The Absent-Minded Abuser

We just completed a series on what 15 abuse tactics can look like in academia. (Feel free to check it out here, here, and here.)

I wanted to include a special post about The Academic Bumbler. This post is derived from Lili Loofbourow’s brilliant piece “The myth of the male bumbler.” You should absolutely read the whole piece if you haven’t but for our topic today the most important part is the following:

The bumbler’s perpetual amazement exonerates him. Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men — particularly powerful men — use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts. The bumbler takes one of our culture’s most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.

Allow me to make a controversial proposition: Men are every bit as sneaky and calculating and venomous as women are widely suspected to be. And the bumbler — the very figure that shelters them from this ugly truth — is the best and hardest proof.

Loofbourow was writing about men with long histories of sexual assault who use the idea that they are not malicious–just socially awkward–to generate sympathy for them and discredit their victims despite the fact that there actions are often incredibly strategic.

I vividly remember reading Loobourow’s piece the first time because I shared it to Facebook with a long, rambling post about my own experiences with an academic bumbler who, but for my own self-advocacy, would have cost me my career several times over. A few minutes or a few hours later, I don’t remember, a dear friend messaged me privately asking, “Are you talking about X?”

Reader, I was, indeed, talking about X.

It turns out I was not the only victim of his “bumbling.”

Then again, bumblers rarely have just one victim. It’s devilishly clever that the bumbler’s alibi actually requires he has multiple victims.  A key part of creating the image of a bumbler is leaving a trail of wreckage behind him. After all, too few victims and it might start to seem like they’re targets.

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In Loofbourow’s piece she talks about how men weaponize the cultural image of them as socially helpless.

In academia, both men and women have access to the image of the absent-minded professor and I’ve seen both successfully weaponize it to keep certain students down not through obvious malice, but through continual bumbling.

What does the academic bumbler look like?

Well, let me tell you about mine.

Bumbler 1, who was in a position to do so, promised me that they had filed the appropriate paperwork with the college to ensure that I was ABD. Five months later, I got an email from Bumbler 2 saying that they had forgotten to file the paperwork so the college had no record of me passing my prelims. I got this email because when Bumbler 2 went to rectify this mistake they were unable to do so because of a mistake I had made in filing my Plan of Study and could I please fix the problem with my POS so that they could file the prospectus paperwork on my behalf?

Notice the subtle shifting of blame to me for making a mistake in my Plan of Study and the lack of responsibility for taking five months to file paperwork that should, in theory, be filed within a week.

In the meantime, someone, perhaps Bumbler 1 or someone who worked for them, had removed me from the departmental email list. The same email list in which the annual request for TA positions was sent out each year.

I never got that email so I never knew that I had missed the date to request a TA position. (I was in absentia due to family crisis at the time so I didn’t have means of finding out about these things in person.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when, in a conversation with Bumbler 2, she casually let slip that I had no TA appointment because I had never requested one.

I panicked. I contacted a lot of people and found out that I had been removed from the important email list. I scrambled to get funding for the upcoming year.

Bumbler 2, in our next conversation, then told me that I needed to do a better job of advocating for myself.

Bumbler 1, I feel I should note, did apologize for not noticing that I had been removed from the email list and, consequently, had missed my opportunity to get departmental funding. It was, as they said, their responsibility to notice such things. The apology was nice. The year of writing I lost because I was working two jobs was not.

These series of events, with Bumbler 1 and Bumbler 2 purposefully or accidentally working in tandem, was by far the worst. I think I *still* have stress weight from it.

There were, of course, other incidents.

There was the time that an unnamed Bumbler suggested that, since I had made significant changes to my prospectus after passing (with revisions) that we get my committee together to update everyone on the changes. I love to talk about my work so a chat with my committee to update them on changes sounded lovely. When I got there, however, it was a surprise second prospectus defense which I was unprepared for because, you know, I didn’t know it was happening.

There was the time when Bumbler 2, who was on my committee, told me in January of the year I defended (so, you know, after seeing many, many drafts) that they just didn’t believe my argument. Like, my whole dissertation argument.

When I asked what part of it they didn’t believe and for examples, they showed me a claim they said had no support. I asked about the three separate quotes from different, (relevant) prominent figures I had just after that claim and what other type of support I should use. Bumbler 2 had no idea what quotes I was talking about.

