How to Survive a Malignant Narcissist

Many, many women – and far too many men – know what it feels like to live under the thumb of a malignant narcissist.   This is the truth: A very small portion of the population is devoid of empathy and stalks other humans like prey, uses them for their own purposes or merely dehumanizes and neglects them.   They do not relate. They do not change. They do not see the light. Ever.

Survivors of malignantly narcissistic fathers or stepfathers, mothers or stepmothers; survivors of abusive siblings or partners know this. Whether consciously or subconsciously. We know, on a cellular level, in our bodies as well as our minds, what it feels like to be controlled by that certain type of person. Some of us have been, for whole lifetimes, bereft of the words for this feeling. Without a name or a label for it. But we know it in our bones.

Now, with the promise of a malignant narcissist at the helm of our country, that feeling is present for all of us. The ones for whom this is not their first rodeo – the survivors – the trigger this election has unleashed is profound and relentless. Every news story rings with the danger. He is here. He is powerful and he is unchecked.

Trauma therapists know that after a trigger come the automatic reactions. Muscle tension, shortness of breath, intrusive thoughts, surges of fear, relationship disruption, failure to perform basic self-care, numbing, dissociation, self-blame, generalized fear, rage, feelings of powerlessness, anhedonia (the inability to enjoy things.)

All these descriptions render clinical the special flavor of that trigger experience. That feeling in our bones, the painful scars of abuse survived, tingling with presence. Like the way a rainy day makes a formerly broken bone ache. That rainy day is here. And it is not going away.

Americans have lived, since the Bay of Pigs without a threat of war on our soil. Many of us have felt deeply trusting and at ease. America is safe. Others of us have traveled and lived abroad.   Our foreign friends told us the tearful stories of narcissists in charge, the effects of hatred and genocide on Bosnia, Rwanda and the like. Precious few Americans are still alive to tell the stories of the Nazi Holocaust, though their families urge generations to never forget. But the survivors of narcissists in this country alone know the score. We know what the narcissist is capable of.

Here is what we know.

Before you reach the place where you accept it, you will fantasize that he will change. You will tell yourself it’s not that bad. You will take responsibility for all the things you have done that made his behavior possible. You will put your head in the sand. You will shut down. You will rage inside and say nothing outside. You will keep to yourself how terrible it feels and only share a version you believe is for public consumption. You will be invalidated by those who only see his charm and magnetism and you will believe you are alone. That you have no power.

You will do this, possibly, for a long time. And each day that you do it, you will feel him erode your sense of self, your sense of agency, your belief in the power of justice to work its magic.

And you will see no way out.

Traumatized people are tired. I work with them every day, so I know. But they are wise. They have been tested. And they have some advice for us during this time. A time that tries men’s souls. So I speak for them when I say this.

There is a way out. Here it is:

Know what you are dealing with.

Do not rest in the fantasy that he will change.

Separate from his voice, resist fear and hatred and protect those who are most vulnerable.

Never, never blame yourself.

You didn’t ask for this.

It was his job not to exercise terror in the first place. It is part of the human compact.

Find your humanity, deep in your core, where it has lived since the day you were born.

Feel your feelings and allow them to guide you.

Fan the flames of courage when they appear within.

Connect with safe people and stand up.

Stand up.

 

And in these ways, you will be free.

God Bless America.

 

 

 

The End of Toxic Narcissism

I really want to write about narcissism.  What a loaded word!  Our current political climate has recently opened up all kinds of discussion – on social media, in the blogosphere, in the mainstream media –  about narcissism.  I guess it’s helpful to have more open dialogue about how we should – and shouldn’t – treat each other.  In my work, though that discussion with my clients has always been front and center.

All human beings have, at the very least, healthy narcissism.  We all have to value our own needs enough to wake up in the morning and take a shower, feed ourselves breakfast and resist the onslaught of messages about everyone else’s needs long enough to take care of our own.  In my perfect world, every adult could look back at their childhood and say, “my primary attachment figure – the parent person I was closest to – took care of their own needs enough for them to then turn their kind, patient and boundaried attention to my needs.  They weren’t perfect, but they were there most of the time when I needed it.  They saw me and liked what they saw.  They wanted me to feel proud of myself and lovable.  And they gave me the space to learn slowly, making my mistakes along the way.  They reminded me that, even though they hope I’ll strive to learn and grow, I’m good enough just they way I am.”

