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Answer: Why did my abuser target me?

July 1, 2021

Reposted from a September 25, 2018, answer on Quora. I have deleted my account there due to harassment, and will be reposting some of my favourite content here.

Originally answered: “When you figure out that a narcissist targeted you, do you agree that means you were lacking boundaries, had low self-esteem, were gullible and easily manipulated and that’s why he was able to destroy you?”

Abusive people (with and without narcissistic adaptations) target very specific traits in people, and these are not bad traits.

In her book Stop Signs: Recognizing, Avoiding, and Escaping Abusive Relationships, author Lynn Fairweather writes about “super traits”:

In her book Women Who Love Psychopaths, psychologist Sandra L. Brown, founder of The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Psychopathy Education, writes about “super traits” in women who become involved with dangerous men. Most of the characteristics are seemingly positive, but when presented to an abusive mind, they become weaknesses ripe for exploitation. While all abusers are not psychopaths, their characteristics often match up, as does the mental and physical damage they inflict on intimate partners. Sandra’s discoveries are important because they warn about traits we may unconsciously possess that enhance our vulnerability to a batterer’s victim-tuned radar. The super-traits include:

• Hyper-empathy
• Extreme altruism
• High relationship investment and high attachment
• Hyper-focus on the sentimental aspects of the relationship
• Low impulsiveness
• High resourcefulness

In my extensive work with abused women, I have found that women who become involved with pathological and nonpathological abusers alike share similar traits. Women who are “savers”—those scoring high in empathy, altruism, tolerance, and sentimentality—will almost always be drawn to a relationship where they think they can help or reform a “diamond in the rough” partner. Highly invested, nonimpulsive, and attached women will often try to stick it out and fix a bad situation. Those who are highly resourceful frequently try to handle risky scenarios all on their own without seeking the necessary assistance of others.

I will say that anecdotally, this fits with my own experience. The abuse survivors I know are some of the kindest, strongest, most resourceful people I have ever met. It’s a weird, bittersweet sort of compensation for surviving misogynistic abuse: you suffer indescribable psychic damage, but find yourself in this amazing sisterhood of incredible women and nonbinary folks, bound together by an experience only those who have been through it truly understand.

If you were targeted for abuse, it was likely because you possess these “supertraits,” and that is nothing at all to be ashamed of. It takes a special kind of evil to turn these wonderful, valuable human traits into weapons. This is especially devastating since there seems to be a cultural idea that people who’ve experienced abuse are somehow weaker, more unstable or more manipulable than people who haven’t—and abusive people will turn this idea against you in the process of abusing you, making you believe you are weak and unstable. There’s also a related idea that people with strong partners cannot be abusive; nothing could be further from the truth.

It wasn’t your fault. Avoiding future abuse doesn’t mean snuffing out these qualities, but learning to recognize dangerous and exploitative people early on and swiftly removing them from your life.

The urge to be a “saver” or to “reform” someone is incredibly dangerous, though, and won’t lead to healthy relationships even if those relationships don’t become abusive. If this is something you have a tendency to do, then it’s worth working on—it will make all your relationships, and your life, much better.

Answer: What are your thoughts on the movie Cuties?

June 23, 2021

Reposted from a September 17, 2020, answer on Quora. I have deleted my account there due to harassment, and will be reposting some of my favourite content here.

Originally answered: What are your thoughts on the new movie Cuties?

I was impressed with how realistically and sensitively it portrayed the reality of being an 11-year-old queer girl trying to navigate her nascent sexuality between two polar extremes that seek to either exploit it or suppress and deny it completely. I think it’s not all that different from other coming-of-age movies that deal frankly with young girls’ sexuality and the perils that accompany it in today’s world—like 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, a much more disturbing film that didn’t generate anywhere near the controversy of Cuties.

And yes, I said a queer girl. Amy is very obviously coded as queer, and I think that’s a very important part of the movie—but it has been completely overlooked in the moral panic about it.