Oops! A bumble they forgot to read that, or didn’t remember it, or some shit. Never mind that they were prepared to sit there and tell me to my face that my dissertation didn’t make any sense–an action with enormous long-term consequences for my financial and professional future.

Dealing with a bumbler can be incredibly difficult.

In the abuse scenarios we shared previously the abuser relies heavily on isolation and shame to keep you from talking about what the abuser is doing because if you did talk about it your support system would tell you that what the abuser is doing is wrong.

The Bumbler is . . . different.

As Loofbourow notes, the Bumbler’s alibi that they are just absent-minded is at odds with the rest of their lives. Loofbourow uses the example of Woody Allen, Bumbler extraordinaire, who has built his career on portraying himself as awkward and absent-minded despite the fact that he is organized and disciplined enough to produce a film a year.

If you take a hard look at academic Bumblers you’ll see the same thing. Though they often deploy the stereotype of the absent-minded professor as an alibi if you look at the office or the CV of the Bumbler you will often find an unusually organized office and a stellar CV that speaks to a very disciplined and organized scholar.

Like all abusers, Bumblers choose their victims with great care. Like all abusers, Bumblers can be extremely charming when they want to be.

In the case of Bumbler 1 mentioned above, some discreet questions revealed the fact that they only ever “bumbled” with students who entered the program the year before they took up their position.

I was in this group of students which is why I experienced the bumbling. What was unique about this group of students is that none of us had a permanent contract with the university. I was a typical model. I was admitted to the university for the PhD program but was not offered funding through the program. Instead, I was offered a tuition waiver and insurance if I could find funding through another department. This meant that my contract with the university, such as it was, was on a year-by-year, appointment-by-appointment basis. I had no long-term security and if I was unable to secure a position as a TA or through a fellowship then it wasn’t the department’s fault that I wasn’t in the program–it was just an unfortunate circumstance. Everyone in my cohort was in a similar position which meant that we were in a particularly vulnerable position. And every person in my cohort new this person as a Bumbler when it came to finding funding for us and our research opportunities or filing our paperwork in a timely manner.

In contrast, I had dear, dear friends who were in cohorts after me, when the program had mandated multi-year contracts with students. Essentially, if you were admitted to the PhD program you would be funded some way for X number of years. They never met The Bumbler.

When those of us who had had our careers jeopardized by the Bumbler’s bumbling tried to talk to our friends we were gently gaslit: Surely it wasn’t malicious! It’s not personal! They didn’t mean it! Even such a busy, important person must make mistakes sometimes! So sorry it happened to you but don’t read too much into it! 

The worst thing about a Bumbler is that no one believes the bumbles are intentional. Even if you aren’t isolated socially it can feel isolating because it feels like even your support system won’t believe you, let alone advocate for you.

Abusers, all abusers, work by making you feel helpless. In the case of what we might consider the classic abuser, the type of abuser who uses the tactics discussed in our previous series on abusers, there are actually things you can do to help yourself. With the Bumbler things are a little more complicated.

The Bumbler works by convincing you and everyone else that they aren’t targeting you for abuse. They are always extremely careful to make sure that the things they do to hamstring your career seem like unfortunate accidents rather than careful targeting of victims.

The reason it has taken so long to publish this post is because it has been an agony. It has been an agony to rethink what I want through at the hands of my own Bumblers. Aside from the professional toll of the Bumblers, which can be immense, the personal cost is . . .

I spent a lot of time in therapy discussing my own Bumblers–discussing how stuck I felt and how angry and sad I was. My therapist was amazing and I would not have gotten through my dissertation without her. However, because the Bumbler is often careful to never do anything actionable even people who want to advocate for you just cannot.

Personally speaking, my Bumblers have left me with a sense of ambiguous loss and I think one of the reasons this post has been so damn hard to write is because I haven’t yet grieved what happened to me. I don’t even know how to grieve it because, in the end, my Bumblers were also instrumental to getting my PhD no matter how much harm they caused me along the way.

Perhaps that’s the worst thing about a Bumbler. At some point, I had to put aside my (very justifiable) anger, stuff my grief down deep, and just work through it. To do that, to get through it, I agreed to live by the lie that they were just Bumblers, to take more responsibility for things that never should have been my responsibility in the first place and live through it.

