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The Unintended Compliment

It’s Narcissist Friday!  

 

A backhanded (or left-handed) compliment is one that comes with its own slap. “That dress is amazing; it makes you look slim!”

A backwards compliment is much the same without the intent. “Your hair makes you look different, really cute!”

An unintended compliment is one that wasn’t meant to be a compliment at all. It may not have been meant as an insult either. It was probably just a statement or an action.

Narcissists do so much to pull people down. They criticize and insult and ignore and use. They say such cruel things and treat others like dirt. It doesn’t take long for some people to begin to believe the narcissist and think of themselves as inferior and unworthy.

But it might surprise you to realize that the narcissist gives you an unintended compliment every day. Whether he/she will admit it or not, you are important to the narcissist. You offer something the narcissist does not have. Now, stop and think about that for a moment.

When the narcissist saw you, he knew you were better than he was in some way. You could handle money. You could make good decisions. You had a good reputation. You had quality friendships. You had something he needed.

With you at his side, the narcissist looked presentable, successful, smart, worthy, or desirable. You were the trophy wife (or husband), the hard worker, the clear thinker, the kind friend. You helped the narcissist present his superior image to the world. Others thought more highly of him because of you.

Some of you know this. Some used to know this. Some don’t believe it could be true. If he thinks so highly of me, you say, why does he put me down all the time? Why does the narcissist seem so dedicated to discouraging and depersonalizing someone he/she admires?

Listen: they put others down because they admire them. The fact that the narcissist admires someone means that person is somehow better in the narcissist’s mind and people the narcissist sees as better are targets to be brought down. The superior person threatens the narcissist. The narcissist wants to be the superior one.

The narcissist needs quality people in order to look good. Yet, he cannot allow those quality people to show or believe their quality. He tries to steal their abilities and contributions to make them his own, so that he gets credit. Then he tries to control them by putting them down and discouraging them so they stay with him and look up to him. If the superior person can be made to look up to the narcissist, the narcissist is lifted even higher. All part of the plan.

This is true in all narcissistic relationships. It seems obvious that a narcissistic boss would try to attract quality employees and use their strengths, but then spend his time demeaning them and trivializing their contributions so they don’t look too good. The narcissistic parent will choose the most gifted child to abuse. Lifting that child up to serve the image, then slamming that child down to keep control.

And narcissists choose friends carefully. In fact, most narcissists don’t really have friends the way we think of friendship. They surround themselves with useful people. They don’t waste time with people who have nothing to offer.

So whatever narcissistic relationship you have endured, consider it an unintended compliment. In fact, take it further. Believe that you have value, serious value. You had something the narcissist didn’t have. Out of all the people the narcissist encountered, you were the best.

Now, I know that you think you must have been weak or broken, and the predator smelled opportunity. There was probably something that opened your heart to the manipulations and grooming of the narcissist. But that wasn’t why the narcissist found you. Narcissists do not choose people who are weak and broken. They have neither the interest nor the time. They have one mission—to present a superior image—and you offered something that furthered that mission. It had to be quality or the narcissist would have passed you by.

Of course you are discouraged in the narcissistic relationship. That’s the way it works. You are supposed to lose any self-esteem, any value of your abilities, any trust in your own decisions and actions. That’s so that you will stay under control. We all understand and we have all felt the same.

But the unintended compliment is still there. Grab onto it and embrace it. Tell yourself that you are still that person. You do have something to offer; not just to the narcissist, but to the world. You still are what the narcissist is not.

Be encouraged and affirmed!

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Victimized Narcissists

It’s Narcissist Friday!   

If the narcissist is the victim, does that make you the abuser?

Perhaps, of all types of narcissistic abusers, the “victimized” abuser is the most difficult to get past. Some narcissists learned that they could get attention and control others by being victims. Their lives become one sad story after another and they find listeners and believers and helpers to manipulate. This can be a type of covert narcissism that is very difficult to understand and handle.

“Victimized narcissists” are masters at projection, among other behaviors. They can say any hurtful thing to you, but if you dare to say something back, you are labeled as abusive. They can call you any name, but if you challenge them, you are being mean. They can lie about themselves and about you and they sound so honest. And there will almost always be someone who will believe them.

