Thank you Sherri Heller for sharing another great article!
Mom’s stealth narcissism was obscured by her schizophrenia. Dad was more blatantly sadistic and malignant, yet he seemed to be the saner of the two. I can say now they were both comparably deranged, just in different ways. Life is so much clearer in hindsight.
By the time I sought treatment at eighteen years old I evidenced all the classic signs of complex trauma. Only the diagnostic term ‘complex trauma’ had not yet been introduced yet by Dr. Judith Herman. Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome, or what some refer to as Echoism, was also not yet popularized by Dr. Craig Malkin.
While I had a euphemistic idea of narcissism I hadn’t a clue as to what really plagued me beyond the obvious injuries incurred through the ravages of poverty and a home life submerged in domestic violence and the more obvious signs of florid mental illness.
The more ‘nuanced’ psychological abuse eluded me, as it did the clinicians who tried to help me. We failed to see how…
The Gaslighting (A form of psychological manipulation in which false information is manufactured and deliberately manipulated so as to make the targeted victim doubt reality, memory and perceptions so as to ensure control.)
The Hostage taking / Entrapment (Fostering a pathological bond by stipulating that attachment and dependency needs will only be met by serving the parental abuser.)
The Triangulation (Triangulation involves the abuser pitting a supporter or a militia of supporters, against a targeted rival, in order to Divide and Conquer. Dividing and Conquering is the means by which control over a designated target is ensured by creating discord and opposition.)
The Objectification (Being deprived of one’s humanity and individuality so as to be reduced to a mere object malleable to mistreatment.)
The Feigning Innocence or Confusion (A diversion tactic in which the abuser pretends to be unaware of what they are doing)
The Covert Incest (Exploitive and emotionally abusive enmeshed dynamic in which roles are reversed and the child is expected to support the inappropriate needs of a disordered parent, such as being a confidant.)
The Smear Campaigns ( Effort to create chaos and damage your reputation by spreading rumors and lies.)
The Abandonment (The absence of emotional connection creates an omnipresent state of disconnection, which is further exacerbated by the narcissistic parent’s emotional indifference, neglect, contempt and the ubiquitous message that the child must abandon him/herself in order to be ‘good’.)
The Virtue Signaling and Grandstanding (The conspicuous assertion of moral values and philanthropic activities so as to ensure a (false) sense of security and glean admiration and trust.)
The Envy (Envy is a debased reaction to perceived lack. The individual on the receiving end of envy is condemned for possessing what the other feels they lack and desire. If envy remains unchecked it may lead to relational dynamics infiltrated with a ruthless competitive energy. When the rancor of envy is most venomous, the object of envy is dehumanized and hated.)
The Sabotage (Malignant envy and the need to dominate and control leads the narcissist parent to subvert their children’s efforts to individuate and actualize potentials.)
The Sadism (Pleasurable gratification experienced through inflicting pain and suffering. In my case this was veiled as humor)
The Stonewalling (Refusing to communicate so as to punish and maintain control.)
The Character Assassination (Often part of a smear campaign, Abuser damages a targets reputation.)
The Sexualizing (Sexual touching, showing porn, exposing genitalia, exposing a child to sex acts, watching a child undress and bathe, and use the toilet. Inappropriately commenting on a child’s body parts.)
The Lies (Designed to cause the target to doubt their perceptions and live in a state of uncertainty. Integral to gaslighting.)
and of course
The Lack of Empathy (The hallmark of narcissism. Empathy is the capacity to compassionately relate to another’s reality. It is crucial to self-other awareness. Narcissists lack empathy although they are good at feigning empathy when they want to glean supply. )
All added up to being abused by parents on the pathological end of the narcissistic spectrum.
Sure we lived in so much filth and squalor I thought the walls were alive from the cockroach infestation, but my father was an oil painter, a writer, a genius! I had hamsters, a record player, tons of albums and lots of books. Never mind that my sister and I were malnourished. That we were kept hostage. That I almost died from sepsis.
It’s amazing how the mind contorts itself to buy into false narratives. We’re designed to survive by normalizing the worst. We convince ourselves humanity exists in despicable people, especially if they’re your parents.
Without a blueprint to offer me an explanation of what I was enduring, I resembled the mountain nymph Echo from Ovid’s myth. Like Echo I had no personal words, no sense of Self to anchor myself in. Just an insatiable desperate longing for the unattainable. Like Echo the shame and humiliation of being spurned and unwanted kept me craving and obsessing for the tormentor. Of course, like Echo I saw the tormentor, the narcissist, as my redeemer.
Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome, a subset of complex trauma, kept me in chains. I was enslaved to a power submissive dynamic in which I deferred my power and became supply. Supply is that which feeds a narcissist’s pathological limitless need to feel powerful and worshipped.
As a child I had two basic survival needs; to know that my parents were okay and I mattered. These survival needs must be met in order for developmental milestones to occur. This is an impossible feat with narcissist parents.
When basic needs are not met and traumas are incurred from chronic child abuse, the development of a cohesive and coherent personality structure is hindered. Fragmentation of the overall personality results because the capacity to integrate injuries to the self which threaten one’s life is insufficient.
When the repetitive intrusion of terror and helplessness in the victimized child’s life arrests the course of normal development, knowledge, memory, emotional states and bodily experiences cannot be aptly integrated. Consequentially, identity formation is stymied and a reliable sense of independence within connection is ruptured.
Due to narcissistic brainwashing I learned to equate love with the abdication of Self. A sense of identity and personal authority interferes with the narcissist’s agenda to assert complete dominance and control. The child is but a tool to manipulate and exploit. In the worst cases where the parental narcissist is a psychopath, sadistic cruelty and torture is perpetrated.
Hence I had to comply with the subjugation demanded by my parents, in order to intermittently receive any morsels of positive attention. This intermittent reinforcement amid unpleasant consequences establishes unpredictability and confusion.
The narcissist capitalizes on this phenomenon. The victim’s mind scrambles to discover what one has to do to acquire a positive response from the narcissistic abuser. Eventually, cognitive dissonance sets in and the desperate urgency to discern a rhyme or reason becomes a driving force.
This addictive cycle establishes Stockholm Syndrome, a form of traumatic bonding in which victims are pathologically attached to their perpetrator.
Unfortunately my early grooming trained me well. My subsequent attempts to procure love propelled me into the arms of countless narcissists. Efforts to recover and grow through therapy, academia, creative expression, travel and every sundry healing modality known to man could not dismantle this intractable pattern.
The narcissists just became more refined, more polished, and more stealth in their maneuvering. Often they were accomplished artists and healers. They were popular and seemed special, even kind. I felt so fortunate. Until I was discarded. Or I salvaged a shard of self respect and left, after bottoming out from one too many betrayals.
It’s true that some of the romantic relationships and friendships I fostered were with those who possessed narcissistic traits, as opposed to the full blown disorder. I even managed to cultivate a few long term relationships with those who were not on the pathological end of the narcissistic spectrum at all.
Those life affirming relationships, concomitant to every betrayal and heartache endured offered momentum and clarity, but it wasn’t until I fully gave spiritual meaning to my instinctual aggression that I finally broke free.
Looking back it’s absurd and tragic that what I thought would save me was actually the antithesis to my salvation. Yet how tenaciously I latched on to fantasies of forgiveness and romantic mythology. I convinced myself I would transcend this ugliness by being a selfless beacon of love and light. I even entered seminary on the heels of a disastrous ordeal with a covert narcissist, fueled by the intention to seek spiritual deliverance.
Naturally seminary was steeped in virtue signalers and grandstanding channelers who had a direct line to God. I’m grateful that my years in psychotherapy and my clinical background as a psychotherapist drilled some sense into me. The denouncing of darkness and addiction to the light was just another form of narcissistic mind control. My disillusionment catapulted me into marginalization and rage.
I was right where I needed to be.
Ironically through the discipline of reading sacred texts and a daily spiritual practice, I was guided towards my darkness as never before. It was there I found liberation. Only by confronting the hate I denied, was I able to cultivate discernment, discrimination and formidable authority. Through this deliberate five year descent into darkness I was at long last done with narcissists.
My instinctual aggression informed me of my humanity and my responsibility to myself. It told me there is cruelty in the world. Even evil. It was up to me to assimilate and uphold that truth.
The writer W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “There is no explanation for evil. It must be looked upon as a necessary part of the order of the universe. To ignore it is childish, to bewail it senseless.”
Maugham is right. Complete acceptance is freedom. Only by fully waking up to the reality of evil and refusing to bargain with malevolence with every fiber of my primal animal being, could I free myself from narcissists and open myself to the kind of love I spent my life seeking.
Still, it’s curious that this prized victory is so bittersweet. I suppose that’s because accepting the odious side of human nature means dispensing with the illusion that love is the magical panacea that can cure all ills. It means embracing human fallibility and the dangers in the world.
It means accepting there is no rescue.
There is only the willingness to be intelligently guarded and to do whatever is required in life to choose wisely.
Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW
NYC Therapist & Author. Complex Trauma & Addiction. Dual citizen, traveler, lover of art and nature. I appreciate the absurd. Sheritherapist.com