“Why am I still so frightened of upsetting people?”
“Why am I still so frightened of upsetting people?” is a question that I heard from two clients this week. Hearing the same question from two people in two days – and recognising the pattern in my own life – indicates just how common a problem this is in the lives of narcissistic abuse survivors. So, this is the topic that I shall be exploring here.
Let’s start by exploring possible presuppositions about the kind of person who might be posing the question. For the record, both clients are world-beaters in their fields: their achievements and intelligence are utterly exceptional. Plus, they are highly skilled at interpersonal relationships. Anyone who knew them in the outside world – and had any sense – would not run the gauntlet of upsetting them.
Next, let’s turn our attention to the idea of “upsetting people”. What does that mean – in the context of survivors of narcissistic abuse?
Who are you most scared of upsetting?
If you relate this idea to your own life, what category of people have you been most scared of “upsetting”?
Ironically, the people that survivors are most scared of “upsetting” are actually the weaponizers, the people who have already said – or are likely to say – hurtful things to the survivor.
In other words, the term “upsetting” tends to be a misnomer. Correctly speaking, survivors are frightened of peeving the hell out of people who are already heartily peeved – or critical – and ill-disposed towards them. And then you have to add to that category, anyone who the survivor fears might be peeved, critical or indisposed towards them.
Now, Narcissists go to great lengths to make you believe that Everyone (aka their ideal claque and circle of imaginary friends) sees the world through the same eyes as they do. So, their conditioning is designed to make you fear that anyone and everyone you come into contact with will have the Narcissist’s Peevishness issue.
That is a powerful way of keeping you in a cycle of fear and anxiety.
The Narcissist-generated cycle of fear and anxiety
The best part of it – from the Narcissist’s point of view – is that you aren’t even aware that you are caught up in a cycle of fear and anxiety. Instead, you believe that your high level of fear and anxiety are a normal and reasonable response to your realistic expectations of a hostile world.
Narcissists normalize – and teach you to normalize – the nastiness and cruelty of relationships and reality.
You rationalize both their appalling behavior and the falsehoods that they come out with.
But what you really need to focus on is the weird stuff that is going on behind the scenes – or more precisely, the thinking loop that you get caught in.
The weird stuff
Most of us don’t pay enough attention, enough of the time, to our own thinking loops. Rather, we assume that, because we have perfectly good brains, we use them to the best of their capacity.
As I understand it, our brains are great little pieces of kit. They can do all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff. However, we can easily override or underpower them. We can do that with any kind of substance abuse. We also do that with stress, anxiety and fear – without ever being aware of what we are doing.
To give you a very small example, recently I have been doing a lot of long-distance driving (long distance in UK terms, anyway). I hate driving and found the experience stressful. When my technophobic partner who could not drive, was unable to use his phone in support my efforts, I became peeved about it.
Why couldn’t he use the phone? Because his arm wasn’t long enough for him to get his phone far enough away from his eyes for him to read it. He was, in other words, too long-sighted to be able to see text on his own phone.
Emotionality interferes with optimal brain function
It was only when I stopped driving and thus had the bandwidth to think clearly that I realised I just needed to make the text size bigger on his phone and voila, problem solved.
All too often, emotionality interferes with optimal brain function.
How does that relate to Narcissists keeping you in a cycle of fear and anxiety?
First, they distress you – which works wonders to interfere with optimal brain function. Then, they get you to see yourself out of context.
As a result, you stop seeing yourself as the resourceful adult that you really are. Instead, you see yourself as the helpless, contemptible child they tell you that you are.
What that means is that it is absolutely essential for you to break the old habits and establish an appropriate perspective.
The time warp
My clients were so frightened of upsetting people – and getting a hostile and intimidating response – because they got caught up in a time warp and their old thinking loop got triggered. As a result, they felt like the helpless, powerless small child that they once were.
But because the feelings that they were having felt so normal (aka habitual) they did not think that anything that could be done with them.
We take our thinking loops – and the Narcissists lies and projections onto us – way more seriously than they deserve to be taken.
What goes on inside our own heads is, ultimately, under our own jurisdiction. Ultimately, the thoughts that we give headroom are down to us.
Your thoughts are down to you
I can remember the first time that someone had the temerity to say to me: “Your thoughts are down to you.”. At the time, I was brain-deep into the relationship with my horrible husband. We had been married for the best (okay worst) part of two decades. I was not best pleased to have that truth bomb dropped on me.
I went through all my best denial manoeuvres.
I leapt to the “Easy for other people to say that” defence.
I ran various trials to prove to my supposedly rational self that I couldn’t help giving headroom to those thoughts that the Narcissist kept rehashing.
At the time, it was absolutely true that I could not help giving headroom to them – because I had no idea how best to break my ingrained pattern of thinking.
I didn’t know that fighting with yourself is never the way to win an internal battle of any consequence.
Telling yourself that your beliefs are wrong and/or stupid and you shouldn’t entertain them, never works. Trying to punish yourself out of a belief, that came about as a result of the unjust, emotional punishment a toxic person has put you through, doesn’t work.
Beliefs are capable of change
That doesn’t mean what I thought it did, at the time, that the beliefs were immutable.
It just meant that nobody had taught me the way to subvert and change them.
Beliefs are capable of change. But you do have to go about that change in the right way.
You change them with kindness, compassion, context and curiosity.
You change them by learning to validate and empower yourself.
All of these are processes that you, too, can learn, like my client Sam did. After a terrible, violent, way too long marriage, Sam was, understandably, in pieces. A cruel Narcissistic mother had paved the way for her horrible, destructive, wildly Narcissistic husband. Sam, when I first met her, was so fragmented she had completely given up on herself.
As I worked with her and helped her to disentangle herself from the time warp she had been stuck in, a very different Sam emerged – the authentic Sam. This Sam is now no more than mildly amused by the continuing, attention-seeking antics of her now legally divorced ex. He is still stalling and fussing and protesting and trying to claim that he is the victim of the piece. Even as he finds himself ring-fenced by his legal obligations.
Where once Sam would have been frightened, devastated and ashamed, now she just laughs and says, “What a dickhead!”
What has changed is what is going on inside her head.
“I get to choose my response”
Sam said to me, “I now know that I get to choose my response to any situation. That is so freeing.”
The helpless, powerless persona in her old time warp has been replaced by the powerful adult woman who no longer allows her ex to dominate her mental and emotional world. She has placed him in a context in which the old power dynamic has been completely reversed. While she is never going to minimise his awfulness, she can see him for the tantruming, toxic, overgrown toddler that he really is.
She is now utterly underwhelmed by everything about him.
You, like Sam, are frightened of upsetting toxic people – and people you assume to be toxic – when you see them in a context of your own powerlessness. When you break out of that time warp and see yourself as you truly are, today, their feelings, or more precisely, hostility towards you, could not matter less.
You get to choose your response.
Maybe you can’t do that now, while you carry their projection and the pain that you feel on your back. But you can learn how to free yourself from that load.
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.
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