art by Lise Winne, quote by Robert Davis, LCSW
If you are in a dysfunctional or toxic relationship, you will not be able to speak about a huge range of subjects, even if they are true and are not abusive. In addition, you will be expected to go along with lies. What you say will not be heard and it will not be respected. Furthermore, when you speak about anything they don't like, you risk being abused, rejected, betrayed and/or raged at from your abuser. You are lectured to, rather than the conversation being about understanding or enlightenment about different perspectives.
According to Wikipedia "Walking on Eggshells" means:
1. (idiomatic) To be overly careful in dealing with a person or situation because they get angry or offended very easily; to try very hard not to upset someone or something.
2. (idiomatic) To be careful and sensitive, in handling very sensitive matters.
Abuse always seems to be accompanied by the "walking on eggshells" phenomenon.
Abuse wouldn't be abuse without victims being expected to walk on eggshells and being afraid that their abusers will strike against them at any moment.
Who among us survivors hasn't gone through "punishments" because we said something the abuser did not like, or because we failed to say something, or because we grimaced or rolled our eyes in such a way that our abusers felt enraged?
To top it all off, most of us weren't even trying to hurt them or enrage them, and so we find ourselves confused ("Why is this happening? Why are my words being interpreted so darkly?" and so on). We find we are "walking on eggshells" most of the time when we are around them -- in order to keep the peace.
What is really going on in abusive situations where you are required to walk on eggshells is that the abuser wants to try to create peace and harmony in their lives, for themselves, at the expense of you. Some of the phrases abusers use are: "Can't I have just a little peace already?", "Why do you create so much drama? I just want peace!", "I want peace in my life, but you are the impediment to that." Then when you are deemed to ruin their sense of peace and tranquility, they punish you for it (whether that be verbal abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse or financial abuse).
Requiring you to walk on eggshells around their highly sensitive feelings and explosive natures is also about trying to control you, and in this case it is about trying to control how you view them and how you talk to them. If you listen to them carefully, they will be giving you lectures and instructions on what is acceptable to them in terms of your speech. Most victims of abuse soon find out that most subjects of conversation become slowly and methodically taken away. The only subjects left seem to be flattery of them, telling them that they are always right, promoting the abuser, making excuses for the abuser and doing/saying what the abuser wants and expects. It is the main way that abusers get other people to give into them. Yes, they are game-players who feel that they must always and unequivocally win, and in the end, dominate.
It is, at its core, an arm-twisting tactic: "Only speak in the way I want you to speak or you will be punished". They provide the code of conduct that you are to perform for them (and age is not a limit: they talk down to grown-ups as much as they talk down to little children). They expect you to follow their code of conduct when it comes to relating to them, but they almost never use their own code of conduct themselves (abuse is, after all, an obvious anti-code of conduct, plus most abusers are hypocrites).
So, in this way, what they are doing is like stealing. Your need for peace and contentment is expected to be totally sacrificed for their need of peace and contentment.
Believe it or not, abusers enjoy "their subjects" walking on eggshells. Yes, most of them view themselves as kings and queens who will get things done if they just shout down at people enough. If their subject is recalcitrant, they will shut them out instead. They use intimidation, threats, temper tantrums, maneuvers, betrayal, emotional blackmail, back-stabbing and triangulation to get people to capitulate to them in terms of enforcing "the walking on eggshells expectations".
Again, this demand that you "must walk on eggshells for me and be hyper-sensitive to any hint of criticizing me, and any other easily bruised feelings I may have -- or else" is a quality peculiar to abusers (who overwhelmingly tend to have Cluster B personality disorders: Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder -- see my post on what abuse is and who it is perpetrated by).
Walking on eggshells feels a little like dancing on hot coals (trying to keep your feet up in the air enough so that the coals don't burn you). The abuser is the one who keeps shoveling more and more hot coals for you to dance on.
The hot coals represent what you can't talk about without getting burned, and the number of hot coals increases over time.
