Start Breaking the Hold of the Narcissist
As already mentioned, part of the abuser game is for narcissists to add even more bricks to Rapunzel’s tower, by blaming their targets. “If you had been a better wife, boyfriend, daughter, or employee, I would not have to abuse you.” This creates the conundrum of cognitive dissonance causing the addicted target to ruminate, “Why wasn’t I a better_____? What is there about me that attracts a narcissist?" “Who does these crazy things and why?" and “Why am I doing these things with this person?”
After You Ask "Why?", Stop Asking Why
It stands to reason that narcissism is likely the result of interaction effects between nature and nurture. For example, a child who is taught self-centeredness and doted on (nurture), is likely to remain that way in adulthood. Some, but not all, children who are raised by excessively enabling caregivers, become narcissists.
It is also true that many narcissists have experienced abuse and trauma (nurture). Consider an attractive raging, serial narcissist who is beaten and verbally abused by one parent. S/he is further influenced to play other people by the second parent—a double whammy. The narcissistic behaviors are likely the result of an interaction effect among genetics, self-protection, learned and enabled behavior. Therefore, with narcissism as a wall of protection, abusers often believe that their target's resistant-behaviors are a form of abuse toward them—even though the narcissist is doing all the hitting.
“Why?” is a genuine and rational question but it is not entirely helpful. The answer is clear: regardless of the cause, pathological narcissists cannot express genuine empathy. They seek power and control and induce harm justifying either their perception of self-protection or for the sheer joy of doing so. In many cases, they are also breaking the law. They see the target as a source for their twisted adrenaline, oxytocin, and dopamine rewards. Whereas, healthy people experience these biochemical bonds inside loving, engaging, and meaningful relationships.
You Are Not Your Abuser's Keeper
If you have been targeted and abused (generally levels three to five), it is not likely that you can “cure” the abuser with your dedication and love. It is not within your ability—while continuing the relationship—to change a violent narcissistic abuser's behavior without outside help, if at all. Some narcissists (typically in levels one through three) reflect after the loss of the relationship or even incarceration and will seek help to change their behavior. That said, change is very rare and it is neither the fault or responsibility of the abused person.
As mentioned in one of the earlier posts on "Growing Up with Bipolar Narcissist, M.D.," narcissism is a condition that must be accepted as fact. In some cases, healthy, recovered targets are able to manage a required “relationship” from a distance with clear boundaries, e.g., parent, or former spouse involving children.
It is important for all past targets to know that even if they were discarded by the abuser, many narcissists continue to make contact either persistently or periodically in order to maintain their control. This is called 'hoovering," like the vacuum cleaner. Targets often allow the abuser to maintain contact in the misguided hope for change and restoration. In “romantic relationships,” the target may still be in love with (read: addicted to) the abuser and, therefore, remains single many years later. S/he may also be fearful that the abuser will interfere with and do violence to relationships in the future. The abuser justifies the continued contact as a strange form of revenge on one hand, and reconciliation on the other. Why? The abuser blames and only sees the target’s purported “failings” during their relationship. Some narcissists actually believe that they are the abused. According to author Joe Navarro (as mentioned in a previous blog), abusers collect and ruminate about “wounds” that they perceive to have been inflicted by the target (Navarro, 2017). So, in the case of the serial narcissistic abuser, often the goal of the narcissist is to remain tangled with and inflict pain on past victims.
Escape the Tower - Get Out Quickly and Safely
Singing “When Will My Life Begin,” Rapunzel finally finds the courage to escape the tower. Like Rapunzel, abused individuals will most likely need the help of others to carry out this decision.
Targets need to get out fast and get out safely. They may need to relocate and block every form of connection with the abuser, especially personal and electronic. If the recovering target is required by law (e.g., cases of or involving children) to stay in contact with their abuser, they need to severely restrict that contact. According to therapists, police and prosecution experts, if you are physically abused, call 911 as quickly as possible. You need to get to safety. You may need to file for a personal protection order. Keep a log to document every instance of abuse including a description of the behavior, pictures of inflicted injuries, date, time, and place. If necessary, these documents can be used in court. If you are being emotionally and verbally abused, confidentially ask friends and family to help you get out of the relationship before it turns to violence.
Author Joe Navarro (2017) strongly advocates getting professional help, especially if you are dealing with a co-morbid abuser, e.g., the emotionally-unstable, narcissistic predator. In addition to getting legal help, to become a well-adjusted mature adult will require professional counseling. Competent counselors understand abuse and can help targets accept what has happened to them and show them how to move forward. Often, PTSD, depression, and co-occurring addictions are outcomes of abuse. If you are a former target and are having difficulty functioning in daily life, you need to receive help immediately, especially if you are considering suicide. Free counseling services are available at most local universities, county governments, and with some private non-profit organizations.
Remember, that narcissistic abuse is a type of addiction that biochemically binds the abused to the narcissist, i.e., trauma bonding. Recovering targets often find themselves hoping and yearning for the “good times” they experienced with the abuser. And for many targets—both men and women—they feel they can not tell anyone because they may not be believed. Get help anyway and immediately!
Does It Get Any Better? Yes!
We have spent much of our focus here on pathology. In our next post, it will be helpful to borrow from our positive psychology colleagues by asking “What does ‘healthy’ look like?" (Seligman, 2011). Let’s explore some ways to recover from gaslighting by becoming our best selves (Arabi, 2016; Sarkis, 2018). It’s going to get better.
Arabi, S. (2016). Becoming the Narcissist's Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself.
Navarro, J. (2017). Dangerous Personalities.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. New York: Free Press. pp. 16–20. ISBN 9781439190760.
Sarkis, S. (2018), Gaslighting: Recognizing Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People - and Break Free