Contrived Helplessness

It’s Narcissist Friday!     


Every once in a while I come up with a term for a narcissistic behavior only to find that the term is already being used for something else. I have wanted to write about a certain type of narcissist who controls others by being needy. I thought that the helplessness these people exhibit is a learned behavior. So I looked up “Learned helplessness.” Yes, it is a psychological term used for those who have tried a certain task repeatedly without success, then have become convinced that they are unable to do the task. A kidnap victim, for example, may try to run away and fail over and over, then give up and become unable to take advantage of real opportunities. Some of the more famous kidnapping cases, like Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard, may be examples of this inability in victims to help themselves.

Of course, I realized that I couldn’t really apply the term to “needy” narcissists. But before I left the idea altogether, I remembered that narcissists are often mimics. They watch others to see what works: who gets attention and service. Some are loud and obnoxious, having learned that intimidation works. Others are critical and cruel, having learned that abusive behavior works. But some are needy because they learned that helplessness works.

So I am going to call this “Contrived Helplessness.” It is learned, as are all the narcissist techniques, but it is not a response to real trauma, at least not to different trauma than most of us suffer through our lives. Instead, this is a method of control, using others to meet needs and desires.

The Needy Narcissist wants you to do things for her/him. But she can’t just ask you. You have to want to do these things. You have to value the narcissist enough to serve with enthusiasm. That way you become the servant by choice.

Needy narcissists will express themselves with what seems like humility. They tell you what they can’t do. Whereas the normal narcissist brags, the needy narcissist whines and moans. He doesn’t have enough money for lunch. She can’t get all her work done. Too many expectations. Too many aches and pains. Too weak. Too old. Too traumatized. Too sick.

This contrived helplessness works. Especially in the church. Many people have reported trying to help a person in need only to find themselves stuck in the relationship as some kind of caregiver. You take a meal over and end up doing housecleaning. You do the housecleaning while listening to a recital of how few people really care. You stopped by for a few minutes and spent the afternoon. You can’t complain because you volunteered to help.

But then the calls begin. During lunch. After supper. Pulling you away from family and daily responsibilities. Spend time with me, the narcissist says. But she doesn’t actually say that. Instead, she calls with a crisis or asks for advice. You talk for an hour about her/his problems, and you struggle to find a way to get off the phone. Why don’t you come over tomorrow, the narcissist asks. Spend more time. Don’t worry about your family. Don’t complain about being tired. Don’t bring up your problems. The narcissist wants your time. He/she gets it by being needy.

And the work starts. The narcissist wishes she could get to church but is so afraid of driving. You volunteer to pick her up on your way. Of course, you will have to wait for her to be ready. It’s hard, you know. If her washer worked, she could have better choices of her clothes. So, you volunteer to do her wash. Oh, that would be great. She’ll have it ready on Tuesdays. That will give you time to get it back to her on Friday for Bingo. (Yeah, you notice that she somehow gets to Bingo.) But, pretty soon, you find your weekly schedule revolves partly around her laundry.

And the money begins to flow. She could do her own laundry if she just had enough for a new washer. It’s just a loan, you think. But her new washer is nicer than yours—and you just paid for it. She wants to begin driving herself to church, but the car has been acting up. Can’t trust it (except for Bingo). If she just had money for repairs. You know a good mechanic. Oh, that would be great. Again, it’s just a loan.

If you have lived through this, you will understand. Your time, your money, your energy—they are all going to the narcissist. You get so little in return, especially when you realize she was doing all of this without you before you took that meal. And you begin to understand that nothing has really changed. She doesn’t get ahead. She doesn’t become more able. If anything, she has become more needy as you have helped more.

Usually, there’s another aspect to what the needy narcissist wants from you. You are supposed to compliment him. But, unlike the regular narcissist who almost asks for the compliment, the needy narcissist gets you to do it without him asking. He tells you that he just isn’t good at anything. That’s why he can’t find a good job. So you sit down to list all the things he can do well. He is a good carpenter, you say. But no one’s hiring carpenters, he says. And he couldn’t do that kind of work anymore. That cabinet he made is quality work. But he no longer has good enough tools. Eventually, you understand that he doesn’t want work, he wants you to say nice things about him.

Eventually, these relationships become stressed. Big surprise. Some day you will say something. You will decide not to answer the phone, skip the laundry run, end the compliments. You will hint that you should get some of that loan money back. And—suddenly—the needy narcissist will become angry, even resentful. You might find that he stops calling and won’t answer your calls. She stops going to church and blames you when she talks with others. She thought you were her friend, but all you can do is criticize. Eventually, you realize you aren’t going to get your money back.

