Impression Management is the Game

Sometimes it’s as simple as wearing a smile on your face, and being so, so careful about how much you say and to whom, so that no one knows how bad it really is.

Sometimes it’s more grandiose, a kind of overcompensation meant to distract from what’s happening behind the magician’s curtain. Think sleight of hand.

For the abuser, the latter is intentional. He loves fooling people, and his victim. His game is gaslighting and he wants to win.

Author’s Photo

For the victim, it’s subconscious. She is caught up in his lies and manipulations, as is true with all the other abuses, and is conditioned to believe his bullshit narratives and follow the hype.

[Until she wakes up, that is. Until she knows better and won’t be fooled any longer.]

Impression management is the way abusers and their victims cloak the existence of toxic behavior around friends and family, and for an audience on social media.

They might seem too good to be true. Maybe it feels forced.

Maybe they come off a little syrupy. Too lovey. Soooo romantic.

They somehow never fight or share their challenges, rather, they couldn’t get along more perfectly.

I’m not talking about the people who never air their dirty laundry, or who are emotionally mature enough to communicate through their disagreements.

I’m talking about the people who act as if they don’t have any—dirty laundry, or fights.

To be sure, this isn’t a full portrait of impression management. It’s just a snapshot. And I’m not suggesting you start investigating every couple you know who seems to have it all together.

I’m just saying you need to be willing to look deeper than face value.

Because when 1 in 3 women experiences domestic violence — or 1 in 4, depending on which source is referenced — we’re all witness to impression management.

Some of us are even participating.

Sunday Spirituality

People assume it’s the hard wood of a church pew that makes it so uncomfortable for long periods.

But a woman who’s had to listen to a sermon about love and kindness and humility and doing for others and forgiveness, etc., etc., while sitting next to her abuser knows that’s not true.

Focusing on the pastor’s words while trying not to remember last night’s attack is uncomfortable.

Smiling while your abuser tells a lighthearted joke after the service, because he doesn’t see or care that you’re hurting, is uncomfortable.

Hearing him offer to help fellow congregant Joe Schmo build a new deck tomorrow when he has refused to fix your own kitchen drawer for months is uncomfortable.

Watching him lovingly tease the Sunday school teacher’s toddler when he ignores his own children at home is uncomfortable.

And so on and so forth, amen.

Spirituality ebbs and flows, seizes and grows, and will look + feel different during and after the healing process. Be patient. Be open. Guide your own spirituality… or not. It’s up to you to define now.

Maybe for you, Sunday is a quiet day in nature, or a fun day with friends. Maybe it’s finding a new church that functions differently from your last.

It’s up to you, your body, and your spirit.

Little Rebellions, Big Impact

This afternoon I received a message with a picture. It was from a friend and survivor I’ve been coaching as she establishes her own household. It hasn’t been long since she left her abuser, so every inch of change and progress is a small victory.

Author’s Photo

Remember that scene in Sleeping with the Enemy, when Julia Roberts goes into the kitchen of her new home, then opens the cabinets and pushes around the canned goods and knocks over food boxes until every one of them is cattywampus? It’s because she’s realized she doesn’t live with her controlling abuser anymore. He isn’t around to demand things done his way. So she chooses her way, and has a moment of dawning, meaningful liberation.

That’s something like what today’s survivor did. Then she sent me photographic evidence of it.

“What a triumph!” she said. “A small symbol of freedom from bullshit control and rules!”

And I told her, “We’ll call it a Little Rebellion.”

Dear readers, we are conditioned through abuse to do everything someone else’s way, and you know as well as I do, there is punishment of some sort when we don’t.

So, in our survivor journey, breaking those patterns by CHOOSING OUR OWN WAY gives us our power back, bit by bit, and manifests the path toward healing.

Tell us about one of your Little Rebellions.

Lessons for an Advocate

Show me a woman who uses her voice to speak for others, and I’ll show you a woman who gets attacked by misguided bullies and internet trolls.

When you decide to take a path in advocacy, you’ve got to have thick skin. You have to know who you are, and be sure in your purpose.

My purpose is to reach women who are experiencing or have survived domestic abuse, then offer an ear, peer education, and guidance to self-empowerment. My purpose is to speak the truth about patterns of abuse, be a relatable support person, and encourage healing.

