How Did You Brainwash Me?

June 21, 2012 Kellie Jo Holly

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

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.

Tags: brainwash

APA Reference
Jo, K. (2012, June 21). How Did You Brainwash Me?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Author: Kellie Jo Holly

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
February, 26 2013 at 10:00 am

I remember trying to get my ex to "hear" me, too. I notice your boyfriend's words don't "say" anything. He tells you that you're wrong, but he is saying it to talk over your valid points. This is a clue that he will not listen to you no matter what you say. He acts like a 10-year-old who puts his fingers in his ears and sings so he can't hear what you say. My ex didn't hear me and your boyfriend won't either. Although it probably felt kind of good to follow him around try to talk over him (stand up for yourself), you did a very dangerous thing. Anger can embolden a person and make them less aware of the threat in their environment. Your anger made it difficult for you to stay safe. You were so angry that when he yelled for you to leave him alone, you did not do so.
Your reaction to his abuse illustrates the cycle of violence perfectly. He lashed out verbally. You lashed out verbally. He didn't like what you said and told you to leave him alone. You didn't leave him alone because you wanted to be heard. He lashed out physically. You "apologize" through your promise to not tell anyone. He calms down. You tell him you don't want to be with him, he says okay but ignores you, and you accept being ignored. Isn't that how your experiment started? Didn't you want to be "a happy, good girl" so he would stop ignoring the real you (by abusing it out of you) and love you again?
Trying to be "a happy, good girl" when you are not is a manipulative action. Yes, I know you did it in response to past abuse, but anytime you pretend to be someone you are not in order to elicit a certain reaction, then you are manipulating him. You aren't alone - I did it too. However, it NEVER works the way you want it to work. You wanted to make him happy, so your intentions are "good" - but manipulating is bad for everyone. In your case, after play-acting happiness, all of your pent-in anger erupted and clouded your mind. He could have killed you, and you know it. He wants you to know it. You can try to minimize the assault by calling it a "boo boo" but it is far from a mistake. Physical assault is a direct warning that the abuser will do whatever it takes to get what he wants from you. It is serious, and I wish you would acknowledge it as such.

Dee Neely
January, 26 2013 at 11:57 am

How do I help a teen boy who has been being brainwashed by his narcissitic mother for the past 40 days. He was isolated from his job, school everything that he knows is normal. He has even stopped communicating with my daughter who is his best friend. He's now back at school and sees her at a distance and looks so lost - almost deer in the headlight look, he silently asks her friends about us. I know he has been brainwashed and believe it was used via sleep deprivation. Are there things or signs we can give him to know we are still here for him. He has only lived with his mother the past 5 years, and mom is on a vengeance to save her husband from abuse charges - which by the way came to light by the boy calling social services. Any advice would be helpful

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
January, 27 2013 at 9:09 pm

Have you talked to the school counselor about your suspicion? Or called child protective services? Your daughter can pass notes to him at school via friends or communicate on facebook and all those other ways teens get up with one another. Reach out to him.

January, 22 2013 at 5:12 pm

WOW! My friend is slow and her husband missing a few marbles. She has perscribed medication for Anxiety to which he discontinued, it made her sick, lies saying he talked to the doctor. She is clueless without her meds and parrots whatever he says,does whatever he says. She has me and another friend who is slow. Should I tell her parents. He has swindled 27K and drained her 401K.
I am frantic to help her. She trusts no one but me! I can't let her down! Her friend!

November, 24 2012 at 9:32 am

my soon to be ex,tried starting a fight last night over MY RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE,our 7 year old daughter has never celebrated xmas due to his muslim beliefs,he brought her a stage laser light,she said it's xmas lights,he asked her which animal taught her about xmas,when i asked him why he insisted she stay back from school on eid but did nothing but abuse me til i left for the day,he flipped & schized out,my daughter is enjoying looking for a seperate place which we've found,now we're furnishing it & she chose a xmas tree it was so worth money i couldn't afford to see her so happy,i'm happy that i can stop apologising if a man looks at me,i didn't do anything wrong & that is true freedom

November, 17 2012 at 5:19 pm

Looking back on the verbal abuse, it never dawned on me until now how easily he said such demeaning things to me. "If your good, maybe we'll do..." or call me things like "little girl" or "damn hippy" all the time. These were his "charming" put downs. And when I would tell him to stop saying them because they offended me, he never would.

November, 17 2012 at 5:11 pm

Shortly after my daughter turned 21, her fiance' and his family moved her out of our house. She said it was only for a couple months, but within 2 weeks, she had practically severed all ties with us. (We use to talk several times a day, spent many hours together, and had a great relationship.) She just got married, but within the last 3 months, I have been accused of being a bad mom, threatening her, not teaching her things she should know, etc. She would not be alone with me when I visited her 5 days before the wedding. Her fiance or his mother was in the room the whole time we talked. She would not go to my car with me alone or go anywhere with me. Her father-in-law walked her down the aisle instead of her father, who was planning on doing it. There is much more I could say, but she had a total personality change in the last 3 months and we are concerned that she has been brainwashed and may be in danger. She is living with her husband, his parents and his 5 siblings. The father is a registered sex offender. Reading this blog gives me concern for her safety, but I don't know what to do or who to contact.

Kimberly Klaus
August, 13 2012 at 12:07 pm

I wish I could find C. Morgan (June 25, 2012) and give her a hug. And I think it is never too late!

