“All the world’s a stage,” is the opening line from a funny As You Like It monologue on the several roles a man typically plays throughout his life. As he goes from one role to another, little seems to depend on his own thoughts; he slips into each role because of his age and what’s expected of him at any given point in life.
What roles are we playing, and have we accepted them without question?
Let’s take this theatrical metaphor of life and use it for relationships that have an abusive dynamic. Whose stage are we on, what role are we playing, and is it hazardous to our sanity and health? Although they’re painful and degrading, we can slip into these roles relatively easily, and stay in them for years – maybe most of our lives.
An Abusive Drama
When someone is abusive towards you, there are generally a couple of things that happen. They try to force you into a reality that they create and that they need for you to accept fully. And they don’t see you as a well-rounded, fleshed-out human being; outside of the role you fulfill for them in the reality they’ve created, you aren’t much of anything.
Step fully into the role you need to play for them, and inhabit it as if it’s your essential self. That’s your job.
So now you’re on their stage. There are claps of thunder and flashes of lightning when they’re in a violent mood. There are props, some of them flimsy and fake and others deadly real. And there’s your role. What part do you play in the drama?
What’s Your Role?
Are you the clown or the hysterical fool, trotted out to be mocked and humiliated? To be kicked in the seat of your pants so that people can laugh and ease their own anxiety?
Are you a force of evil – the witch or omen of bad luck or some other villain that they need to repeatedly subdue?
Maybe you’re the kindly, selfless supporter with no needs of your own. You exist solely to help others on their path and give them comfort as needed.
You may even be a drudge, little more than a prop yourself, existing to perform menial tasks for them and otherwise left to the side and ignored.
Or, the opposite, you may exist to bring glory to them – to shine for them and make them look good.
What are you to them?
Control in an Abusive Drama
To someone behaving abusively, control is critical – they set the stage, write the scripts, enact the scenarios, and define your role. They might hurt you physically or use you sexually. Even if they leave out physical contact, they’ll find ways to deplete and destroy you emotionally. They might gaslight you over years, for instance, or humiliate you regularly (in patterns of emotional maltreatment that last for years). It’s part of a script.
Your emotions in this drama are there for them to elicit and enjoy, or suppress, as needed.
They have various ways of keeping you in place. You may find that you desire their attention and the meaning they give your life with the role they’ve chosen for you.
You may be enticed by promises of future rewards. You may fear their violent reprisals or threat of social ruin should you choose to stop acting your part.
Maybe you have few mental resources to draw on in order to evaluate your situation, in part because you’re too busy side-stepping the trapdoors that suddenly open beneath you or the atmospheric mist that billows into your face when you try to get a good look around you.
You may also be busy with conflicts they’ve pushed you into involving other people on their stage, other actors in masks you can’t trust or properly discern. You may be exhausted and worn down with the demands of your role.
Maybe you’re deathly afraid of what would happen if you were to step away. Would you be able to survive on a stage of your own? Would you be able to stand apart and extend the range of your voice, try out more complex movements, wear various costumes, shape the stories, select the props and scenery you wish to work with, and figure out your own character? Or would you fail? (And if you failed, what then? Would you have the resources to try again?)
Reality in an Abusive Drama
Abusive people will also call on lofty justifications to get you to accept the reality of their stage.
They will call on supposedly immutable principles couched in religious or scientific terms. They will do their utmost to convince you that you are bound to this role by your very essence, and that if you try to change it, you are shameful and unnatural and should be riddled with guilt and embarrassed at the spectacle you’re making of yourself. They might convince you that hundreds of like-minded critics are watching your performance and that you need to meet their expectations or face ruin.
Escaping an Abusive Drama: First Considerations
But here’s the thing – you don’t have to accept their reality. That’s the first step to being free of their control.
The violent storm raging around you; maybe it’s just the rain machine, and you aren’t lost in a storm after all. The huge boulder that seems to be blocking your exit; it’s nothing but a cardboard prop.
I’m not trivializing the threat that abusive people pose. Because they will fight you, sometimes in deadly ways, when you try to step out of your role. They might build a sacrificial altar on their stage and drag you to it.
I’m not trivializing abusive dynamics on a societal level as well, where certain people are forced or tricked into a role of selfless comforters, demons, or scapegoats that get sorrow, guilt, fear, disgust and anger dumped on them. (Ideology can facilitate this process. One of the comforts an ideology may provide is that it can take the many threats in the world and condense them, so that one person or perceived type of person becomes the source of all that’s wrong in the world; to restore rightness to the world, they will need to have their destruction enacted.)
So no, I’m not trivializing the realness of the threat. Just pointing out something that many people caught up in abusive dynamics can fail to see when they’re in the middle of it: it doesn’t have to be real – this role you play, this stage you’re on. Your role doesn’t need to be an immutable truth about you or your inescapable fate.
How do you find greater freedom? That depends on the situation and on your resources.
Maybe you can just walk off whatever stage you’re on and don’t want to be on.
Maybe you need to make a quick run for an exit or even to slip into one of the trapdoors that opened under your feet; let yourself fall, hopefully survive, and then crawl for a while out of sight until you feel ready to emerge again.
You may need to resort to playing tricks or sabotaging the drama. Maybe you can fashion a mannequin that looks like you, prop it up on the stage wearing your usual costume, and go off on your own (your abuser may not even notice the difference).
Maybe you can mock, inwardly or openly, the lines of overwrought dialogue you’re being forced to recite. Or, in some cases, you can simply refuse to act the part. You can refuse to display an emotion or speak an expected line, and keep stubbornly refusing.
Your encounters with an abusive person may have lasted for years, since early childhood perhaps; or they may have a brief duration – a stranger you cross paths with online or out in the world who means you harm and tries to get you to play a suffocating role for a while on their turf.
How you act to free yourself, structure your own character and shape your own roles will be affected by the particular circumstances surrounding you at any given time – cultural, economic and personal.
Learning to understand the unhealthy role (or roles) you’ve been playing is difficult. It can be extremely frightening and exhausting to assess the situation and make efforts to expand or reshape your role, step out of it, destroy what holds you in place, or sidestep abusive people as they chase after you with constricting costumes they desperately want you to try on (and never take off).
Dangerous missteps are very real and likely possibilities. How would you survive a misstep? Would you go back to your former role, which – in its own way – offers a comforting familiarity?
Becoming freer also requires discernment. For example, you may have stepped into a role you dislike within the bounds of a healthier relationship. The difference is, in a healthier relationship, you will be able to discuss your problems with the other person and make adjustments accordingly. People who behave abusively towards you cannot be depended on to change or to work sincerely with you, though they might offer you a false hope that you will have more power one day or some reward (maybe they’ll give you extra lines in the next installment of their drama!) if only you please them more, become perfect in their eyes. They may be so fully convinced of their own rightness or sincerity that they convince you too.
It’s difficult to figure out your character, the roles you’re playing, and why; it’s a lifelong work. Ask yourself what your own stage would look like, and who you would invite onto it (and how you would treat them). Who are you, what are you capable of, and – if you desire to change – how much are you able or willing to?