self-esteem, self-worth, and emotional health.” (drjoecarver.com)

I stated earlier that the only way to escape this dangerous dependency upon a psychopath is to remove yourself permanently from his influence. Any contact with him keeps you trapped in his web of manipulation and deceit. In some respects, however, this is a circular proposition. If you have the strength to leave a psychopath and the lucidity to reconsider your relationship with him, then you’re probably not suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. You may have been temporarily lost in the fog of the psychopathic bond, as I was. But those who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome find themselves lost in a dark tunnel. They don’t know which way to turn anymore. They probably need outside help to see the light and save themselves. So what can family and friends do for them?

Liane Leedom addresses this question in an article called “How Can I Get My X Away From the Psychopathic Con Artist?” (lovefraud.com, September 7, 2007). She advises a subtle intervention rather than clobbering the victim with accusations against her abuser, which may put her on the defensive. As we recall, psychopaths establish control of their victims BITE by BITE, like emotional vampires. Once again, “BITE” stands for “behavior, information, thoughts and emotions.” Psychopaths attempt to control all aspects of their partners’ experience of reality.

To counteract their dangerous influence, you need to BITE back. Give the victim a true perception of reality and real emotional support. If and when she complains about her psychopathic partner, don’t rush to join her in criticism. She’s likely to start defending the psychopath again. Instead, be a good listener. Draw out calmly and rationally the implications of the actions which upset her. Show her that you understand and support her. This way she’ll have a standard of comparison between her partner’s abusive behavior and your genuine caring. As we’ve seen, a psychopath is bound to make his partner feel insecure and pathologically dependent on him. Encourage the victim to find other sources of satisfaction in her life, which are not motivated by the desire to please him.

The issue of motivation is key. Psychopaths’ partners commonly lose weight, dress better, find better employment, pursue more interesting hobbies, all of which may appear to be positive signs. But they’re not if these self-improvements remain motivated by the desire to gain the psychopath’s approval or avoid his disapproval. The quest for his validation keeps the victim–and her self-esteem–enchained to a disordered human being whom she can never satisfy and who doesn’t have her best interest at heart. Above all, Leedom suggests that family and friends of the victim should make it clear that they will be there for her once she disengages from the psychopath. She won’t find herself lost, unloved and alone, as the psychopath probably leads her to fear in order to keep her under his control.

Sometimes, family and friends of the victims notice similar behavior from the victim as from the psychopath himself. Both, for instance, may lie. Leedom and other psychologists state that, sadly, this phenomenon is also quite common. We’ve seen that contact with a psychopath tends to be contagious and destructive, like a virus. It distorts your perception of reality, corrupts your moral values and diminishes your empathy for others. According to Leedom,

“This is what happens when you have any association with a psychopath, no matter how you know them and whether or not you live with them. This is why I strongly encourage family members to cut the psychopath off. Psychopaths’ whole way of relating to the world is about power and control. This need for power and control is very personal. They do it one person at a time, one victim at a time. They do it very systematically with malice and forethought. When they succeed in hurting someone or getting another person to hurt him/herself or others, they step back, revel in it and say ‘I did it again, shit, I’m great!’ (they use a lot of foul language also).” (lovefraud.com)

Just as most people experience a visceral pleasure in making love, or eating chocolate, or seeing their children’s team win a game, so psychopaths experience great pleasure when they hurt others. They enjoy corrupting their partners so that they too become manipulative, deceptive and callous like them. For a psychopath, destroying his partner from the inside/out–her human, moral core, not just her daily life–represents a personal triumph. Psychopaths identify, pursue, isolate, corrupt, devalue and eventually discard one victim at a time. By this I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that they’re faithful to anyone. But they focus their energy in a single-minded fashion on destroying one life at a time, one person at a time. Women seduced by psychopaths enter what psychologists call a “hypnotic state.” They shut out any aspects of reality that would reveal the truth. They focus instead only on the parts of reality that conform to the distorted perspectives presented by their partner. This logic often applies to the psychopath’s family members as well. I’ve already mentioned that Neil Entwistle’s parents supported their son even after he was convicted of murder. Parents who behave this way, Leedom explains, “want to have the perfect family as much as anyone else. They therefore normalize and justify all of the psychopath’s hurtful controlling behavior.” (lovefraud.com) Of course, when parents go so far as to either ignore or justify murder, their behavior crosses the line into pathology.

Yet no matter how much love and support you may offer the victim of a psychopath, like individuals who suffer from other kinds of addictions, she can only save herself. Ultimately, it’s up to her to find the inner strength to confront the truth about the psychopath. Psychologists state that, generally speaking, the longer a woman stays with the psychopath, the less likely she is to recover from that harmful relationship. Her tortured love for him may last for the rest of her life. But it’s highly unlikely that the psychopath will stick around for that long. If you don’t leave a psychopath, chances are that he’ll eventually leave you to mine for new opportunities elsewhere. Leedom adds, “The question here is whether this will take so long to run its course that the victim will lose herself completely. When that happens there is great risk of suicide when the relationship falls apart.” (lovefraud.com) Hopefully, the more information we spread about psychopathy, the easier and sooner victims will recognize the symptoms of this personality disorder. This information can give them the strength to escape psychopathic seduction and control before it’s too late.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction


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