Jaclyn* spent her first two sessions of psychotherapy listing all the ways her husband was difficult to deal with. Some of these sounded like typical complaints in a relationship, such as he spent too much time playing video games and he didn’t help enough with household chores. But there were darker signs that her husband was a narcissist or Other-blamer who lacked accountability, couldn’t admit he was wrong, and had controlling tendencies. 

With Jaclyn, one pattern I quickly observed was the way she framed these issues. She was always trying to figure out WHY her narcissistic husband did these things and what he needed to help him change to be more caring or thoughtful or responsible. She almost never mentioned how SHE felt about his behavior. She never mentioned her frustration or anger or resentment, or what she needed him to change. She never noticed that she was taking responsibility for him!

victims understand narcissistThis is a common pattern for victims of coercive or narcissistic abuse. They over-focus on the abuser and his or her behaviors and under-focus on their own response — or lack of response — to the abuse. An over-focus on understanding the motivation of others is typical for co-dependent people and victims of narcissistic or Other-Blamer abuse. I find these victims are overly empathic and work to understand the “why” of someone else’s behavior. However, I believe that task should be left to the abuser to figure out, maybe in his or her therapy sessions! 

Certainly, narcissists can be difficult to understand and to deal with, but over-focusing on understanding them is actually part of the problem, as I’ll explain here. 

Jaclyn’s problem was also that she was using her rational brain to make sense of an irrational situation. It is natural to try to problem solve and fix a relationship, but with a narcissist in the equation your rational brain is going to get you into trouble, because the narcissist is going to prioritize their emotional needs (avoiding shame and blame), rather than logical thought. 

The other thing that gets narc victims into trouble is they try to use a healthy, pro-social and moral way of thinking to interpret a narcissist’s behavior. I like to explain that narcissists are on the anti-social end of the spectrum, so they don’t use the same moral framework that more pro-social people would. While YOU might behave in ways that indicate you care about others and try to minimize harm toward others, narcissists do not think or behave this way. Trying to figure out a narc’s behavior using the pro-social paradigm will only get you confused, frustrated and angry.  You will never understand the “why” of a narcissist, because you are assuming that it must fit in with your “why” for behaving, which probably involves being a decent human being!

With people like Jaclyn, I listen patiently for awhile, but fairly soon I point out this pattern of the therapy session being 99% about their dysfunctional partner, family member or friend. 

Obviously, obsessing about why an abusive person is behaving in immoral ways is not terribly productive in therapy, because you can’t do much to change another person’s behavior other than manage your response by setting boundaries and enforcing consequences. 

Therapy should be about addressing your own issues and emotional functioning. After all, that is the only thing you can really control. Therapy should be about examining relationship patterns and figuring out why you repeatedly respond in (perhaps) unhealthy ways. 

While some impacts of abusive or exploitative relationships are clear — increased fear and anxiety are obvious —  other impacts are not so obvious. Over-focusing on their partner’s behavior is just the start. I start to help the patient see other patterns that are the impact of narc abuse. If you are in or newly extracted from an abusive relationship, notice if you have these issues:

  1. Focusing excessively on the motivation of another person. This indicates exactly the problem that should be worked on in therapy — that the victim of narcissistic abuse is overly concerned about adjusting to the needs of the abuser, not the other way around. The mindset is: “If only I can figure out why he is doing this lousy behavior I can understand it and then make changes to the situation better.” I guarantee the the narc is spending exactly zero time empathizing about how you feel and how to make things better for you. 
  2. Being overly responsible: This pattern is indicative of the core problem in the relationship and any relationship with a narcissist — that the victim is more responsible and accountable for the issues in the relationship than the narcissist is. I often ask these types of patients: You are here talking for 55 minutes about your marriage and your husband. Is your husband in therapy right now? If he is, is he talking about his own issues and really, actively trying to solve them? Can he be accountable and apologize for his past wrongs? If you know narcissists, you know the answer to these questions is almost always “No!”
  3. Loss of sense of self: One result of this hyper-focus on the abuser is that the victim unwittingly becomes a hollowed out version of themself. Some lose a sense of self and become almost incapable of functioning. Other-Blamers have a very negative impact on their victims in many ways, but this evisceration of the victim’s personality, their sense of self, and maybe even their will to live is one of the most devastating harms.
  4. Habitual acceptance of blame: I like to use the phrases “Other-Blamer” and “Self-Blamer” for narcissist and victim, because they highlight the flow of guilt, shame and blame in the relationship. These powerful social or moral emotions can shape behavior for good and bad. Other-Blamers deflect and dump their own shame and blame onto others, usually a Self-Blamer victim who readily accepts the blame, because that is their learned habit. Obviously, this pattern is toxic for the victim, who gets continuous training on how to be more guilt-ridden and self-blaming. Many patients who come to therapy have no awareness of this pattern, but it shows up in how they talk about their partner, their interactions, and how the victim views these experiences. I watch for phrases of self-blame and responsibility in the victim — along with no similar phrases of self-blame in the abuser. 
  5. Excessive focus on the needs of others: People-pleasing behavior is learned in childhood and engrained in adulthood by being surrounded by Other-Blamers who cannot tolerate criticism or shame. These narcissists and sociopaths react poorly when challenged, ranging from freeze-outs to sarcasm to verbal abuse to physical violence. This creates a learned response in their partners or family members who attempt to placate the narcissist to avoid these threatening reactions. 
  6. Feelings of disempowerment and lack of agency and motivation: Humans (and all mammals) who are subject to arbitrary and random punishments over time become helpless and hopeless. They lose motivation to attempt even simple tasks. This behavior has been studied for decades, including in a well-known series of experiments conducted by Steven Maier and Martin Seligman who discovered that when we sense we are not in control of a situation we give up trying to make things better. The result is “learned helplessness” where the victim of this type of control loses motivation, sometimes in ways that seem unreasonable. This helplessness correlates to a reaction in the nervous system that is part of the “fight-or-flight” threat system — the “fold” or collapse/immobilization response of the dorsal vagal system. When a victim of narcissistic abuse experiences enough emotional or physical control, they learn to dread the possible reaction of the narcissist. This leads to anxiety or fear in the victim when can elevate to the primal “fold” response when threatened. This “play dead” or fainting response occurs in mammals when severely threatened or there are chronic threats. In humans it can look like “depressive” symptoms of hopelessness, helplessness, over-sleeping, lack of motivation, and lack of caring. Victims of abuse often do not leave their abuser partly because of this learned helplessness pattern — which serves the narcissist who now has a passive victim to ensure his narcissistic supply. 
  7. Carrying all the emotional labor: Just as Jaclyn was the one coming to therapy and working on her relationship, many victims are the only ones in the relationship thinking about how to improve things. The narcissist certainly isn’t in therapy stressed out about his impact on his partner or the relationship. His shame-intolerance and tender ego won’t allow him to even begin to consider that he is harming someone or take accountability for his hurtful actions and words. But his partner probably spends hours of her time and lots of her emotional bandwidth stressing about what she did wrong and how to fix things. This is exhausting for her and also leads to “anxiety and depression” in victims. Many times people come to therapy not recognizing that their relationship is the source of their emotional stress. As social mammals, humans are designed by evolution to care about others and respond in ways the strengthen relationships, calm tensions, and resolve conflicts. Narcissists and sociopaths, unfortunately, have learned through their upbringings to feel no shame when they emotionally or physically harm others, leaving them incapable of caring about others and unable to repair relationships because they cannot admit fault. 
  8. Indecisiveness:  I saw one woman state that after exiting a four-year verbally abusive relationship she was unable to make the simplest of decisions — should I have a peanut butter sandwich or grilled cheese? — despite being a very intelligent and capable person. She recalled that her abuser would berate her for hours after the smallest “mistake,” which led her to second-guess every decision. This cause a paralysis to permeate her life regarding decisions of all kinds. By over-focusing on the needs of their abuser and being afraid of his reaction if they do make a decision, they learn to under-focus on their own needs and also become paralyzed that if they make a decision, he will be angry. This makes life very difficult, certainly, but also can lead to a loss in a healthy sense of self (#3). In healthy development, we develop a recognition of our likes, needs and beliefs in small ways, such as whether we like certain foods or clothing. This helps us develop an understanding of our values on bigger issues, such as whether we want to have a family, live in a big city or work for a non-profit or a corporation. 
  9. Lack of focus on your own feelings, values, needs leads to lack of emotional intelligence: We need our emotions to guide us in knowing our values and needs. For example, anger can be self-protective and signal that our rights are being denied or ignored. In contrast, contentment is a sign we feel safe in a situation or relationship. If you disconnect from these experiences, you may ignore signs of danger in an abusive relationship or fail to notice the healthy relationship opportunity right in front of you. You will also tend to struggle to make decisions (#8). 
  10. Lack of awareness of the non-reciprocal, unbalanced nature of your relationships: Self-blamers are usually raised in toxic and narcissistic family systems that use non-reciprocal relationship patterns. In other words, there are “givers” and “takers” but rarely is there a balanced give-and-take in relationships in the family. Growing up in this environment may mean you did not learn healthy conflict resolution and relationship repair, because narcissists/Other-Blamers avoid apologizing and being accountable. You may not even notice this imbalance because it has been normalized for so long. 

These are just a few of the ways narcissistic abuse affects victims. Be mindful of these traits if you are a Self-Blamer and recognize you may have learned these behaviors in childhood. You can, with education and assertiveness, break free from the Other-Blamer’s blame-shifting, excuses, low functioning, and lack of accountability. The key is to focus on your own opinions, needs, values and emotions and reduce your focus on “why” the narcissist is doing what he is doing. The why isn’t important right now. Focus on the fact that the behavior is wrong. There isn’t much else you need to know. 

* Not a real patient.

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