This is the third post in a four-part series by One Angry Daughter, who shares her experience and resources for Adult Children of Narcissists on her blog, One Angry Daughter
Due to all the strong emotions attached to the NPD-inflicted loved one, the first instinct is to try to save the relationship.
A person involved with a narcissist must realize there is not a healthy relationship to save. There is a reason that narcissists are described as “emotional vampires” – they literally feed off of your empathy because they are devoid of any themselves. Taking action to protect your emotional well being from their harsh attacks, means they can not victimize you any longer.
Making the decision to stop enduring the abuse can invoke many emotions. Personally I was scared of the loss of the relationship and angry that I had to be the only one working towards change. It was hard for me to let go of the fantasy of having one big happy extended family that could come together and share in the birth of my son and all the events that were to come. Beyond the painful emotions, there is a sense of renewal and peace once you realize it is acceptable and healthy for you to expect mutual respect in relationships, to have boundaries, and to institute your own moral compass.
If you are involved with a narcissist – whether it is with a parent, spouse or friend – you have the power to stop the abusive relationship. This change does not happen overnight. It takes a series of small investment in changes that pay out over time with self confidence and healthier relationships.
The four areas of concentration that continue to help me move towards this goal are:
Buildng a Support System
Adjusting to a New Normal
Learning about Narcissistic Personality Disorder was a life-changing event for me. The internal messages I had about myself, shaped by my childhood, were challenged. I learned that I was not a person with poor intentions, overly selfish, too dramatic or always wrong. I learned that my family dynamic did not support healthy shows of emotion or independence since such shows threatened the fragile and unhealthy family system in which we lived.
Education took three forms in my experience.
Education – Phase One
The first was learning the definition and symptoms of NPD. In understanding the disorder, you get insight into how narcissistic people process thoughts and the tools they use to manipulate those around them. This is useful reading for those of us who have a narcissistic parent. We typically only understand the dysfunctional relationship and are just discovering it is not OK. As such, we require help knowing what to look for so we can avoid similar relationships in the future.
Narcissism belongs to the Cluster B (dramatic, emotional or erratic) personality disorders as described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) published by the American Psychiatric Association. Many of these disorders share similar traits and it is possible for an individual’s behavior to closely relate to more than one in the group. For that reason, it is also useful to educate yourself on the other disorders:
It is easy to get stuck in this phase of education because validation feels good. However, the point of the journey is to make a positive change in you. No amount of reading will help you to completely pinpoint what makes your narcissist tick. NPD is likely to be one small piece of the equation as there could be other mental health or addiction issues in play.
Read just enough to gain enough to gain confidence that you are making a healthy decision by changing the relationship with the narcissist.
Education – Phase Two
The second phase of education involves how to interact with the narcissistic person going forward. Healthy people try to use reason and compromise. The narcissist only uses tactics that preserve their false self. In fact, your use of logic, explaining your feelings and an expression of your desire to change may only prove to do one thing: make the narcissist a better narcissist. They play dirty and the last thing you want to do is give them ammunition for their drama gun which has you fixed in its sights.
The tactics for dealing with someone who has NPD will include:
Education – Phase Three
The third phase is a desire to cultivate your self confidence and develop your own set of standards. In this phase, you disable the narcissist (or any person) from triggering you emotionally in a negative way. When I was ready for this step, I felt it indicated a healthy transition. I had become less concerned about NPD and more concerned about how I was going to obtain and maintain mental health and foster healthy relationships. This is the knowledge that hands you the keys to your own life – taking the abusive control away from your narcissist. If you are a parent, these are the changes that help ensure you prevent passing damaging behavior on to another generation.
#2 BUILDING A SUPPORT SYSTEM
One of the ways an abusive dynamics keep you from changing is by making you feel damaged and isolated. The truth is, no matter what your family history, there are many people who can relate to at least part of it. Finding these connections will help fortify your resolve to change and demand healthy, respectful relationships.
Support can come in many forms:
Other family members
Virtually – through online support groups.
Seek people who are empathic – so that even if they have not experienced a narcissistic relationship first hand, they are willing to try to understand and support you. If anyone is making you feel guilty that you haven’t done enough to smooth things over with someone you believe to have NPD – do not discuss the situation with them again. Your support system should make you feel safe and feed to express all of your emotions.
When finding support within your family, tread lightly. Your narcissist likes to divide and conquer by bad mouthing and projecting. It is essential it does not appear you are doing the same thing. Until you know you can trust a family member to understand what you are going through, do not bring up the subject of NPD. Concentrate on foster relationships with relatives independent of your narcissistic parent. If a well meaning relative want to help, make it clear that you do not want them to get in the middle to try to smooth things over. The damaged relationship can only be resolve by you and the NPD person if both parties are willing.