We see multiple scenes where Amy’s friends show interest and excitement over boys—interest Amy never shares, but reluctantly joins in on in order to fit in. At the same time, Amy’s fascination with girls’ bodies is far more than curiosity or wanting to match an aesthetic ideal. And the way she looks at Angelica…well.

Anyone who’s ever been a babyqueer knows these feels.

Amy pretty much only has eyes for Angelica the whole movie, and it’s definitely not just because she wants to be like her. In fact, arguably, it’s Amy’s unrequited crush on Angelica, and her inability to recognize it or act on it, that drives a lot of the plot.

Some articles I found helpful:

The Only Thing You Need to Read About the Inane Cuties Controversy

The people freaking out about ‘Cuties’ should try it. They might find a lot to like.

Watch ‘Cuties’ on Netflix For Yourself, Then Apologize to Maïmouna Doucouré

A Survivor’s Bill of Rights

June 15, 2021
tags: ,

“We will all do good things and bad things, and we will all hurt the people we love. Sadly, we will probably hurt them the most in the service of what we believe is right. What makes you good is not perfection in action or strictness to code, but the willingness to question, to change, and to listen to your heart when your life stops matching it.”—Shelly

For many survivors of abuse or assault, the worst trauma doesn’t come from the abuse itself, but from the way it is handled by the community afterward. A safe and supportive community can facilitate healing—and the converse is also true. It is just so easy when we view someone through the lens of “victim” to frame them in a way that allows us to further strip them of agency, at the time when they most need to have it supported. Unless we are actively working to counteract it with our every breath, rape culture, misogyny and patriarchy make it almost impossible to genuinely centre and support survivors while consistently treating them as whole human beings with agency—as equals and peers rather than objects to be displayed, examined and preserved behind glass.

If we want to be really serious about addressing abuse, we need a survivor’s bill of rights.

I expect there are a lot of people who won’t agree with my proposed list below, but it’s not written for them: it’s written for the survivors who thought they were out safely and now are wondering what the fuck is happening to me and is there something wrong with me (there isn’t) as the people around them try to “help” in ways that are deeply destabilizing, crazy-making.

It’s not you, and it’s not okay.

This is a starting place. I expect others can make it better, so I am releasing the text below under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA) licence: feel free to adapt and build on it, as long as you credit me and link to the original, share your new work under the same terms, and don’t monetize it.

A Survivor’s Bill of Rights

I have the right:

To define what help and support look like for me, and what kind of help, support and advocacy I need.

To decide whom I want in my support circle, and to distance myself from people who are not helping me.

To define my own emotions, thoughts and experiences of harm, and not to have my experiences reduced to such psychological catch-phrases as “triggered,” activated” or “re-enacting”; not to have others tell me what my motives are for telling my story.

To not be diagnosed, evaluated or otherwise “therapized” by anyone with whom I am not in a professional, consensual therapeutic relationship.

To not have others justify my abuse or excuse my abuser because I have character flaws, have made mistakes, or have caused harm myself.

To honestly name harm I am currently experiencing, and not have others blame it on past abuse or trauma, or question my experience of reality because of what I have survived.

To choose whether, how, when and to whom I describe my abuse or name my abuser.

To give and withdraw informed consent to the sharing of my story.

To honestly tell my story privately or publicly without risk of ongoing harassment or abuse, and without inviting deeper scrutiny of my character, behaviour or flaws than others in my community receive.

To act in accordance with my own values, and to have others act in accordance with my values when purporting to act in my name or on my behalf.

To be held to the same standards of accountability for harm I have caused as others in my communities are held when they cause similar harms; not to be held to a higher standard because I am out as a survivor or have named abuse.

To be imperfect in how I describe my abuse and express my feelings about it, and to be imperfect as a person; not to have the validity of my claims or worthiness of support judged or dismissed based on my imperfections. This includes not being attacked by people who don’t like it when I express anger or emotion, and not to have my attempts at communication dismissed if I do not modulate my tone to the extent others desire to prevent their discomfort.

