Cast a Giant Shadow
Recovering from narcissistic abuse and other forms of exploitation that have gone on for months or years can be a painful experience as we re-emerge from breakdown. Malignant and predatory narcissists are inherently parasitic upon others, alternately taking what they want from victims to supply their own needs at the other’s expense, whilst punishing and undermining them. Whether the needs are for admiration, sex, money, advantage, status, the effect upon the victim is the same: profound feelings of having been used as an object and discarded once their purpose has been served. In exchange, narcissists who cast a shadow over our lives can manage to put some of their darkness into the victim’s psyche in a quid pro quo for what they’ve ‘taken’ from us. This may sound more like folklore or post-modern vampirism. And on a psychic and emotional level it is indeed a form of vampirism: both parasitic, malevolent and energy-draining.
The exploitation I refer to is insidious and initially beyond ordinary understanding especially to its victims, which is one reason victims – who are often people with low self-esteem; empathic, and eager to please – tend to excuse or rationalise the narcissist’s toxic behaviour and assume only good in their exploiter. For victims ‘need’ the narcissist to be good, as a feature of their own hopes for friendship, acceptance, approval, connection, cooperation etc. However, in pragmatic terms narcissists work at the level of destructive envy and reversal of responsibility as the narcissist begins to instill in his victim feelings of blame or reversed responsibility for him: his disappointed feelings, his angry thoughts and his aloof or withdrawing behaviours. In return, he attempts to take responsibility, ownership and credit for his victim’s good qualities and traits driven by his own envy of those qualities that he lacks in himself. This can leave victims of narcissistic abuse with a strong sense that their life, identity and psyche have been invaded, overtaken, stolen or undermined to the degree that they feel unable to survive without their abuser, as their low sense of worth continues to decline. Fear of abandonment by the very person abusing them is often a tragic consequence for victims whose sense of worth has been so eroded that they feel unable to survive alone.
Typically, adult victims of narcissistic abuse have suffered an erosion of their sense of worth in early life, often by a parent with narcissistic traits. In their efforts to please an unloving parent, these people have tended to grow up rationalising or dismissing their own experiences rather than seeing the toxic behaviours of the narcissist for what they are, and thus rejecting them. This is in part due to the fact that children of narcissistic or unloving parents have already normalised narcissism in others to some degree. Narcissists also tend to be charming individuals who assume a superior demeanour, with a talent for seducing us into a position of believing their delusion, admiring them, doing them favours, supplying them with what they need, in the hope that they will reciprocate a little of our generosity, kindness and acceptance. People with low self-esteem often seek approval from others, particularly those who appear to value themselves, are confident or hold some power or authority. This is rooted in legitimate childhood needs for parental acceptance and affirmation that perhaps never came. Such people also don’t tend to suspect that others who may initially pay them attention operate according to Machiavellian principles, and so victims can make excuses for aberrant behaviour in the narcissist on the basis of his ability to charm and appear to be good. Sadly, giving tends to be a one-way process that the narcissist exploits quite ruthlessly in an effort to fill his inner void and innate sense of entitlement, effectively ‘stealing esteem’ from those who are themselves in need of more of it.
The effect upon victims of narcissistic abuse can be increasing levels of self-loathing and anxiety and feeling ‘inferior’. For those who already feel unworthy, feelings of not being good enough are already familiar territory, so that a worsening of such feelings in the presence of the narcissist’s grandiosity and self-declared ‘greatness’ may actually confirm a victims belief that the narcissist is superior: cleverer, more intelligent, more skilled, more attractive etc. Indeed, victims typically invest even more of their energy in the narcissist in order to achieve some equilibrium. The result is a downward spiral; a regression into an inauthentic child-parent dynamic that renders victims even more vulnerable to the narcissist’s influence and misdirection by their failures to be true to their own adult power and abilities, ignoring their own needs and capacities to protect themselves. Whilst people typically feel their self-esteem to be boosted by achievements, victims can experience such a decline in self-worth under a narcissist’s undermining influence – regardless of personal achievements – that they begin to question the value of their own life. These effects can be compounded by the unhealthy culture that tends to prevail around narcissists in positions of power, due to the fact that they typically assemble a cadre of sycophantic followers who reinforce the narcissist’s unhealthy objectives in the workplace, family or institution. Depression, low self-esteem, helplessness, shame, intense anger, mood swings, suicidal ideation and anxiety are some of the symptoms suffered by victims in response to narcissistic abuse.
