On several occasions, we have discussed the emotional and psychological impact and repercussions of being involved with a narcissist but we haven’t really looked more closely into the resultant patterns of behavior and coping mechanisms that we, as survivors of narcissistic abuse, have developed. While the psychological, emotional, and even physical anguish can quite literally be debilitating, the aftershocks can continue reverberating long after the relationship has ended, resonating deep within a person’s psyche, thus perpetuating the devastation as begun by the narcissist. The list of learned behaviors and coping mechanisms can be quite extensive so I’ve broken it down to nine basic characteristics that are fairly common with survivors of narcissist abuse. And while I generally prefer to cover one topic per post, given the voluminous Tolstoyesk content, I’m going to break this into two separate entries over the course of a week.
1. Continuing to pursue toxic people/relationships. Even after the relationship with the narcissist has ended, we find ourselves somehow falling back into unhealthy and toxic relationships with other toxic people, many of whom share similar patterns of abusive behavior as our narcissist. This is because, through the wonders of trauma bonding, we have been subconsciously “programmed” to believe that abusive treatment is normal, even healthy. Consequently, survivors of narcissistic abuse have a very distorted perception of what genuinely entails a healthy and loving relationship. This destructive dynamic is further amplified if you grew up with toxic parents/caregivers, as being berated and belittled is the only form of “love” you’ve ever known. And while we are, in actuality, seeking out a rescuer, we ultimately gravitate back to destruction at the hands of someone new by falling into the trap of embracing old, unhealthy patterns of attraction to abusive people. And the more toxicity your narcissist brought into your life, the more predisposed you will be to subconsciously drift toward, and even embrace, a toxic person and their toxic treatment of you.
The resultant toxicity produces a survivor who bounces from one broken and destructive relationship to another. You’ll often hear them echoing sentiments along the lines of, “Why can’t I just find a decent guy/girl?” It’s because we are continuing to follow long-established and unhealthy patterns of attraction. This results in re-experiencing old traumas in the form of fresh wounds at the hands of new abusers. And since these patterns are so deeply ingrained in us, we continue the self-sabotage the narcissist has programmed us to embrace as “normal and healthy,” thus perpetuating the cycle of abuse they started. This cycle repeats over and over again and, as a result, we continue to feel unwanted, unloved, perhaps even abandoned and unworthy of being loved because we don’t believe we are deserving of truly being cherished by emotionally and psychologically healthy people.
2. Doubting your self-worth. Before our narcissist, we were most likely quite secure in who we were. While our sense of self, our ego and id, weren’t inflated, we were confident and knew what we brought to the table. Enter the narcissist. In short order, s/he turned our confidence into insecurities, self-respect into self-loathing. self-reliance into self-doubt, independence into interdependence. Now you find yourself almost constantly doubting your skills, knowledge, aptitude, fortitude, and abilities. Where you once asserted yourself, you now find yourself apologizing for even the most innocuous and insignificant events, especially for things which you are in no way culpable. You find your thoughts fixating on what you perceive as being wrong with you. Are you worthy of love? Are you desirable, appealing, or even attractive enough to garner the attention and affection of others? When someone compliments you, you deflect with humor or self-deprecate. As time passes, you might even find yourself beginning to wonder, “Am I a Narcissist?” Your self-doubt begins to spiral out of control and you find yourself contemplating the possibility that, perhaps, you are the problem and not the narcissist.
As a survivor of narcissist abuse, this type of negative thought process is both self-defeating and self-destructive. Your narcissist has so very deftly parried and skirted each and every issue you ever had the courage to confront and question them about, instead projecting their own insecurities and self-hatred onto you, thusly convincing you that the source of the relationship’s issues lies with you and not them. After a while, you willingly begin to accept their twisted reality that it’s you who is the problem, you who is the “broken one,” you who is to blame for everything that is wrong with the relationship. This type of self-blame, while common among survivors of narcissistic abuse, draws its power from the deep-rooted trauma you have suffered at the hands of your narcissist, and not in the false reality that your narcissist has convinced you is true.
3. You now question everything, especially your own perception and interpretations of reality. Narcissists are virtual virtuosi of deceit and duplicity, masterful maestros of manipulation. They ask us to play first chair in their two-person orchestra only to then begin bringing in more musicians as “friends.” You see the signs that things are not quite right. These new “musicians” begin to receive the time, attention, adulation, and even flirtatiousness from your narcissist that you once did. Your narcissist’s philandering amorousness and unacceptably overt sexual innuendos are unparalleled, but when you confront him/her, s/he tells you you’re being too insecure, too sensitive, or emotional. “After all, isn’t it you I climb into bed with at night?” (My narcissist’s words to me.)