Malika Bourne
July, 6 2012 at 6:16 am

I appreciate this article. I had a 3 year friendship with woman friend. She brain washed me.She had done the same thing to many other people before I found out. I am letting go of my secrets and I want to tell the story of this relationship.
You have helped me to understand how AI fell in her abusive trap. Thank you It will help give me closure.

July, 2 2012 at 3:30 pm

I found this blog by accident. I wish it existed 28 years ago. Lucky for me, when my husband bought a house behind my back I left him and bought my own house 30 miles away. He's not a sociopath or narcissist, just passive-agressive. Some examples of his awful behavior: He would ask me where I'd like to eat; and every restarant I would mention(sometimes 5 different restaurants) he would say no. Then we would go to another restaurant. One he chose...I fell for this over and over. He (not me even though we were married) owned a number of boats. I would want to go boating and he would say yes, but we never went. He'd go out on one of the boats alone. One of the worst things he did was go out and by that house with his parents, behind my back. He was getting alot of calls from a woman who turned out to be the real estate agent. I left and bought my own house 30 miles away...His lips actually turned blue. He was shocked that I would do that. After I left I started feeling better. After a few years I started to feel like me. I am happy and have nice friends and 2 great sisters. He was always rude to them so I didn't see them much then.

Martha Trowbridge
June, 30 2012 at 10:27 am

I'm the grateful one! Your dedication and service is inspiring. When I resume programming in the fall I'd be honored to feature you. Blessings and best wishes.

Martha Trowbridge
June, 30 2012 at 9:45 am

What awesome work, Kellie! I am so proud of you!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
June, 30 2012 at 9:49 am

Thank you, Martha! That means a lot because I know what you do at Martha Trowbridge Radio!

June, 29 2012 at 4:05 pm

My soon to be ex brainwashes me. He also gets my 17yr old to play along.If he causes an argument with me, he becomes emotionally abusive then I shout.He then makes me think its all my fault and gets my son to play along. He was a rmn and knows all the tricks of the trade to make someone with a mental health problem feel vulnerable.He told 'Social Care will give me the kids if we divorce' but I now know this is not the case.I found out today he recieved a list of contact for both of us which he never passed on to me.My children had a bad time at home, because he would hurt me then himself and convince them that I made them ill.Ive read so much here, I'm now going to take a risk and leave my ex altogether, knowing in my heart that the children are being used to brainwash me into feeling helpless.

June, 27 2012 at 5:06 pm

Yeah in a five year wonderful relationship with an attorney my frat guy I called him. He wooed me charmed me very nice supportive. Always together on weekends we lived on separate parts of town. I would visit his place tell me you like it here don't you? I'm going to break you you need to be broken more didn't know at the time what it meant really. We were inseparable everything seemed perfect but some weekends he would go away on business no text no calls took the phone off so he said for mental health. Near the end I found out about the other woman who had been living in his home weekdays he told me never come over uninvited love is blind. He walked away without feeling as if five years never existed. She had PHd after her name maybe that's it I soon realized I believe he is truly narcissistic I met her she told me as well they set me up I'm having a hard time couldn't get my stuff out of home my diamond ring an heirloom left behind he said it never existed. Accusing me if drinking to take my meds feel like I'm crazy but I know their game. I'm getting better. Beware of the Narcissist!

Recommended: How Did You Brainwash Me? Kellie Jo Holly « Thoroughly Christian Divorce
June, 27 2012 at 11:05 am

[...] You can read the rest of the article here. [...]

June, 25 2012 at 3:47 pm

Very well said! Interesting and spot on! Fantastic post Kelly Holly!

C. Morgan
June, 25 2012 at 6:09 am

I never really knew until recently that I was "brainwashed". I married in 1965 and am now 71. I just read the article and feel very, very sad. My husband did EVERYTHING mentioned in this article, but I always thought I was the MORON. I developed severe panic disorder and severe depression about six months after the marriage. I was forced to quit my job to care for a step-daughter I did not know existed. It was after quitting that I had my first panic attack. About six months later, I was deep in the throes of unipolar clinical depression. Yes, my husband did take me to a doctor and finally a psychiatrist who put me on high doses of Valium immediately...which DID help with the panic and also Elavil, an anti-depressant. About 8 years later, I was in a horrible accident involving a horse and lost most of my face and my right eye. My left eye was damaged, but I can still see but not drive. Now I'm old and have very severe Rheumatoid Arthritis and am on Humira and Methotrexate just to be able to do my housework and work in the garden. We moved a number of times due to my husband's job. He has been retired for years, and we live in a very remote and isolated area. He DOES take me to the doctor, and I have wonderful cats and dogs who are my BEST friends. My parents died long, long ago, and I had no siblings or childhood friendships. I am on the Internet and talk with others...and work with people...mainly girls and women who are experiencing panic disorder and depression. This article will be VERY helpful to others. It's too late to help me, but I AM happy so MUCH is finally being brought out in the OPEN due to the Internet and knowledge!! My hubby is older than me, but in excellent health! LOL I often believed his abuse of me (only emotional abuse...never physical) has helped him thrive! LOL He has NO other friends as I am the only friend. It's hard for me to look back at what I was before this marriage as my parents used the same tactics and also effectively brainwashed me as a child. I've often felt like a poor fox caught in one trap...being released for a VERY short period and then caught in other trap...for life. I'm sure there are many, many women out there just like me, but a lot of them are not even allowed use of the Internet. My blessings go out to all, and I do hope a girl or woman gets OUT of an abusive marriage as SOON as she sees those FIRST signs.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 21 2018 at 6:20 pm

Thank you! I want to get out

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