Do you fear that if you say what you don’t like in a relationship that your partner will accuse you of being ‘too sensitive?
Do you fear that if you say what want more of in a relationship that your partner will accuse you of being ‘too needy’?
Do you work really hard to make it seem like nothing bothers you even when that’s not the case?
Well, if you answered yes to any of these questions, then a narcissistic abuser may have treated you in a way designed to make you doubt what sort of treatment you are entitled to and deserve in a relationship. And the abuser may have sown these seeds of doubt by trying to embarrass you for knowing and asserting your rights in a relationship. In essence, the narcissist claims the scapegoat is ‘too sensitive’ for having legitimate needs. In today’s post I’m going to explain why this so often happens in the course of narcissistic abuse and then I’ll offer a tool to help you reclaim the knowledge that your needs are legitimate.
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 recovert that involves:
- Making sense of what happened
- Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser
- Living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
Today’s post falls under the category of ‘living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules’.
And if you survived narcissistic abuse from a parent or a partner you might check out my free e-book on this topic. It explains why someone is selected to be the scapegoat – it’s not b/c they’re so bad but b/c they’re so good – and why none of this sort of treatment was deserved. The e-book makes clear how the process of narcissistic abuse and the role of scapegoat is a product of the narcissistic person’s psychopathology and nothing else. You can find the link here.
Why would a narcissistic abuser shame you for having needs?
Tiffany was another anonymous ‘client’ who was recovering from growing up as the scapegoated daughter to a narcissistic father. She recalled how he would explode into rages at her for the slightest violation of the ‘household rules’ – such as waiting five minutes before taking the trash out after he asked her rather than doing it immediately – and attack her character for being disrespectful, inconsiderate and selfish. Her enabler mother never stepped in to intervene on her behalf so Tiffany’s only frame of reference to understand her father’s behavior towards her was that she must deserve it. Yet, Tiffany, still registered that she felt devastated after these kinds of attacks by her father and that they seemed to her to be out of proportion to the ‘offense’ she had supposedly committed. She recalled how she her father was reasonable at his core and so she might ask him to speak to her in a calmer tone when he thought she hadn’t done something she was supposed to. So, she asked him one day,
“Hey Dad, can I talk with you about something?”
Her Dad said,
“what is it?”.
“Well, I was thinking about our fight about the trash last night and I wondered if it would be possible for you to speak to me in a calmer tone? I know you don’t mean it but it really hurts my feelings when I feel like you’re yelling at me.”
Her Dad looked her in the eye and a smirk drew across his face as he said,
“Damn, Tiffany! You are soooo sensitive! Now I’m not gonna change my behavior just because you’re too fragile to take the consequences of your actions.”
Tiffany recalled trying to keep her composure after being so cruelly humiliated and was able to mutter “OK” before walking out of the room and finding a private place to cry out the agony she had just endured.
Elements of this example may resonate for many scapegoat survivors of such a narcissistically abusive parent. Not every survivor may have sat the parent down like Tiffany did, but you may have known how such a conversation would go for you. I think this example is important because it highlights the 3 reasons why a narcissistic abuser turns your expression of your legitimate needs into something to feel shame about. That is, why the narcissist claims the scapegoat is ‘too sensitive’.
3 reasons why a narcissistic abuser turns your needs against you
#1 Your needs interfere with their sense of superiority
First, when you assert your rightful needs to feel respected, for instance, this interferes with them being able to see you as less-than and a receptacle for their own worthlessness. As I’ve explained in so many of these posts, a narcissistic abuser starts with a – typically unconscious – belief in their own shame and worthlessness but finds this intolerable. So they instead insist on the opposite and consciously see themselves as better than or more important than others. Next, they feel entitled for others to reflect back this inflated view of themselves.
Typically, however, these reflections are not constant enough and some of this underground shame and worthlessness and can break through to the surface. In these instances, the narcissistic abuser needs someone over whom they have authority – a child is prime candidate – to blame for them coming into contact with their own worthlessness. This is the function played by the scapegoated child to the narcissistically abusive parent. The experience of the scapegoat survivor is of always being found to be ‘inadequate’ in the eyes of the narcissistically abusive parent.
