Learning to see red flags
A survivor emailed me recently with a story of how she was approached by a man in her new church. She is in the process of divorcing her abusive husband and has moved to a new church (same old story: the church she had been attending with her husband took the husband’s side and condemned her). She recounted to me how this guy in her new church had been talking to her and emailing her. I explained to her all the red flags in his behavior (and her emotions) that signified the guy was a creep. She then told me that she had only noticed one red flag, whereas I had seen about eight red flags. She was astonished how many red flags I’d picked up compared to her, and she asked me “How did you learn to pick up the red flags?” Here is how I have learned to pick up red flags that a person may be an abuser / a boundary violator / creepy/ dangerous.
1. Paying good attention to my gut feelings when I feel creeped out or have the sense that “something doesn’t feel right here and I’m not comfortable!”
2. VALIDATING those feelings by telling myself that the feelings give me useful information. Those gut feelings are worth noticing and paying attention to.
3. Giving myself permission (even instruction!) to let those feelings guide my actions. Even if I can’t yet figure out what the person’s red flag behaviors have been, I permit myself to distrust a person just on the basis of my gut feelings. This is huge. It means I don’t have to have intellectually discerned what the red flag behaviors are, all I need is to note my gut feelings, and when my gut sends out a ‘creep alert’ feeling, I extend my antennae to the full, watching for more information, more signs that may indicate what is going on. And I start guarding myself and setting up firm boundaries against that person. There is nothing rude about guarding oneself, it is just a sensible precaution until more information comes in.
4. Permitting myself to distrust on the basis of my gut feelings alone frees up space in my brain so I can pay more attention to what actual things the person did that led me to have that gut reaction.
5. Giving myself permission to be blunt and firm with people who I distrust: “That doesn’t feel right to me / I’m not comfortable with that / Please don’t say that! / Leave me alone / Ouch! / Stop it ! / Cut it out! / Get lost! / etc.
7. I remain open to the possibility that my gut reaction may be due to having been triggered about something from my past, but that does not mean my feelings are less significant or should be discounted. Having given myself validation for my feelings (no feelings are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, they just are) I can reflect on my feelings in due course and assess how much they have arisen from triggers and how much they have arisen because the person I’m with is actually violating my boundaries or behaving in a sinister fashion.
Are You Dating An Abuser? is an article at Psychology Today. Written for a general (non-Christian) audience it contains some abuser-language that a few of our readers may find offensive, but I think it has some worthwhile advice.