a narcissist

Why a Narcissist can’t stand your happiness

One tell-tale sign of having been abused by a narcissist is feeling wary of your own happiness. That may sound strange or odd. Why would anyone shy away from smiling, laughing, getting excited, or feeling vitalized? The answer takes a little explaining but gets to the root of the narcissist’s danger to others.

Happiness in healthy relationships

As I’m writing this there’s a toddler across the cafe with his mother. The boy is wholly occupied with some sort of toy. His mother watches him with a deep fondness in her face. She glides her fingers over his hair while being careful not to disturb his focus. I think it’s a safe bet that she’s happy because her son is happy.

This was a pretty beautiful display of non-possessive love from a mother to her child. The boy evokes an expression of mother’s love by doing what makes him happy. Extrapolating from this episode we might assume that when this boy thinks of how his mother thinks of him he might feel warm, special, and worth her care. In short, thinking of how she thinks of him leaves him feeling loved. Of course toddlers don’t “think” in the same way adults do but they have ways of knowing how they are are thought of. This boy is lucky in that his template for how how others think of him is accurate and positive.

The Narcissist’s drive to destroy your happiness

The notion of non-possessive love does not compute for a narcissist. She insists that everyone else’s happiness goes through her. Why? This is where the motivational systems of “normal” people and narcissists dramatically diverge. Most of us seek mutual connection with those closest to us. A narcissist’s fundamental motivation is to dominate those closest to him. This kind of domination is particularly insidious. A narcissist wants her victims to care more about what she thinks about them than what they think about themselves. Once the victim makes this shift they are trapped by the narcissist.

The case of Joe: Survivor of a Narcissistic mother

The narcissist expresses an attitude of superiority to the victim and highlights why the victim is – supposedly – inferior. He will be quick to blame his victim for acts of fate. He will accuse the victim of character defects when an honest mistake is made:

Joe was a client who survived a narcissistic mother. He would recall moments of terror where his mother would ask him if he had done some household chore. She inevitably asked him about one that he had forgot about. When he answered ‘no, I forgot’ she launched into a rage. While screaming at the top of her lungs she accused him of being selfish, inconsiderate and irresponsible. She would then use the good moments earlier against him. “You just want to be the center of attention but you don’t do anything to actually help this family!”. Spittle would spark out of her mouth as her eyes turned black with hate at him.

The worst part of her attack was that if he wanted a relationship with her then Joe had to agree that he was as terrible as she claimed. Kids have to have a relationship with their parent so this was not really a choice for Joe. Joe’s mother had no qualms about exploiting a child’s natural dependency to achieve the domination she so craved.

As therapy proceeded, Joe and I figured out that his mother’s tirades often came after good moments. See Joe is naturally funny, charismatic, and caring towards others. When his mother would get home from work he and his sister would go into the kitchen while she made dinner. Joe would playfully tease his sister and joke around with his mother. Her questions about the chores would come towards the end of eating dinner.

Joe and I determined that his mother felt that her dominance was threatened by his ability to raise the spirits of her and his sister in those moments. Despite indulging in the fun herself as dinner was cooking, she had to inevitably punish him lest he think that she thought well of him. His mother was determined for Joe to think that he had no real value to anyone. Who could ever love a selfish, inconsiderate monster? The truth was that Joe’s attributes would attract many people to him and this was the problem for his mother.

As this kind of abuse wore on, Joe developed a very stoic demeanor. With select friends he might show his humor but he generally constricted himself. Although he felt a sense of deadness inside, this tactic spared him his mother’s rage. Joe has recovered much of his liveliness through his own strength and hard work in and out of therapy.

Why do narcissist’s seek to dominate?

In order to understand why narcissists operate so poisonously in relationships, it’s important to understand a little more about how ‘good-enough’ reciprocal relationships work.

We need others’ recognition to become ourselves. Remember the riddle:

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Jessica Benjamin explains why the answer would be a resounding ‘No’ when it comes to human development. Without the other’s recognition of who we are, what we are doing, thinking, becoming we do not feel confirmed in any of those ways of being. If we clap, for example, and nobody else hears it then we will not feel like we made a sound.

Benjamin puts it best:

A person comes to feel that “I am the doer who does, I am the author of my acts,” by being with another person who recognizes her acts, her feelings, her intentions, her existence, her independence…The subject declares, “I am, I do,” and waits for the response, “You are, you have done.” (p. 21)

Importantly, the other has to act and be independent of ourselves. We don’t feel truly recognized if we are controlling the other to provide the recognition. Recognition must be given. It can never be taken. The toddler in the cafe received his mother’s recognition as he played with his toy. She gave it to him because she wanted to. Her respect for his focus on the toy showed that she recognized and respected his independence too.