Sometimes my public efforts — whether on social media or through other published platforms — garner criticism. Sometimes people blow way past criticism into uglier territory with insults, name calling, and personal attack, which is wild, because they seriously have zero idea who I am in all my parts.

Check out my Medium essay about being an ally and advocate.

https://womandetermined.medium.com/how-to-be-an-ally-and-advocate-d8b07a1b70cc

But, to be an advocate, you also have to know what your purpose is not.

My purpose is not to engage in internet toxicity. It’s not to fuel the fire of anyone’s hostility. My purpose is NOT to teach the unteachable people of the world, nor allow myself to feel that kind of obligation.

Do you need context? Because I have some.

The majority of reactions and replies, and there are many, still growing in numbers, are caustic. They’re baseless and ignorant. But they’re caustic.

HOO BOY, imagine if my sense of self-worth was fed by mean people on Facebook.

[I’ve actually done a lot of work on my self-esteem and sense of worth. If you’re an abuse survivor who needs help in this area, please reach out. I’m here.]

But caustic doesn’t bother me any. Neither do the bullies, because I’ve got them figured out. They thrive by blowing around on social media, where they can say whatever they want, and leave an impression without real consequence. They pick a target, skew context and argue semantics to their benefit, and start some drama. It’s the drama they want. They want to hurt feelings and piss people off, because that makes them feel smart and powerful. The hollow validation they seek is lots of “likes,” lots of “laughs,” and lots of pats on the back from the other bullies.

And the other predators.

If you choose a path in advocacy, you’ve also got to watch for the predators, because they lurk in the shadows. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you say, or the intent of your message, they will find a way to tear it to shreds. They’ll also find their way to your inbox, because they’ve assumed you’re vulnerable even when your message supports that you’re not, and will try to draw you into a private conversation. For more drama.

There’s a giant parallel here. The online bullies and inbox predators, they use the same tactics as your average domestic abuser. Name calling. Yelling (on social media, this is done with cuss words and capitalization). Condescension. Criticism. Character assassination. Gaslighting. Circular talk. Invasion of privacy [as when they scour years of public profile images to screenshot one, so they can share it with a new, often contrived insult, and their attack becomes personal—this happened to me today]. All to disarm you, sow chaos, and “win” the fight they provoked.

The truth is, you cannot reason with these people—online troll or in-home abuser. You cannot get them to hear you. Your reactions and comments — no matter how smart, fact-based, and well thought-out — will never gain their validation. You’ll never put them in their place, or one-up them—even when you ARE smart and you ARE right. They will simply be further motivated by the fact that you’re willing to TRY talking to them, and twist further, manipulate harder, yell louder. They will do whatever it takes to get a rise out of you, and their endurance is seemingly never-ending.

Coincidentally, these people on the internet—and domestic abuse perpetrators—actually choose the intelligent, articulate people to chew up and spit out, because it caters to their ego to go up against someone of high quality. It’s sport for them.

So why even bother?

As a survivor and/or advocate, you must choose peace. Your own peace and clear separation from toxicity is more important to your survival — and your ability to thrive — than overextending yourself to talk to someone who isn’t worth it.

Just let them shout into the void.

That’s what gives you the power.

Image Credit to Kat Jayne from Pexels.

Summer Anniversary

Ten years ago I moved out, filed for divorce, and started over.

In those ten years I have:

cried
fought for myself
celebrated
been challenged
failed
rallied
found my real self
been consumed by doubt
helped other women
set boundaries
loved
done a lot of things by myself for the first time ever
held onto hope
networked with other survivors
changed career paths (more than once)
hated others
been hated by others
been lied about in court and all around
dated and learned
stressed about my finances
gone into debt
(mostly) figured out my finances
thrown countless pity parties
forgiven myself
learned how good it feels to cuss
used sleep as therapy
tried new things
remained single
made enemies
healed
raised two strong kids
moved three times
dissected abuse and its parts
shared because I will not be silenced
or pretend nothing happened
or that it was my fault
or put the comfort level of someone who doesn’t deserve it before my own

Ten years ago I didn’t know much, other than that I deserved better than what I’d experienced in my marriage. I didn’t know how to define what I’d been through, or what I was capable of. And if you’d told me I’d find myself here, healthy and happy a full decade later, the confusion and despair and heart pain and anxiety would have made me believe otherwise. But in those ten years I have survived and thrived.