This serves several purposes: To make sure you are a 100 percent loyal subject/servant, to test how much rage and taking away of your freedom of speech that you will endure just to be in a relationship with them, and to conveniently find a reason, any reason, to escalate abuse.
Insisting that others walk on eggshells is premeditated, and therefor evil. It is just as malevolent as gaslighting, and is usually used in tandem with gaslighting. It is insidiously cruel, and for many victims, the rage and ensuing abuse they endure from it is initially shocking and confusing. Over time, most victims find there is no room in their mutual relationship with the perpetrator for their own views, perspectives, truths and experiences. It whittles away at their person-hood, their very presence in the relationship.
Over time, it can and does cause PTSD too.
What are some instances of walking on eggshells in abusive situations? I have three to show you. One features a husband and wife, the next features a mother and daughter, and the last features a family scapegoating one child.
A man tells his wife that he will be home at 5:00. He comes home at 6:00 instead. The following conversation ensues between husband and wife:
wife: I thought you were coming home at 5:00. What happened?
husband: I never said that! I said I'd be home at around 5:00. 6:00 is around 5:00 if you hadn't noticed.
wife: Well, to me, an hour later is not around 5:00.
husband: Are you going to harangue me about the time? What's the matter with you? Do you have so much to do that I can't be an hour late? You really are trying to drive me nuts with this, aren't you? (getting testy): You're really trying to drive me over the edge. I'm warning you: you are provoking me!
wife: How did we get to the point of me trying to provoke you? I was just defining it, that's all ---
husband: (interrupting): You know what you think of yourself as? My boss! You think you can boss me around you little twerp! You think you can snap your fingers and say "5:00" and that I'll come running! But let me set you straight just in case you think you can pull that BS on me!
wife: What?! Now you're really making up things to --
husband: (interrupting): Oh, so now you're going to call me crazy!? Just for that I'm not going to tell you when I'm coming home! I'll never tell you again, in fact! How do you like them apples?!
wife: How did we get to defining what late or around 5:00 means, to all of this? Please stop this!
husband: Forget it! You aren't going to have a husband at 5:00 or 6:00 or at any time! You've pushed me over the edge with this, and with your insanity! And I swear to God, if you continue with this, I'm gonna smack you in the jaw! Is that what you want? A nice big bruise to your jaw?
wife: Please stop this! (runs over to husband to hug him, but he throws her on the floor).
husband: Look at you! You look pathetic! I used to think you were attractive, but no matter what you say, it is ALL ugly! It is ALL ugly little lies that you like to spread about me! Everything you say is one big fat lie, you evil little bitch! Don't ever tell me what I said again, do you hear me? I tell you what I said, and you believe it! And I'm not punching some clock at home!
wife: (cries on the floor)
husband: Next you're going to say why am I so mean to you? Right? Like it's my fault that you interpreted it as 5:00! Right, bitch? Right, bitch? Get up off the floor, and face the music, bitch! (gives her a little push with his foot)
wife: I suppose I should have said nothing.
husband: No, what you say is: "You came home when you said you'd come home: at around 5:00. I'm so thankful that you're home, sweetie." But no, you're too uppity for that, you ungrateful bitch! You can't appreciate someone who comes home to you, at any hour, so I'm leaving for the night.
wife: So you want me to walk on eggshells and be careful of every little thing I say?
husband: Just think about it: if you hadn't said what you said, we would be having dinner together, but because you were a bitch, and ungrateful, I'm going out, and I'm going to think about whether I'm ever going to come back! And I'll also consider how much money of mine you'll deserve in a divorce. Not much, I'm afraid. You can stay here all night, sniveling on the floor, and think about what you have done, because that is what you deserve! (kicks her in the back)
Notice how he escalates it all. Almost all abuse escalates whether it is over a matter of minutes or over a matter of many years.
The wife in this situation really cannot say much of anything without risking enraging her husband, so many women in these situations go silent.
