Understanding the Problem from a Victim Perspective.
A relationship with a Narcissist is a devastating and mind boggling affair that can take many years to process. Having encountered narcissistic abuse, It can be an incredibly damaging experience for the victim. This sinister ‘Switcher-Roo‘ of relationships, where nothing is quite as it seems, delivers an emotional roller coaster of highs and lows followed by, confusion, fire-fighting and devastation. Adversely affecting the victim's health & mental well-being. The experience can leave the victim 'triggered' and in anguish in the aftermath of trauma, struggling to comprehend what has happened to them, sometimes for many years to come. Victim's may find themselves falling into the same pattern of unhealthy relationships time and time again. Unaware of what has happened to them the first time around, and that they are in fact a victim; a repeat performance further reinforces their belief that the first narcissist they encountered must have been correct; there is something very wrong with them (the victim), and they are entirely to blame for the string of broken relationships, leaving the victim feeling ashamed and broken, and making them less likely to seek support. In reality, this is not the case.
Fig 1. The Cycle
Victim enters into a relationship> the relationship is wonderful> the relationship is terrible> the relationship is abusive= What am I doing wrong? what is wrong with me?
In this first blog on the subject; I aim to provide some insight into what I have learned about Narcissistic relationships over the last 25 years, written from a victim view point; both as a survivor and as a professional, supporting other victims. I share glimpses into my own experience of the long and often tedious journey to recovery; and how understanding the trauma, assists in breaking the cycle. Hurt People - Hurt People, as the saying goes, so it’s important we as a society, fully understand both the effects of trauma and the process that delivered it, in order to ensure we recognise the impact that as survivors, we may have on others, to ensure we do not unknowingly or unconsciously continue the cycle of abuse. One of the ways the brain processes information, is by drawing on previously experience - filling in the blanks with the most likely outcome - which may explain why victims of domestic violence, duck when someone makes a sudden move, even years after leaving the violent situation.
It is important to acknowledge that when you are the person experiencing narcissistic abuse, you have no clue what is actually happening to you. I likened the experience to the cartoon character 'Tasmanian Devil', spinning rough shod through my emotions, leaving me dazed and dizzy; struggling to find my bearings, as I attempted to re-navigate - re-navigate - re-navigate! - but to no avail. Unbeknownst to the victim, the narcissist, having identified their mark, targets their victim. Often taking the time, to watch and learn about their victim before approaching them and taking them through a cleverly disguised, manipulative process, that remains invisible to the victim throughout.
In my experience, the abuser appeared to pop-up out of nowhere, but that couldn't have been further from the truth. In the aftermath of the relationship, I discovered, my emails had been redirected to my abusers account, which unknown to me, he had achieved on our very first meeting. Although this came as an alarming violation - the discovery helped me to understand so much more about what had been going on. Like how he was always able to find me, even when I had taken myself off quietly to a remote village in Ireland, desperate for a break and to give myself some space to think - he showed up unannounced the very next day, causing further panic and confusion. It explained how he was always able to anticipate my mental state; how he knew who I was turning to for advice and support, and why he always managed to discredit the very people that were trying to support me. It also became clearer, why one of my closest allies, who despised him and questioned his motives, was sent expensive, unwanted gifts, even though they were the ones suggesting I should end the relationship.
The narcissist is in complete control throughout. Even after the relationship has ended, many victims never truly understand what has happened to them, which makes falling for it again even more likely. During this process, the victim may feel as though they are losing control, but are unable to ascertain why. They may 'sense' something is wrong, but since they have no solid proof, they struggle to put their finger on what is wrong or why.
Over-riding their instincts and chastising themselves, for what appears to be foolish and petty emotions that keep resurfacing and overwhelming them. The narcissist, fully aware of this will deny any wrong doing, acting surprised and offended at the mere suggestion; completely turning the tables on the victim, pointing out flaws, offering twisted truths; 'It's you, not me, - you are projecting your own negative emotions onto me because of your previous abusive relationships" This worries the victim, who struggles to deny it might be their fault after all . On-lookers in the form of the victim's friends and family members may attempt to point out sudden changes of behaviour in the victim, even suggesting the new love interest is the cause - they are seeing a very different picture of the situation than the victim is able to see. The narcissist is used to this kind of objection from the victims nearest and dearest and is prepared for it ; it is all part and parcel of their existence.
Anticipating the criticism, the narcissist intercepts; able to provide perfectly plausible explanations to the victim, who is becoming increasingly confused. The narcissist will either try to win the critics approval by befriending them and taking them through the process or, if approval is unlikely, they will isolate their victim, shattering bonds and friendships that may have existed for years. The narcissist is an accomplished actor, reveling in his performance. The victim trusts and confides in the Narcissist, who will now use the sensitive information gathered to further undermine the victims confidence, silently chipping away at the victims core, leaving them questioning themselves; Gas-lighting is the term used to describe this kind of manipulative behaviour.
