How a narcissist targets your fun
Do you find yourself finding excuses not to do things that you know you enjoy?
Does anything that’s not work or school feel like something you shouldn’t be doing?
Is it strange to see depictions of people having fun in movies or tv? Like how is it that they are so happy?
Is it hard to enjoy activities that don’t yield a sense of accomplishment?
When I was in 4th grade, this incredible Beastie Boys album came out called Licensed to Ill. One of the best tracks on it was called ‘Fight for your right to Party’. If you haven’t heard it, give it a listen. It’s awesome. What struck me was how brazenly the Beasties were championing their right to have fun in the song. I grew up in a home that’s a lot like the ones I talk about in this family, so the notion of putting your right to have fun squarely in the center of your life and doing everything in your power to protect it, was pretty foreign – but super appealing. If you suffered narcissistic abuse by a parent or a partner it’s no accident why having fun, and prioritizing it in your life, can feel like a foreign and even dangerous concept.
In today’s blog post, I want to discuss why fun is an endangered species for the survivor of narcissistic abuse and how you can work to know you deserve it, and that it’s safe to experience in your recovery process.
Well, my name is Jay Reid and I specialize in helping individuals recover from narcissistic abuse in individual therapy and through my online course & community. We take a 3-pronged approach to recover of 1) Making sense of what happened, 2) Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and 3) living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules. Today’s blog post sits squarely in the ‘living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules’ department.
And if you’re interested in another resource on how you can live in defiance of the narcissist’s rules, you might check out my free webinar on 7 self-care tools to recover from narcissistic abuse.
Why is it dangerous to have fun around your narcissistic abuser?
Psychologically-speaking, a narcissist suffers a core sense of worthlessness that they can’t bear to acknowledge and cope by relocating it into others. Usually someone else over whom they have authority. This makes their child or partner a common target. In essence, the narcissist needs to ‘find’ the child or partner as the worthless one instead of themselves. They do this by acting in ways that pressure the child or partner – whom we can call the scapegoat in this situation – to identify with the narcissist’s own feelings of worthlessness. This lets the narcissist continue to deny what they can’t tolerate about themselves and feel temporarily convinced that it’s the scapegoat who’s the worthless one.
So, in essence, the narcissist needs to see the scapegoat victim of their relocated worthlessness to be living a grim, colorless life. This reinforces the narcissist’s conviction that the scapegoated victim doesn’t deserve anything better than the treatment they are getting.
And so the narcissistic abuser can function with a more intact – brittle as it is – sense of themselves with a scapegoat who conforms to these parameters.
So what happens if the scapegoat dares to experience fun, and shows a sign of life and color in their demeanor? This can totally upend the narcissist’s fragile handle on their artificially inflated sense of self-worth. To see a scapegoated victim smiling due to a source of fun they are having that is unrelated to the narcissist can send the message that the scapegoat thinks s/he deserves better in their lives, that their happiness is worth something, and that they have sources of happiness outside of the narcissist. All these messages can feel profoundly threatening to the narcissist. And how will the narcissist cope? Well, when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail and the narcissist is a psychological one-trick pony when it comes to handling threats to their self-esteem – they seek to devalue or even destroy the threat. For this reason, survivors of such abuse can often recall particularly wrathful attacks when it was evident they were having fun in their lives. Being picked up from a party while laughing with friends could mean getting yelled at for not doing chores once those friends were dropped off. Going to a school dance and coming home a minute late, could create an avalanche of yelling accusations and punishment. And so on, and so on…often with even worse repercussions.
One scapegoat survivor recalled how in 6th grade his social world began to open up and his narcissistic mother grew intent on preventing him from enjoying it. She would make up chores just as he was about to leave to meet his friends and forbid him from joining them. As he looked ahead to what his teenage years held in store for him, he fretted over how he could possibly obtain the freedoms that other teenagers seemed to get without getting into WW3 at home. He remembered in sixth grade where two high school students came to talk to his class about what to expect in high school. He raised his hand and asked how they were able to convince their parents to allow them to drive in cars with friends or go to parties. The two high school students kind of shrugged and he knew that this was not a struggle for them in their homes.
