commanded to love | performing false emotions for tyrants


Escaping personal or ideological abusive environments isn’t always a straightforward matter of recognising the situation intellectually and making a logical exit plan. Sometimes, rational rocket thrust alone isn’t enough. Our emotions play a huge part in our ability to navigate daily life, and the distorted emotional responses drilled into us by relentless rehearsal in the abusive environment can disrupt our functioning at the most subtle levels. With this important part of our navigation systems compromised, simple, everyday interactions can become a minefield of self-sabotaging thoughts and conflicted behaviour. Not only does this work to keep us stuck in our situation, it can act like a magnet to other abusive individuals and groups. So, even if we achieve escape velocity from one abusive environment, we might find ourselves repeatedly pulled into the orbit of new ones. People who’ve been subjected to different kinds of abusive environments often show highly convergent themes in their descriptions of their experiences. Years ago, when I began talking in depth with people who’d been recruited by religious and pseudoscientific high-control groups, hearing them recount their experiences was like hearing a gigantic tuning fork resonating at my own pitch. Their observations about life inside a high-control group echoed private observations I’d made about my life inside a narcissistic family. There was the same divisiveness, where loyalty to the dictatorship came before any personal relationship between other members; the same social isolation tactics, trying to sabotage external relationships with friends or lovers, the same attempts to maintain child-like dependence. Parallels have repeatedly been noticed between scriptural tales of vengeful, dictatorial gods and abusive relationships, noting the same threat of dehumanising brutality, the same capriciousness generating erratic, inconsistent demands. the same sense of all-pervading invasion into every aspect of the target’s life, with no boundaries and no privacy. The details of abuse vary from situation to situation, with different levels of intensity or sadism. but the essential underlying mechanics merge. At their core, all abusive environments are about gaining coercive control over others. So, it’s not surprising that abusive individuals and groups of all kinds – religious, political, academic, familial, romantic – converge on the same manipulative tactics to get people to sacrifice their autonomy and authenticity, and submit to fixed roles. Not content with controlling their target’s actions, many abusers also seek to dictate to their targets how they should feel about their enslavement. Having had so much of their existence scripted for them, targets of abuse repeatedly report feeling like actors on a stage, forced not only to perform tasks, but to perform characters created for them by their abusers, who take on the dual role of actor-director in their own production. And we’re not talking Orson Welles. There’s no depth, no emotional insight, no coherent motivation. Not surprising, when you consider that the actor-director’s psychological age is often still in single digits. Certainly in the case of narcissistic abuse, we’re looking at severely arrested development. Next time you see a child playing with toys, making them say and do things to each other, take a good look: you’re watching a model of life with a narcissist. You’re seeing the actor-director inventing characters and motivations, and controlling relationships. And, if you analyse the storylines, you’ll find a good degree of projection going on. Children might punish their toys for being naughty, when they’ve been naughty themselves. In a similar way, adult narcissists repeatedly project their own flaws and transgressions onto their innocent toys: in this case, other human beings. Just like toys, targets are directed to play nonsensical fragmented ciphers with no inner life. They exist as cartoonish props around the central figure of the abuser, who often presents as an unappreciated martyr. Just like toys, their single function is to constantly affirm whatever persona their abuser chooses to adopt at any given time. There might be a succession of different personas, each catering to the abuser’s ever-shifting needs. Each time, history can be reinvented. Leaders of religious high-control groups will update their old literature, editing out failed teachings and prophecies, erasing evidence of past blunders to try and maintain a mask of impenetrable perfection. Targets are expected to treat the new script as if it always existed. Fleeting expressions of confusion might be allowed, if they’re swiftly followed by performances of cheerful acceptance when bogus justifications are supplied. But extended displays of sincere, unresolved confusion aren’t tolerated. Actors who break character unsettle the group and risk ruining the theatrical production. The targets, being repeatedly forced to perform emotions they don’t feel, or, deny the emotions