This dynamic, of pitting your attention and affection against other people who are also romantically interested in the narcissist, is called triangulation, and it’s just another step along the dark path to self-destruction when involved with a narcissist. “Maybe s/he’s right! Maybe I am being too insecure, too sensitive, too emotional.” You begin to doubt your own judgment, your own eyes and ears even though the signs are blatantly displayed in brilliant Technicolor. It isn’t long before it gets to the point that you no longer trust yourself or your perception of any facet of reality. Every decision you make, you find yourself second-guessing. What you once knew with certainty, you now doubt and debate within yourself, sometimes cyclically and at length. This is what’s called cognitive dissonance. You soon find these increasing degrees of uncertainty and self-doubt invading every dimension of your once blissful and peaceful life. Where you once acted with decisiveness, direction, and purpose, you are now filled with relentlessly draining doubts that undermine your own best efforts.
4. Self-sabotaging. Through very covert attacks of you, your person, your character, your intellect, abilities, and aptitude, the narcissist subtly and gently pushes you ever closer to self-destruction and complete reliance on them. They will often offer up a backhanded compliment to further perpetuate the process of undermining your self-esteem, “For someone who doesn’t cook very much, you can cook quite well” or, “Wow! You clean-up so well.”
Slowly, their stealthy insults and berating become more pronounced to the point that they are now outright critiquing, criticizing, and belittling you…sometimes even in public! Where you would once defend yourself, you now take this verbal assault because you’ve been convinced that you can’t trust your own judgment since you’re, “…too sensitive, too emotional, too insecure,” as outlined in Point 3. You might even go so far as to ask the narcissist what you can do to make the relationship better, as though their broken psyche is somehow your cross to bear. The narcissist’s focus on this false collection of your shortcomings is manufactured for no other reason than to covertly persuade you to extinguish your own unique and beautiful healing light that drew them to you in the first place. It is the same healing light that might have once burned in them but was smothered and snuffed out long, long ago, if ever it truly burned at all.
You now find yourself doubting abilities you once nurtured and explored with a passion and a fervor. You doubt that you can achieve goals you once relentlessly pursued, whose conceptualized accomplishments you relished. Where you once flourished in the never-ending joys of self-discovery, self-reliance, and self-achievement, you now find yourself drowning in the quagmire of uncertainty and faithlessness. The only “kind” and “constructive” words you are hearing are coming from your narcissist as condescending and convoluted accolades thus driving you to try even harder to make greater and more costly sacrifices in a vain effort to earn the narcissist’s praise and adulation. Never forget, the compassion of the wicked is cruel.
5. You’ve become a people-pleasing perfectionist. All those times the narcissist caused you to doubt your abilities through berating and belittling, criticizing and critiquing, tiny seeds of doubt were being planted that took root and blossomed into full and hearty deciduous spires of dissension that now tower over the barren wastelands which were once your lush and fertile fields of accomplishment. And, true to empathic form, you did everything possible to please your narcissist no matter how unrealistic their requests or expectations were – you lived solely for their approval. For it was in the warm light of their approval and acceptance that you were safe, rewarded; loved, if even for just a brief moment. But now that the relationship has ended, you find yourself starving for some form of approval and acceptance from anyone. Therefore, you seek to please others even to the extent that you place unrealistic expectations on yourself to attain lofty goals and results that are neither healthy nor reasonable and serve no other purpose than to be of benefit to someone else. While being altruistic is indeed an admirable quality, sacrificing your mental and physical health for nothing more than to accommodate the desires and needs of others is going to end well for everyone else except you. But you still reasoning is if you can please others the way you pleased your narcissist. You can avoid conflict and strife and, thus, experience outer peace, if even for a few fleeting moments, while sacrificing your inner peace. Consequently, your inner struggle continues.
When we find we are inconveniencing ourselves for others, we must be able to take a step back and honestly ask, “Why am I doing this? What do I have to gain in doing this? Who truly benefits from my actions?” Many times, you will find that the inspiration of your actions does not genuinely spring forth from your inner-well to create and enhance but rather to please and appease. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with executing intentional and purposeful plans to help someone who is truly in need, you may find you often come to a point where you are fixating on the results, caught in the endless tumultuous undertow of pleasing someone unappreciative of your efforts, instead of embracing your journey and seeing it through to completion for your own sense of accomplishment. It is here where one must learn to replace destructive behaviors and habits with healthier, more realistic expectations of your ability, your intent, and your potential as tempered by realistic limitations.
Next week, we will continue with the second installment of our two-part series addressing the lingering learned behaviors and coping mechanisms resulting from narcissistic abuse. Until next week, I sincerely wish you the best in your journey.