A few more charcoal and pencils drawings I completed over the weekend

Relational trauma and healing   (Part Two)

On a branch / floating downriver / a cricket, singing Kobayashi Issa


Nowadays the term narcissistic is thrown loosely mostly referring to self-absorption and a deficit of empathy, but this reduces it to more common characteristics or defenses that we may all have or resort to on certain occasions or when we are under duress,  to one extent or another. As with all clusters of traits and states it is a matter of intensity and frequency.  I would also like to add that people are always much more than their labels or dominant way of being in the world, so I think referring to people with high and toxic levels of narcissistic traits is perhaps a better way of describing them because  everyone is more than their dysfunction or defenses, even though malignant narcissism is highly destructive and dangerous for people on the receiving end.  Shahiba Arabi believes “while narcissism does exist on a spectrum, narcissism as a full-fledged personality disorder is quite different. People who meet the criteria……… can operate in extremely manipulative ways within the context of intimate relationships due to their deceitfulness, lack of empathy, and their tendency to be interpersonally exploitative.”

Her  books. Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself , is focused on this type of chronic abusive behaviour, where highly narcissistic people engage in chronic manipulation and devaluation of other people, leaving them feeling worthless, anxious and even suicidal. This type of chronic manipulation, includes as Arabi describes “idealization-devaluation-discard abuse cycles” and is known as narcissistic abuse. It can leave psychological and emotional scars that can last a lifetime, can cause financial and career losses, and lead to isolation, physical illness, as well as, PTSD symptomatology or Complex PTSD. The five basic pillars of attachment are a sense of felt safety, attunement (a sense of being seen and known), soothing (the experience of felt comfort), and expressed delight, which is a sense of being valued, and a sense of support for being and becoming one’s unique and best self. Dr Dan Siegel refers to the 4Ss of secure attachment, which include been seen, been soothed, feeling safe and secure. In any relationship with a person high on the spectrum of narcissistic traits some or all of these areas will suffer.

Arabi clarifies that people high on the spectrum or malignant narcissists “don’t outright destroy you in the way physically abusive partners may do – they plant the very seeds in your mind that will lead you to your own destruction. They will cultivate doubts that never existed, manufacture insecurities that were never present, rub salt on the wounds they know you don’t want opened …. They also rewrite the abuse they’ve inflicted, making you look like you’re the abuser.” Her emphasis is on abusive partners, but these kind of toxic experiences can be played out in all sorts of relational contexts and dynamics: among parents and children, siblings, friends, colleagues, employers and employees, teachers and students, health providers and patients, lawyers and clients, in political and religious settings and many other contexts.

She highlights some common toxic behaviors, which she says are only some of what one might encounter. I refer to some of these below:

One kind of toxic behaviour is being chronically and overly critical and controlling  towards their partners, often covertly, but also, overtly putting them down through cruel behaviors that are employed to isolate and demean them. They demonstrate contempt for others as a way to experience power over and a false sense of superiority. She writes: “Manufacturing hostile or aggressive situations where the victim is led to emotional distress, especially, through what Kohut (1972, cited in Arabi, 2016) calls “narcissistic rage” over seemingly small or irrelevant things. The abuser creates an environment where the victim feels trapped, controlled, and limited in what he or she can say or do. Engaging in hot and cold behavior that switches quickly between a loving persona and an abusive one. This is an abuse cycle known as idealization, devaluation and discard. It includes treating the victim cold and callously for no apparent reason, only to return to loving, affectionate behavior through a technique called intermittent reinforcement…..  Controlling every aspect of their partner’s life to the point where they isolate them from family and friends; this includes sabotaging the victim’s friendships, familial relationships, important life events or their goals and aspirations.”

Triangulation is another erosive strategy used extensively, which can include ex-partners, colleagues, clients, one’s friends, siblings or other family members, neighbours, health practitioners, authority figures, and even strangers.  Through lying, deceit and comparison they succeed in instilling a sense of worthlessness and maintaining control over a person’s emotions and life. When this strategy is used intentionally and often enough it can wreak havoc, distort one’s perception of reality and most importantly distract from important issues and relational dynamics.  Triangulation feeds a high on the spectrum narcissist’s addictive need for constant attention from multiple people, as well as, their victim’s emotional distress in response to the triangulation. Triangulation consists of bringing the presence of literally any other person into the dynamic of a relationship, because of the narcissist’s needs for control over someone and for constant attention and energy from other people, and it can take place in person, over social media and even through verbal accounts of other people. Healthier relationships thrive on security; unhealthy ones are filled with provocation and uncertainty. Arabi writes: “Narcissists like to manufacture love triangles and bring in the opinions of others to validate their point of view. They do this to an excessive extent in order to play puppeteer to your emotions……Triangulation is the way the narcissist maintains control and keeps you in check — you’re so busy competing for his or her attention that you’re less likely to be focusing on the red flags within the relationship…..”