they *do* feel, is a profoundly self-negating act. Treating emotions as mere performances to be selected according to whether they please an audience is a complete perversion of their function as survival tools that help us process our experiences. The psychological burden of managing this disparity between reality and performance can distort and sometimes obliterate our entire emotional landscape. [Music] Emotions can feel wildly volatile and overwhelming to very young children. With the help of healthy reflection, and healthy modeling, they can come to recognise and manage them. Children learn about their feelings when their emotional expressions are consistently and reliably identified and, reflected back in the responses of the people around them. Children also learn by example from seeing the people around them modelling emotional responses appropriate to the situation, and, resolving them in healthy ways. We develop volume dials distinguishing different shades of emotional intensity. So, instead of suddenly flipping into immobilising terror in response to everything from mild to extreme threat, we respond in proportion to threat, moving from feeling unsettled, to vigilant, to afraid, to terrified. We start appreciating emotional combinations, like feeling sadness and anger at the same time, or, sadness and joy. As our emotional vocabulary becomes more nuanced and refined, our feelings become more closely aligned with our experiences which allows us to engage more effectively with the people and situations we encounter, motivating us to avoid danger, exercise self care, and pursue fulfilling goals. In contrast, children born into abusive environments experience all kinds of emotional neglect and chaos. Their emotional expressions might be habitually ignored, misread, or, punished. Instead of having their feelings understood and attended to, young children might be expected to understand and attend to the feelings of their abusers, who exhibit emotional responses wildly out of sync with the situation. These children are crushed under emotional burdens they’re not remotely equipped to handle. Instead of a baseline of emotional neutrality, the child might develop a baseline of active anxiety. Just a few dominant emotions might be recognised, while the rest are suppressed or distorted. If the pursuit of personal happiness is condemned as selfish, it might become merged with guilt. If anger is forbidden, the child might substitute anger with tearfulness. These kinds of distortions can create extreme emotional dysregulation, and overload the child with unmanageable feelings. On the flip side, the child might experience a flattening of affect, where the emotions shut down completely. The system breaks. The spark is snuffed out. The individual becomes a cold, analytic spectator, untouched, and unmoved. All of this turmoil and destruction is invisible to abusers, who view targets as playthings, and expect instant, fully-formed emotional responses, tailor made to fit the abuser’s own needs. One of the ironies of coercing targets into performing false emotions is that their abusers are often aware that these performances aren’t real. Abusers might lack empathy, but it doesn’t mean they’re unable to accurately gauge emotion. Their lack of empathy just reflects the fact that their targets’ emotions only have value if they serve the abuser’s needs. Abusers can be extremely perceptive regarding the authenticity of emotion. picking up on the tiniest conflicting cues. And targets are often repeatedly tested to assess their authenticity. Of course, abusers won’t tolerate being tested themselves. If they realise their targets are performing false emotions, the emotional payoff the abusers are seeking is lost. They want to eat their cake and have it. They want to direct someone to feel the specific emotions they decide, but also want those emotions to be spontaneous and real. They can’t have both. In trying to have both, they become the source of their own frustration. Another irony is that of course, these abusers are performing, too. The perfect image they hope to present to the world is just a cardboard cutout of a functioning adult, behind which often hides a child, constantly overwhelmed with rage, fear, and shame. They demand true emotions from others in order to sustain their own false self. What we have is a process of self replication. Abusers who are split into an emotionally-dysregulated hidden self, and a false-performing self, act in such a way as to split the people around them into emotionally-dysregulated hidden selves and false-performing selves. The extent to which targets lose themselves in in their abuser’s theatrical production will depend on various factors including an intensity of abuse, presence or absence of support, the resilience and adaptiveness of the target’s psychological defences, and, the ability of targets to fully acknowledge the tyranny in their midst. [Music] As a young child, every year I’d be asked to sign birthday cards to a mysterious elderly aunt who lived far away. I never met her, never