“Narcissists suffer from what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines as narcissistic injury: “vulnerability in self-esteem which makes narcissistic people very sensitive to ‘injury’ from criticism or defeat. Although they may not show it outwardly, criticism may haunt these individuals and may leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow and empty. They react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattack.”” (from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-legacy-distorted-love/201608/the-destructive-force-narcissistic-injury)
In dealing with a narcissist, you will certainly experience the full force of their narcissistic injury. The unspoken goal of the narcissist is control, and underneath the control is a deep-seated fear. They stay stuck in limbic impulses.
How does it feel to be the object of someone’s control, fear, and aggressive impulses to dominate? How does it feel to be around someone who always feels that they have to manage, direct, and dictate to you what you should be doing? Who places themselves in a worse than parental position and actively seeks to undermine your agency and humanity?
Outside of being fearful that someone whose reasoning is off-line will actually hurt you in body, there is the very real aspect of psychological wounding. Recently I discovered the work of H. Stephen Glenn (Developing Capable Young People) and in his categorization of behaviors as barriers, I find the descriptions are enlightening for someone who has been the target of narcissistic abuse. Because in actuality, when you actively seek to take away the humanity of another person, and through narcissistic injury defend, deny, project, and otherwise excuse yourself from your nastiness, you are abusing that person. In a narcissist, these behaviors are immovable, extreme, and chronic. In other words, they can’t change those behaviors and it is important to understand this.
Here are Glenn’s barrier behaviors and notes from his recorded lecture:
1. Being quick to assume.
-when you assume, the message you give another person is, “I have no faith in your ability to be more than you are, or more than I think you are.”
2. Rescuing from chances to gain from one’s own experience
-when you try to prevent someone from experiencing natural consequences, you take away their basic right to direct their lives. This happens with the more subtly controlling behavior, and also in narcissistic families where members are routinely incapacitated through enmeshment. This keeps someone right where you want them, which is always adoring you and never leaving you. It encourages dependency on your thinking for them.
-the underlying message for someone directing is, “I see you as no more capable than a dog but much less obedient.” It is probably the most dehumanizing aspect of a narcissist’s control/ego injury prevention. Directing establishes them as the expert on their life and everyone else’s so they can continue to support their fragile ego. It’s the most self-centered and obviously controlling of these behaviors. When you have someone whose demonstrated belief about you is that you are an idiot, you become angry, passive-aggressive, and dependent (if you are their child.) I would say you also feel continually defeated. This is where the post-divorce narcissist who recruits family court to carry out their directing (controlling) really does their damage.
It’s a demeaning message to give to a capable adult: “I’m in control and you must do what I say.” “If I tell you what to do, lecture you, punish you, and criticize you, this is the best way to get you to comply with my ideas of how you should be and do better (as defined by me.)” It only breeds resentment, anger, and unwillingness in the target of such flawed thinking.
4. Unreasonable expectations
-Glenn describes this as “using potential as a standard and discounting people for not being there already.” Because of a narcissist’s compulsion to define reality for everyone, you will never meet their expectations. Not only do their expectations keep moving and changing, but expectations like automatic compliance with their wishes, obedience, and total agreement with them are disempowering and do not promote values of equality, cooperation, mutual respect, and collaboration. It’s an aggressive, forceful stance. It makes you feel helpless and unable to influence your environment.
Glenn says, “when you go about judging people for what they’re not, you defeat them.”
-This is any kind of -ism: racism, sexism, etc. It is an intolerance of differences at its root. Narcissists personalize this in their target and make them the “other.” They create an enemy by focusing on, or even manufacturing, differences that they can never tolerate or accept. Similar to a person being mistreated for the color of their skin, a narcissist will make up some reason to mistreat you, an the reason is that you are always that you are deficient in some way. Again, the goal is to demonstrate their superiority and their specialness. They forget that we are all deficient in some way, and no one on this planet gets to be someone’s personal Jesus or Santa Claus, and certainly can’t do it by ostracizing and criticizing them. Their message to you is, “since you don’t see things the same way I see them, you are deficient.”
And of course, the target of the narcissist’s behavior feels completely helpless, starts to doubt their abilities and their reality, and is impotent in key areas of their life.
So what is the gift of being with someone whose goal is to aggrandize themselves by using tools to consistently demean you?
There are indeed forces in this world that echo the goals of the narcissist, and we see that wars, politics, and social systems are based on principles of criticism, judgment, disempowerment, disconnection, and arrogance. It IS abuse. The work of our hearts, when we have been singled out to bear the brunt of someone else’s dysfunction, is to deal with pain.
It is just painful to be treated as if you don’t matter, as if you are insignificant, incapable, and to have agency over your life be systemically reduced or taken away. When you are in a situation where you have an active bully in your life (i.e., a narcissist who can’t let you go and is still angry years after your divorce, and who uses family court to carry out his aggression towards you), you are, in a sense, in a constant war you honestly can’t escape. What is the gift of THAT? Shouldn’t you just do what the dog in Seligman’s studies did and learn that you are helpless?
Of course you are helpless to change the narcissist. You might be able to change the system with a devoted group but it’s not going anywhere right now! The only thing you can change is yourself.
And the wrestling becomes one with SHAME as a force in your life. Every single one of those behaviors is a shaming behavior. It is designed to MAKE you feel bad about yourself, and narcissists are notorious for intuiting your tender spots and poking them.
The antidotes to shame are truth, grief, self-validation, and self-empowerment. It doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes, or don’t stumble, or don’t see the path clearly. It means you free yourself from the lies of the narcissist. All of those barriers are lies. You ARE capable, significant, and powerful to change.
And as a changing, growing person who is not locked into a disorder, you can turn your heart towards Builder behaviors and work on establishing health within yourself and relationships.
Identifying the lies/barrier behaviors of the narcissist helps you in the moment realize it’s not you. You do not have to put on the shaming messages of the narcissist and can curate self-messages, behaviors, and people that allow you to have dignity and respect. It also helps to know that you have the capacity to not match their bad behaviors with bad behaviors of your own. You do have to protect yourself and hold to the truth, but you cannot expect them to have other tools in their toolbox other than tools to beat you over the head with their control and superiority.
But you do. You have the ability to rise above and become kinder, more compassionate, more free, and stronger than you ever thought possible. All thanks to a narcissist’s deep dysfunction. You can thank them for that!
“Thank you, narcissist, for showing me the way out of shame is to be so completely immersed in it I can’t stand the pain. Because I so loved you and wanted to please you, I allowed myself to be enveloped by your darkness. This became unbearable at some point, and I had to leave the confining sheath of that pain to find I was living a lie. I didn’t know the truth until I lived the lie. I bow in humble gratitude to you for showing me my strength through experiencing the depth of your fear and desire to inflict pain. I am so sorry you remain stuck and I pray you find the same freedom I have. I love you and feel only gratitude to you. You are, in every way, my tor-MENTOR.”
And, a song of hope for you: