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.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why we stay

Despite having Low Contact and No Contact available as tools to help us deal with our NMs, many of us do not take advantage of them. We continue to expose ourselves to their toxic ways, perhaps hoping “this time it will be different” or justifying our complicity in our own victimization with such rationalizations as “I don’t want to miss my sister’s wedding,” or “how can I deprive my kids of their grandparents?” or even “I won’t let her push me out of this family and win!” I have to wonder: if you had it on good authority that someone had put a contract out on you, if you attended that wedding, that reunion, that Christmas dinner, there would be a sniper lurking with a gun pointed right at your heart and he had been paid to shoot you dead in front of all and sundry, would you go anyway? Would those “reasons” for going still motivate you, despite the certain knowledge that would be shot and either seriously wounded…maybe even killed…if you showed up?

Ok, some people are so sunk in denial that they would go anyway, but wouldn’t the majority of us stay away, fearing for our lives? We would fear physical wounding, even death and take steps to protect ourselves, even though we know that, if only wounded, we would eventually heal. Despite that knowledge, however, we still fear the pain of injury and the possibility of death, the painful healing process, the potential for being maimed and even permanently crippled by the injury. We shy away self-protectively, preferring to protect our bodies…and our kids and spouses from any potential stray bullets…over contact with our families and NMs.

So I have to ask: why is your psyche…and the psyches of your kids and spouse…not as important as your physical body? Why would you protect yourself from being shot and maimed or killed, but not protect yourself from the predations you know, from long and painful experience, will be an inevitable part of having contact with your NM and her flying monkeys? Why is it not OK for her to kill your body, but it is not only OK for her to kill your spirit, it is so OK that you help her by serving yourself up, like a Christmas turkey, for her consumption?

Have you asked yourself this? Have you ever even thought about it? Are you thinking about it now? Why do we do this to ourselves?

The answer is simple: we expect them to change, to be different this time. Why we expect that change, however, is not so monolithic.

It isn’t really hope that keeps us stuck in the earlier stages…the “living in hope” stage comes later, when we have exhausted everything else and hope is all we have left. Once the penny drops and we realize we are dealing with a parent who is dysfunctional, before we reach that “living in hope” stage, we first go through many of the stages of grieving…and we may even get stuck in some of them.

Wikipedia reports “Studies of pedagogy, the process of teaching, suggest that the patterns of grief are one way of describing the basic patterns of integrating new information that conflicts with previous beliefs.” How apropos this is for us! In becoming aware that something is wrong with our mothers, in processing the information that they are not the loving, nurturing beings we expected them to be—and realizing that their negative behaviour towards us was not our fault—don’t we follow the Kubler-Ross grief dynamic? Remember the stages do not have to occur in any strict order…and they can happen simultaneously. I found it fascinating too learn that the stages of grief are virtually identical to our patterns of integrating new information that conflicts with old. We get stuck when we are unwilling to let go of the old information and accept the new…when we cling to denial and a preferred belief rather than embrace a new and painful truth. Sometimes we want to have our cake and eat it to: to acknowledge intellectually that our NMs are cold and unloving and did not love us in the way we deserved and needed but, at the same time, emotionally cling to the notion that she does love us, “in her own way,” despite abundant evidence to the contrary or…more tellingly…that we have the power to win her love if we could just figure out the “right” thing to do or say or be.

Denial, the first stage of grief, is something we are all familiar with. We somehow feel compelled to protect our NMs at our own expense, to take blame for her cold and unloving behaviour and attitudes towards us, to deny that her unloving behaviour comes from an unloving heart. We would rather believe we were not compliant enough, obedient enough, loving enough: we committed an endless litany of sins that turned our otherwise good and loving mother against us. We are at fault and we feel guilt for it. If you look at this notion rationally, it makes no sense: a truly loving mother will love her child no matter what…and most definitely through the natural mishaps and mistakes of childhood. You do not have to earn your mother’s real love with perfect behaviour and anticipating her every whim: mothers who require that of their children do not love the child, they love the behaviour.

We, as a people, find it difficult to say…and accept… “I don’t know” as an answer to anything. Myths are spawned by this inability, as we naturally fear the unknown. To name something is to potentially have power over it…or at least over yourself in its presence. Early man knew this…their priests and shamen came up with stories to explain lightning and tides, storms and seasons, even the transit of the sun across the sky. “Knowing” the cause of these things, even if such knowledge involved magic hammers, horses and chariots pulling the sun, and thunderbolts being hurled from a mountaintop, was less frightening to the people than not knowing at all. And so, when we face the sad fact that our mothers did not have a natural mother’s love for us, it is less frightening, less painful, to blame ourselves than to admit we don’t really know why. It also gives us a feeling of control over something that, in fact, we have no control over at all.

