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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: kholly

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. My father did this to me. I was always told I was lazy or stupid or that I could not focus. When I did something to offend him, like “having an attitude”, he yell for hours. When I broke down and cried he would become upset at me for crying. He said things like “one day your boss at work won’t feel sorry for you if you cry”. I stopped crying in front of anyone when I was ten years old, when I broke down I would berate myself for being a cry baby and isolate myself from the people who saw it. He always made sure that me and my sister knew his things were more important then us but then turn around and say that he was a very good father because he spent time with us instead of buying us things. I am 21 years old and since this has been happening to me since I was so young, I think it severely impacted my self-perception. I don’t know how to “find myself” (sorry for the cliche). I know logically that the things i think are ridiculous but I cannot help but to believe them. I have tried speaking to a psychologist but I am so used to this fake me that even when I tried to be honest and get help, he couldn’t help me. How can one move forward without a sense of self?

    1. Hi Clare,
      I appreciate how brave and honest you are, to share your stories here. I am a psychotherapist in Vancouver, BC, and I have written an article about abuse and trauma (www.liviachan.ca). Childhood abuse involves many layers of suffering, and one of them is an impaired sense of self, as you have described. Recovery and healing takes time and practice. I hope you will have the courage to try talk therapy again; sometimes, it takes a while to find the right therapist for you. If you would like, art therapy is also another option. Wounds from childhood abuse, if left untreated, can affect people in different areas of their adult life, so I encourage you to seek and persist with psychotherapy.

      Healthy self-esteem can be built, with affirmations, positive social relationships, hobbies that interest you, etc. CBT is an evidence-based therapy style that is found to help increase self-esteem. Perhaps you can discuss this further with your therapist.

      I wish you all the best, Clare. Hang in there. There is help, and there is hope!

      Remember, you are precious. You deserve love, respect, and kindness.

      Warm Regards,
      Livia Chan

  2. It is disheartening to see so many well spoken women (I know there r men who r abusex too) having their spirits crushed by abusers. A counselor told me my soon to be ex was tapping into my sense of shame. My abuser swept me away quickly (standard) and al.ost systematically crushed me in every way. Its as if I was watching what I thought to be the most handsome man on eartth (ha!) become the Incredible Hulk. Where wax my whini g and dining dati g dynamo? Incredible article. Any understanding from insightful people helps. Its true ….family doesnt help -they do t understand – and many become secondary victims I too blame myself for his crummy behavior but thanks to articles like this ….the self blame is gradually easing. They KNOW what they r doing. There is real evil in what an abuser tries to do Mine would do anything to save his own skin…he would cry to me from the jail (where he belongs) I am not the 1st nor (sadly) the last to be abused by him The legal system here is overwhelmed and even he will get a plea deal. Dealing with him for 2 years causex me to become an angry person myself and I found myself on the other side of the law Still I deal with the repurcussions of guilt in my “poor choice” Ever so slowly I am getting better. To he!! with these people. Where was their sympathy/empathy on the ones they hurt I love seeing people heal and move on Dont let them steal your dignity anymore. We only get 1 life and all deserve respect Hugs to all and stay strong and keep getti g stronger!

