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Emotionally abusive relationships: how to tell if you’ve been manipulated by a narcissist
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Amanda Perl MSc Psychotherapist Counsellor MBPsS BACP (Accred) CBT Practitioner
1st February, 20170 Comments
A narcissistic personality is highly manipulative hiding under a theatrical mask. The stage is set at the beginning of the performance. They have mastered an act in which a big brave soldier courageously carries a tiny helpless victim. Without exception and without question, their scripted, twisted, distorted personal story is always zero to hero.
A typical “gaslighting” scenario plays out when a narcissist is the root cause of a problem. The type of problem which they refuse to name, refuse to see, and, as such, can in their distorted minds, legitimately refuse to own. It's not that they don’t understand responsibility, they deliberately refuse to take the blame to avoid negative thoughts from feeling guilty, so you become the one who is supposed to feel their shame. In such manner, they make any falling out your fault as you “must” therefore be deserving of their verbal, physical or emotionally abusive assault.
You are left wondering how you became such easy prey as they bulldoze into your insecurities and fears keeping you guessing as to what they might do next. Your responses are shot to pieces and you are living by reaction, feeling a need to defend each and every action that you make. Although it is worth noting a more vulnerable narcissistic personality will find covert ways of mocking and dismissing your interests, passions and beliefs, often behind your back or through social media. On the other hand, a more grandiose narcissistic personality will display overt aggressiveness, maliciousness and viciousness, resorting to public personal attacks and criticism, dogged in self-interested pursuit of achieving their own goals.
So what can you do to watch out for this kind of emotional abuse in a friend or lover, a partner or spouse, a child or parent? How can you tell when you have been drawn into a manipulative relationship? Staying mindful, in the here-and-now, gaining self-awareness so you feel confident and know your own truth. Having the foresight to see how it will all end in disaster unless you step back into the light and out of the spell of self-doubt. In such manner you can retain your integrity and manage the inevitable conflict into which they wish to engage you in order to try and expose you as the wicked person, the projection they are trying to impose on you.
Here is a list of seven ways-of-being to watch out for:
1. Emotionally abusive people lack boundaries. They are relentless in the pursuit of what they want and have little regard for any hurt they cause to you along their route. Everything that happens in every scenario is always about them. Healthy relationships are not about control or making people feel obligated. Healthy relationships are about freedom and choice. They are not about conditions, demands, terms, laws or other forms of multiple rules. For example, you may hear “As a friend you should”, “As a parent you have to”, “As my partner you ought to”. There may be seduction, secretiveness, grooming: “We can’t tell anyone because”. Or worse, being put in a position, where it is you who has to bend the rules and break the truth. It is a fact that human relationships are toxic and unable to thrive when one party is uninterested in what the other wants, think and feels. Overriding your wishes, desires, and explicit instructions you will be left feeling violated, weak, exhausted and dispirited as they take up all your space, crowding you out spiritually, emotionally and physically, parasitically feeding off the fantasy of you they idealise.
2. A narcissist can only see their own inaccurate reflection. Dominating and controlling, they believe their way of handling a situation is the only way. It is always “my way or the highway” meaning that you “should” do what they think you “should” do. All they care about is that their needs are met. Through you. Lacking self-awareness, these manipulative, controlling and abusive individuals never think that the problem lies within. For them, the only “within” the problem lies is within someone else and soon it will be your turn. Unfortunately, as your kind nature kicks in and automatically sides with their inner helpless crying victim, your behaviour unwittingly provides backup for their incorrect beliefs.
3. If you are unlucky enough to have someone in your life who leaves you feeling confused, drained and lifeless, you will notice this happens when there is a swift and subtle swing between charm, loveliness and best-friendedness towards passive-aggressiveness, standoffishness and withdrawal. Expert manipulators, triangulators will ingratiate themselves into your family, your friends and your pets. In fact anyone they can have access to, through you, they will choose to addend. They have learned to survive on quickness of wit and humorous banter. When you finally find a way to make them leave you alone, their spiteful desire for revenge means you are left out of your family or friendship group. They don’t care about you, they never did. Sadly, you can start to face facts. It always has been all about them.