So the scapegoat has to learn to wean themselves off of fun. It’s just too dangerous. One way to do this is to grow to see fun as immoral or ‘bad’ in some way or another. That only accomplishment is ‘worthy’ of one’s effort. Of course, this attitude may have the primary function of appearing grim or as if one has a furrowed brow in view of the narcissistic parent or partner. Doing this doesn’t lead to an approach to work like the 7 dwarves – you know, it’s off to work we go – but more like Cinderella where every moment has to be filled up with housework of some sort. You may recall how Cinderella’s mother and stepsisters took particular delight in seeing her furiously scrubbing floors or sweeping and grew aghast and contemptuous when her foot fit the glass slipper. It’s crazy how much wisdom in these fairy tales.
How to make it feel safe to have fun again? Or fight for your right to party as it were…
Like all of these strategies in recovery, it’s essential to have enough protective distance between yourself and the narcissistic abuser so that experimenting with different strategies doesn’t make you vulnerable to further attack by the narcissistic abuser. Assuming this distance is in place, then it can be possible to notice how you might reflexively avoiding the experience of fun.
You may notice feeling anxious or ill-at-ease within when in an unstructured setting with friends or structuring your time so that you’re always in the process of going after a goal. What might be useful is to prescribe yourself activities designed for no other purpose but to have fun. Like watching a sunset, taking a directionless long walk, or having a long lunch with a friend…the idea is not to find these activities fun right away but with continued inclusion in your day-to-day experience, you might notice more and more getting reacquainted with the experience of fun.
One important note about fighting for your right to party in the process of recovery from narcissistic abuse…Fun is innocent and connects us to our basic humanity. Engaging in activities just b/c they bring you a measure of joy can bring into stark contrast how your humanity was denigrated by the narcissistic abuser. It can bring home that at your core you are very good and decent being and the lies that had to be believed to survive the narcissistic abuse that you are bad, sinister or whatever were never true. This can evoke a lot of grief. I don’t think there’s anything to be done or should be done about such grief. As a very dear friend used to say, this is ‘clean pain’ as opposed the dirty pain that can come with avoiding such grief.
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.
My family and others expected me to be almost like a slave. There was little room for fun, creativity, joy, self-expression or happiness.
I remember being forced to clean for hours and screamed at and harsh treatment and not being able to interact with other kids in a normal way because of this.
Then I married a man who almost immediately complained that I wasn’t “productive”…despite all of the hard work I do, without reward or gratitude.
I think that because of all the bad experiences, fun stopped being a priority and I went into survival mode.
When you are told since childhood that your only purpose in life is to work yourself to death and be of service to others (but your own needs/desires don’t matter) it’s hard to feel “worthy” of self-care and fun and relaxation and simply enjoying life.
A person can lose sight of who they are, what makes them smile, etc…their identity because of narcissistic abuse.
It makes me sad because at my core, I remember a child who was once playful and wanted to embrace life.
But the people around me decided that I had no right to happiness, so over several decades they worked on turning me into a shell of myself. This is done to keep the victim/survivor (whatever term you prefer) compliant so they can be controlled and subservient to the needs of others, even into adulthood.
Because if we dare to have fun, it threatens their sense of control and power. It threatens the notion of the scapegoat lacking humanity (as you stated above so well!) and it upsets them that we don’t know our perceived “place”.
I remember when I was a kid, my stepfather never wanted me to accompany him and my mom on trips although I was well-behaved.
The one time I was allowed, I thanked them for allowing me to come. My stepfather’s response? “This vacation is NOT for you, M…you’re not entitled to anything. You’re lucky we even let you have anything at all”. I still remember that, and it strikes me how even when I expressed gratitude, I was being reminded (yet again) how unworthy I was of simply having fun and being treated like a person or a member of the family.
And yes, I agree with the idea of giving ourselves permission and freedom to have fun!
To explore interests, hobbies, what we enjoy, etc. It’s time to reclaim what we have been denied.