 

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Another 5 Signs of an Abusive Advisor

This mini-series is an adaptation of 15 signs of an abusive relationship from a romantic context to an academic context. Each installment will adapt 5 signs to an academic context. For more familiarity with the signs please check out the original article over at HuffPo. You can also see the previous entries in this series here and here.

11. Picking Fights. One of the most important things to know about abusers is that all abusers are bullies and all bullies are cowards.

Read that again.

All abusers are bullies and all bullies are cowards.

Bullies never, ever pick on someone they think might be able to fight back in any way. This is why isolation and shame are so critical to the cycle of abuse. If you aren’t isolated and/or ashamed then you might have the ability to stand up for yourself or have someone else stand up for you.

One of the ways that abusers find their victims is by picking fights. They start small. For instance, let’s say you miss a deadline you set with your advisor to turn in a chapter draft. A normal advisor will respond to this, even if they’re annoyed by it, with something like, “Thanks for your draft. Since it’s a little late I may be delayed in getting you revisions. I’ll aim to have revisions to you by [DATE].” Another normal response might be along the lines of, “I’ve noticed your last few drafts have been a little late. Would it be helpful to push out our future deadlines by a week or two to give you more time?” Or, “Would it be helpful to meet and talk about writing process?”

An abusive response is along the lines of, “If you can’t meet the deadlines you set for your chapters you should really think about whether or not you belong in this profession.” An abusive response is, “I don’t know if I can work with someone who can’t meet their deadlines.”

In the normal response your advisor notices that you are struggling with deadlines and offers to find a way to help. This is part of the professionalization process. In contrast, the abusive advisor belittles you in ways that threaten your livelihood (by raising the specter of you being kicked out of graduate school) and focuses on punishing you rather than helping you.

The point of these fights, from the abuser’s point of view, is to see how much you will take. The tests themselves don’t make sense. In the example above, the abusive response is not only out of line in terms of normal boss-employee relationship but particularly out of line in an academic context. Academics are late all the time. We tend to be terrible with deadlines. Academic deadlines are commonly understood by academic professionals to be aspirational. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but, generally, if you miss a deadline with your advisor there’s a strong chance they will be so busy missing their own deadlines with publishers, editors, etcetera, that they won’t even notice.

The only way to deal with this behavior from your advisor is to stand up for yourself. For instance, let’s say you get one of the abusive responses above. An appropriate response would be something like, “I understand your frustration and apologize for my tardiness with this draft. I look forward to your feedback.” Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it saved.

If you think your advisor might be showing some early signs of abusive behavior try and get as much info as you can in writing and Save. Everything. Save it in your email, save it on a flash drive, save it on your hard drive. Just save it.

12. Violence of any kind. This one is, in my observation, more rare in academic circles, but the advice is pretty simple. If your advisor is violent in any way–if they physically intimidate you, throw things during your meetings, rip up drafts, or do anything that makes you feel physically unsafe you need to leave as soon and as quickly as possible.

13. Criticism. From the Huffington Post article cited above, “Abusers tend to be messy perfectionists. They want the world and everyone around them to be perfect, but their own minds are a mess . . . They want to talk about what everyone else is doing wrong.”

Sooooooooooo . . . That’s kind of the definition of most academics and academic work . . .

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Because really, truly, the whole damn system is abusive.

So, how do you know if you’re advisor’s criticism is what passes for normal in the academic system or has crossed a line?

The first clue is how the criticism makes you feel. If you feel worthless after receiving criticism from your advisor then that may be a sign that their feedback has crossed a line. A lot of academics I know, particularly first-generation PhDs, women, and people of color tend to assume that if the feedback they are receiving makes them feel bad it’s because they need to “toughen up.” It’s some internalized boot-strap shit, of which I am the reigning queen.

Let me just say this: If you are a woman, a person of color, a first generation PhD, disabled/chronically ill, or some combination of the above your very presence in a PhD program is proof that you are tough as diamonds and strong as titanium. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. You’ve overcome obstacles most people don’t ever even see. You’ve torn yourself in two to fit in with “academic expectations” and your community of origin. You aren’t easily intimidated or overwhelmed so if your advisor makes you feel bad it’s a good sign that they’re trying to.