spoke to her, never saw any photos, never got any cards in return, nothing. I was just told a few stories by a relative. For all I knew, she was a piece of fiction. But, I was repeatedly asked, “Do you love your aunt Julia?” If I didn’t follow the script and answer, “Yes,” faces would drop. It was a weird and creepy pretence. How could I love someone I couldn’t distinguish from fiction? Like millions of people, I was directed to perform the same weird and creepy pretence of meaningless, unearned love for another figure I never experienced: a being called, “God,” which, by His nature, was rendered inaccessible. As with the absent aunt, I was told stories about this absent “God,” but these stories were different: started out sweet, but soon descended into tales of sadistic love tests, genocide, and unending torture. To recoil from this kind of horror is a healthy response, but followers are expected to somehow overcome any appropriate feelings of revulsion, squash them down inside, forget about them, even feel ashamed for having them. And instead, magically conjure feelings of love. As a child, I was commanded to love the Biblical tyrant with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength, and all my mind. Unlike the absent aunt, it was claimed this absent “God” could read my mind, and judge whether my love was real. I didn’t have a clue how I was supposed to perform this miracle of emotional transubstantiation, turning horror into love. The idea of loving this maniacal figure evoked a sickening, nightmarish feeling, that I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe. I later found a word for it: masochism. Not the narrow sense of deriving pleasure from physical pain, but the broader sense described by German analyst Karen Horney: the feeling of being putty in the master’s hand, being devoid of all will, of all power, of being absolutely subjected to another’s domination. To me, it seemed like death. Catholic nun Mother Teresa explicitly promoted both the narrow and broader senses of masochism. She repeatedly glorified pain and suffering as divine gifts. She saw beauty in the misery of the poor, and encouraged people to view themselves as empty spaces, waiting to be filled. Savage and callous as these sentiments are, they express very precisely what it means to fully embrace a capricious tyrannical dictator, of which the Christian god character Yahweh is a fine example. It means embracing suffering as eagerly as pleasure. It means embracing psychological chaos. Like the god characters of all the Abrahamic religions, Yahweh personifies chaos. He commands universal peace and love in one breath, and tribal war and the slaughter of infants in the next. Targets of mass infanticide include the Midianites and the Babylonians, and the people of Jabesh-Gilead, who were punished for refusing to go to war. He commands people not to test him, but lavishes favor and status on Gideon, who tells Yahweh to perform some very specific stunts to prove his power. Yahweh complies. He commands devotion, but victimises his most devoted followers, like Abraham and Job. He tortures as casually as he rewards. Human beings have an extremely hard time dealing with chaos. We look for order and structure, for consistent patterns and rules. These things allow us to figure out how to survive in a given environment. As children, we’re quick to learn the rules of the culture into which we’re randomly born, however bizarre those rules might be. But tyrants who constantly change the rules generate chaos. When the same behaviours are inconsistently rewarded and punished, we have no way of consistently protecting ourselves. Whatever we do could backfire on us. In this chaotic environment drive by perpetually-elevated fear and anxiety, some individuals descend into neurotic thought and behaviour. Masochists cope with this chaos by giving in to it; their self-protective instincts are dulled. They give up control and autonomy. and surrender to the tyrant’s mayhem. Of course, because none of the Abrahamic god characters actually manifest themselves, all the tyrannical religious mayhem we experience on this planet is created exclusively by human beings. who enact all the chaotic behaviours sanctioned in religious scripture. The first time I was aware of being in the presence of this kind of masochist was in my teens, when my brother and I had a series of weekly discussions with some Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’ve never experienced individuals who displayed such highly-scripted behaviour. Instead of thoughtful, spontaneous reflections, they seemed to give fixed, push-button speeches. When they were taken off script, they often sank into lengthy silences, before eventually rebooting, and pledging to get the answers from their spiritual leaders, called elders. The following week, they’d return, updated with new rehearsed lines to regurgitate. At first, this odd behaviour was amusing, but, it became increasingly disturbing. They were like shells, with their personalities scooped out, and replaced with brittle