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How Do I Know I'm Not the Abusive One?

How gaslighting and projection lead survivors to question their experiences.

Key points

  • Due to their history of normalizing toxic relationships, trauma survivors struggle to identify if they are the abusive partner.
  • Domestic abuse survivors can empower themselves by self-reflecting on the qualities that separate them from their abuser.
  • Many domestic abuse survivors reflect upon their situation with confusion due to the gaslighting and projection they experienced.
art by Kaytee Gillis
A deeper reflection is often essential to personal growth
Source: art by Kaytee Gillis

Many who have been through abusive relationships will later reflect upon their situation with confusion, often asking, “Was I the abusive one?” in a desperate attempt to make sense of the chaos. My first reaction to this is often to retort, “If you have the insight and ability to self-reflect enough to ask this question at all, then probably not.”

However, a true response to this question involves a more in-depth explanation. Since many abusers work by promoting a distorted reality, the effects on victims push them to question their perceived version of events. Before victims even begin to question if their relationship is abusive, many often wonder, “Am I crazy?” or “Maybe I’m misunderstanding….” This is because abusers use gaslighting purposefully and maliciously to stay in control, slowly instilling this steady sense of self-doubt in their victims.

But even after the relationship has ended, many survivors will face the residual doubt as the dust is setting, again wondering, “But maybe it was me.”

However, this very question alone shows a level of self-reflection that most abuse perpetrators are generally incapable of attempting. Without empathy, abusers lack the insight to question their behavior and are less prone to recognize it as abusive. If you find yourself asking this question about your relationship, you are likely not the one being abusive.

This is not to say that you are immune from occasionally dysfunctional or even abusive comments or actions. We are all capable of such actions at some point in our life. The difference is that if we can recognize it, take ownership, and consciously do better, we have less risk of doing harm.

As a psychotherapist, I try to find the “why” of certain behaviors and their intentions for the relationship. Suppose one partner demonstrates a lack of empathy towards the other. In that case, this analysis is not about pathologizing them as abusive or laying blame, but it does cause some concern. If any dysfunctional or potentially abusive behavior affects a couple’s dynamic, I need to consider the limitations and dangers this may provoke in their relationship.

Many people come to me asking,But how do I know I am not being abusive?” I love this question because it lends itself well to a conversation of deep self-reflection, which is important in the growth of all of us.

The ability to have true self-reflection shows a level of maturity that many without empathy are not capable of. Rarely will you find a relationship where one party is completely without fault for the ending of a relationship, but there is a difference between “normal” bad behaviors that occur occasionally in all relationships and the outright malice that constitutes abuse.

The following three signs will not prove that you are exempt from occasional bad behavior, but they will show that you are capable of the personal reflection and self-growth that most abusive people, particularly ones with narcissistic traits, are unable to experience:

1. You asked this question. As stated above, the ability to self-reflect will take you further than any google search, tik-tok video, or advice from a well-meaning friend. The familiar expression “what keeps you up at night?” can be used to interpret your inner workings.

If you are awake concocting ways to get back at the person, perhaps it would do you well to take a look at why so much energy is being put into revenge efforts.

On the other hand, if you are awake thinking about what you did wrong, what could have been done differently, or worrying about what will they do next? this shows you are likely not coming from a place of malice.

2. You have remorse or guilt. This one is huge. In my work with domestic violence, I notice that the reaction of each partner to each other’s pain is extremely telling. I have observed extreme celebratory reactions when the other is arrested, or an ex loses their home, job, or children. This is a huge red flag. Even if the partner’s arrest or removal from the home is necessary for your safety, this is not a happy time. This reaction is usually one of the biggest indicators to me as a clinician that perhaps my client could, in fact, be the abusive one.

No matter what happens between you both, if you are capable of extreme malice or cruelty, this goes beyond the normal emotions that inevitably follow the ending of a relationship. Being able to experience the human reaction of compassion and empathy is a huge indicator that you are not capable of malicious cruelty.

3. You have self-doubt about your relationships. Asking “what if” or “what did I do to contribute to…” about the ending of any relationship, be it platonic or romantic, shows that you recognize that you are a human whose imperfections inevitably impact others around you.

I always like to point out that you can be arrogant or even a jerk without being abusive. Keep in mind that not everyone who puts up boundaries or acts selfishly at times is abusive or a narcissist.

Even more dangerous is the tendency of abusive people who have actual traits of narcissism to assign this diagnosis to their ex-partner, making themselves look like the victim–and casting further doubt in their victims.

Keep in mind that it is the modus operandi of a true narcissist to project their behaviors onto their ex: if they are out for revenge on you, they claim you are out to destroy them. If they are stalking you, they claim you are stalking them.

This pattern is crucial for survivors to understand, as outsiders looking in often do not know who to believe, and this can exacerbate any self-doubt already present.

Use this information as part of your grounding to stop the second-guessing that trauma survivors are all too good at. Know your truth, keep moving forward, and keep growing.

Copyright by Kaytlyn "Kaytee" Gillis

Excerpted in part from my book Invisible Bruises.

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