If you need more proof that your advisor’s criticism has veered from helpful to hurtful check in with what they’re criticizing. Are they criticizing the argument, the project, or the person? The function of an advisor is to critique your argument. This might mean questioning your sources, your theoretical feedback, your analyses, the organization–anything about the argument itself. The purpose of this critique is supposed to be to challenge you and make your argument better. This is good critique.

If your advisor is criticizing your project you might have a problem. If you are already ABD and your advisor decides *now* to have a big issue with your project then something is wrong. Being ABD means that you’ve been through your prelims and prospectus. If your advisor had a major criticism of the project itself it should have come up sometime during this process. To be fair to both sides, I know some people who have some bananas projects. I know one person who is working on a dissertation about comic books and their big, controversial claim is that classic US comic characters and story arcs are heavily influenced by the Jewish-immigrant experience. Which, yes? Comic book authors and industry experts have talked about this. It’s not exactly a hot-take. HOWEVER, even though the project might not be the most innovative, this person’s committee signed off on it by passing his prospectus. At this point, any suggested major overhauls of the project are out of bounds because they signed off on the project as is. All of that said, criticism of your project at this stage could just mean that your advisor is oblivious rather than malicious.

The real tell is if your advisor criticizes you. If your advisor ever makes you feel stupid or like you don’t belong in your program than their critique has crossed the line into abuse.

This is often a death-by-a-thousand-cuts type of situation. A lot of times, we make the mistake of thinking that something has to be big and dramatic like someone screaming at you that you don’t belong in the program. Often, it’s more subtle than that with comments like, “If you’re not aware of the literature maybe you should think about switching to another program,” in cases were you are demonstrably aware of the literature. Other examples might be things like, “There are a lot of people who want to be in this program and would be happy to meet their deadlines” or “Are you sure you’re cut out for this kind of work.”

14. Comments About Exes. Substitute “exes” here with “former advisees.” If your advisor trash talks former advisees to you then something is wrong. Even if they didn’t have the best relationship an advisor should never trash talk a former advisee to current advisees. As instructors and faculty we all complain about our students sometimes to our colleagues. It’s part of what helps us troubleshoot problems and stay sane, but we don’t complain about our students to our other students.

Hearing an ex use derogatory terms about their former partners is troubling. As the article on intimate partner violence referenced above says, “Assume that whatever he says about her will one day be said about you.” In a romantic relationship this is troubling. In an academic relationship this is a huge red flag. Theoretically, in a romantic relationship both partners are equal. You have, literally, thousands of people to choose to be in a romantic relationship with and there isn’t a huge power difference between you. If a romantic partner talks shit about their exes and describes them in derogatory terms that’s a sign that they might have, at best, a skewed perspective and, at worst, be abusive and trying to control the narrative of their past relationships.

In an advisor-advisee relationship there are, maybe, maybe a few dozen people you can work with which is just one part of the vast power differences between advisors and advisees. When an ex-romantic partner talks shit about you it can devastate your own self-perception and social group. When an advisor talks shit about you as a former student it can devastate your whole world for a long time. Graduate school is so insular and isolating in its own right. Often your friends and social network are other graduate students. Your future career in academics depends, in large part, on whether or not your advisor is willing to right you a good recommendation. I think this problem is particularly acute for grad students in the humanities because transitioning your career from academics to industry is seen as a less viable option than it is in the sciences or social sciences. This is why, if you see or hear an advisor defaming their former advisee you should be very wary and take whatever steps you can to protect yourself and your reputation.

15. Superiority. Okay, this is another one that’s kind of baked into the structure of academia. The whole idea of this medieval apprentice-ship model is that full professors are better than associate professors which are better than assistants which are better than non-tenure track which are better than graduate students. So, yeah. I really can’t say this enough: The whole damn system is abusive.

As much as I critique the system, though, I have to admit that I sort of love it too. I really, really wanted a PhD. I loved the opportunity to teach and research and write. I love my topic and my dissertation. While I have criticisms of the existing structure those criticisms make me deeply ambivalent about, rather than all out against, academia. I’d like to believe in a future of academia that more closely aligns with the life of the mind so many of us thought it would be when we got started which is, really, the impetus for this series. We can’t change the abusive structures if we don’t recognize and name them.