I started to write a story to illustrate this, but it was just too simple. We know these people. They always have some need, someone to blame, and expectations of the people around them. They are sick, poor, lonely, angry, picked on, abused, or whatever it takes to get your attention and time. And once you start helping them, you feel like you are trapped. They call and expect you to answer and listen. They visit and expect you to entertain. They use you and expect you to be happy to be used again.

And you have helped. Over and over and over. But it is never enough. You give money, but it always seems to disappear. You can’t pour enough of your time into their troubles. You make connections so they can get help from others, but those connections never seem to work out. You find jobs, but they are just too busy or sick or troubled to go to the interview. On and on and on.

I have had some run-ins with Munchausen syndrome over the years. Folks that exhibit Munchausen use physical and emotional illnesses for attention. They often create intricate backstories to explain the troubles they have, freely lifting from medical journals, stories of acquaintances, and the internet. Today Munchausen is one of several disorders categorized as “Factitious Disorders.” There are many levels of these disorders, of course. Some people simply make things up. Others will make themselves look sick. Still others will do things to make themselves sick. At a certain point these are considered to be mental illnesses.

While Munchausen is usually focused on physical or emotional illnesses, victimized narcissists may have all kinds of troubles. They are often the victims of cruel bosses, parents, boyfriends, mechanics, landlords, etc. In other words, their troubles very often have people sources. The similarity between Munchausen and narcissism will be obvious to those who have experienced both. I would suggest that Munchausen, because the “sufferer” has little regard for the expense or sacrifice of others who try to help, is a narcissistic behavior. They certainly don’t care about others who actually need the ambulance or the hospital room or the doctor’s time or the financial offerings. That lack of empathy and need for attention certainly connects them to narcissism somehow.

Yet, the victimized narcissist has so many more ways to manipulate people. She is not only a victim, but a better victim than you. She is sicker, more abused, and poorer than you. He has stories that make yours look like you had fun. He works harder and is passed over more often than anyone at work. These folks are better at playing the victim than others and take the competition seriously.

Now, someone will say: “But aren’t narcissists really victims from their childhood?” Many professionals agree that narcissists come out of dysfunctional homes and, yes, were victims of a sort. That does not mean that they should get special attention. Many, many children come from dysfunctional homes. In fact, narcissists don’t often come out of the worst homes. They are often wealthy, coddled, and privileged. But they were manipulated or abandoned or ignored and discovered narcissistic behavior to be useful. The problem is that victimized narcissists would be happy for you to think of them as victims of cruel parents or environments. If it works to get your attention and service, they will even embellish their troubles. So don’t be swayed or compromised by whatever story the narcissist suggests to explain his or her cruel behavior. As I have always said, narcissists are still accountable.

There are some ways to identify these victimized narcissists, if you find that difficult. First, they quickly begin to demand attention. Early in the relationship they seem genuinely grateful, but they soon show anger if you are not fast enough or caring enough with your help. If you don’t answer the phone, interrupt your plans, give sacrificially—then you don’t really care, and they begin to accuse you.

Second, you feel like you have lost your place in the relationship. Because the narcissist sets up the relationship with herself as the victim and begins to lay blame on you even though you didn’t do anything (or perhaps because you didn’t do anything), then you become something less in the relationship. You don’t get to be a victim, no matter what they do to you. You know you aren’t the abuser, even though you are often painted that way. And the narcissist leaves nothing else for you. You have been depersonalized. Either you fit into the relationship the way the narcissist wants or you don’t count. And the skill of the narcissist is to make you believe you are the abuser. You begin to feel like something must be your fault.

Third, you find the relationship draining. The needs never end and you never give enough. You do something to help, but it doesn’t quite help. The money disappears into some kind of bottomless pit. The time is hijacked by never-ending new projects. Even the listening ear becomes numb from overuse. You feel guilty for not being able to make a difference, but eventually you wonder if it could ever be different. You are unable to meet family or work responsibilities, and unable to do the things you used to enjoy. You feel guilty and drained and increasingly angry.