To not be expected to perform labour to make others comfortable when they discuss my abuse, or to be expected to ease their experience.

To protect my own safety and well-being in the ways I find most appropriate— including self-defence, fawning, placating, silence or avoidance. Not to be pushed into conflict or confrontation with my abuser or judged for how I choose to survive.

To decide what actions I want to take or do not want to take in response to my abuse or concerning my abuser, including whether or not to involve the police, the courts or other state mechanisms.

To decide for myself what I want people in my support circle to share with me when they become aware of actions taken by or directed at my abuser or enablers; not to have information that may affect me withheld from me against my will or to “protect” me.

To be included in conversations about me and in decisions that affect me.

To expect others not to take action against my abuser in my name, except by my request or with my consent.

To seek spaces where I do not come into contact with my abuser or their words; to distance myself from people and groups who cannot or will not provide those spaces.

To request or seek protection from enablers or “flying monkeys” who harm me.

In cases of cross-accusations, to have those who wish to take action engage deeply with all the available information and to inform themselves about DARVO and abusers who claim victimhood, or to seek out analysis from those who have done so.

To decide what survivorhood means to me rather than performing it to someone else’s standard.

To process and heal on my own timeline.

To experience ordinary conflict, grief and loss, relationship struggles, mental health issues, and ups and downs of life without everything being linked to or blamed on my trauma or my abuser, or have extra meaning inferred because I am a survivor.

To decide how to define myself beyond being a “survivor,” or to choose an alternate identity.

To not fear retaliation for asserting my rights, setting boundaries, or asking questions.


Survivor support is not transactional. I don’t owe others for supporting me or for holding my abuser accountable. I am not less worthy of support if I have not supported others — or not supported all others who have asked for my support (as may often be the case with “celebrity survivors” upon whom many others may lean heavily, or survivors who have limited resources, both material and intangible). The whole community is responsible for addressing abuse.

The restitution/repair to which a survivor is entitled should not depend on their willingness to cede their agency, voice or anger, to subscribe to the values of a perpetrator’s process, to act conciliatory, or to perform gratitude.

I’ve had every one of the rights on this list violated — and I’ve violated many of them myself. I suspect most people have. I suspect we’ve done a lot more damage than we realize, or can even really come to terms with, in our attempts to “help.” But we can stop now.

Note: After I wrote this, I discovered “A Recovery Bill of Rights for Trauma Survivors”, which shares a lot of characteristics with mine. This tells me a couple things: that I’m on the right track with my own list, and that others have found the same problems widespread enough to find a need to address them in this way. It’s very good, and worth reading and bookmarking.

What happens to you if you start a relationship apologizing? (guest post)

May 5, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on June 30, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

Part of the process of recovering from an abusive relationship, is deconstructing the beliefs you had about the world and yourself that helped you to accept the situation. This is really important, because it puts power back into your hands, and gives you the tools to create a better life for yourself. But I don’t think you can effectively do this unless you look at the bigger forces at work. For instance, I will never take any book on abuse seriously unless it recognizes the role that misogyny plays in so much abuse. I had a therapist ask me once: why did you hate yourself when you began that relationship? And, in earnest, I tried to think of all the reasons why I hated myself. Much later, I realized that she was a terrible, terrible therapist, but that’s another story.

I want to ask a question. A question directed directly at the polyamory community.

What happens to you when you start a relationship apologizing? Apologizing for taking up space, apologizing for wanting things, apologizing for feeling passion and love? What happens when you go into a relationship accepting the premise that you’re doing something wrong?

