I'm back after a hiatus involving a medical procedure on my spine, a lawsuit against some deadbeat tenants, and a much-needed holiday. I went on safari out in Kruger National Park and stayed in a bushcamp where we had no TV, no radio, no internet, and irregular (and very weak) cell signal. The nice thing about several days of that is that is forces you to turn back to yourself for entertainment...and one of the things I find most entertaining is thinking: I like to think and the peace and solitude of Kruger really facilitated that.
One of the things I began reflecting on were choices and our perceptions of choice. South Africa's legacy of apartheid has left many people, especially people of colour, thinking they have no choices, that they are doomed to live in poverty and their only opportunities to lift themselves out of it come from unlawful means. But these people have other choices and the guides and and workers in the park were a testament to what people can achieve when they recognize that there are other choices than to live in squalor in a tumbledown hut, begging or stealing to survive. It got me to thinking about choices in general, and our choices in particular.
One of the feelings we, the children of narcissists, share is the feeling of being “stuck.” Often we feel we have no choice but to submit to the narcissist, to endure her attacks and other hurtful behaviour. We may feel we cannot leave or, if already out of the house, we cannot stop her from continuing to hurt us. We feel helpless in the face of her behaviour, her expectations, her manipulations. And we feel hurt, angry, confused, powerless, trapped, even crazy, as a result.
Well, the good news is, you do have a choice! She is not in charge of your life, you are!
Let me repeat that: she is not in charge of your life, you are.
You don’t believe me, do you?
Well, believe it or not, if you are at least 18 years of age, you have the power to change your situation, whether your narcissist is a parent, a spouse, a boyfriend, or a boss. You have that power, even though you may not yet realize it. In fact, the distress you are suffering at the hands of your narcissist is the result of a choice you have already made…really!
If you cannot believe that you are capable of changing your life, that the narcissist in your life has you trapped, then you may be suffering from what is called “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness comes from your beliefs: if you believe you cannot do something, that there is no way out, that you cannot succeed, then that becomes your personal reality, even though objective reality may be very different.
The Buddhist website, Unfettered Mind, describes learned helplessness thus: “One of the primary characteristics of learned helplessness is that the person feels passive with respect to the system [the family]. The passivity, however, is only half the story. Whenever we are subjected to abuse, physical, emotional or spiritual, two patterns form inside us: the victim and the abuser. Our experience of being abused lays the basis for the victim pattern. Our experience of how abuse can be meted out lays the basis for the abuser pattern. Both give rise to learned helplessness, though the learned helplessness manifests differently. In the case of the abuser, learned helplessness might manifest as “Something just took over; I didn’t mean to say or do that.” In the case of the victim, it might manifest as “I don’t know why I put up with it but I can’t seem to do anything about it.” In both cases, we are expressing passivity with respect to the patterns operating in us. In both cases, we are confessing helplessness.”
Can you overcome learned helplessness? Yes…but it is not easy. The Unfettered Mind says “The cost…is high. We can only undo learned helplessness by severing our internal connection with the system that gave rise to it…We must really want to live our own life and not one prescribed by our family, society, culture…We must be willing to endure pain, know from direct experience, act on what we see and receive what happens. We must yearn to experience what is without relying on anything to confirm our existence.”
What does this mean? It means that you are not helpless, you just believe that you are. And you must want to break away more than you want to stay. And that you must do something to make a change happen. As long as you keep doing, saying, thinking and living the same way, you will continue reaping the same reward, bitter and unsatisfactory though it may be. If you want something in your life to change, then you must do something to change it.
I know this is not what you want to hear…it’s not what I wanted to hear. When I was trapped in the learned helplessness of being the victim of narcissists, I wanted a magic key that would unlock the good, loving persons I just knew was trapped beneath the narcissist’s punitive exterior. I wanted the “right” words or deeds to bring them to the fore, to make my abusers realize how hurt I was and to evoke their compassion and empathy—and love. What I learned was that I was on a fruitless quest…there is no magic key, the narcissist does not have a loving, compassionate person trapped inside, fighting to escape into a loving relationship. Indeed, I discovered the narcissist doesn’t want to change except, perhaps, to become even better and more proficient at controlling the lives of their victims and getting what they want however they want it with no pangs of conscience or hint of remorse.
While there is no magic key to awaken compassion and conscience in a narcissist, there is a magic key to your freedom and happiness, and that magic key is choice. You have choices, even if you don’t see them. Learned helplessness can result in a kind of emotional paralysis and the way out of that paralysis is to simply make the choice you have been avoiding for so long: choosing yourself and your well-being and your happiness over that of the narcissist. Choosing to give up dreams of the impossible, like your narcissist will change and suddenly treat you with love and concern for your happiness. Choosing to see your relationship with your narcissist for what it really is; choosing to take the blinders off and look cold, hard reality in the face. Choosing to cut—and mourn—your emotional and relationship losses before they make you feel any worse. Choosing a new direction for your life and taking the necessary steps to realize it.
You have choices—but choices have consequences and right now, the life you are living is the result of choices you have already made and, in some cases, have made over and over again. Every time your NM hurts you, belittles you in front of someone else, puts you down, doesn’t invite you to a family dinner or tells your sister or your grandmother or your aunt “Oh, she wouldn’t want to be here…” and you continue on with your relationship with her like it never happened, you re-make the choice to let her do these things with impunity, to continue contact with her under those circumstances, to put yourself and your feelings and your right to be respected below hers. You make the choice to be your narcissist’s doormat every single time you allow him or her to abuse you and you not only don’t do/say anything about it, you don’t start making plans to do something about it, either.
