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Techniques of Psychological Self-Defence

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With so many daily reports of toxic and psychologically unsafe people and workplaces, how can you defend yourself against those people who seem to enjoy damaging others? How can you mentally protect yourself against noxious narcissists, septic sociopaths, malevolent machiavellians, sinister psychopaths, and other human toxins? What techniques can you use to stay sane when confronted with insanity?

Psychological self-defence is the practice of protecting yourself from harmful psychological influences, such as manipulation, gaslighting, and emotional abuse. It is important to be aware of toxic tactics so that you can recognise them when they are being used against you and take steps to protect yourself.

Before we look at psychological self-defence techniques, let’s look at what we may need to defend ourselves.

We all face situations that are emotionally and psychologically demanding. Some of those are related to the skills we are developing or the knowledge we are acquiring. Those, because we have chosen them, feel less psychologically threatening.

As a general rule, the more we have chosen a situation, the more we have “agency” or control over our environment, the less psychologically vulnerable we feel, and thus, the less we have to use psychological self-defence techniques. 

The less we have control, the more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable we are, and the more we may need to adopt psychological self-defence techniques. 

We most need to protect ourselves when we are dealing with human toxins; those who are out do us harm.

No, you are not paranoid; there are around 5% of the population who do psychological harm wherever they go. 

Human toxins are not who you think they are; they are not the vast majority of criminals in jail. Most people in jail (70%+) have mental health problems or impairments; their willingness to harm is quickly detected and addressed. No, the toxins you need most protection from are the corrupt, the narcissists, machiavellians, sociopaths, psychopaths, con-artists, scammers, haters, and baiters. Their weapons are emotional and psychological and much harder to detect or anticipate. 

In brief, narcissists will do you whatever harm is necessary to feed their delusions of being the centre of the known universe. 

Machiavellians will manipulate and deceive you to achieve their ends, whatever the cost to you.

Sociopaths typically have the same characteristics as extreme narcissists and Machiavellians and will go further to damage you if it suits their purposes.

Psychopaths are even worse. High-functioning sociopaths and psychopaths account for the vast majority of wars, genocides, war crimes, and corruption scandals across history. For them, attacking your psychological wellbeing isn’t even a warm-up.

How do we develop psychological self-defence techniques?

Our personal experience and role models have a huge influence on the psychological self-defence mechanisms we adopt and habitually use. 

When people grow up in an environment where they see alcohol, drugs, or violence being used as emotional protection or coping strategies, they are more likely to adopt such techniques than those who grew up with more constructive role models.

There are many ways that children are taught to defend themselves psychologically. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me” is one memorable aphorism. 

This piece of “folk counsel”, it is not true; many people have their careers, reputations, mental health and lives destroyed by false accusations, by names being attributed to them by human toxins. 

Names can and do hurt. How? Why? If a social worker is accused of abusing clients, even when the accuser knows the accusations are malicious and vexatious, those hearing them do not. False accusations are particularly life-destructive in the credence professions, where trust is everything. 

“Never look back,” is another imploration of psychological self-defence. It says to the listener: You cannot change the past, but if you pay attention to it, you allow it to change you. Don’t!

Here too, the advice falls short of truth; unless we look back, we are incapable of learning from our experience. Perhaps we can learn from one of the most influential thinkers in all of history, Confucius: “Study the past, if you would divine the future.”

“What other people think of you is none of your business,” is another psychological self-defence phrase that encourages us to appreciate that the opinions of others don’t matter. That, too, is untrue. 

If the social worker above is looking for a new job and a recruiter has the choice between someone who may or may not have been subjected to false allegations and nine others who have never been so accused, will the recruiter reduce their short list by one? Of course. What people think of you does matter enormously – in some situations, but not all. In most day-to-day interactions, only the opinions of those closest to us matter.

The reason that heroes of integrity (whistleblowers) the world over are attacked by organisational law breakers is psychological self-defence by the wrongdoers. If they can discredit the rightdoer, or even better, destroy their exposers to the point they cannot give evidence, they hope to “get away with it”. Of course, such cover-ups rarely conceal; they compound. 

Distraction and displacement

Have you ever seen someone adjust their tie, hair, jacket, necklace, or other accessory as they walk into a room? Almost certainly. It is an example of a distraction or displacement activity, a form of emotional self-protection. Rather than focusing on their emerging anxiety at the upcoming encounter, they distract themselves and displace such thoughts and feelings with an entirely needless activity. 

“Needless”? Needless to say, there was nothing wrong with the item they adjusted. Yet, it was entirely needed in the sense that it served as emotional self-protection and self-reassurance.

When I was a child, one of my elders told me: “What a person says about others, unknowing, tells the world about themselves.” You have probably met people who are constantly gossiping in a negative way about others. When talking with you about anyone you respect and admire, they will demonise, otherise, and vilify the person. Everyone, in their mind, has to be put down. That includes you when you are not there. 

What is going on with such people? The demoniser is engaged in a form of psychological self-protection; if others can be reduced and diminished in their minds (and preferably yours, too), they feel less inadequate, and they feel better about themselves. Their psychological self-defence is to reduce everyone to their level.

Sadly, their behaviour creates a self-fulfilling cycle. Most people do not wish to be subjected to such constant toxicity; they begin to avoid the person. Only those who share their misanthropic views want to be near such a person. They gather together in a toxic bubble and do each other great harm.

