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Identifying Ambient Abuse

identifying ambient abuse

The scars you can’t see are the hardest to heal. ~ Astrid Alauda

Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in his classic political treatise The Prince, “It is much safer to be feared than loved.”

This Machiavellian ethos is a tactical blueprint for those motivated to strategically exploit and utilize love and compassion to ensure dominance and control.

This insidious form of stealth psychological abuse is known as ambient/covert abuse and gaslighting. Ambient abuse is mystifying and amorphous and hence difficult to identify and diagnose, which makes it all the more perfidious and damaging.

By fostering a dependency that creates a power differential, the ambient abuser implies s/he possesses great insight, which will assist the targeted victim in her growth and well-being.

The ambient abuser ostensibly only wants the best for the target. The ambient abuser behaves altruistically, concealing the underlying motive to get the upper hand.

The ambient abusers’ appearance of benevolence, honesty and generosity is seductive and disorients the target and assists in ensuring the necessary leverage needed to ‘manage’ the target and diminish her self worth.

When conflict emerges, it’s an opportunity for the ambient abuser to deny wrongdoing and assign responsibility for the alleged infraction to the target. The seemingly well-intentioned ambient abuser may ‘selflessly’ point out how the flaws and shortcomings in the target are responsible for instigating the dispute.

George K. Simon Jr., wrote “In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People:”

Playing the victim role: Manipulator portrays him – or herself as a “of circumstance or of someone else’s behavior in order to gain pity, sympathy or evoke compassion and thereby get something from another. Caring and conscientious people cannot stand to see anyone suffering and the manipulator often finds it easy to play on sympathy to get cooperation.

The target, naturally inclined to believe that the ambient abuser is fundamentally ethical and that cooperation and compassion are collective moral imperatives, yields to what s/he assumes will be a collaborative effort to work through difficulties.

The ambient abuser capitalizes on this pre-disposition.

Should the target dare to question the stealth abuser’s intermittent barbs and disparagement, further distortion ensues. A disorienting narrative unfolds in which the target is held liable for questioning motives and doubting the sincerity of the abuser. This scenario involves the target being convinced that in fact it is s/he who is abusive and irrational.

Alternatively the ambient abuser may initially pretend to concede and acknowledge ‘their part’ so as to strategically reassure the target. In due time the ambient abuser will reaffirm the target’s unreasonable ‘misconduct’ denying he ever conceded responsibility at all.

Gaslighting

These myriad tactics deployed by the ambient abuser are known as gaslighting. False information is manufactured and deliberately presented to the victim, so as to make her doubt her memory and/or perceptions.

As this recurrent circuitous dynamic persists greater frequency and intensity of gaslighting occurs. Inevitably, the target is pummeled into silence and cognitive dissonance. She succumbs to the coercion, believing it is her paranoia and/or unhealed afflictions and flaws, which cause her to behave so egregiously and are responsible for igniting relational difficulties. She begins to doubt her sanity.

Ultimately the corrosive impact of ambient abuse results in the target losing sight of who she is. She is bewildered as to what defines her reality, and comes to view herself as inherently defective.

Her sense of personal agency has vanished. Bouts of emotional flooding vacillate with episodic dissociation. She is fearful, paranoid, and marginalized. At this point, the bond between abuser and victim is characterized by Stockholm Syndrome; a pathological infantile attachment in which one’s tormentor is perceived as one’s redeemer.

While anyone can fall prey to ambient abuse there are certain traits that can make one more susceptible to being targeted and victimized.

  • Those who are overly responsible and conciliatory and who tend to confuse compassion with guilt are ripe for manipulation as they are conditioned to defer their authority.
  • Those with poor interpersonal standards and low self-esteem have a high threshold for abuse and a willingness to ignore mistreatment.
  • Those who are exceedingly lonely may act out of desperation, not discernment.
  • Those who are controlled by their emotions throw caution to the wind.
  • Those who seek approval seek redemption through others.
  • Those with poor boundaries let others in intensely and prematurely.
  • Those who abide by naïve notions of Universal goodness in all people.

Untreated Victims

Unhealed adult victims of child abuse are particularly at risk, as their instincts are impaired, self-esteem is damaged and they are habituated to surviving through subjugation.

Locked in survival fears, the untreated victim of early abuse has a tenuous self-identity and she is a malleable narcissistic extension. Subconsciously, the unhealed survivor of early abuse may be seeking the mythologized deified parent, setting her up to be swept up by whomever presents himself as the embodiment of the wished for caregiver.

Learning how to protect one self by seeing through the smoke and mirrors of seductive charm is key to thwarting the stealth advances of an abuser.

In a world rife with plastic shamans, dangerous ‘healers’, corrupt corporations and politicians, predatory clergy and toxic families, it is imperative to be intelligently guarded.

This term means healing from relational traumas and cultivating a strong enough ego and sense of self to not be swayed by deceptive platitudes and accolades. It means formulating a balanced and realistic understanding of human nature inclusive of the potential for evil.

A biblical proverb states, “Above all else guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Protecting one’s heart is an act of self love, and  it is only through formidable self love can one paradoxically discern and defend against the nefarious forces, which threaten to eradicate one’s truest Self.

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Identifying Ambient Abuse

Rev Sheri Heller, LCSW

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, is a seasoned NYC psychotherapist with 25+ years experience in the addiction and mental health fields. Sheri is also an interfaith minister and playwright, and the founder of The Sistah Tribe - Phoenix Project, a therapeutic theater event for at-risk women and girls in the public sector of NYC. For more information, visit www.sheritherapist.com

 

APA Reference
Heller, R. (2016). Identifying Ambient Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 13, 2018, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/identifying-ambient-abuse/

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 26 Sep 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 26 Sep 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.