How To Recognize A Moral Abuser

A moral abuser is essentially someone who weaponizes people's desires to be a good person and do the right thing against to police and control their behavior, and/or to psychologically and emotionally hurt them. They generally appeal to moral and ethical precepts that are broadly true or have a grain of truth to them, but bring them up in situations they don't apply to, or at least don't apply as much as the moral abuser wants the victim to think. Alternatively, they place minor wrongs on the same level as major wrongs, and behave as if someone who committed the former deserves punished just as much as someone who committed the latter.

Because they appeal to completely valid moral and ethical precepts (or at least ones that are widely accepted), it's difficult to recognize them for what they are, whether you're the victim or a third party. They sound like they care, so they must be a good person with your best interests at heart, right?

But they don't actually care. And you can tell that they don't actually care because they'll always redefine what's good and bad based on what they want and what makes them, personally, happy and comfortable. (Pay close attention to them, and you'll often see them giving themselves excuses to do the very same things they rake other people over the coals for.)

The psychological and emotional cost is high. Victims can end up feeling like everything they do must be wrong somehow. This can give them constant anxiety over their choices and preferences, no matter how small or trivial they are. It can make them feel as if they can't do anything right, and must therefore be irredeemably flawed. Their own ability to tell right from wrong and make their own judgment calls can become severely compromised, too - if everything feels equally wrong and evil, then there's no meaningful distinction between causing someone mild inconvenience and causing them severe injury.

So here's a list of behaviors and habits to watch out for that might indicate you're dealing with a moral abuser, followed by a list of things you might do if you think you've been hurt by one. All of this is based on personal experiences suffered by myself and friends; we put our heads together and discussed the tactics some of the most self-centered authoritarian types we'd ever known had used to keep us in line. Though before we go further, I want to make three things clear:

1. This is not scientific and should not be treated as such, nor should it ever be used as a cudgel against other individuals. it is simply intended to help people who have been harmed by authortiarian manipulation recognize that what they experienced was neither normal nor okay, and to begin their healing journeys.

2. Moral abuse is not limited to any specific political or ideological affiliation, and no political or ideological affiliation is completely free of moral abusers. If you think there's nobody like this in the groups and ideologies you align yourself with, think again. They exist, I promise you. (Some moral abusers will even try to silence well-deserved criticism by calling their critics moral abusers.)

3. Reality probably isn't the polar opposite of whatever the moral abuser says it is. The point is that they appeal to things that are generally true and good. That's why they're so effective. If you assume that reality must be the opposite of whatever they told you, you're probably going to go in really bad directions. You have to actually take the time to critically examine what they said and figure out where and how they misapplied it. It's not always easy, but it's necessary.

Last revision: December 30, 2020.

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, made all appropriate apologies, and have been striving toward making yourself a better person. The moral abuser will ignore your efforts and progress 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've apologized, made an effort to educate yourself and listen to those impacted by your actions, and have committed yourself to doing better going forward. The moral abuser will ignore this this and 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.

Responding to every perceived misbehavior or bad opinion with intense correctional measures. Maybe you said something that was a little wrong or a touch insensitive in one sentence, and they respond with an entire essay explaining why you're wrong and why what you said was absolutely unforgivably horrible. Or maybe you had a bad week and something set you off, and you snapped and said something a little rude and hurtful. But despite the fact that this rarely happens, and despite the fact that you apologized for it, the moral abuser harshly lectures you for being verbally abusive for upward of ten minutes. 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 try to frame your perceived failures as evidence that you need them around to keep you from being a bad person, or "to keep your ego in check."

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. Maybe they accused you of being an egotistical know-it-all when you pointed out that their criticism of your story was based in faulty assumptions about its subject materal. Moral abusers often find ways to frame healthy independence and assertion as a moral failing so they can manipulate you and and wear down your sense of self-worth.

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 simply mention that 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.

Jumping to make 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. Or perhaps you merely mentioned that you like a particular fictional character and immediately got a spiel on how it's not okay to be so obsessed with characters that you can't see their flaws. Essentially, they can't seem to stop treating everything as a teachable moment, no matter how disruptive, awkward, or inappropriate their behavior is.

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 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.

Claiming that you're "forcing" them to do things when you're really not. They might tell you that your behavior is "forcing" them to intervene and put a stop it, even though what you're doing isn't harming anyone else and is absolutely none of their business. Or they might claim that a request of yours "forces" them into an awkward or uncomfortable situation, when the reality is that there are plenty of ways they could fulfill your request without making things awkward or uncomfortable for anyone, or even just politely decline your request. This is a tactic used to gain control over victims by making them feel like horrible people for doing or asking for anything the abuser doesn't approve of, or to just generally gaslight the victim into a submissive, pliable state.

