Is it hard to believe that others could genuinely care about your feelings?
Do you find yourself assuming some sort of ulterior motive to those who seem to be committing an act of kindness?
Does it feel like care and affection is something to be earned rather than received?
If you answered yes to any of these questions then today’s post on how to trust after narcissistic abuse could be for you. In the 80’s when I was growing up there was a very popular commercial for a shampoo by this guy ‘Vidal Sassoon’ and it played endlessly in my childhood. His famous tagline at the end of the commercial where everyone with beautiful hair was using his shampoo was “Vidal Sassoon: If you don’t look good, we don’t look good”. Are you asking what the heck an 80’s hair mogul has to do with trust and narcissistic abuse? Good! Let me explain…
But first, let me introduce myself. My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco, CA. I specialize in helping people recover from the impacts of narcissistic abuse by a parent or partner. Especially those cast into the role of scapegoat by the narcissist. Through individual therapy and my online course we work to identify and bust the myths about themselves that had to be believed to survive the narcissistic abuse. In the end, people get to develop a compassion-based understanding of and relationship to themselves.
If you survived narcissistic abuse and found yourself to be blamed for any and everything by the narcissistic parent or partner, I encourage you to check out my free e-book on Surviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat. You can click here to get it.
And if you haven’t already, I encourage you to hit the subscribe button below so you can get notified every time a new blog is posted.
So what the heck does Vidal Sassoon have to do with the breakdown and restoration of trust in narcissistic abuse? Well, a lot, I think! For the survivor of narcissistic abuse, the rule of the day was typically deprivation of the emotional nourishment needed to:
1) feel loved for who one uniquely is in the world, and
2) feel that the love one offers is valuable to important others.
A narcissistic parent leaves the child emotionally malnourished
A narcissistic parent or partner just does not possess the empathy and ability to think and care about you necessary to provide such nourishment. Yet, no matter how self-absorbed and punitive a narcissistic parent or partner was, there could likely have been some good moments now and again. When the narcissist smiled fondly at you, or showed affection, or spoke highly of you to others. As sought after as the moments were during the abuse, there’s a truth about them that the survivor is very familiar with: when the narcissist is showing you kindness or care, then there must be something in it for him or her.
Such affection or kindness is not freely given in narcissistic abuse – but often comes with a strategic aim. It may be to offset an earlier act of punitiveness towards the victim, or to set the victim up to show how s/he takes advantage of the narcissist’s generosity later, or maybe it’s in response to the survivor’s successful attempt to sacrifice his/her own happiness to boost the narcissist’s. As many survivor’s know, for some narcissistic abusers seeing you unhappy could very well make them happy. The point is that the survivor learns at a deep level that when a gesture of kindness is offered to the survivor it’s somehow or another b/c the narcissist was made to look better to themselves in their own eyes.
OK, so that’s why I thought of the commercial. I think that a narcissistic abuser’s refrain for when and why they selectively offer some sort of kindness is:
“If I don’t look good, you don’t feel good”.
The point of this is not to hammer at the narcissistic abuser further. But, rather to highlight a common experience for the survivor of narcissistic abuse that can make it difficult later to trust others’ expressions of kindness towards you.
There’s an overlap between what the narcissist’s occasional kind gesture and someone else’s sincere gesture. They can look – from the outside – very similar but for the survivor the way they learned to survive such acts of kindness can make it hard to trust and take in the a sincere act of kindness. Here’s how:
Many survivors of narcissistic abuse describe learning to steel themselves inside whenever their narcissistic abuser began acting kind or complimentary towards them. They describe feeling or knowing that it was a set up and that the risk lie in letting their guards down to take in the narcissist’s kindness. For if they did, the same person from whom they accepted the compliment would later accuse them of being inconsiderate, inadequate, inferior and a lot of other ‘I’ words. If they had let themselves stay open and believe the initial kindness the resulting accusations and character attacks would only hurt that much more. So, it was a measure of grit and wisdom that they learned to go rigid inside so as not to take the bait. If this inner experience resonates with you, I hope you can offer yourself some credit for what you managed to do in such a dire situation.
3 tools to show you how to trust after narcissistic abuse
And now for the challenge or opportunity facing survivors when they are distanced enough from their narcissistic abuser and are in relationships where someone is offering them sincere kindness or accurate positive reflections of who they are. The same tactic that saved their psychological and emotional selves from the narcissistic abuser’s attempts to set them up, can interfere with getting to take in the genuine article from other people. Here are a few tools to help retire the part that has served you valiantly to protect yourself and trust the new sincere feedback offered from the right people in your life:
- Distance is a prerequisite: We can’t drop our weapons when the war is still going on. It’s imperative to get psychological, emotional, and physical distance from the narcissistic abuser before working to trust others’ good intentions towards you. This is b/c dropping your guard when the narcissistic abuser is still around can result in the exact wounding you’ve worked so hard to protect yourself from.
- Find and cultivate relationships with others who offer you safety. One feature of safety is the provision of reflections of who you are to that person and how and why you matter to them. It doesn’t have to be stated overtly but can be conveyed via attitude and action too. If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend checking out Module 4 in my Online Course on how to recover from narcissistic abuse. This particular module walks the viewer through the specific qualities that can make someone ‘safe’ and offers an exercise to identify who’s most to least safe in your life so that you can structure to include more of the ‘most safe’ and less of the ‘least safe’. The link is here.
- Deliberately watch, track, and when necessary challenge the meanings you make of these ‘safe’ people’s kindness towards you. For example, if a friend invites you to dinner, you might check your inner monologue to wonder why you think they want your company…if a part of you is saying they feel obligated or they want to seem like a welcoming person, then this might reflect what would have been true with the narcissistic abuser. Try to think of and try out alternative understandings, such as: “I’m a valued friend and they want to spend more time with me b/c they care about me.”
These alternative understandings may not – in fact probably will not – feel believable at first, but as with so much in this recovery process just because something feels unfamiliar doesn’t mean it’s less accurate than what feels familiar.
Just because something feels unfamiliar doesn’t mean it’s less accurate than what feels familiar.
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.