In themselves, all emotional states of being just are. They can have negative impact if we deny their existence, thereby denying healing for their potential to do harm to self and others. Or they can have negative impact if we express them in unhealthy and inappropriate ways. Likewise, they can have a positive impact if we embrace them and allow them to transform into empowerment through our unconditional acceptance and intent. Or they can have a positive impact if we express them in healthy and appropriate ways.
For example, fear as a warning to danger is a positive thing. Fear as an obstacle to making needed changes is a negative thing. Whether an emotion is positive or negative really depends on how it is used. Still, for most people, unpleasant emotions are perceived as negative and pleasant emotions, positive. As such, for the purpose of describing the manipulation of emotions, we will use that general criteria.
Continuing with fear as an example, we can say that the appearance of fear is not the same as fear. The appearance of fear, as a means to control how another behaves or perceives, is not an emotion, positive or negative. It is a manipulation, a deliberate covert act of will.
Covert abusers do not want to be found out. Even if they know their target knows exactly what’s going on, they don’t want the target to say it. They demand you protect their cover. Betray their cover, betray them, because in the covert abuser’s self-image, that is what they identify with.
That is why they abuse covertly.
Partly, because it’s effective. Easier to assault someone who doesn’t see it coming or recognize it for what it is when it happens. But also, partly because by assaulting another covertly, they can protect whatever positive image they have of themselves. That is what you are expected to protect, and when you don’t, the covert abuser will utilize their great arsenal of weapons to do so themselves.
Feigning emotions is one of those weapons. Let’s look at a few of these emotions, starting with example we already used, fear.
Covert abusers can play fear like a harp. They can strum the full range of those strings from “just nervous” to “terrified” to achieve their desired results.
You can be the calmest person in the world, taking great care to use “I” statements to express your concern over something, but say something they don’t like (like disagree, object or hold them accountable) and the covert abuser will make it appear as if you just verbally and emotionally assaulted them by going into victim.
Of course, this will upset you.
Mischaracterizing you by the use of fake emotional responses shifts…actually, hijacks the attention from what’s real to what’s not. You become distracted from what you came to discuss with attempting to address the abuser’s emotional response. If you’ve been through this more than a few times, you may start to realize what’s happening, and may have the wherewithal to address the performing itself, by either calling them on it or walking away (maybe for good). But it can take a while to get there.
Calling a covert abuser on their performance can have surprising results. The abuser may up the ante with more fear or other emotion of choice, or they may just drop it…and smile. Yeah, you caught me. No shame or embarrassment for playing you. Just a regrouping to decide what to do next. It’s eerie.
More often than not, people find themselves sucked into the vortex of this very real energy of deception. In good faith and no small confusion, they attempt to explain their real intentions, to calm the abuser’s “fear” or sooth the abuser’s “hurt indignation” or whatever emotion they are feigning. Whatever it may be, you are not addressing the issue you wanted to.
And that’s the point.
Covert abusers do not want exposure, but they love audiences. They will perform in front of friends and family…and in the courtroom or boardroom, anywhere. The audience doesn’t have to be personal, just useful.
I was once involved with a man with whom after I broke up would put on a different persona when talking to me in the presence of others. If I had to talk to him on the phone, I always knew when he had company, because of how he spoke. He’d hesitantly ask me not to get angry or quickly assure me he didn’t mean to get me angry or audibly sigh his relief when I didn’t start screaming like he was pretending he feared I would.
My “favorite” was when he would ask me not to yell at him or ask me why I was yelling at him, when I was not!
By treating me in this way, he painted himself as my victim, a victim of my emotional abuse. He knew better. He knew it was the other way around, and he knew no one was yelling at him on the phone and he did not have cause to fear that I would, but his audience didn’t. They didn’t even need to hear me yelling or being ignorant to him. They could just tell by his emotional state and his pained verbal responses to me. In this way they became “witnesses”, and could vouch for him over something they only thought they saw, but didn’t.
Some performances are displayed on a wider stage. Covert abusers may restrict their movements in public places for “fear” of bumping into you. They may come across as being unable to function at work or school without protection or support for “fear” of what you might do to them. They unravel before friends, becoming an emotional wreck, because they “never know” when you might strike next.
Covert abusers faking fear are thieves, stealing your reality, the experiences they are putting you through, and making it their own to enable them to continue what they are accusing you of! It’s convoluted. It’s crazy-making. It’s covert abuse.
Covert abusers are astute observers. They see the impact of their behavior on others. If they are not ruled by principle but by agenda, they may not care about the impact, but that doesn’t mean they are blind to it. They not only see, they can replicate it when it’s to their advantage.
There are no limits to which a covert abuser will go to perform and substantiate their fake fear. They claim to have nightmares, stage anxiety attacks and other psychological symptoms of fear…all because of you. The irony, again, is that you, as a target, may be experiencing these symptoms, but the abuser is claiming them.
And can they perform! They may seek medical treatment so the “distress” you allegedly inflicted upon them can be documented. They may inflict superficial levels of injury upon themselves to underscore their “suffering” at your hands.
This opens the door to relational aggression. Feigning fear can enlist the pity and support of others. It can, also, trigger their judgment and anger against you, inciting them to abuse you for who they perceive to be the victim.
Covert abusers can be very convincing. They can set up evidence, manipulate their physical environment to “prove” they have reason to be afraid. They may leave threatening notes to themselves, purportedly from the alleged abuser for others to discover, or damage their own property.
If they are ever caught in an aggressive act themselves, they can justify the witnessed abuse of the target as “Not being able to take it anymore” or “Finally standing up for my self”.
In truth, the covert abuser does not feel fear. Not toward the target. They certainly feel a level of desperation to resort to such tactics, and they may fear getting caught and exposed, but that’s all they’re really afraid of. They are not afraid of you.
My next article will explore a few more negative emotions, or at least their appearance, and how they can be used in manipulation.
Just a note. Don’t get overwhelmed as we explore the various kinds of manipulation. Sometimes, when you see how well they can be disguised, it’s easy to fall into a kind of despair. How can I ever convince anyone to believe me?
Well, I believe you, and so does everyone else who has been in your shoes, and that’s a lot.
Take comfort in one thought before I go. Abusers are their own worst enemy. They will eventually trip up, and even if the only person who sees them for what they are is you, then that is enough. With that knowledge, you can make all the difference in your life and in others.
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