Strategy: Psychological abusers don't go for the weak — they choose strong people because they 'like a challenge'
A common misconception is that abusers prey on the vulnerable.
- Victims of psychological abuse are often strong, confident, and successful.
- This is because abusers are attracted to someone they think will be a "challenge" to break.
- People with certain personality traits can change in therapy, but narcissists and psychopaths will not, and this can be recognised by looking at the damage they have left behind in their careers, love lives, or families.
When you think of someone in an abusive relationship, you probably imagine someone weak. This may well be the end result, but in reality, it probably didn't start that way.
Victims of psychological abuse are most often the kind of people you wouldn't think would be vulnerable to such a thing. According to Shannon Thomas, a therapist and author of the book "Healing from Hidden Abuse," success and strength are actually what attract abusive narcissists and psychopaths to their targets.
"Psychological abusers are attracted to what is going on within the person's life that is shiny, glamorous, or exciting, or successful, or dynamic, or vibrant," she told Business Insider. "That's what is attracting, kind of like a moth to a light, these kind of psychological perpetrators, because they want to initially get something positive from that person."
Once the perpetrator is attached to that relationship, whether it's in a work environment or a romantic relationship, Thomas says they will then start to try to tear down the qualities and success that drew them there to begin with.
Therapist Perpetua Neo told Business Insider she has also seen this in her clients. They are all successful and strong, but they also tend to be very empathetic people.
"A lot of my clients are very high achieving women," she said. "They think they have it all together, they're soaring in their career, but the problem is they over-give. And when they over-give they find it very hard to say no."
Psychological abuse starts with something small, such as your partner snapping at you for something that you wouldn't expect them to. This goes against everything they started off as, when they were in the love bombing stage, so often it is brushed off as an out-of-character moment.
However, as Thomas puts it, these moments get more and more frequent, like an IV drip of poison. It happens so slowly that you don't realise it's happening. Someone who was first acting like the love of your life now corners you and shouts in your face, isolates you from your friends and family, and gaslights you into thinking you're crazy.
The stereotype is that psychological abusers prey on the weak, because they will be easier to suck in — which has probably been brought about by the portrayal of victims on tv shows and in films.
However, this often isn't the case because a vulnerable target isn't appealing. Abusers want someone who is already doing well in life, and also someone who has their emotions under control. Thomas says the abuser will see someone who isn't outwardly over-emotional or weak as a "challenge."
"If they target somebody who isn't wound up very easily then it's their challenge to get that individual to be emotional, or react in a way that isn't normal to their personhood," she said. "That's a huge win in a toxic person's mind."
It's all about feeling superior.
According to Thomas, someone abusive would want to drag out these negative traits in someone because to them a relationship is all about feeling superior. People who engage in psychological abuse of their partners, colleagues, friends, or family, are often narcissistic and believe everyone is beneath them.
"One of the real misconceptions is that psychological abusers are insecure — and they're really not," Thomas said. "They have a huge sense of entitlement… so this sense of picking somebody who's strong, who they can try to deconstruct, that gives them power, not because they feel insecure, but because they like to feel superior to other people. It feeds what they already believe about [themselves]."
This is why a lot of abusers use the term "disrespectful." Normal conversations about the bumps everyone experiences in relationships are a no-go area for psychological abusers, because they don't think anything is wrong with them. They take even the tiniest questions about their behaviour or character as a direct insult.
"They are perfect in their mind," Thomas said. "So when we're trying to have a normal back and forth about how we're going to work through these bumps, psychological abusers will be very resistant to that, because there's 'nothing wrong with them.'"
If you're waiting for a narcissistic or psychopathic psychological abuser to change, you'll be waiting a long time, Thomas says. These personality types are not programmed to think there is an issue, because they tend to look at each relationship differently, rather than notice the destruction they leave behind in their wake.
They focus on the perceived problems with everyone they interact with, which to them justifies why things go south. That way the dots never get connected to them. Thomas says what we have to do is protect ourselves by connecting the dots, and see the patterns of discarded relationships abusive people have left behind.
Neo agrees and says instead of battling against them or trying to "fix" them, we need to learn to spot them before they get too close.
"What we can do is recognise them, heal ourselves, if we have any of these predispositions to being attracted to them, learn to recognise red flags, have our boundaries up, and run fast and far," she said.