Mod 2: Knowledge


One thing I can tell you about the freaking-out, my friend: there are more reasons why it’s normal than you can probably guess. So you certainly shouldn’t be surprised or in any way blame yourself for doing so, even though you may feel like you should be fine, or that you aren’t getting better fast enough. Let’s go over the details of what’s happening to you, so you can be more understanding about the issues you face right now.

More on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

As mentioned before, if you are emerging from narcissistic abuse, odds are good that you are suffering from PTSD. There is a chain of processes that unfolds every time you deal with a narcissist that is basically a recipe for PTSD. The process goes something like this, and I will illustrate each step with an example anecdote from my first marriage.

  1. Narc is placing a demand on you for something you’re not comfortable giving.
  • Max wanted to buy himself a fancy leather jacket when we were already deep in debt, and told me his plan with the expectation of my approval.
  1. You do not respond positively to the demand (either disagree or don’t agree properly).
  • I said okay but couldn’t conceal my unhappiness.
  1. Narc becomes angry and critical of your response.
  • Max yelled at me for not being enthusiastic in my support of his wanting the jacket.
  1. You try to appease.
  • Recognizing that my true feelings had come through, I apologized and tried to explain my reasons for hesitating.
  1. Narc punishes you for your thoughts and feelings with things like aggression, shaming, coldness, and rage.
  • Max’s anger accelerated into a tirade of criticism and then stopped speaking to me. And bought himself the jacket.

Narcissists are not content with making us do what they want. They also insist on making us feel and think what they want. It’s not enough to control behavior, our thoughts and emotions must be brought to heel as well.

Disassociation

As a result, not only do we suffer emotional abuse, but we are not permitted to express in any way the normal human reaction that comes from that abuse. In the process we learn to become detached from our emotions, so that eventually the normal human reaction doesn’t even cross our minds. The clinical term is “disassociation,” and it means holding reality at arm’s length and not letting it touch us. This is why numbness is a common symptom of Narcissistic Victim Syndrome. We really have no choice when cooperating with a narcissist but to keep feelings in check, since having the “wrong” feelings will result in punishment. Meanwhile reality is just too painful to face.

However, we are people, and whether we allow ourselves feelings or not, they do happen. Seeing as I refused to cry when Max confessed his affair to me, and instead thought only of his wants, my feelings of abandonment were buried. They were still buried ten years later when I would freak out if my new boyfriend was out of the room for more than a few minutes. My unexpressed rage at both my dad and Max came out regularly in my rage dreams.

This is PTSD and how it works. The overabundance of suppressed emotion piles up and piles up, until the day when your subconscious senses “the coast is clear.” The threat that required you to keep a stiff upper lip, bite the bullet, whatever, is gone. And then, out come the tears, the rage, the terror you buried for so long.

This is why it is commonplace for my counselees ask why they start feeling worse as the weeks pass after their breakups with their narcs. In truth, this is normal. The experience of being with a narcissist forms emotional calluses over the heart. Once the narc’s influence is removed, we start peeking at reality, and disassociation starts to dissipate. The callous begins to heal. All these things, as you can see, are progress as far as mental health is concerned.

But they ain’t no picnic to go through.

The perfect training ground for freaking out

Breaking up with a narcissist can be terrifying, especially if you are committed to no contact. The fear we have of our ex-narcs generally exceeds reasonable levels, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t reasonable. Here’s why….

Yes, you’re dealing with a monster

Let’s start by thinking about the personality traits of the classic horror movie serial killer, for example, Michael Myers in the “Halloween” movies. Michael exhibits these qualities:

  1. Inability to feel any compassion for others.
  2. Determination to get his way in every circumstance.
  3. The belief that his desires supersede those of all others.
  4. A tendency toward irrational, unpredictable behavior.
  5. A total lack of remorse for wrongdoing.
  6. No desire whatsoever to change his ways.

You can certainly see where I’m going with this.