Once again, boundaries are the answer. You help people because that’s who you are. You help the narcissist because she knows that’s who you are. You shouldn’t try to stop being who you are—but you should stop being who you are to the narcissist. Once you realize that you are being used, begin placing boundaries around your time and generosity. You don’t have to answer the phone. You don’t have to jump when he says he needs you. You don’t have to sacrifice your plans for that person again. Yes, she will get angry. Yes, he will call you names. But eventually, the victimized narcissist will move on. You can move on first.

The victimized narcissist is a scam. He/she is a professional user. Most of us fall for the deception from time to time. Don’t blame yourself. Be the kind and helpful person you are. Just put up some boundaries to protect yourself.

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Remember the Covert

It’s Narcissist Friday!  

I have been reading some of the more popular writing on narcissism these days, just to see what’s out there. One of the things I notice is that most of the writing is done to expose the overt narcissist. They like to talk about the overbearing boss, the critical mother, the abusive husband; but they usually share characteristics almost anyone would reject. What people often miss are the characteristics of the covert narcissist.

Covert narcissists would rarely be called abusers, but they can push people to suicide. Covert narcissists are not loud and arrogant, but tend to be much more manipulative and subtly cruel. They don’t call people stupid or lazy, at least not to their faces; but covert narcissists will make you feel stupid or lazy and leave you wondering why. Covert narcissists are the real crazy-makers.

Four years ago, shortly after I started Narcissist Fridays, I wrote this about covert narcissists:

The covert narcissist still wants to be in control but does so by “helping.” Sometimes these folks offer to help with projects. The only problem is that they end up taking over. They work, or at least they motivate you to work harder, and they get things done. But you feel stupid in the process. When the project is done, it cost more than you had planned, and it doesn’t look quite the way you had wanted it to. But your “helper” assures you that this will be much better. Your way just wasn’t good enough.
This is the mother-in-law who comes to visit with her rubber gloves and cleaning supplies. You find yourself angry and wishing she hadn’t come at all, when you are supposed to be grateful. In the church, these people serve on committees and take jobs no one else will take. It will be very clear that they are making a sacrifice to help you, and you will be expected to praise them and honor them. Never mind that they can’t seem to stay in budget or they alienate everyone else on the committee. Never mind that the Missions Committee is now somehow responsible for setting the pastor’s salary and deciding what color to paint the outside of the church.

These are the narcissists who don’t seem to fit the mold. They are “nice” people, people who seem to be cooperative and helpful. Their criticisms are just helpful advice. Their manipulations are just trying to encourage you. Their generosity is just trying to make things better for everyone.

You probably won’t find many covert narcissists in jail. Nor will your friends understand the problem you have with them until they experience it for themselves. They will hold leadership positions in any organization—not the top, you understand—and they will mold the organization to their own liking. Very few will notice or be hurt or offended.

The covert narcissists make the overt narcissists look like bumbling clods. Very little can be traced back to them. Whereas the overt will lie and cheat blatantly, the covert will get others to lie and cheat for her. Whereas the overt will call someone names, the covert will just make you feel like the names he is calling you in his heart. The covert will apologize to you, praise you, speak words of encouragement to you, and put herself down—all to get you to do what she wants. Covert narcissists have learned to be subtle and patient.

I suspect covert narcissism and legalism are two sides of the same coin in the church. Some legalists are confrontational and argumentative. Some accuse others to their faces and speak loud words of condemnation. Others, who are far more dangerous, just sigh sadly and say they will continue to pray. They ask questions like: “Do you think that’s wise?” They remember sad stories of people who did the same things you are doing, and they hope you don’t end up the same way. This is not covert legalism as much as it is covert narcissism, manipulation at its best.

Coverts are the experts at gaslighting and projection. They twist your words, remember things differently, and accuse—all while smiling and pretending to be your biggest supporters. And those words of apology you wish you could hear from the overt narcissist? The covert says them with a sad and believable face. You probably won’t even realize that you have been duped.