I haven’t been to a poly meeting in quite some time, but what I remember about them, is that there were often an abundance of couples talking about all the horrible things that had happened to them by secondary partners and “thirds.” She wanted him to herself, she was unstable, she was needy, she was cRaZy. And I nodded, sympathetically, and put these imaginary women into the little slot I had in my brain for the home wrecker. That sociopathic siren who just wanted to come in and set things on fire and see what she could walk off with. We just need to learn to spot her sooner…

And it’s interesting what happens when you believe in her, and decide to show everyone that you’re not her. And you apologize from day one, and you do everything you can to accommodate. And you become a part of their lives and don’t ask them to change to accommodate yours. But you still have self respect, and so you still ask for things, and you speak up and you bring up problems, and you suggest changes that could help. And sometimes you’re wrong and emotional and so very very human. And every time that happens, it goes into a book somewhere. And when you leave, because you cannot bear the pain you seem to be causing, they pull the book out and shake their heads and say we should have seen it… she wanted him to herself, she was selfish and unstable and needy and crazy.

Why did I hate myself? Well, that’s an interesting question to me, because it suggests that you think that hating myself was necessary. Maybe I’ll answer your question with a question, and we can reconvene later.

What happens to you when you start a relationship apologizing?

“Trapped – The Tragedy That Should Not Be Staged” © Karl Rudhyn 2013, CC BY-NC 2.0.

How to apologize, how to not apologize, why it’s hard, why it’s not hard for the reasons you think (guest post)

April 28, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on May 4, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

This morning I had a procedure scheduled. It’s a medical test that takes 4 hours, and involves eating radioactive eggs. I’m not going to talk about the test, because it’s not really related to what I want to talk about it, but I thought I would mention it because I had this intuitive hunch that mentioning radioactive eggs would be attention grabbing.

I didn’t actually have the test because I forgot my prescription. I forgot the prescription so thoroughly that I never even thought to bring it at any point. In fact, while I can say with certainty that I held it in my hands at one time, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist any more. 

And that’s totally on me. I had to get there at 7:30 this morning, and I stumbled in, in my sweats and definitely not brushed hair. And when she asked for my prescription, I wanted to tell her how much stress I’d been under, and that I don’t seem to get along with mornings any more, I mean, look at me. I wanted to ask her why the fuck they don’t fax over to the doctor to get the prescription for early morning procedures? You can’t expect people to remember that sort of thing! But instead, I looked at her, and I said “I’m really sorry. This is 100% my fault. What can I do?”

It felt so good. I cannot recall in my memory, the last time I had the opportunity for such a pure apology.

I’ve seen a lot of articles about how to give an apology. Without exception, the tacit or stated assumption in these articles is that it’s hard to give an apology because of pride. Every guide I’ve seen is about how to admit you’re wrong when you’re unequivocally wrong but your ego won’t let you admit it.

But I don’t think that’s why it’s hard. At least, that’s not why it’s hard for me. 

I watch a lot of soccer. One thing I’ve noticed is that everybody hates the referees. No matter what call they make or don’t make, somebody is upset. And sometimes they make a bad call. In soccer, they don’t stop the game to look at video footage. The ref on the scene makes the call in that moment based on what they saw or didn’t see.  And sometimes a bad call decides the game – sometimes a really important game, and they just have to live with that. Do you know what they do at the half time and after the game? They look at the video footage, and they look at what they did wrong. And a ref has to be able to look at a bad call, and learn what they can from it, and move on with their life. They have to look at that bad call, and know that they did the very best that they could, or know that they could have done better, and that everyone hates them for it, and they have to go back out there and get on with their life.

What do we apologize for? I have to say, I’m so messed up when it comes to apologies that I’m not even sure anymore. Is an apology the same as admitting I made a mistake? I don’t think so. I think something more is expected. A ref doesn’t make an apology. Everyone knows they made a mistake, they know it, but it comes with the job, and they can’t stop it from happening and neither can we. Making mistakes comes with the job of life. Every moment is the culmination of my experience and my training and my instincts and how tired I am and what I had for breakfast this morning and a million variables that I.don’t.have.control.over. I made a mistake, and I am also breathing.

