Three Habits of Emotional Abusers
Practice, not insight, changes habits.
Posted Oct 10, 2018
The most toxic habit that leads to virtually all abusive behaviors is using blame to regulate emotions. Whenever abusers feel uncomfortable, disappointed, guilty, ashamed, or sad, partners and children are likely to be blamed. The habit of blaming makes abusers perceive their guilt and shame as punishments inflicted by partners, rather than motivations to be true to their deeper values. Chronic blaming creates victim identity and a sense of entitlement, which justify, in the mind of abusers, any abusive behavior. To change the habit, abusers must practice regulating their discomfort by appreciating and protecting loved ones.
The second most toxic habit is contextualizing abusive behavior, which serves to excuse it — “I was stressed, tired, hungry, overwhelmed, overreacting, over-drinking, etc.” This gives the brain permission to repeat the behavior the next time the context occurs, that is, whenever the abuser wants adrenaline for temporary energy and confidence. To break the habit, abusers must practice what they will do to be more compassionate, kind, or respectful the next time the context occurs.
When the brain cannot see someone else’s perspective, it tends to guess, and that guess is usually based on the current emotional state. Because abusers tend to feel negative most of the time, they form habits of assuming the worst about their partners’ intentions. To break these habits, they must practice binocular vision — the ability to see their partners’ perspectives alongside their own.
Treatment goes wrong when it focuses on explanations of why abusers developed the above habits. Whatever may have started the emotional habits is not what sustains them. Repetition over time makes habits entrenched and automatic, regardless of what may have begun them. Understanding how abusers got into the hole is not going to get them out of it. Only practicing new habits, specifically compassion and kindness, will get them out of the hole they've dug for themselves.
Another common mistake in the treatment of abusers is dealing with specifics about what they blame and resent. Their habits are activated by internal discomfort. If you resolve a dozen things they blame on their partners, a dozen more will take their place, unless they learn new habits.
It’s easy for therapists to fall into the problem-solving trap. In abusive relationships, both parties do things wrong. What the abused partner does wrong is tantamount to putting the furniture in the wrong place on the deck of the Titanic. The abusive behavior has gouged a hole in the side of the hull. Quibbling over where the furniture should go will not save the ship.