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How Did You Brainwash Me?

Brainwashing is commonplace in abusive relationships. The abuser doesn't have to study mind-control in school to know how to use it in life. Watch out for this!

When people ask, “Why do women stay in abusive relationships?” the answers are often too simple. There could be financial reasons, but if the abusive spouse died, would the victim wonder if they could support themselves to the point of doing nothing to advance their employability? (No.) There are the children to consider, but if the abusive spouse died, would the victim insist on finding a replacement right away? (No.)

Although finances and children are reasons victims cite for staying, one true reason they stay is a deeply implanted fear that they cannot make it in the world alone. My abuser implanted this fear so deeply in my mind that instead of recognizing the abuse in my relationship, I instead prayed that he would die. I consciously acknowledged the fact that he made my life hell, but the thought that I could divorce him remained outside my realm of consciousness. Abuse causes illness of the mind and body, and brainwashing sets both illnesses in motion.

What is Brainwashing?

Merriam-Webster’s concise encyclopedia states that brainwashing is a

“Systematic effort to destroy an individual’s former loyalties and beliefs and to substitute loyalty to a new ideology or power… The techniques of brainwashing usually involve isolation from former associates and sources of information; an exacting regimen calling for absolute obedience and humility; strong social pressures and rewards for cooperation; physical and psychological punishments for noncooperation, including social ostracism and criticism, deprivation of food, sleep, and social contacts, bondage, and torture; and constant reinforcement….”

I could have asked, “What is Domestic Abuse” and posted the same definition.

Brainwashing Works Best On A Special Type of Victim

Brainwashing is commonplace in abusive relationships. The abuser doesn't have to study mind-control in school to know how to use it in life. Watch out for this!Sandra L. Brown, M.A. says in her book Women Who Love Psychopaths that the best victims for brainwashing are women who are:

  • perfectionists, and/or
  • hold themselves to high standards, and/or
  • persistent, and/or
  • resourceful, and/or
  • goal-directed, and/or
  • self-sacrificing, and/or
  • previous victims of abuse or neglect, and/or
  • experience dependence, vulnerability, or incompetency issues.

If you are in an abusive relationship and do not recognize yourself in the first five or six bullet points, think back to the beginning of your relationship. Do you recognize aspects of who you were?

How Abusers Use Brainwashing Techniques Naturally

According to Ms. Brown’s book, abusers do not feel the way we normally think of what it means to feel. Due to childhood abuse or perhaps mental disorder, many if not most abusers detach from their feelings at an early age. Instead of feeling, they observe how other people behave, and then mimic those behaviors appropriately. In this way, abusers become expert behaviorists without taking a step inside a classroom.

They know what works and what doesn’t work to manipulate you to do what they want. And because they’ve detached from their feelings, abusers do not feel guilt for their manipulative actions. This is probably why abusers cannot take responsibility for what they’ve done to you or admit they abuse you (with lasting regret). They do not comprehend that any wrong took place and may think that your fear and tears are merely a show designed to manipulate them, and baby, they ain’t fallin’ for it.

In short, abuser’s use brainwashing techniques naturally because “the set-up” is all they know.

Lifton’s Brainwashing Technique

Robert J. Lifton was an early psychologist who studied mind-control and brainwashing. He broke the brainwashing technique down into the following categories. I’m going to change the descriptions to align with domestic abuse. (See the original list at ChangingMinds.org.)

Assault on identity

The abuser attacks the victim’s self-identity by making statements that define the victim, eventually causing the victim to break down and doubt their own perceptions of who they are. ( i.e. “You’re not good with money” “You are a slut!”)


Arguments in which the abuser expresses hurt or discontent leads the victim to feel guilty (these complaints may be completely fabricated or loosely based on fact). Eventually, these arguments cause the victim to break down and feel guilt and shame for almost everything they do and come to feel they deserve punishment.


“When the person is forced to denounce friends and family, it both destroys their sense of identity and reinforces feelings of guilt. This helps to separates them from their past, building the ground for a new personality to be built” (quoted straight from Changing Minds because I couldn’t say it any better – a.k.a. isolation)

Breaking point

The breaking point is best defined by it’s symptoms: Depression, crying jags, a nervous breakdown or panic attacks, vague overwhelming fear or explicit fears of dying or loved ones dying. Unconsciously, victims begin losing their sense of “who they are” and experience the fear of “total annihilation of the self”.