Now, someone is thinking that this describes the “other side” of the narcissist they know. This is what others see as you see the overt narcissist. You experience the cruelty, while they see someone who is kind and helpful and thoughtful. Or you have seen the change, the Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon. The person who was kind and helpful and thoughtful suddenly becomes the abuser; and then might just as quickly change back with apologies and penance. Of course, this may be an indication of another problem (bi-polar or borderline or something else), but it can also be the eruption of the covert narcissist.

It seems to me that the covert is far more powerful and capable than the overt. The covert must work much harder to get the results, but can often do so undetected for years. But that work still comes with a price. Just ask the kids of the randomly exploding mom. They have seen the truth that no one else has seen.

The world is learning about narcissism. The incredible lack of empathy and the willingness to use or abuse others to fulfill personal goals is being noticed. But the covert narcissists are staying out of the spotlight. They are not seen as cruel or abusive or negative in any way. They are seen as helpful.

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Smashing Mirrors

It’s Narcissist Friday!   

 

What do you see when you look into a mirror? Do you see yourself? Probably not! Okay, what I mean is that you don’t see yourself the way you think of yourself. In fact, sometimes we are shocked when we look into a mirror. I have wondered who that old guy is who looks back at me. Usually I feel younger than that guy and I sure want to think of myself as younger. But most of us simply sigh and go on with our day, accepting that the mirror really doesn’t lie and life is okay just the way it is.

But what if you could never accept what you see in the mirror? What if you hated what you saw? What if you could never reconcile the reality with what you want to be true? What if the mirror revealed all the faults and weaknesses and shames that you would rather forget?

I know that we usually picture the narcissist in front of the mirror, loving the image portrayed. The popular idea of narcissism is self-love. But this is not as often true in practice. In practice, the narcissist either avoids the mirror or becomes obsessed with fixing the image he/she sees. We think the narcissist should walk by the mirror, like the Fonz, and be pleased with the image; but that isn’t usually the case.fonz2

In fact, I suspect that most narcissists would love to smash the mirror. It does reveal weakness and imperfection. But, instead of smashing the mirror, the narcissist reasons that the mirror cannot reflect reality. The narcissist does not accept the image projected by the mirror. He turns to another reflection, the people around him.

You see, the narcissist needs more than his own picture of himself. His own picture is like that in the mirror, inferior and flawed. But that isn’t the image he wants. So he looks to others for affirmation and respect. He expects them to support the image he wants to see. He wants to be superior, so he expects others to think of him as superior. He wants to be admirable and desirable and powerful, so he expects the people around him to tell him he is these things. They are supposed to praise him in ways reality does not.

We have all seen movies or television shows where the pretender, the one who has justified a crime or wants to be superior, sees himself in a mirror then throws a glass to break the mirror or smashes the mirror with his fist. This is the image of frustration and conviction, where reality intersects fantasy. Unable to handle the reality, the narcissist would rather smash the mirror than admit the truth.

And what if the new mirror, the person, doesn’t reflect the image the narcissist desires? At first he/she will preen and adjust, cajole and manipulate, to try to get the reflection longed for. But when that doesn’t work, when the eyes of the victim fail to shine with approval and admiration, then that mirror can be abandoned or even smashed.

Sometimes the change in the narcissist is abrupt. The day she realizes you are no longer under the spell. The moment he sees disagreement or judgment in your eyes. From that point on, things change. You are no longer important, no longer a friend, no longer a relationship to cultivate and cherish. Now you are a badly placed mirror. You must be covered or destroyed. And when you stop being the mirror, when you become healthy enough so that the image the narcissist sees is you, then you are no longer of use.

Sometimes the change is gradual. In fact, most relationships in the life of a narcissist end eventually. The effort to avoid the reality reflected by what you see becomes a burden for the narcissist. She becomes even more critical and demanding. He is distant and separate. The relationship ends before the marriage does. The family seems to fall apart. The friendship is simply forgotten. The mirrors are hidden away in closets or quietly thrown away. When the pleasure of molding a victim’s uniqueness for the purpose of reflecting the image of the narcissist is finished and the narcissist sees his own reality reflected back once again, the relationship has no more value.

