One maladaptive coping mechanism that turns very toxic when you’re not defending against abuse is to read any uncomfortable situation as a deliberate personal attack, and sometimes extrapolate one incident into a whole pattern of malicious intent.
- “Hey, I have a headache, could you please lower your voice a little?”
- “FINE I guess I just won’t say anything at all!”
- “Hey thanks for inviting me, but I’m not feeling well, so I’m sorry but I can’t make it. Maybe (x day) instead?”
- “Sorry for asking! I guess I’m just too needy for you!”
- (Someone forgets to call you back.)
- “Yeah I don’t think we’re friends anymore, she acts like she hates me.”
- “Hey, what you just said about me was literally not true. Why did you say that?”
- “Right, I’m just a piece of shit who should never talk at all I guess!”
- "I don’t really feel like sex tonight.”
- “Sorry I’m so repulsive to you!”
- “You really hurt my feelings. Why did you do that?”
- ”Go ahead and just break up with me, I know you’ve been wanting to.”
This kind of response escalates an interaction from a two-way conversation about a specific problem into a fight about your own self-worth. Instead of reponding to what’s actually happening or interrogating whether an attack was intended, this response immediately changes the conversation into a defensive argument where the only relevant question is if you’re an okay person that people care about.
Like I get feeling this
kind of reaction, I get having a knee-jerk response of fear and shame
and self-loathing. Sometimes when you’re feeling vulnerable it is very,
very difficult not to read super far into anything negative. Sometimes
it just reflects off all your internal fears and amplifies inside of you
until a polite “no” feels like everyone you’ve ever liked is telling
you they hate you.
But it is possible, with some work, to
separate your feelings from your actual knowledge of the situation. It’s
possible to feel one thing in your heart and still recognize with your
mind that the reality is different. You can learn to notice the
difference between someone actually attacking you and something just
feeling like an attack because you’re extra vulnerable.
You can also learn not to react based solely on your feelings. You can learn to take another person’s actual words and actions into account and respond based on what you think - not just feel - their intent actually was. That work is as necessary as it is difficult.
People need to be able to tell
you things that aren’t overwhelmingly positive without you making them
feel guilty for saying anything and treating their concerns as an
Otherwise, you wind up in a position where they can’t be honest with you. They can’t say no to you, can’t tell you when something you do hurts or scares them, can’t point out worrying things as
friends do to take care of each other, can’t bring up their own needs without the conversation devolving into comforting you again.
This habit interacts especially badly with
the way many other trauma survivors are terrified of upsetting anyone –
when your reaction to them bringing up problems or saying no is consistently disproportionate, they may
find it easier to just do what you want even against their own will.
It is possible to deal with those awful feelings and get the comfort you need without resorting to lashing out when you feel bad. It’s okay to be honest about the fact your emotions don’t always line up with reality so people know what you’re going through. It’s okay to just ask for the emotional support you need or for confirmation that they mean what they say.
You may even find that when you make a continuous effort not to treat these uncomfortable experiences as crises, they deescalate and you wind up feeling more secure each time.
Look, this coping mechanism, like many forms of manipulation, is a useful survival tool in the context of an abusive relationship where you really are being attacked insidiously, and where you can’t just ask for comfort and expect to get it. But if you are no longer in that kind of situation, it’s time to reevaluate the usefulness/danger ratio and figure out what other strategies might be better for you and the people you love.