Just when the victim can’t take it anymore, the abuser offers a small kindness. The victim feels a deep sense of gratitude (more gratitude than is justified by the abuser’s act). Does it feel like a honeymoon? Yep.

The compulsion to confess

The victim may feel a compulsion to offer up an act of kindness to the abuser, as if the pain the victim caused the abuser is anywhere near the pain the abuser caused the victim. The victim, knowing that nothing would make the abuser happier than to agree with the negative statements made early on, may “confess” to being exactly as the abuser said they were (“You’re right, I did act like a slut by wearing that dress” “Please take over all the bank accounts – I don’t understand money”)

The channeling of guilt

The victim’s overwhelming sense of guilt and shame combined with the assaults on their identity and unsubstantiated accusations cause major confusion. In time, the victim feels that everything they do is “wrong” and “I can’t do anything right!” After the victim enters this state of confusion, the abuser can redirect the victim’s guilt toward anything the victim thinks, feels, or does. This causes the victim to wonder if everything they were taught or learned previously was “bad” and that maybe the abuser’s take on life in general is “good”.

Reeducation: logical dishonoring

The victim thinks, “Hey – if I am such a mess because of what I was taught, then it’s not my fault that I’m so messed up!” The victim finds relief for their guilt by thinking such thoughts, so they “confess” to their abuser more of the “stupid” beliefs they hold but now want to rid themselves of. In this way, the victim begins to deny their own identity and willingly take on portions of the identity the abuser wants them to have.

Progress and harmony

As the victim empties herself of previous beliefs, the hole left inside of her acts like a vacuum, sucking in the abuser’s ideas of good/bad and right/wrong. The abuse eases because the abuser sees less of “her” in her and more of “him” in her. The victim receives a pleasurable response in his lack of abuse. There’s not more love, just less abuse.

Final confession and rebirth

Typically, the above steps will recur repetitively in the abusive relationship. “Final confession and rebirth” cannot be reached until the victim is completely and totally brainwashed to be exactly who the abuser wished. This is the point of no return.

You are reading this. You are not at the point of no return.

You can find Kellie Jo Holly on her website, Amazon Authors, Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.

Author: Kellie Jo Holly

Kellie Jo Holly advocates for domestic violence and abuse awareness through her writing. You can find Kellie Jo on her website, Amazon Authors, Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

158 thoughts on “How Did You Brainwash Me?”

  1. Hi, i have read the comments from this article. My story is i met my husband when i was 18, he was safe . I had a condition which meant i couldnt have sex and the medical profession didnt have a clue, my husband stood by me and never pressured me, he even married me knowing it may never happen. He has always had a temper and i saw it 6 months after we had been together, when i was trying to find my friend to say goodbye one eveing and he was angry about this and shouted at me all down the road, even grabbing me by the shoulders. I forgave him but never forgot. I evenually was able to have sex and had a daughter . We were happy enough, i never felt quite settled. We moved south and i stayed at home with my little girl, i remember things being ok. Sex was still not good and i still felt a lot of pain, but desperate for another baby i got pregnant, i knew something was wrong and i said in the waiting room for the scan i was worried ive been so ill and they havent been able to find the heart beat. He turned to be and shouted for f×××k sake stop being so f×××king negative. Never the less i was right and he was devastated but he never apologised and thats when i can pin point the start of the things going wrong, and remembering other times, when he got mad because i left the table to speak to my cousin at our wedding and his mum rushed out behind him to defuse the situation. When we had my son, i nearlydied and he never bonded with him. When he was nearly 3 he stouted in front of both kids in a aggressive stance with fist clenched, i hatehim, i f×××king hate him. Five years on and one break down lots of therapy and meds, i have finally seperated from him, we have at this point been together for 23 years. It seemed amicable, he did ask me how long had i been seeing my friend for, i have lied and said im not. But i have found this man who is so kind and allowing me to be me, not this downtrodden exhausted woman (please forgive me for the affair) we seperated 6 weeks ago and i want him to know ive met someone, but i am terrified of him shouting at me and twisting my words, making me feel like the slut i already think i am. I cant bare the agression and not quite sure what to do.

