One thing victims of psychopathic abuse will notice, often looking back, is the increasingly outrageous behaviour and boundary violations that the psychopath carried out as their relationship with them unfolded. The sort of behaviour that leaves the victim wondering “Did they just say that? Did they just do that?”
Yes, they did just say that, or do that.
Increasingly unacceptable behaviour and boundary violations are a deliberate tactic psychopaths use on their victims. It is part of the “gas-lighting” and identity erosion for which they are renowned. The victim starts to think they must be going mad, for no one would just act that outrageously and expect to get away with it. They start to question their own sanity and think they must be misreading the situation.
It is important to trust your own judgement when dealing with toxic people. If something doesn’t feel right something probably isn’t right. When you understand this type of behaviour for what it is and you see the intentions behind it, it becomes easier to resist and call the psychopath out on their behaviour. Let’s look at this facet of psychopathic abuse in more detail.
Why Do Psychopaths Do This?
As we mentioned above, psychopaths love to “gas-light” their victims. Gaslighting refers to behaviour which is designed to chip away at a person’s sense of reality and question their own judgement and sanity.
It derives it’s name from the 1938 stage play Gas Light and its two film adaptions in 1940 and 1944. The films feature a murderous man who plays a variety of tricks on his wife to make her think she is going crazy, including dimming the lights in the house without telling he that he is the cause of this by switching on the normally unused lamps to conduct his clandestine activities in the attic.
In typical psychopath fashion the husband tries to deny to his wife that the lights are dimming at all, despite knowing full well that they are dimming and he is the one that is causing it. He is playing mind games with his wife to erode her sense of reality. The gas-light metaphor has made it’s way into psychological literature.
Engaging in increasingly outrageous behaviour in the form of invasive, underhand or otherwise unacceptable comments or behaviour is just a slight variation on this general theme of gas-lighting. It is part of the identity erosion process and you will find it tends to be a gradual process as the psychopathic treats it almost like a game.
It will start with just the odd underhand comment here or there, which is laughed off as “just a joke” or “banter”. If you express offence then they will try to make out you are just over-reacting and move on. The first couple of times you may be able to write it off as a “bad day” for them.
Gradually though you will find the boundary violations become more and more common and they gradually chip away at your self esteem and identity. If they get away with one little thing, they will try a little more and then a little more still. They slowly wear you down psychologically with incrementally more unacceptable behaviour, but just gradual enough that kinder natured people will not notice or want to kick up a fuss.
Someone who manages to take a step back and look at the issue from a broader perspective will see that it isn’t acceptable though. If they compare what they accepted as “normal” treatment 3 or 6 months ago , or before they met the psychopath, versus what they routinely accept now, they will see the game the psychopath has been playing.
Much like the frog in the boiling pan of water analogy, the psychopath has slowly turned up the heat on them so they won’t notice. To straight away just come out with the “ten out of ten” outrageous comments or behaviour that characterizes the end stages of a relationship with a psychopath wouldn’t cut it. They play a longer more drawn out game.
Gaslighting is a common form of mind game used by psychopaths and sociopaths to chip away at a person’s sense of reality and make them think they are losing it
A Breakdown in Empathy
A normal person with a conscience would say “Why don’t they just stop?”. One must realize that with psychopaths you are dealing with people who do not have a conscience. They simply do not feel or know inside themselves the difference between right and wrong. They may intellectually observe what other people consider to be right and wrong but they couldn’t care less about morality or decency for it’s own sake.
More crucially psychopaths also have a complete lack of empathy, defined as an ability to feel, acknowledge and respect the feelings of others. It is the ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes and as such it acts as a crucial constraint on our behaviour towards others.
When a normal person acts or thinks about acting towards others in a way that would hurt them, empathy kicks in makes us realize that we would not like to be treated this way ourselves, so we should not behave this way towards others. Empathy places a boundary or limit on our behaviour as it allows us to comprehend the consequences of our actions on others.
The Characteristics of a Psychopath by Robert Hare
Psychopaths can observe that other people are experiencing something we describe as an emotion but they simply don’t feel or truly comprehend what these emotions are. They don’t “get it”.
