Survivors of emotional violence will often speak to me about the re-victimization they experience at the hands of family members, friends, legal counsel, law enforcement and even helping professionals. This is a form of societal gaslighting, where the individual’s experience is minimized, invalidated and even been met with victim-blaming statements. This is such a widespread complaint I hear from people that I began to realize it is a much larger than an individual problem. This is a social bias.
My sociology and social work background always has me thinking about the societal underpinnings of individual problems. What this is truly about is power dynamics in our world.
By uncovering the unconscious rules of the power game and the methods by which it attains legitimacy, we are certainly in a position to bring around basic changes. – Alice Miller
Blaming the victim, victim-shaming and backlash against people who have joined the #MeToo movement is a sad reality in our world, and it is easy to see why victims of emotional abuse so readily adopt this view. We see it time and time again when we hear about people who suffer horrific abuse, and the question always lingers: “Why didn’t she just leave?”
We see this in sexual assault cases (what was she wearing?), or how people view those in poverty as lazy, or blaming mentally ill people for poor lifestyle choices. There are cases where some victims are at least partially responsible for their situations, but their personal responsibility is often inflated and the extenuating circumstances are overlooked. Why do people do this?
Blaming the victim has two parts: Avoid responsibility and avoid vulnerability. The world is a scary place and the human psyche fears this truth. Instead of feeling vulnerable, our minds search for evidence for how the world is indeed safe. Victims threaten our need for safety and security. We simply don’t want to believe that bad things happen to good people because in accepting this harsh truth, we acknowledge our vulnerability. Most people cannot accept this terrifying reality.
There is also a belief that leaving an abusive relationship should be simple and straightforward. You and I both know this is an enormous myth.
Accepting that you are not responsible for the abuse you suffered flies in the face of all of the messages we have received in our lives—from friends, family, popular media and society in general. The reality is that you had no control over this person. You must fully embrace this truth.
The abusive person has put you in the position of responsibility for their behavior. They have blamed you for their shortcomings. You have been told you’re not good enough and the abuse you endured seems to prove that this is true. This is wrong. You are not to blame. It is not you who is not good enough. The abuser is the only one responsible for the abuse. They knew what they was doing when they mistreated you and they did it on purpose. Their deliberate abuse highlights that they have a need to hurt others in order to make themselves feel significant and superior. You, on the other hand, already know you are imperfect, and you do not need to hurt someone else to make yourself feel better. Only an individual with a deeply flawed personality would need to do this.
How do we start validating survivors? Understand and make the clear distinction: this is not about a “bad breakup” or being “incompatible”. This is about people who have been incredibly injured by cruel individuals who lack empathy, who are chronic abusers, who lack remorse and have no conscience for their malicious actions.
As one survivor described to me, “Being told by my best friend that he was just going through a ‘rough patch’ and that the way he behaved in the marriage was typical of someone who has fallen out of love was like a kick in the stomach. It was like being told my reality was entirely false. That I must have imagined it, or I was oversensitive, or lacked awareness of normal human behavior. The gaslighting by my best friend only further victimized me. I already thought I was a completely crazy, stupid and hysterical. Then I had my best friend confirming it.”
How Do We Stop This Re-Victimization?
Acknowledge and validate the survivors’ reality. Understand that narcissism, antisocial personalities and psychopathy are real in this world. There are actually people in society, in our workplaces, churches, and families who are cruel, predatory and intentionally seek to destroy others. There are individuals who lack remorse, who behave in inhumane ways and will use emotional, psychological and physical violence to get their way. These are extremely dangerous people and this is gut-check time. Not all individuals in this world are inherently good.
Accept that recovery from a psychologically abusive relationship takes longer. It is also important to understand that friends, family and others do not understand this post-traumatic pain. They will dispense some unhelpful, even harmful advice, such as, “You’re dwelling on the past. You need to move on.” What they don’t know is that survivors are asking themselves a version of that question of themselves.
The difficulty that interferes with healing is the terrible betrayal at this fraudulent love. Narcissistic abuse survivors show many similarities in their recovery journey, due to the tactics used by the abuser. Someone who has undergone repeated gaslighting by a narcissistic abuser will invariably suffer the effects of cognitive dissonance. This is when the survivor is trying to make sense of the abuser’s false image that hooked them to them in the first place, with the abuser’s cruel, mean and disturbing true self.
Due to this cognitive dissonance, survivors will often perseverate on the discrepancy between the charming, over the top, love-bombing person they feel in love with compared to the ugly, malicious person they came to be.
What others see is the survivors constant re-view and attempt to re-assess the memories and resulting thoughts and emotions related to the cognitive dissonance. This is why the re-tell the same stories, over and over, because they are trying to make sense of something that inherently does not make sense.
This process, in and of itself, helps to reduce the cognitive dissonance and address the disconnection that has happened to their memories (survivors often dissociate during trauma and memories, thoughts and feelings become jumbled and elusive - an innate psychological protection). If, during a re-telling of the story, a friend validates, accepts and shows appropriate revulsion about the abusive behavior, it reduces the confusion and begins to allow the person’s reality to become trusted once again.
I hope and believe that as awareness of narcissistic abuse grows, the majority of the socially conscious individuals in this world will transition from victim-blaming to start to demand that responsibility for the abuse be where it should be: on the abuser.
Your dad thinks everything you do is inefficient, incompetent and just plain…wrong. Your aunt wants to gossip about your mother behind her back and pry for information on her sister’s dirty little secrets, your brother insults you with a backhanded compliment, “Gee, nice that you bothered to put some effort into baking this year,” or your cousin one-ups you about pretty much every single thing (you have a BMW? She has a Lamborghini). Or, your uncle is passive aggressive about the gift you bought him, “This looks like a one-click Christmas present.”
