Reclaim Your Empathy For The Powerful Weapon It Is

It might have left you susceptible to emotional abuse, but empathy is also your strength. Use it to move forward and heal.

This might sound strange, but I am grateful for the toxic relationships and emotional abuse I’ve lived through. Not because I enjoyed being someone’s mental punching bag — that was painful and still haunts me. I’m thankful, however, because from these experiences, I learned how to better detect subtle and even unintentional manipulation tactics people use. This knowledge inspired me to dig deeper to understand more about why people engage in emotional abuse in the first place. It also revealed something about me to myself, and this added self-awareness has revolutionized how I conceive of healing.

Here is the TL;DR version of what I’m about to tell you: People with high levels of empathy are often the preferred targets of emotionally abusive people. Manipulative people capitalize on vulnerabilities. In this way, your empathy is a weakness — a soft spot that leaves you susceptible to being preyed upon by abusers. This weakness, however, is also what allows you to care for even the most sadistic person, to seek the reasons and motivations behind their actions, and understand the most fundamental truth at the heart of all the pain they inflict: they are suffering deeply. As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. In order to truly heal from emotional abuse, therefore, you have to channel that part of you that is at once your most vulnerable and most powerful asset. Once you have sifted through the horror, shock, sorrow, and rage you inevitably feel after someone you loved has waged psychological war on your head and heart, you must find the empathetic core that still defines you and feel sorry for your abuser. When you genuinely feel pity, even for someone who was intent on destroying you, that is when you are finally free from absorbing their pain and letting their wounds harm you.

Below, I discuss some obvious and not-so-obvious signs of emotional abuse. The purpose of this is two-fold: by looking at these red — and yellow — flags, I am sharing what I have learned to help others struggling to escape and heal from abuse. Second, examining these warning signs allows us to peer inside the minds of the abusers, and ultimately, empathize with them. Yes, this last part might sound absurd, but if you stick with me, I promise to explain why I think exercising empathy even toward those who harm you is the most crucial component to genuine healing.

Some Abuse is Obvious and Has Obvious Red Flags

The most blatant case of abuse I’ve suffered in my life was a romantic relationship that lasted for several years. I’d like to say this person was a malignant narcissist, but I’m not a psychologist, and furthermore, I agree with Colleen Sheehy Orme that writing about narcissism bears responsibility. Being a professional philosopher, I tend to be skeptical of how mental illness gets diagnosed, how the DSM is utilized, etc. This does not mean I think there is no use in diagnosing someone with a personality or mood disorder — I am just incredibly dubious about how this process typically unfolds.

The validity and efficacy of labeling when it comes to mental health is a topic for another day. Rather than speculate about the possible disorders or diagnoses people carry around, I will just stipulate a much less controversial claim to get started: we all have varying degrees of many negative emotions, unhealthy coping strategies, and elements of flawed personalities. Some of us tip over into pathological levels of these traits, maybe because of adverse life experiences or trauma, or genetics, or a combination of all these things. Almost always, when someone exhibits pathological levels of anything, their behaviors will cause damage in the world.

Nonetheless, my ex fits the description of someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder so well, it is hard to dismiss. This disorder is extremely hard to track because people who actually have it are unlikely to admit to themselves they need help. Narcissists live the double life of pretense: they have convinced themselves they are truthful, moral, selfless, and empathetic, when in reality, they are the opposite. Ironically, more and more research indicates that residing in the core of a narcissist is deep insecurity and self-loathing.

People can be grandiose in their narcissism — the more obvious type — or covert, pretending to have impostor syndrome or feigning humility in the hopes someone will praise them. Again, we all exhibit signs of these unhealthy traits from time to time. What makes someone pathological, however is when they demonstrate time and again that these dark sides to their personality are in charge of them.

