Things have been so busy in my practice the last 2 months. I feel humbled that others trust me with their mental health and recovery. I am in awe of their courage in the face of suffering. The bravery of my clients to reach out and acknowledge their struggles. Their ability to keep going in spite of pain, loneliness, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and abuse. The hope, no matter how small it feels, that things can be different, better. It’s a stark reminder of where we all start in our recovery after narcissistic abuse. I am glad I can walk with others and perhaps provide a hopeful example for life on the other side.
One major challenge is the struggle to make sense of things their abuser said. I think there is a part of us that wants to believe that someone we love would never say things that are intentionally hurtful, manipulative, controlling, or otherwise damaging to us. We want to understand why our loved one said the things they said. We want all of the words forced upon us to somehow make sense. In the beginning, we believe that what was said and what happened was our fault.
Where Does the Badness Live
This is similar to what happens with abused/neglected children when they are young. Children will innately find fault within themselves to explain what is happening with their parents. In part because to believe the person who is responsible for your survival is bad/evil is untenable for children. Kids need to believe the “bad” resides within them. Because if the bad is within them they can somehow manage or control it. If the bad lives in the parents, then all hope is lost. You cannot fear someone and have them responsible for your survival all at the same time.
This is a survival skill that helps people endure abusive situations. It also takes adults in abusive relationships time to make sense of what is happening. It takes time to see that things aren’t all their fault. That they didn’t/don’t deserve what happened. That they made mistakes and did things they aren’t proud of because they are human. And that the abuser is responsible for their actions.
One of the first things my clients articulate is the struggle to reconcile the mixed messages from their abuser. For example, an abuser might tell you, “You’re crazy. I’m only telling you this to help you. You need to talk to a doctor and get on medication. No one but me will ever put up with you this way.” In the moment this seems like love and care from a partner/parent. What the mind wants to see is, “they love me and are telling me this to help me.” I also may be feeling lucky they put up with someone as broken as I am.
As you are reading this you might be thinking, “how could anyone fall for that crap?” Remember though these conversations happen in a climate of isolation, constant criticism, abuse, angry outbursts, etc. It is next to impossible to think about interactions like this clearly until you are out of the situation.
What is most likely happening in an interaction like the one above is that the abuser is trying to convince their partner/child that they are so broken that no one else would put up with them. That they are so lucky to have someone in their life that tells them the brutal “truth.” That the abuser knows them better than they know themselves. The overarching purpose of a conversation such as this is to manipulate, control, and keep the victim dependent on the abuser. One of the hardest things for people early in recovery from abuse is to believe that what their abuser said about them might not be true.
There is power in understanding the motivations of a narcissist and using that information to decode the real purpose behind hurtful statements. Let me give you an example from my experience. An abuser will most often go after the part of you that you value the most because they recognize the vulnerability and your willingness to defend yourself.
For example, I value being a mother, I always tried to be the best mom I could. Was I perfect? Goodness no, but I did my best. When things got heated and my abuser needed a diversion, he would target me as a mother. Until I understood this, I repeatedly defended myself instead of focusing on the issue at hand. Once I understood what was happening, I could stay focused on the issue.
Let me be clear, people with narcissism will use statements like these to divert from an issue and put their victim in the position to defend, justify, or clarify rather than focusing attention on the primary problem. This is not an exhaustive list.
- “I can’t do anything right.” (They don’t believe they did anything wrong, but they want you to feel bad for them and tell them what they did was okay. This distracts from whatever mistake they made.)
- “You don’t love me.” (Is to distract and make you justify why you love them rather than hold them accountable for an action or issue.
- “I’ll just go kill myself.” (They want you to rescue them and distract you from an issue. Most people will struggle to stick to an issue if someone is threatening suicide. I am not minimizing threats of suicide. When you see patterns of threat from anyone, seek help.
- “You are such a…bad mother/father, horrible person, terrible wife/husband, etc. (This is to get you to defend yourself rather than focus on an issue.
- “You are the crazy one, the abusive one, etc.” (These discredit you in your own mind. You then put energy into defending why you aren’t those things. If you are seriously questioning if you are a narcissist, know that you most likely are not. People with narcissism never entertain the idea that they are. It doesn’t enter their mind.)
- “No one will ever believe you.” (They want you isolated and too scared to risk telling anyone about the abuse. If you do tell someone and they don’t believe you, tell someone else.)
- “What about the time you did…” (Bringing up something from the past that you did wrong and may or may not have admitted responsibility for shifts the attention from their actions to yours.)
What is the Primary Issue?
The best thing you can do if you feel this is happening to you is stay focused on the issue at hand. You might say, “Yes but that is not the issue we are dealing with right now.” Or “Yes but that doesn’t have anything to do with this issue.” The important thing is, recognize what is happening, keep the issue in the front of your mind, and use this focus to help you stay grounded and out of a place of strong emotions if at all possible.
Those with narcissism often will attempt to push you into an emotional response as “evidence” of your instability, craziness, or irrational nature. Try to respond in a manner you feel proud of. If necessary, say, “I will not talk about this right now” and exit the situation. If this means you need to leave the home to avoid getting pulled into an argument or unhealthy conversation, then leave. An argument is still attention and interaction for someone with narcissism. They will engage in an endless disagreement because it is attention paid to them. If they don’t generally apologize or acknowledge when they are wrong, there is no reason to believe that you can get them to see their errors this time.
Save your energy, get some space to gain perspective. Talk to someone you trust about the situation. Getting another’s perspective feels scary, but it can help you see reality, as opposed to staying stuck in the cycle of crazy making. Staying quiet only protects your abuser.