While it is estimated that only 6% of the population actually has narcissistic personality disorder, there are many people who display manipulative, controlling and narcissistic traits, and it’s pretty likely that someone in every family meets part of the criteria for being a narcissist.
You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. But don’t worry, here’s how to deal with the dreaded holidays with your narcissistic family member(s):
Let Them Be Right
Whatever you do, don’t fight them. You already know that when you fight back it always makes things worse. Let them win. Let them believe they are superior. At the root of it all, manipulators fear inferiority. "Remember that they're usually driven by an unconscious sense of shame or inferiority," says Joseph Burgo, PhD, author of "The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age." Christmas is definitely not the time to dig in your heels, because Christmas might just end with an aunt, mother or brother as an enemy.
So what to do instead? Remember what Bill Eddy, LCSW from the High Conflict Institute does: EAR – Empathy, Attention and Respect. Have empathy for the narcissists complain, listen with your full attention, and respect their opinion. Then leave the discussion. This may mean you end up eating at the kids’ table just to get away from the drama.
Sometimes the cruelty of a manipulator can literally take your breath away. Sometimes it can come from out of the blue and you’re left wondering what the hell just happened? Who knows why, in the middle of a pleasant conversation, a narcissist has to drop a big ball of nasty, but whatever it is, don’t take the bait. Instead, stay calm, neutral and be ready with a quick response. “That's one way of looking at it,” or “I see.” If they keep baiting you, over and over, don’t take it! This way they’ll know their efforts to get you spinning are being wasted.
RELATED: Why are Psychological Abusers So Cruel, Adversarial and Resentful?
Take The High Road
Most of us enjoy Christmas because we want to catch up with our families and reconnect with relatives we don’t see as often as we’d like. Unfortunately, Christmas for a psychologically abusive person can be when their jealous, spiteful traits really come to light. If you notice they are trash-talking your loved ones or running people down when they’re not there to defend themselves, you can always take the high road.
Example, “Did you see how bad aunt ___ looks?!” You can respond with something that shows you are unfettered by their complete rudeness, “No I didn’t. She’s a beautiful person, inside and out.” Then walk away. What can they possible say after that?
Don't JADE – Justify, Argue, Defend, And Explain
Manipulators hold grudges for a very long time, even if the problem is perceived, not real. If you can’t avoid the person who’s mad at you from last Thanksgiving’s perceived rudeness, make sure you turn to the old Al-Anon 12-step slogan JADE that reminds us not to engage in justifying, arguing, defending, and explaining. Instead? Think detach.
Make Them Feel Important
Psychological abusers have issues of feeling inferior at their core. They make up with this dark inner feeling by acting like a huge know-it-all. Give them what they want. Ask them about their important job, their beautiful children, their fast car, their big house and let them beam. For some people, this might chap their ass. In my opinion, making someone feel good is never a bad thing, even if I don't think they deserve it.
RELATED: 9 Signs You're A Victim of Psychological Abuse
Agree to Disagree
It’s okay to stand your ground when you need to. Sometimes they are so foul that it is impossible to give them a pat response. In this case, agree to disagree. “You have your way of doing things that make sense to you, but I would deal with this differently.”
Tip: Do not, under any circumstance, let them get under your skin. If you lose your cool and freak out, you're going to end up looking like the family nut, all the while you'll be scratching your head and thinking, what the hell just happened this time?
What are your thoughts? How do you handle the narcissist at your family gatherings?
Joanne Brothwell, MSW, CLC, is a therapist and author in Saskatoon, Canada with twenty-two years of public and private practice. She is the creator of the Psychological Abuse Recovery Course, a program designed to provide information, powerful techniques and specific healing activities that are crucial to recovery from emotional abuse.
Narcissistic personality disorder affects more males than females, and it often begins in the teens or early adulthood. While some teens may show narcissistic traits, it is more likely typical of their age and developmental stage and doesn't mean that they have or will develop Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Teens are in the right in the middle of the process of forming their identities and learning how to maneuver their lives- both their inner and outer lives. When I say they are in the middle, I mean that their personalities are not yet fully formed and are still being developed. Thus, they may exhibit traits associated with narcissism, such as being defensive, hypersensitive, selfish, and oblivious to the feelings of needs of those around them. This is developmentally normal.
Wondering what is narcissism? Here's a reminder of NPD traits:
1. Lacks empathy and is extremely selfish.
2. Arrogant and egotistical.
3. Insatiable need for approval and reverence.
4. Need for power and control.
5. Overinflated sense of entitlement.
6. Resentment and envy at the success of other people.
7. Vindictive, aggressive, and moody.
8. Defensive and hypersensitive.
9. A shifting personality.
What causes NPD? Experts know that genetics, neurobiological factors and personality and temperament play a role and may make an individual more or less vulnerable to the development of NPD. However, we also know that social and environmental factors, such as parent-child relationships can have a huge impact on the development of this disorder, specifically if there is excessive adoration and overprotection, excessive criticism, or severe neglect or abuse may trigger Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
The good news? If you believe you are seeing traits of narcissism in your child, just remember that you still have several years to help guide your child to appropriate thoughts and behavior. Having a strong, loving relationship with your child with clear boundaries and an emphasis on encouragement rather than criticism, and guiding them in the development of their moral compass and decision making will help protect your teenager from having their "normal" teenage narcissism turn into a full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Still not sure? If you suspect your teen's narcissitic traits are outside of the norm for an adolescent, seek the help of a qualified therapist.