How is that? Because if we believe that we have some fault in an on-going event, we also believe we have the power to influence it by changing our faulty behaviour. And it is this belief that keeps us stuck, stuck, stuck.

How many times have you thought that if you were only smarter, prettier, more compliant, less clumsy or forgetful, more able to read her mind, she would love you more? It is amazing what a love-starved child…or adult…will do to gain what she identifies as love from an unloving parent: a 14 year-old-girl in England allowed her mother to artificially inseminate her so that her mother could have a fourth child to raise because “If I do this . . . maybe she will love me more.” As long as we think our behaviour influences the dispensation of love from our narcissistic parent, we willingly participate in the manipulation believing, like the English girl, “If I do this…maybe she will love me more.”

The second stage of grief is anger. Many of us engage in both denial and anger simultaneously, angry that our siblings are treated better than we are, angry we are denied that which our peers take for granted, angry that our expectations are repeatedly disappointed. If we have ventured a step or two out of denial and realize the truth of how we are being abused, our anger may escalate into rage and hatred. Too often, however, we feel guilt for our anger, guilt for thinking “badly” about people we are, according to our cultural norms, supposed to love and trust unconditionally.

The third stage of grief is bargaining, and this is where we fall into that false sense of control: “if I do what she wants, she will reciprocate by doing what I want.” The problem is, she won’t…and then you have a disappointed expectation to deal with, which may well trigger more anger. But if you are stuck in the bargaining stage, you will be wracking your brain for new and better ways to elicit the desired response from her, keeping the cycle of denial, anger, and bargaining going indefinitely.

Depression is the fourth stage of grief and it precedes acceptance. Depression is, in itself, a kind of denial, a final refusal to accept the truth even while knowing what the truth is. During this stage you are perceiving the truth but not yet ready to embrace it. A lot of people get stuck here, vacillating between it and earlier stages, all in an effort to put off embracing the final stage. This is where getting stuck in hope happens: unwilling to embrace the finality of acceptance, unwilling to fully acknowledge the truth of an NM’s lack of emotional connection to the child, we get stuck here, relying on hope to come to the rescue, clinging to a futile and childlike hope for our wish…that our NMs will magically morph into loving, caring mothers…to miraculously come true. It is not until we are willing to relinquish that wish, that hope, that we can move on to the final stage of grief:

Acceptance. Here, you come to terms with the unpleasant and unhappy reality of your mother. You know that she is the one who is at the root of her lack of love for you, not you. You accept that nothing you can do will elicit love from her because she doesn’t have it to give. You stop trying, you stop feeling guilty, your anger begins to wane. No longer hiding behind anger and rage, no longer shielding yourself with denial, you stop bargaining and you start actually feeling the hurt that you have been hiding from for so long…and it feels good and cleansing to feel those feelings, weep over them, and purge them. You may not entirely give up hope, but you now relegate it to a faint flicker in the place where you keep your latent belief in magic and miracles: you know it probably will never happen and your life is no longer held hostage to it.

And you feel free. You feel free to walk away or to stay: her barbs no longer have the power to wound you to your very soul. You may even feel sorry for her, knowing how inadequate she really is and how desperately she tries to conceal that from everyone, including yourself. You no longer feel compelled to bargain for something that does not even exist, you don’t have the desire to deny the reality of who and what she is, and if you are angry with her, it no longer controls and interferes with living your own life.

Why do you stay? Because you continue to expect, in one way or another, that she will change. As long as that is a part of your beliefs, you cannot be free. As long as you harbour the belief that she will one day, through a mechanism still unknown to you, realize she loves you and then will be motivated to communicate that to you, you stay. Locked in a prison of pain, you hold the key to your freedom in your own hands, if you would but use it. It is your belief that she has love for you and you have the power to somehow release it that keeps you where you are. And only you have the power to let that go.


  1. In my experience, it was not so much denial as CONDITIONING that kept me going back for more. From the day I was "accidentally" born a girl they began conditioning me to believe that the treatment I received was acceptable and deserved. My role was to serve my parents and seek their approval. Keep in mind, they isolated their children so we had no insight into how other families operated.

    To this day, at age 67, I still find myself wondering what I could have said or done to make them love me. Then, I have to remind myself they are incapable of loving anyone but themselves.

  2. This is an excellent and very timely post for me. I have recently gone LC and am considering NC and there are a lot of feelings of guilt surrounding it, so posts like this help quite a bit.

