It’s Narcissist Friday!
One of the things I noticed when I began to examine legalism among believers was how some would try to stifle the new joy of those who discovered grace. They became saboteurs, planting words of discouragement and challenge, whenever someone began to believe they were already loved by God apart from their performance. They would point out verses from Scripture, remind people of past sins, and generally try to plant seeds of doubt. And often these were the last people you would expect sabotage to come from.
Then, as I studied and counseled in the area of narcissism, I found the same thing. When you begin to see yourself separate from your abuser and are moving toward the decision to leave the relationship, there will be people who will seem to work against you. It is almost a universal phenomenon. It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of narcissistic relationship you are in.
Some of the saboteurs will surprise you. You might expect that the narcissist’s sycophants will try to make you stay in the relationship and chide you for thinking anything less of the narcissist. But what you don’t expect are the ones who have listened to you, empathized with you, and commiserated with you. These are the folks you thought would be cheering you forward. You might even have expected them to go with you, if it is that kind of relationship. But suddenly they are dragging their feet, compromising, even breaking agreements. And these are the people who seemed to support you!
Anna’s mom always has to have a big Christmas dinner and Anna and her sisters are responsible to bring the food. But Anna lives 150 miles away and her food never seems to make the trip well. Her sisters agree that this year they should all go out to eat. The local restaurant has great food and doesn’t require reservations. All three girls agree. Mom is not happy and decides to make the food herself. Joan, the oldest sister, is helping her. The others are invited, even if they didn’t bring anything. But, of course, they will be made to feel guilty.
Bob has had it with the leader of his team at work. So have the other members. They all decide to confront the leader at the next meeting. Bob begins by sharing his concerns. When he turns to the others, however, none of them will add anything. One of them even suggests that Bob is going too far, that the problems really aren’t that big.
Judy has been married to Mike for twenty-three years. All that time she has suffered. He is a brute: very critical, loud, demanding, and unfaithful. Her neighbor, Frieda, has been a wonderful sounding-board for the past few years. But now that Judy is beginning to stand up for herself and is thinking about leaving Mike, Frieda seems dedicated to discouraging her. She quotes Bible verses about God hating divorce. She lays guilt trips on Judy. She has even threatened to tell Mike Judy’s plans.
Frank and his family have been abused by the leadership of their church. Frank has been threatened with church discipline by the narcissist pastor simply because Frank disagreed with the pastor at a board meeting. Several people have come to Frank with similar concerns. Frank has tried to talk with the pastor and with the other leaders, but no one will listen. Finally, he decides to leave the church. When he does, he finds that none of the others who came to him for support are willing to leave. In fact, some of the things he said to them in private have been shared throughout the church. Now it looks like the pastor was justified in trying to stifle Frank. Now Frank is seen as a troublemaker.
In each of these situations there is a sense of betrayal and sabotage. People who were trusted as support failed to be that support when it was needed. Why?
I know that it is tempting to decide never to trust anyone again. When people fail you or betray you, the emotional damage is deep and long-lasting. But let me help you focus those feelings and give some general rules-of-thumb that might help in the future.
1. Never trust anyone who is in a relationship with your narcissist. I know that’s blunt, but I think you can see the sense of it. The narcissist who has his/her hooks in you has his/her hooks in others. The only problem is that you don’t know where they are hooked or how deeply. Maybe Anna’s mother was able to threaten Joan or manipulate her in some way that moved her to betray her sisters. Maybe Bob’s co-workers are more compromised than Bob knows. They like his strength, but they can’t support him. They will cheer him on, but stand behind him. The narcissist whose control has oppressed you is oppressing almost everyone with whom he has a relationship. Don’t expect help from them.
2. Hesitate to trust anyone who struggles in their own narcissistic relationship. Judy’s neighbor really does understand because of her relationship with her own husband. She knows what Judy has gone through. It has been nice for Frieda to talk with someone who feels the same pain; but, when Judy wants to leave, who will be there for Frieda? And, if Judy leaves Mike, Frieda will be faced with a choice about staying with her husband. She is not willing to go through the drama and pain it will take to leave, and she doesn’t want to feel even weaker than she already feels. Pulling Judy back is the only thing she can do. If Judy fails and is stuck, Frieda won’t feel so bad about herself.
3. Never trust the people who only watch the soap opera. There are people who will agree and challenge and support you just so they can watch your drama. They claim to share your feelings and they may even get a strange parasitic thrill from being in the middle, but they are not truly supportive. Remember the people watching The Truman Show? They cried with Truman, they got angry on Truman’s behalf, they cheered for Truman; but, when it was all over, they simply turned the channel to see what else was on. The people in Frank’s church were excited to share in his determination and strength. They loved his ability and willingness to stand up for what he believed. But they were there for the emotions they could experience from the drama. Not to support Frank and his family.
It isn’t the people who disagree with you who hurt you. It isn’t even the people who just can’t seem to understand your struggle. It’s the ones who are with you in that struggle, to whom you look for support. The only ones who can sabotage the ship are ones who are on it with you. And when they try, it hurts.
Before I end this, let me make two notes. First, deciding to stay in the relationship is a valid decision and may not be an indication of weakness. There will be those who will even try to sabotage that decision. Second, deciding not to trust someone is different from deciding not to love them or be kind to them. You can be gracious without trusting.
One of my heroes, Davy Crockett, is credited with saying, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” When you are strong enough to make a decision, make the right one and trust your decision. For me, that means to pray and look to Jesus. When He leads me in a certain direction, even when others disagree or betray, I know it is still the right direction. No one can really sabotage you if you just move in the direction of what you believe is right. They can try. They can hurt you. But they can’t stop you.
And once you see them for what they are, you are free.