Abusive personalities can sometimes be difficult to spot, as many abusers have learned how to hide their true intentions throughout years of practice. Without a clear reading on a person, we may find ourselves intertwined with a toxic or abusive person who can wreak havoc on our lives in many ways. Our own experiences, or sometimes lack thereof, can cloud our perception when we first encounter these people and we may need to pay particular attention to the thoughts and feelings we are experiencing during these first meetings. Focusing on where we are at personally before, and during, the interaction will help to diminish distractions and allow us to read someone more clearly from the beginning. Learning how to control your own reactions and preconceptions, will aid you in making a decision about whether a person seems like they may be an abuser, and if so, decide on the steps you wish to take. These steps may include proceeding with caution if there is some hesitation but you feel that more time is needed to come to a conclusion, limiting your contact, or removing the person from your life all together.
To be able to read someone clearly, follow these guidelines when getting to know someone:
- Remain objective. This means listen, observe, and be open minded, but don’t “judge.” Don’t react emotionally to responses and statements. Just take in observations as neutral bits of information that help form a bigger picture. Remember, information is neither good nor bad, it is just information.
- Remain detached. Be careful not to attribute qualities to the other person that are found in you instead. Attempt not to "read into" the subjects actions from your own experience. Try to avoid transferring your ideas and emotions into the story or answers of the other person. Keep a calm and open mind. If you have a great love for pet animals for example, try not to hear the discussion through your feelings and beliefs, which might unintentionally impose your affection for pets into the other person’s discussion. Becoming emotionally connected to the subject should become a decision, not a reaction. So long as you are detached, your mind won’t start playing the “forgiveness game,” trying to find justifications for disappointing behaviors and otherwise unacceptable actions.
- Maintain a friendly rapport. Smile, relax, be easy going, but alert. This is not a formal interrogation, just part of a process to know someone better. Displaying a sense of humor relaxes both you and the other person. Don’t be too relaxed either, or space out during the conversation, as extra smiling, lapses in attention, and unsolicited laughter draw suspicion.
- Do not be obsessive. Be casual, and interested, but try to go back and review earlier answers and try not to cross check timelines and reconcile statements. Do not read from a list of questions or write down observations. These practices seem invasive and appear as though you do not trust the answers you are receiving. Show the person some interest, but don’t be too focused on every word and every breath. Just let the communication flow naturally and sincerely.
- Mix in your thoughts. Try to keep the conversation balanced. Most people will have plenty to say if given a chance, so don’t worry about being too quiet so long as they show enthusiasm while talking. It is natural to share ideas during a conversation. Your conversation should be neutral and routine. Don’t fire a long series of questions and then say "Now it's your turn." The most honest responses occur during comfortable and normal discussions.
- Observe body language. Many law enforcement investigators use a recording device to keep track of what was said and when, while on a note pad writing only elapsed time on the recording’s timer and the emotion displayed by the subject at that particular time. The physical changes in a person’s breathing rate, facial expression, flush in the face, changes in voice pitch, throat clearing, eye movement and blinking, and body language can be later linked to the topic discussed at the moment in the conversation indicated by the timer. Observe cues to see when a person gets excited and inspired, or becomes sad and depressed, etc. A person’s excitement indicates hopes and aspirations, while sadness often reveals regretful incidents and disappointments.
- Trust the conversation. People cannot conceal their true motives and feelings forever. People tend to try to impress a new acquaintance with what they consider as an idealized representation of themselves. This idealized representation is often the opposite of the truth, and is usually a representation of what they wish were true (this is very valuable information as well). Given enough time and a relaxed environment, most people will eventually drop the pretense of portraying themselves as how they wish they were and revert to communicating authentically. This might take five minutes or may occur slowly over time with discussion.
- Identify “pretenses.” Pretenses pertain to attitudes and opinions about others or conditions that are not true. Pretenses paint untrue or distorted pictures that are necessary to create a suitable environment for the person’s idealized representation. An example of a pretense is a claim about how tough their old neighborhood used to be, how mean or unfair someone is, or how the boss is always attacking the innocent. None of these representations may be true, but they help create an image that plays into what the subject is trying to prove (for example they had always been victimized unfairly). Pretenses are just as important as truthful representations made by the subject because they reveal components of their dominant motivation.
