Being involved with someone who engages in inappropriate and abusive behaviour, such as gaslighting, harassment, coercive control, and verbal, physical or financial abuse, creates a great deal of self-doubt. After all, for this person to operate in our life, they’ve put concerted effort into shifting our reality, draining and, in fact, robbing us of our strength to leave, defend or protect ourselves. They’ve routinely dodged and displaced responsibility and accountability. In turn, assuming the blame for ‘everything’ and feeling perennially guilty and anxious is our default.
It’s no wonder, then, that on occasions where this person appears to do a ‘good deed’, or seems ‘remorseful’ or basically not overtly abusive, we feel guilty for being afraid of them, remembering who they are and have been, or for not tap-dancing in delight that they’re being ‘nice’. We feel ashamed of our feelings and our inability to forget. In fact, if our visceral response is to freeze, panic, call the police, tell them to go away or whatever, we think we’re ‘overreacting’. Aren’t they just trying to be nice?, we wonder.
Actually, someone who abuses us doesn’t do ‘nice’. Everything they do is based on the tightly wound dynamic of fear and control.
Also, they don’t actually know what genuine ‘nice’ is. As in, nice without an agenda, and nice without the backdrop of their abusive behaviour towards us.
We (and they) can’t focus on their good points or good moments. It lures us into a trap. We believe if we could just find the magic combination of behaviour and words, they’d be ‘good’ all the time. Also, people can be more than one thing. Rather than get drawn in on a good moment or point, we have to acknowledge the pattern of behaviour.
Even if the person who is abusing us is behaving ‘nicely’, we’re still afraid, and they’re still benefitting from it. And side note: sometimes our abuser is breaching our boundaries under the guise of ‘niceness’. It’s like ‘I should be able to force this gift or apology on you because I’m saying it nicely’. Or, ‘Yeah, sure, I know I’m not supposed to contact you but I’m saying I love you, so it’s OK.’
When we’re around someone abusive, even if we’re not fully aware of it yet, anxiety and walking on eggshells is our norm. We might not even recognise how our every move in the context of this person is about not ‘making’ them angry. About not inviting criticism or feelings of fear, doubt, shame and confusion. We want to stay on their good side.
So, no, the person who abuses us isn’t ‘just’ being nice when they do something that appears ‘nice’. It’s all part of the package of control, fear and destabilisation. We are not ‘overreacting’. In fact, given what we’ve been through, our discomfort about engaging with them, about their presence, is warranted.