Creative Counselling: Narcissistic Abuse
In this Creative Counselling column, Marie Bruce tackles the topic of narcissism and how we can continue to thrive after becoming the victim of a narcissistic campaign.
A few years ago I had a series of very unpleasant interactions with a woman who took an instant disliking to me because I was a published author, while she kept having her work rejected. There was duplicity to everything she did. She would be nasty to my face, then contact one of my publishers and drop my name as if we were friends – because she thought it would get her book published by association.
When that didn’t work, she began to try and discredit me with my editors, which also proved ineffective.In discussing this with my editors, it soon became clear that we were dealing with someone who had a personality disorder: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (or NPD) to be precise. In this sense, narcissism is far more than simply thinking too much of oneself, or posting too many selfies on Instagram. It’s a psychological disorder which means that people who have it suffer from deeply ingrained jealously and are nearly incapable of maintaining healthy, well-adjusted relationships.
Narcissists have certain traits that mark them out from the rest of us, which can help you identify when you are in the presence of someone with NPD. These traits include a rather grandiose sense of self, a fantasy of being powerful and an obsession with appearances which leads to fabricated stories of their ‘achievements’ – they might even adopt false titles to make themselves appear more successful than they actually are. They tend to believe that they are special and superior to everyone else, and therefore deserving of special treatment. They demand excessive attention and admiration wherever they go and will demonstrate excessive amounts of envy. In addition, they are manipulative and exploitative towards other people, including – and sometimes especially – their nearest and dearest. A narcissistic spouse will expect to be waited on like a king or queen; a narcissistic parent will try to rule your life and that of your family long after you’ve flown the nest; a narcissistic boss or mother-in-law can make your life hell.
The main issue with dealing with a narcissist is that they lack empathy, so they can never see your side. They don’t acknowledge when they’re wrong and they never apologise. In their narcissistic world, they are never mistaken and it is everybody else who is in the wrong. This makes negotiation and compromise virtually impossible, because every interaction is a power play to their self-perceived superiority. They often demonstrate a strong sense of entitlement, expecting that everything they want will come to them without them having to work for it. Just like the narcissist I dealt with, who tried to use my name to get herself published, narcissists are happy to use other people – even people they don’t like – to further their own ends. Basically, if they can tear you down and take your place, they will.
“…just because you are invited to an argument doesn’t mean that you’re obliged to attend.”
Furthermore, narcissists absolutely thrive on drama – it’s like mother’s milk to them. In the therapy room we call this the narcissistic supply, which basically means that narcissists get a high from dramatic altercations. This is why they like to cause trouble: it feeds them. Conversely, and somewhat annoyingly, narcissists can also be extremely charming. This is how they draw people into their toxic web in the first place, and what makes it so difficult to get away from their influence. So, what do you do?
The first thing to do is take a deep breath and step back a little bit. Realise that it isn’t really personal, it’s just who they are. Identifying a person as a narcissist is half the battle, because you now know exactly what you’re dealing with. Then, tread carefully. Exposing a narcissist’s lies or telling them they have a personality disorder will only induce rage, which will set a narcissist on the path to vengeance. A narcissist can hold a grudge forever and they will immediately set about discrediting you by any means possible. Their favourite method of vengeance is the smear campaign. This is when they’ll use all that charm to turn others against you, to damage your reputation (both personally and professionally) and to make others question the state of your mental health.
So, if you shouldn’t expose them, what should you do? The best way to end a narcissist’s interest in you is to cut off their narcissistic supply. In psychotherapy, we call this the grey rock method – that is, being as dull and boring as a grey rock to cut off their supply. This means not engaging in any altercation with them; just because you are invited to an argument doesn’t mean that you’re obliged to attend. Tell them simply and politely that you’re sorry they feel that way, but you don’t; that they are entitled to their version of reality, but yours differs; that their emotion (anger, jealousy, etc.) is their own responsibility, not yours. Because you are refusing to engage in a battle of wills, they don’t get the supply they want and so will eventually move on to someone else. Refuse to offer them any personal information too – to a narcissist, information is ammunition to be used against you, so keep conversations to safe ‘grey’ topics like the weather. This gives them absolutely nothing to work with, or to work against you. If they accuse you of being boring, or of living a boring life, agree with them. If at all possible, cut off all contact completely. Remember that narcissists can use social media to glean information about you too, so be very careful what you post even if you block them.
It may take some time, but once the narcissist realises that you’re not playing the game by their rules, they will find another target and source of narcissistic supply. Being the target of a narcissist and of their vindictive vengeance and abuse can be a traumatic experience. I was lucky that my psychotherapy training helped me to quickly identify the situation and deal with it effectively, but if you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to seek out counselling to help you to work through narcissistic abuse and its aftermath.
Unfortunately, narcissists are unlikely to ever change. You can at least console yourself with the fact that you’re always free to walk away from a narcissist, while they are stuck with themselves forever. So, who has the last laugh really? Until next month,
Marie Bruce x