If you have a background of childhood trauma it is likely you are highly susceptible to emotional abuse courtesy of a narcissist.
Daughters* of narcissistic parents, in particular, can fall prey to exploitation in adulthood because they learn at a very young age how to detect threats in the environment while responding to them in a way that alleviates danger. They also become extremely competent at performing emotional labour for others while suppressing their own attachment needs.
Author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, Shahida Arabi, says narcissistic parents make the situation worse by failing to equip their daughters for independent life. Rather they perceive children as an extension of themselves; merely pawns in a game with the objective of satisfying their needs. A narcissistic father may become overbearing (and shaming) when a daughter enters adolescence to ensure that she stays in a state of perpetual childhood and is easier to control. This often means emotional immaturity and naivety about the world, which makes her vulnerable to manipulation.
Narcissists are attracted to vulnerability because they recgonize it from their own trauma history. But did you know, they also value her resilience? Arabi explains: “The more resilient the daughter of a narcissist is from the deficits of her childhood, the more likely she will ‘bounce back’ after incidents of abuse, and continue to try to solve the problems. She will avoid the threats of confrontation and conflict, leaving her open to the far greater danger of being in a long-term toxic relationship that depletes and drains her.”
If this sounds all too familiar, we have assembled a list of clues to help you recognise what life looks like living with a narcissist.
- False sense of approachability. In the hazy days of a new relationship, there seems to be a ‘tick-tock’ approach to dating that feels like the love is being turned on and then off. Often it correlates with the switch being on in private, but off in public. As the relationship develops, the narcissist may seem available but often is not. A partner can find herself walking on eggshells—is it safe to approach or not approach?
- Idealistic assumptions. This is somewhat like magical thinking children have when growing up. (No, we’re not talking unicorns.) Rather things he desires should fall into his lap, due to his ‘specialness.’ For example, adoration and intimacy, without any work on his part.
- Passive-aggressive. The narcissist loves underground tactics: refusing to speak, going out for long periods of time, promising to do something and not doing it, spreading personal information without consent, keeping tension up through non-communication. Or making stinging comments with a smile.
- Gas-lighting. This is manipulation in its worst form, creating a mental fog of epic proportions in the twisted ‘fun house’ of smoke, mirrors, and distortions with one objective: to get you to question your perceptions and second-guess yourself. It often plays out five ways: deliberating setting up situations to destabilize, sharing personal information without consent, leaving out large gaps of (relevant) information so a partner is hoodwinked or misrepresented and lastly, shaming (“you’re hysterical” “you have mental health issues” “you should see yourself”).
- Logical, binary thinking. Facts triumph over emotion. Choices must be presented as A or B (do not go to the grey).
- Secretive or non-disclosing. “I don’t remember” comes up often when queried about the past. Or he will see his childhood through rose-coloured glasses. The narcissist will never volunteer information about this inner world or conversations with others either.
- Uses radio silence. “If I find you defective in some way, I am just going to shut down.” Rather than tune into a partner and find ways to blend better, the narcissist withdraws emotionally (and often, physically).
- Disinterested. “I don’t feel the need to know you.” There is no empathy, no need to connect with a partner emotionally, or to work together on goals that are solely for her well-being or personal growth. Further, when the relationship is stressed, the narcissist will leave a partner to do the work. “I don’t care enough about doing anything to make this relationship better.” Developing self-awareness, learning ways to improve are not on the agenda.
- Aloof or smug. Decision-making is a solitary experience not cooperative. This stems from the belief that “I already have things figured out and my thinking is sound, so I don’t need to engage with you.” Alternatively, if a partner seeks help with a decision, she will receive a solution (rather than being a sounding board) and if it is not agreeable the throw away comment “that’s your choice!” will follow her from the room.
- Abandoning. “You just need to make friends.” This is the comeback for the desertion that occurs often. These times away from a partner or family are not repaid. Abandonment also occurs in social situations, whereby a partner is left alone while the narcissist ‘huddles’ with select individuals. If she is invited into his inner circle, she should not speak (because she has nothing worthwhile to offer).