4. You will be bullied, intimidated and threatened. They won’t let up or let you go until they wear you down. Narcissists have no assertive state with which to moderate themselves. No sense of self-regulation. No “off” button. For example, if you say “no” to any of their demands, desires or wishes, often presented in the form of control dressed up as care, they will see you as aggressive and pulverise you into giving in. If you are not aware, or it takes you a while to catch on, you will end up meeting their needs. Their need is to be needed by you. They will feel rejected if you do not allow them to become an all-consuming life force, feeding their appetite for recognition, admiration and attention. They silently rage or outwardly rant and rave as you refuse to allow yourself to be used as the fodder they crave. Alcohol and/or drugs provide a licence to be bold and “brave”. Then suddenly, without warning, the war is over and all is calm as you are the one who is now in a state. You were dragged into their game of down and dirty. Drama played out, the satisfaction leaves them behaving reasonably, as they are satiated by having driven you insane. Whilst you reel in shock and shame. After any such “incident” abusers often act as if nothing has changed.
5. A narcissistic personality type will always pretend to be a good, charitable, selfless, community-minded and giving person, expending vast amounts of energy and imagery making out that they are made that way. Hiding the shadow side of their self. In such manner, they slip behind the façade of what we perceive to be socially acceptable behavior. Especially if we ourselves are innocent, fair-minded, generous and believe it is our duty to contribute towards our world. Often we are so taken in, we don’t do what we might otherwise, and run a mile if we saw under such disguise. A narcissist will “boast”, “brag”, "show off" or "self-promote" regarding any fundraising or volunteer work. Posts on social media illuminate an ulterior motive for their seemingly altruistic nature. Sometimes the mask falls quickly, as you can start to hear the emotional pull of feeling “guilty” when they “tell you” or even “gently encourage” you to do the same. You will now be able to tell if you are being coerced. Perhaps familiarise yourself with safeguarding law, policy and procedures that are designed to protect the most at risk individuals amongst us. Simply ask yourself this question: do you think that if an individual writes about their activities and/or displays pictures either of or with vulnerable adults or children, i.e. those who may not be in a position to have explicitly provided, or not provided, their consent, such individual is in breach of safeguarding rules? In such manner you know you are dealing with a manipulator as they crash freely through legal barriers in a desperate attempt to lend further fake credibility. To promote their prolific profile of personas.
6. Narcissists want you for what you can do for them, and will slot you into their lives in order to take most advantage. You may find yourself “helping” by entering data, taking photographs, cleaning or cooking as you crave reward, even a morsel of praise. On the other hand, if you have a profession, as they often lack the emotional maturity necessary for the hard work essential to acquire such (in their eyes) “high” status. Or perhaps they are a professional or business-onwer, but are dissatisfied as they are not where they want to be, they will, by association, be trying to add your solid self-image to their own, bigging-up their false self, creating an impression to others and feeding their persona. So good are they at mimicry, people may even believe that they have the same job as you. For example if you are a primary school teacher, they may start to use words and phrases or fake an interest in the education system that lead others to say yours a job that they would also be suited to. At that point you know for sure that they are totally jealous and want to be you.
7. Possessing one of the kindest, caring, empathetic, conscientious and sensitive souls amongst us humankind, a narcissistic personality knows they have a good chance of hooking you into a relationship because the essence of your nature is to want to help. Perhaps due to having become used to meeting your parents needs you have an overdeveloped nurturing side, believing that it is wrong or selfish to focus on your own life, or perhaps you have a religious or spiritual belief or for any other reason feel worthless unless you have an abundance of love to give. The first inkling that you are being deceived is when you feel "uncomfortable" at being subject to false flattery, praise and prose that doesn't quite "rhyme". Becoming aware that words and actions have fallen out of line. When that happens, you know its time to call time.
What is your position on the cycle of emotional abuse, either being abused or abusive? Are you self-aware? How can you find your real self, build your self-concept, gain confidence, learn interpersonal skills and assertiveness? In order to relieve your anxiety and alleviate your fears regarding a perceived power dynamic, find a therapist with whom you can have an equal relationship as far as possible. One who is experienced in what you believe to be your own personal demons. So you can steady yourself back onto an even footing, wanting to leave the black hole of self-sabotage, mistrust, abuse, depression and anxiety. Although a range of interventions exist, the key lies in the strength of the therapeutic relationship.
About the author
I am a BACP accredited counsellor and psychotherapist, a CBT practitioner and member of the British Psychological Society. Also course lead on the stage 4 BACP accredited counselling diploma. My private practice reflects my belief that each of us is unique with the potential for growth and development and can move forward in our own way.
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