They say that the fear of breaking a mirror comes from the ancient Romans who believed that the reflection somehow captured the soul. Perhaps the narcissist smashes mirrors in hopes that the soul is destroyed. In the soul is weakness and fear and guilt the narcissist would reject.

They also say that those who drain life from others have no souls and cannot see their reflections in the mirror. Perhaps the narcissists who seek to use the lives and energies of others as their own have simply abandoned their own souls and see them no longer. The pursuit of the false image consumes the narcissist. The lives they lead are empty, and they trap themselves in a world of fantasy to avoid the truth.

It may seem sad, or even harsh, but the best thing might be to simply stop reflecting the false image to the narcissist. Stop playing the game. If the narcissist is ever to deal with reality, he/she must face it and not continue to rely on the lie. And even if the narcissist abandons you or pushes you away or even tries to smash you, you have to find the way to be healthy and present yourself and the truth to the world.

You are the person we want to see and know.

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Saboteurs

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.

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Controlling the Story

It’s Narcissist Friday!  

 

I was one who simply hated the ending of “Lost,” one of the most popular television shows in recent years. I thought it was contrived and disingenuous and, frankly, just dumb. Many viewers felt betrayed by the ending. But I wasn’t writing the show, was I? No, the ones who controlled the story made the decision and there was little any of the rest of us could do.

One famous mystery writer is known for introducing the perpetrator of the crime late in the book, so you don’t have any reason to wonder about the other characters. The readers feel tricked by the last minute introduction. That’s just the way he writes and my only recourse is not to read his books. He controls the story.

The one who controls the story leads the reader/listener around by a hook in the nose showing only what he wants to show and twisting reality in whichever way he desires in order to accomplish his goals. Because there is no other story, we are forced to follow the path and timing the author sets. If he gives us inaccurate information, we may never know. If he doesn’t want us to know something, he simply won’t tell us. If he wants to distract us or deceive us, he has and uses the means to do so.

Now, all of this is fine when we are talking about a work of fiction, a novel or a movie or a television show. But it is something quite different when it is the narcissist telling the story of your relationship. Like Citizen Kane, or Stephen King, or Hillary Clinton (all of whom are credited with the quote), the narcissist says, “They will believe what I tell them to believe!”

I remember a man (whom I have always suspected of being a narcissist) telling me that his wife was “either sick or evil.” That had come to him as a revelation one evening, and he needed to tell me. At the time I thought he was actually trying to understand her, while ignoring his own cruel behavior. Now I understand that he was testing the story on me. He wanted to know which choice would be believed. If I agreed with either one, that would become the story. “She’s sick and that’s why she says all these things about me.” “She’s evil and is doing everything she can to hurt me and my reputation.” Of course, I did what I could to bring him back to his own actions and his own responsibility for the situation, but he never did accept his fault.

As long as the narcissist controls the story, he controls the world. That might seem over-stated, but some readers here know exactly what I mean. Controlling the story is the ultimate projecting/gaslighting/isolating tool for the narcissist.

Time after time I have read about someone who stepped outside the narcissistic relationship to talk with friends or family members only to find that the story they had been told was very different from the truth. In fact, the victim was surprised to find that there was a story at all. Yet, when he/she stepped out that door, people were already against him/her, had already made their judgments, had already heard THE STORY. What happened? The narcissist planted information with the people who mattered so that the victim had no choice but to stay in the story.

For example, a wife (Merry) finally realizes that nothing is right at home. Ted is cruel and conflicted and angry. Their marriage has been difficult for years. She has been too embarrassed to talk with anyone, but decides finally to confide in a friend she has known for a long time. When she begins to tell her story, she hears, “Oh, Ted told me you were becoming unhappy, and I should expect a call.” What? He already talked with her? Of course, he is getting the story out. Soon Merry learns that all of her friends have been prepared, even her family members have been told Ted’s version. But no one will listen to her side. She has been labeled as the “crazy one.”

