I once had a client who was involved with the most abusive, self-absorbed, self-centered, controlling man you could ever imagine. He abused her physically, emotionally, financially and verbally to the deepest levels. He was the nastiest individual I had ever come across in my many years as a practicing therapist. There was not a scrap of empathy and compassion in his body and my client was completely under his control. What was even worse, was that she chose willingly to stay with him and fought any initiatives within herself or from outside that might make her see what kind of relationship she was in. Even with overwhelming evidence mounting up that even she saw, she could not break free. Even he berated her for this saying ” See what kind of person you are, staying with someone like me”. The only time she started to recover and move to something like a healthy position was in the long periods of silent treatment he gave her. This was of course,until the inevitable call came as if nothing had happened and she went running back to being abused again. During therapy, she often pontificated about how intelligent and clever he was and how she felt honoured that he would make time for her and that she needed “to feel better about herself before leaving”. The paradox of this thinking was, of course, that being in the relationship was the main reason that she didn’t. The work could not begin until she got free. This was the only type of relationship she had ever known, starting with her father and continued in the same way with various hideous men.
The thinking patterns the lady mentioned above presented were typical of those of someone who has been abused by a narcissist. Her focus was on her failings and inadequacy and not on what was realistically going on. This was consolidated by the language used and behavior shown by the narcissist. Narcissists use language and behavior to get there victim’s to:
- Feel worthless and of no value to anyone
- That the narcissist is the only one who knows what they need
- Become isolated from family, friends and healthy concepts
- Idolize the narcissist, devalue their own achievements and see there own needs as inconsequential.
- To serve the narcissist’s every need
- To create a situation where the victim is constantly seeking favours from the narcissist and obsessing about this
- This is all consolidated by the narcissist playing on the worst fears of abandonment his victim holds.
In many of the severe cases (as above), there is a strong element of Stockholm Syndrome present. This concept describes a situation where a traumatic bonding process takes place between abuser and abused. In a cycle of abuse where there are frequent explosive exchanges between narcissist and victim which could be physically or verbally explosive, followed by a period of calm or loving actions, a connection is created. Especially, if no other help or comfort is available and the narcissist has used isolation as a tactic, the victim’s defence mechanisms will push them seek comfort from the closest source…unfortunately the narcissist. Faced with such madness, unable to take flight or fight, the victim is rendered helpless, and goes into a freeze/fright response. They are then apt to follow a typical post-traumatic response where they dissociate emotionally. They block out the pain build a fantasy around the narcissist giving them comfort and only them. This is Stockholm syndrome in action when applied to controlling relationships, it creates the following:
- Victim having positive feelings toward the abuser
- Victim having negative feelings toward family, friends, or authorities
- Abuser having positive feelings toward the victim(so the abused thinks)
- Inability to engage in behaviors that may assist in their release or detachment from the abuser
- Victim supporting or helping the abuser
- Victim seeing the abuser as “special” and they “need them”
In effect, they are going back to the extreme dependency experienced in their early years and the bonding with their caregivers. Part of the very difficult work in therapy is to explore these early bonds and break the fantasy around the narcissist, who will often fight tooth and nail for control. This is of course, much easier if the narcissist is not around.
Many victims of narcissist abuse present in therapy with clear signs of PTSD. They are often traumatised and make statements that point towards self blame and loathing. For example:
- Intrusive thoughts or memories
- Physical-emotional reactions to reminders of trauma
- Nightmares and flashbacks
- Avoidance thoughts and fear
- Extreme negativity
- Distorted sense of blame
- Sense of detachment or isolation
- Difficulty concentrating and, or sleeping, foggy thinking
- Hyper-vigilance and irritability
Narcissists have their own sense of self loathing and need “supply” to fill the self-esteem void that they have. Devoid of compassion and empathy, they are not capable of loving anyone in any way, shape or form. Their victim is hooked on the adulation phase before the narcisisst’s mask came off and cannot break free. Victims who come to therapy are often stripped of their dignity, independence and sense of self. The painful road to recovery means refinding these.