But you’re not sure he’s a monster

In our dealings with most humans, we can count on certain standard behaviors, emotions, and traits. They are like us, and to some extent we can successfully interact with them on the basis of expecting their feelings, thoughts, and actions to at least be understandable to us. Narcissists are not like us, but they do have the ability to mimic us, and know well how to use our expectations of normal human behavior from them against us.

In this way, narcissists convince us that when we think they’re crazy, dysfunctional, or irrational, that in fact we are the crazy ones. This creates a state of what is called “cognitive dissonance,” meaning what seems to us to be true doesn’t match up with what our senses are observing. Long story short, we become confused and unable to trust our natural instincts.

So, here we are dealing with someone that psychologically bears a resemblance to Michael Myers, yet unsure if they are the mad one, or we are. What a mess! This is the state we are in, mentally and emotionally, up until the time of the break with the narc.

And we’ve had this monster train us

Meanwhile, throughout our relationship with the narc, he has been working his twisted psychological magic to train us to fear him. For years we are taught the price of disobedience, or even the hint of rebellion, is harsh words, criticism, belittling, coldness, the silent treatment, etc. But if we toe the line, we can minimize (but not entirely eliminate) the abuse.

We internalize this training to the point that eventually we don’t see anything dysfunctional about our feelings and behavior. Constantly basing even the smallest choices on our desire to appease becomes second nature. We don’t even dream of serving a dinner dish we love but the narc doesn’t. We think twice before disagreeing or expressing true opinions that might offend. We arrange our entire lives around the narc’s desires and never even think about what we want from life.

We are trained, like dogs, to obey.

Anecdote: On Birthdays

One year when I was in my 40s, my mom had a private discussion with me. She pointed out that I hadn’t gotten my dad a birthday card (even though we did have a gathering and I gave him a gift). She told me that in fact, he expected a birthday card—and better that it be homemade—every year, and when I didn’t do that, he ranted to her about my being a terrible daughter. So from then on, I made sure I made him a card every year. As his birthday approached, I traditionally feared I would forget the card or not make a nice enough one. Appeasement was better than his horrible disapproval.

On the flip side, there was Dad’s approach to my birthdays. Until Mom died, she of course took care of card, gift, cake, birthday dinner, etc. But after that, it fell to Dad. He spent a few minutes making me a card every year on his computer (and I was always careful to rave about them to him). That was all I got—in fact, I’m not sure he ever picked out a real gift for me in his life. And as far as the occasion, he expected me to make the trip to his side of town and go to his favorite restaurant.

There were dozens of places I would have preferred to go. We went to that restaurant every single time I visited him. My husband found it exasperating that I didn’t voice this, since it was my birthday and I had a right to expect some favorable treatment. I told him it was no use—better to appease.

The last year we celebrated my birthday together, I decided to put my foot down and invite Dad over for a cookout for lunch. I would make hot dogs, one of his favorites, on the grill. When I brought up the suggestion, he was upset. But I gently told him how it would be nice and he finally reluctantly agreed.

When my birthday came, Dad got lost on the way to our house, had an incontinence problem and changed clothes right in front of me in the living room, had too much to drink and almost knocked over some furniture, yelled at me until I served him again and then stormed out and drove home drunk. This was what happened because I insisted on my way, and I doubt that it was a coincidence.

My birthday was ruined but I soldiered on. My conclusion from the entire event? I decided in the future when gatherings were at my house, I would drive up to get Dad and would take him home. In other words, I took the entire onus on myself, with my action as the only possible solution.

Fight and flight

So, this is the frame of mind we have been in for years when we break up with the narc and choose to go no contact. No wonder then that there are horrific repercussions.

After years with a monster training you to be fearful and obedient, being disobedient is going to make you terrified. You have absolutely no practice or past experience with what happens when you utterly and thoroughly displease your narc. If he’s broken up with you, this is a time to count your blessings (I know, you have other issues which we will face later). It was his choice then and you won’t be as saddled with this problem, although even then it will probably bother you because you’ll feel you failed and drove him away. At any rate, you are in uncharted territory, without a compass.

