This article is inspired by the hypothesis of the The Disaffected podcast with Joshua Slocum. His hypothesis suggested that we are living in a Cluster-B-world: Cluster B is a categorization of personality disorders as defined in the DSM-IV, and include personality disorders like antisocial, borderline, histrionic and narcissistic. Slocum suggests that the tactics used by people with these personality disorders are not fully understood and acknowledged, and as a consequence they can become normalized. This can lead to a spill out of abusive and toxic tactics, all through society, and adoption of these tactics by people who, in fact, do not suffer from any personality disorder.
This can seem far off for people who’ve never thought about these things in depth, and maybe doesn’t want to. The podcast in question does not imply that we should start seeing everything through the lens of psychopathology – that would be reductionistic. But I at least think it’s worth noticing, because it is something disturbing about the way we communicate today. The rhetoric we’re exposed to through politics, media, social media and celebrities shapes the way we interact with each other, in a hyper-novel way – and much of it does not seem to be beneficial to us. I’ve written in length about what I perceive to be an increasing problem with communication both here and here – and it is something I spend a lot of time thinking, reading and writing about.
Contemplating emotionally abusive tactics are something I was forced to do early in life when I encountered this toxicity in my, at the time, best friend. I don’t know if this person has been or ever will be diagnosed with any personality disorder, and it is actually beside the point. People who suffer from personality disorders should absolutely get the help they need. But we can’t fail to recognize the tactics for what they are; psychopathology. Any person, diagnosed or not, who think this is a fruitful way of interacting with others, are destructive and pernicious. And they are jeopardizing our common social fabric.
This article is not written to expose the protagonist of the story. She has not been in my life for over a decade, and I don’t have anything unsettled or disputed with her. I try to illustrate my closest experience and encounter with these kind of emotionally abusive tactics to show how things can play out. Anna, the protagonist, and Mona are pseudonyms.
I fully acknowledge that abusive relationships often comes in the form of physical violence, neglect and harsher, rampant emotionally abusive tactics. The hierarchy of abuse is very real, and it should not be minimized. This story is not a victim story. There are many examples of victim stories in our world, most of them are dreadful and unjust, and they must be acknowledge as that. The point of this article is to shed light on the mundane and covert form of emotionally abusive tactics. Things that many people may believe are normal.
FOG is a psychological acronym for Fear, Obligation, Guilt, and the term was first coined by Susan Forward & Donna Frazier in Emotional Blackmail. The term describes feelings that a person often has when in an emotionally abusive relationship with someone with a personality disorder. FOG can also be understood as a tactic, and when it is being used against someone – they often feel lost, like in a fog.
I was in a fog for almost 7 years. In my teenage years my closest friend, Anna, used tactics like FOG on a daily basis.
We were as thick as thieves, the little trio; Anna, Mona and me. We were typical teenage girls; giggly, daring and naive. It is easy to dismiss this story as just typical teenage-girl-behavior, and I’m not claiming it wasn’t that too. But, something was off, the dynamic was clearly in favor of one person.
Anna controlled the friendship. She was the perfect puppet master. Me and Mona were her minions, and for a long time we didn’t see that strings were being pulled behind the curtain. On some level, an intuitive level maybe, I felt that something was not right, many years before we broke off the friendship. But I didn’t manage to act on that intuition. The years after we broke off the friendship I had a hard time grasping all of the things I didn’t recognize as clear, unhealthy signals. Why did I stay in what was clearly a friendship filled with emotionally abusive tactics for so long?
Fear, obligation and guilt are real, powerful feelings. When you’re in the thick of it, they keep holding you back from doing the right thing. That’s why they’re potent tactics to keep someone from seeing your true colors.
Anna’s parents got divorced in high school, and she declared herself the family “shrink”. (Yes, not a good sign). Of course this brought on a whole new set of psychological problems, and she started to see an actual shrink to deal with everything. After a couple of sessions, she self-diagnosed with fear of death, and started reading books and doing small exercises every day to deal with her new diagnose. Maybe she really suffered from fear of death. Some people do. But Anna’s fear of death came with a whole new dose of narcissism.