Psychopaths completely lack this fail-safe mechanism and as such there is no restraint on their behaviour towards others. Nothing is off limits in terms of how they will treat people because they are unable to comprehend the emotional consequences of their actions on others. They simply don’t “get” that the way they behave could hurt others.
There is a school of thought that says psychopaths actually know full well the damage they are causing to others but just don’t care. This is true on one level. They may well know on an intellectual level what they are doing to others but empathy is where we feel (not think) the consequences of our actions on others, and this is what psychopaths lack.
Do Not Expect a Psychopath to Stop
This follows on logically from the points we have made about empathy and conscience, but it still bears stating explicitly for anyone that feels they are caught up in a relationship with a psychopath. We will emphasize the point clearly here:
Do not expect a psychopath to suddenly have a moral awakening, realize the consequences of their actions on others, and magically stop and apologize for everything. Psychopaths lack to two main emotional fail-safes that would ever allow them to do this – conscience and empathy.
Psychopaths simply do not care for the emotional and physical damage they cause to others. Period. Without empathy there is nothing in place to stop them carrying on with their psychological abuse and identity erosion. They will not stop. They will just keep going. It is a form of entertainment to them.
Normal human beings do tend to have a little bit of “revenge” factor inside us. Most of us do get a slight pleasure when we get our own back on someone who has wronged us. Or we do like to see the office bully put in his place by someone higher up. “Ha! Serves you right”, we think to ourselves. But we usually let it go pretty quickly.
Psychopaths are completely different in that there is deeply rooted and greatly enlarged sadistic aspect to their psyche. They simply do not have this human ability to say “OK, enough is enough” and stop. If no one stops them they will just keep going. Pleas to morality and conscience are useless. They simply don’t “get it” in this regard.
Of course we are not saying that victims have “wronged” the psychopath. In most cases they haven’t, but psychopaths are deeply sadistic either way. Often they will manufacture offence out of something where no malice or offence was intended and from then on out it’s all about revenge for something they invented in their own head! Such is the crazy world of dealing with psychopaths. You simply can’t win with them.
Psychopaths may eventually stop their abuse but this is only ever out of boredom and not any kind of morality or conscience. At this point they have got bored toying with their victim and they move onto someone else. This is part of idealize-devalue-discard routine they go through with all their victims, brilliantly described in Jackson Mackenzie’s book Psychopath Free, available on Amazon.
The Only Solution – Get Away
Again this conclusion should be clear from what we already mentioned, but again we want to emphasize it for anyone who feels they are stuck in an abusive relationship with a psychopath. Often the gas-lighting and identity erosion has put victims in a place where they can’t see the obvious. So again we want to point it out here:
If you are in a work or personal relationship with a psychopath then you need to exit that relationship and get away from them as quickly as possible. Do NOT sit around waiting or expecting for them to realize the errors of their ways and change. Psychopaths are devoid of empathy and their toxic behaviour towards you will only get worse not better. Cut yourself off from them as quickly and quietly as possible
Of course this is not always so simple, especially when it is a work situation where you are dealing with the psychopath. Most of use can’t simply hand our resignation in and walk into another job the next day. Similarly personal relationships can be difficult to untangle from if children or financial commitments are involved.
However there must be a concerted effort to get away from them. Take it in small steps if you want and just aim to take one small step every day to further detach you from the psychopath. The sooner you can get away the sooner you can start undoing all the damage they have done.
One of the first things to do is build up a support system around yourself. Psychopaths are adept at isolating you from any support systems you might have had so it is crucial you get supportive people back in your life who can help you draw up a plan and see more options. With help from others you can always find a plan to cut yourself off from them slowly and regain your sense of self.
One of the other things to do is to get the sense of reality and perception back they have no doubt spent so much time and energy trying to erode. Mindfulness and psychotherapy are two excellent ways to help you do this and can get you to a point of validation and realizing their behaviour to you was unacceptable, however they tried to rationalize or downplay it.
Check out our Resources Page for some more good books and videos on the topic.