The book club book for April is “Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal With People Who Try and Control You” by Patricia Evans.
There were SO many concepts that I really liked in this book, it was hard to narrow them down to just twelve! (Truth be told, I was trying to narrow things down to seven, but that didn’t happen!)
Perhaps my favorite concept (and biggest take away) was the concept of the pretend person aka “Teddy” (see point #5 for more detail). This concept really helped to explain how and why abusive behavior comes across as so erratic and bizarre.
I also really liked her description of how abusive people act “beside themselves” or “under a spell” when they start attempting to control/abuse their target (see points 6, 7, and 8 for more detail). I think anyone who has ever experienced this can relate that it really does come across like this. I’ve often wondered as well when this happens if the abusive person is even aware of it, because it really seems like they aren’t.
Before I read this book, I used to try and describe this kind of erratic behavior to others as a temporary break in reality much like the scene in the movie “The Shining” where the mother is talking to what she thinks is her son (Danny). Danny holds up his finger and looks at her with cold, dark eyes that are void of human emotion (void of empathy and compassion really) and says, “Danny isn’t here right now Mrs. Torrence.” The mother realizes that what’s in front of her looks like her son, and talks like her son, but it isn’t her son—and it’s confusing and terrifying all at the same time. It really is like a functional form of psychosis.
Of course, trying to explain this to other people who haven’t experienced this is really difficult, and I’ve often been left feeling like they didn’t believe me or felt like I was exaggerating. …And not all controlling or abusive people have behavior that is this extreme. Some of them attempt to control and micromanage and maybe even get upset, but they can still be reasoned with.
And while I totally agree with her that many abusive people (especially ones that are more overtly abusive and reactive) act in a way that is “beside” themselves, I can also say that I’ve experienced abusive people who were cold, calculating, and very much in touch with reality and who weren’t “beside themselves” which makes me wonder why that is–and more specifically, what all is going on in their brain/what their thought process is.
According to the author, controlling/abusive people really aren’t aware of what’s going on—at least not in the sense of how most of us would describe awareness. Meaning, they are aware of what’s going on, but there is a break from a shared reality that is happening, and because of this, they have entered their own reality—which is different from ours.
This break from a shared reality was triggered by their target acting in way that is different from how the abusive person feels they should be acting, and they abusive person takes this sign of individuality as a personal attack—like the target is doing something intentionally to provoke them (which generally they are not).
In other words, the abusive person thinks their target is acting up, when in reality their target is acting as an individual. This disconnection between who the target is and who they think the target should be is what triggers them—and is also why their behavior comes across as so erratic, because their target isn’t a mind reader. Which is why they can hide it, but which is also why they take it out on their target when they are alone with them.
…I’ll be curious to hear what you guys have to say about this book, and what questions it brought up for you, and what take ways in general you had. Click here to read more take aways from this book, or to join in the discussion.
- Controlling or abusive behavior is behavior that is harassing, defining, discriminating, or physically assaulting. And the vast majority of the time, the perpetrator acts as if the target was deserving of it. Controlling behavior can come across as either overt (obvious) or covert (not so obvious/hidden). Any acts against others, whether cold and subtle, such a glaring look, or hot and explosive such as a burst of rage, are all attempts to control.
- All controlling behavior has certain commonalities:
- Perpetrators usually believe that their oppressive actions are necessary, even right. (When in actuality their behavior is actually the opposite: unnecessary and wrong.)
- The attempt to control others, eventually bring the perpetrators just the opposite of what they want.
- Acts against others originate with a distortion of lack of awareness. Perpetrators almost universally believe that they see clearly and are acting ways that are “rational and justified” however they do not see things clearly, and their behavior comes across as irrational and is not justified.
- Controlling people feel justified in their actions. When people act aggressively towards others they often feel justified, and it feels like a sensible thing to do. If an act of aggression is justified in the mind of the perpetrator, it is, in a backwards way, said to be caused by the victim rather than by the perpetrator. Which is just the opposite of truth.
- Controlling people control others as a way of staying in control over their reality. (Although most controlling people do not realize that they are controlling, and if they do realize that they are controlling, they often do not see their behavior as problematic—they see it as reasonable, and that other people are the problem.) When others (especially those closest to them) begin acting in ways that are outside of the way that the controlling person’s view of how they should act, the controlling person lashes out in order to get them back in line with how they think they should act.
