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.