Gaslighting their partners and other people into believing that toxic behaviours or manipulation or their reality isn’t real by denying, minimizing or rationalizing. Gaslighting is used to convince a person that their perception of what is going on or of reality is inaccurate. This can be done through deflecting any conversations about accountability by using circular conversations or rage, for instance,. Sometimes it may seem that they have selective amnesia of  events and experiences, and they will lie, deny or distort facts and blameshift. Arabi writes; “This allows them to escape accountability, but it’s also a type of crazymaking that enables the abuser to rewrite reality for you and control your reality. In an abusive relationship with a narcissist, you are no longer the owner of your perception – you are a slave to the narcissist’s projections and reshaping of your own perception.”

Another highly destructive practice that malignant narcissists engage in is subjecting their partner or another person to smear campaigns in order to slander their character and reputation so that he/she is left without a support network. This also includes blame shifting and projecting their malignant traits onto their partners or other targeted individuals. Arabi writes:  “…. during conversations while using a false charismatic self to make their victims look like the “crazy” ones. It’s almost as if they hand off their own traits and shortcomings to their victims as if to say, “Here, take my pathology. I don’t want it.” People high on this spectrum of traits need constant validation and admiration from multiple sources and they tend to create  networks, which are referred to as “harems and flying monkeys”. Arabi writes: “A harem is a group of people the narcissist has gathered around himself to validate his opinions, cater to their constant need for attention, and stroke their ego. This is why they are clever chameleons who are also people-pleasers, morphing into whatever personality suits them in situations with different types of people to get what they want – supply. Think of the story of the emperor’s new clothes – the victim will often be the only one telling the narcissist he is a naked fool, which will cause a narcissistic injury, rage and denial. The harem wouldn’t dare because these members are too loyal to the narcissist’s false self….”, which is the armor and construct of positive qualities and traits that he or she usually presents to the outside world.

Tactics like smearing campaigns and gaslighting facilitate the creation of these networks. Arabi says that these networks often consist of other people high on the narcissistic spectrum, as well as, people-pleasers and empaths. But they could also be people whose belief systems or life styles differ from those of the victim. Through Othering a person one can more easily create an audience and gather people around them, and also, control, silence or scapegoat the targeted individual. In some sense through Othering, an ingroup experience and a sense of false belonging is created, which can then lead people to feel entitled to inflict micro-aggressions or other forms of  harm on the targeted individual.  In an older post (8 / 9 / 2020) on racism and macro and micro aggressions I discussed how frequent microaggressions have many cumulative effects in people’s lives and impact mental and physical health. In that post I had written that “Through reading Levchak’s book it is easy to see that the tactics and strategies that comprise racist microaggressions are not very different from aggressions committed against any individual or group of people where colour or ‘race’ is not necessarily a variable. Apart from the examples of micro-aggressions and lack of civility mentioned above, other actions mentioned in the research findings include……..gaslighting. Gaslighting is commonly used as a tactic to make targets question their own sanity and perception of an event or experience and also keep quiet.” Being on the receiving end of a smearing campaign and frequent gaslighting brings about similar consequences.

Another common response when someone brings up concerns about the relationship or any subject which is considered off limits or a plea for honesty, is stonewalling, which is a kind of silent treatment and discourages any meaningful communication, distracts from the salient issue, and also, reinforces silence.  Stonewalling may involve abruptly ending arguments, subjecting a person  to the silent treatment, invalidating their emotions and controlling their reactions. It involves ending a discussion before it’s even begun through particular phrases, through leaving or retreating into silence. This kind of behaviour creates a sense of chronic insecurity and causes one to walk on eggshells, and doubt oneself. It makes one prone to cognitive dissonance and leads to denial and minimizing one’s experience, as well as emotional distress or meltdown.

At this point I would like to briefly refer to the Still Face study (there are several videos available on YouTube) initially developed in the 1970s by Dr Ed Tronick, which shows our inherent human need for connection and attunement from very early on, and also, how caregivers’ responses affect infants’ development. In this experiment once the still face part of the experiment begins the baby at first looks confused, but she tries desperately to initiate a response from her mother. Eventually, she begins crying and then screeching. In this and other YouTube videos babies often lose postural control or they start hurting themselves, which reflects the levels of discomfort and distress they are experiencing. The baby can also become withdrawn and shut down. It is actually quite distressing to watch the infants’ dysregulation and physical collapse. Of course, there are bound to be moments when parents are busy or non responsive, but when no repair takes place and when this is chronic then it becomes traumatic and it impacts the child’s development

In the short video at: https://psychhelp.com.au/what-does-the-still-face-experiment-teach-us-about-connection/ Dr Sue Johnson and Dr Ed Tronick comment on how there are certain common stages and reactions that occur in humans of all ages when it comes to our seeking emotional connection. We see how the same thing plays out both in the mother-infant interactions and in adult romantic relationships. In the second part of this video one partner is not responding emotionally and is not displaying connection, and like the baby in the first part of the video, the other partner is desperately attempting to engage with him emotionally. We witness her meltdown as he is unable or unwilling to respond and connect. We understand that from the cradle all the way into our adulthood we are vulnerable to the emotional and non emotional responses of those close to us.

