This article was first published by The Huffington Post
The question that is always asked of victims of domestic abuse is “Why don’t/didn’t you just leave?” I know sometimes even victims don’t really understand why.
I’ve heard that question over and over. While there are many different reasons we give for not leaving, there is a “scientific explanation” for why it is so difficult to leave an abusive situation. I will explain the cycle of brainwashing as studied by psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, but will be discussing it as it specifically pertains to domestic abuse.
Last year, after years of hiding my abuse from almost everybody I knew, I decided to publicly share my story. Recently, after my research on brainwashing, I went back to read the story I had written last year. I was shocked. Each experience I described was a step in the brainwashing process. What’s even more shocking is that my abuser was only 15 years old.
I am not a psychologist, I speak from years of personal experience and from spending time with women who have endured domestic abuse. When somebody’s only objective is to keep you loyal, they will go to great lengths to achieve it.
This is what the brainwashing process looks like:
Stage I: Breaking Down the Self
Step 1: Assault on Identity
When somebody is trying to control another, they begin to attack their sense of self, their identity. They start to say things that cause the victim to doubt who they are.
“You are a slut.”
“You are not a good mom.”
“You are ugly, nobody will want you.”
The attacks are repeated consistently for days, weeks and sometimes years. As a result, the victim becomes disoriented, confused, and begins to doubt everything they believed to be true. Eventually the victim will begin to adopt these same beliefs.
The idea of brainwashing is to destroy the old identity and replace it with a new one, one that matches with the beliefs, values and ideas of the manipulator. The effects of an attack on the identity can last long after the victim is no longer in the abusive situation.
Step 2: Establishment of Guilt
Guilt is an effective tactic in mind control and is introduced in different ways. The abuser criticizes the victim for any reason, small or large, and sometimes no reason at all.
“This is your fault.”
“You made me do this.”
The abuser will take a small flaw and embellish it to the extreme. Abusers will shift responsibility for their actions to the victim or justify their behavior by blaming the victim.
“If you wouldn’t have talked back, I wouldn’t have had to hit you.”
An abuser will make the victim feel guilty for disagreeing with them or not meeting extremely high expectations.
An abuser may blame the victim for the abuser’s transgressions by making the victim believe they deserved it, or are a result of something the victim did. After the assault on identity, the constant criticisms cause the victim to believe the punishment and mistreatment are warranted.
Guilt can easily turn into shame when it is internalized. Inducing guilt, humiliation and shame destroy confidence and self worth. A victim begins to feel culpable all the time and everything they do or say is wrong. When shame sets in, the victim no longer feels bad about things they’ve done, they begin to feel they are bad.
Step 3: Self-Betrayal
Once a victim is overwhelmed with guilt and shame, they begin to abandon their own needs and make choices that are harmful to their well-being. The victim is bullied into cutting off communication from friends and family who share the same beliefs or behaviors. This is when isolation begins: The abuser believes the victim’s friends and family are a threat to the relationship. The abuser will blame friends or family for problems in the relationship. The victim’s betrayal of their own beliefs and the betrayal of the people to whom they once felt a sense of loyalty increases the feelings of shame and guilt, which further destroys their sense of self. As a result, the more isolated a victim becomes, the more dependent they are on the abuser.
Step 4: Breaking Point
At this point, the victim no longer recognizes themselves, they don’t know who they are any longer. They may have lost their grip with reality. Gaslighting techniques are used to push the victim over the edge. Gaslighting is an attempt by one person to overwrite another’s reality.
“You’re crazy—that never happened.”
“You’re making that up, it’s all in you head.”
The victim is confused and disoriented from gaslighting and from being fed a distorted version of reality. The victim questions themselves constantly and feels like “the crazy one” and/or feels depressed, anxious, traumatized and other negative emotional and physical symptoms like insomnia and paranoia.
Some may call this a “nervous breakdown.” A nervous breakdown is the point of exhaustion reached after an extended period of extreme anxiety. The overwhelming anxiety, depression and stress lead to a sense of hopelessness, helplessness and absolute exhaustion. The victim’s ability to think and reason at this stage is severely compromised and they become temporarily unable to function normally in day-to-day life.
Stage II: Possibility of Salvation
Step 5: Leniency & Opportunity
Just when a victim can literally take no more, the abuser offers leniency. This is when the abuser offers a small act of kindness amid the psychological abuse and the victim feels a deep sense of gratitude completely out of proportion to the deed.
Because the victim’s perception is so skewed, the small act shifts emotions to relief and a sense of admiration. Since these small acts of kindness are so infrequent, the kind gesture is magnified. It can be something as small as offering a glass of water, a hug or a compliment. This can lead to a sense of false hope. It puts the responsibility on the victim to do things better, to try harder, in hopes the acts of kindness will become more frequent.
These unpredictable responses are detrimental to mental well-being, confidence and self-esteem. The abuser can have an extreme reaction one day, and then the next day have the complete opposite reaction. This unpredictability can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety.
Step 6: Compulsion to Confess
The victim is so grateful for the small gesture between abuse and manipulation, they begin to agree with the criticisms. For the first time in the brainwashing process, the victim is faced with the stark contrast between the harsh criticism and abuse, and the relief of leniency.
This is when the victim looks within and tries to find those “evil” parts of themselves and attempts to remove them from every part of their being. This leads directly to their “new” identity. The victim begins to acquire the beliefs and values the abuser has ingrained. At this point, the victim is willing to say anything to recreate those moments of leniency.
Step 7: The Channeling of Guilt
The victim does not know what they have done wrong, they just know they are wrong. They begin to feel guilty for who they are and about the beliefs they’ve held. This creates a blank slate so the abuser can attach the guilt to whatever belief system the abuser is trying to replace. The victim comes to believe it is their belief system that is causing all of the problems; the more they accept the abuser’s way of thinking, the more shame they feel about who they were. Essentially, this is when the victim begins to adopt the new way of thinking and relinquishes their old way of thinking.
Step 8: Releasing of Guilt, Logical Dishonoring
By this stage, the victim has come to believe that they themselves are not bad, but the belief systems they held are wrong, and they can escape that wrongness by completely changing their belief systems. They denounce their former belief system and the people they associated with. They confess to acts associated with their former belief systems. After a full confession, they complete the process of rejecting their former identity. Now, the abuser offers up the new identity.
These tactics are very similar to those used on prisoners of war or members of a cult. In a domestic abuse situation, the brainwashing process becomes a cycle and the steps continue to be repeated. The moment an abuser begins to feel the victim is “slipping from their control,” they will re-assault their identity. This will begin the process all over again. Victims continue to believe in the ideas of their abusers long after they have left the abusive environment. The new belief system has been so deeply rooted, it could take years to change.
There is hope. Abuse thrives only in silence. If you are healing from an abusive relationship, know the most important thing to do is forgive yourself. If you find yourself in this situation, please seek support. An extremely effective way to get out of the darkness of guilt and shame is by shining a light on it. Start talking about it, don’t keep the feelings inside. Shame can only survive in darkness.
If you are in an abusive situation…
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Keirsten Marie licensed under Creative Commons 2.0