Accusing you of trying to "control" them or practicing "purity politics" when you try to set boundaries with them. For example, A moral abuser might accuse you of trying to control their behavior when you ask them not to yell or use certain words because it's bad for your mental health. Or they might come into an online community you manage and post images that you feel are sensitive or inappropriate. When you tell them that you don't allow images like that in your group, they pitch a fit and accuse you of engaging in purity politics, rather than respect this is how you do things in here.

Accusing you of trying to control them or engaging in purity politics when you're genuinely concerned that their behavior might be harmful. For example, they might frequently engage in all-caps, profanity-laden rants in general chatrooms, and when informed that their behavior makes the place uncomfortable for others, accuse you of trying to control or censor them. Or they might accuse people of engaging in "purity politics" for questioning their habit of posting violent artwork without appropriate tags or in general/public spaces.

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.

Presuming the worst motives for 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.

Acting like you need them to keep you safe and on the right track. A moral abuser might tell you that you need their correction to keep you from embarassing yourself in public. They might claim that they're lecturing you out of love because they don't want to see you fail and get hurt. They might tell you that your ego is getting out of control, and that you need them to deflate it before you become too arrogant to listen to anyone else. They might tell you that without their constant guidance and monitoring, you might fall prey to scams, predators, or whatever.

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 real issue with committing the same actions they condemn you for. Perhaps you once stole a candy bar from a convenience store and got told in no uncertain terms that this made you an awful, selfish, immoral person. Later on, this person stole an apple from the grocery store. When you questioned them, they essentially said, "yeah, I know it's not really 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. They might repeatedly tell you to mind your own business when you question anything they do, but frequently get up into your business to tell you what you're doing wrong. 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. Or you might be told that you're the abusive one. 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 sadistic 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.)

Treating your silence as implicit approval of their behavior. If for some reason you work up the nerve to say something about the moral abuser's behavior, or to commend on the behavior of another moral abuser, you might hear something along the lines of, "Well, you never complained about this before, so obviously it didn't bother you that much." Of course, you were probably too scared to say anything before, or you weren't yet sure that what you witnessed was abusive behavior. But the moral abuser doesn't care about that. The moral abuser only cares about keeping you under control.

Calling you the abuser for speaking out against harmful groups or behaviors they participate in. They might call you abusive if you speak out against a group or community that genuinely has a record of harming people or protecting/harboring harmful or skeevy individuals. They might claim you're entitled and want to be babied if you say that you think people should stop doing things that are widely known to cause psychological trauma, or are just generally unhealthy and unproductive ways to treat people. They might accuse you of acting just like or being no different from other individuals and groups known to be abusive, even going so far as to call you the moral abuser. Abusers of all stripes will rarely hesitate to apply DARVO tactics to shift attention and blame away from themselves.

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.

Resist the urge to give into 180 thinking. Many people who realize they've been abused conclude that literally everything their abuser said and did must have been wrong and evil. This is rarely true of any abuser (few people, if anyone, ever manage to be consistently wrong and evil all the time), and abusers of all stripes will weaponize the truth as much as possible. A moral abuser might often point out, for example, that murder is wrong. And they're right. What they're probably actually wrong about is what constitutes murder; EG, claiming that someone who eats a hamburger is on the same level as a serial killer because "meat is murder" and they've eaten hundreds of cows' worth of meat. Ultimately, you have to critically examine everything they told you was right or wrong, not just assume that reality is the opposite of what they said.

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. Literally no one can do that.

Use your own self-check system. If you end up doubting or worrying about yourself or what you're doing, ask yourself:

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.

Get opinions from multiple people who have relevant authority. For example, if you're disabled and an abled activist told you that you weren't doing enough, talk to some disabled activists to find out what they think about the situation. If you're straight and you suspect someone may have called you homophobic in bad faith, ask other non-straight people to find out what they think.

Get opinions from multiple friends outside of this person's group. Ask a few people in different friend groups what they think, and whether they think that this person's claim or argument is justified or not. (Always lean toward trusting those with relevant authority, of course.)

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.)
Allyship does not mean seeing yourself as worthless (Offiste.)
Activism must not be derailed by behaviorism (Offsite.)
How To Deprogram Your Own Mind (Offsite)
AnxietyBC - Self Help (Offsite.)
How To Recognize Bad Creative Mentors
Dealing With Criticism & Negative Reviews

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