    Sorry for the lengthly message

    1. You aren’t a slut. You are a woman who did what you needed to do to save your soul from the darkness of abuse. You aren’t a serial cheater, you aren’t trying to manipulate or take advantage of the abuser while you sleep around. The only forgiveness needed is from yourself. (And yes, I would say this to a man, too.) I didn’t feel sorry for my affair for years, so I didn’t ask forgiveness from God until 7 years after the fact. When I did finally seek it, I heard a voice saying, “You’ve been forgiven since it happened. You only needed to accept forgiveness to feel it.”

      Anyway, you don’t have to tell your abuser anything. You don’t owe him even one peek into your private life. You can choose to continue lying to him or say, “That’s not your business,” or “I don’t talk about my private life with anyone anymore.” Or something like that. Say what makes you feel empowered.

      Alternatively, cut off all communication that has nothing to do with the children. Every time you open yourself up to him, he files the information away to use against you later. Or gets aggressive immediately, as you fear. So stop giving him ammunition. Speak only of things concerning the welfare of your children.

  2. I read the story carefully, and I would only offer my opinion, that we all (including me) we add this disclaimer “Both women and men could be abusers or victims…” in the beginning of our story. My self, have had terrible time to prove I was the victim. From what i have heard from others, men, when they decide to seek help, they are looked at as monsters that try to come out clean. In most cases I have heard, including mine, men must collect a whole lot of evidence when women just get a friend or sometimes even their affair and that will do just fine. Dont get me wrong, I have suffered greatly in my relationship, i got hit, pushed down the stairs, have marks on my body will never go away, had my family attacked, abused in emotional ways you would never believe can get to anyone, had my religion, country and beliefs crashed. And i still care if this person (we ex-wife) is still well. They call it Victim’s guild, and come those who suffered the most, from what I’m told. I think this is what brainwashing is at its last stage. I wish you all to be, remain and always be, really free from the past.

    1. In reality, both male and female victims of abuse have a difficult time “proving” anything. Women are thought to be making stuff up to get a man into trouble, and men are thought to be, as you said, trying to flip the tables. As you know having left your abuser, the ultimate “help to leave” is yourself. You must wade through all the legal and social BS and decide to be free no matter what anyone thinks.

      I hope this stage of continued concern for your abuser disappears soon so you can be free from the past, too.

      What are the people you’re talking to advising you to do to get through it?

  3. Excuse me? “the best victims for brainwashing are women who are” WOMEN? If you think only women are victims, you need to go back to school. In fact, after 9 years with an abusive wife, having met all the people I met in groups of abused people, let me tell you the way women abuse men, is far more destructive for the man himself but mostly for the children that witness it. You should be ashamed for that discrimination of sex. There are pigs on both sides of the river.

    1. Alex, that is a paraphrase describing Sandra L. Brown’s book, “Women Who Love Psychopaths.” And the statement “the best victims for brainwashing are women who are…” describes the findings of Ms. Brown who extensively studied, well, WOMEN who love psychopaths.

      Keep in mind that male discrimination over what women should and shouldn’t be has effectively minimized the study of women psychopaths until fairly recently. For example, it hasn’t been that long since female reporters were shooed out of trials that involved pedophilia, molestation or rape to protect their “delicate constitution.” For whatever reason, in the beginning of psychology (a relatively new science), men were studied and men did the studying. Now that society considers women to be (almost) equal to men, there should be more studies that go into the female psychopath’s mind-set. I hope.

      All that said, I believe the male and female propensity for psychopathy goes deeper than gender. I believe, in the future, studies will show that both males and females can be abused in equal proportion, as well as an equal proportion of males and females as abusers.

  4. I was in court this week with my ex partner. We were together for 6 years and I left him 1.5yrs ago. And i still live in confusion about whether it was all in my head. But when I read this article all of the steps made sense to me, it was exectly how I felt. Always in a state of panic. Hypervigiliant. Living my life to please him. He was always putting me down or what was even more painful was when he just didn’t even notice me. Just ignored I was even there, or pointedly ignored me when I had been ‘disrespectful’. It was a relationship where only he existed.