What does that tell us? Any form of psychological self-defence can, unknowingly, end up being an ongoing self-attack. 

Some self-defence mechanisms that can be useful when dealing with our own inner response to life setbacks are harmful when we try to use them to protect ourselves from human toxins. 

Denial. Denying to ourselves that we are under psychological or emotional attack is less than wise. Only by accepting the truth can we deal with it.

Rationalisation is an emotional spin on oneself or others. Frankly, that is exactly what human toxins want you to do; it is the purpose of their gaslighting.

Repression, too, is playing into the hands of a psychological attacker. Choosing not to think about the problems they are causing you, will not make them disappear. In fact, it will encourage more of the same. 

Projection can also cause us problems. People with high degrees of compassion and empathy are ideal targets for human toxins. Compassionate empaths tend to project to others the best of human motives. When faced with a toxin, that will be used to justify and perpetuate the harm: “I was only trying to help.”

Displacement of the emotional consequences of the harm being done to you by some other person will not prevent the harm from continuing. Again, the opposite is true: when people can successfully displace negative emotions created by a toxin, they are less likely to remove the toxin.

Human toxins attack and exploit basic needs

Most well-adjusted people have the same general emotional and psychological needs. Toxic people attack those needs.

We need to feel safe and secure. Human toxins seek to persuade their targets that the route to safety and security is to do as the attacker wishes. Otherwise, targets are subject to difficult-to-detect emotional and psychological abuse designed to undermine, belittle, intimidate, and ultimately control.

We have a need to be heard and understood. Targets will only be heard if they do as the toxic person wishes. If not, they will be subtly ignored, sidelined, deliberately misheard and misinterpreted, or have their words and actions twisted. If the target raises legitimate concerns about their mistreatment, that is reframed by the toxic attacker as an act of wrongdoing, known as DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender).

We have a need to be loved and accepted. The toxin’s target can be loved and accepted if and only if they do as the attacker wishes. If no they will be subjected to microaggressions and worse. 

Wider range of abuses you may need to defend against

Human toxins can exhibit several distinct patterns that negatively impact others’ mental health and well-being. These patterns include:

  • Hyper-criticism. According to the toxin, everything is wrong about you, all the time, except when you do as they wish.
  • Gaslighting. Being told by the toxin that what you have seen and heard is not what you saw or heard.
  • Invalidations are closely related to gaslighting. Your feelings, observations, perceptions, facts, and evidence will all be challenged as invalid.
  • Boundaries are ignored. Human toxins will ignore your boundaries and even gaslight you into thinking that your boundaries are an attack on them.
  • Belittling. Your achievements and efforts will be undermined and minimised. For example, “Oh, that was luck.”
  • Double binds. A double bind is deliberately set up by toxins to manipulate others. Double binds are statements designed to create the perception that, however the target responds, they are in the wrong. People subjected to long-term double binds are more likely to develop mental-health problems.
  • Microaggressions have a cumulative detrimental effect and are responsible for mental health damage, and the longer and more intense they are, the worse the mental health deterioration of their target.

Some common psychological self-defence techniques

  • Set boundaries. It is important to have clear boundaries in all of your relationships, including with family, friends, and colleagues. Decide what you are and are not willing to accept from others. Be assertive in communicating your boundaries.
  • Identify and challenge negative thoughts. Everyone has negative thoughts from time to time. Be aware of these thoughts and challenge them if they are inaccurate or unhelpful. Human toxins can be identified by your having more negative self-talk or self-doubt before, during, or after your interactions with them compared to others.
  • Avoid engaging with human toxins. If you are dealing with someone who is trying to harm you, the best thing to do is to avoid engaging with them. This may mean walking away from a conversation or even ending a job or relationship. Get them out of your life ASAP; your mental health is at risk in their presence.
  • Build a strong support system. Having supportive friends and family members can help you prevent or resist psychological manipulation or cope with the effects of emotional or psychological abuse. If you are struggling to deal with a difficult situation, reach out to someone you trust for support.
  • Educate yourself. The more you know about psychological manipulation and emotional abuse, the better equipped you will be to protect yourself from them.
  • Trust your intuition. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong with the way you are being treated, it probably is. Listen to your intuition and take steps to protect yourself.
  • Be willing to say no. It is OK to say no to people, even if they are close to you. You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do.
  • Take care of yourself. Make sure that you are getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and exercising regularly. Taking care of your physical and mental health will make you more resilient to psychological manipulation and better able to spot when it is taking place.

If you are struggling to cope with psychological manipulation or emotional abuse, it can be useful to seek professional help. A skilled coach or therapist can teach you additional coping skills and help you develop a safety plan. 

Where laws against coercive control are in place, the police may be able to help. 

In addition to those listed above, common signs of manipulation include lying, cheating, breaking promises, using guilt and shame to control you, and isolating you from your loved ones.  One of the most revealing signs of human toxins is that they always have an excuse for their behaviour, and that excuse is almost always you. 

You have a right to defend yourself against psychological abusers. When reasonable people are asked to modify their behaviour, they usually seek to understand the concerns of others.

When human toxins are challenged about their behaviour, they immediately deny and attack the person raising legitimate concerns. One of their most common abuse tactics is to accuse their accuser of psychological abuse.

To defend ourselves psychologically, it is essential to identify when we are under attack. 

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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