The Trance of Fear and Surviving the Narcissist
Thank you Stephanie M. Kriesberg for this wonderful article!
Anyone who has experienced a relationship with a narcissist has experienced the trance of fear. It might feel like being frozen, cut off from your feelings. In contrast, you might feel overwhelmed by anger or heartache. You just can’t think. Even when the narcissist is well-known to you, interacting with him or her can feel like being hit by an emotional ton of bricks. Annabelle describes seeing her mother at a family reunion. Annabelle had minimal contact with her narcissistic mother and made positive changes in her life, including going back to school and getting remarried.
“Annabelle!” her mother squawked her name across her cousin’s backyard. “Come here!” Annabelle felt her mother’s voice pierce her like a spike. That’s all it took, and Annabelle felt fifteen again, cornered.
It’s not easy to handle the “trance of fear” but it is possible. As a psychologist who works with daughters of narcissistic mothers and other people who have been impacted by narcissists, I’ve learned that the most useful first step is education about narcissism. The more you understand about how narcissism works, the more can step back and practice skills to stay emotionally safe and present– out of trance.
Why do narcissists cause people to feel this way? How do they create the “trance of fear”? People with narcissism have great difficulty identifying and handling their own emotions. In addtion, how they feel at any moment is tied to how they feel about themselves. Just got a pat on the back at work? The parent with narcissist traits feels great, and perhaps can be loving to her daughter. Got criticized on the job? The same parent will have no ability to tolerate that bad feeling. Instead, she will lash out at her daughter. As a narcissist, she will lack insight into her behavior. She can’t see the connection between her angry behavior and her daughter’s reaction to her.
As human beings we are wired to protect ourselves when we feel frightened. Our brain signals our bodies to go into “the fight-flight-or freeze” response. Our hearts race, our muscles tense. Our whole nervous system goes on overdrive. This response is helpful when our lives are at stake– let’s say we have to escape a burning building. It’s not helpful when we experience this feeling in our familes, day to day. Over the past few years, research by trauma specialist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and others has clarified that messages of fear get stuck in our brains, creating this trance of fear.
We’ve also learned that people who have lived in the trance can start to change their fearful patterns, little by little. Here is way to start:
Set time aside to practice taking slow, deep breaths, and simply noticing your breaths. It could be 10 seconds, if that’s all that feels comfortable to you. The idea is to focus on your breath, without pressuring yourself to do it “right.” Of course, many thoughts will drift into your mind. That’s how our brains work! Sharon Salzburg, another central teacher in the world of meditation, says:
“The moment you’ve been distracted is the magic moment. That’s the moment you have to be really different… to not judge ourselves, not condemn ourselves, simply let go and begin again” (meditation from Insight Timer).
What a wonderful message for people who deal with narcissists! You don’t have to be stuck in a trance of fear. You can start again, over and over: you’re in control. Below is a link to the free app.
Insight Timer, where you can find Sharon Salzberg’s Breath Meditation.
Like Annabelle, you may have automatic fear reactions stuck in your nervous system. However, you can slowly start to change how your nervous system is set, step by step.
Stephanie M. Kriesberg, Psy.D. Is a licensed psychologist in Concord, Massachusetts. She specializes in treating daughters of narcissistic mothers, as well as other people impacted by narcissism. For more information about Dr. Kriesberg’s practice, please visit her website:
STEPHANIE M. KRIESBERG, PSY.D.
801 Main Street
Concord, MA 01742