    But then in court even the Judge says that the way I perceive the relationship is not reality and he is not this person, and I go back to doubting myself all over again.

    And I’m trying to remember situations that happened in our relationship and how I felt and if it was in my head and what was going on and why is he so nice now and why can’t anyone else see it and it must have been in my head because nothing makes sense and I feel like I’m going crazy. And I’m now the bad party for making these allegations and he is the victim because he has ‘only ever been a good dad.’

    But then when I read this article it all makes sense again because its exactly how I felt. But its just so painful that even the courts are telling me that he isn’t this person so it feels like I have to suffer in silence and that I’m not entitled to feel this pain. And I just have to continue having him in my life as the father of my children and him just pretending like nothing ever happened. And I don’t feel like I can cope with that. And he tries to involve himself subtly in other ways instead of just contact with the children. I feel like he has been given the power all over again and that I will never get my strength back.

    1. You can take your power back by accepting the court system is a joke. You’ve been abused by him and the court, and the court doesn’t deserve any more of your headspace than he does. Now, you have to work withing the court’s guidelines. That’s all.

      Learn to recognize abuse (verbal, emotional) and detach yourself from it. Ise this page is a guide: http://goo.gl/Fd0mKx

  5. Thank you for this article. It helps knowing others are out there who deal with verbal abuse. And I do have a story to tell. But, Its not safe for me to do so yet. Unfortunately, people who you speak to regarding your spouse behavior cant imagine that very nice guy ever doing such things. Lol
    At one point my own couselor, didnt understand about verbal abuse.

  6. I tried to leave 6 times. When I did leave, he met someone else and now he’s having the relationship of my dreams. I have no idea what I did wrong but I read articles like this and I resonate so deeply that now I’m just lost.

    I came across this article because I googled “was it me? abuse”. I think the fact that I’m googling stuff like that indicates that I’m trying to understand what happened to me because I have absolutely no idea.

    I can’t remember what I was like before. I have anxiety now and I never had it before him. I doubt myself so much. I am constantly in low mood and depressed. Not sure what to do. I take antidepressants and have therapy but it’s me. It doesn’t feel like a normal break-up. It feels heavy and dark.

    The problem is me now. He’s gone. He’s left me.

    I wish I was the one who was dead.

    1. You are far from the first wonderful person who wondered “was it me?” The answer is no. It was not you. Nothing you could do would make him stop abusing, controlling, manipulating. You can’t love a person out of his/her personality.

      And I’ll go on record saying that it only appears that he is having the relationship of your dreams. You are on the outside now. The outside is not allowed to see what is going on inside the relationship. Do you remember your happy times with him? Well, he is pretending to be exactly the man he thinks the new woman wants. If he hasn’t started the abuse yet, he’s priming her for it. If he’s actively abusing her, he and she have the convoluted agreement to hide the abuse and to carefully guard the truth. Remember how confused you were when he changed? She will experience that too.

      There is nothing wonderful about that man. It was an illusion. That’s why it feels so heavy and dark now. The full weight of the lie he wove for you is easy to feel now that you’re out from under it.

      Instead of asking, “was it me?” ask to see the truth of your abusive relationship so you can come to terms with it. Feel the betrayal, the dark lies, the loss of the future you thought you would have. Mourn it all so you can move on.

      You will move on. You will reclaim yourself. When you say “it’s me,” I understand that you know you’re fighting your own mind on this one. It’s okay. You’ll get through this. You’ll feel better on the other side.

  7. I wany to reply to Ella of March 29th, 2016:
    Thank you for posting that! My husband of 5 years I left in January, and it’s now been 5 months. He was at first super super hostile, he was angry and starting dating other woman but still wanted to reconcile. I stopped talking to him entirely and he asked to seem me in a counsellors office after 2 weeks of that, and now it being 5 months he’s normal again in temperament towards me and says “He cares” but doesn’t want to get back together. When I got to the session the counsellor asked me why we were there and turned out my husband told him I had wanted to talk with him, which I have a recorded text conversation that it’s the opposite. So maddening. Anyways, perhaps after being violently angry doesn’t work they go back to being “normal”, it’s just more manipulative tactics of behaviour mimicking, “ok that’s not getting the result I want, I have to do something else… let’s try this….” It’s not a game, but this description also gives me cautious compassion – I know my husband turned off his emotions early as a child at 5 as he told me and why (it’s sad why) – GREAT ARTICLE and thank you.