If the other has what we need and we have no absolute control over whether it is given then our independence rests in our dependence on the other. There is a boldness and a vulnerability in being who we are. Bold because we must act in accord with what we truly feel. Vulnerable because we need the other to be willing to recognize those acts and we cannot control the other’s willingness. We also need that recognition to acknowledge our own independence.

A narcissist rejects this vulnerability. It’s beyond the scope of this post to explore why. At the deepest of levels, a narcissist has traded recognition from an independent other for domination of a submissive other. In this kind of arrangement there is nobody left to truly recognize the Narcissist. Although the narcissist forgoes the kind of recognition that would let him feel his real existence, he gets a feeling of power and superiority in exchange. Those ‘fruits’ of domination are not attributed to his real self but to a grandiose inflated version of himself.

So the narcissist is making do with domination instead of recognition. The lack of true recognition is like a chronic wound that requires constant bandaging. Scarily the narcissist bandages his own despair and terror of going unrecognized with further domination of his victim. He needs a constant supply of feeling dominant or he will psychologically implode. The narcissist, then, is dependent on the other. He needs the other’s submission to keep feeling powerful over and over. In a sense – despite how self-assured and independent he may seem – the narcissist cannot exist alone. He needs a victim to feel like he exists.

Your happiness threatens the narcissist’s domination

Expressing genuine happiness is one of the surest signs of life. Feeling vitalized while in relationship to a narcissist punctures his dominance. To show your independent existence and vitality via happiness creates a pull for the narcissist to recognize you. Doing so would come at the cost of his feeling dominant. How can a self-perceived king or queen show respect to a pauper? If that pauper even seems content instead of obedient, well the narcissist won’t stand for it.

Narcissists must protect their domination by searching for and destroying your sources of happiness. Joe’s mother’s invective illustrates this. She likely experienced Joe’s happiness before dinner as a threat to her ability to dominate him. Claiming that he was deceptively trying to get away with not taking out the trash by wanting to be the center of attention was meant to spoil what was good in Joe. She was attempting to get Joe to doubt the virtue of his own happiness. To make him think that he hurts others when he’s happy. She temporarily achieved this during Joe’s childhood. The result was Joe abandoned his own quest for recognition and adapted by trying to anticipate and meet all of his mother’s needs. He had to submit to her domination.

Who the narcissist chooses as her victims

Narcissists can only do this to people who are vulnerable to them. Tragically this means that children are the most common victims. Children like Joe learn that their happiness makes “mommy hate me”. The polar opposite of the boy’s experience in the cafe.

The victim of such abuse must develop a set of rules to keep him out of the narcissist’s line of fire. This means policing oneself to not betray any signs of excitement or enthusiasm unless it reflects directly upon the narcissist. Joe’s mother insisted on this. He could joke around with her but not others. He had to restrict his friendships because she would make up reasons to ground him if he seemed excited about his social life. Part of the narcissist’s domination is to convince his victim that she has no value unless the narcissist says so.

It is tragic to think of how the victim of such abuse has to dislocate themselves from themselves just to stay out of danger. They cannot have spontaneous experiences of joy or meaning. They cannot even know how they feel because that involves looking inward instead of outward at the narcissist. All of these ways of being provide the narcissist with what she wants: to know she has power and control over her victim.

The same process can happen between adults. Often the adult victim of a narcissistic partner was raised by a narcissistic parent. As such the contortions required by the narcissist to provide a veneer of obedience are familiar if highly uncomfortable.

Recover your happiness without fear

The purpose of this blog post was to highlight a feature of surviving narcissistic abuse that can leave a survivor feeling like he operates according to an entirely different set of rules than seemingly everyone else in the world. This can feel alienating. Everyone, the thinking goes, should want to be happy…what’s wrong with me that I shy away from such experiences? The answer is nothing at all!

Feeling averse to your own happiness actually reflects your psychological flexibility and resiliency to survive a relationship that offered you nothing and expected everything. It is important to begin to reframe this habit as a virtue rather than a defect or anything of the sort.

Next, it is important to populate your life with people who have not forsaken the task of mutual recognition. That’s a mouthful, but it simply means good people who want recognition and who are willing to provide it to you too. Most survivors of narcissistic abuse have deep capacities for empathy so providing recognition is usually no problem. It’s learning to accept and feel deserving of others’ recognition that is the more difficult task.

Therapy is not the only means for recovering from narcissistic abuse and your right to happiness. It can be useful though. The important quality to seek in a therapist is a wholehearted and earnest attempt to understand you and your perspective. From that starting point, the legacy of narcissistic abuse can have a shorter half-life than would otherwise be.

*All references to clients are amalgamations of people, papers, books, life that do not directly refer to any specific person.  
 
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).  If you are considering therapy to recover from narcissistic abuse please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.