Besides the wife having to walk on eggshells, notice:
* the blame-shifting and making it seem that she brought on the abuse by talking about the time
* the verbal abuse ("bitch", "evil little bitch", "little twerp", )
* expecting perfectionism in words and deeds
* the threats
* the silent treatment (walking away)
* telling her what she thinks and feels and what her plans are (this is what he makes up about her, and usually it is mostly a matter of the abuser projecting)
* defining her in a vilifying way (calling her evil, perceiving her as evil)
* notice how he treats her like a child who needs to be punished
* notice the interrupting
* notice the lectures and imperious tone
* notice the common phrase that most abusers use: ungrateful
* notice the physical abuse: throwing her on the floor, taunting her with his foot, kicking her on his way out.
* notice the financial abuse (threats about money)
* notice the gaslighting (making it seem that she is at fault for "provoking him": the "she made me do it" excuses that abusers are famous for, telling her that she is insane)* and last, but not least, notice the lack of empathy (what most abusers are famous for)
Here is one between a mother and daughter. These are actual screen shots of phone texting, but I have blocked out names in Photoshop. The daughter is telling her mother about a party for her toddler and telling her mother she is invited. However, the mother feels she is in competition with her mother-in-law (narcs are usually very competitive jealous people where they feel they deserve to come first, or have the right to decide who is invited and who is not):
It is amazing how an innocent invite can turn into this, isn't it? In order to make her daughter feel guilty, the mother refuses to go. This is very, very common narcissistic mother behavior, by the way. The daughter came to the forums asking us for advice. It seems very clear to most of us that however the daughter responds, it may be "the wrong thing" in the mother's eyes (narcs tend to be a Princess and the Pea, and get enraged over just about anything that is said or not said). What is more, they have been known to try to make their daughters believe they are responsible for causing this big mother-daughter rift.
The mother may give the daughter the silent treatment over this episode, and is giving her a veiled threat of it. The mother may also withdraw help, withdraw love, tell her daughter to "get everything you need from your mother-in-law. I'm done!" The mother may insinuate that she will only stop the silent treatment when her mother-in-law is out of the picture (permanently dis-invited). This is all too familiar to survivors of child abuse.
This text and story is also a good example of perfection in abusive relationships and erroneous blaming. It is also an isolation tactic (trying to isolate her daughter from having a relationship with her mother-in-law). All of these can be categorized as abuse.
A girl who is 11 (Angela) comes home from school and her brother who is 10 (Craig), throws a bunch of Styrofoam peanuts over her head as she walk through the door. He laughs at her surprise. She tries not to react and quickly heads outdoors, but is followed by him.
Craig: I surprised you, didn't I? Admit it. (he laughs and points his finger at Angela, but she doesn't react)
Craig: Oh, so you are going to ignore me and pretend that it didn't happen? Just for that, I'll tell Mom that you did it! And we know how Mom is: she'll take my side! And you know it! (laughs out loud, pointing his head to the sky and doing a little dance)
He knows he is getting to Angela, because her shoulders hunch and she looks depressed.
Craig: Mom knows how crazy you are because she says it all of the time! (he walks up to Angela and tries to trip her)
Angela: Stop it, you little brat!
Craig: Calling me a little brat now, are you? Well, just for that, here's this! (he runs towards her and punches her hard in the stomach. She doubles over and falls to the ground, lying there for awhile).
Mother: What is going on here? You both need to come back to the house. (Craig runs up to the house, but Angela is hurt so she walks slowly, clutching her stomach).
Mother: Oh, so much drama. Why are you holding your stomach?
Angela (upon approaching the door): You know why. You had to have seen it. He punched me in the gut.
Mother: I didn't see any such thing.
Craig: Mom, she punched me in the gut, so now she is pretending that I punched her in the gut. You know how she is.
Angela: No, Mom, he's lying.
Mother: Angela, go to your room!
Angela: Why am I always the one who is punished?
Mother: Because you're older and should know better.
