How To Recognize A Moral Abuser
Moral abusers are a class of bullies and control freaks. They often try to impose themselves upon others and shield themselves from criticism by presenting themselves as having the moral high ground. Many also seem to genuinely believe they have the moral high ground and that all criticism against them comes from immoral, self-serving people. They don't view themselves as control freaks or abusers, but often instead see themselves as stalwart opponents of the "real" control freaks/abusers, which tends to be anyone who doesn't subscribe or adhere to their own (usually very rigid) views of right and wrong. (Their logic is simple: if you don't agree with or follow their system to the letter, it's because you're immoral or self-serving. In their minds, no other possible explanation can exist.)
Because they're so often successful at coming across as good people, it can become very difficult to recognize that one is actually being abused. And because what so much of what they say is actually pretty solid or at least has some basis in something good, it's very hard to disagree with them without making oneself look or feel bad for it - a fact which they exploit at any and every opportunity.
Victims of moral abusers often end up feeling excessively guilty over their actions, feeling that they're inherently and forever bad or worthless people, and feeling too afraid to do or say anything out of fear of condemnation or fear of being in the wrong. They may feel as if they can never use and trust their own judgement, which may leave them unable to decide and act at critical moments. Victims may also find themselves desperately craving any sort of approval or praise from their abusers, wanting some sign that they aren't horrible and worthless people. However, praise and approval will be given out so rarely (if at all) that the victim will be left in a constant state of self-doubt and even self-hatred.
So here are some behaviors to watch out that might indicate that you're dealing with a moral abuser - followed with a few things you might do if you think you've been hurt by one.
Common behaviors of moral abusers
Pointing out or criticizing you for past wrongdoings that you are actively working to amend or avoid now. Perhaps at some point in the past you behaved callously or inconsiderately toward others, but you have since recognized that your behavior was unacceptable and have been striving toward making yourself a better person. The moral abuser will ignore your efforts to improve and act as if you are and always will be your past self.
Criticizing you for things you had no real control over. Perhaps you ended up sick for a few weeks and were unable to do much in the way of housecleaning while you recovered, and were henceforth accused of being a selfish slob who refused to pull your own weight around the house. Perhaps you were called evil for merely having the urge to punch a really obnoxious person in the face, even though you exercised restraint and dealt with your frustrations in a nonviolent way. Perhaps you're accused of callously making yourself a burden to others because you have a low-paying job, even if it was the best job you could get. Moral abusers often don't care what your circumstances or limitations are; anything less than perfect is fair use for proof that you're a bad person.
Ignoring the context of your actions. Maybe you said or did some ignorant things back in the day because at the time, you had no real way to know any different. But you have since made an effort to correct your knowledge and adjust your actions accordingly. The moral abuser will ignore all of this and will call you a terrible person regardless. Or perhaps you ended up in a scenario where there was no truly "good" solution - maybe whichever one you chose, someone was going to get hurt or upset. Despite the fact that you chose the option that seemed to be the least-harmful based on what you knew at the time, the moral abuser condemns you and your actions anyway.
Treating every negative incident as an issue in need of strong correctional measures. Perhaps you had a bad week and something set you off - and you lost your temper and yelled at someone. But despite the fact that you do not yell at this person (or anyone, for that matter) on the regular and despite the fact that you recognized the wrongness of your actions and apologized for them, the moral abuser harshly admonishes you for being verbally abusive. Or maybe you borrowed a friend's scarf without permission, though you intended to give it back. A moral abuser, upon finding this out, may rake you over the coals for being a completely horrible, abusive, or disrespectful person and refuse to let up until you give in and admit that that's what you are.
Constantly telling you what is wrong and what you shouldn't do, but rarely (if ever) telling you what is right and what you should do. This will essentially force you to take a trial-and-error approach to trying to figure out the "right" thing to do. This will almost invariably lead to another wrong from the moral abuser's perspective - which the moral abuser will proceed to lecture and shame you for. And thus it will go on. The moral abuser may even use your perceived failures as evidence that you need the abuser around to keep you from becoming a bad person.
Finding moral fault in you when you try to assert yourself. Maybe you disagreed with this person over the best way to perform a household task and were accused of being arrogant and disrespectful. Maybe you were accused of selfishly holding out when you let this person know that you didn't have the time, energy, or resources to get a job done. Maybe you were accused of being selfish and cold when you tried to say that you needed to have some alone time. Maybe you were accused of being ungrateful and manipulative because you let it be known that you didn't want to join in on an activity that terrified you. Moral abusers often find ways to frame healthy independence and assertion as a moral failing so they can manipulate you into behaving as they wish.
Framing your emotions as moral failings. Maybe a close friend or family member is having a very difficult time with a bad partner, which sets off your protective instincts. You mention how you wish that you could help your friend - only to get accused of wanting to stick your nose where it doesn't belong and wanting to meddle in other people's affairs. Or someone close to you is severely ill and you eventually break down in tears from the stress that comes with the worry over your friend's health and the fear of losing your friend - and you're accused of being selfish because you're not the one who is sick. Or if you're feeling out of sorts because nothing in your day went right, you're told that you have no right to feel that way because your problems are so trivial compared to other people's. Moral abusers often don't merely police your (extremely normal!) emotions - they try to make you feel like having them in the first place makes you a horrible, self-centered person.