You will, too. You’re already doing it!

Photo Credit to Janna Leadbetter

When Power Becomes Hers | flash fiction

The living room is bare but for her secondhand couch, a lone end table, and the anxiety she just can’t shake.

He isn’t supposed to visit where she lives now, but that doesn’t still the race in her heart. Will he show up at her door anyway, and threaten to ram himself through it?

Will he text again today, explosion after explosion?

She knows she should do some more unpacking, get the bookshelf placed, haul the TV in from the single-stall garage. A movie might be okay. But she doesn’t have the energy. How is she supposed to settle in and start over when she can’t outpace his hold on her? Or the painful, humiliating memories? Or the weight of wondering whether it’s all her fault, like he always said?

A sudden rustle outside nearly lays her flat. He’s here. She knows it.

Moments stretch as she watches the door, flinching at the expectation of his too-big presence on the other side.

More moments stretch into a silence so loud her ears ring.

She tiptoes over, dares to peep through the hole. No movement. She waits one breath, then another. She carefully unlatches the deadbolt and, as far as the secure chain allows, opens the door. Still nothing.

Wait, what’s that? A mailer? Right there on the stoop. Her own name is written on the small package in a handwriting she doesn’t recognize. It takes no breath at all—because she holds every bit of it in tight—to undo the chain, swoop out to grab the item, and swoop back inside.

The return address isn’t an address at all. “KNOWLEDGE IS POWER,” the handwriting declares. She rips open the package. Inside is a nonfiction book about the kinds of men who abuse others and what propels their behavior.*

“Knowledge is power,” she says. Then, adding some heft to her voice, like she means it, she says it again.

Book in hand, she sinks into the middle cushion of her secondhand couch, her hungry eyes already flying across the text.

Flash Fiction | © 2021, Janna Leadbetter. All rights reserved.


Would you help me send more books to domestic abuse survivors? The last one went to Texas, and I want to send the next one to Virginia. Beyond that, there are countless survivors, local and afar, who are desperate for the power (and healing) that comes from knowledge. (There are many titles I choose from, to get the right fit for each survivor and her story.)

*Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, Lundy Bancroft

Image Credit to Rahul Shah from Pexels.

Why is Money So Important to My Abuser?

THE TRUTH BEHIND FINANCIAL ABUSE | Samantha has started seeing the patterns when it comes to money.

“He spends freely on himself, like on his toys and fun stuff and trips with the guys, but if I spend money — even on household needs — I get chastised like I’m a child. Like I have a limited allowance. And somehow it’s my fault when we can’t pay a bill on time. How are we supposed to take care of our expenses when he doesn’t leave enough to pay toward utilities or the car loan?” she asks. Then she goes on to say, “But that’s not all. I know of at least three personal loans he’s taken from generous people, and he doesn’t care a thing about paying them back. He took advantage and stole from them, there’s no other way to look at it. Why does he act like he’s entitled to all the money? His, mine, and everyone else’s?”

Financial abuse occurs in nearly 99% of abusive relationships, and is the number one reason victims stay in or return to abusive relationships. (Statistic provided by PCADV.)

Not only does money make the world go round in an operational sense, it lends a broad sense of power and control to those with an abusive nature.

Take your standard narcissist. Life is all about him. Nothing matters more than his wants and needs, that others revere him, and that his ego is served. His wants and “needs” are easier to attain with an ever-flowing cash supply. But money also lends a sense of success, and to a narcissist, respect from others and self-importance follow affluence — real or perceived — before and more than anything else.

[“Needs” is placed in quotes because, for a narcissist, priorities are always skewed.]

But a love for money also goes back to the narcissist’s stunted development.

Narcissists behave and abuse the way they do because something (or multiple things) happened in their formative years which prevented the cultivation of empathy, humility, and selflessness. They never developed past those immature years of self-absorption and instant gratification, which means they thrive only on what is materialistic and superficial. It’s how they define success, and how they measure their worth against that of others.