    I do have one question about this subject. Do you have much experience with only children of narcissists? If you could direct me to any posts you might have written about that, or any websites geared toward that type of relationship, I would really appreciate it since google doesn't turn up much for me. I feel like some of my massive guilt comes from me being an only child of a narcissist.

    I was definitely scapegoated a large portion of the time, and the experiences of scapegoats talked about here rings true for me. But there were also times when she treated me in a way that seemed much more loving than what you and many of your commenters describe about their moms.

    She definitely didn't neglect my physical well being, and if anything she spent too much time with me, although she absolutely neglected my emotional well being and seemed to have adult expectations of me even when I was a baby. I have heard about narcissists switching the only child between scapegoat and golden child, and wonder if that's what happened to me. Is that usually how it works? Do you know anything more specific about the process?


  3. Loved this post. My mother said the EXACT same thing: "Children should be seen and not heard". She did not care about any of us kids and my father was her little whipping boy. Now that both parents are gone, my mother's narcissism lives on through two of my brothers. Thanks for this post.

  4. You need to blame the religious conditioning of children from their school days and from religious institutions for this kind of a self created emotional prison. In india the saying goes preference is given first to Mother father, teacher (authority) and finally god; Mother is akin to god, the words of a parent is akin to the scriptures etc. People even till the age of 80 fall for this shit. From my childhood my sense of reality was so strong that i was least convinced by this nonsense. Second i could feel it in subconscious way that my mother was an absolute crap looks wise and character wise, i never used to crave her love or anyone's as a matter of fact. I was never convinced that any human is worshipworthy. When elders insist on unconditional and unquestioning worship, they are severing a persons rational thinking. For instance after my father's death i brought about his stupidity evil behaviour to the family, the repartee was : "Whatever be it, he is still your father". what i demand is that a child's nutritional, clothing, educaitonal needs be met with, survival skills be taught, moral emotional and intellectual growth be fostered and to treat the child kindly. These are the things that narcissistic parents entirely lack.

  5. One thing that I think is sometimes missing from analysis of why anyone stays with any abuser is the fact that victims often feel like they "have no where else to go," due to the lingering effects of isolation.

    Many abusers - including my own narcissistic mother - do everything in their power to isolate their victims. They cut the victim off from extended family, create rivalry in the nuclear family, and often even ban their children (or partners) from having friends. If you were raised by a narcissist who abused through isolation, in many cases you may find yourself entering adulthood with no friends (that wasn't allowed!), dysfunctional relationships with any siblings (if you even have a sibling) and/or enabling parent, and no relationships at all with extended family.

    While it's possible to establish friendships in adulthood, it's harder to make friends when you're older, and impossible to replace family that never really was. So you can wind up very alone. A spouse may change this, but what if you're single, or your partner comes from an abusive situation too?

    I think we overlook the fact that people sometimes stay with and/or "go back to" abusers because of DESPERATION, not hope. A victim may go to a family holiday dinner because, well - there's nowhere else to go! And she or he doesn't want to sit home alone feeling like they "have nobody". Or maybe there's really very little other support network for when he's sick, or her car breaks down, or what have you - so they turn to the only people they know, i.e., the abusive family of origin.

    I just think that this issue really gets overlooked. I know for a fact that I spent way more holidays and what have you with my abusive mother than I really wanted to, and called her for help with stuff, because she'd raised me to be alone, and my support networks were very limited for a long time. Children of abusers who isolate don't just leave home and presto-chango, new support network! It's a lot harder than that.

    1. Many people do many things out of desperation, but the truth is, desperation is another one of those pathological conditions of a person who is not whole unto him/herself. Drill down into desperation and what do you find? A person who HOPES to alleviate his/her emptiness, loneliness, in the company of the degree that even someone known to be toxic is preferable to being alone with her own demons of self-doubt and feelings of not being whole.

      Desperation drives us to many things, but the answer is seldom found in those things. Spending Christmas being abused by an NM is not what you hope for when you go to her out of desperation: you have a hope (albeit probably hidden from your conscious mind) that things will be different this year, that you will not be abused or treated poorly and that Christmas with her will be better than Christmas alone...

      We are victims of our own choices when we decide to keep contact with abusive people out of desperation. We actually have more than the two choices of being alone or being abused by our N...we can volunteer to bring joy to others at homeless shelters, children's homes, soup kitchens, rescue missions. We can volunteer to be on help lines for those who have seen their choices as being a dichotomy between pain and death; you can GIVE love and cheer to people who don't even have an N family to escape, people who have so much less than you have.