One of the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality disorder is a demonstrated lack of empathy, but narcissists can actually be skilled at performing empathy — saying the right things at the right time or lending a helping hand, if it makes them look good. But deep within is a self that cares only for itself. The strangest thing of all is that the self is fixated on itself out of disgust and shame. The constant craving of approval and adoration seen in so many people with narcissistic traits is an effect of their inability to give that love to themselves. In other words, they are always seeking external validation to make up for their incapacity to generate internal validation. If you truly have an empathetic mind, you are probably starting to feel sorry for narcissists, based on how I am characterizing them, and you should. It must be miserable to suffer from disorders like this.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Arguably, there are many personality disorders and mental illnesses that fit a similar description of self-loathing and insecurity I’ve just described of narcissism. Any horrific tragedy or traumatic experience can send even the strongest person into a spiral of self-doubt. If we suffer a life-threatening event or are subjected to sustained neglect or abuse over long periods of time, we might even undergo fragmentation, where our core identity becomes fractured and we repress or bury the those pieces of us that hold memories we cannot face. All of this can lead to the formation of negative schemas — unconscious strategies we employ to navigate a scary world full of people we cannot trust.

This discussion so far is a longwinded way of saying my ex has what I can only assume to be pathological levels of narcissism, and this is what drove his abuse. He ran the gamut of manipulative tactics, all in an effort to control me. With ten years between myself at present and the last time I spoke to him, I can look back with certainty and say he was envious of and threatened by me, and, like so many manipulative people, this was because he lacked belief in his own self-worth. Despite knowing this now, at the time, he rattled my self-confidence enough that I nearly dropped out of grad school, fearing, as he kept insisting, that I would only ever get a job because I would sleep with people. Comments like this were part of a massively well-orchestrated attempt to undermine not just my self-esteem, but also my research. I came home one night, very excited about a discussion during a “Feminism and Foucault” reading group I was a part of, and he rolled his eyes and said “I cannot wait until you are over this whole feminism phase and get back to real philosophy.”

He told me my eczema was “all in my head” and that if I just controlled my thoughts better, I would not itch so much. We argued about this and many other things extensively. Though I was weakened by him, I was not defeated. I still tried to defend myself. It was futile to argue with him though. He would twist reality or flat-out lie, I would call him out on the bullshit, and then he would shift the conversation to a distally related issue so he could tear me down in some other way.

I remember the eczema fight distinctly because one day, I woke up with bloody shoulders from scratching them in my sleep and he started in on me about controlling myself and how eczema is a fake diagnosis. I told him he was full of shit and that I had a qualified doctor’s opinion stating otherwise. It was moments during arguments like this where he would realize he was losing and would begin searching his mental library for a vulnerability of mine to exploit. This particular time he picked up an actual book — Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics — and told me I should read it sometime because I might learn a thing or two about self-control. He knew I worried that I had not studied ancient philosophy enough and often chided me for not appreciating the history of philosophy and being fixated on “contemporary hogwash,” you know, like feminism.

Arguments like this were so commonplace they seemed almost mundane. But they slowly turned more physically violent. I am not entirely without blame in that regard. I once threw a coffee cup across the room where it hit the wall with a splintering crash and splattered coffee everywhere. Though I do not condone this outburst, I will simply note that we do not morally condemn a bee for stinging when someone disrupts its hive and threatens its life. I was tired of trying to use reason with him because it was pointless. As the lyrics from one of my favorite War on Women songs goes, I don’t want to scream, just to be heard. He was beating me down to a pulpy and infantile version of myself. Because I was still so in love with him, I could not see these red flags for what they were. I should have just left the room before I lost my temper. Instead, I lashed out in desperate attempts to make his painful wounding stop. That is exactly what he wanted. He could then tell me I was “out of control,” end the argument by leaving or locking himself in his office, and then would refuse to talk to me, sometimes for several days on end.

The more I became susceptible to these retaliatory actions, the more he turned up the volume on his own violent outbursts. The apex of this involved him physically and sexually assaulting me. On the last night I would ever see him again, after a raging fight, I called a friend to come get me, and then phoned my Dad to come the next day to help me move out. My Dad had told me on several occasions that I was acting like a “battered wife” and he didn’t even know the half of what I was experiencing. Truth is, I had tried to leave many times, but I was always reeled back in with the charm originally used to catch me.

This time, however, I was determined to leave, permanently. While on the phone with my Dad, my ex grabbed my dog and cat and threw them — he literally threw them — into the 2am darkness outside our apartment. He yelled at me that my shitty excuses for parents were always bailing me out and that it was time for me to learn some consequences.

