Bernard was another fictionalized client who came to therapy in his mid-twenties to find relief from the constant anxiety he experienced in his life. We quickly came to understand that he grew up with a narcissistic father who acted in a domineering way around the house and would grow enraged if Bernard responded with anything but obedience. It was no wonder that Bernard grew particularly anxious expressing a difference of opinion to people at work or in his personal life. At the time, Bernard was attending family dinners at his parents’ home every Sunday.
He described how inevitably at these dinners someone would do something that displeased his father, his father would view this as a sign of unforgivable disrespect, and proceed to berate, intimidate and yell at the offender – either Bernard or his mother. In therapy, I inferred that Bernard held the unconscious belief that he did not deserve protection. When we discussed the prospect of limiting his attendance at these dinners given how abusive his father would treat him, Bernard said that he felt like he would be “running away from the problem” if he did this.
Do you worry that creating distance between yourself and a narcissistic parent, partner or family member is avoiding something that you should confront?
Do you wonder something similar to Bernard when it comes to creating distance between yourself and a narcissistic abuser? In today’s post I am going to make the case that An honest assessment of the possibilities in prolonged interaction with a narcissistic abuser suggests that trying to ‘confront’ the situation will not be productive. Next, I am going to describe The costs to you in trying to confront such individuals. Finally, I’ll describe The difference between avoiding an interaction that should be addressed vs protecting yourself from interactions that might only be detrimental to you.
My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California who specializes in helping people recover from narcissistic abuse. Narcissistic abuse can leave us feeling lost and estranged from our sense of who we are. In individual therapy and my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse I try to offer a map that allows them to come back to the quality of life they know they deserve. Of course, each survivor must travel this path themselves but a map can be tremendously important to do this with. And there are 3 features on this map that I call the 3 Pillars to Recovery:
Pillar # 1: Making sense of what happened,
Pillar # 2: Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and
Pillar # 3: living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules. Lastly, one can’t do this in a vacuum. It is also essential to find and participate in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path. Today’s post falls under Pillar #3: Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser.
If you were a scapegoat survivor of a narcissistic parent or partner then I encourage you to check out my free e-book on this topic. It’s called Surviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat and goes into other important aspects of what it’s like to be in the shoes of the scapegoat child or partner of the narcissistic abuser. From self-limiting beliefs about yourself that you must adopt to survive to why the narcissistic personality is so geared to put those closest to them down. This e-book can help you realize how none of this abuse was your fault but the product of the narcissist’s psychological and emotional problems. You can find the link to the book by clicking here.
What can be gained?
I think it is important to pose this question to oneself whenever we consider addressing a problem in a relationship. Hopefully Most people that you are in a relationship with have the capacity to hear you with an open mind, show a concern for your feelings in the relationship, and prioritize the health of the relationship over being right. And I don’t mean that every relationship should meet these three criteria every time but more often than not.
When it comes to addressing a narcissistically abusive person with your discontent over how they are treating you, this question is especially important. Consider that A narcissistically abusive person has to elevate their sense of self-worth to feel intact. This elevation consists of seeing themselves as superior, more deserving, and more important than others. Out of this inflated view of themselves – something called ‘grandiosity’ in the world of psychology – they take license to act in a domineering, intrusive and vindictive fashion to the people in their lives. A narcissistic person is often constantly on watch to see who is not complying with their sense of entitlement to be revered as more important, wiser, and holding more authority.
With all of this in mind, What is to be gained from telling a narcissistic abuser that you are unhappy with their treatment of you? I would argue Very little. The most likely outcome is a vindictive attack aimed at undermining the basis for your complaint, your character, and your reputation. As such, confronting a narcissist would endanger your psychological, emotional and potentially physical safety.
Why gaining distance from a narcissistic abuser is self-care NOT avoidance?
If you were walking in the woods and came across a rattlesnake sunning itself in the middle of your path, what would you do? Hopefully the answer would be to walk around the serpentine to spare yourself any untoward exchange with the creature. Would that be considered avoidance or an act of self-care? A rattlesnake cannot be talked out of doing the only thing it knows to do to survive what it perceives as a threat – namely execute its poisonous bite.
Similarly someone with untreated Narcissistic Personality Disorder cannot be talked out of doing the only thing know how to do when their inflated sense of self-worth gets threatened – namely attack, coerce, and devalue the source of the threat without concern for the feelings of the person posing that threat. So, If you walk around a rattlesnake or a parent or partner with NPD then the benefit seems to be ensuring your own survival and not putting yourself in harm’s way. That seems to be the essence of self-care.
A sticking point – guilt
When you have survived narcissistic abuse – particularly by a parent – you may experience a strong feeling of responsibility for the narcissist’s emotional wellbeing. This was likely assumed to ensure your survival because when the narcissistic parent or partner is unhappy then nobody close to them can be happy either. So, securing their happiness before your own could have been quite necessary. This may also lead to experiencing the narcissistic parent to be fragile and at risk of being destroyed if you do not protect them in this way. Such thoughts and feelings can result in you feeling extremely guilty for taking care of yourself before taking care of them – no matter how unfair you may know this to be.
This guilt takes time and patience to resolve during the process of recovery and I would encourage you to work to afford yourself compassion as you work towards this. The goal is to notice when you might be taking more responsibility for others’ emotional well being than your own and exercise compassion towards yourself to consider redrawing the lines of jurisdiction for what you’re responsible for and what you are not responsible for. One tool that might be helpful in this is my free webinar on 7 self-care tools to help you recover from narcissistic abuse. In this free webinar I show you two specific daily exercises you can to exercise patience and gratitude towards yourself. In my experience, practicing such exercises builds – over time – a new sense that you, too, are deserving of your own care and attention. This type of practice can be an antidote the feelings of responsibility for others’ emotions before your own.
The difference between feeling stressed and being around stressors. We have more definitive control over the former and less around the latter. Though, limiting stressors may shift the experience of stress. Not avoidance but protection.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.