Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development, Uncategorized

No-one who has seen any rendition of “Les Miserables” ever forgets the moment when one of the main characters stands atop the barricades waving the French flag as a symbol of defiant defense against the encroaching regular militia intent to tear the revolutionaries apart. Signalling our entrenched defense of a position is as much an act of rebellion or revolution as it is an act of fear or of outright war. This is as true in emotional conflict as it is in any more overt armed conflict.

People take positions or stances for a variety of reasons. For example, Virginia Satir defines four coping or “survival stances”, methods of establishing some kind of emotional equilibrium based on a set of “rules” that govern the association between (generally low) self-esteem, triggers, emotional reactions, and behavioural responses. Specifically, she writes,

“The four survival states… originate from a state of low self-esteem and imbalance, in which people give their power to someone or something else. People adopt survival stances to protect their self worth against verbal and non-verbal, perceived and presumed threats.” (Satir, The Satir Model, pg 31)

The four stances Satir identifies are the Blaming stance, the Placating stance, the Super-Reasonable stance, and the Irrelevant stance. And because people tend to adopt such stances or positions as survival mechanisms in situations where the attendant behaviours for each stance provide a barricade protecting us from those perceived threats, we can, over time, emotionally invest in our stances very heavily. If we come to believe that maintaining these stances will keep us safe, hen any perceived threat will be defended against, sometimes with subversion and sometimes with tactical precision and military-grade offence. When we’re significantly invested in defending those stances to the point where we have no openness or tolerance for any threat against them, we are considered to be entrenched. We become entrenched in a variety of ways; it generally indicates there is no resiliency for change, no way to integrate or even consider differing or opposing viewpoints. We become heavily invested in our perspectives or views of reality, even if they are (at least to external perspectives) distorted or dysfunctional perspectives. We cannot afford to be wrong, so we will defend the barricades we build around our entrenched positions until we (metaphorically) die through convincing and conversion, or exhausted capitulation.

Last week’s blog post looked at gaslighting as a form of deliberate manipulation in the context of abusive relationships. It’s important to note that gaslighting sometimes also occurs as a consequence of entrenched individuals defending their defensive barricades. Most of us have probably uttered phrases, in jest or in seriousness, along the lines of, “You’re crazy!” or “You’re nuts, that’s not how it happened!”. It doesn’t happen out of manipulative maliciousness in many cases; it can also happen as a result of entrenchment defending its own invested worldview against the perceived threat of a different view. We can become dismissive of other perspectives, or possibly even contemptuous — remember, contempt is one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — simply because we don’t want to manage the internal upheaval that comes of having our entrenched beliefs, or entrenched narratives around our self-esteem, challenged by external, presumed-hostile forces intent on (presumably) destroying those beliefs. It’s often easier for people to repel the attack on our position than it is to self-regulate our inner turmoil.

And that’s the primary difference between two types of gaslighting: one is an active manipulation with intent to manage or force compliance from Other, the other is a way or repelling perceived threats as a defense of the Self. To the outside perspectives, it’s true that the effect may appear similar and the felt impact will be similarly painful. No-one likes being dismissed or diminutized, especially by someone close to us. But there are advantages in differentiating intent when it comes time to decode and deconstruct the defensive mechanisms when we get to working with this kind of challenge in the counselling room. In order to encourage entrenched perspectives to lower the barricades (or at least lower their defensive intolerance), we have to consider what it is they are protecting behind the barricades; what are they so afraid of? Roger Fisher and William Ury, authors of the classic handbook on negotiation, Getting to Yes, state from the outset in their works that arguing over *positions* is the most ineffective way of achieving a favourable resolution to any kind of negotiating or potentially challenging engagement:

“Whether a negotiation concerns a contract, a family quarrel, or a peace settlement among nations, people routinely engage in positional bargaining. Each side takes a position, argues for it, and makes concessions to reach a compromise. [..] When negotiators bargain over positions, they tend to lock themselves into those positions. The more you clarify your position and defend it against attack, the more committed you become to it. The more you try to convince the other side of the impossibility of changing your opening position, the more difficult it becomes to do so. Your ego becomes identified with your position. You now have a new interest in “saving face” — in reconciling future action with past positions — making it less and less likely that any agreement will wisely reconcile the parties’ original interests.” (Fisher & Ury, pgs. 7-8)

This is an excellent summary of entrenchment, and why it is so difficult to “win” confrontations or conflict with entrenched parties. We see this in the counselling room all the time. When the arguments become less about achieving a collaborative solution or even compromise than they are about “being right” or “saving face”, then we’re facing an entrenched adversary who will likely do everything they can to save their position. Learning what lies at the emotional centre of the defended position is a key part of a resolution process, because it’s sometimes not going to be obvious from the defensive strategies lobbed out by those behind the barricade. As we often say in relational therapy, “The thing that we’re fighting about may not actually be the thing that we’re fighting about” — the WORDS of the argument may be about leaving socks on the bedroom floor for the eighth time this week, but the FORCE of the argument is ACTUALLY about not feeling heard and respected; the entrenchment, the emotional investment in one’s stance in the argument, results from feeling hurt, or needing to be right.

These kinds of emotional entrenchment conflicts are an excellent place for emotionally-focused therapy to introduce way of opening up defensive stances between couples especially, of exploring the underlying narratives tied to esteem-based interpretations that keep getting in the way of partners hearing each other. When these kinds of issues come into the office with individual clients, sometimes we can apply a more narrative exploration to clarify why a person continues to emotionally invest in a particular survival stance, even to the potential or ongoing detriment of their current relationships. We’re constantly looking for ways to increase the native sense of emotional safety and bolstered self-esteem, as a way of introducing more resiliency to how we face challenges to our worldviews and our sense of Self. There are ways to increase one’s flexibility and adaptability in the face of differing perspectives that does not mean “we were wrong” or that we somehow cease to exist if we drop an invested stance.

Sometimes it takes time and work to build security that makes that kind of resiliency possible, though; it’s more than simply “wearing each other down” in the way the French militia and the Revolutionaries in “Les Mis” wore each other down through frequent battles. It’s about learning about the underpinnings of each other’s stances, understanding why they are important to us, and working that into collaborative discussion strategies that build tolerance. We can’t stand on the barricades and wave the revolutionary flag forever; sometimes we just need help to dig ourselves out of our own entrenchments.

Emotional abuse

One of the hallmarks of emotional abuse is the use of gaslighting, defined as, “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.” While it has long been held as something of a truism that “truth is subjective” by philosophers, psychologists, and scientists alike, gaslighting is an abusive tactic that uses subjectivity against its victims by causing them to question their own perception and understanding of events and feelings… and often themselves at the core.

There is some science behind the brain’s fluid ability to accept new information as factual, as truth. “Cognitive ease“, sometimes also called “processing fluency“, defines the speed with which our brains process and integrate new information. When exposed repeatedly to specific, targeted messages in familiar contexts, we’re more likely to accept the message as factual, as truth, even when on some level we know this isn’t necessarily either factual OR truth. This has been a longstanding, fundamental principle of marketing; in the past two years we’ve also seen this practice play out on a global scale as politics have infected media and journalism to the point where the message, however inaccurate and untruthful, is still repeated in targeted ways to specific audiences… who then accept the message as their subjective truth whether it is factual or not. Anyone active on social media sees this happen on an almost daily basis as friends and family share misinformation as if it were fact, because they believe it to be true.

Where this becomes particularly influential on a personal level is when it feeds into particular cognitive biases, reinforcing internal beliefs a person may not even know they hold until “supporting evidence” becomes readily available. In short, “the things we’re exposed to constantly feel more true.” This is part of the devastating effect of gaslighting, even in the short term; the abusive statements are repetitive, and delivered with an air of authority or force that imply the abuser knows whereof they speak better than the victim does. This is part of how seeds of doubt come to take root. “What if they really *ARE* right?” is a question we, the support workers, hear from victims all the time, and it is a devastating effect on self-esteem when the gaslighting attacks and distorts a person’s self-worth at its very foundation. Part of what makes gaslighting behaviours so powerful to so many is that the abusers are very effective observers of their fellow humans and find weakness to exploit fairly swiftly. These weaknesses may already be well-tied to internal value scripts the victims carry about themselves; this is where the manipulative agenda meets an existing confirmation bias and exploits the victim’s processing fluency to introduce a whole new set of behavioural routines. And voila!, we have a perfect storm of devastating emotional abuse.