What do you do? Well, most of us write these things off as the price of a “good education.” We are more cautious next time. You could push the issue and try to get your money back, realizing that the needy narcissist will try to make you look bad. You might actually get your money because the narcissist will want you to go away. But she/he will lie and cry and gather support against you first. On the other hand, you might be surprised. People are often not quick to take the side of someone who will not repay a debt.

Now you might be thinking that this is the same as Munchhausen’s Syndrome. Actually, the narcissist’s needs don’t revolve around being sick—as in going to the doctor. Munchhausen’s is usually associated more with being a patient, under physical care from professionals. The narcissist might use sickness or disability, but you will notice that they rarely get any real help for those things. That’s because those complaints are useful and, if not phony, at least far less than portrayed.

On the other hand, both behaviors are almost certainly learned. Let’s call it “contrived helplessness.”


Filed under Narcissism

24 responses to “Contrived Helplessness

  1. Family court is teeming with narcissists, mostly male, who avail themselves of the advantages of “contrived helplessness.” In my case, my ex spent THOUSANDS on proving to the court he was too poor to pay child support. It seems so backwards to me that the court does not recognize money spent on court as income. The court believed him, even though he is self employed and works on a whim, taking vacations when he wants. He has finagled the benevolent welfare of the court, to the detriment of my children. Do not underestimate the power of contrived helplessness. My ex has his mother and girlfriend to help him financially and help him avoid responsibility. The creation of a scapegoat-me-has been very helpful in his fantasy victimization. All he’d have to do is get a real job like the rest of us but instead he makes a simple situation complicated by acting like a toddler.

  2. Lisa

    Wonderful post, thank you.
    My Mom is perhaps the most extreme example of this you can imagine. I guess maybe it started off small but at some point perhaps she realized it was an effective tool. She never learned to drive. She reused to learn how to operate a coffee machine. Lot’s of things like this. My Dad drove her everywhere and she would have him pick her up coffee every single morning from mcDonald’s. Eventually she refused to do much of anything and pretty much avoided all her worldly responsibilities even washing clothing. She would never do wash. She said it was too difficult for her. So she just wore things five or ten times and then threw it on the floor and went shopping to buy new clean stuff. I don’t know if she was fully conscious of how irrational it was or if it was all completely deliberate. But she always found a way to do everything in the most contrary or opposition prone manner possible. I’m 52 years old and I now view it all as a VERY extreme form of rebellion and sorcery. I say sorcery because of the aspect of control and manipulation that was imposed on the rest of the family in order to accommodate her “sickness’. Every aspect of life was always made so much more complicated and frustrating. Honestly, I think she opened a demonic doorway through all the years of manipulation and then the behavior took on a life of it’s own and became something which brought her into increasing levels of severe bondage. Just goes to show that Sin can really snowball into some very dramatic scenarios where the circumstances become out of control. It’s a really good lesson in that we maybe able to con and fool others into believing we are helpless…but God has built in consequences into the fabric of reality that we will not be able to escape. God can’t be fooled.

    • UnForsaken

      Lisa, this sounds a little like schizophrenic too. Narcissism can sometimes be combined with other personality disorders, which might make it even more unbearable.

      Bondage is always a horrible thing and I thank God that somehow He helped me/you escape by seeing the truth!

      • Lisa

        Excellent observation UnForsaken. Yes, She likely is co-morbid with schizophrenia because she certainly does meet a lot of the criteria and her brother was diagnosed with it so it * is* in her bloodline. But I would also say that she was prone to embracing the influence of certain familiar spirits because of an aggressive nature. Some people are like certain dog breeds and they are more aggressive by nature. They tend to get along ok with their demons and not be overly bothered until they are in complete bondage.

        Yes…Praise God for our salvation and deliverance! It’s very rare that people are completely restored from profoundly complicated generational influences. I am deeply appreciative of Gods amazing grace.

  3. Cookie

    This post has perfectly described my relationship with a narcissist. After giving up a good job, taking time away from my family and putting many miles on car to help my mom cope with life and do many of my mom’s responsibilities for her, at the end, my mom, instead of saying “Thank you” said “I never asked you to do anything.” And she was right. She learned a long time ago that, as her child, I could be easily manipulated by her being emotionally upset. We had a perfectly scripted scenario – she calls me and unloads on me about how upset she is and how she “hasn’t had much of a life”, I feel bad for her, cry for her and come running to do whatever I can to make her feel better while she does absolutely nothing to change the situation that is upsetting her. Thankfully, God has shown me that being someone’s emotional dumping ground and rescuer is not really what honoring our parents is all about. I have now detached from it, but I do regret all the time, energy and resources I wasted. I will never get that back.