In an ideal world, PhD advisors would be people who had more perspective than you because they have been in the profession longer and have had more opportunities to fail and recover. All of my healthiest interactions in academia were with people who had this attitude. In contrast, an advisor who believes they are inherently smarter or better than you because they are tenured or because they just *are* is a huge problem. Unfortunately, academia as it currently exists tends to attract a lot of these people because they see it as a space where they can expand on their own greatness ad nauseum and, too often, they are right. I don’t know if there are any studies to back this up but, based on my personal experience, I believe that academia disproportionately attracts narcissists the same way CEOs are disproportionately made up of people with dark triad traits.

Dear Friends, now you have a few warning signs to help you spot potentially abusive advisors. In the next few posts we’re going to focus on what  you can do to help yourself if you’ve recognized a few of these signs in your PhD advisor, program head, department chair or other figure who has a lot of control over your life as a PhD student.

5 Signs of an Abusive Advisor

This mini-series is an adaptation of 15 signs of an abusive relationship from a romantic context to an academic context. Each installment will adapt 5 signs to an academic context. For more familiarity with the signs please check out the original article over at HuffPo.

  1. Love Bombing. Love bombing is where an abuser showers their intended victim with praise and attention. The HuffPo article above states, “They will tell you you’re unlike anyone else they’ve ever met.” While a graduate advisor may not love bomb you in a romantic sense–wooing you with flowers, dinners, and comments on your physical appearance–they may love bomb you with the things academics value–promises of publications and prestigious introductions. They may tell you that you are the most brilliant grad student they’ve ever had and that you’ll go far together. Love bombing is, by its very nature, incredibly seductive. So, how do you tell if you really are the most brilliant grad student your advisor has worked with in a decade or whether or not they are love-bombing you? Look to how other graduate students in your program relate to them. The clearest instance of love-bombing I’ve ever encountered is when an abusive advisor was taking on first-year PhD students while her senior grad student was still in the program. In her case, love bombing took the form of telling her new graduate students not to listen to her veteran student because they were special and much more qualified than he was. They wouldn’t have the problems he had with her because they were special, unlike him.
  2. Monitoring. In a romantic relationship this often takes the form of wanting to know who you are hanging out with and where you are and what you’re doing. In an academic relationship this can be an advisor who wants to know what courses you’re taking, what conferences you’re going to, and who you’re talking to at those conferences. Again, part of the problem with recognizing abusive advisors is that the behavior of an abusive advisor is not fundamentally different from the behavior of a good advisor. A good advisor will probably want to know what classes you are taking (some programs will make your advisor sign off on your classes or research hours). A good advisor will want to know what conferences you’re going to and may recommend panels to attend or people to seek out at those conferences. The difference really comes in intention and tone which can be incredibly hard both for victims and observers to pick up on. A good advisor will listen to your reasons for attending X conference. They may make recommendations such as “don’t go to any conferences in the final year of your dissertation–just focus on finishing” but they will treat you as an intelligent person making decisions about your future career. In contrast, an abusive advisor will always approach you from the perspective that (a) you are an idiot who could not survive without them and (b) your behavior reflects on them. An example would be a PhD student I know who went to his field’s major conference. As an aspiring academic professional should do he went to the book room and chatted to several publishers. He happened to talk to the publisher that had published his advisor’s book. Although he did not seek to drop her name it organically came up in conversation with the publishing representative. The publishing rep said they would be very interested in publishing the grad student’s dissertation when he was done writing it. For any rational grad student and advisor this would be a huge win and the next steps would be talking about how to stay in touch with the publisher and how to think about restructuring the dissertation for a book proposal. Instead, when the publishing rep told the advisor that he’d ran into her talented student she angrily emailed the student and told him not to talk to people she knew without her permission and that he had horribly embarrassed her. The grad student agonized for weeks about what he had done or said wrong to the publishing rep. In reality, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He had done exactly what a grad student should do but his abusive advisor saw his actions as a reflection on her professional reputation and wanted to both monitor and control who he talked to and how. This also relates to the next abuse tactic.