- Separate other attributes from that of behavior. Many people may try to use racial, religious, and ethnic traits to identify and assess someone, though none of these will point you in the right direction as each person is their own individual. Rather, look at behavior and personality and not race, religion, or ethnicity. Keep your own biases in check. For example, imagine the kind of people that enjoy heavy metal music. What do you imagine they are wearing? Describe what you expect their appearance to be like. Do you anticipate that a small group of heavy metal enthusiasts will consume any alcohol or take any drugs? Notice that race and religion are not the focus of your thoughts. Instead, you are thinking about behavior, preferences, dress, etc. The issues pertain to behavior and preferences in companions, activities, and attitudes, not appearance, ethnicity, or religion. Heavy metal enthusiasts come from all races, religions, all income levels, and all nationalities. Stalkers come from all races, religions, all income levels, and all nationalities as well.
- Separate occupations or hobbies from behavior. Try not to confuse the person’s interests with their behavior patterns. Sometimes an interest in a topic or hobby is not connected to behavior in a way that we would expect. It is possible that a Bible study enthusiast might really be using this interest as a means to gain access to potential intimate partners. Don’t believe that a person’s reason for doing something will always match your expectations. Often interests serve as means to a hidden objective.
- Be aware that your questions may reveal your own personal information. A conversation is a two way street. If a young man asks a young woman if she has a boyfriend or if she is married, that indicates that her relationship status is important to him. Although he may be curious because he has a friend he would like to introduce to her, without properly framing of the conversation, questions regarding her status might be misinterpreted to pertain to his taking an interest in her. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth, but remember that your questions may tell more about you than your answers. Sometimes revealing your details is healthy and appropriate as it opens an honest exchange with others, use your gut when trying to discern when to be open and when to be cautious.
- Form a theory and test it. If you think that you have identified some important beliefs, somewhere later in the conversation, ask a question that might bring out an answer to prove or disprove your theory. For instance, experiences of betrayal seem to be frequently related to you by the person regarding different people at different times in their past. In this case, it is a theory that the person is haunted by betrayal. After the conversation drifts to another subject, at some point come back to ask an open question like “What is the one quality you dislike most about people?” If the person’s answer relates to betrayal and deception, you can then be fairly certain that the person has issues with betrayal and that this may be a major focus for them in their lives.
- Trust your gut instincts. The brain can only go so far, and more often than not, we have a feeling deep down whether someone is being genuine and honest with us or not. If you get that eerie sensation where the hair is standing at the back of your neck when you are with someone or when they say something particular, it would be wise to interpret that feeling as your gut instinct warning you that something is not right. Do not follow this blindly, but do give your intuition the benefit of the doubt.
Keeping these guidelines in mind when getting to know someone will allow you to be open to the possible warning signs that someone may be an abuser. The objective awareness will also help you to truly get to know the person you are connecting with, as many times the people that you are interacting with will not have abusive tendencies. The important thing to remember is that when you are letting someone new into your life, especially if you have a pattern of forming ties with abusers, you will need to keep your eyes wide open and your senses sharp. Be receptive to the information presented to you by the other person, without letting your own thoughts, feelings, previous experiences, or desires project onto your view or conclusion. Whether this information is presented verbally, through the person’s physical reactions, or from a strong intuitive hunch, you will be better able to understand someone’s true intentions when you can keep yourself focused and objective.
When in the midst of an abusive situation, it may be difficult to think clearly and come up with a solution to remedy the abuse, while trying to implement it may feel almost impossible. However, given the right tools and the will power to create change, it most certainly is possible, even more so– it is probable. Many may feel overwhelmed and may not know where to start, but it is important to start somewhere.
Please continue to check in with us each week for a new post about abusive behavior and how it can affect your life and the lives of those around you. There is always that first action to helping someone you care about. Let this be it!