Making anything and everything into a moral issue. Perhaps upon finding out that you enjoy a particular TV show, this person gave you a stern talking-to over how some so-and-so involved with it once said or did something bad. Or perhaps you expressed some relatively innocuous opinion, and this person began telling you how some awful so-and-so shares the same opinion and told you all of the ways this so-and-so is an awful, horrible person. Or maybe you tried out a new fashion style and this person told you all about how people who dress like that are trash and reprobates.
Being cold and dismissive toward anything you care about, that they don't care about. Perhaps you voiced how excited you were over the fact that the next installment in your favorite series was almost here, and you received a dismissive "that's nice." Perhaps you said how you wanted to do something to fix poverty and were given an "I'm sure you do" or a sarcastic "good luck with that" in response. Or maybe some event you read about in the news made you upset or got you worried, and this person responded with something to the effect of, "are you seriously getting worked up over that?" This can be a subtle tactic used to try to shame you into putting your priorities in line with theirs.
Having a massively (and possibly very weirdly) self-centered view of "right" and "wrong." Moral abusers may often tell you how things that inconvenience or discomfort them are immoral or wrong, even when the alternative would mean inconveniencing more people - or worse, putting someone's safety at risk. For example, a moral abuser might tell you how you were wrong, horrible, and disrespectful for borrowing a jacket without permission so you could make a quick run to the grocery store to get some much-needed food for everyone, even though asking permission to borrow the jacket wasn't feasible at the time. Or if you take a quick peek inside this person's room to make sure everything is okay after this person has failed to come out or answer the door for hours on end, you're accused of privacy invasion or boundary violation.
Easily and readily believing the worst about you. A moral abuser is very likely to take a rumor or claim that you did something bad at face value, and isn't likely to be persuaded otherwise no matter what evidence to the contrary is presented, or no matter how spurious the source was.
Assuming the worst motivations behind everything you do. Perhaps you recently made an effort to improve your behavior in some way. Or perhaps you did something nice for someone out of genuine concern. Rather than take this as a sign that you might not be a completely terrible person, a moral abuser will chalk it up to you trying to manipulate people into liking you. (The very idea that anyone could be motivated by compassion or concern - or motivated by anything beyond self-interest or a desire to control others - may be outside their comprehension.) Or for a different kind of example, perhaps you made a poor choice of words and something you said came out sounding little insulting. The moral abuser will decide that you definitely intended an insult, and that any claim to the contrary is just a lie.
Frequently dismissing other views on morality/ethics out of hand. Moral abusers will try to keep a controlled moral environment so they can continue to manage their targets' morality, and through that, their behavior. To this end, they will dismiss any other perspective on what's right and wrong as childish, naive, evil, misguided, etc. - and will call you the same if you ever make it known that you disagree with or question the moral abuser's views on any point.
Seeing no serious problem with committing the same types of actions that you get condemned for. Perhaps you once stole a candy bar from a convenience store and were told in no uncertain terms how awful that made you. Later, this person stole an apple from the grocery store - then when questioned on it, said something to the effect of "yeah, I know it's not right to steal, but I didn't have any change and I was really hungry." In general, when you do something bad it's wrong and nigh-unforgivable, but when the moral abuser does it, it's "complicated" or "had extenuating reasons involved" or is just not considered that big of a deal for some reason. Moral abusers often allow gray areas and exceptions for themselves, but constantly hold others up to black and white, absolute standards.
Being unwilling to hold a proper, bilateral discussion with you. Any "discussion" over any incident or perceived failing will be as unilateral as the moral abuser can get it. If you try to stand up for yourself in any way, you might be told that you're disrespectful, out of line, or that you need to stop making backtalk. Another trick moral abusers might use to avoid a real discussion is to try to simply shut the conversation down, period - the abuser might just go elsewhere, or might tell you something to the effect of, "if you don't like the way it is, you can leave" (particularly in situations where leaving is not actually an option to you).
Holding you up or refusing to work with you until you do exactly as they want. Until you behave as they wish or say what they want to hear, they may refuse to cooperate with or assist you in any way, even if the situation is relatively serious. For example, if you were a bit irrational or short-tempered with a moral abuser because you were in an agitated state over your best friend being stuck at an abusive partner's home, you might not be allowed to borrow the car to go and rescue your friend until you start behaving "respectfully." You will, of course, see little to no sympathy or consideration for the reasons you're acting this way, and your friend's safety and wellbeing may be treated as a non-issue. In fact, moral abusers may even find it entertaining or amusing to put you into binds like this, and/or gleefully take full advantage of the fact that they can use this situation to make you behave however they wish.