Every day when I got back from school or work, I had to talk with her on the phone until her boyfriend came home, because she didn’t dare to be alone. If I didn’t pick up the phone she would continue to call and message me until I did. If I tried to hang up before her boyfriend had come home, she would occasionally start crying or tell a sob story just to keep me on the phone. All she talked about was herself and/or gossip. She would tell me how much she cared about me, and was afraid that anything would happen to me, but never did she actually ask me anything, really. Only if I had information that would benefit her in some way.
Her covert narcissism was concealed in a purely innocent package. You don’t expect hell on earth when you open a package with a pretty wrapping and a cute bow. Perception and deception are closely related.
The last year of high school Mona became more conscious of what she ate, she cut sugar out of her diet and started running and working out more. She didn’t make a big deal out of it, it was just something she did for herself. It was the healthy kind of awareness about food and general health. By the summer she looked stunning, not just physical, but also glowing (not gloating) with more self-esteem. This was too much to handle for Anna.
One day, when Anna offered Mona a fresh mint and she declined, this was enough to make her start a huge speculation about Mona having an eating disorder. She became completely obsessed with everything Mona ate. It was the justified obsession, like the caring mother who doesn’t want her child to suffer. After weeks, if not months, of infantilization, gaslight and shame, Mona quit her sugar-free diet, at least in front of Anna. Of course, Anna praised herself for saving Mona from a serious disease.
The slight obligation, the subtle duty to adhere to one narrative. She decided when we ought to be healthy, and when we deserved to be unhealthy. Don’t try to walk your own path.
Anna was a normal, attractive girl. In all the years I knew her, she always had a boyfriend, and could easily talk with boys. But even though she had boyfriends who were hopelessly in love with her, that was not enough. She was unfaithful to most of them. If her friends got attention from boys, which didn’t involve her, she started mocking the boy’s attempt to flirt and her friend’s way of responding.
But Anna didn’t like to be perceived as a bitch. She wanted to be the most beautiful girl in every room she entered, as well as the most kindhearted person who couldn’t even hurt a fly. So, every mockery, exclusion, backbite and condescending comment came with a good portion of guilt. It needed to be clear to everyone involved that you deserved what you got.
In the weekends we were often at house parties, having fun like teenagers. Her boyfriend at middle school and high school was older, so he didn’t join the house parties, but came later to pick her up (most of the time because she was drunk and had texted him all night). But every time he came, she wanted her friends to leave the party too. Even though she was going home with him. One time I said “no, I think I will stay”. The next week I sat through condescending comments about my behavior, exclusion and gaslighting. It was necessary that I felt the guilt, painstakingly, so she could be assured it didn’t happen again. After all, she needed to know if I was a trustworthy friend.
She made it seem like every guilt trip was justified, even well-intentioned. For a long time the fog was so thick that I actually believed her.
Dealing with someone who plays both the manipulator and the victim, often at the same time, is agonizing. Every legitimate objection or criticism, regardless of how minor and well-intentioned, is disarmed immediately. Either by augmenting the manipulating tactics, or by swapping (often covertly) to victim status. Even though you have not asked for a babysitter, actions will most of the time also be justified as caring and kindhearted. This is the same strategy as mothers who don’t want to let go of their overprotective attitude, and wish to keep their child infantilized forever.
It’s important to point out that there is no one recipe for emotionally abusive tactics. They come in thousands of flavors. Every situation is different. Every person is unique. The point is we all have weak spots, our blind spots if you will, and that is how we’re all vulnerable to these tactics.
Unmasking these tactics are necessary. Because even the most resilient person may need help recognizing when they are in a fog. Prior to changing your locale, and watching the same thing or situation from a new standpoint, it is hard to grasp what you’re in the thick of cause everything is for the most part, invisible. Start looking for patterns.
This is an uncomfortable topic, and it’s easy to dismiss, rationalize and repudiate. Acknowledging that you’ve been taken advantage of, and frankly exploited, maybe by someone close to you, is a bitter pill to swallow. It may take time to recover from and comprehend what you’ve been through. With time though, you will become much more resilient and able to spot and withstand these tactics when you encounter them in the world.
Because they are there. Either you are aware or them or not.