  3. Isolating. Abusers always seek to isolate their victims because abuse only functions in an environment of deep shame. If you have a strong support network they’ll remind you that you don’t need your abuser’s shit and help you figure out ways to get out of the situation. This is why one of the first things any abuser does is isolate you. In romantic relationships this often takes the form of explosive jealousy when you spend time with other people, picking fights with your friends, encouraging you to quit your job or move away from your family. I think this is one of the abuse tactics that looks the most different in an academic setting. For starters, the structure of grad school is isolating in and off itself. You’ve often moved far away from your established support network and you may be financially dependent on the institution and, therefore, on maintaining your advisor’s favor. The process of academic specialization is, in and of itself, isolating. By the time you’re ABD the world of relevant experts for the academic field you’re in is astonishingly small. This can mean that, if you realize you have an abusive advisor, your options to switch are small and, in some cases, nonexistent. Apart from the isolating structure of graduate school, though, individual abusers may try and isolate you but it won’t be by picking fights with your friends. Instead, they may refuse to work with certain other faculty as part of your committee. It never ceases to amaze me how many academic professionals are willing and eager to be sycophants. I know of more than one case where an abusive advisor would refuse to allow anyone on the committee who wasn’t part of their cult of personality. This, of course, defeats the very purpose of having a committee in the first place. The role of a committee is to ensure that you are earning your PhD and not receiving, or being denied it, unfairly. When an abusive advisor fills a committee with people devoted to them it further isolates the student by ensuring that your success is dependent on keeping your advisor happy (and it usually results in some group gaslighting or backlash if the student dares to mention their concerns to someone on the committee). Abusers also seek to isolate by taking control of the narrative. For instance, they may mention, or may hint that they’ve mentioned, to other professor’s in the department that you are a difficult student. This sense that your advisor has poisoned the well can keep students from  looking for alternatives. One old chestnut that carries over in all abusive situations is the abusers contention that no one else would put up with you except the abuser. Abusive adviors will contend that no other professor would put up with your procrastination/writing/email salutation/teaching load/family situation/insert random normal thing here.
  4. Shoulding. The HuffPo article I’m pulling from for this list says, “Comments about how you should or shouldn’t cut your hair, whom you should see, what job you should take, how you should speak, etc. are an indication that your partner believes he knows more than you do about yourself and your life.” Uh, so, this dynamic is pretty much the premise of all PhD advising. giphy                                  So, what’s the difference between when this behavior is normal and when it’s abusive? A good advisor will see you as a young professional in your own right–someone who knows what they’re doing but may need a little guidance from time to time. They’ll give you advice to make your life easier or better. For instance, there were a lot of times that my advisor asked me questions I absolutely hated. However, as I wrestled with them I realized that they made my thinking clearer and my argument better. It wasn’t exactly pleasant but it was both well-intentioned and based on the premise that I was an adult who could deal with complicated questions. In contrast, an abusive advisor will talk to you and treat you like you are an idiot child who could not survive without their beneficent help. An abusive advisor uses “should” like a weapon saying things like, “Congratulations on your book review but you really should be working on an article” or “Instead of wasting your time on conferences you should be writing.” The point of this abusive shoulding isn’t to help you but to make you feel like everything you think and do is always-already wrong. This is an important part of instilling the shame that’s critical to an abusive relationship. A good tell of an abusive dynamic is if your advisor is shaming  you for normal behavior. However, to know what “normal” is for graduate students you need to be in regular contact with your peers.
  5. Permission. Abuse isn’t logical. For abusers there is absolutely no conflict in telling you that you should do something and then getting mad at you for not asking permission before doing that thing. Forcing you to ask for permission by explicitly telling you you have to or by getting mad when you don’t is a method of isolation. Remember the grad student I mentioned earlier whose advisor wanted him to ask permission for who he could talk to at conferences? That’s a perfect example of this type of control. There are other advisors who will tell you not to approach other faculty about being on your committee until they say you’re ready or not to send your article into a journal until they approve it. This is, of course, a trap. They will either (a) never give you permission (b) force you to do the thing without permission and then get mad at you or (c) only give you permission when they feel they can control the results or the narrative.

You, my dear readers, are all very smart people and so I’m sure you’ve already noticed that the common them of all five of these examples is control. These are all strategies to control your behavior in one way or another and, through controlling your behavior, to isolate you. The next set of abusive behaviors we’ll look at are also about power and control but focus, instead, on controlling how you think about the situation you’re in.

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