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Those of us with lived experience of toxic environments and oppressive relationships, recognise the familiar territory of coercive, manipulative behaviours which I’ve written about a lot over the years in my blog posts and abuse prevention workshops.

‘Narcissist’, has become something of a buzz word in recent years;  ‘My boss is a proper narcissist‘; a throw away comment with little or no understanding of what narcissism really is. What many people are referring to are narcissistic traits or behaviours, rather than Narcissistic Personally Disorder. 

The truth is, most of us are capable of portraying ‘Narcissistic traits’   and of adversely impacting others with selfish, often damaging language and behaviours. Whether we are willing to accept that or not, will pretty much depend on how high we are on the narcissistic scale, and how self aware we are. We are all responsible for our actions, and it is imperative each of us constantly monitor our language and behaviours in order to recognize the impact that we are having on others. It is our responsibility as evolved humans, to ensure we are not abusive or impacting adversely on other peoples health and mental wellbeing. This doesn’t mean being silent as not to offend, it means learning about and practicing self-care and self reflection, boundaries, emotional intelligence and emotional literacy, while being mindful of our ego’s and keeping them in check.

If you Type ‘definition of abuse’ into google search, which is how many people find their information,  it offers the following examples of abuse;


use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse.
“the judge abused his power by imposing the fines”
treat with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly.
“riders who abuse their horses should be prosecuted”


the improper use of something.
“alcohol abuse”
cruel and violent treatment of a person or animal.
“a black eye and other signs of physical abuse”
Over riding a persons choices, is not directly mentioned,  but it should certainly be considered as a definition of abuse.
After all, a victim must live with the adverse consequences of another persons decisions, when their choices are influenced or over ruled,  while the person doing the influencing/over riding, walks away scot free.
We live in a society that trains people how to target individuals with the sole purpose of influencing and if necessary, over riding their choices. I have witnessed this first hand as a former sales person, and during my research of sales techniques while creating STAND – Grooming Behaviours. This behaviour has increased dramatically since the birth of social media, victims are constantly being targeted, which is regularly happening outside of the victims awareness. It is only after a period of reflection, that a victim may come to see the truth.
We imagine only vulnerable people are targeted – which is true, if you can accept that as humans each and everyone of us is vulnerable.
Coercive behaviour is embedded in our culture. We are constantly creating new and retraumatizing former victims. Coercion is incredibly destructive in nature, therefore we who recognise and understand it,  have a moral duty to inform and protect the people who don’t, which unfortunately isn’t as straightforward as one might hope.
In the Grooming Behaviours online workshop, I use a sales process scenario as an example by targeting a character I call Dawn for the purpose of manipulation. I explain how I choose my target, by using the ‘white flags’ that I’m observing. While this technique is common placed within a sales environment, very few people appear to be aware of it, when it comes to themselves.  The workshop demonstration always has the impact of triggering the audience, usually made up of support services.
People squirm uncomfortably in their seats, recoiling,  scrunching their eyes – the usual body language that you might expect to see when witnessing someone being manipulated.  Unfortunately, more often than not, people are reluctant to talk about the experience afterwards, due to the fear of embarrassment and humiliation, which are the white flags the workshop aims to draw attention to. No one wants to admit to feeling duped or coerced, it makes us feel stupid and vulnerable, so we clam up, ignore and pretend, hiding under the mask of persona – thus creating a vicious cycle.
Understanding and accepting our own ‘white flags’, is crucially important if we hope to be able to prevent abuse. Manipulators are practiced, keen observers, they sniff out vulnerability; i.e weakness and ego so they know in advance who to target. Many people with narcissistic traits are familiar with the territory, A caused of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, is considered to be abuse. Manipulators therefore initiatively know what they are looking for and how to manipulate others.
In a previous blog series, ‘Falling for a Narcissist, I talk about how being in a relationship with someone displaying Narcissist behaviours,  can be a devastating and mind-boggling affair, that can take many years to process and can prove incredibly damaging for the victim.
I describe it as being The sinister ‘Switcher-Roo‘ of relationships, where nothing is quite as it seems, resulting in an emotional roller coaster of highs and lows along with confusion, fire-fighting and devastation. Toxic relationships such as this, adversely impact the victim’s health & mental well-being. The experience can leave the victim ‘triggered’ and in anguish in the aftermath of trauma, struggling to comprehend what has happened to them, sometimes for many years to come.

To the outside world, a toxic, narcissistic relationship with a partner/spouse, parent, boss or other may go by unnoticed because coercive behaviour is often invisible to the untrained eye. Regularly overlooked, misinterpreted and/or misunderstood by some who are in the position of supporting victims but who are fortunate enough to have never experienced, and by experienced I mean, Felt the impact of –  coercive or abusive behaviour. 

‘You may be able to accurately describe an island that you have never visited by reading about it in a brochure, but can you ever truly know what it feels like to be there unless you have experienced it first hand? Can you know how it feels to have the sand between your toes, the wind in your hair, the smells, signs and sounds of the sea if you have never actually visited to a Beach? Its doubtful, which is why its so important to include lived experience in victim support services.

