"A group of toxic people come in different shapes and sizes. They can be a family, a group of church members, or a cluster of co-workers. One of the common themes of a toxic group is the fact that they do not want to get to know the real survivor. They want to construct a false image of the person so it justifies the abusive behaviours by the perpetrators."
HEALING FROM HIDDEN ABUSE BY SHANNON THOMAS
When we talk about abuse or think about abuse, we might generally think about two forms of abuse: physical and sexual. Even then, how well do we understand what either of the two entails? How much work is there to be done for the justice of survivors of these forms of abuse? It is much less likely for us to think of abuse as a complex and layered system of oppression within our households, relationships, community, educational institutions, our political systems and so on.
When an abuser is imagined, we might conjure up a ranting and raving aggressor who looks and sounds a certain way. Although they may well fit that description, in focusing on that representation of an abuser, we also dismiss the skilfully camouflaged persona of those – who through public facade, manipulation, gaslighting, social media platforms and of course their trusted enablers – have presented themselves as anything but an abuser to the rest of the world.
As a society we can ignore the unhealthy components that feed into one another that ultimately go on to uphold and enable abuse.
An abuser is not the stereotypical image we hold in our minds planted there by the psychological thrillers and slasher movies from Halloween and popular culture. Yes. Extremely dark and disturbed people as described through storytelling on screen live amidst us but a majority of them look nothing like those characters and are probably far removed from them too. Abusers are hiding in plain sight masked as high-achievers, politicians, the person at the bus stop, or as dutiful, trusted members of society. Think Simran from the Sweet Bobby podcast, disgraced presenter and pedophile Jimmy Savile, R Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Chris Brown, the police in the Sarah Everard case, the police in the George Floyd case, the trial of O.J Simpson, convicted pedophile Garry Glitter, Bill Cosby, Bikram Choudhury of Bikram Yoga, the now resigned from House of Lords Nazir Ahmed once Peer Ahmed of the UK Labour party (still active on Twitter) sentenced to prison for the sexual abuse of minors, the unnamed Tory MP arrested in 2022 on suspicion of rape, The Tinder Swindler (despite which, is offered work in Hollywood), Inventing Anna and so on. The list goes on.
All very different yet, high-profile cases bring to the global stage discussions of misuse of power, abuse, abusers and the systems they deploy to initiate ill-treatment against their targets.
Another famous case that is very publicly exposing an abusive relationship and is yet to be decided on is the Johnny Depp v Amber Heard defamation case. If we stop to look, there are many examples.
Almost none of the abusers we have contact with in our everyday appear as visibly frightening as the characters we associate psychopathy, sociopathy, narcissism and abuse with (they are not all the same but can often be linked). These individuals are skilled at publicly disguising themselves as people in positions of immense trust. In other examples, Simon Bramhall, the liver, spleen and pancreas surgeon from the UK who used argon gas to initial the organs of his patients. Christopher Duntsch, a neurosurgeon this time from Dallas, Texas nicknamed Dr. Death for gross malpractice resulting in paralysis and injury of several of his patients and the death of two.
So you see, abusers have many faces. They can be of status or not. They have friends and family while others will not. They can indeed be many things but what they all have in common is their need to harm, abuse and then camouflage.
Abuse is one beast with many arms and multiple faces: financial, institutional/organisational, emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, online abuse, discriminatory abuse, modern slavery, spiritual or cultural abuse and neglect. Often, they intersect. If we begin to better understand the variations and forms of hidden abuse, we become perceptive and equipped at detecting abusive people and protecting ourselves and others from the same.
The abusive person concealed behind the woe-be-me narrative (the one that thinks the world owes them something because they have been wronged by everyone they have ever met) is often the most difficult to detect and yet the most damaging to the people on the receiving end of these personality styles. They are so good at gaining public empathy and sympathy. In other words, they know exactly how to and whom to recruit as enablers. That is what makes this ominous. Abusers are too frequently enabled because we are blind to them, either willingly or deceptively. Abusers and enablers exist in our institutions, workplaces and homes. Abuse is hidden in plain sight and yet we are all exposed.
That does not mean that we must feel afraid or succumb to fear. Knowledge is empowering and education of abuse in a much more succinct and detailed manner helps to arm us psychologically. We begin to outwit them as a society when we work together in becoming trauma informed and vigilant of abuse. Frankly speaking, we should also be teaching this awareness in our schools.
Once we begin to talk more on the complexities of these issues, we become emboldened enough to stand up for our rights and the rights of others who have been subjected to mistreatment. As abuse is exposed instead of hidden, abusers will struggle to find as many enablers as they often do, whether that be in the family system or the wider institutions, because the fight back begins to bite back.
What we need to build on as a society is nuanced conversation in relation to the abusive systems in place. We must look closely at social media and begin to detect and dissect the communal narcissists and influencers who use social media platforms to propagate this image of being humble saviours to the world, i.e. here for your ‘representation’ when in fact it is all about them and their own agenda. They seek validation from followers and society and blend perfectly behind their charitable and altruistic endeavours often shrewdly covered up. On the surface of it all they are givers who care about causes, are outspoken online and love empowering you but underneath that online and public persona they will hold extremely poor insight to their own entitlement, elaborate sense of self and antagonism.
Some of these people may even convince you to join their overpriced retreats or their life/business/fitness/entrepreneurial coaching programs through membership. You pay them a handsome fee as they apparently hold all the tools to transform your entire life through contact with them (note the grandiosity). So, you think they are helping you, because, well, there are good people out there doing this work who genuinely care about client welfare and their kind and honest efforts do help to improve the quality of someone’s wellbeing. Those people care about community. But are the more problematic communal figures, mistaken for the ones that sincerely care, helping you, or their own image and own pockets but at your expense both financially and emotionally?
Having qualifications in mental health, medicine, politics, coaching, teaching, journalism etcetera does not eliminate someone from being exploitative, self-serving or abusive because anyone in any profession of any status can be an abuser. We need to look closer at who we trust online and who we give our money to through connection on social media. These can sometimes be people who like being viewed for their hard work, spirituality, ‘pure intentions’ and ‘gratitude’, which is really just steeped in validation seeking, entitlement and grandiosity because in the end – they do not treat people well. It was always just about them (see Dr. Ramani’s work on communal narcissism).
Whether you meet them online or through your daily interactions. These ambivalent personality styles exist and are all around us.
Abusers are skilled manipulators. Depending on what time of day it is, their many masks are ready to be used at their disposal. Once we begin to understand this, we hide abuse much less and instead begin to wittingly expose these abusers, thus working towards eliminating the power imbalance at their behest.
Everybody’s day of accountability looms on the horizon. The abuser is no exception. They do not get to get away with it. They just live in a society that enables manipulators and power misuse, hence prolonging their day of culpability. The truth will find a way of surfacing when least expected and you can always claim back your power, leaving the perpetrator without the one thing they crave – control.
Abusers are eventually found out and disgraced but the problem is their enablers will always be there to help them recover in society. Once accountability replaces systems of abuse and enablers, how much longer before the abuser stumbles face-forward over their past and into their consequences awaiting them in their future?
“Everything costs something, everyone pays.” – Mark Twight
Durvasula, S, R (2019). “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. New York: Post Hill Press. 85-137.
Thomas, S (2016). Healing from Hidden Abuse. Texas: MAST Publishing House. 15-17 & 27-55, 37 (quote).
Van Der Kolk, B (2014). The Body Keeps The Score. United States: Penguin Books. 102 – 146.