Befuddled and feeling like they are losing their minds, rather than seeking support; the victim, having been led to believe that they are the problem, will often do everything in their power to appear 'normal', to everyone around them, as not to draw attention to their apparent loss of grip on reality. They will soldier on, trying their best to cope with the overwhelming emotional disturbance. They keep working and going about their daily business trying to hold it together while all the time concealing feelings of confusion, shame and anguish, that is slowly driving them to despair. They may feel as though they are clinging onto their sanity by the skin of their teeth, which may be one of the reasons why few victims of narcissistic abuse are willing to seek help early on; they believe they are the problem, that their judgement is impaired and understandably they fear for their jobs and reputation. The narcissist, who is completely in control, will further damage the victims confidence by highlighting the victims flaws and mistakes.
Narcissistic relationships come in many different forms; parent/child, romantic partners, adult/child, employer/employee etc. however this post relates, for the most part to narcissists as romantic partners, although the process remains the same. Having been betrayed by the very people who either Present as caring or who society has taught us should be caring, i.e; parent, partner, authority figure or other; the victim is left stranded alone on an island in their own mind. Trust becomes a serious issue when you sense danger, but don't know who you can trust; the barriers go up, the victim trusts no one, paranoia kicks in, as the victim grapples for a sense of safety and control. All the while, their narcissistic love interest is suggesting to the victim - "it's you; you are nagging/controlling/ jealous/paranoid etc.. The victim, recognising these negative feelings in themselves, cannot deny what appears to be true.They are unaware that it is the narcissist who is making them feel paranoid, jealous and as if they are losing control. In this frame of mind, the victim is unlikely to hand over what little bit of control they still have left, to someone who 'assumes' to know better. As individuals, we know ourselves far better than anyone else can knows us, and when you are struggling to help yourself, it is difficult to accept anyone else is going to be able to help you, which is why the trauma informed 'person-centred' approach underpins all of my work.
There are Three phases to a narcissistic relationship; Idealization, Devaluation and Discarding. In this post I break down phase 1, in an attempt to provide a clearer understanding of the process. Anyone who has encountered a relationship with a narcissist, is likely to identify with the following experience. Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you need support.
Phase 1. Idealization
The 6 Stage Process
Having chosen their Target in phase 1; the Narcissist takes their victim through a 6 stage process. A process being a series of individual steps taken to reach a desired outcome.
Stage One: The Warm Welcome (Presenting the best self/Persona)
Narcissists present as; Attentive, charming, funny, kind, generous, likable, gentle, loving & interested. According to Dale Carnegie's best selling book 'How to win friends and influence people; to appear interesting you must appear interested; the victim has the narcissists undivided attention. Victim's often feel sexually attracted to the narcissist, who presents as a flirtatious and adventurous lover. (often this is only applicable during phase 1).
Victim's will often believe that they have met their ideal match; the victim and the narcissistic suitor appear to have lots in common, enjoying many of the same interests. At this stage, the victim is blissfully unaware that this is only a persona; a mask or facade and not a true reflection of the person underneath.
The difficulty with Stage One: Most of us have a persona, and are capable of presenting our best selves to the world whenever we need to; a first date or in a job interview for example;Few people own up to leaving their dirty socks and pants strewn about the place on a first date, or leaving wet towels on the bed. It's only natural to want to impress a potential mate, and so we share all the good stuff about ourselves; we might be a great cook or a fabulous dancer, we might even suggest we enjoy ironing (as if that could ever be true), we might even embellish our talents a little, as we attempt to impress our date. Likewise in a job interview; It is unlikely we would share information with a prospective employer that could potentially lose us the opportunity; "I tend to be late on Fridays due to getting rat-arsed on Thursdays' or "I often got into bother with my last boss for using the photocopier & stationery cupboard to furnish my local pub quiz team!". We don't tend to share this kind of information, even if its true, because it's unlikely to impress anyone. We are far more likely to sell ourselves and share all the good stuff to ensure we get the job - therefore we are all capable of presenting our best selves! Society teaches us that a persona is a good thing; stiff upper lip, keep your cards to your chest & don't wash your dirty laundry in public! Most professions require us to use a persona by presenting a public image. No one wants to see a police officer outside a crime scene sucking on a vape because they are feeling stressed - we wouldn't consider that to be very professional. Likewise, we wouldn't appreciate Maureen in customer service yelling at the awkward customer in front of us at the counter and telling them what she really thinks of them - because that's not a professional image, even if the customer has deserved it. We expect Maureen to provide good customer service, and by good we mean - regardless of how Maureen is feeling inside, we expect her to mask those feelings effectively, smile sweetly, respond politely, swallow down the frustration and take it on the chin - We expect her to present her best self - Persona. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung described it like this; "A Persona is a mask or facade presented to satisfy the demands of the situation or environment and not presenting the inner personality of the individual - The Public Image" For the victim of a narcissist, there appears to be nothing unusual about stage one, and so the narcissist slips in undetected.
