The word “father” doesn’t mean much to me as my memories of my abusive father are filled with deception, distrust and disdain. For many years, I tried to figure out when he would flip. As a child, I became hyper-vigilant watching his every move, breath, facial expression and gesture. I watched that man’s “tells” in the hopes of getting out of dodge. By watching his body language patterns, I didn’t realize that I was training myself as a future behavioral analyst, and as a body language and deception detection expert.
As much as his abuse made me vulnerable and fearful, it also turned me into a behavior detective looking for clues of his explosive demeanor to keep myself safe. Here are three lessons about deception and body language I learned from my abusive father.
1) Watch people’s reactions in different situations. I used to watch my father in all kinds of situations so I could learn his triggers. I watched how he spoke to other people, how he handled frustration with others and with himself, and how his body tensed when he got angry and then furious. The more accurate I was in reading him, the quicker I could get out of his way. If I had nowhere to run then I became silent and looked down, hoping to disappear.
2) Focus on the voice. I listened for changes in my father’s breathing rate, speed in which he spoke and the intensity of his voice. I was good at noticing the subtle changes in his voice that were a precursor to his fury.
3) Look for behaviors that undermine words. I guess it’s no surprise that I didn’t trust my father. Many times, he tricked me when he said, “You’re not in trouble.” Whenever I believed him, he beat me. Whenever his body tensed and his fingers twitched in a certain way, I learned not to believe any nice words that came out of his mouth. Discrepancies between people’s words and behaviors usually indicate there’s something brewing underneath the surface. Your job is to figure out the reason for the discrepancy so you don’t get scorched.
In the midst of all the pain, I was able to salvage myself by learning which behaviors were precursors to his violent outbursts. I’d like to say that I was successful in dodging him, but I can’t. He still outmaneuvered me. However, I can say that my eagle eye helped prepare me for the blows that soon found their mark. Knowing what to expect brought a crazy sense of calm.