That’s my perfect world.  The world, my friends, is imperfect.

Across the spectrum from healthy narcissism, is Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  We think it is related to a deeply ashamed sense of self originating in childhood but what we know it is that is characterized by a mask of ultraconfidence  and extreme vulnerability to the slightest criticism.   If that’s how you travel through the world, you’re probably really smooth and really mean.

Many of my clients enter my office with a story of a parent who may not even technically meet the criteria for the full blown personality disorder, but who – when the client was small and helpless – was charming, was never wrong, would not tolerate the client’s childhood anger, frustration or disappointment, who acted as if everything the client did – positive or negative – was a reflection on the parent (see this article for more explanation about how this plays out in families.)  My clients describe feeling sad and scared and never good enough.

Yup.  As you would.

But while those conditions are damaging for a child there is no clear villain in this story.  It would be easy to call the villain the parent and you’d be the closest to the truth.  It’s certainly not the kid.

But who is the kid?  The narcissistic parent was once a kid.  And then they had a kid.  And that kid grew up and had a kid (see where this is going?)  Hurt people, hurt people.  And narcissists, deep down, are very hurt, ashamed children in grown up bodies.   So many of my clients, even as adults, want deeply to heal their parents, to be loved by them, to change their behavior so that the dream of connection can be realized.  They struggle with the notion of seeing their parents as having been wrong in that story.  Why?  Because as I often say, “we are wired to believe our parents.”  So they’re left with that feeling of shame that sounds like, “Something is just wrong with me.”

(For more on that watch this Ted Talk with Brene Brown.)

There is a cycle of shame playing out in the world. Shame happens but if we pretend we don’t feel it, it tends to steer how we treat each other, and with a steady diet of it, it’s toxic. How will it end?  I think I know.  Though the goal is a lofty one, I get to walk toward that goal with my clients every day.  It will be ended by the survivors of narcissistic parenting – the ones who are healthy enough to dig into their own therapeutic work –  saying, “it ends here.”

Here’s what that sometimes looks like in my office:   I start with a bold assumption.  If we want kids to grow up emotionally healthy, parents have to put their kids’ emotional needs first.  No kid is responsible for making their parents happy.  (Sound obvious?  Not if you had a narcissistic parent.)

Next, together, we shine light on the childhood violations.  The times when clients were shamed or frightened.  Then we say what may never have been said. “I remember this or that hurt as a little person; my hurt matters; I didn’t deserve it; it wasn’t my fault.”  We ‘right the ship’ a little, right there.

I help clients to imagine their child selves and say (over and again in manifold ways), “I love you; I hear you; I’m sorry you were hurt; you’re safe; I will take care of you now.”

It sounds like just words but actually, it’s a habit you can develop and use as a very effective tool.  I love Kristen Neff’s work for explaining why and how to use it.

We work on how clients can be for themselves and for others – especially their children –  what they needed their parents to be for them.  That part can be hard.  Shame bubbles up about ways they might have hurt their kids that mirror ways they were hurt.  But that’s where shame helps us.  In tiny doses, if we can acknowledge it, it keeps us from doing that “thing” again.   It helps us repair rifts in relationship.  So together, we hold shame gently and let it do its work, while keeping the self-judgement reasonable.   We are all only human, after all.

What is all this?  It is good work.   It can feel too slow.  There is grief.  There is healing.  It’s courageous as hell.

And then there is change.  Change in the ways clients think and feel about themselves.  Change in the ways they talk to themselves.  Change in the ways they tell others “no” and tell others “yes” and tell others, “I love you.”

But the most important change of all is that my amazing, heroic clients can finally say to themselves, “There is nothing wrong with me.”  And by saying so, with compassion at the helm, they break the cycle of shame for their one family.   The goal is lofty.  But I’m sticking with it.  We shape each other by how we treat each other.  It’s darn important.

 

 

 

 

 

Marriage

Have you ever heard the notion, popularized by anthropologist Franz Boas, that there are 50 Inuit words for ‘snow’?  In my practice I like to say that there should be that many words for ‘love’.  Lately, I’ve begun to think there should be that many words for ‘marriage’.