Merry has only begun to venture outside the story that Ted has been telling for so many years. Eventually, she will find that he is the patient one, the one who has to endure her ranting and raving. She learns that she is the one who abuses and overspends and might be having outside relationships (or at least interests). She is the problem for poor Ted, the reason he can’t do certain things and the explanation for any of his incompetence or failure. But what a guy he is for standing by her all these years!

I wish this was purely fiction, that nothing like this had ever really happened, but I know better. I have read your stories. Siblings, parents, co-workers, and spouses—particularly those who are narcissists—tell stories that serve their purposes. You are just a character in the story. Your purpose is to make them look better than they are. You are controlled by the author of the story, and people will think of you what the author tells them to think about you.

It honestly seems almost cruel to talk about this. Yet, many have found just this to be true. The narcissist has controlled information to others long enough that they believe him. Some have found that their own parents and siblings believe the narcissist, as do the people of their church. No one has heard any other story.

In the past, when people were more isolated, the narcissist’s story would simply stand. For some, that is still the case. To get out of the relationship may mean losing everything: friends, family, finances, reputation. Some will decide that it is still worthwhile. Their own health and sanity is worth starting all over again.

But we do have other means of getting the story out today. Let’s go back to Merry:
When Merry decides she must move forward even if Ted’s story seems to rule her time and space, she remembers family members who have been estranged because they never got along with Ted. Humbly, she attempts to reestablish those relationships. She begins to build a support structure from which she can move forward. She seeks out a shelter for abused women; and, even though she was not physically abused, they set up an appointment for her with a counselor who understands. She begins to learn techniques for controlling the emotions Ted usually brings out of her to control her. She starts to gather a little money and takes some classes that might lead to a job.

To anyone who will listen, she calmly and consistently tells a new story about the marriage. Some people don’t believe her and won’t listen. Others will at least listen. For some people, Ted was a little too good to be true, and they are not as surprised by Merry’s story as she thought they would be. The counselor has helped her set and maintain boundaries in the relationship, and Merry is not overwhelmed by fear when Ted learns that she has told a different story to some people. Eventually, Merry realizes that it is not as important that others believe her story as it is that she no longer has to live under Ted’s story.

Of course, Ted will react to all of this. He will feel out of control. His story, which was designed to support his image, will begin to crumble. He will have to find ways to discredit Merry or adjust his story to overcome hers. But if Merry patiently, calmly, and consistently tells a different story, Ted is no longer in control. He will win some battles, but he will not rule the world.

And, in the real world of today, Merry could move away and establish new friendships in another place. She could start her own blog and let her story become public. She could begin to work with others who need to escape the stories written by their narcissists. It is even possible that Merry’s story could become the story others read and Ted’s story will fall aside.

Yes, what I am writing here is idealistic. There are many battles and failures that have been omitted. But this new narrative is happening—and it can happen for you. Don’t be surprised when you learn that the narcissist’s version is out there, and don’t be intimidated into thinking that it’s all over. You can write a new story.

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Everyone’s Guilty?

 

It’s Narcissist Friday!  

 

We have been taught to feel guilty. We have been told that we are bad people and we do bad things. We accept guilt and shame as we do old friends. They are familiar and comfortable to us. This is one of the reasons I put out this blog, to show that so much of the condemnation Christians carry around does not come from the heart of God.

For narcissists and legalists, guilt and shame are effective tools to keep others quiet and in line. The condemnation we bring with us into the relationship or the church gives them the opening they need to begin to manipulate us. They build on the foundation we already have and further weaken us by their insinuations and accusations. The best follower is a quiet one, one who won’t challenge the teacher. Guilt, intimidation, uncertainty—these are all tools in the narcissist’s toolbox.

So we had some fun last week (wonderful comments, btw!) and along comes a reminder that we are all guilty of these things, that we are not better than others. Now, please understand, I am not scolding or judging whoever made the comments. I just want to point out why that happens. And I want to show why it is an error.

Let’s start by establishing the fact that we simply do not do what some people do. When you hear about a murder or a rape, do you stop to remind yourself that you are a sinner also? Probably not. You want the person to be caught and brought to justice. You have no hesitation in thinking that the perpetrator is accountable—and that he is different from you. You could be with children all day and not molest any of them. You could look at a pretty girl in a secluded place and not attempt to rape her. You could probably be in charge of a friend’s finances and not steal anything. Many of you have told your stories here and I know that you have lived in relationship with some of the most difficult people in the world—and you have not committed murder. The truth is that there is a difference between you and many others.