- Dismissive. Cue rolling of eyes, turning away, retreating into technology, snapping at a partner when she attempts engagement. In addition, there is zero need to explain decisions or actions “because you won’t get it anyway” and invalidation of your feelings. It may feel that you are the only person on the receiving end of narcissistic condemnation, but he doesn’t just single you out. Think for a moment about when he may have invalidated someone. His sister. His mother.
- Derailing. Plans made by a partner (not the narcissist) are often derailed due to absence of communication or miscommunication, which will be a partner’s fault (“you didn’t listen” or “you heard wrong”). There is no regard for a partner’s time or interests, leaving her feeling small, unimportant, and irrelevant. This may include entire careers for a partner because the narcissist prefers she be at home for his personal comfort. (Note, her career could never be in competition to his because that would upset the power balance.)
- Forgetful. About things that are important to a partner. Not him.
- Uses projection. “It’s not me, it’s you!” Rather than owning his own feelings, a narcissist will act as though the feelings are yours. It’s called projection. For example, a partner snaps at a child and receives, “You are ruining my day with your bad mood.” The fact that he started the day in a funk and everyone is waiting for the shoe to drop is lost on him.
- Blameless. Being the victim is a common trait. A miscalculation or mistake will never be met with “I blew it” rather the blame will be passed along.
- Entitled. This covers many areas, one of which is financial. Any extra funds a partner may receive (shares, tax refunds, inheritance) will be absorbed into general finances while the narcissist is protective of his own money. As the years pass, a partner may start to hear the words “my home” (not “our home”) and notice that assets have been moved into his name only.
- Baits or taunts. Attempts to communicate bravely are meet with constant interruptions, derisive comments (“you’re ranting” or “lower your voice”), complaints about lack of logic, or shaming words; all designed to up the ante. Taunting a partner to explode first allows the narcissist to heap blame and shame (“you’re hysterical”) on her and end the conversation – and then they’ll go offline.
- Aggressive and mean. Those in the inner circle (a partner or mother) may be treated cruelly, often with contempt and disgust particularly if they show their humanity (depression, anxiety, etc.). This is the opposite for those outside the inner circle who see him as pleasant and approachable and their problems are welcomed.
- Overly controlling. The narcissist will require a partner to get into his orbit and live according to his “rules.” Note, the rules can change at any time so a partner can never get too comfortable (or complacent). He’ll also want a partner to give up her perspectives and take on his.
- Pseudo-helpful. “You owe me!” When the narcissist (eventually) responds to appeals for help from a partner, there will be strings attached. He may even position himself as a “gateway” (so next time, you have to go through him).
- Demands duty and obligation. “If you meet my needs, then we are good.” This translates to being cook, cleaner, childminder (and, if possible, cash generator) during the day and a hooker in the bedroom at night. But when it comes to duty and obligation on his part, family is second to work or other demands. Duty also applies to anger. One of the basic human rights is the right to be angry when you are treated badly, but a partner should never raise her voice in frustration or present an image to the world that all is not well.
Blended with many of the above qualities is the double standard. A partner may be criticized for drinking too much, while the narcissist has the whisky bottle in his hand. Or she may be told never to share any person information he divulges, while private details about a partner or those close to her are passed to virtual strangers!
Help! I’m living with a narcissist!
If you’re involved with a narcissist in any way, know that their toxic behaviour is not your fault. You are worthy of respect, attention, affection and consideration. You are worthy of consistency and healthy communication. You are worthy of being cherished as an equal partner. You are worthy of having your basic needs and rights honoured in a relationship.
The cycle of narcissistic abuse can be broken. And, according to Arabi, you already possess the strength to see it through. “The resilience of survivors will serve them well when it comes to employing the necessary modalities, resources and self-compassion it takes to heal themselves and future generations.”
Speak with a mental health professional to find treatment that best suits your unique needs or triggers; remember that there is no ‘one size fits all’ healing path for survivors.
*Narcissist abuse is not confined to daughters only. Sons are impacted just as greatly. In addition, the narcissist parents may be either male and female, as can the adult narcissist abuser.
© Felicia Stewart, 2019