    • Lisa

      I can relate to all that you describe Cookie. I was in denial for SO many years and it literally took me decades to detach as an adult because I felt responsible for her. My Dad told me all my life that I was responsible for taking care of my Mom. And my Mom also behaved just as you describe. The whole ordeal honestly almost took my life from the ongoing health problems I incurred. But I honestly have no regrets because I believe that God only allowed the situation to persist for as long as it was required for me to learn. It took me a long, long, long time to finally “get it”. But it’s over now. It’s finally over. May you find complete peace with it all sister.

  4. Penny

    Spot on, especially in the church.

    My MIL had this down to an art form. She was & is the master of helplessness. I married her son as the very young bride, studying to enter the health care field, so I was the “perfect” target. She had her claws dug deep.

    We had to read her mind. Her poor-pitiful-helpless-me act was flawless.
    But……it went out the window when we failed. And she couldn’t sustain the deliberate deception & so her fangs came out: Big fangs, strong claws, terrifying hisses, forked-tongue, foot-stomping, lying-in-wait predatory behavior.

    It took me 40 years to figure it all out & I remain continully amazed at her “skill”. She’s well into her 90’s and still at it. A few still cater to her but many have figured it out. It’s exhausting.

    But 5 years ago I went no contact.
    I had to in order to survive.
    The first year was hard… oh, the helplessness!!! The tears! The handwringing! The “Hoovering”!! The “love-bombing”! The unwanted gifts!!
    I ignored it all. Gifts, cards, notes all went into the trash unopened. I did not even return them b/c that would gave been “contact”. I went silent.

    Then the character-assassination attempts, the smear-campaign began in earnest. The triangulation, the undermining, outright blackmail— It had always been there, simmering on the back burner, but now it was no longer covert.

    So I learned she wasn’t “helpless” at all.

    • Lisa

      Penny I got a double whammy because I had one of those MIL’s too. lol
      It’s like the glue trap in the Roach motel. It’s so freaking hard getting away because they have SO many tricks and they are so masterful at each and every one. . It takes so much psychic strength to get free and stay free. They just don’t let go without a fight. Both my Mom and my MIL are of the same flock. They share the same name and were even both Nurses (Although my Mom did not work since we were small children ).

      • mls

        Hahaha….the glue trap in the roach motel. Thanks for the giggle.

      • Cat

        Any non-narcissist would be sad at someone not responding to their attempts to make contact if they were being snubbed or ignored but would give up sooner or later (likely sooner) and just come to terms with it, even though it may always hurt them every time they think of it.

        But the narcissist….oh no, the narcissist has to go and prove how right you were to go no contact and ignore their oh so sweet and nice attempts to suck you back in (their glue trap in the roach motel, LOL) by getting nasty once they realize that this tactic isn’t working on you.

  5. Another spot on post! I think this describes female narcissists more than male narcissists. This describes a former church friend of mine, who continually whined (for over 15 years) about her relationship with her husband, whom she claimed was a Narcissist. He was an arrogant, wealthy partner at a national CPA firm, and probably was a Narcissist. But I believe she was too, in her contrived helplessness way. After she told me her sob story, I met with her every day before I went to work to pray with her. After her youngest graduated high school, she filed for divorce, moved out, and from then on constantly asked everyone she knew for advice, ignored it, and then complained because of the illogical and ill-advised paths she took. She refused to go to church – and yes, I brought her to church a few times, refused to go to therapy – even though I invited her to a support group several times, refused to go to a reputable divorce attorney – even though as an attorney myself I recommended several, refused solid common sense advice – like not signing two different leases at the same time, constantly badgered her adult children about what she felt was less-than-Christian behavior, constantly complained about their father in front of them, and had the same circular “poor me” conversations with girlfriends for years about her poor choices until most of us finally became exhausted by her. Whenever confronted by someone, she cut them out of her life, and slandered her to the remaining people still in her life. She blamed the pastor and numerous counselors for not changing her husband (and we all know that narcissists cannot be changed) and for her divorce. As a narcissist herself, she continues to claim she is Mother Theresa, but does nothing to help those in need. Their entire identity is wrapped up in being the helpless victim. They have no interest in healing or helping others or seeking God’s purpose for their lives, as it takes all their energy to play the pity card on anyone who will play their games. These people are exhausting!!

  6. What you have described here sounds more to me like “playing the victim”. The real challenge, IMHO, is that it is so difficult to discern the real victims from the false victims… especially since so many abusers were victims in their past (NOT an excuse at all, BTW).

    I have been accused of been controlling, mean, crazy, lazy, abusive, and tons of other things. It has been a huge frustration that it is so difficult to find a resources that explain how to discern the true victim from the fake victim… either for the victims, or outsiders who don’t know what emotional abuse really is. After all, even people who are not abusive overall can do things that are sinful and injurious. It’s hard to discern.

