In order to effectively treat a person with an abusive personality, it is important to understand that almost everything you learned in school does not apply. A valuable basic premise to hold on to is that “people do that which they want to do because they get a reward for doing it.”
Think about an abuser. What could he possibly want from hurting another person? There are many answers to that question, these include: power, control, vindication, punishment, retaliation, etc. None of which are useful in a civilized society, let alone a healthy relationship or family.
There are two underlying approaches to abusive behaviors: defensive and offensive. The defensive abuser is reacting or responding to an external stimuli. He wants to protect himself in some way. The offensive abuser gets some sort of payoff for hurting others. What is this payoff? Most likely it is the feeling of superiority and satisfaction from having the upper hand.
When providing therapy for an abusive person, it really isn’t useful to treat him like a victim. It is not helpful to coddle his emotions or feel sorry for him. Even if your client is a defensive abuser, and is responding out of a hurt, real or imagined, he still makes the cognitive decision to injure another person as a response.
In fact, many abusers claim to be victims and hold to this belief. He will say, “I know what I did was wrong, I just felt hurt.” There are at least six payoffs for this statement: (1) It makes the abuser look like a victim to the other party. (2) He feels justified in his behavior because he believes he’s a victim. (3) He saves face because after all, he’s an injured person. (4) The truly injured party feels guilty, thus giving even more power to the abuse perpetrator. (5) He builds sympathy from others. (6) By admitting that he did something wrong he feels as if the wrong he did should no longer be held against him (I TOLD you already I was sorry!)
Realize that the typical victims of abusive relationships stay in the relationship because they are conscientious; that is, they have a conscience. They feel sorry for people. They give people the benefit of the doubt. They are compassionate, understanding, and forgiving. All of these traits are awesome and healthy; however, these are the exact traits that are exploited in abusive relationships. Therapists, too, tend to respond to abusers in a similar manner.
This is akin to the projection/introjection dynamic. Here’s how this dynamic works: The abuser projects his negative behavior onto the victim. The victim “introjects” this behavior, by owning it. The victim projects his behavior onto the abuser; that is, he projects his good nature onto the abuser, assuming that the abuser is just misunderstood and also a victim. Thus, an abusive relationship cycle is born. Both the abuser and the victim are projecting each other’s true nature onto the other person. The victim, however, has the “lower hand,” because he is taking on the negative qualities the abuser is projecting on to him.
For example, a victim, being overly responsible for the well-being of the relationship, when told that he is at fault, does some “soul searching,” thinking, “Maybe I did sound harsh. Maybe I shouldn’t have done thus and thus…” The victim takes on even MORE responsibility for the health of the relationship.
While on the other hand, the victim is projecting his good nature on to the abuse perpetrator thinking, “He is just feeling misunderstood so he is just lashing out at me.” The victim is both projecting his good nature on to the abuser while introjecting the abuser’s negative behavior onto himself.
Think of a mirror. We mirror to each other what we experience.
The therapist is well-served to understand what is happening both in the victim-abuser relationship and in the therapeutic relationship with the abusive person. The therapist needs to have strong psychological boundaries in place so that he won’t fall into the projection/introjection trap with the client. The therapist needs to understand that he is dealing with a master manipulator who can even use the therapist’s good qualities to his advantage.
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