We live in an amazing time for marriage.  It is now possible to get married in the United States, no matter what gender you are or whom you love.  The recent growth of conversations about polyamory (yes, that means more than one person with whom to share amor) have led us to question all kinds of old notions about love and marriage.  And now there is a book by a therapist I love, named Terrence Real, called The New Rules of Marriage.

I am often inspired to write book reviews on my blog so here I go again.  Terry Real captured my heart with I Don’t Want To Talk About It in 2007.  In it he talks about why so many men don’t talk about their feelings.  The New Rules of Marriage expands his reach and makes this groundbreaking statement to women married to men.  “Women, you are not crazy.  It is OK to want more connection.”  (I’m paraphrasing.)  Whew!  It’s really helping me make that point in my couples’ sessions.  Thanks, Terry.

My mentors – beautifully married therapists Rita Resnick Ph.D. and Robert Resnick Ph.D. out of GATLA (Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles) – taught me that human beings are always seeking both connection and separateness.  I love helping couples manage that tension.  But I think what I love most is telling people that marriage – if we want to do it for the extraordinarily long amount of time our culture seems to value – requires some serious work.  Work!

It’s a piece of cake (albeit a tasteless piece of cake) to stay married without any emotional work – so long as you want to stay stuck in all the patterns you bring from your parents’ marriages and your own fears and anxieties.

To stay vitally married is an active process of learning about new tools, sharpening them and practicing their use.  I do believe this.  Even though there is obviously a conflict of interest here.  Such notions will keep me in business helping couples define all their words for marriage.  But having just finished a beautiful session a hour ago with a couple who are rebuilding their marriage after separation and infidelity, wow, what an amazing business it is.

 

 

 

The Brain on Play-Doh

Have you ever thought, “I don’t want to go to therapy and talk about what’s ‘wrong’ with me!”? Yeah, you and the rest of the world. We could say that stigma exists because of the medical model that says you go to docs to get cured of a malady, rather than to improve existing health. By extension, most therapists get lumped in with that medical model and, why not? We want our therapists to understand what is happening to us bio-medically, so if they’re meeting our needs they will be part of that medical model.

As our medical model evolves with modern science however we learn that there is indeed, nothing wrong with us. Everything that is happening in the brain is a reaction to a set of circumstances and sometimes we need to tweak the system – get a tune-up, if you will.

A book I highly recommend by Norman Doidge, MD, The Brain that Changes Itself, will wow you with stories about how the brain continues to change and grow throughout the lifespan, making it possible for the elderly to exercise their memories (not just by playing more scrabble, folks), the compulsive to learn new brain patterns (bye-bye excessive handwashing), and stroke victims to play tennis, ride motorcycles and ski.

Doidge shares how the brain is plastic, meaning that like a blob of play-doh, it is shaped by every experience it has. Every experience. So you don’t escape your experiences (“Oh, that trauma? That didn’t affect me”), but you have endless opportunities to change them!

All intelligent therapists know this and that is why we believe in what we do. We know the brain can keep changing itself as it finds new ways to think, and makes sense of what has already happened. We help people take full advantage of those opportunities to shape your brain into a more efficient machine. Happiness is simply a pleasant side-effect.

When Teen Girls Need Counseling

Teen girls seem to struggle with emotions rising and falling constantly. It’s helpful to remember that their brains are flooded with hormones that overactivate the emotion centers in their noggins. So when she snaps at you like you just ruined her life, don’t worry. She’s just trying to keep from drowning in her own emotions.

Teen girls want to be understood, but more importantly, they want to understand themselves.

If you think the teen girl in your life may actually be struggling more than is normal – or you just want to find out if she falls into the “normal” category – she may benefit from some counseling. Teen years are often when you need to recruit more people to the parenting team.

If you’re not sure that conversation will go over too well, try dropping hints that she check out this website from the Center for Young Women’s Health at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

http://www.youngwomenshealth.org/counseling.html

It’s got loads of good information and this link goes straight to the part that helps teen girls figure out if they might need counseling. She might be intrigued by the notion she could actually understand herself better.

Just remember that when she comes to you saying, “I think I want you to call someone for counseling” you choke back that “It’s OK, honey – it’s just your hormones.” So long as you like your eardrums intact.