TLDR: External focus of control can lead to vulnerability to repeated emotional abuse. Four character traits are commonly seen in such people: Feeling special, idealization, ignoring reality and broken reward cycle.

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Sometimes it seems that certain people become the focus of manipulators and emotional abusers repeatedly. This is not just chance, though any one can be unfortunate enough to fall in the path of an abuser. Interestingly, most manipulative people are not high functioning super intelligent predators. Instead they are usually not self aware personalities; their real danger lies in compulsive, constant, thoughtless reactivity, and fear. They are instinctive and unrelenting, and they try various different tactics to connect or bond with the targets. And once they find that hook, the weakness, they doggedly keep pushing till the target is well and truly caught.
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Most of these triggers have been nursed in childhood, little habits and behaviors caused by early experiences. They leave unseen gaps in personal emotional boundaries which often seem completely incomprehensible to other people. Much like vegetarianism or fundamental religious beliefs, these assumptions are buried deep under layers of superficial rules and logic, and thus can’t be changed easily even when they prove to be harmful to the person. Others are often baffled by the behavior of such people, it seems as though they are carelessly leaving themselves open to abuse repeatedly. So one may see a disastrously trusting friend or one who will not leave an abusive relationship and feel a familiar frustration at their actions. With the right hook, even a shark can become vulnerable.
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The key trait of such people is an **external locus of control**. Basically from childhood, they have been brought up to react to someone else’s control, either by following their directions or by rebelling against it violently. A child who is either forced to follow directions by an overbearing parent or face deterring chastisement OR a child who watches dysfunctional behaviors or relationships played out by their parents and rebels, in either case the child learns over time to not carve their own path, instead build their lives either for or against someone else’s words.
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Such childhoods cause the following common deeply held beliefs

1. Belief that one is special or different: not better or worse, just different. That common community models don’t resemble their lives and so commonly observed rules don’t apply. Since their childhood was observably different from their friends, they assume the difference is in themselves. That they can’t interact with others the way most people do. Such people think of their love as more emotional, their empathy deeper, their interactions naturally unique.

2. Idealization of relationships: kids who are able to identify the dysfunction in their homes and yet be unable to escape tend to create illusions of how relationships and people “should” be. Fathers are always protective and mothers are always patient. Romantic true love involves sacrifice and turbulent emotional confrontations etc. Society and literature are rife with such stories and memes as is popular media. There is real danger in not having some balance in one’s world view.

3. Ignoring (willfully or subconsciously) reality or facts: children who are repeatedly, constantly trained to ignore facts by parents who have a motive to hide continue that behavior well into adulthood. Ignoring violent behavior or dismissing evidence of cheating are common among targets

4. Conflict between desire and lifestyle: the connection between cause and effect, the logical reward cycle is very often broken in children who grew up in dysfunctional homes. Since emotionally abusive parents have an agenda to keep the child in a state of constant anxiety, there is no consistency in family rules or no appropriate measure of punishment to mistake. This breaks the work ethic almost permanently, and achievement or reward is tied to pleasing someone rather than working for a goal.

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Codependence and dangerous exposure to abuse is nurtured within families. There is an insistence on an idealization at the expense of reality in which the group becomes invested as a whole. And so the group opposes any individual from questioning or denying the illusion. After a point, the abuser doesn’t need to hide the abuse, the enablers take over the role.

As a society we sustain this behavior often as sentimentality, ignoring the fact that among the normal folks, there are real criminals taking advantage of these rituals. Families with existing dysfunctions warp the customs on both sides, either submitting to abuse or inflicting abuse. And right until that day of the criminal act, family members and friends find ways to gloss over the red flags.

While the past cannot be changed, it is worth cultivating the discipline to be self aware and to develop stronger boundaries to prevent vulnerability.

What do emotional manipulators look for in their targets?
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