A relative who understands the narcissist is an asset. Reaching out to them can re-enforce the fact that your experience with your self absorbed relation is not normal. Family members have insight into the narcissist’s history and may be able to offer you clues as to the origin of the disorder. This will help you realize that you are not to blame, but that the narcissistic person is too disordered to be an equal partner in your relationship.
When seeking out a therapist, approach it like starting a new relationship. Therapists are human being just like the rest of us, with their own belief systems, moral codes and personality quirks. If you feel like the therapist is pushing you down a path you do not agree with, seek out another. Look for a professional who has knowledge of personality disorders and family therapy. A good therapist will help you to feel empowered.
#3 SETTING BOUNDARIES
I went to therapy with the hopes I could learn some magic language to get through to my mother that I was grown up and living my own life. I wanted her to know that I did not expect her to be pleased with all my decisions, but that she would need to respect that they were mine to make. I did not want to keep pushing her away, but something in our relationship needed to change so we could move forward in a healthier direction. I wanted an adult relationship with my mother.
What I really was searching for was very obtainable – I needed to know how to set boundaries. Growing up, we lived without healthy boundaries, so when it came time for me to define my own, it was difficult. A simple way to think of a boundary is like a force field around you physically and emotionally that protects your personal values. Effective boundaries make you feel safe in relationships. It keeps what is important to you close and what is damaging at a distance.
Enforcing your boundaries will mean being able to say “no” effectively. Saying no was really hard for me because it is my nature not to want to disappoint others – which is a feeling shared by many Adult Children of Narcissist (ACON). Narcissistic parents react strongly when their children say no, feeling like they were wrongly denied. We may feel as if everyone will treat us the same way a narcissistic parent did and feel this need to please everyone by saying “yes”. This destructive behavior will result in becoming emotionally drained and you will not have the energy to focus on the things that are important to you. It is ok to say “no” to enforce your boundaries – keeping the good in and the bad out.
People who have a healthy sense of self normally do not need to be reminded of boundaries. People who have empathy are able to read people and more importantly, listen to people and adjust their behavior accordingly. Narcissists do not have these capacities and will trample any personal boundaries you have to control the situation. When dealing with someone who has NPD you need to be painfully explicit about your boundaries and stand your ground to enforce them. Narcissists are bullies. Backing down after setting boundaries is one of the most damaging things you can do as it shows the narcissist your boundaries are easily broken.
Communicate your boundaries to the narcissist in a medium that makes you feel safe and gives you the best chance of being heard. Some people choose to do this face to face, often with a spouse or other support person presents. Others feel more comfortable over the phone. Still others, me included, feel more comfortable expressing ourselves in writing. Anytime I had tried to voice disagreement with my mom in person or over the phone, it resulted in her yelling over me. I react strongly to that behavior by backing down. I needed to express my feelings in a medium that made me feel strong. Everybody is different, but make sure you are stating your boundaries in a way that makes you feel confident.
#4 ADJUSTING TO THE CHANGE
The relationship will change after boundaries are set. The narcissist may intrude more forcefully, or withdraw completely from your life. You may choose to limit or terminate contact, either temporarily or permanently. Or you may choose to keep the narcissist in their life, but are diligent about enforcing boundaries again and calling abusive behavior out as unacceptable.
There will be times of enormous guilt, feeling like you were wrong to stand up for yourself. You may find yourself thinking there was a better way to maintain the relationship. Over time, I came to realize that yes, maybe I could have handled things differently, but I wasn’t holding my mom accountable to the same standard. There were things she could have done better as well. I had to forgive myself for not knowing what I didn’t know, and accept that my mother has a disorder that is blocking our path to a healthy relationship.
As you adjust to the change, be kind to yourself and respectful of the strong emotions that come your way. Many mourn the loss of the idealized relationship we had with the narcissist as if that person had died.
It is not unusual to find your self going through (sometimes multiple times) the five stages of grief:
Never think that your emotions are silly or uncalled for. If you feel like crying, cry. If you are angry, be angry. However, make sure you do not become consumed in the feeling. Take time to understand the root cause of the emotion and look for ways to improve the situation so that you can move on to more positive and fulfilling experiences. If you need help, reach out to your support system or therapist.
Seek out experiences that make you feel good about yourself. They can be creative outlets like writing or painting. Treat your body right by eating nutritiously and exercising. Reconnect or redefine your spirituality. Do things that make you feel in control, such as taking a self defense course (I highly recommend this). Nurture relationships that are mutually respectful and distance your self from the ones that are not. These healthy activities allow you to focus on the good in your life, while taking focus away from what was toxic.