Is an apology the same as acknowledging that my actions hurt you? Certainly not. We hurt each other sometimes, and we are also breathing. I know when you are looking for an apology you want more than an acknowledgment of your emotional reality. 

Is an apology a plan of action? I think this is closer. I think an apology is an admission of my mistake, and acknowledgement of the price you paid for my mistake. But most importantly, an apology comes with a plan to prevent the hurt in the future. But if I made a mistake, and I am also breathing, sometimes it is hard for me to make the kind of plan that will actually work.

I can remember next time to bring my prescription. I acknowledge that I wasted a technician’s time, and I feel bad because she’s a real person. I can do something about that, by putting a reminder on my calendar next time. This is a change I can make. 

But did I do something that hurt you because I was grumpy or sleepy or daydreaming or distracted or confused? I will make that mistake again. I am also breathing. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.

Is an apology about what is wrong with me? No. But how many people think it is? How many people think it’s not an apology until someone is grovelling? Too many. 

I have a place inside of me. A weak spot that is made of self hatred. I have a lot of trouble apologizing when I don’t have a clear plan for correcting it. When I made the best choice I could and I’m not sure what to do differently in the future. When I’ve made a mistake and I am also breathing. First I try to blow it off, and when that doesn’t work I become defensive. I don’t really know how to apologize, because apologizing used to be paired with self hatred, and I don’t know how to un-pair it. I don’t know how to separate a request for an apology with a request for my self hatred. And once the conversation makes three or four rounds I only want to crush myself into oblivion. 

And that’s not helpful.

I don’t think it’s that hard to apologize. And it feels good. It feels like growth. It feels like responsibility. It feels like resolution, and peace. I feel robbed of that peace.

I don’t think we need another article about how to apologize. I’d like to see an article or two about all the ways a sincere apology is claimed and then used as a weapon against someone. Against a child, against a loved one. I’d like an article about how when that happens we have to build cages around the chasm of shame and self hatred that our apologies dug inside of us. 

Apologies could go a long way to healing our relationships with each other and ourselves. But let’s stop ignoring all the damage that the perversion of the apology has done to us. We have to fix that too.

Dead Soon (guest post)

April 21, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on May 16, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

I read somewhere an anecdote of a person who dealt with their stage fright by writing “Dead Soon” on the top of their notes. It’s the kind of funny to me that lives in the space of “what else can I do but laugh?” I think about it all the time. It’s a strange facet of the human mind. I flip flop between an unbearable sadness that we must struggle so hard for meaning and purpose, and relief that none of it matters all that much.

Most people who hurt other people feel vindicated. Most people who hurt other people are hurting themselves. And yet we all seem to have this need to believe that the people who hurt us did so for some kind of sociopathic gain. But the truth is, if that had been the case, they probably would have hurt us much less. It’s hard to remember that the people who hurt us are hurting themselves. It’s hard to disengage with someone you feel sympathy for. But the cardboard villains we create aren’t the truth, they’re just tools.

I want to be someone who has empathy. I want to have some shot at seeing some truth in the few short moments I have. And that means being willing to let things be very complicated. It means being willing to let things get to me. It means trying to remember the humanity in people who are harmful to me. And that, it turns out, makes it hard to recover sometimes.

The process of rebuilding myself isn’t what I want it to be. it’s not a smooth trajectory. It’s just littered with moments of rising above and then looking down and falling. And the thing that makes me so sad is that the people who hurt me the most are often the people who take up the biggest space in my heart and mind. It really seems backwards. the people who have been kind to me get pushed out, and I take up that space with imaginary battles with imaginary people in my life who seemed to have known me only enough to know what would hurt.

It’s been a hard process to disengage. It’s a process I can only measure statistically. I can measure it in the lessening moments that I’m lost in the past, trying to resolve things I can’t resolve, trying to purge guilt that sticks like glue, trying to forget the particularly acute memories that shock me, sadden me, and scare me now.