parchment. I commented later that it was like witnessing the Turing test in reverse. The Turing test, proposed by computer scientist Alan Turing, assesses whether a machine can display intelligence indistinguishable from human intelligence, typically by giving responses that show spontaneity, creativity, flexibility, adaptability, originality. The JWs automated responses pointed in the opposite direction, becoming more indistinguishable from machines. It was deeply unsettling. What makes it difficult to empathise with ideological masochists is their tendency to pull others down, too. When I broached the barbarity of the Biblical God, one of them, a young woman called Penny, commented flatly that we were all unworthy sinners who deserved death. I remember feeling simultaneously sad for her, that she had so little self-worth, and affronted that she included me in her statement. Although it wasn’t as extreme as the JW’s, in hindsight, I recognised this generalised masochism in my father, who not only submitted to the chaotic script of my narcissist mother, but tried to make my brother and I submit to it, too. Similarly, masochist and abusive social and political groups, who degrade themselves to sustain their membership, might try to drag fellow members and even non-members into degradation with them. This unattractive quality can discourage potential sources of support, compounding the masochist’s isolation. The masochist’s response of self-negating submission is just one way of coping with chaos. There are others. And the ones we adopt play a significant part in determining the kind of roles we take in the tyrant’s theater. Self-righteous zealots defend themselves from the tyrant by aligning themselves with it. Like prisoners play-acting as prison guards, they promote themselves to the position of the tyrant’s personal mouthpiece, and proceed to abuse and dehumanise other people with pseudo-divine authority. While the masochist declares, “we’re all worthless,” the self-righteous zealot declares, “you’re all worthless.” In the context of abusive families, this position might manifest as a child who merges with the abusive parent and takes on the role of an abusive pseudo-parent towards the other offspring. Apologists wear rose-tinted glasses. They take refuge in the idea there must be reasonable explanations for the tyrant’s destructive acts. They reframe the tyrant’s abuse in various ways. In religious contexts, they often suggest that acts of divine barbarity actually represent a divine benevolence so complex we can’t understand it. In high-control groups, abuse by tyrannical leaders is similarity attributed with a level of enlightenment inaccessible to ordinary members. If profound goodness and wisdom are unworkable suggestions, other excuses are offered. In families, tyrannical abuse might be falsely framed as a spurious physical illness, like dementia, absolving the abuser of responsibility. In all cases, apologists, who have no trouble recognising abuse in any other context, clutch at any straw to prevent themselves recognising abuse from the tyrant. Sometimes the denial is more immersive. Instead of offering excuses for it, the tyrant’s abuse is blocked out altogether. To this day, I continue to receive personal messages from followers of the Abrahamic religions who flat-out deny any punitive qualities in the gods of their scriptures. This kind of blanket denial can sometimes result from the maladaptive defence mechanism called “splitting.” Splitting divides unmanageable complexity, contradiction, or chaos into simplistic dichotomies: positive or negative. right or wrong always or never, us or them. Faced with a chaotic tyrant, the negative parts may be blocked out completely, leaving only the positive. Of course, denial can also arise from simple unawareness and inexperience. Some people have never investigated the Abrahamic scriptures. Some have been actively sheltered from their contents. What’s clear from all these positions is that none of them have anything to do with love. What kind of love pushes individuals into maladaptive defence strategies designed to clock out unbearable threat? What kind of love relies on the perpetual ignorance of atrocities? These positions are theatrical roles, all of which serve the function of affirming, excusing, and enabling the tyrant. With our emotions in healthy working order, rejecting these false roles would be a pretty straightforward matter. We’d experience situationally-appropriate disgust at the scriptural depictions of these divine tyrants. We’d also feel no fear of them. We’d recognize they were no more dangerous to us than any other literary tyrant, from Nurse Ratched to Jame Gumb. We have no reason to fear being lobotomised on the orders of Nurse Ratched, or being abducted and skinned by Jame Gumb. Or, being eternally tortured by any Abrahamic gods. Literary characters represent no threat, and if our emotions were in alignment with our experience, that’s where the story would end. Religious scriptures would hold the same value to us as any other literary work: