There are other ways that someone can unintentionally cause emotional abuse than through a joke that goes too far. One that I’ve seen over and over is treating an intelligent, talented person as incompetent. This is a really common way – and it’s often well-meaning. The recent movie, Inside Out, does a great illustration of this (WARNING: Spoilers).
For those of you who haven’t watched the movie, here is some background: the main idea of the film is that each emotion is a character inside the little girl’s mind. Joy was first, and she is in charge of making the girl (Riley) feel happy. Other characters include Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger (their names pretty much explain their jobs). They run Riley’s emotions with a big console in her mind.
The emotional abuse starts out subtly and becomes more overt as the movie goes on. First, Joy makes an off-hand comment about not really knowing what Sadness does. Then, every time Sadness tries to interact with the console or the memories, Joy stops her. At one point, Joy even gives Sadness a “very important job,” which is standing inside a chalk circle on the floor – to keep Sadness from touching the memories or the console. Eventually, she even tries to leave Sadness behind so that Riley can be happy.
Does this make Joy a mean, horrible character? No. Joy is actually very nice, sweet and bubbly. She isn’t trying to hurt Sadness. In her mind, feeling sad is bad, and she’s trying to keep Sadness from doing damage to Riley. To do that, she tries to stop Sadness from doing her job.
All Joy is thinking about is making Riley happy. Since she doesn’t want to hurt Sadness’ feelings, she tries to word things nicely and doesn’t straight out say that feeling sad is bad. Her actions, however, are telling Sadness that she is worthless. Her powers and emotions are bad and should never be used. They don’t need her.
That’s emotional abuse.
One real-life example about how well-meant behavior can lead to emotional abuse is helicopter parenting (or perfectionism in general). There is an excellent article about this called Kids of Helicopter Parents Are Sputtering Out by Julie Lythcott-Haims that provides data about the anxiety and depression shown in college students with helicopter parents.
This quote from the article summarizes the problem:
Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, says that there are three ways we might be overparenting and unwittingly causing psychological harm:
- When we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves;
- When we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves; and
- When our parenting behavior is motivated by our own egos.
Levine said that when we parent this way we deprive our kids of the opportunity to be creative, to problem solve, to develop coping skills, to build resilience, to figure out what makes them happy, to figure out who they are. In short, it deprives them of the chance to be, well, human. Although we overinvolve ourselves to protect our kids and it may in fact lead to short-term gains, our behavior actually delivers the rather soul-crushing news: Kid, you can’t actually do any of this without me.
This quote is about parents treating children this way, but this behavior can be seen in how kids treat other kids or how spouses treat each other. It can even be seen in the workplace.
Perfectionism and wanting something “done right” also tend to be big motivators for this kind of problem. Johannah may think that taking over the task is only making sure that it’s “done right,” but if she does that over and over again, she’s sending her child (or husband) a message that she doesn’t think they can do it right. She doesn’t even think they can learn to do it right.
Cliff may only be trying to help his wife with her career, but if he tells her in detail how to do every little step and oversees every bit of the process, his actions are saying that he doesn’t think she can do it on her own. Whether he believes that or not. His actions show no respect for his wife’s abilities as an intelligent person, and that sends a message that he doesn’t believe that she is.
Once isn’t abuse. Doing this over and over again until a person’s self-confidence becomes worn or shattered – that’s abusive, however unknowing or well-meaning.
If we can be aware of this, maybe, we can change it. When someone starts treating you like that, let them know what they’re doing. Politely ask them to stop. Tell them how it makes you feel. If they won’t change, you may have to decide which is more important – the relationship or your mental health. On the other side, if someone tells you that you’re behaving like this, don’t dismiss them out of hand. Think about it, and if they’re right, try to stop. Discuss it rather than ignoring their opinion.
Too often, I have seen people dismiss the idea because, to them, emotional abuse is deliberate. Only assholes do that, and I’m not an asshole (or he’s not an asshole). If we accept that people can cause emotional abuse by accident or even by trying to help, we have a better chance of fixing it.