- Controlling people have a disconnect from reality because they view those they are connected closest to in a “pretend person” kind of way. The author describes a pretend person as “Teddy,” (as in Teddy Bear) meaning a made up view of this perfect person—much like how a child might give a stuffed animal a personality. The controlling person expects “Teddy” (their partner) to act in a certain way—the way that they think they should think, feel, and act in any given situation. Due to this “Teddy” way of connection to others, the controlling person tends to have a “one mind” way of relating to others. So when their partner expresses some sort of thought, feeling, or action that is out of alignment with what they think, feel, or act—or how they think that “Teddy” should think, feel, or act, the controlling person lashes out on them. The controlling person is shocked by how “Teddy” is acting, and feels victimized and therefore justified in their treatment of “Teddy.”
- Controlling people are not rational or reasonable when they are being controlling. The author compares this to them acting “beside themselves” or “under a spell” similar to how people act when they are under incredible amounts of grief or stress. (Some other names targets of abuse use to describe this erratic and bizarre behavior is an “emotional roller coaster,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” or the “sweet/mean cycle.” It’s very common for targets of abuse to wonder if this person is bipolar, possessed, using drugs, or crazy.)
This disconnection is seen in most of us during times of extreme situations like grief, or a disaster. We might say or act in ways that are not our normal self. We might cuss, or belittle another person, saying something like, “Hurry up damn you! What’s taking you so long?!” People often forgive these types of behaviors because we see the connection to the circumstance at hand. Controlling/abusive people act this way out of the clear blue without a circumstance that causes it. Generally people act disconnected only when they are around certain people that they are close with, and not with neighbors, coworkers, or even some friends and family.
Any sign (real or perceived) of separateness and a controlling person will attack either verbally and/or physically. Any sign of separateness and the controller panics. Including: new ideas, requests, thoughts, suggestions, questions, spontaneous expressions, style, insights, beliefs, misgivings, objections, apprehensions, body language, and so forth (also any perceived signs of separateness).
Controllers often target the witness’s greatest gifts (creativity, communication, parenting, etc.) because these gifts are unusually expressive of their authenticity.
Many targets of controlling people mistake the controller to be rational, so it’s not surprising that they believe they can be understood when they explain themselves. Controllers do not have a rational view of the person they are trying to control. They do not see the individuality of the other person, they only see the “pretend person” that they’ve created inside their head of who the person “should” be.
- Some examples of controlling behavior and a controlling person being “beside” themselves:
Witness: “I don’t like to cook.”
Controller: “Oh that’s not true, everybody liked your pilaf at the party.” (Because in the controller’s mind the pretend person likes to cook.)
Witness: “I’m really looking forward to my trip.”
Controller: “You don’t like to be around me.” (Because in the controller’s mind the pretend person wouldn’t want to be away from them.)
Witness: I don’t want to continue dating you because we have very different values.
Controller: You are afraid of intimacy. (Because in the controller’s mind the pretend person doesn’t have different values.)
An example of an experience defined for a child: Betty and her 7 year old daughter Suzy walk into an ice-cream shop. Betty asks Suzy what kind of ice cream she wants. Suzy says, “vanilla.” Betty says, “Have chocolate chip instead.” Suzy says, “I like vanilla.” Betty says, “You’ll like chocolate-walnut better.” “No I want vanilla” Suzy says. This goes on for a bit, and then Betty says, “Well aren’t you a strange one.” Suzy’s personal reality is negated. She was being told that her authentic self was wrong, and that her mother was right. (This is an example of good intentions gone wrong.)
A more extreme example might be a man is making dinner when his wife walks in the door. She asks him how his day was as she starts flipping through the mail. The man walks over and grabs her by the throat and throws her to the ground and begins cussing her out. (Because in the controller’s mind, she should know he’s had a tough day and that he didn’t want to make dinner—so he feels justified in abusing her because she provoked him by her non-action—because she should know better.)
- How controlling behavior comes across to the target: nonsensical, confusing, upsetting/hurtful (emotionally and/or physically) or crazy making. This is because the controlling person expects others to act a certain way and when they don’t the abusive person gets upset and lashes out, thinking that the other person should have known better. (This is crazy making, and will always set the target up to lose, because none of us are mind readers.)