      And you have many of these choices every day, not just on holidays. Instead of lamenting that nobody loves you on your birthday and you must choose between loneliness or being abused by your NM, get creative: here, in South Africa, where I live, my husband brings a cake to work on his birthday to share with his co-workers. That is the tradition--birthday boy or girl brings the cake to celebrate. And people make friends in the can too.

      Desperation only drives us to desperate measures when we close our minds to other possibilities. You had no control over how your NM treated you when you were growing up and you developed defense mechanisms (and viewpoints) that protected you. But that situation is now over and you no longer need those defense mechanisms, her prohibitions no longer apply, and your submission to her abuse is no longer required. You have lots of other choices, the vast majority of them healthier than keeping to the path she set your feet on.

      If you cannot see them, if you really believe that your only choices are loneliness or submitting to your NM's abuse, then you might find therapy very helpful and enlightening. One thing is for absolute certain, however: your life will not and cannot change until YOU do something differently.

      Best of luck to you,


      Sweet Violet

    2. I think you miss my point.

      It's not always about hope. Not everyone who turns to an abusive family for something in the short run is hoping they'll "change". Sometimes it's a calculated evaluation of bad options due to the situation an abusive family leaves you in, and a lack of alternatives, skills, and even knowledge, that you have to "climb back from".

      It's often about stuff as simple as not having any PRACTICAL options. People don't turn 18 and suddenly have enough money to be totally independent. You can't impose on virtual strangers from your new job or whatever to let you stay with them for a few weeks while you save up money for a down payment on a new apartment, or ask people you barely know to come do you a favor and shovel your car out and drive you to the doctor when you get the flu in January. People with old friends can do that, but not people raised without friends - until such time as they manage to build new networks, which isn't easy and takes time. And let's face it, that's the sort of stuff that normal people rely on family for, so even asking good friends can feel like an imposition. People are by nature inter-dependent, not just emotionally, but for practical things. Sometimes victims may turn to abusive family members because they look at the options, and figure putting up with NM for a month is less-bad than staying at the homeless shelter, or that asking their nasty brother to loan them a car for a week is less-bad than maxing out the credit card for a rental car. And then they feel like they can't skip the holidays and weddings and such, because they still have contact.

      As for "alternaitves" to holidays and such, people aren't just born knowing that either. You don't just turn 18 and say "Oh, I'll just spend my holidays volunteering at Charity X! If my family gives me hard time I'll just file a restraining order, and if people at work question why I don't see my family for the holidays, I'll just put up with their judgement, no problem!" It takes time and research and new support networks to get to the point where you even know what a restraining order is (if you need one), or how to FIND a place to volunteer, or what sort of volunteer work you'd actually be any good at, or even how to cope on a practical level with all the people giving you a hard time about not spending Christmas with your mother.

      So victims often keep up some contact out of desperation, calculation of bad options, and just sheer lack of knowledge and lack of the soft "life skills" to figure out alternatives, because - to get back to my main point - it is neither EASY nor AUTOMATIC to build alternatives. It can be done, but not all at once, and sometimes, people go back to abusive families for some time while they work on building a while new life from scratch. And it has nothing to do with any delusion that the family will change.

      Sorry, but I still don't think it's always about "hope". That answer is too simple.

    3. Occam's razor: the simplest solution is usually the correct one.

      I didn't miss your point at all...but you obviously missed mine.

      Do you go to your mother's for Christmas knowing that she will be difficult and cause you pain because that is what you want? or do you go hoping that THIS year it will be different...this year she will thank you for your gift and even act like she likes it instead of saying something rude about it...or that she will give you something you like and is to your taste rather than to hers...or that she won't find fault with you and how your life has been over the past year, or what you are wearing or how your hair is done or any of the other ways she makes you miserable. Do you go there expecting her to treat you rudely and make you unhappy but that is better than a quiet, peaceful day alone or giving pleasure to others at a homeless shelter or nursing home? Or do you go hoping THIS time it will be better?

      Denial is a powerful thing. Denying that you have hope protects you from feeling hurt when she disappoints you yet again. Desperation? I would buy that ONLY if you had no other choices...but you do, even if you want to believe otherwise.

      You write as if you think I am some kind of professional who has lots of book learning and no personal experience with toxic, manipulative mothers. I am neither a mental health professional nor am I blessedly free of the legacy of having a malignant narcissist for a mother. What I am, however, is quite a ways along the healing path, well into recovery from the ills her not-so-gentle upbringing lavished upon me. And, I am the author of this blog, which is about my experiences, my insights, and my conclusions. And my conclusion on this topic is, it is ALWAYS about hope, even if that hope is hidden from our conscious minds.