Recovering from narcissistic abuse can take a long time, depending upon how long the abuse took place, as much of the suffering arises in the wake of the abuse itself. But recovery begins when the victim wakes up to the damage and troubling feelings he experiences as a consequence of engagement with an abuser. Victims often find themselves in a regressed state of childlike helplessness and thus need to make a shift into recovering their personal authenticity as an adult by, for example:
- Cutting our losses; realising that there are no real gains to be made by remaining in a relationship with anyone who continues to take from us whilst at the same time leaving us feeling used or abused and never good enough.
- Removing ourselves from the narcissist’s sphere of influence and physical proximity; admitting to ourselves our true feelings and motives for remaining in the relationship.
- Feelings of loss and abandonment felt by victims after the narcissist is gone from their lives typically relate to their own childhood dynamics; dynamics reawakened by the narcissist assuming a good-bad parent role in relation to his victim’s regressed child state
- Recognising our experiences of exploitation and manipulation are valid instead of rationalising them away
- Seeking the support of a psychotherapist and doing work on ourselves that helps us analyse the relationship in every detail:
- How we allowed ourselves to stay within a narcissist’s influence and why we did not take more effective action against this;
- The historical context that may have preceded our tolerance of an abusive, exploitative or unloving person in later life
- What personal vulnerabilities we have that allowed the exploitation;
- What new boundaries we can create to protect ourselves; how to develop greater awareness of the warning signs we feel around toxic people.
- Doing specific work to re-clarify personal responsibilities in relation to the narcissist, reclaiming what is ours and giving back what is his. This reverses the process of destructive envy to which we have been subjected.
- Finding healthy ways to express and unburden ourselves of the emotions – especially anger, shame, loss and hurt – consequent upon our contact with the narcissist. The fatal mistake many victims make is to channel such feelings into seeking revenge; a process that can compound and complicate the original abuse.
- Recognising and eventually removing ourselves from the dysfunctional workplace, group or culture that allows, supports and may even reward the narcissist’s favouritism, grandiosity, punitive behaviour and exploitation, is removing ourselves from the company of those individuals who serve to cover-up or act as apologists for narcissistic abuses.
- Making a clear commitment to developing personal authenticity, clarifying and living our values, surrounding ourselves with honest, decent people, and rebuilding healthy relationships based on mutual respect, caring and truth. In other words, going in the exact opposite direction to the path followed by narcissistic individuals.
Recovering from the effects of destructive narcissistic influence upon the psyche and emotions can, for some people, continue for years, not least because narcissists and their followers can sometimes undertake attempts to undermine and ruin the victim’s life after they disengage. A burning need to channel one’s anger into seeking justice can also keep victims emotionally investing years after the events that hurt them, adding to the original trauma, decline and exhaustion. Whistleblowers in the workplace, having reported the narcissist’s misuse of power invariably attract aggressive and betraying responses from the narcissist’s enablers (coloquially termed ‘flying monkeys’ from the film The Wizard of Oz) of toxic behaviours and abuses of innocent people outside of their power circle. Leaving all of this behind can be a lonely journey of shifting out of a corrosive level of self-doubt, self-loathing and devastating feelings of abandonment to re-valuing ourselves and recovering what we felt had been ‘stolen’ from us. In reality, whilst narcissists can relieve us of our property, money, dignity, job and other material possessions, the apparent theft of our identity is an illusion. The truth is that we simply relinquished responsibility for our own identity and allowed ourselves to be undermined and used by a toxic individual skilled in the art of exploitation and callous disregard for our feelings. We are left to repair the damage and emptiness in ourselves by learning the crucial skill of self-affirmation; a skill that any competent psychotherapist can teach us.
In a world as spiritually compromised as ours, toxic narcissists are able to hone in on a victim’s innocence or goodwill or kindness or sensitivity, exploiting them as a weakness, when in reality these qualities are virtues that the predator lacks and can only access in an act of parasitic exploitation. Narcissists are driven by destructive envy and the desire to spoil the good in others that they lack in themselves. Narcissists are empty for this reason, and because they are inauthentic they can only play a role based in mimickry because they have no direct access to the real creativity that arises from an authentic connection to one’s soul. I deliberately speak in spiritual terms here simply because of my firm conviction that this is the fundamental level at which narcissistic exploitation occurs. Explaining such matters purely at the level of individual and interpersonal psychology fails, in my view, to fully appreciate the phenomenon for what it is. Developing one’s spiritual clarity, beliefs and morality is thus a foundational part of recovery from narcissistic abuse.