You…and only you…may choose what choices you will make and consequences you will endure in life. Nobody else can make that choice for you because when you choose a behaviour, you choose the consequences. Let me say that one again:
When you choose a behaviour, you choose the consequences.
Right now, if you are enduring the slings and arrows of a narcissist in your life, you are actually choosing to do exactly that: endure the slings and arrows of that narcissist. That is your current choice…to endure. What is the consequence of your choice? The feelings that your endurance and his/her behaviour creates in you. You have other choices, but each and every one of them has a consequence as well. You may well be in the position of choosing the lesser of a host of evils, but you do have choice…it’s just that every one comes with a consequence, so maybe you have chosen, at least for now, to put up with NM and her nasty ways because the consequences of other choices, as far as you can tell, are worse.
If you are sitting there shaking your head and thinking “What other choices??”, then you just aren’t seeing them. Unless someone is forcibly holding you hostage, there are other choices you can make. If you live at home with Narcissistic Mom and Enabling Dad, you have other choices: first and most obvious, you can move out. “I have no place to go, no way to support myself!” you cry. Then start making a plan…get a job, even if it is minimum wage and move out, even if you have to move into a furnished room. If your comfort and cable TV and keys to NF’s car are worth the price you have to pay for them…NM’s abuse and your unhappiness…I am not going to sit here and tell you that you are wrong because only you can choose your life, only you can decide if living in the comfort of your parents’ home is worth the price they exact from you in narcissistic abuse. You decide what the value of living with them is, what it is worth to you…but you cannot make that choice and then complain about the price you pay.
If you are already out of the house, you also have choices: you have the choice of not communicating with her (see “No Contact pt 1” and “No Contact pt 2”), for example. “Oh no!” you object. “She’ll cut me off from my father or my sisters or my nieces and nephews…” or she’ll stalk you or tell lies to the FOO about you or a host of other retaliatory behaviours. You are right…she very likely will…which means you are choosing to put up with her abuse because you don’t want to bear the consequences of putting a stop to it…you think the suffering you are doing now is less than the suffering you would endure if you stood up for yourself and told her to leave you alone.
But what if maybe…just maybe…if you told her to stop calling you ten times a day and she did? My late husband Charlie had a dreadfully narcissistic mother who verbally abused him in front of me at Christmas dinner one year. I got up from the table (after yelling at her and telling her not to call him names), got my handbag and our jackets and said to him “I’m ready to go home. How about you?” We left…and we didn’t hear from her for eleven months…and when we did see her again, she never, ever said rude things to or about him in my presence again…and he refused to see her unless I came along. Sometimes it works.
Will it work on your narcissist? No matter how certain you are that it won’t, you cannot know for sure until you try. Remember, when you choose a behaviour, you also choose the consequences of that behaviour. When we sit silently through a narcissist’s tirades and character assassinations, when we smile weakly at their rude characterizations of others, when we follow the old dictum “to get along you have to go along,” we choose to be abused with impunity, to be disrespected, to be treated poorly. When we chose a different behaviour, we get a different set of consequences, among them what Charlie called “the most peaceful eleven months of my life!”
“But she will turn my family against me!” someone once said to me. Really? Has it occurred to you that that has already happened? When she abuses you, lies about you, assassinates your character, what is your family doing? Who is standing in your defence? Who is telling her “Stop that! That is rude and abusive and you don’t have a right to speak to her that way!”? If you have such a person in your life, how is your NM going to turn him or her against you, since this person is already championing you against her? And the rest of your family? Where are they? If they were on your side instead of hers, wouldn’t they be speaking up on your behalf? And if they aren’t, can you accept that they have already bought every ugly, nasty, lie and half-truth your NM has told them about you and they have already been turned against you? Because if you are going to be able to exercise your choices and get away from the narcissist in your life, first you are going to have to stare reality right in its ugly eyes and know who your friends—and who your enemies—are. If you choose to continue to refuse to believe your NM has already turned (at least some of) them against you, then you will stay stuck right where you are.
When you choose a behaviour, you choose the consequences.
Some may think this is blaming the victim. It’s not. It is making you look at and acknowledge a choice you have made…perhaps not consciously, but you have made this choice just the same. You have chosen to endure what your narcissist does because somewhere in your mind you have decided that the consequences…or your fear of those consequences…is worse than putting up with her abuse. And that is where learned helplessness comes in: your fear. You may be convinced that you cannot support yourself and therefore you must put up with the abuse in order to have a roof over your head. But that only means that your fear of independence—and the rigours of it—is greater than your fear of your NM: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.
But when you take that viewpoint, you choose to change nothing. You choose the miserable existence you have now…because it is familiar and you know what to expect…over the possibility that you can have more or better or both. Yes, it may also be a colossal flop…but if you choose the safety of your present, predictable life, you are choosing the abuse you live with and aren't even making an attempt to make it better. To change your life, you must change your choices, make new ones, head out into uncharted waters, do things differently. But first, you must wake up to the fact that the choices—to go or to stay, to tolerate abuse or not—are yours alone to make.
I hope you make the choice to spread your wings and fly…far, far from the abuse and into a life of your own choice and making.
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.