My #1 way to cope with an abuser
Mar 10, 2020
Over the years, I’ve read a lot about the tactics workplace abusers use to build power. But it’s my personal experience with abusers who show narcissistic traits where I’ve observed even more specific patterns, which led me to my #1 way to cope with them.
First: the patterns
- They establish a rank and position themselves at the top. If they don’t already have power over you as your boss, they find a way to create a hierarchy and frequently remind you of it. They try to convince you (and others) that they’re in fact better than you in some crucial way: they’re more knowledgeable or more enlightened, for example. They may simply dictate to you and hope you accept the hierarchy. They may get on their soapboxes and hope you’ll be their audience because they crave attention. Contrast this behavior with what healthy people do: collaborate, share power, and otherwise flatten hierarchies as much as possible. (In workplaces specifically, author Jeffrey Pfeffer in Dying for a Paycheck points to job control and social support as the two key necessities for a healthy workplace. Abusers try to remove both of these from you to focus on their own power and rank.)
- They dismiss your point of view or your feelings. Abusers are out to “win” — at all costs. If they need to ignore you or lie and manipulate, even to others, they do it. If they need to minimize your issues with their specific behaviors, they generalize your behavior as “playing victim” or “sensitive” or otherwise define your response, removing your ability to reason with them and your voice in general. Sometimes they re-define words to meet their needs. They do whatever it takes to make themselves look good and you look bad. Contrast this behavior with what healthy people do: respect, empathize, and seek to understand.
- They HATE shame. Sure, no one likes to be shamed, feeling wrong as a person rather than simply guilty for behavior. But abusers talk about shame a LOT. And there’s an important reason for that: they became abusers because they were excessively shamed as children, and their coping mechanism for dealing with a high level of shame became deflecting it as much as possible, pushing that shame onto others. Contrast this behavior with what healthy people do: take responsibility for their behavior.
- They project. Once you start to see these signs, you notice that everything they say about you is actually how they feel about themselves. Self-awareness would require addressing their own bad feelings and insecurities, so they do what it takes to not experience those bad feelings. They find people to dump their bad feelings on. Maybe those targets are those they perceive as weaker through their unconscious bias, so their projecting plays out as sexist, racist, or homophobic behavior, for example. Maybe those targets are empaths who are willing to absorb the feelings the abusers don’t want to feel. Maybe those targets look for approval from others, a pattern they learned from seeking love from their authoritarian parents, and want to gain the approval of abusers who will never give it. Regardless, their targets become their dumping grounds, and if a target stops tolerating the abuse, they simply find another dumping ground. Contrast this behavior with what healthy people do: face their own feelings.
How to cope
When you play a game that’s rigged so you can’t win — when you continue to interact with someone who demeans you — you accept that you’re “less than” as a rule of the game and internalize it. Over time, internalizing the abuse can result in mental and physical harm: depression, PTSD, cardiovascular problems, digestive issues, and even suicidal thoughts.
The only way to cope is to stop playing their game. Stopping the game means at the very least no longer accepting their definition of you and understanding it’s their definition of themselves. Think of their behavior as a child having a tantrum since the toxic coping mechanism was developed in childhood. I call it the “ego tantrum,” and you don’t have to absorb it.
Not playing their game anymore doesn’t necessarily mean quitting your job tomorrow. It means making the decision that you won’t be their punching bag. It can mean:
- Changing the rules of the game. Sadly in most workplaces, one person isn’t enough to change the whole toxic culture. But a group of people might be able to change the dynamics. In many cases, it’s the only strategy that brings about change.
- Starting a plan to remove yourself from the game. When targets start looking for another job, even in another industry if they have to, they make the decision to stop playing the childish game in a way that puts their financial, physical, and mental health first. They assess their safety net and what they need to setup to remove themselves from a game where they can’t feel supported and in control of their own work.
We don’t have to tolerate toxic behavior in any realm of life — whether that be online, with family, or at work.
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