Guest Blogger: Alisa Stamps, MSS, LCSW
“Scorched Earth is a military strategy used by a people when the enemy is advancing on their territory. Anything of use to the enemy such as houses, food, vehicles, utilities or equipment is burnt, leaving nothing which could help the enemy sustain their assault” (Simon, 2016, p. 159).
Boundaries. I feel like I talk about them with clients all day long. I say things like, “How would it feel to try and establish or even consider establishing better boundaries?”, or “Sounds like you put up a good boundary there for yourself”. They are so abstract and yet they aren’t. There are actual physical boundaries in this world—the Great Wall of China, the once existing Berlin Wall, and of course the soon-to-be-built, maybe-it-won’t-be-built border wall with Mexico. But what about personal boundaries? How do we build these? And most of all, how do we get the courage to build them and not see them as selfish, but rather self-helping?
How many of you would say that you have a problem with boundaries? Let me dial it back…how many of you would say that you have a “problem with saying no”? I just posed this question to group members in the “Shattering the Mirror: Support and Recovery for Adult Children of Narcissists” group that I facilitate, and the answer was pretty much unanimous. In fact more than unanimous—there was noise and emphatic head nodding when this question was asked. In a relationship with a narcissist, the target is conditioned to learn how to not say “no”. Saying no may mean incurring wrath, so the target learns quickly that to preserve their safety it’s best to always agree or never challenge the narcissist. This agreement can then possibly spill over into other relationships in our lives. Romantic relationships or even work/boss relationships can be affected. We may work well past our eight-hour days or continue to take on project after project because we can’t say no. Conditioned targets can also be real people-pleasers. That might be part of why we can’t say no—we fear disappointing or losing our place as the “golden child” or “star employee”. The narcissist has made us believe that if we ever say no, we are less than or not good enough in their eyes.
Someone recently shared with me the idea that boundaries can include both a door and a window. This idea was a game changer for me. I feel that when we are used to interacting with narcissists, because of their behaviors of idealization and devaluation, we are so used to things being black and white that the thought of considering some grey areas is foreign to us. JH Simon’s book, “How to Kill a Narcissist” states otherwise. It suggests that we can:
“utilize the ability to say enough. We can remain in a situation but change the terms of engagement. We can go shopping with somebody but use some of that time to seek out our own stuff that we want. We can speak with a person then politely end the conversation when it gets too much. If the people in our lives love us, they will be flexible and open to negotiating each situation so that everyone is comfortable. We have the right to change the situation to suit our internal state better. When we do it in service of our true self, we never have to feel guilty”. (p. 157-158).
See? Doors and windows.
This takes practice. This is hard. Especially when we have not done much boundary setting before. But boundaries are scorched earth to a narcissist—they cannot continue their assault if their blood-source has been cut off, if the target is refusing to play the game. Start small with boundaries that don’t involve the narcissist yet by maybe not staying that extra hour at work, or not over-scheduling yourself during the weekend and see what that feels like. Pretty soon you will fall in love with “saying no” and hopefully also yourself along the way.
Simon, J. H. (2016). How to kill a narcissist: debunking the myth of narcissism and recovering from narcissistic abuse. United States?: JH Simon.
Guest Blogger: Alisa Stamps, MSS, LCSW
Have you ever been in a situation where you just can’t seem to remember exactly how the events played out? Maybe you went out to eat with your partner and you remember having the fish, but your partner insists you had the chicken? And your partner does everything they can to convince you that you are not remembering things—what YOU ate--correctly? Sounds pretty harmless, right? Well, not when you involve a narcissist…
The Oxford Dictionary defines gaslighting as a “form of psychological manipulation where a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual” (Oxford Dictionary). This is done to make that individual question their own perception, memory, and sanity in order to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s beliefs, using such methods as denial, contradiction, lying, and misdirection. The term originates from the 1938 play entitled Gaslight, in which a “husband attempts to convince his wife that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their home environment, including slowly dimming the gaslights in their house while pretending nothing has changed, thus making his wife doubt her own perceptions” (Angel Street).
How does a narcissist utilize this skill to their target’s detriment? And how does this circle back to questions raised in my previous blog posts? Remember in my first blog when I asked who you see when you look in the mirror? Through gaslighting a narcissist is making sure that you see them—their thoughts, their perceptions, their beliefs. The trick is the make their targets think they are not capable of functioning without the narcissist, and thus the target will rely on the narcissist to give the “correct” version of reality. If we are “taught” that we can’t trust ourselves then we will inevitably be drawn to the person that has ensured their version of truth is the only option.