  3. Emotional abuser? I’m beginning to think so. I’m in my 30s now and an ex and I have been going back and forth since 2005. It’s 2016 and I’m done! I do blame myself for being stupid & blind. My ex Persued me hard. He worked with me. I was admin & he was a Police Officer. It’s started out slowly, friendship, then casual dating… Dinner and a movie and talking & texting everyday all day. He told me he felt with depression at times but is talking with a shrink about it. I should have know then he was trouble. Though he was nice, funny and sweet back then. As things started to progress he told me he & his ex broke up because he has commitment issues. Another red flag however at that time I was falling for him. He also was telling me he cared about me. I believe him because he visited me at my work area in front of everyone 3 times a day. We were with each other a lot. I was never one to evolve my life around a man but we started hanging out more, he wanted too . Then I noticed he was coming around less. I would invited him places and there was an excuses. So I did my own thing thinking he’ll come around and he did. Then one day I text him on a weekend to see what was up. He was going to DC. I asked and said that’s cool, what’s going on up there. He then cursed me out and said,” do you want me to get into an accident and freaking die.” ” why are you texting so much.” I told him I didn’t know he was driving but thought someone else could be and then why did you reply then. Text back later then. My heart sank. I didn’t call him for a long time, and when he called me I thought I was going to get an apology. I didn’t I told him that it hurt me and he knows my brother died in a car accident and I would wish that on anyone. I forgot how that mulled over, but I didn’t get the apology I deserved and I believe he somehow made me feel it was my fault. “When did I get so weak?” So two years went by and I was starting to feel unloved and appreciated. I mentioned how I feel but didn’t say the L word. I was afraid of his reaction. But he assured me he cared for me, but he would mention two past relationships. I ended up getting slightly jealous of these two women at times. One a blond. And German decent. I ended up hating my dark hair and dark features and ethnic look though I’m part white too. He praised these types. Also his life without me was a big freaking secret. I never met anyone close to him, he mentioned a guy friend and telling him about me but we never met. I only met a few friends and it was a couple at the guys bday party. By this time I was head over heels for him. I noticed him hanging less with me, and calling less and when I called or text him. He would Ana at me then I’m busy. But he came around when he waged too. And I was head over heels for him but getting sad and a nervous sick feeling. Boom! I was pregnant. I was scared for weeks and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want him to hate me and I was nervous and afraid. When I finally got the courage to tell him after crying at work in the bathroom puking. I miscarried a couple days later. I told him when he asked me what’s going on with you. And he held me, and I told him I loved him then. We were intimate that night. And he avoided me after that. I didn’t even see him at work. When I got the courage to call him. He said what do you want from me, blood? You’re not my girlfriend and it takes more than that for me to love someone. I fell into a deep depression and ended up getting push out of my job by his friends. Later years later he pops back into my life. Comes to my home, asked to see me on my porch, hugs me-shaking and says he nervous. He told me he did love me then and still does. We spoke a little more then he hops in his patrol car and leaves. Weeks go by and I contact him, oh he said he wanted to be with me too that I was the biggest regret of his life. I text him, he ignores me. Then gets mad and mean, though I wash nice. He tells me he’s in a relationship. He does love me but not in the same capacity. I’m hurt again he says it’s not going to work for me… And I’m like why? Hurt again. I leave him alone. Then months later he’s driving in patrol up and down my street and one day drives down it looks at me when I’m talking to male (old) neighbor. He drive by slowly stares me down head on. I was talking so I didn’t react. He’s was on patrol and doesn’t patrol my area. Well I text him, hi… Just saw you you can say hello. Then a few days later the same thing, but this time iPhone shows nothing message undelivered. I then stupidly send him an email saying that was cruel or rude to block me, (see that was his big thing in our relationship… Ignore me to punish me or tell me he can’t bc his issues & everything was I don’t know) I also told him if he actually loved me still regardless of can’t be with me he could be cordial with me, he’ll you just saw me and you can’t save or say hi. He then tells me I don’t know how I can say it any nicer but don’t contact me anymore. I went off. I told him was a evil nasty ass liar he was. Then he threatened to get a protective order against me and have me arrested if I contact him again. He’s a freaking manipulator right!?! I’m so mad at myself. I was always so afraid to hurt his feelings. Also he told me is brother died at 19 yoa I. Front of him, my brother died at19 too but in a car accident. I think that’s another way now he played the sympathy thing. It was always about him. I turned into a low self esteem, timid person bc of this jerk. This time I spoke my mind. He’s a narcissist sociopath and I fell into his trap. Beware ladies. Actions speak louder than words. Love yourself more.

  4. 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.

    Is that the case for all abusers?

  5. I think I have reached my breaking point today. After sobbing uncontrollably in the bathroom at work for 5 hours, binge eating, purging, I came back to my desk to read this. I pray that I can find the strength that you all have.

    1. You can do it!! We are all strong women to have survived this kind of nightmare! ! You have the choice to get your life BACK!! Been gone from Mr. Ass 3 weeks now and so glad!!! My son lives with me now and i am getting stronger every day…..bad days too….but it is better than last 5+years of his anger.🙏👏I pray for anyone that goes through domestic violence like this.💕

  6. Thanks so much for this article! I’m fine ally separating from my husband and was beginning to doubt my decision and maybe all the things he did and said were for my own good because he loves me and were in fact true but reading this has reminded me of so much and I know I am right it isn’t love it’s abuse and control. I find strength in knowing my mind will be my own again in the near future.