Now, just what is that difference? You see, most of us were taught in church that all sin is the same and that any of us could do anything. I agree with that to a point. I believe any of us could commit any sin—but we don’t. I believe all sin is the same when the need for a Savior is proclaimed—but not all sin is the same in the practice of daily life. Some sin hurts others more seriously than other sin. Some is more cruel, more insidious, and, perhaps, more evil. Yes, there is sin on all our accounts and we all need the Savior’s love, but there are distinctions that are real and important. Otherwise, we can’t ever judge any cruel act.

When Jesus said that lust was the same as adultery and depersonalization was the same as murder, He meant that guilt was guilt in the eyes of God, and all sin creates a need for forgiveness and salvation. He was chastising the self-righteous leaders for judging some people as less valuable in the eyes of God. The sins of the leaders, while acceptable within the community perhaps, were still not acceptable to God. Jesus is not saying that the person who calls his brother a fool should be treated like a murderer. He is simply saying that we all sin.

We all agree that there are things on the list from last week that could apply to our behavior and attitudes at times. There is no question that I can be argumentative and critical and belligerent sometimes (I will spare you the rest of me that’s on that list). But that doesn’t make me a narcissist. When we list adjectives like that, we are just describing characteristics. For example, I could say that an apple is red, round, hard, sweet, edible, and falls from a tree. That doesn’t mean that every red thing is an apple. Nor does it mean that every hard thing that falls from a tree is an apple. These are just a list of an apple’s attributes. If all of them are true, I will begin to think of an apple, of course. And if many or all of the things on our lists from last week are true of a certain person, I will begin to wonder if that person is a narcissist.

There is another notable difference between most of us and the narcissist. When I do these things and I realize that I have done them, I experience regret. Not just regret for getting caught, but genuine regret for hurting someone and for being less than I could be. I often remember those things long after I did them because I wish I had never done them. Now, I believe there is no guilt on my account with God for those things because of what Jesus did for me and I have, when appropriate, apologized to the person, but I still remember and feel bad. I know I am not guilty, but I still beat myself with those things. Almost everyone reading this will understand… except for the narcissist.

You see, the narcissist only regrets getting caught or burning a useful bridge, he/she does not regret saying what was said. If he called you a name that cut deep, he has probably forgotten it, or he did it purposely to manipulate you in some way. For example, narcissists attack when they feel threatened. That’s when they use your secrets against you. Do they regret doing it? Of course not, no more than they would regret picking up a stick to chase away a threatening dog. You are not a person and your secrets are tools to be used.

But you don’t think that way and it is just fine for you to acknowledge that. You are different from the narcissist. Many have noted the existence of a kind of narcissistic spectrum. This concept may or may not be helpful. If we say that anyone on the spectrum is a narcissist, then it isn’t helpful. If we say that there is a point at which this behavior defines a person, that the person consistently acts in these negative ways, and is therefore a narcissist; then the spectrum is being used correctly. Not all vain people are narcissists, but vain people who also use others and have no empathy and regularly say and do inappropriate things might be.

My point is that the guilt we bring into these relationships is a weapon they will use against us. The narcissist and the legalist will heap more guilt on you and use that guilt to beat you into submission. The moment you try to defend yourself, they will pounce and accuse you of the same thing. They will gaslight you into thinking that it is really all your problem as they project their own behavior on you. As long as you let them present the axioms, set the agenda, provide the criteria—you will lose.

So, don’t bring the guilt for them to use. No, you are not perfect. No one is. Yes, you sometimes do wrong things. We all do. But you are not like the narcissist. And listen: you can disagree. When the narcissist begins to say that you are the one with the problem and that you do the same thing you are accusing him/her of doing, you can stop and say no.

“No, I am not like you.” If you can’t say it, at least let yourself think it.

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Filed under grace, Legalism, Narcissism