Narcissistic abuse is incredibly unsettling. It is an experience that messes with your brain, your heart, and your feelings. It affects you at every level of your being.
This morning, I was working with a new client who was struggling to understand herself. She has just separated from her narcissistic husband. He is now cycling through his different personas in a somewhat lame attempt to hook her back in. Let’s just say that he isn’t exactly going overboard.
Until now, he hasn’t had to.
My client withstood his initial power moves valiantly. But then he sent her a slew of “reasonable” texts and she found herself getting emotionally sucked back in.
“Why?” she asked me. “Why does he still exert such a hold over me?”
The problem with short answers
The short answer is, of course, programming.
Short answers can often getting you nodding in intellectual agreement
“Yes, of course. They program us to care about their feelings far more than our own.”
However, that doesn’t mean that those short answers “land” emotionally with you.
Healing from emotional and narcissistic abuse is all about understanding and transforming your old emotional patterns of response. Until that happens, you have knowledge but you don’t have the tools for emotional change.
My client was looking at me with that “Okay, I am just filing your response into my Narcissistic Abuse Understanding folder” look. I know that look well. In fact, I have a file rather like that for DIY knowledge.
I know quite a lot about DIY – because that kind of information is always useful. I also know, from experience, that I am spectacularly incompetent when it comes to DIY. My theoretical knowledge helps me to weed out wrong people for any home repair job that needs doing well. (Starting with myself!)
In the case of my client, she needed to find her way into a powerful realization. I shared with her a story from my own experience that hit the emotional spot. Here’s hoping it does for you also – if you, too, need to make an emotional shift.
Not all knowledge hits the spot
In the early days of my marriage, my parents made a very big demand of me. It was something that would impact my life every single day – although I thought that I could work it in such a way that my husband was only minimally affected.
My parents had no financial hold over me. Plus, given the fact that they had disowned me and then rowed back after a fashion, any emotional obligation should have been on their side. Not mine.
But that wasn’t how the narrative went. According to the narrative which, needless to say, they had written and I had to live by – it was my job to take care of their feelings.
When they set out their demands, I can remember thinking:
“My back is broad enough”
“My back is broad enough. I have to do this to spare their feelings. I have to do this to protect them from hurting. This thing will be a constant challenge for me but I can cope with the difficulties that this will cause better than they could.”
When I look back – and I am now older than my parents were at the time – I am truly appalled at how unbelievably selfish they were. They had had plenty of years to grow into adulthood, I was barely out of adolescence.
What wisdom, strength and life experience did I have to draw on?
Yet, I had been taught that I should take care of their feelings because they were too fragile (and emotionally immature) to consider anything other than getting their own needs met. At whatever cost to me – or any one of their children.
As I said this to my client, it was like watching stadium lighting going on. That had been exactly her experience, too. Over and over again.
Her whole life had revolved around protecting the feelings of the selfish, damaging, chronological adults in her life.
Protecting them and then protecting them some more.
And then feeling obligated to protect them yet more.
The Supergirl programming
Because not protecting them to the nth degree would have meant undoing all of the self-sacrificing work she had done so far.
She had been taught to give endlessly to ungrateful parents and never count the – exorbitant – cost to herself.
Who else was taught to be Supergirl, from an early age, destined to carry the entire weight of parents and loved ones, on their fragile shoulders?
And who else learned, at the same time – and from the exact same people – that she was obligated to be Supergirl but, equally, predestined to be judged not good enough, inadequate, stupid, selfish and inconsiderate?
Who else was taught to protect the feelings of someone who never protected yours?
For my client, the emotional realization was seismic.
On the back of that, it was possible to guide her through the healing work that she needed to do.
How does she feel, now, about protecting the – alleged – feelings of her horrible, future ex-husband?
Narcissistic abuse is unacceptable
My client has spent nearly two decades as his wife, aspiring to being the sweetest, most selfless woman in the Western World.
By the end of our conversation today, a whole different woman had emerged: Warrior Woman, a fierce woman who believes in herself enough to insist on doing right by herself – without worrying who will fall theatrically to the ground, with their best Mortally-Wounded-By-Your Selfishness expression on their face…
You, too, were likely taught to protect everybody’s feelings but your own.
Before you even attempt to justify that on the grounds of the kind of life that they had, ask yourself: would you dream of doing that to your own children on account of the life that you have had?
Unacceptable is unacceptable.
Maybe that was a judgement that you were not allowed to exercise for yourself growing up.
Well, those days are gone. You are an adult now. You get to decide what you feel is right for yourself and the people around you. Use that judgement wisely.
A few months in, I gave up making the sacrifice that mattered so dearly to my parents because it created even more friction in my young but deeply troubled marriage.
The marriage didn’t improve for obvious reasons. But nor did my parents suffer.
As ever, I had been slow to catch on.
My parents had set up a typical win-win for themselves. Had I continued to do what they wanted at my expense, they could have crowed about it to anyone who would have listened.
By disappointing them so badly, I became the black sheep of the family – the absentee black sheep of the family.
An abusive family that triangulates together, stays together. They lost access to one child and preserved their family unity/stranglehold. It worked for them.
And there was me thinking that I had to protect their feelings to make their world right for them.
That is not how narcissistic families really work. You have to protect yourself from them.
Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.
The 5 Simple Steps to Healing from Narcissistic Abuse
Over the next 5 days, I'll send you some lessons and tips that I've found have really helped women to heal from narcissistic abuse. Starting with the basics.