When we look at gaslighting in relationships, we start with noting the abuser’s behaviours, including emotionally-destabilizing tactics that may commonly (though not exclusively) manifest as a push/pull, “I love you/I hate you” or “come here/go away” attachment behaviour. When the victim is uncertain about their place in the relationship system (see also: sick systems), it becomes much easier for the abuser to introduce reframing perspectives and interpretations that support their own positions and agenda while effectively dismantling the victim’s views, values, and ability to trust their own judgments. Gaslighting practices often also go hand-in-hand with isolating behaviours, in which the abuser works to cut off the victim’s connections to outside influences and perspectives that may undermine the abuser’s distorting control. Gaslighting works best when there are few or no effective outside influences working to support the victim, and abusers will use the victim’s emotional turmoil resulting from any attempt to reconcile two conflicting sources of information as a way of keeping the victim uncertain, and unable to act decisively in their own defense.

When we work with victims of gaslighting in the counselling room, the very first steps we take, almost always in this order, are: (1) establish the client’s safety, first and foremost, and (2) validate their experiences and feelings as real and authentic. From there it’s often a case of re-establishing some baseline understandings: abusers often attack their victims at the level of who they are, as much as what they do, so we counter that in counselling by establishing that “this is a thing that happened because of who the abuser *IS*, not because of anything you said or did to deserve this treatment.” NO-ONE DESERVES THIS BEHAVIOUR, EVER. Not from parents and care-givers, not from teachers and leaders, not from employers, not from lovers and partners. It may be true that many abusers choose their victims carefully, but the truth is, they are often going to exhibit some or all of these behaviours to everyone in their world, to some degree, at some points. Romantic abusers will certainly repeat these patterns in all of their relationships; parents continue toxic behaviours with their adult children; toxic bosses will continue to be tyrants in the office to some or all of their employees as long as *their* bosses tolerate it. THIS IS NOT BECAUSE OF THE VICTIM, IT IS ONLY BECAUSE OF THE ABUSER. But the nature of gaslighting means that we often have to reconstruct some fundamental beliefs in our victimized clients’ own sense of self-worth and good judgment, and that takes time.

Rule number one in dealing with abusers who engage in these kinds of behaviours is to cut off all contact as safely and swiftly as possible. There may be reasons why this is not entirely possible (shared custody of children, financial entanglements, etc.), and for this reason we might often suggest seeking legal assistance as soon as possible, as well as documenting any and all forms of contact and their nature. We often hope this record never needs to see the light of day, but in the event of things needing legal intervention, the more the survivor of the abuse can document, the clearer a window of contact they can provide to the police or courts as required. Maintain a copy of all written contact, but don’t respond any more than absolutely necessary for logistical purposes; stay out of emotional engagements at all costs. Come vent at the therapist, at friends and family, anywhere there is dependable safety to do so. Don’t vent online; it’s imperative to keep oneself clear of social media platforms where the written word can be captured and shared without consent to the one person you might most NOT want to see what’s being said about them. It’s most important to stay safe, and that means not opening oneself up to further assaults as much as possible.

It’s important to note, this does NOT mean survivors need to stay silent. Part of our role as therapists is to provide safe space to process the horrors of this kind of experience, to make space for a voice that’s been buried in self-doubt for long enough. It’s hard enough to dissociate from the abuser and the abusive situation without needing to suppress those feelings any further. Getting to safety, regaining perspective, re-establishing self-trust; these are our goals. And we help support, as best we can, those who for whatever reasons are not in a position to safely get clear of such situations just yet.