Then, to bring it back home, if he controls the money, he’s ensuring his victim can’t outperform him, won’t attain independence, and will internalize that he controls her freedom (or lack thereof).

Money is what makes his world go round. That’s why it’s among the things most important to him.

Dear Samantha and other readers: If financial abuse is present, other types are, too. It may be time to take inventory and decide if what you’re living with is acceptable. Please reach out to me if you need help.

To learn more about financial abuse, visit :

https://nnedv.org/content/about-financial-abuse/
https://ncadv.org/blog/posts/quick-guide-economic-and-financial-abuse
https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/other-types/financial-abuse

To submit your question for analysis and possible publication, email janna@womandetermined.com.

Image Credit to pasja1000–6355831 from Pixabay.

What to Do When Your Friend or Loved One Confides About Abuse

MY FRIEND NEEDS TO LEAVE HER ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP | Landen G. recently reached out to ask how to support a good friend who admits that her partner is abusive.

[Statements edited slightly for flow.] “How do I encourage her to seek help?” LG asks. “I really want to find the bastard who’s hurting her, but I know that’s not right. I’m willing to do whatever you think would be best for her.”

***Please note: This situation does not include physical violence, but emotional and psychological abuses. Other tactics may be necessary where bodily harm and threat to life by violence are present.***

LG is correct. He can’t run in vigilante style and have a what-for with this abuser, no matter how strong the urge to protect his friend. An abusive situation is a volatile situation—yes, even where there is no physical violence, because one cannot predict escalation to an extreme—so it’s dangerous to provoke the antagonist of our story.

It would also be the wrong move to swoop in, even with the best intentions, and try to remove the victim from her situation, or push her to leave. She is the protagonist of this narrative, and LG has to give her the lead.

Quiet support is the immediate need. A listening ear. A willingness to take action—if and when called upon.

As a victim begins to understand she’s living with abuse, she has a lot to process and reconcile. Thoughts and feelings about her experience are difficult and confusing, and can be made all the more uncomfortable, even impossible to navigate, if we contribute before she’s ready. Too much too soon can backfire.

Our protagonist needs—more than anything—to find her footing and realize that control can belong to her, followed by room to figure out what that looks like. What she needs it to look like. She may share with trusted friends or family through this process, but it’s more about needing someone to listen and validate her truths (which she doesn’t get at home), not think for her or try to problem solve (which she likely gets far too much of, courtesy of her emotionally and psychologically abusive partner).

Over time, as she gains more strength and clarity, you may intuit opportunities for gentle, passive encouragement. Has she considered counseling? Is there a plan she could make? What help might be useful? How does she want to be supported? Which steps can we contribute to that might make her goals easier?

She’ll either answer your questions when she’s ready, or give you permission to help her determine the answers.

Study or be ready with relevant articles from online, or topical books from the local library. (You can email me for suggestions.) Have ready a list of other friends and family who can be enlisted for the eventual task of moving out or covering her trail or starting over. Look up women’s shelters, trauma groups, Legal Aid, community assistance. Keep listening to her. Remind her that you are ready and able for anything she needs to ask for. Watch for ways to help that will not feel overbearing or controlling to her. And be patient. Her difficult thoughts and confused feelings aren’t going to dry up immediately, because she has a lengthy and layered journey ahead of her.

Meanwhile, what she may benefit from most is your unconditional love.

To submit your question for analysis and possible publication, email janna@womandetermined.com.

Image Credit to it’s me neosiam from Pexels.

Facing Triggers from Your Past

SOMETIMES THE ABUSE OF YESTERDAY WANTS TO VISIT TODAY | It’s been years since Mocha Girl ended the relationship that was so hurtful for her. She’s married to a good man now and they’re happy. So what’s with the triggers?

In her own words:

“I had a seven year relationship that wasn’t romantic but was not healthy. I didn’t date him because he wasn’t Christian. But we did things couples do from grocery shopping to taking trips together. He was negative and didn’t believe in me. He said he loved me but his actions didn’t show it, I bent over backwards to make our friendship work for a few years. I finally started drawing boundaries and he lashed out,” says Mocha Girl. “I’ve been married 16 years now to a very different man who is kind and loving and encouraging. We are partners. But I still think about Paul and sometimes get defensive with Bruce. Bruce reminds me he’s not that guy. How do I let go of that and accept Bruce’s love and not get defensive and react to negativity from Paul?”