we’d reflect on the choices of the characters depicted in their stories, integrate any useful insights, and move on to the next book. As we do with all other ancient literature, we’d recognise that any accounts of outlandish transformations and characters with superpowers reflected the primitive magical thinking of the time. But, as followers of Abrahamic religions, we have all that crucial context ripped away by our indoctrinators, who push our emotions completely out of alignment with our experience by abusively compelling us to accept their ancient literature as fact. We can imagine the damaging effects of presenting some of our most tragic poetic literature as fact to children. Violating the important distinction between fantasy and reality turns mythical monsters into terrifying threats that children are not psychologically equipped to face. But, millions of children are expected to face them with smiles plastered on their faces. As a child faced with the tyrannical Yahweh character, I avoided succumbing to the masochist position by immersing myself in denial. In my case, I learned to focus exclusively on Yahweh’s human persona, Jesus, who was presented as an unappreciated martyr. Concentrating on Jesus allowed me to block out Yahweh’s atrocities. In my teens, when I allowed myself to take a good hard look at the Yahweh character, it became clear there was no supreme intelligence here. Even by human standards, this was, in every sense – morally, intellectually, emotionally – an underdeveloped intelligence. In fact, what came to mind was the character of Charlie X from an old Star Trek adventure. Charlie X was an alien teenager who tyrannised the crew of the USS Enterprise using his psychokinetic powers to disfigure people, or even think them out of existence. One of his victims was a crewmember he became infatuated with, who wasn’t attracted to him. Like the Biblical God, Charlie X was a fragile, needy character, who commanded love, expected it to be magically conjured up from nothing by his targets, and threatened annihilation if he didn’t get it. Unlike Charlie X, the Biblical God was claimed to be the all-knowing creator; an all-knowing creator who didn’t know how human emotions like love and trust worked. Before they could be switched on like a light. It was too stupid for words. Love is earned, not commanded, and, in order to earn it, you have to make an appearance at some point. Even when it comes to absent humans, like the elusive Aunt Julia, to coerce children into performing love they don’t feel teaches them that their love is not their own to give to the people they choose, but a mere commodity that others can give away on the children’s behalf without consent. It’s no one else’s place to dictate to us who to love, or trust, or find physically attractive, or experience any other feeling for. We’re each the master of our own emotions. [Music] In my first few years working as a therapist, I saw a client who would recount the most horrific experiences in a strikingly incongruent singsong voice. Her mother had recently died and she’d come to therapy to address difficulties in the grieving process. She’d become convinced her mother was haunting her, because whenever she thought about her, she’d get the sense of something terrifying looming over her. Over time, as we explored what this unseen terror might be, it became clear she had a chronic aversion to expressing anger towards her mother, who, it gradually emerged, had subjected her to extreme physical and psychological abuse, resulting in severe emotional disconnection. As we worked on her emotional rehabilitation, there was a breakthrough insight: the looming terror wasn’t the ghost of her abuser, but her own suppressed anger, fighting to come to the surface and find expression. Releasing this pent-up anger for the first time felt frightening, sometimes almost unbearable. But, as she began to let herself feel it, we both noticed the transformative effect: Her face started to relax from its constant ingratiating smile. The singsong voice she used to recount her abuse deepened to an adult register. Several other suppressed emotions emerged, including sadness and joy. And, she was finally able to hold her mother to account with genuine emotion. Sometimes it’s just a couple of key emotions that are missing and their reemergence can be a catalyst for change. Another of my therapy clients, who was in an emotionally-abusive marriage, would switch between anxiety and depression as she described her joyless life of restriction and isolation. But any attempts to explore ways of stepping outside of the script her husband had handed her were quickly shut down with excuses and deflections. This emotional gridlock continued for many weeks, until, one session, there was a significant shift. She expressed annoyance at her husband. He’d taken her car unexpectedly, and she’d had to rush to find public transport that would get her to the session in time. We both recognised his attempt to sabotage her therapy, but I reflected that this was the first time I’d seen her