And it’s in these moments that I’ve learned to write at the top of the paper “Dead Soon.”

Because I have that same thing inside me that everyone has. That thing that wants to hit back. That thing that says that it’s fine, that they are bigger and stronger than you, and that you can hit as hard as you want. I have that thing too. I have that thing that says that I can rebuild myself by knocking other people down. It hides in a million different ways, but I can always see it in that fantasy of saying or doing the perfect thing, the thing that makes me powerful again, and that hurts someone else.

But then I remember that there’s a much worse coming for you and me. For all of us. None of us is immune. And when that much worse comes, I will have to be my own company and you will have to be yours. When those moments come, we will all be human. And those moments are more important to me than this one right here. This one where I want to hit back. This moment isn’t big enough to spend what little time I have.

There’s a much worse coming for all of us. And that thing you’re doing to try to hurt me, because you’re hurting, and because you think I deserve it, that thing you’re doing because you think you can hit as hard as you want because I’m only a cardboard villain, it’s not as big as I thought it was.

A painting of looking upward through a colourful body of water towards the sun shining through above.
“Under Water,” © Carrie Jenkins, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

“Controlling People” and the Backwards Connection (guest post)

April 14, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on February 1, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

This past month, I read Controlling People by Patricia Evans. It was an incredibly useful book to me, and I wanted to write a brief summary of the key themes in case it is useful to anyone else.

First, the book does not provide a framework for all controlling behavior. There are people who engage in abuse and manipulation as a pure act of dominance. The book does not talk about this. What the book does cover, very well, are those dynamics that so many of us find ourselves in, where a partner’s abuse lives side by side with a conviction of love. Where a partner’s abusive behavior seems to be prompted by an inner pain that, no matter how much you try to change and adjust, they continually insist is caused by you.

The central theme of the book is that of a backwards connection.

“A backwards connection begins with an assumption or definition of the other that ends all possibility of a relationship, at least in that interaction… A backwards connection is just a small step away from where control of the other is the (often unconscious) objective.”

A backwards connection happens when you decide who someone is and then attempt to connect with that image. The examples she uses are very basic, and it demonstrates how often we are just one step away from a control connection, and the justification of abuse.

For instance, imagine a mother is buying ice cream for her child. “I want vanilla,” the child says. “No you don’t,” the mother says “you like chocolate, you want chocolate.” “No… ,” the child says, “I like vanilla. I want vanilla.” And so on. The truth is, the mother likes chocolate, and she is trying to connect with her daughter, but instead she is connecting with a pretend person. The more pressure she places, the more she corners her daughter, the closer she gets to trying to disintegrate her daughter and replace her with the pretend person.

Evans uses the example of a teddy bear that becomes an imaginary friend. Teddy knows everything you are thinking, gives you everything you need, never complains. But one day Teddy shows a sign of separateness, and you feel attacked, violated, and alone.

When you try to connect to Teddy, instead of to a real person, you establish a control connection. The control connection substitutes for connection to self.

When someone is connecting backwards, Evans says it is like they are under a spell. They do not understand that what they are doing makes no sense. You cannot know what another person is feeling. You cannot know what is inside of them. And yet someone who is under the spell is so sure, it can be easy to doubt yourself if you are the object of this connection.

“If Pretenders don’t get out from under the influence of the spell, they launch even greater assaults, especially if their definition of the other is not accepted, that is, they can’t make ‘Teddy,’ their pretend person, appear. In this way Pretenders exert increasingly oppressive behavior. In relationships, while they may believe that they are only getting closer (bringing Teddy to life, so to speak), they are, in fact, aligning with the forces of oppression.”

To take a simple example, we often do not know the difference between “I am hurt,” and “you hurt me.” The extent to which you insist that you can know the other person’s experience and the extent to which you feel justified in enforcing that, is the extent to which you have the capacity for abuse.