(Angela heads off to her room and then the mother visits her there eventually)
Mother: Okay, so you punched him in the gut, and left those peanuts all over the floor. First you are going to clean them up and then next you are going to apologize to your brother.
Angela: But Mom, I didn't do it! I swear I didn't do it! Why won't you believe me? Didn't you see any of it?
Mother: No, I didn't. But I know who you are. Don't think you can fool me!
Angela: But Mom!! (she starts to cry and her mother doesn't comfort her).
Mother: You know what irritates me? All of this crying! You cry over everything! As if I'm this terrible, terrible mother! Well, I don't buy it! You want something to really cry about? (takes a toy off of Angela's shelf and smashes it).
Angela: (screams as if she has lost a long lost friend -- focuses her attention on the damage to the toy)
Mother: You know what you're going to do? You are going to clean up all of those peanuts, and you are going to put them in a trash bag, and put the trash bag in the garbage can, and you are definitely going to apologize to your brother. Then you are going to go right to your room every time you return home. This will be your punishment for a week. This is so you will stop making trouble with your brother and so that you will have time to think about how you are acting. Let's get going."
Angela: I want my father!
Mother: Your father is not going to rescue you! (laughs)
Tim, another sibling comes into the room. He is usually very silent, almost monotone, and unmoved by the struggle between mother and daughter. He asks if he can have a glass of milk, and the mother gives permission and he leaves. The mother nudges Angela, and Angela partially fights back by sprawling on the floor so she is like a dead weight.
Mother: I'm warning you! I'm not going to drag you, but I WILL kick you if you proceed with this, so make up your mind about what you are going to do!
Angela gets up and puts the peanuts in a bag, takes them to the garbage can, and whispers "I'm sorry" to Craig.
Mother: What's that now? I didn't hear it!
Angela: Sorry! But I still didn't do it!
Craig: Look, Mom, how she tries to get away with it! Look at how much of a liar she is! She even looks evil!
Angela: I'm angry because I didn't do it!
Mother: Yes, you did! (walks to the doorway and shouts down the hallway). Tim, come up here!
Tim: (he shows up in the bedroom) What do you want?
Mother: Do you see how she is acting? This is what I don't want! If either one of you act like this, this is what will happen. You will be sent to your room and you will stay there. Do you both hear me?
Tim: Yea, I know. She's always in trouble.
Craig: Not just in trouble, she's horrible!
Mother: Okay, that's enough, Craig. You can leave now. I want you to hit the books.
Craig: Oh, of course! Thanks, Mom! I was just planning on it! (gives Angela a little knowing smile, runs down the hall with enthusiasm with Tim following)
Mother: You see, if you acted more like him, then we'd get along a lot better too. This isn't doing you any good at all, but I suppose you'll have to learn about it in time.
Angela: (rolls her eyes)
Mother: Don't you dare roll your eyes at me! You need to be quiet and contemplate what you've done! It's a wonder I haven't smacked you silly for that look! You are lucky I have a cool head and that I'm smart! If I wasn't educated on child rearing, you would be so bludgeoned right now! So count yourself lucky! (shouting): But, you will get to your books now!
Angela: Mom, I just want to say (looks frightened) ... never mind.
Mother: Never mind is right! Get to the books!
Hours later the father comes home.
Father: (talking to wife): Why is Angela in her room again?
Mother: She misbehaves. I try and try and try, and it is exhausting, but she just won't listen. She insists on starting trouble, so she is paying the consequences yet again!
Father: I don't like it that she's in her room again. I just don't see where you are having so many problems with her. I just never see it.
Mother: That's because you are away. Believe me, she starts it with everyone around here.
Father: Well, I don't like it that she's in her room all of the time. I'll take care of this situation now that I'm home.
Mother: That's the problem with you. You always undermine me!
This is absolutely terrible parenting, by the way. It is also typical of toxic abusive families. It is what happens in scapegoating.