express any degree of anger towards him. It was a pivotal emotional moment. She spoke about how important therapy had become to her: it was one hour in the week that belonged completely to her, and it was something she would fight to protect. Over the following weeks, she began to take her life back. Sometimes, when emotions come back, we’re not ready to feel them. In my teens, after years of religious and family abuse, my long-suppressed anger returned. Like my aforementioned clients, it played a crucial role in ending my abuse, as I finally stood my ground. But I wasn’t prepared for the relentless white-hot thoughts and feelings that continued to erupt inside me. I had no experience with dealing with this kind of anger, and, no emotional mentors who modeled healthy ways of dealing with it. So, I dealt with it the way I’d been trained to deal with emotion: I blocked it out. Whenever I felt it rising up inside me, I turned my body to stone. And, as a result of this perpetual suppression, eventually, I turned to stone completely. All of my emotions, from happiness, to sorrow, to fear, to anger, faded to indistinguishable grey. I felt nothing. And, that’s how things stayed for several years. The irony isn’t lost on me that I’d done exactly what my abusers had done: I’d forbidden myself to feel. No surprise that I damaged myself in the process. It was only in my 20’s, years after moving out of the mad house, that my feelings came back. Having forgotten what emotion felt like, I was unprepared for the intensity of colour they injected. Experiencing that colour taught me the true value of emotion. Emotion mobilised me, motivated me, protected me, engaged me with the world. Without that spark, I had drifted out of sync with my surroundings. Trivial choices had become paralysing. I felt no drive to initiate or sustain action. I’d just been going through the motions on empty, watching my life like a detached spectator. Finally, I was feeling my life. Wen my emotions returned, they didn’t arrive fully-formed and nuanced. It was like returning to factory settings. Just primary and secondary colours. It took time and patience to master them. But this time, I let myself feel everything. Abusive environments pull our emotions out of alignment with our experience by pushing us out of spontaneity and authenticity into artificial, theatrical roles, scripted by our abusers. Reclaiming our lives means throwing the operation into reverse, dropping our performances, and moving back into spontaneity and authenticity. It doesn’t require any feats of logical reasoning, there are no intellectual conundrums to solve, it’s purely about becoming aware of what we’re really feeling and learning to separate it from various emotional masks we’ve become accustomed to wearing. For example, in situations where we feel a desire to please someone, we might learn to determine whether our desire is healthy or unhealthy by identifying the emotion driving it. Are we happy to please, or anxious to please? Kickstarting this emotional rehabilitation can be slow. For folks who’ve become substantially disconnected from their emotions, it can be a challenge to recognise a specific feeling. Even deciding between the most basic categories of feeling good or feeling bad might be a struggle at the start. But, gradually, our emotional vocabulary expands, and our emotions become ever more closely aligned with our experience. Just as they would have done if we’d been raised in psychological health from the start. It’s crucial that targets of abuse allow themselves to feel all of their emotions. Abusive environments teach us that emotions have to be pleasing but emotions aren’t there to please people. Not our abusers, and not ourselves. In good emotional health, we reject the roles of the masochist, who embraces abuse; the zealot, who conspires with abusers; the apologist, who excuses abuse; and the denier, who blocks out abuse. Instead, we resist abuse. Here, there’s no performance, no distortion of reality, no split. It’s a position of congruence and authenticity, and there’s no space for that on the abuser’s stage. When we leave, some of the other actors might leave, too. It’s funny how often we work through these situations thinking we’re alone, only to find that others around us have been wrestling with the same stuff. Sadly, sometimes the actors will stay, and whatever feelings we have about that, we need to let ourselves feel them. In many cases, after we’ve left, something peculiar will happen. Even though we’re no longer there, an empty role will be played for us in our absence: the role of the scapegoat, or, in religious terms, the apostate. Without an actor to breathe life into it, the lines of this ventriloquist dummy villain will be spoken by our abusers. The dialogue will be the same vapid drivel it always was, the motivations will be just as caricaturish and incoherent, but, we’ll be enjoying real life somewhere else. And, with our emotions in good working order, we won’t be wasting our precious time inside any more of these dismal theatrical productions.