The truth is, we have to mind read to a certain extent in order to make choices about our lives. If you are intentionally hurting me, you may not be a good person to have around. I think we have to create basic models of the motivations of the people around us to be able to function. The danger is in your attachment to these models. Sometimes we build these models to try to judge our relative safety with a person. And sometimes we build these models to try to connect with them. But at the end of the day, you cannot know someone else’s inner experience. When you think you do, you are under the spell. When you feel victimized by someone’s separateness from what you imagine them to be, you are under the spell, and you are behaving in a way that does not make sense. It is important to be aware of the very real danger of this kind of mind reading.

On a personal level, this book was incredibly helpful to me. Because underlying so much of my self doubt has been this idea that they were so sure. Not just one person, but several. How could so many people be so sure that they understood who I was? Surely I must continue to consider that they may have been right! But I see now that their insistence that they knew my motivations and my feelings didn’t make any sense, and it gives me the space to say “No. I like vanilla. I’ve always liked vanilla.” Evans actually covers this a little bit when she talks about groups. She talks about bonding together against someone.

“Bonding together against others is, like all Control Connections, a backwards connection. The bond is based upon an agreement, sometimes unspoken, to act or to be against an authentic person or persons in order to sustain an illusion.”

I understand now that at times I bonded together against someone in the group, and at times they bonded together against me. But it was never a real connection. And the reality we created together never made sense. And it feels really good to put that burden down.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand control in their lives and in their communities.

“No Strings,” © Carrie Jenkins, all rights reserved, used with permission.

The problem with your request for my compassion (guest post)

April 7, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on January 18, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

The core elements of every manipulative exchange are remarkably simple. There is a carrot and a stick. If you change your behavior in this way, I will reward you, if you do not, I will punish you.

This project is going to take a lot of extra hours. Are you the kind of team player who is willing to make sacrifices?

  • The carrot: you will be seen as a team player which gives you both a social reward, and potentially a career reward
  • The stick: you will not be seen as a team player, leading to disapproval, alienation from your team, and possibly getting fired
  • The behavior: Working unpaid hours

The thing that separates manipulation from enslavement on one end, and influence on the other, is the illusion of choice. It is also why being manipulated will degrade your self esteem so rapidly. You watch yourself make choices against your own self interest, and it chips away at your self respect.

I’m what you might call a “soft target.” I care a lot about my self identity. I care a lot about what people think of me. I’m conflict averse. I was a part of a manipulative dynamic for a long time, and by the end of it, I was incapable of standing my ground.

Do you know what it’s like to know that that’s in you? That you can be so weakened, by someone you love, without them lifting a finger against you? It didn’t start out that way, though. It started out with a carrot and a stick. The carrot was peace. The stick was turmoil. My behavior was quiet. It was a no-brainer at first. And then he found my hook. Compassion.

At first the exchange was simple. Listen to him, so that he will be able to listen to you. Validate his experience, so that he will be able to validate yours. But that’s not really what happened. I would listen, and validate, and then the conversation would end. Because there could not be two stories or two perspectives. And when this upset me, my identity was threatened. Listen, validate, stay in line, and be seen as compassionate (carrot). Choose differently, and be seen as self centered and cruel (stick).

Every time you give into a manipulative bid, you reinforce the behavior. But far more important than that, is that you reinforce the reality in which the manipulation exists. Every time I conceded to keep the peace, every time I listened and validated, and let my experience go unheard, every time I capitulated to preserve my identity, I reinforced a very specific model of reality.

And this is why manipulation and gaslighting make such perfect bedfellows. Because when I tried to stand up for my reality, I couldn’t under the weight of the other reality that I had given so much credence to.

I used to believe, in good faith, that compassion would always build a bridge between two people. But now I also understand that my compassion can be used as a weapon against me. And so I would like to ask you now. What were we doing when you asked me to show you compassion? Was I pointing out a problem? Was I speaking up for myself and my experience?

It’s important that I understand what you hope my compassion will accomplish. Do you want to build a bridge with me? Because I would like that very much.

