Being in and coming out of a relationship with a significantly disturbed or manipulative character can be quite traumatic. And I’ve posted some articles on the major hurdles toxic relationship survivors face when trying to pick up the pieces and move on (see, for example: Life After A Manipulator and related subsequent articles). But some folks say that they’ve ended up feeling more than understandably shaken by their experience. They start questioning everything, mistrusting a lot, and even feeling somewhat “paranoid.” And because I’ve been asked to comment on this phenomenon, especially with regard to feelings of paranoia, this week’s article will begin a discussion of the kinds of emotional dysfunction that can arise from years of emotional and relational abuse.
Shame, a sense of defeat, mounds of doubt, conflicting thoughts about where to assign blame, mistrust in self and others – all these emotions are par for the course for survivors of toxic relationships. And for the most part, despite how intense the emotional upheaval might be, it’s a perfectly understandable and rational response to the trauma. Even the mistrust (both of self and others) that sometimes creeps in is rational, given the sense of shock and betrayal that often accompanies facing the reality of what the person you once viewed as good potential relationship partner is really like. Survivors of relationships with covert-aggressors, narcissists, or psychopaths sometimes say they feel “paranoid.” But most of the time, what they really mean is that they’re experiencing a rational and understandable yet terrifying degree of unsureness and mistrust. And this is particularly distressing when it’s not in their normal nature to be feel this way.
Real paranoia is a lot more than understandable mistrust following shock and betrayal. The word literally means “aside from one’s [right] mind.” It’s an aberrant state of mind characterized primarily by delusional thinking. A delusion is a belief that has absolutely no rational foundation but is still held with conviction despite abundant evidence to the contrary. It can be of many types, but the two most common (and probably most readily recognized) are delusions of grandeur (i.e. believing I’m someone I’m not – like the re-incarnation of Jesus Christ, or king or queen of the universe) and delusions of persecution (e.g., thinking everyone’s watching me or the KGB has bugged my phones). In each case, the person assumes a sort of pathologically “special” status, albeit of very different types. And, of course, as the old saying goes, “if they really are out to get you, you’re not paranoid.” But on a more serious note, it’s important to distinguish between common tendency of trauma survivors to lose their basic sense of security and trust and genuine paranoia. The former is a rational, albeit dysfunctional response to the trauma of betrayal, and the latter is a sign of a much more serious disease process.
It’s too bad that the “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD) label is applied so frivolously (and, therefore, erroneously) so often these days. Because real post-traumatic stress is a significant condition, with certain highly defining characteristics, and which requires specialized treatment. The only good news about having PTSD it is that because of its nature, it’s also one of those conditions that with proper treatment enjoys a relatively decent rate of amelioration. Many relational abuse survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress (although not all post-traumatic stress rises to the level of a diagnosed “disorder”). And some of the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress can resemble paranoia, so it’s easy to understand how some folks get confused and “feel like” they’ve become paranoid after a toxic relationship, when in fact they’re merely experiencing one of the common features of post-traumatic stress. In behavioral science, there’s a concept known as “generalization,” and it works like this (I know that what I’m about to say is an oversimplification but I’m not wanting to be too technical here): when we make an “association” to a really significant event that impacts us deeply, we tend to have a response not only to that event but also to other events or circumstances that bear some resemblance to that event. For example, if a child is out playing in the yard one day and inadvertently disturbs a wasp nest and is repeatedly stung, they might develop a fear not only of wasps, but also of all flying insects, of playing in the yard, or even merely going outdoors. They have to learn, slowly and steadily to “discriminate” such things as not all insects sting, the yard is a generally safe place to play, and even wasps don’t usually bother you unless you bother them, etc. The child will regain a normal sense of safety and ability to handle him/herself, once they’ve successfully discriminated these things. Nature also has us wired in such a way that when we experience traumatic events, we become hypersensitive and hypervigilant with regard to things closely associated with the trauma . This is a natural protection mechanism. Only when we’ve sorted out all the reasons for the trauma and adequately and fairly assessed our ability to cope can we recover a normal sense of ability to care for ourselves. And, perhaps more importantly, trauma almost always leaves a deep impression or emotional scar upon us. And the more insidious or intense the trauma, the deeper the wound and more difficult it is to heal. And we also become “conditioned” to our instinctive emotional responses to the trauma. It’s not uncommon for trauma survivors to “re-live” and to obsess and ruminate about the most emotionally painful events over and over again.
One of the major things learning theory tells us is that we never really “unlearn” anything. It takes a lot of “counter-conditioning” to weaken the painful bonds developed between the traumatic events we experienced and our emotional responses to them. After being in a relationship with a significantly disturbed character, it’s natural to have your sense of safety and trust shaken. We might not even be fully aware of the questions we ask ourselves, but we inevitably think things like: “Do I have it all wrong about what people are really like?; Are all men (or women) like my ex?; Is there something seriously and inherently wrong with me?; Can I ever trust myself again?; Can I ever trust anyone else again?” It’s also not uncommon to wonder whether we’ll ever be able to “let go” of the many pains that were inextricably connected to the traumatic events we experienced and so deeply etched in our minds.
During my years of active practice, I found it just as challenging to provide the right kind of supportive guidance to survivors of toxic relationships as it was to confront and help modify disturbances of character. And when engaging in therapy with trauma survivors, merely wanting to help empower them is not enough. Having and displaying empathy for their plight is also not enough. What it takes, more than anything else, is recognizing exactly what a toxic relationship can do to a person’s normal ability to cope and knowing precisely when, and how to address each of the survivor’s coping deficiencies. It takes respect and acceptance for the things that might have made them vulnerable as well as full recognition of the ability seriously disturbed characters have to take advantage of and traumatize even the most well-adjusted persons. And it takes tons of encouragement and reinforcement for every small step a survivor takes toward increased empowerment.
In writing this piece, I’m painfully aware of how much probably still needs to be said, so I’m not going to begin the next series of articles I’d planned until this topic is explored more fully. Hopefully, however, this article will begin a significant discussion. It should also help give new and deeper meaning not only to the tools of personal empowerment I outline in In Sheep’s Clothing but also to some of the therapy caveats I discuss in Character Disturbance. If the discussion yields the fruits I suspect it might, it may provide me with valuable data, which along with mounds of information I’ve already collected over the years, could help me compile a work of some sort on just this subject. And because I’ve been asked to do something along those lines hundreds of times, perhaps I can even make that work available as an e-book or some similar brief handbook on recovery from manipulative and other abusive relationships.
Okay, all you survivors out there – here’s your cue!