More on this topic and book in the next post.

Relational trauma and healing   (Part One)

“Firstly, people who carry early wounding and have injured instincts are prone to attracting people with more narcissism than is healthy and even safe. One could also say that we live in an era that fosters narcissism and predator mentality towards other people, animals and the planet itself….” (October 13th, 2019)

I have written about narcissistic trauma in previous posts and I think the previous one might be something I posted relevant to Wendy Behary’s book: Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self Absorbed on October 13th, 2019. In this post today, I’d like to share some more resources, specifically, the episode: Holding Your Own with Challenging Personalities – staying (or becoming) secure in relationship with those with the personality structure of malignant narcissism at: https://therapistuncensored.com/episodes/tu-137-holding-your-own-5-malignant-narcissism-and-when-to-run-5/.  This is one of a series of six podcasts (https://therapistuncensored.com/episodes/) related to challenging personality traits high on the continuum, characteristics and dynamics of more functional and healthy relationships, and relational trauma and healing in the context of less and more severe narcissistic abuse, presented by Sue Marriott & Dr. Ann Kelley. Below each podcast there are notes, which makes it easier to engage with the material.

In this particular podcast Sue Marriott & Dr. Ann Kelley claim that we all have elements of self-centeredness and narcissistic traits, but when it becomes more engrained into our personality structure that is where many problems arise. They write: “Narcissism, at its core, involves a sense of entitlement, exploitation and extreme self-focus that loses touch with one’s ability to see the needs of others. Grandiose and covert narcissists can become so self-involved that they can completely dismiss others in extremely painful ways. However, they generally continue to hold relationships in value. Their primary difficulty lies in the tendency to idealize and devalue, which often leads to feeling misunderstood and mistreated. Thus, they can lack guilt because they often see themselves as right or the victim to injustice. However, when they do discover that they have wronged someone, they can feel significant guilt and shame. In malignant narcissism, there is a general void of guilt and shame…….. In malignant narcissism the value placed on others is primarily based on utility – what others can do for them. The relational aspect is void. They do not have access to guilt of felt shame. This has been cut off. The malignant narcissist expects extremely loyalty at all costs. Loyalty to them, not to ideals….. This type of thinking leaves open rational for retaliation and extreme vindictiveness…. One way to know if our relationship, family, company or country is being run by a malignant narcissistic ruler is to recognize that those under them are in a constant state of fear and threat….. One sign of a malignant narcissist is the cool and coldness with which they can seek revenge in a calculating manner….. If in a relationship with someone that has malignant narcissism, there is little hope of change. The focus must be for you to protect yourself, seek support or safely get out of the relationship….”

Summarily, people on the high end of the narcissistic spectrum are deliberately dishonest and deceptive, while accusing others. They need to dominate and so they often resort to aggressive strategies like provoking, bullying, and intimidating, where they might respond disproportionally and yell. They like being feared because it imbues them with a sensation of omnipotence. They cause deliberate hurt, blatantly lie about events. They argue in bad faith and then present it as if others are the ones who are unreasonable. They resort to gaslighting and attempt to confuse the other person and make them doubt their experiences or reality by lying, stone walling and confidence breaking. They prefer not to take responsibility for their actions and when others complain or resist their lies they will deflect, shift attention from themselves, project their own experience onto others and go into attack mode. Even though it is not visible at first sight narcissists may have extremely fragile egos and a shaky sense of self-esteem and are consumed with maintaining a shallow false self to others. Often in order to regulate their emotions, they crave false validation, which practically means they seek people who would side with them. They are addicted to attention and use tactics like lying, playing the victim card, smearing, slandering, triangulating, stalking, and other forms of social aggression and manipulative games to create networks (“harems and flying monkeys”). They also tend to perceive all interactions as a win-lose situation, and when they feel they have lost or have been wronged, they will accuse you and manipulate others in hurting you. They mostly don’t care about sound arguments, honesty or win-win resolutions, and most importantly, they lack the capacity to display empathy, feel what it is like to be in another’s shoes.

Sue Marriott & Dr. Ann Kelley also provide suggestions about books. I have been reading one of their suggested books recently, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself by Shahida Abrabi, and will probably write a summary of points and ideas that I might consider useful in the next post.