Well, I did learn some consequences from that relationship, but I suspect that is not what my ex meant. Ten years ago I said goodbye to him. I would say I haven’t looked back, but that’s not accurate. I have looked back to remind myself how I almost lost myself. I have looked back during moments where I suspect similar manipulative tactics are being utilized by people in my life. My experience with him taught me not to look for labels, but to look for patterns of behavior. I have looked back so I can be fully present. I have looked back so I can look forward. Looking forward means I do not only try to spot red flags. I keep an eye out for yellow flags of potential abuse as well.

The Less Obvious Abuse: Yellow Flags

Despite what I learned from that horrible relationship with my ex, it did not magically make me immune to manipulation. I’ve even been manipulative myself. None of us is perfect. But some of us have such unhealthy levels of greed, selfishness, or insecurity that it is really hard to mask our more sinister selves. My ex’s mask did not hide much for very long.

Photo by Artem Labunsky on Unsplash

Sometimes, however, people are really skilled at hiding their unsavory traits, and it can be hard to detect when emotional manipulation is at play. It is even harder to detect manipulation if the person engaging in this psychological warfare is someone you have long trusted and believed to be incapable of such treachery. I have experienced some extremely subtle manipulative tactics that transpired for a long time before I caught on. I didn’t see them for what they were until a watershed moment. Like many people characterize it, being the victim of subtle emotional manipulation is akin to being a frog in a pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil. The frog does not try to jump out as the water temperature rises because it is gradual enough to be almost undetectable. Then it becomes too late — the frog is blistering and is so injured it cannot jump to safety. I have been that frog and luckily saw the signs early enough to bounce out of that hot water, again, thanks to my experience with emotional abuse in the past.

So how can you detect when you are in the presence of sincerity versus manipulation? There are so many great articles out there about this, and they tend to focus on the same signs: love-bombing, data-mining, gaslighting, breadcrumbing, moving the goalposts, etc. If you are not familiar with these tactics, I highly encourage you to read up on them so you can avoid becoming a victim of someone who utilizes them. These manipulative maneuvers tend to be more obvious, especially if it is not your first emotional abuse rodeo. Worse still, some of these tactics tend to show up when you are already hooked on the incredibly good feelings you get during the highs of being in a relationship with the manipulator. When you have rose-colored glasses on, it is easy to look past people’s flaws.

There are, however, some very early indicators that you might be dealing with a shady person. I call these yellow flags because they are behaviors and actions that are not in themselves nefarious, but they could potentially signal problems in the future. Ask yourself these four questions about the interactions you have with someone:

  1. What do they tend to talk about?

Constantly talking about themselves is an obvious red flag. The less obvious sign is that they resist sharing much of anything about themselves. Similar to the “data-mining” often done by narcissists as they seek to renew their “supply,” manipulative people often want you to share intimate details about yourself, but will not return the favor. An even more insidious technique would be for them to share just enough about themselves so that you are disarmed and feel comfortable continuing on with your gut-spilling. They might open up to you about some intimate details of their life, or try to mirror you and exude solidarity. In turn, you will feel safe to spill even more. But notice what information they offer and how they present it. If they talk about how they have suffered in the past, do they tend to blame anyone but themselves for that suffering? Is every single one of their exes “insane” or entirely at fault for their breakup? These sorts of things indicate someone who cannot take responsibility for the ways they have contributed to their own pain. We have all been guilty of treating others like crap. If they have zero tales where they are the asshole, this is reason to pause and reflect. It doesn’t necessarily imply they are planning on manipulating you. Here is the thing: they might not be doing any of this consciously or with malice of forethought. Nonetheless, they are likely insecure and the more you share with them your own insecurities and admissions of wrongdoing in the past, the more it helps inflate their damaged sense of self. They might be putting what you say into their mental back pocket and those vulnerabilities you expressed might be used against you one day.

2. How reliable are they? Do they keep their promises to meet up or talk on the phone? Do you find yourself constantly waiting around for them because they are late or worse, do they cancel plans with you often?

Again, just because someone runs late, this does not mean they are manipulating you. Remember, it’s patterns we need to look out for. Some people are just chronically late and it has nothing to do with them having motives to deceive you. Just bear in mind that someone who is constantly late, changes plans last minute, or makes you do all the work in terms of keeping in touch is signaling to you that your time is far less valuable to them than their own. Sure, we all have to put ourselves first and our time should be the most valuable thing to ourselves. But if someone is consistently showing you that your time means nothing to them, you might want to take a step back and ask why. Maybe even bring it up gently to them if it bothers you. If they are genuinely good-intentioned persons, they will gladly discuss ways to improve the quality of the relationship. If they are up to no good, they will likely deflect and find ways to weasel out of any responsibility for the ways their actions impact your feelings.