Stage Two: Build Rapport (Gaining Trust)
What does a Trustworthy person look like?
No one purposely enters into any kind of relationship with someone they don't trust. We wouldn't hand money over to someone we don't trust, we certainly wouldn't entrust our children to the care of someone we don't trust and we don't intentionally hand over our hearts to people we think are likely to break them. However we live in a society where scams are common placed and heartache plentiful. We live a world in which Children, People, and Finances are constantly being abused. As individuals we convince ourselves, that 'it couldn't happen to me'. We congratulate ourselves on being astute; pitying those 'other people' who have fallen into the traps. Concluding there must be something wrong with the people who fall for what appears to be ' very obvious' pitfalls - until we are the ones on the receiving end of-course , and no one wants to talk about embarrassing 'mistakes' like that.
We all gain peoples trust by building rapport with them; by getting to know them; opening up dialogue; using words and actions. Narcissists excel at this, they focus all of their attention on the victim, having what seem to be deep and meaningful conversations, soaking up all the information they are being given; banking information which they will call on to use against the victim at a later point in the process. Actions speak louder than words, and so the narcissist may shower their victim with gifts and gestures. The victim understandably feels pampered and important, they may never have felt so special - further enforcing the idea that they have met Mr/Mrs Right. The narcissist puts no time limit on gaining a victims trust - whatever it takes, they will persevere, continuing to present their 'best selves, offering examples of shared experiences, until they are sure they have won their victim over. Having reeled them in and gained their trust, they move onto the next stage.
The difficulty with Stage Two; Most of us think with our eyes; we believe what we see - seeing is believing as the saying goes. We often view in 2D, seeing only what is in front of us, because we have no reason to look beyond it. What we are seeing before us is someone who 'appears' to have, all the attributes of what we consider to be right and good in a person we trust; kind, friendly, generous, interested, attentive, funny, charming - etc. The brain processes information by drawing on past experience, filling in the blanks, resulting in the most likely outcome 'this person appears to be trustworthy to me'. Even if, as was true in my own case, there comes a sense of 'something feels not quite right' - many of us have been taught not to rely on 'feelings'; they are not admissible as evidence. We persevere, looking for concrete evidence when listening to our instincts and what our body is aiming to alert us to, would save us a whole lot of pain. Narcissists are adept at blagging their way into positions of trust and power, making their sham all the more believable. We imagine someone other than us is responsible for checking the credentials of someone wearing a nationally recognised uniform of trust; be that Police officer, Doctor, Clergy, Teacher,Nursery care worker, or other - which means we tend to trust people who 'look' trustworthy upfront, without further question. We tend to judge people based on our own understanding of what we consider to be right and wrong; when presented by someone who appears to tick all the right boxes, we have no reason to doubt them - and so we trust upfront. Unbeknownst to the victim; this is nothing more that a shallow performance, designed to gain the victims trust.
Stage Three: Qualification (Identifying wants, needs, hopes & desires)
While stages one and two are still in play; still parading as the adoring, reliable love match (stage 1 & 2), the narcissist qualifies their victim by identifying their wants and needs, their hopes and desires. Their attention focused; they listen intently, absorbing and banking/storing the information which they will use later in the process as a hook - to keep the victim engaged. The narcissist doesn't sit and stare at the victim, rather; they are casually engaged in conversation, just taking it all in their stride. What the victim doesn't realise, is the narcissist is completely switched on. The narcissist is taking mental notes of any potential threats here, using the qualification technique to discover who; if anyone might stand in their way (friends, family, ex partner etc) so they know exactly who to focus on, avoid or isolate the victim from.
The narcissist identifies any problems the victim is experiencing, usually from the view point of; 'a lack of', lack of confidence, lack of self-esteem, lack of money, lack of childcare, lack of transport, lack of friendship, lack of affection and so on. The list is endless and could potentially make anyone a target, assuming the narcissists other criteria has been met. In my own experience, I discovered I fit perfectly into the narcissists criteria:
Blonde, 5"5 or under, Size 10 and under, job, house, car and single. This criteria remains static for my abuser - all of the women he has targeted fit this profile, it is unnerving how similar they all are, and how each were given the exact same pet name during phase 1.
Relationships do not include emotional involvement for the narcissist; every victim is merely a replay of a tried and tested method - a means to an end; a process.
In my own situation, the 'lack of' was described to me as being ;"desperate to find love"
Recently separated from a long term relationship and suffering from empty nest syndrome, I found myself alone for the first time ever in my life. The revelation that I was considered an 'easy target because I was 'so desperate to be loved' - injured my soul, probably because I couldn’t deny it was true. I was lonely, I was hurting - missing my children; this made me vulnerable and easy pickings for a prowling narcissist.