      We don't get better by clinging to the same old notions, especially notions that allow us to continue to feel helpless (which perpetuates our misery). We get better by taking new ideas...even ideas we don't agree with...and trying them on. By asking ourselves "what if I'm wrong?" "What if this is the answer?" "What if I tried this for a while?" We get better by doing and thinking differently from the ways we have done and thought up to date. Because as long as you stick with the same notions and the same behaviour, your life CANNOT change.

      What if I am right? What if you have a little flicker of hope still alive, one you cannot see but is still there. What is more important to you--me being wrong so you can be right? Or figuring out a way to change the dynamic of your life, even if it means accepting that you have been wrong about some things?

      It's your life at stake here, not mine. And if you keep doing and thinking the same way as you have to date, your life will not change one bit. And the choice to make changes is YOURS...nobody is going to come beating on your door, dragging happiness with them. YOU have to go get it, and if what you have been doing to date has not brought you the kind of happiness that you want, then don't you think it is time to make a change? It's your life, it's your choice...but to change how you life is, YOU must change your thinking and your behaviour and your choices.



  6. I find it interesting that you assume that I'm still "going back" to my NM, still doing things like spending Christmas with her or giving her gifts or maintaining a relationship with her. I never said I was. You ASSUMED that.

    I deliberately left personal situation details out of this, because I think my point - that people rased by toxic families often can't immediately replace the practical need for assistance, or easily fix the lack of pracitcal support network, or immediately develop knowledge of alterantives, etc., and so go back knowing they have a toxic family but feeling trapped by lack of alternatives/access to knowledge, especially when young, poor, sick, etc. - goes beyond any one person. But since you seem determined to assume things about me and make this personal, I have, FYI, minimal contact with my NM (mostly to avoid the drama of full formal NC, which I feel would be more trouble than it's worth, especially with a neglecting NM who's not that interested in "hoovering" anyway), spend holidays with in-laws, and haven't had any "hope" about her for decades. But clearly, you seem to think you know what I feel better than I do, as expressed in the above post.

    I hate to attribute motvations to people, but the fact is, you really do seem determined to miss my point - or just really don't get it, I have no idea which. Doesn't matter. I'll quit now.

    1. You seem to think that because I don't agree with you, I don't "get it," as if my comprehension of your point would automatically cause me to agree. What you don't seem to grasp is that I DO understand the point you are trying to make and I DISagree.

      You also seem to think that everybody has a "reliable support network" they can fall back on in desperate times. This is not the case. There are those of us who have no support network whatsoever and others of us who do have such a network but the price of engaging it is simply too high.

      "Desperation" is not a reason people is the reason they tell themselves they stay. The very word is open to interpretation: what one person considers desperation another person may well not. I have had letters from people who feel trapped in their NParents' home not because they cannot support themselves but because they cannot support themselves in the style to which they have become accustomed: they claim to be desperate to end the abuse, but cannot live without the big-screen TV, regular, reliable meals, and access to NM's car, refrigerator, and forced air heating. "I can't take care of myself" sounds desperate until you discover the reality is "I would rather put up with the abuse than sleep on a bare mattress in a cold rented room..."

      We stay because we have hopes and expectations. We may rationalize or justify our decision...or our N's convincing ourselves we cannot make it on our own but you know what? If that "reliable support system" was not there...if the N family were dead and you received no'd find another way to survive (to avoid confusion, you should know I mean that as the collective "you," not the personal "you"). And that is why I don't accept "desperation" as a reason we willingly hang around the Ns...we have other choices but we also have that hidden agenda of hope and expectation that keeps us coming back for more. We just excuse ourselves with words that sound like good "desperation"...rather than admit the truth to ourselves and take responsibility for it.

      I get what you are trying to say and I disagree with you. I can't make it more plain than that.

    2. Hate to say this, Only Child, but "the drama of full formal NC" is an oxymoron. If you were truly NC you'd have no idea what the other party was saying or doing nor would you care. It's not easy to reverse a lifetime of conditioning but it's definitely worth it!

    3. Thank you, mulderfan...a point very well taken that I overlooked.

      Just as perceived "desperation" can easily be used to rationalize resuming or continuing contact with the FOO, so can re-defining NC to be something anathema (full of drama) so that one can justify not engaging in it.

      This is beginning to look like a gaslighting flea...and sometimes the person we fool the most thoroughly is ourselves...

  7. NC is not necessarily full of drama. You might be surprised to find out how little these people actually care about you.

  8. Hi only child, I get what you are saying. Sweet violet, life is not black and seem to get very defensive and not open to feedback.And there are other reasons why we might need to maintain contact such as helping someone who is not N but stuck in the family, especially if that someone is a child.


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