Objectification is, above all, the alienation of spirit from itself.
Objectification and dehumanization are what make possible genocide, pedophilia, stalking, rape, torture, racism, war, serial killing and terrorism.
They also make manipulation, exploitation and abuse possible within personal relationships. How can you avoid such a relationship in the future?
Objectification is to see another person as an object. Sometimes only a certain person or group is objectified, based on some difference (religion, race, culture, nationality, disability, beliefs, lifestyle, sex, gender identity, socioeconomic status). This limited objectification is caused by the “us and them” function of our primitive reptilian brain, a structure located deep within the mid-brain that formed long before the cerebral cortex (but was not replaced by it). The reptilian brain perceives any difference with fear and mistrust, and as a threat to identity or survival that must be controlled or eliminated. Our cerebral cortex–the primary location of human thought, including the ability to form ideas and feelings into words–jumps in and creates rationalizations and justifications for these feelings and behaviors.
Dehumanization, which goes hand-in-hand with objectification, is the psychological process of depriving another of their humanity and individuality and demonizing them, making them seem less than human and thus not worthy of humane treatment and not deserving of moral consideration. Objectification and dehumanization lead to oppression, which is the exercise of authority or power in an unjust or cruel manner.
Unfortunately most humans are capable of this deplorable behavior, even if we have normal empathy for others in our own family and social group. This is a significant and ongoing problem–one that you can find innumerable examples of in the news, the upcoming election, in any history book, and perhaps in your own life–but it is not the subject of this blog post, which is about objectification and dehumanization in personal relationships.
A Holocaust memorial
When someone lacks empathy in general, for whatever reason, they will not have empathy even for those closest to them, and they may objectify all people other than themselves. Psychopaths are but one type who see other persons as mere objects, and because of it they consider us to be the same as any other object in their environment: we exist for their use. There is no recognition of us as three-dimensional individuals, and therefore no regard for our feelings, rights, needs, boundaries, well-being or lives. When we are seen as an object, we aren’t considered a separate, whole, real and meaningful person with our own thoughts, feelings and perceptions. We are simply an object with no meaning except to gratify desires.
People are dehumanized in relationships through objectification, invalidation, domination, control, humiliation, ridicule, disrespecting sexual boundaries, and all other forms of emotional, verbal and physical abuse. To be objectified and dehumanized is to be treated without dignity–the innate rights of a human being to be valued, respected, and to receive ethical treatment. Being treated as if we have no human worth lowers our own sense of self-worth. Victims tend to ask themselves what they did to deserve it, or what is wrong with them that would make someone treat them in such a way. In other words, they blame themselves for the abuser’s actions. Objectification and dehumanization says nothing about you or your worth–it is simply the act of a disordered person who lacks empathy.
Most of you reading this know what it’s like to be dehumanized by a supposed partner. How can you avoid having it happen again in the future? A person’s capacity for empathy is the most important factor in their ability to see others as humans and not objects, and in the ability to form emotional connections with others. Empathy is what connects people emotionally. Without empathy there can be no real connection, and thus no real relationship; and it is what makes abuse possible. This means that in our future relationships, the MOST IMPORTANT TRAIT we must look for in a partner is empathy. People who lack empathy can cover it up pretty well in the beginning of a relationship, but if you stay alert it will inevitably show itself. There is a list of examples at the end of this post.
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
(Brené Brown, Sociologist and Author)
One aspect of objectification in a relationship is treating a person as if they are interchangeable with other objects.
Empathy is an awareness of someone else’s thoughts and feelings, mutual understanding, caring, and expression of that care. It is made up of two distinct abilities: cognitive empathy (an awareness of someone else’s thoughts and feelings) and emotional empathy (mutual understanding, caring, and expression of that care). Psychopaths are capable of cognitive empathy, but not emotional empathy. This is what makes them able to manipulate others so well. Combined with their other traits, such as callousness, amorality, and lack of a conscience–the psychopath exhibits profound indifference to the suffering his actions cause others.
Anyone who lacks empathy is capable of objectifying and dehumanizing others; psychopaths aren’t the only ones. Narcissists, autistic people, sociopaths, people affected with psychotic disorders and those with borderline personality disorder can also lack empathy, and there seems to be some epidemic of low empathy in society in general in recent years. If you want to avoid another entanglement with a person low on empathy, psychopaths aren’t the only ones you need to watch out for! But you don’t have to learn how to diagnose all of these conditions; just look for a lack of empathy instead. That’s more than enough and all you need to know.
“At their core, all character-impaired individuals are to some degree empathy deficient, which is what impairs their conscience formation and allows them to do the hurtful things they do.”
(George Simon, PhD, “Empathy and Character Disturbance”)
“Other aspects of objectification in relationships are treating a person like a tool for another person’s own purposes; treating them as if they are owned by, or are a slave to, the other person; treating them as if there is no need for concern for their experiences or feelings; treating them as lacking in autonomy or self-determination; and treating them as lacking in boundary integrity and “as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, or break into.”
Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC, an Asperger/autism spectrum disorder specialist, describes cognitive empathy (also known as Theory of Mind) as “a person’s ability to imagine the interior life of another person. This includes understanding why someone else does something, how someone might feel in a certain circumstance, what might be important to that person; in short, it is the ability to put oneself in the mind of another person and see the world from that person’s point of view.” Without cognitive empathy–which is the core deficit in autism spectrum disorders, such as Aspergers–there can be no emotional empathy. Their partners suffer the same emotional and psychological trauma as those of psychopaths.
“In order to empathize with another person, you have to recognize that he actually exists apart from and without specific reference to you. You must understand that she has a distinct identity and an interior life of her own, with which you might possibly empathize.” Why Empathy Fails, Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., marriage and family therapist, clinical psychologist and author of The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me World
“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.”
(Charles M. Blow)
Emotional reciprocity, love and belonging are essential human needs. We seek relationships for the purpose of mutual fulfillment of these needs. If they are not being met, mental and physical health will suffer. People with little or no empathy can not meet these needs. Without empathy–and with objectification and dehumanization–we experience depression, low self-worth, constant anxiety, fear, shame, ongoing unresolved anger, physical illness, post-traumatic stress, loss of identity, and even mental breakdown and suicidal ideation.
In new relationships, never ignore the signs that empathy is lacking. Take them seriously as the huge red flags they are. Take an especially close look at how he or she behaves when you are most needy: when your insecurities flare up, when you’re ill, or when you’re in the midst of a tough circumstance. This can take time, especially with psychopaths, but a lack of empathy will reveal itself eventually.
“The true measure of a man is not his intelligence or how high he rises in this freak establishment. No, the true measure of a man is this: how quickly can he respond to the needs of others and how much of himself he can give.”
(Philip K. Dick)
Signs of a Lack of Empathy:
Does not respect your boundaries (emotional or physical). When someone doesn’t respect your boundaries, they don’t respect you and they don’t see you as a separate, autonomous individual with your own limits, needs, rights and feelings. This is a red flag that should send you running.
Makes invalidating comments when you share some difficulty or concern: It could be worse/ You shouldn’t feel that way/ Just don’t worry about it/ Stop taking everything so personally/ What about my feelings/ You’re making a big deal out of nothing. Denies your perceptions and emotions as wrong or foolish. Read more about invalidation
Seems to have plenty of empathy for you, but not for others. Watch out–you’re next.
Indifference to the suffering of others.
Sexism and womanizing.
Believes he is always right.
Refusal to acknowledge that you have justification to be upset about something he or she did.
Expects you to fit into his or her schedule, without regard for yours.
Neglecting or ignoring you if you’re sick.
Doesn’t comfort you when you need it.
Feels he knows you better than you know yourself. When you tell him how you feel, he might tell you that’s not really how you feel. This is a sign that he or she does not see you as having a mind of your own. When someone denies your reality and tries to substitute another in its place, head for the nearest exit.
When they say they’re “sorry” for something, they don’t act like they mean it. You do not see purposeful, deliberate efforts on their part to repair damage they may have done and to do better in the future. Instead, it just seems like a couple of empty words spoken to placate you.
Inability to imagine how their words and actions may make you feel.
Cheats, and then blames it on you.
Needs space (more than a day or two) and doesn’t care that it hurts you.
Isn’t interested in finding ways to soothe your worries.
Oogles or flirts with others in front of you, and then accuses you of being smothering, insecure or mistrusting when you ask him about it.
Becomes angry when you cry or get emotional.
Looks at you with a blank face when you cry.
Makes you feel out of control emotionally, and you’ve never felt that way in previous relationships.
You feel he just can’t seem to understand you, no matter how much you explain or defend yourself.
You feel he or she doesn’t know you, even though they’ve had ample opportunity.
You sense a lack of emotional connection.
There is drama and intensity, and when you look beneath it you find a lack of genuine emotional intimacy.
Treats his or your pets badly. For example, he may say he loves his dog, but he lets him run loose, neglects visiting the vet when the dog is sick or injured, gives the dog alcohol, or leaves it in a cage or out in the cold. Actions speak louder than words.
Tells you you’re too needy or too emotional.
Is hurtfully blunt and casually critical, and when you become upset he tells you he is “just being honest.” Honesty without kindness is cruelty.
Talks at length on a topic that clearly bores you, without noticing it.
Doesn’t ask you how your day was or how your doctor’s appointment went.
Forgets your birthday or other important occasions.
Brings up a sensitive topic even after you’ve asked him to stop.
Looks down on people for what he sees as their bad decisions, without taking into account how their life circumstances may have been different than his.
Expects instant forgiveness.
Censors and restricts your emotions.
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