Your subconscious mind—and probably conscious mind as well—views this situation as a dire threat. And when your body perceives a threat, it responds with either fight or flight.

Fight aka hyper-vigilance

Your narc may not be present to actually fight with, if you’ve gone no contact already. Or, he may not be aware yet of your rebellions thoughts. Either way, literal battle is not happening. So instead you launch yourself into full-scale Emergency Preparedness Mode. Every free moment it has, your brain is running scenarios like these:

  • What is he thinking right now, what is he planning to do to me next?
  • What would be the worst things he might do?
  • What will I say if he calls, if he shows up, if I run into him?
  • What is he telling other people about me?
  • Who should I talk to in order to head off his lies and bad actions at the pass?

Sound familiar? Those endless imaginary conversations? Those “psych up” sessions you give yourself to get ready for the conflict?

This stress is ongoing and you barely get a break from it. You are organically convinced unless you think about every possible future crisis and practice every possible future reaction, you will pay deeply for your negligence.

Of course, not a one of these imaginary encounters is real, and odds are good few of them will occur—possibly none of them. And even if they did, your advance prep wouldn’t help you deal with them any better than if you hadn’t prepared at all and just reacted in the moment. But these logical thoughts don’t necessarily rid you of the fight response your body and primordial brain are determined to have.

The fight response, by the way, is another reason why narc victims so often stalk their ex narcs on social media. Even though these activities make them miserable, victims in hyper-vigilance mode can feel compulsively like monitoring their narcs helps protect them. Of course cyberstalking does nothing to protect you: the narc carefully contrives his social media posts to give the impression he wants, not to reveal his true feelings or plans. You just open yourself up to more manipulation when you peek at him on Facebook and Twitter.

All these things work together to prolong our stress, fear and anxiety in recovery. It’s a tough battle, to be sure.

Flight aka panic/anxiety attacks

The vast majority of the threat to us in recovery from a narc is all the elements of his will that we have internalized. His actual voice is gone, but lives on vibrantly in our heads. Now that it has become impossible to appease that voice, we are terrified. There seems no real way to run from it, so we run in ways that are imagined and dysfunctional.

Alternatively, if you’re still with your narcissist, you have lost the protection of your determination to appease in all circumstances. That one defense you had has been stripped from you, so naturally you’re left only with the urge to flee even though fleeing is not yet practically possible.

So, we panic. With all the wonderful symptoms that entails: pounding heart, clenched muscles, rush of adrenaline and other negative brain chemicals, etc. Panic attacks are terrifying and can make you convinced you’re dying. They can come out of nowhere and seem utterly out of your control.

You may find it interesting to know that the flight instinct in humans differs from that of all other animals. When an animal is threatened, it has the same response, the same burst of brain chemicals as a person does. The difference is, as soon as the threat is gone, the animal turns instantly back to normal. Not so a human, perhaps because we have imaginations and animals don’t. Our flight mode lingers, the panic hangs around a long time. Perceived or imagined threats produce stress responses in us exactly as real threats do. You never see a cat run under a bed because he was imagining a vacuum cleaner in the room.

Even when panic isn’t the response, low grade anxiety can be. We feel we should flee but we can’t (especially since there’s no actual threat to run from), so we simply feel persistently worried. Our inability to stop our brain from fretting frequently leads to insomnia. Fatigue from lack of sleep only compounds our misery.

Here it comes…here it comes….

At this juncture you are all entitled to sing with me the chorus “It’s just your 19th nervous breakdown” by the Rolling Stones.

You’re scared, worried, stressed out, and unable to sleep. Just when you need all your resources to deal with your split with a narcissist and your recovery from same. And you wonder “why is it taking so long for me to get over my narcissist?” C’mon, sweetie, give yourself a break!

In fact, there are some great ways to give yourself a break, which we will discuss in Mod 2 Concepts for Healing….

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