Or do you want me to change my behavior, and accept your reality instead of my own? Is the carrot your approval of my compassionate nature? Is the stick your judgement that I am really self centered and cruel? Is the behavior you would like my complicit silence?

Because I have been there before, and I will not be a soft target anymore. So don’t threaten me. Showing compassion is my choice, and I do not owe it to you.

A painting of a silhouette of a person walking across a small bridge in winter, composed of greens, browns and whites.
“Winter in the Nitobe Garden,” © Carrie Jenkins all rights reserved, used with permission.

The Big Lie (guest post)

March 31, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on January 16,2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

Most of us will do the most damage to others when we are in pain. Not when we’re angry or bitter or vengeful. No. I will hurt other people, I will drain other people, I will fail other people and I will fail to consider other people the most when I am hurting the most.

And I truly believe that the only way out of toxic self focus is loving self focus. I believe that the only way you can regain the capacity to see other people and to care for other people is to see and care for yourself.

And the interesting thing to me, is that when faced with that reality, I fought tooth and nail to discard it. It’s a pile of cliched self help bullshit — it’s just a justification for selfishness and self indulgence, I thought.

It was trivial for me to accept the harm that my self hatred did to me, I bore it stoically. And even when faced with the harm it did to people who cared about me, I still wanted to cling to it. Because self hatred felt noble, and self care felt selfish, and I wanted to believe that I was noble, and so my identity became more important than the reality of what was happening.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think there’s an intentional mind-fuck that most of us have been subject to, that keeps us from showing ourselves compassion and acceptance. It keeps us from setting boundaries and asking for what we need and filling our tanks up. It keeps us from getting angry at how we’re treated, and demanding that we be treated better. Ironically, because we’ve been told that our self hatred makes us better than our self love ever could.

But that’s a lie. From every angle. I’m quite certain of it now.

“Whispering Little White Lies,” © Danny O’Connor 2012, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

The Windows Were Fine to Begin With (guest post)

March 24, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on December 5, 2014. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

Imagine someone walked around your house, and busted every window with a sledgehammer. And at first you pretended that they weren’t broken, and you slept with the cold and the rain blowing on you, and somehow people believed you, even though you looked in the mirror every morning and saw twigs and mud in your hair. And imagine one day that you picked up a hammer and wood, and started to repair. Imagine how good it felt, to finally board the windows up and sleep in a dry room. But then it started to snow, and you needed warmth, so you got a book on rebuilding windows, and you began the painstaking process of rebuilding every window. This time they were strong. This time they were beautiful and clear. But the job was never done, and the project became a drain on your energy, eating up everything you had leftover after you took care of your survival. Eating up everything for years.

But you looked at the windows, and you saw that they were beautiful and strong. And you started bringing friends over, to show them how to build their own windows, and how to look for cracks. And you thought to yourself, maybe something good came out of all of this. Look at what we’ve done.

But at night, you remember all the rooms that are still dark. All the rooms where the wind still blows and the floors are wet and dirty. And you cannot escape the reality that you lost all that time, and the original windows were just fine.

Sure, the original windows weren’t perfect. Some were foggy, some were dirty and some had cracks. But they were your windows, and they were just fine. And you think about all the time you used to have. Time when you didn’t have windows to rebuild. Time when you could just be. And you wonder if you’ll ever have time like that again.

I didn’t understand this. I think a lot of people don’t understand this. This is the long term tragedy of abuse, and rape and choicelessness. I wanted to tell myself a story that I was better for the experience. But this is the tragedy that persists long after you’re safe, long after you finally told your story, and long after the point when you are supposed to be better. That all the strength and beauty was always in you. Someone smashed the windows and there’s really nothing you got out of it that you didn’t already have. And you’ll never get back the time that you lost.

The windows were fine to begin with.

A broken stained-glass window set into a brick wall.
Broken stained glass window at Kinnell Church, ©Neil Williamson 2012, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.