Tiffany, for instance, had to work really hard in therapy to challenge her beliefs in her own inadequacy. She and her therapist grew to understand how her father’s attacks for not taking the trash out immediately were really efforts to make her feel less-than as a person. Her therapist was able to help her see that this was not based in fact but in his need to have someone onto whom he could relocate his own felt sense of inadequacy that he was too fragile psychologically and emotionally to take responsibility for.
Tiffany’s therapist also helped her understand how her attempt to communicate her legitimate claim to be treated with respect from her father threatened his ability to keep her as the scapegoat. If he granted her need for his respectful treatment to be legitimate then she may not be as willing to go along with him the next time he needed to relocate his own worthlessness onto her.
Like if he felt inept at his job and found this to put him in a groundswell of feelings of powerlessness and shame then he would always find himself restored if he could accuse and punish Tiffany for her supposed ‘ineptitude’ as a daughter. Her ask that he speak more calmly towards her would’ve compromised his ability to deal with his own feelings of inadequacy by foisting them onto Tiffany. So, this is why, her therapist explained, he tried to humiliate her for expressing how she wanted him to speak to her by calling her ‘too sensitive’.
I don’t think there’s much more shame inducing response when stating what you want more of or less of in a relationship than to be told ‘you’re too sensitive’. Tiffany’s and others like her are testaments to this.
#2 Your needs remind the narcissist of what s/he does not have to give
The second reason why a narcissistic abuser turns your expression of your legitimate needs into something to feel shame about is they feel shame in not being able to offer what’s being asked for and this reminds them of their own sense of inadequacy. This reason goes back to the narcissistic abuser’s lack of feeling based empathy for the feelings of others.
When a scapegoated child or partner goes to the narcissistic abuser with the intention of protecting their own feelings in relationship with the narcissist, it may highlight how bereft of compassion the narcissistic abuser is. And if the narcissistic abuser is invested in seeing him or herself as compassionate, then he or she will have to blame the scapegoat survivor for bringing them into contact with this deficiency. I think this gets accomplished by blaming someone like Tiffany for being ‘TOO’ sensitive such that her request is the problem rather than the narcissist’s own lack of empathy needed to feel compassion towards others.
#3 Your needs remind them of their own dependency on others
And the third reason why a narcissistic abuser turns your expression of your legitimate needs into something to feel shame about is that they hate their own dependency on others to make them feel OK and hate seeing you act as if there’s nothing wrong with this. When Tiffany told her father that he hurt her feelings when he spoke to her so harshly, she was also telling him that the way others treat her affects how she feels about herself.
This is a statement about her vulnerability – a vulnerability that everyone in touch with their own humanity feels to some extent or another. Her narcissistically abusive father likely couldn’t stand his own similar need in himself. Instead he went around coercing others to treat him the way he needed to be treated but that’s a lot different than what Tiffany was doing. She was not trying to manipulate or coerce her father to treat her the way she wanted but rather appealing to his compassion while granting that it was up to him whether he chose to treat her kindly or not. That granting that others are free to choose to care for the other person or not is what the narcissistic abuser can’t tolerate. I believe that it feels too threatening to them. It didn’t feel good for Tiffany in this case but she was stronger – emotionally & psychologically – than her father so could endure the outcomes.
My point is listing these reasons you may have been met with claims that you’re too sensitive when you asked to be treated the way you wanted is to hopefully know now that there was nothing wrong with what you wanted in these instances. Rather, you were called ‘too sensitive’ because what you wanted met squarely with the pathology of the narcissistic abuser’s psychological makeup.
What can you do to reclaim your needs?
With all of this being said, what can you do now to reclaim your right to speak up when you feel appropriately offended, disrespected, or missed in a relationship?
The adage from David Celani’s book “Leaving Home” can be really appropriate here. He talks about the rule of thumb for finding safe relationships as being “go where you’re wanted and where things work”. Through this frame, then if or when you express what you need to someone in a relationship then their response might be considered as to whether you’re left feeling like you’re wanted and that things are working in the relationship. That is, do you find that you are met with respect, curiosity, and a show that your feelings matter to the other person?
This does not mean that you have to get 100% agreement on the issue but the way in which you’re received can make all the difference. So that if the narcissist claims the scapegoat is ‘too sensitive’, then you can experiment with seeing this as a signal that this person is not helping you feel wanted and that things don’t seem to be working. I suggest this in contrast to internalizing the ‘too sensitive’ feedback and feeling shame about it. Instead it might just be experienced as a signal about the other person and what they can and cannot offer you in relationship to them.
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.