  7. From those who left, Id like to know how you did it. Did you have a conversation or did you simply just not go back home. I want to leave so desperately, but im so scared to tell him. Im not in fear of being injured, it just kills to have to tell him that I want out

  8. This is very interesting, the way you took brainwashing and mapped it to abuse. I was abused by a therapist while in my 20s. I’ve been working with a therapist now who specializes in molestation and domestic abuse, but it’s been hard to unravel this for me. It keeps getting stuck.

    One problem is that I see descriptions of domestic abuse and sexual all over the internet. I don’t see my story, to read and start to absorb. Are there resources, books, stories? I will look into that book you got the brainwashing from, because it was a brainwashing, just without the sleep deprivation and physical assault. (It wasn’t not a sexual relationship.) I can’t figure out how she get me pulled in and manipulated into “alternative realities” so quickly. She had my family falling for the garbage or struggling, without knowing what to do with it. It took 3 sessions to get me to see her full time, and maybe 1 to start the alternative realities. I was an emotionally healthy person when I started, and my family was a good one (with it’s issues but healthy). I never disconnected from family, though that’s certainly part of what she was trying for. I’m intelligence and capable (honors student, etc.)

    It’s similar to the stuff that people accuse the book “Courage to heal” of creating for them in conjunction with psychopathic therapists. Only she pushed that book at me, and the idea that maybe all my problems were from a sexual abuse. I read the book, and every creepy event in my life flashed up, and none of it remotely was sexual assault. So I knew that wasn’t my problem, and ended that sequence she was pushing. There’s so much more to tell. They had me in with them (group too with two other therapists) for a total of 3x a week for a bunch of years.

    I finally left. I tried putting it behind me. But something’s kicking up and messing with me, and working with my current therapist, this is definitely the cause, and it’s deep.

    We’ve pinpointed a few of the “how it was done.” One, that I was directed to her and only her by a “colleague” from the Employee assistance program. I was young so didn’t know how to judge her. She redirected conversation in that first session in ways that were setups (or seem to be.) From there it gets hard to sort out what she did. Some of the items here have parallels. I’d like to dig in and figure out some of the brainwashing and how they played out with her. It’s verbal and hard to remember (I do have notebooks I kept from a year into it and on — so I have records of how intensely creepy it got.)

    I just want to figure this out. So if you have any resources to suggest, please do. Right now I don’t have any specific questions on what you wrote and how it played out, but i”ll come back if I do. However, it helps to see it in the less than usual “abusers do this” format, when with her, it was not as easy to spot the elements from those usual words. Thank you.

  9. I have been married to a verbal abuser for 23 years. It never ends. My 2 sons have experienced it. There is a pattern. A few good days, then weeks of bad days, silent treatment because I have done something wrong. Now on last day of vacation, that he has made horrible for me. Because I have done the wrong thing. Stupid stuff, like going to the pool with the room key accidentally. Or not hearing my phone that he needed something, & I did not see the text. I feel sad I have endured this hell so long now. I hate that my boys have dealt with it. How can I get out?! I am now 62 years old?!

    1. Tonya, you just described my relationship exactly! We have been together almost 8 years total, 7 yrs engaged and married last October. I am 33 and see no way out. He is the meanest person I have ever met when he gets mad. It can be over anything. He obsesses that I do nothing… which he means sexually. I am so far gone emotionally that I have to force myself to be intimate with him just to alleviate some of his aggressiveness. If I do give in and have sex with him he will find somethikng else to be mad about just to pick on me it seems. I have no self esteem and hate my body because I have let it go over the years. No matter what I do he makes me feel like crap about myself. After a night of the normal name calling and cursing I will be tired of it but he always acts back to normal the next day and I fall back into the routine of checking in and muttering “I love you ” because we have been through so much together. I could go on and on about my sad situation but there is no point, I won’t leave. I have 2 dogs and 3 cats and they are my children. They are also his Loves and I can’t bring myself to take them away from him. I tried for one night and couldn’t do it. I felt so sad because as mean as he is to me, he loves our babies and they love him. The topic of money is something else. I started a new career which he supported me in doing. It wasn’t as easy as we planned and he has had to pay the bills this year because this career change is expensive to persue. He hasn’t let one day go by where I forget that he pays every bill. Now he just opened the bedroom door and saw me on my phone while typing this and he is calling me a dirty c*nt. He doesn’t ever want me to show him what I am actually doing on my phone because then he can’t accuse me once he sees I’m really not texting other guys like he says.

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