    The conclusion I have come to is that the signs of victimhood don’t really help in perceiving narcissism or abuse. The thing that really shows the problem is the lack of love. Of course, true victims are often self-absorbed. If someone punches you in the face, try focusing on someone else’s problems… Still, a true victim is craving help and compassion and hasn’t got a clue how to find it. At the same time, true victims care about showing love and compassion. They don’t have a lot of energy to devote to it, but they will sincerely try. As John said, you can’t say you love God whom you haven’t seen, if you don’t love your brother whom you have seen.

    Speaking of trying sincerely, the second indicator of a true victim is that they care about the truth. If a person is a true victim but has adopted narcissistic abuse as their method of dealing with it, I’d say that person needs to adopt a love of the truth before anything can truly be done about their victimhood.

    As far as learned helplessness goes, it is common for a person to also have phobias that go along with it. A difficulty facing certain situations like looking for work (which is difficult even for healthy people) isn’t something I would say shows a definite false victimhood.

    I hope that didn’t come off as just contrarian. I have had to think about this a lot.

    • Annette

      OoC, do you know the blog “A Cry for Justice”? They have a number of posts on how to distinguish a true from a fake victim that I find helpful.

  7. Annette

    Excellent! Indeed, this seems to be a female strategy. If you don’t set boundaries, you will soon find your entire life revolving around such a person.

    Perfectly describes my mother also. This ploy works for her because she has two do-gooder Christian sisters who enable her unquestioningly (and put pressure on me to do the same!). Interestingly enough, she also never learned to drive (but does her laundry).

    The perfect match for the needy narcissist is the do-gooder who wants to show off her good deeds or compulsively needs to help in order to feel good about herself (also primarily female). Christian do-gooders tend to believe they are earning God’s favor by serving needy narcissists. (Do-gooders can also be narcissists themselves.) Needy narcissists often flock to church, not because they are interested in God/the Christian faith but in the hopes of finding do-gooders to do their bidding.

    When female needy narcissists want services/compliments/attention from men, they tend to resort to sexual manipulation because there aren’t enough male do-gooders around.

  8. mls

    I have loaned this man so many thousands of dollars and yes…somehow I end up still being the bad guy. I don’t know how they do it. And I don’t want to know. I just never want to be in that situation again. I honestly don’t even want friendships. I don’t trust myself not to be a gullible fool again.

  9. Sandra C Martineau

    I’m married to a Needy Narc. Two of those paragraphs ring so true to me. It is such a relief to see it in print and know (for sure 🙂 I’m not nuts. Thank you so much for writing this column. I see myself every week which, while it’s unfortunate, is exactly what I need. You are a Godsend for us out here in Internet Land. Thanks again.

  10. Thanks so much for the timely reminder.

  11. Sandra C Martineau

    Just wanted to add…I don’t know anymore that there is a distinction between Grandiose and Vulnerable or Needy Narcissists. I have come to the conclusion watching my H interact and do the exact same stuff he does with me with his boss, he is whatever he needs to be at the moment to achieve his desires. A Chameleon.

    • UnForsaken

      So true! Ns seem to adapt more than be any one thing, but can remain one thing a long time if it serves their purposes.

  12. Evelyne

    Wow. You. Must know my mother.

  13. UnForsaken

    Great article! I see these traits in a lot of needy people with ‘personality’ disorders, perhaps best in those needy Narc Enablers. Those people are heavily exposed to Narcissism, seeing the behaviors as normal and adopting a few for themselves while also being drained-down by the nearby Narc.

    My N has one of the most needy people I’ve ever known right beside him, and she is almost worse to be around than he is. She sponges him up, and drains herself. He has learned some behaviors from her. Obviously, she has some real needs mixed in with her behavior and generally doesn’t over-dramatize them, but at some point I may not be able to tell who’s a real N or not between them. He copies her, she is totally absorbed by him. It goes to show that Narcissism creates caos and confusion!

  14. Reblogged this on Lucky Otters Haven and commented:
    This post caught my eye and while reading it, I realized I used to do exactly this. Very eye opening.

  15. I have to admit that back when my bipolar was not diagnosed and later when my chronic pain issues started, I was a lot like this. Now I really DO need help and try desperately not to seem needy. I end up frustrating people because they have to watch while I painstakingly do something that they could have done in a fraction of the time. I know many needy narcissists – my father was a good example for sure!

  16. Very thought provoking post. I’ve definitely had encounters with this type of narcissism and I get pulled in every time! But I’m learning 😊

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