Angela would be the one who is blamed and punished for the transgressions of her brother and her mother. Angela has no voice, as well as no power to influence the outcome, so her victimization goes unnoticed by the whole family. Only her father seems to treat her with some consideration, though he is caught in the matrix of the family dynamic the mother is insisting on, and is trying to get him to adopt via persuasion.
This is also not typical parenting. It is exclusive to parents who are addicts, Borderline, Narcissistic or Sociopathic. Favoritism among children is abusive because over half of families who practice scapegoating and favoritism end up in this way. The golden child in this situation becomes duplicitous, is allowed to be an authority on the truth, while the scapegoat is not. He is also a bully, while the scapegoat is continually silenced, gang-bullied and expected to endure it all (see my post on favoritism in the family).
If Child Protective Services never catches on, this sibling and parenting dynamic can, and does, continue throughout adulthood, or until the parent dies.
In terms of walking on eggshells, the scapegoat is heavily, heavily burdened with it. The other children aren't, so they never see the perspective of the scapegoat, and many of them don't care to. They go along with the perception of the parent that the scapegoat is a trouble-maker. Scapegoats really aren't considered at all in the family unit (they can easily be forgotten, even, especially if they have gone quiet). They are barely regarded as people with feelings, even, they are so vilified. Many scapegoats give up on talking about their victimization because it does no good within the family unit, and in fact, it is made known fairly early on that talking about it is a detriment in terms of escalating more "punishments". They grow up feeling that they are flawed, that their looks are flawed (from hearing too many times: "I should smack you silly for that look!" or "You need to be punished for that look!" or "Look at her! She's horrible!" or "She even looks evil!"). In these situations, most children understand that how the child acts towards the mother becomes more important than how the mother acts towards the child.
Many scapegoats are extremely pressured to flatter, or to at least to talk well of their abusive parent, even with this dynamic going on!
For this reason, many scapegoats find the family situation unbearable. Suicide rates and addiction rates are high for scapegoats. Adult scapegoats are also often treated as pariah by their offending parent (dis-invited to special family events, ignored, taunted, goaded, lectured to constantly, expected to be a Cinderella, insulted, left out, and so on). The family is also brainwashed to see them as hopelessly recalcitrant.
Tim, the sibling who doesn't talk much, most resembles "The Lost Child" in family systems theory. More on the lost child in another post.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO ABOUT THIS SITUATION?
So what should you do: walk on eggshells or not walk on eggshells? And if you don't try as hard as possible not to be ingratiating, how bad will the punishment be?
My answer to that is: only you can decide which way to go with this. My advice: "safety first" and to contact a domestic violence counselor.
Remember that abuse escalates (gets worse over time, and can sometimes be life threatening no matter what you do or don't do), so most victims choose to get out, whether sooner or later. Abuser's lack of empathy also tends to get worse over time. The relationship between you is likely to be only about the abuser, their perspectives, their relationships, their deeds, their illnesses, their accidents and their agendas. Yours will most likely take a back seat or diminish altogether, to the point where you may feel you are non-existent to this person. It is an insecure place to be. In addition, they are likely to expect that only they will matter to you too, that you will sacrifice yourself for them. You become, what is termed as "voiceless" and slave-like. Abusers also tend to be much more jealous than the rest of the population, and intensely jealous people tend to intentionally hurt other people (a lot of them indulge in revenge fantasies and strategizing).
You will have to determine whether you can take any more of it, and if not, how to get out of it. Again, contacting a domestic violence center can help in terms of giving you options.
Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder -- a Psych Central article by the same previous authors
Helping Clients Move Through Partner Emotional Abuse -- by Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd
WALKING ON EGGSHELLS EMOTIONAL ABUSE AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE -- from the Australian site, Violence Hurts
Walking on Eggshells -- a personal story from the blog, The Narcissist's Wife
Walking on Eggshells -- another personal story from a survivor of Narcissistic abuse
8 Reasons Arguments Escalate -- by Aaron Karmin (for Psych Central)