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The Impulse To Impress Abusers

By: Gabriella Bosticco

One thing that many survivors struggle with is the need to impress the perpetrators that hurt them. Approval-seeking is a common human instinct, but the conditions created by abuse can heighten these impulses, even after finding safety.

Many abusers foster an environment in which their victims are dependent on them. For example, the narcissistic 'idealise, devalue, discard' cycle can not only take advantage of the need for validation but feed it and make it more overwhelming. When someone carefully rations this positive feedback, even spending most of their time giving negative feedback, it can feel that much sweeter when you do get it.

This is especially true in volatile environments where your safety is reliant on someone else being in a good mood; if you can impress them, the higher the chances of avoiding mistreatment. Once you're taught these things, you don't unlearn them overnight. It can take a long time to not take them into account in your decision-making.

It's also common with any relationship breakdown (romantic, platonic, or otherwise) to feel the need to "win"; to prove to the other side that you're doing better without them. This is especially true when that person has made a concerted effort to put you down and cause you harm. It can feel great to prove that they failed in this mission, or that you're better than how they portrayed you.

However, this can be a slippery slope. It's all too easy to get trapped by this need to one-up them, to the point that it can feel like they're still controlling your life. Failures can bring you straight back to the abuse and make you think that they were right about you. Not to mention how petty it can feel to be trying to achieve things in spite of someone else.

So how can you control this? The first step is to try and recognise when you feel this need. Don't beat yourself up for it; it's a very common compulsion. Instead, find other ways to motivate yourself and celebrate your achievements, whether it's by yourself or with friends. Try and do things simply because you want to and you're passionate about them, not because you need to prove something.


The content above is largely based on personal experience and conversations with other survivors and professionals


Andrea Schneider, 'Hoover Maneuver: The Dirty Secret of Emotional Abuse', GoodTherapy

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