- What targets of controlling people often ask themselves: Many targets of controlling behavior ask themselves, “How can he/she not see that their behavior is destroying our relationship? Do they know what they are doing? Do they not see that they are blaming me for exactly what they are doing? How do they not see the hypocrisy in that they are acting in the very way that they resent their parent for? How can abusive people be so great and loving to others, but then be so cruel at home?”
The only chance we have at breaking the spell is to say “what?” If someone starts defining you (telling you what you are thinking, feeling, or are capable of) say, “What?” This will help because:
- It will register to you that this is nonsense, and you won’t wonder about it, try to figure it out, or explain why it’s not so.
- You can’t be accused of interrupting. After all, you are only asking for clarity.
- The person who just spoke to you has an opportunity to think, “Now what did I just say?” And possibly to retract the senseless talk and turn it into mindful talk.
- The person who has attempted to define you finds it impossible to do so.
- Each time you say “What?” the person who defines you has another opportunity to remember what was said, and to wake up from the spell.
- Do not say “what” to the following people:
- A person who has threatened your life
- A person who lies for no apparent reason
- A person in a rage
- A person who displays a weapon in a threatening way around you
- A person who is following you
- A stranger
- We have the choice to let other define us or our reality. Everyone is born with four functions: feeling, sensate, intuitive, and thinking. These four functions all us to be connected to ourselves.
Disconnect from these functions can happen from a chemical imbalance, illness, a severe blow to the head, or because of trauma (either they were trained to disconnect or they tried to disconnect.)
Being trained to disconnect. If someone else (especially when we are children) defines our reality in an opposite way from what is happening, then the experience is presented backwards to that child. For example, if Jill falls down and scraped her knee, and began to cry, and her parents pull her up and say, “You’re not hurt, you have nothing to cry about, you’re just trying to get attention.” Jill’s experience was presented backwards to her (which is confusing and crazy making to her).
An inner occurrence, her experience, was defined from outside himself by her parents. If this was the way Jill was often treated (especially when in pain—physical or emotional), how might she experienced herself? How might she have defined herself? If we “take in” someone else’s definition of us, we believe that their definition is more real than our own. We substitute our self-definition with someone else’s. We come to know ourselves in a backwards way, from the outside in, and not the inside out. If Jill took in her parent’s definition of her, she would have believed that the pain in her knee was either not real or shouldn’t be happening. She tells herself, “I’m not hurt” and thus, she would lose some sensate awareness.
She would believe that the tears coming from her eyes were a betrayal or an over-reaction, thinking, “I’ve got nothing to cry about.” She would then lose some emotional awareness. And she would believe he did something very bad, “I’m trying to get attention.” She would lose her intuitive awareness that something bad was happening to her. In these ways she would be trained to believe the opposite of the truth. If she took in his parent’s definition of her experience, she would have to discard her own. She would feel guilty for making them angry.
- If a controlling person wants help. If a controlling person wants to be less controlling, a good start is for them to get connected to their feelings, sensations, and intuitions—and making meaning of them. People who know their inner worlds feel connected to themselves. Once they feel connected to themselves, then they can start feeling connected to others and let go of their control connection to make themselves feel anchored.
Interested in discussing the book with others? Considering joining the book club (or just dropping in and reading the notes) by clicking here. If you’d like to read more about the book, or would like to buy the book on Amazon, click here.
Hope to “see” you in the book club!
~ Dana 🙂
*The links to Amazon are affiliate links, which means that I get a small commission if you buy the book through Amazon. It does not cost you any extra to buy through these links. Please don’t feel obligated to buy through these links, you can most likely order this book through your local library too. (I am also working towards getting more organized with the book club so that I can put out a list of books for several months in advance for those who would like to order them from the library.)
My goal is to educate, empower, and inspire other abuse victims in understanding more about what happened to them (and how to prevent it from happening again), as well as how to go on and rebuild an amazing life.
Even though I have had a lot of "in the trenches" experience with highly manipulative people of all kinds, I consider myself to be a student of Narcissism, mindset, motivation, healing, and life in general, and am by no means an expert on any of these topics.
It's for these reasons, that when you are reading my information that I encourage you to hold to what helps, and let the rest go.
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