3. What role do they like to perform?

This is a weird one, but it totally makes sense when you think about the fact that we all take up various roles in life. We all wear masks and we all change into different social costumes day-to-day, even hour-by-hour, depending on the context. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this. It’s quite healthy for me, for example, to take off my “philosopher mask” from time to time so I can let my brain cool off and just play with my kids. Some people, however, are extremely erratic in their self-presentation, changing it up so often that you never know what you are going to get. Those sorts of people represent more obvious cases where you should take caution. It is likely that they themselves don’t know whether they are coming or going. The people who are less obviously problematic are actually the ones who seem so resolved in their identity that they come off as confident, but almost too confident. They say things like “I am the person I am today because of X, Y , and Z,” or “I have had an awakening and realized who I truly am,” and then proceed to explain why they are the most authentic person they know. To reiterate, these things are not sure-fire signs that you are dealing with a manipulative person. It could be that this person truly has found their innermost truth and is living it. It could be, however, that they merely want to believe they have fully self-actualized, because they think this makes them seem way more put together than someone who says “I’m still struggling to make sense of who I am, but I’ve made some great strides.” (Hint: saying this last thing is the hallmark of self-awareness, namely, to know you are a constantly evolving set of projects and will be until the day you die.) It’s much easier to put ourselves in neat little boxes with clear labels and present ourselves to the world in these tidy packages than it is to admit to ourselves and others that there is a lot of self-discovery we have yet to undertake. If you are dealing with someone who has convinced themselves they are completely aware of all their motivations, non-conscious drives, and coping strategies, when in fact they do not have this awareness, it is quite probable that they are not even aware how unaware they are. You cannot hope to know what you do not even realize you don’t know. And if you are this self-deluded, it is also probable that you will engage in manipulative behavior and not even realize you are doing so. In short, when someone presents themselves as so incredibly sure that their identity is solidly fixed, consider that this might itself be a coping strategy they are using to avoid facing the reality that they are insecure and confused. Insecure and confused people are far more likely to project those insecurities onto others, which can easily turn into manipulative behaviors such as gaslighting.

4. What does your gut say?

Ok, this might sound like the most ‘woo’ advice I am offering, but here is the thing: if you really are a sensitive and empathetic person, you can probably attest to the fact that the little voice inside— you know, the one that raises these yellow and red flags before your conscious mind has even ruminated on any of it? — nine times out of ten, that intuition of yours was justified when it tried to put the brakes on your untamed heart. We have these gut instincts about people and they are most certainly not always correct, but they are often enough that we should not dismiss them. There is even research indicating that our autonomic nervous system registers threats and dangers from the most subtle environmental cues before our conscious brain understands what is going on. It’s probably why you sometimes feel inexplicably nervous around someone, or your heart races even when you think you should otherwise be calm, or your stomach is in knots. Our vagus nerve, which connects up the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, sends signals from our brains to our stomachs and vice versa, so when your body senses a threat, it is not just pseudoscientific magical thinking to say that your gut is telling you to run! or fight! or simply collapse and take cover. In short, listen to your body. As Nietzsche said, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “there is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.” When your body is sending you signals that something is not right, pay attention. It does not mean that the person you are interacting with consciously intends to do you harm, but these bodily indicators of threat should not be ignored either.

Escaping the Manipulative Web: Empathize with the Enemy

Let’s assume that unfortunately you missed these yellow flags and have gotten caught up in the web spun by a manipulator. Regardless of how you determine it, once you realize the undeniable fact that you have been taken for an emotional ride, it is very destabilizing. You will likely go through periods of shock, extreme anger, sadness, denial, and self-doubt, not necessarily in that order. If you are anything like me, and you recognize your own dark traits, you might even have moments where you mentally plot your revenge, and you fantasize about ruining them just as much — no, twice as much! — as they ruined you. These are all perfectly normal reactions to a highly abnormal situation. Feel your feelings. Process them and do not be ashamed of them. But also, make a plan to move forward and heal.

There are a lot of great resources out there in terms of how to extricate yourself from emotional manipulation or psychologically abusive situations, so I will not delve into them in detail here. A lot depends on what sort of relationship, if any, you want to maintain with the person(s) in the future.