The answer is there, believe it or not, threaded between the lines of her story.

If MG couldn’t see that Bruce isn’t Paul, that he is kind, loving, and encouraging when Paul was not, her relationship with him wouldn’t have lasted at all, let alone almost two decades. All this time she’s been letting Bruce love her. Acceptance doesn’t have to be bigger or more profound than that.

But the triggers still exist because she’s human. She cannot change her past, or the people who shaped it, and so just like a certain song on the radio may bring a soaring nostalgia from yesteryear, moments with an uncomfortable familiarity will bring negative feelings. The human condition is raw, layered, and complicated. We aren’t perfect creatures. Mocha Girl isn’t doing anything wrong.

I also want to point out that it’s not wrong for MG to have less-than-rosy feelings about Paul. He was abusive. She deserved better, and is by no means obligated to change her memories or correct the way he made her feel.

On the other hand, MG is doing something right, and it’s recognizing that she’s reacting to the same old triggers. That’s big, and illustrates progress already made.

True, she wants to let the residue of Paul go, and that’s harder. But it’s possible. It takes practice and patience. Every abuse survivor CAN get to the bottom of a trigger, dig it up, and throw it out.

How?

Self-awareness.
Self-assessment.
Self-checking.

You start by catching yourself IN THE MOMENT of an emotional reaction. Upon every situational trigger—with your new partner, your boss, a coworker or friend, at the store, after a phone call with customer service—you ask yourself the following questions, and proceed accordingly.

*What do I feel? Name the emotion. (anger, defensiveness, smallness, etc.)
*What was my trigger? Identify it. (he was condescending, no one listened to me, she dismissed me, etc.)
*Why does this bother me so much? (because it’s what my abuser did, because I’m not wrong, etc.)
*Is this a rational or irrational response? Consider if what you feel is truly weighted in this new moment, or borrows from past (even distant) triggers.

Often just finding your awareness in these questions will give you power over your reaction, so that you can deescalate your anxiety, defensiveness, or negativity and move on after barely a blip.

If not, take the next step by determining if there’s something tangible you need to do to work toward repairing this moment that has triggered you.

Schedule a therapy session.
Call your best friend to vent.
Submit a complaint to management.
Confront your coworker about the mishap.
Leave your abuser’s last explosive text or email unanswered and choose silence. Or even delete the message!
Recognize that you overreacted and apologize.

You can train yourself—again, with practice and patience—to take control of your reactions.

Does this mean you’ll never be triggered again? Nope. Remember, we’re human. This is less about eliminating triggers and more about recognizing them for what they are then letting them go. It’s about understanding that we can learn how to address and heal from the history of trauma, and begin to experience our emotions in a healthier way.

Does this mean you’ll handle every trigger perfectly? Also no. Life factors, stressors, that have nothing to do with the abuse we endured can be stacked against us so that we don’t react as well as we want to every given moment. You don’t have to get it right all the time.

Mocha Girl doesn’t have to get it right all the time. Bruce loves her. He knows her triggers, probably as well as she does. And he sticks around, continuing to prove that he is not Paul, because she is worth it.

You’re worth it, too.

To submit your question for analysis and possible publication, email janna@womandetermined.com.

Image Credit to Min An from Pexels.

Survivor Healing Cannot Begin with the Abuser at the Helm

UNITY FOLLOWING ABUSE IS NOT POSSIBLE | When a woman leaves her abusive partner — that is, truly leaves after however many prior attempts, and has finally made it clear she will not return to the relationship — he will try, with his arsenal of tactics, to shift what was labeled “romantic” into a friendship. This serves at least two purposes if he is successful. One is that it allows him to maintain infiltration in her life so that his power and control will continue, even if it looks different. Two is that if he can create any sense of unity or lasting connection between them, his narrative that he’s a good guy, never did anything wrong, has a platform.

Read my full essay on Medium.