The Subtle Abuser

Abominable, morally depraved abusers are easy to spot and always remembered. People such as Leona Helmsley (The Queen of Mean), Starlet Joan Crawford (Mommie Dearest), knighted BBC notable Jimmy Seville, brutal Haitian dictator ‘Papa Doc,’ sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein, and Tele-evangelist Jim Bakker, whose empire fell from Grace due to sex scandals, addiction, fraud and theft of ministry funds, are but a few miscreants who arouse immediate disdain. Then, of course, there’s the infamous First Lady Imelda Marcos, who couldn’t turn down a pair of shoes while 40% of the Filipino people walked around barefoot, barely surviving on less than $2/day.

While these folks are, without a doubt, irrefutably obscene, regrettably, they are not scarce. It’s common knowledge that the world is rife with shameless psychopaths in esteemed positions. Yet what is not so recognized are benign abusers who don’t destroy nations, pillage spiritual followers, rape and psychologically abuse children, evade taxes, and viciously exploit labor. Rather, I’m referring to those polished, seemingly well-meaning, affable victimizers who convincingly feign baffled innocence at any insinuation of wrongdoing. They seem contrite, gentle, altruistic even.

A case in point is a therapy client I’ve worked with for many years. Her husband, a beloved mild-mannered doctor who spitefully withholds any form of affection and appreciation, rebuffs purposeful communication and mutters so softly that his wife can’t hear him. When she asks him to speak up he accuses her of having a hearing problem.

Not surprisingly, she comes off as a relentlessly unsatisfied, difficult nag. Unfortunately, a naive couples therapist, who concurred with this twisted version of her character, refused to believe that the husband deliberately concealed his egregious motives and behavior in sessions. Instead, she denounced the wife as a character-disordered abuser.

Although this misconstrued assignment of blame harmed my client, it is more the rule than the exception. Indeed, when it is a therapist who enables, mitigates, or justifies abuse, the victim’s instinctual awareness of wrongdoing is not only denied; it is reframed as intolerant, an exaggeration, and ultimately their fault. For those who are too vulnerable, traumatized, and confused to ‘run for the hills’ from these stilted therapeutic interventions, a cycle of shame and subjugation is set in motion. In short, abuse is enabled.

Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon for victims of what is known as ambient abuse to be characterized as too sensitive, paranoid, or disturbed. After all, to the world outside the relationship, the abuser is generous and well-received, reputable and kind, while the pummeled target typically presents as untethered and delusional.

Ambient abuse is mystifying and amorphous and hence difficult to identify and diagnose, thus making it all the more perfidious and damaging.

The ambient abuser, highly adept at virtue signaling and grandstanding, presents as exceptional and magnanimous. By fostering a dependency in which it is implied that they possess great insight which will assist the targeted victim in their growth and well-being, a power differential is ensured. Through wielding altruism and morality, the insidious yet subtle ploy of conspicuous ‘goodness’ and superiority conceals the underlying motive to gain the upper hand.

Their appearance of benevolence, honesty, and generosity is seductive and fosters trust while solidifying control. They pontificate only wanting the best for the target. Disparagement and derision are cloaked as well-intentioned constructive criticism. This strategy disorients the chosen mark and assists in ensuring the necessary leverage needed to ‘manage’ the target and diminish their self-worth.

When conflict emerges, it’s an opportunity for the ambient abuser to deny wrongdoing and assign responsibility for alleged infractions to the target. The seemingly well-intentioned ambient abuser may ‘selflessly’ point out how the flaws and shortcomings of the target are responsible for instigating disputes.

Any misunderstandings, backlash, or questioning of the abuser’s behavior are attributed to the victim’s capricious temperament and instability. In fact, the abuser may co-opt the victim’s complaints as an opportunity to glean pity and sympathy. By depicting themself as a recipient of unfounded inflammatory assaults, the target is further discredited, and victimization is weaponized.

It might seem obvious to the average person that ‘goodness’ is merely an act when a seemingly kind, loving person lapses into episodic cruelty. However, it’s important to note that the more dignified and well-meaning the abuser seems, the more nefarious agendas remain obscured and hidden. Those who appear to be the antithesis of the more commonly recognized overtly grandiose, arrogant, and willful narcissistic abuser can easily pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.

Influential proclamations of virtue coupled with a false image of benevolence are a shield and a weapon for stealth abusers who deliberately intertwine nuanced psychological manipulation with intermittent gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a term that describes false information manufactured and deliberately presented to the victim so as to make them doubt their memory and perceptions. This toxic array of tactics ignites cognitive dissonance in the targeted person on the receiving end.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger theorized that when incongruous (dissonant) cognitions give rise to psychological distress, reducing discomfort may result from simply nullifying that which causes conflict. Limiting the intrusion of new information or canceling out thoughts that counter pre-existing beliefs in order to return to a state of internal equilibrium is an effective (albeit detrimental) strategy.

Furthermore, as psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner explained a pattern of intermittent reinforcement amid unpleasant consequences establishes unpredictability and confusion. Accordingly, since we are inclined to reject that which generates uncertainty and threatens our worldview when unsettling contradictions occur, a victim of systemic abuse will simply deny that which causes distress and choose the attitude or belief that assuages anxiety and guarantees a modicum of illusory stability.

Abusers capitalize on these propensities as they establish the foundation of a trauma bond.

Motivated by an insatiable quest for power, superiority, and adulation, the deep-seated shame, insecurities, and self-absorption of the stealth ambient abuser takes on a form unique to their charitable presentation. This form can express itself as pathological altruismcommunal narcissism, and spiritual materialism. Hence, this sort of abuser often infiltrates the healing professions, activism circles, and religious and spiritual organizations. They can be pillars of maternalism or charismatic cult leaders.

Regardless of the guise, it is up to all of us to grasp that an upstanding altruist touting progressive justice and enlightenment can be the very same person that virtue signals, gaslights, grandstands, and carries out ruthless character assassinations and smear campaigns.

Accepting that malignant agendas are often cloaked in philanthropy and altruism is a critical step toward expanding one’s appreciation of morality and ethics that are rooted in sincerity. Most importantly, it is a foolproof way of detecting the nuanced brutality of the subtle, ambient abuser.



Thank you, Sheri, for this intuitive article.


Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW is a NYC psychotherapist, freelance writer/author, and an interfaith minister in private practice specializing in the treatment of complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome, and addictive disorders. Learn more about Sheri at

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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