Showing pleasure and/or praising you when you tell them you did wrong or when you're clearly experiencing self-hatred, but rarely (if ever) at any other time. Moral abusers may take pleasure in your self-hatred. They may even praise you by telling you that you're making progress by recognizing your own flaws and shortcomings - but don't expect them to actually treat you any better afterward. They rarely (if ever) truly let go of anything, and they have absolutely no trouble finding new things to hold you in contempt for. Conversely, they'll show little (if any) pleasure in any positive thing you do that doesn't involve admitting you were wrong or made a mistake.
Showing pleasure over the moral failings of others. A moral abuser might get particularly smug and say something to the effect of, "Ha, I knew it!" when people (especially those deemed "bad" for whatever reason) make a mistake. (Moral abusers often love seeing their misgivings and prejudices confirmed, since they can use it to show others how they were right all along.) Conversely, a moral abuser won't show any particular warmth or pleasure over someone doing something right. (They may even criticize them for not doing it sooner!)
Showing pleasure over the misfortune of others. Moral abusers may get especially smug/gloaty when bad things happen to those whom they have deemed bad people. (The pleasure they take over seeing others get what they "deserve" often veers into outright sadism.)
Remember, an isolated/one-time incident does not necessarily mean that you're dealing with an abuser. Nobody's perfect; everyone messes up now and then. However, if you see a long-term pattern of behaviors like these emerge, then you likely have a problem.
I think I'm being/have been abused this way. Now what?
Limit your contact with this person, if you can. If you hate/doubt yourself, constantly doubt your own actions or intents, and/or crave approval from this person, you have most likely been brainwashed and programmed. This means that you'll need to some spend time away so you can sort of the mental nonsense you've been tangled up in and recognize it for the nonsense that it is.
Recognize that you've been held to unrealistic standards. And most likely it's a standard that your abuser doesn't try very hard to uphold personally! Remember that nobody is born knowing how to do everything right and that everyone slips up and makes mistakes now and then. It's part of being human. Expecting you to always be a paragon of virtue is about as realistic as expecting you to look like a Photoshopped magazine model.
Remember that if you're doing your best, you're doing all you can. If people get upset because you can't give better than that, it's their problem, not yours. It's not your fault that you can't snap your fingers and instantly become a perfect person.
Use your own self-check system. If you end up doubting or worrying about yourself or what you're doing, ask yourself:
- "Was there really anything I could have done to change what happened, given what I knew and what I had at my disposal at the time?"
- "Am I doing the best I can do right now?"
- "Why do I think I might be doing something wrong? Is it because I might actually hurt someone, or is it because I was told that it was bad?"
- "Where is the evidence that what I'm doing is actually going to hurt someone?"
- "Does 'hurt' entail actually hurting someone, or just making someone mad at me on some personal principle?"
- "Am I making the best choice/least-harmful choice that I possibly can right now, given my own limitations/circumstances and what I have to work with?"
- "Who told me that I was wrong/evil/naive/etc., and why? What motivated this person to tell me this?"
- "Why did I believe this person?"
- "If I change my behavior, who actually benefits from it? Exactly how do they benefit?"
- "Is it possible that changing my behavior might result in more or worse harm to someone? Who might get hurt? Who's going to lose out here?"
- "Is it actually realistic to expect people to live up to these standards/to be this good? Who actually is capable of living up to this?"
- "What would happen if everyone actually did live up to these standards? Would people really be better off for it? Would society even be able to function?"
- "Does this person who tells me I'm wrong actually live up to these standards, or at least tries to? Or does this person do exactly what I do, yet always has an excuse or never sees anything wrong with it?"
See if you can find outside help. If it's possible to talk to a therapist, it might not be a bad idea. You might also be able to find an online support group. Self-help books, websites, and articles might do you some good as well. You might also look into help for people who have been gaslighted, because gaslighting is a huge component of moral abuse.
Remember that you can't change the past, but the future is always a choice. And every day, you can try to do the best you can. Your past does not have to define who you will be in the future. Those who say otherwise may actually be trying to stop you from becoming a better person. (Many moral abusers don't actually want you to get better, because then they'd have to admit they were wrong about you being evil to the core and/or no longer be able to feel morally superior to you, or no longer be able take pleasure from punishing/condemning you.)
Remember that you'll probably never be able to please a moral abuser. People like this will almost always find something "wrong" with you, no matter what you do. It's not you who is the problem; it's them. It's not your fault if you can't make them happy. (As stated above, they very likely don't even want to be happy with you.)
Remember that self-improvement is a process. If it takes some time for you to get yourself together when you're trying your best, it's not because you're a bad person - it's because you're a normal human being. No one can expect any more of you. If people do, that's their problem, not yours.
Also, take a look at:
We Are Who We Make Ourselves - Who Do You Want To Be?
How To Recognize Gaslighting (Many moral abusers are gaslighters.)
How To Deprogram Your Own Mind (Offsite)
AnxietyBC - Self Help (Offsite.)
Raised By Narcissists (Offsite support group for those with toxic parents of this type; many moral abusers are also narcissists.)
How To Recognize Bad Creative Mentors
Dealing With Criticism & Negative Reviews