  8. I’ve been reading posts and articles on verbal abuse connected to HealthyPlace off and on for a few months.
    I’m in therapy and my therapist believes I am being emotionally abused. Sometimes I see it and others >I don’t. Because I don’t want to, I’m aware of this.
    I feel so angry at myself for not being able to get it together to leave him.
    We met when we were coming out of a drug rehab period. I guess I was a harder for me than for him… or that is what he made me believe, or lead me to believe, that I would relapse again if I wasn’t with him. Never clearly stated… but implicit all the time. That was 5 years ago, going on six… and I haven’t relapsed, but a part of me does believe that it’s thanks to being with him.
    It was easy for him to isolate me from most of my friends because they were, in fact, toxic. I really did have to start from more or less scratch at the age of 51… I am not the person I was, but who am I? I’m lost and totally taken up by keeping my head afloat, keeping my job, because I also support him…right now I’m scared he’ll come up and ask what I’m doing.
    He has never laid a hand on me, nor does he really insult me…it’s all more subtle than that. Irritated, angry tones of voice all the time.
    Ughhh, I’m feeling like shit putting all this into words here; I cannot abide the fact that I can’t seem to get out of this situation.

    1. I’m so glad you’re talking to a therapist. It doesn’t sound like his/her honesty is making much headway with you. I mean, you’re suffering from the conundrum many of us do: you don’t want to believe your head over your heart.

      The good news is that it sounds like your heart is switching sides. The confusion and self-blame you’re going through is typical for people who “know” something is right but can’t justify “feeling” it is right. And the inability to “feel” that it is right comes directly from the emotional abuse. You’ve been trained to doubt your feelings, to doubt your intuition. To doubt yourself.

      I’m going out on a limb to guess that he has relapsed whether you know that for a fact or not. He desperately needs you to stay with him so he can continue using you like the drug he attended rehab to free himself from. One of our bloggers said that addiction is a behavior, not a substance. He’s addicted to the relationship he has to you. You give him a sense of control over his world – perhaps a replacement for what the drug did for him. That makes sense because when you suffer an addiction, your ideas of healthy relationships gets all mixed up in the behavior of addiction. You came out of rehab together, so this relationship has been unhealthy for you from the start.

      Anyway, my thoughts on the matter aside, it is time for you to give your brain, your “knowing,” a chance to be heard more loudly. Purposefully stop listening to your fearful emotions (Who am I? and I can’t get out of this, etc.) in favor of brain-truths. Compare what he does to what literature says about abusers and what they do. Rethink your past: where were your successes? List them so you begin to regain the knowledge that you were successful before him. Write out what you WANT in a relationship and then compare that to what you have.

      Does your therapist use cognitive behavioral therapy with you? Ask him or her about it. Tell your therapist that you need help battling back your emotions and enriching what information your brain is giving you.

      I hope this is of some value to you. I’m so happy that you’ve kept your sobriety. That takes guts, strength, and the ability to manage the “knowing” vs “feeling” aspects of yourself. Basically, you already have the skills you need to separate from the abuse. You only need to learn to apply them.

  9. I was abused and deserted as a child but I persevered and came out strong… or so I thought. I was in fact almost all of these: “•perfectionists, and/or
    •hold themselves to high standards, and/or
    •persistent, and/or
    •resourceful, and/or
    •goal-directed, and/or
    •self-sacrificing, and/or
    •previous victims of abuse or neglect, and/or
    •experience dependence, vulnerability, or incompetency issues” so I was one of those women who wondered why women never leave. Then I met Troy and he systematically took me down to the point of wanting to die, wanting him to die. Life was so hard. I was so depressed and crying all the time. I was like a robot pretending everything was ok because I was ashamed. Then one day (after 8 years of constant emotional and physical abuse) I just knew I had to get out or one of us would die. I needed to live. I was a mother. Plus I just wanted to live again. It was so hard but I finally did it. It’s been a couple of years now. I appreciate my life and my freedom so much now. If I could say one thing to women, know this Love does not hurt. When someone loves you they do not hurt you.

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