There’s a place where resiliency is stretched so far that we break. 

Most of us are familiar with the frog in the pot story. The frog in the slowly heating up pot of water adapts to the temperature, making it work. Going from chilly cold to comfy warmth, the frog may think, “OK, this is a little outside my usual but it’s sort of like a hot tub. I’m safe here; no predators to worry about. I’ll stay a bit longer.” 

The Frog In The Pot Revisited - A man stands in a kitchen next to a large pot. His hand is on his cheek as if in disbelief and or despair

Over time, the ability to adapt in the face of adversity, resiliency, a quality we assume is a good one, turns into a liability. The frog in the increasingly hot pot, eventually fully concedes to the heat without even realizing it. The deadly environment becomes a weird kind of comfort zone. “Why should I move, even if I could? I’m fine….” 

We know the end of this story. The frog dies.

Adaptation, Resiliency & Healthy Living

Adaptation helps us hone the quality of resiliency, the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficulties. When dealing with stress, resiliency is a key quality to nurture for healthy living, emotional and physical. Yet, like many good things, it can bite you in the butt.

People who live with chronic psychological abuse often find themselves in this very situation. It applies to all kinds of relationships. 

The Domestic Abuser

Whether we’re feeling this way about a co-worker, boss, sibling, parent or partner, the scenario is similar. The abusive partner is often the focus of discussions of psychological abuse because it is the relationship that literally effects us where we live.The domestic abuser has more opportunity and time with us to manipulate and poison our minds against ourselves. Home is where we have the most invested, emotional and financially so we often feel like we have no choice but to adapt.

By adapting to the psychological abuse and living with it, they can believe themselves to be honoring the overdone cultural tradition of “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Instead they’ve diminished themselves to a point where they hardly recognize their former assertive, confident, pre-boiling pot selves. It’s a perverse turn around of what true resilience is. This form of toxic adaptation is what happened to Gollum (see Lord of the Rings), who was once a happy hobbit. Not at all good. 

When we are in a relationship where the abuse is psychological and therefore hard to identify at first, our mind will adapt in the same way the frog in the pot does. We aren’t really talking about water temperature, we’re talking about the level of hostility in the abusive behavior.

The Frog In The Pot, Measuring The Tempature

Here is a rough measure using water temperature as an illustration of how we are being treated.

Cool water: Everything is great! “You’re the best [employee, lover, friend] ever!”

Warm water: Subtle gaslighting occurs, so subtle sometimes you wonder if you’re making it up. “Maybe I did forget that he told me about his plans to meet up at a bar with his friends.”

Hot: Chronic direct dismissals, put downs, name calling, foul language, that does not change no matter how many times you ask it to. “You’re disgusting. How can you be so stupid?”

Boiling: Isolation from our emotional support team, will and autonomy. “I had to consolidate our finances because you aren’t trustworthy.” “Your [friends, parents, co-workers] don’t love you like I do. Stop seeing them.”

How do we wake ourselves up to realize we are boiling to death? When a person is dealing with a situation like this at home it is common that they come to see me when they’re somewhere between Hot and Boiling. They’ve often waited that long because they have tried very hard for various reasons to adapt to their increasingly hostile environment by blaming themselves (they are not responsible for the abuse), believing the abuser will change (they won’t), or that it “isn’t that bad” (it is) because ‘real’ abuse is physical and violent. 

When To Ask For Help

What brought people in to seek help? It could sometimes be a friend or family who points out they could use some help. They may not be sleeping well and recognize symptoms of depression or anxiety that have become so bad that it’s interfering in other areas like parenting or work. Sometimes the abuser themselves do something so outrageous the behavior can no longer be explained away. Putting a second mortgage on a house without discussion, having an affair, turning abusive behavior towards a child can be among such ‘last straws’.

If you see any hint of yourself in this, take heart. You are still capable of jumping out of the pot and reclaiming your life again. Finding a therapist, a good one who listens, will gently guide you but doesn’t tell you what to do, is a great place to start. 

A Little About Dr. Aletta

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