'In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity' (Albert Einstein)
Unbeknownst to the victim, the narcissist is actively seeking to uncover the victims problems (pains - as they are also know). They are looking for difficulties in order to exploit the opportunities that they present, which they use to their full advantage as they progress to stage four.
The difficulty with Stage Three; Qualification is a simple sales technique used daily in business to determine a customers needs. It can be witnessed in our society every single day; on TV, in sales and marketing, in advertising and throughout businesses in order to create opportunities for growth, it is embedded in our culture. Used correctly for the purposes intended, it is both useful and harmless. However in the wrong hands, like Airplanes and Cars that have been used in terrorist attacks to kill and damage people, the narcissist abuses this technique,to exploit his victims. It is possible this goes unnoticed because we are saturated by it in our everyday lives and therefore no longer spot it, or recognise the danger in it.
Stage Four: Presentation - (An offer too good to refuse)
Armed with the information provided by the victim themselves, the narcissist becomes the 'problem solver,' the saviour, 'the solutions architect', presenting an offer that seems too good to refuse. They will paint the proposal as being a 'win, win' situation, the best possible outcome for the victim, when in reality, it is always in the narcissists own best interests, narcissists don't do anything for nothing - they always want something in return, even though they will deny it completely. If the victim is struggling financially - the narcissist will offer to loan the victim money. If the victim is struggling for transport - the narcissist will offer the use of a car. If the victim is struggling for child-care services -the narcissist is on hand to provide that support; they will offer to supply food, cigarettes, alcohol; Whatever it is the victim needs, the narcissist will offer freely and bend over backwards to provide it; self-announcing how 'selfless to a fault' they are, and how 'happy to do anything for anyone' . The let the victim know how their kind generosity has been taken advantage of in the past, complimenting the victim on not taking advantage of their kindness 'like all the others did'!
Inevitably, any offer of support will be used as leverage against the victim, to humiliate and embarrass them which often extends to the victims families in Phase 2 & 3 of the relationship.
The difficulty with Stage Four; Who doesn't have problems? All of us experience difficulties in our lives at one time or another and would naturally welcome some help. When someone who we falsely believe is a trusted ally is offering support and assistance, not only is it tempting, it is also only natural to want to accept it. If the victim was aware of the process they were in, and what accepting help from a narcissist actually means for them; they would undoubtedly decline and opt to struggle, rather than what essentially amounts to 'selling their soul to the devil'!
Stage Five: Negotiation - (Navigating problems and removing obstacles)
Stage four is quickly continued by Stage five. The victim, while tending to be empathic and sensitive, is also intelligent and proud. They are not comfortable with taking handouts, or accepting favours and are more likely to look for other solutions first, rather than accepting the offer from the newly acquired love interests seemingly ideal solution. The narcissist is not for quitting, they need to secure the deal and lock the victim in. They are keen negotiators, who would have no difficulties in selling "Sand to the Arabs", the victim is no match for this skilled con-artist. Having cleverly targeted the victim, the narcissist knows in advance that the victims options are limited; it is only a matter of time before stage six comes into play.
The difficulty with Stage Five; The victim is oblivious to what is happening. The process does not appear broken down in stages as I am explaining it here in this post. On the contrary, the process is flowing and seamless. The victim often feels 'loved up' throughout phase 1, full of positive emotions and looking forward to the future. The process is undetectable to the untrained eye, making it impossible for the unsuspecting victim to know what they are letting themselves in for. The narcissist, dips into his/her bag of tricks time and time again - executing with stealth precision The 'invisible seduction' as demonstrated in the image below, which is taken from one of my workshop presentations. Everything the narcissist says and the way they say it, everything the narcissist does and the way they do it; Discourse, Body Language, Eye Contact, Tone, Actions & Reactions, is designed to coerce the victim into the narcissists way of thinking. The narcissist is confident that he can lock the victim in.
Stage Six. The Close - the deal is done, the victim is locked in.
Once the narcissist is confident the victim is completely beguiled, having secured their trust and tied them into the relationship by accepting the narcissists gifts and or/offer of support, it doesn't take very long for phase two to come into play.
While the victim has fallen, hook, line and sinker and is fully convinced their suitor feels exactly the same - The narcissist feels nothing. It has all been a bizarre and lavish performance,designed to hoodwink the victim into believing they have found their soul mate. While the victim is making plans for their future, plans which are often suggested by the impostor, the narcissist who bores easily, is likely to be already planning their next pursuit. another victim. The victim still has no idea what is about to come in phase two!
Breaking The Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse Part 2 and 3 to follow.
If you have found this post because you are experiencing narcissistic abuse and need support - everything will be okay - you have found a safe haven. Get In Touch
It is important to remember, this is #NotYourFault