Coercive behaviour is all about the senses – its about how an individual thinks & FEELS, and how a manipulator can influence their thoughts and feelings by using techniques like the Invisible Seduction. 

We often make the assumption that a trained professional will be able to recognise the signs of an abuse and coercion on the basis that they have studied and trained for the role and so must therefore understand it fully. In my own experience, and the experiences of many of the victims I’ve supported, this has not been the case. Judges who ask victims why they have stayed in a violent, abusive relationship if it was really as bad as they say it was – a perfect example of a lack of understanding around the issue of coercive control. This lack of understanding is devastating for the victim who comes to realize that the people who are supposed to be on their side fighting their corner, cannot be relied upon because they do not understand the first thing about their situation or their circumstances. Victims are often made to feel as though they are the problem, which is perfect for the abuser who has cleverly instilled this belief. The feeling of hopelessness is magnified by this realization, further traumatizing the victim who does not feel safe. A lack of safety is at the heart of trauma. 

I describe coercive behaviour, as though the outside world are watching a 3 dimensional movie in 2D. They get to see the outline; the overview –  but its impossible for them to see the whole picture. This is also true for many unsuspecting victims who spend years believing they must be going mad. Once recognised, the victim and the experienced survivors are viewing in 3D and they are all seeing something entirely different. The abuser is fully aware of this and uses it to their advantage. Most victims doubt themselves, a consequence of this kind of behaviour. They question themselves and are more likely to believe there is something wrong with them; they are paranoid, or going crazy when  in reality the issue is a merely a lack of understanding of what they are dealing with.

In couples counselling, I have sat face to face with victims of abuse who have smiled and laughed along with their abuser, confirming verbally that everything is fine, whilst at the same time attempting to speak to me with their eyes whenever their abuser isn’t looking. Silently signaling that they do not feel safe to speak. The aggressor, looking every inch the caring, smiling & friendly partner – plays the part faultlessly. The fact that the victim feels unable to say what is on their mind is a sure sign of coercive control. The problem is, unless you know this, the victims smile often gives the impression that everything is fine.

Unable to speak freely, victims experience a whole range of negative emotions that cannot be witnessed by the onlooker; Panic, Anxiety, Stress, Embarrassment – all being held together by a well-rehearsed, painted smile. Victims have unwittingly learned to appear calm on the surface, while falling apart within. In my experience victims themselves often do not recognise how controlled they are, it is only when you ask why they feel unable to speak their truth in front of certain individuals that they can even begin to see the situation for what it is. Fear is the driver – it is also a white flag, an energy that is picked up and used by the manipulator to further their advantage.  Facing the fear, being able to stand up to the aggressor is an essential part of the healing process. 

 Even now, I find it very difficult to articulate the strength of this silent, invisible power that controls the victim. There is no need for the perpetrator to speak, or even be present – just the idea that the perpetrator is aware of what is happening, is enough to set off the negative emotions and panic within the victim who will readily conform.

In my experience, I was able to determine from the sound of the footsteps on the floorboards above me, whether today was going to be a good day for me or not. I instinctively knew what to say and what not to say to keep myself safe. I was highly skilled at navigating my way around the landmines, but I hated myself for being so weak because I would say or do whatever it took to keep myself safe. I had no control over the silent power that decided my every move and thought of myself as a worthless loser as a direct result. The longer I permitted this behaviour,  the harder the fight became. I was not only losing the fight, I was losing important relationships, integrity, worth, financials, home, job, and so much more, time and time again.

I have sat in a room full of people where untruths are being spoken aloud and yet no one dare contradict for fear of upsetting the aggressor. A silent pull of toxic energy that everyone, regardless of age or gender, goes along with, even when they may disagree or know the truth – rather than having to face the wrath that will surely come should they speak out. They have learned over a long period of time that it is far safer to smile and nod than to contradict and fall foul of the humiliation, embarrassment or being targeted for abuse. Being congruent means the somatic feelings on the inside, match what is being expressed on the outside. Masking emotions is not congruence, indeed, masking is a narcissistic trait aswell as being a trait of the people pleaser, found on the opposite end of the scale. 
Coercive behaviour is confusing and difficult to articulate if you don’t understand it. However, there is a way you can tell for sure whether or not you are being manipulated or coerced – and that is by recognising how you Feel. Many people struggle to article their emotions – they may say, “I’m peed off, or I feel crap”, but not know what that really means. Understanding how you feel and why is the first step to protecting yourself from manipulative, coercive behaviour.
Ask yourself – do you feel safe speaking freely, sharing your truth and viewpoints? If not, why not?
Do you feel obligated to share in the opinion of others/another, for fear of humiliation and/or rejection?
Do you feel obligated to make choices on the basis that others/ another thinks you should? or because you are fearful of what others may think or say?
Do you feel selfish putting your own interests before the interests of others/another?
Do you know how your truly FEEL? Are you able to recognise and articulate your emotions?
Do you understand what triggers you and what happens when you are triggered? Do you know what you feel, where you feel it and why? If you answer no to any of these questions, its in your best interests to Learn.