Comments 15

    1. Post
      Author
  1. I appreciate this article.

    I especially appreciate the reminder that my often resistance to my own happiness is a sign of my resilience. I appreciate your encouragement to see this inclination as an asset rather than a flaw. Reading this article, I can’t help but tap into the pain and sorrow of growing up in a house hold with narcissistic parents day in and day out. It reminds me of the courage and strength it must have took to have gone through all of it and survive. And not just survive, but to come out the other end with a heart that desires to treat others with kindness and respect, different to the way was treated.

    I so seldom contemplate my strengths. I spend most of my time contemplating the exact opposite.

    Thank you so much for this much appreciated reminder.

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you for the feedback and for how well you described the pull to conform to the Narcissistic parent’s prescription of reality.

  2. Thank you for this article. I recognize that I have a significant fear of success after being raised by narcissistic parents. It is difficult even though I am in therapy for PTSD. I forego doing the things I love, for fear of punishment, although I have not lived with my parents for over 2 decades. My father was particularly harsh when I got a good grade or excelled at my special interests. “You think you’re better than me? Why do you always have to be the center of attention?”

    “Feeling averse to your own happiness actually reflects your psychological flexibility and resiliency to survive a relationship that offered you nothing and expected everything. It is important to begin to reframe this habit as a virtue rather than a defect or anything of the sort.”

    Thank you for this paragraph. It gives me hope. I wish peace for myself and for everyone who has survived a childhood with abusive, narcissistic parents..

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you for your reflections on this post, Michelle. Your ability to endure the kind of cruelty you describe in your father’s reaction to your feats is remarkable.

    2. I am so relieved to have read this highly accurate description of Joe’s experience with his mother, i.e. what motivated her to act that way. So entirely unfair this is, my heart just goes out to anyone who has been raised this way. This really spelled it out for me with regard to the treatment I received from my narcissistic father. He would come home from work seething with anger. Total holy roller, too, often claimed that he should have been a priest (gag me with a crucifix.) Sadly, my mother’s trauma bonding created a feeling of abandonment for me. I was scapegoated along with my 3 younger brothers. I became her “counselor” she would cry to, but she always took my father’s side against us kids, agreeing with him that we were “bad”. We were subjected to criticism and hate. Constant drama, crying, and scary fights were the norm. So I had zero support, and as a result I was unable to bond with either parent. She became like him, or maybe she was a covert narcissist the whole time, I think, because she was very jealous of me, which was so hurtful and unfair. You just don’t think very highly of someone like that who is supposed to be your mother. I swear, I don’t know how I managed to have so many friends in school, but I did. Got good grades, went to parties. I was stronger than I thought. I’ve always loved to have fun with people, although when I think about my former years it was as if I was orphaned. So now that I have decided to heal (going “no contact”) and reading articles on this topic, I’m a lot more optimistic about living the good life! Thank you for posting this blog.

  3. Hi Jay,

    Indeed, this is another excellent article.

    I really appreciate all the work you’ve done to help and heal others, which I suspect reflects your own inner well being.

    All good things.

    Max

    1. Post
      Author
  4. jayreid I by chance found your blog, believe me, it’s awesome your insight into narcissistic behavior is beyond comprehension you explain this disorder like no one could explain your point of view is very unique seriously I knew it because I survived narcissistic abuse my father is a narcissist and my mother is a codependent personality my father is what you have described always envious suspicious controlling to the point they expect you to take permission to live or die life really sucks

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you for your kind words and I’m glad it resonated with what you have survived at the hands of your father. I hope that your process of recovery from this kind of treatment continues.

  5. Thank you for the explanation of how a narcissist trades recognition for domination. I have just ended a completely destructive relationship with a malignant narcissist, I am in counseling, and I have read several of the best books on the topic, but for some reason the rationale for their behavior just didn’t click for me until I read your post. I am so relieved by it that I wanted to post this comment and thank you. I am healing more every day, and this insightful explanation has helped close one of the main gaps in my understanding. I mean that very much. Thank you for your amazing work.

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you for this feedback. I am very glad to hear that you are recovering from this form of mistreatment and that this post on the narcissist abuse dynamic was helpful.

  6. Hi. I’m 46 and the mother of two beautiful children. I still dont allow myself to be happy and even hold back from enjoying my own family. I still struggle with this, even after years of therapy. I still feel like I need her “permission” to be happy. How do I overcome this?

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi,

      Thank you for your comment. I think you put the nail on the head in explaining how it feels to look to someone for the green light to feel happy when that person finds expressions of your happiness to be what makes them feel jealous rather than happy for or with you. There is no way to win this arrangement for the child and you touch on the long process it can be to feel safe while being happy. I wish you very well in the recovery process. To your credit it sounds like you’ve built up quite a full life for yourself.

      Jay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.