Confronting it head on is my go-to method, but that’s because I am direct and unafraid of an argument. However, this method will only work if the person also has some basic empathy. If you are dealing with a malignant narcissist or a physically abusive person, I do not recommend this approach. It will be pointless and might even be hazardous to your physical health. Setting boundaries is always a great idea, and those can be as simple as demanding you only talk at a neutral location, or you can even request that the person join you in therapy to sort through it all with an unbiased mediator. Going “grey rock,” as it is often called, is also another great strategy. Basically, stop giving the manipulator anything to use as ammunition against you. Be as boring as a drab pebble. If they truly care for you and want to work toward a healthier relationship, they will respect your boundaries and acquiesce to your requests to move forward in ways you have determined are safe for you.

Unfortunately, in some cases, even all these strategies employed to neutralize manipulation are ineffective and the only thing left to do is walk away entirely. Going completely no contact might be the only way you can survive, physically and emotionally.

No matter what your course of action, once you have extricated yourself from manipulation, you still will likely feel like you have a gaping hole in your heart because it seems your abuser stole something from you. True, they did use your empathy and vulnerabilities against you, and they probably took away your ability to trust yourself. You might even gaslight yourself, believing you have in fact committed great atrocities worthy of their abuse. This will be compounded if you are the one to pull the plug and walk away. It will feel like you really are the bad person.

If and when you reach this point, I highly suggest you give yourself a mental hug. You have reached rock bottom and now you need to remember that nothing was actually stolen from you. You allowed someone to momentarily convince you to rob yourself of your own self-love. There is no hole in your heart. That feeling is the soft spot you have always had — your empathy — and though they tried to weaponize it against you, they failed. So first, use your empathy on yourself and feel some pity for yourself, but also some pride. You have done the right thing in refusing to engage in their abusive dynamics any longer. You are still powerful and worthy of love.

Next: turn your empathy back toward those who harmed you.

Yes, it sounds absurd, but recall why people tend to hurt others. They are either incredibly damaged themselves or they are so helplessly hollow inside that they do not even have the capacity to recognize what they are doing. Chances are, a person subjecting you to mind games lacks self-esteem or maybe even lacks a stable self-identity. They might have been hurt so badly in their past that they developed negative schemas over the years to avoid confronting just how much damage they have incurred, and one of those coping mechanisms might involve trying to control others or deflecting anytime they are threatened with the possibility that they too can harm people just as much as others harmed them.

Use your empathy to try to understand them better. Think back to a time in your life when you were feeling lost or like you didn’t know who you were. Remember how sad you were? Remember how much you desperately wanted someone to tell you “you are alright” or “you are worthy of love and respect”? This is what manipulative people want. It is what we all want, or so I think. But when we feel completely unworthy of love and respect, we often resort to manipulation. It might be all we have to prop ourselves up and feel in control.

Of course, empathizing with an emotionally abusive person can only go so far. They have to love themselves enough to want to grow and change. They have to seek internal validation and stop chasing after external validation so much. You cannot force this on them. But you can recognize this fact about them and avoid letting your own negative tendencies take over, which might cause you to do further damage, not just to your relationship with them, but to your relationship with yourself.

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

Once you truly empathize with those who harm you, an amazing thing happens. You are able to detach from their pain, because you now see it as the root cause of their actions. Those actions caused you pain, no doubt, but it is not the same pain the manipulator feels. When you stop absorbing their pain and distinguish your own pain from theirs, you reclaim your power. People who try to manipulate your emotions and wage Machiavellian war with your mind are pathetic. This is not an insult. Quite the contrary: the definition of pathetic is “to arouse pity and sadness, and to exude vulnerability.” We have all had moments where we are pathetic. Only some of us are strong enough to be genuinely empathetic. Not surprisingly, it is considered pathological to be incapable of feeling or expressing empathy. Etymology is great sometimes.

Above all, remember that you are vulnerable like every other human, and you shared that part of yourself with someone who tried to weaponize it against you. Instead of allowing them to steal your most valuable capacity to empathize, you set them free, and thus, set yourself free. That is precisely what makes them pathetic and you the powerful person that you are.

Constant collisions between the personal and political. Professor. Adoptee. Advocate. Activist. I write about dogs a lot.

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