Another tactic of gaslighting is known as “splitting” and one that the narcissist may use frequently. Splitting is when you are pitted against others by the narcissist, the purpose of which is to isolate you from the important people in your life. This can even happen in a clinical setting. In my previous job working as a therapist in an inpatient drug and alcohol facility, I would often have a patient that would tell me one thing and then go to another therapist to tell them something completely different or only a small version of the truth. In these instances, I would usually have to tell staff members to direct this patient back to me in order to put an end to the splitting. When the narcissist is challenged in this way and the splitting is disrupted, this tactic can usually be stopped or at least lessened. This type of behavioral monitoring is definitely not fun, but can be, if they are open and willing to take it in, a beneficial learning experience for the narcissist.
But now back to the target. What can we do to help ourselves when gaslighting is present? Most importantly, make sure that you seek out your own support system: a therapist, a trusted friend or family member, a support group, etc. Second, hold on to what you know to be the truth. Try and stay grounded in your authentic self, and understand what it is that the narcissist is trying to do to you. Lastly, don’t be afraid to stop and pause before reacting. One of the best pieces of advice I heard early on in my career is that just because you were invited to the crisis does not mean that you have to go. Not reacting is a reaction and probably not one that the narcissist is used dealing with. Remember the shame/grandiosity continuum chart from my last blog post? Gaslighting is a tactic to inflict shame on the target and if we don’t bite, the narcissist can’t be successful.
I thought it might be interesting to research TV or movie characters who have been crafted to use a gaslighting technique. One that was surprising to me, though I can totally see it now, was Ross Geller from Friends. Ross lies to Rachel about still being married after their ceremony in Vegas and convinces her that they are no longer married when in fact they are; he puts ideas in her head that just because he is the father of their baby she should be with him; and of course who could forget about the whole “We were on a break!” thing? Gaslighting at its finest.
Until next time my friends (no pun intended), be like a tree and remain grounded. And please check out posted information for our new outpatient group “Shattering the Mirror: Support and Recovery for Adult Children of Narcissists” starting this next week.
"Oxford Dictionary definition of 'gaslighting'". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 23 September 2019.
"Angel Street". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 23 September 2019.
Guest Blogger: Alisa Stamps, MSS, LCSW
In my last blog post, I mentioned that we would continue to address such questions as, “Are you wondering if you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist?”; “What happens now that you’re aware of this”; and lastly, and maybe the most important question, “How do we get to the point where we can look in the mirror and see ourselves and not the narcissist?”. In order to begin to answer these questions we have to do it. We have to talk about shame.
In my previous job working at an inpatient drug and alcohol facility, I used to give a lecture on the topic of shame. Usually when I announced this topic, I would get a collective “groan” from my audience. Why? Because shame feels icky. It’s uncomfortable and is not usually a place that we like to live for very long. JH Simon, author of How to Kill A Narcissist: Debunking the Myth of Narcissism and Recovering from Narcissistic Abuse, says that “shame at its mildest is a slight ache in the chest and at its most potent, it physically deflates you—you question yourself and hold back your opinions and feelings” (Simon, 2016, p. 28). In my lecture I used to ask my audience to describe what shame might taste like or feel like. The answers would run along the lines of shame tasting like “hot garbage” or feeling rough “like sandpaper”. These are not pleasant images. But to a narcissist, shame must be inflicted to the target or the whole thing doesn’t work.
According to Simon (2016), shame “functions effectively two ways:
-Personal: this kind of shame arises when the self does not meet a particular reality and comes up short. For example, not being able to afford the dream car that you’ve always wanted.
-Social: this shame is based on the people and environment around you. For example, being given a disapproving stare by a loved one, or feeling like you don’t fit into a certain social group” (p. 29).
In either situation, shame will come knocking at the door, reminding you that you need to improve or that you are not up to certain “standards” and then slam that door in your face. This is a narcissist’s dream come true. In order to maintain their states of grandiosity they must be able to count on their target’s shame. Simon (2016), explains that something that both shame and grandiosity have in common is that they require something and someone to measure against. That’s exactly how the narcissist/target relationship works in the shame/grandiosity continuum.
Obviously, healthy shame is what we are striving for. The next time you notice shame coming up, see if you can place it on the chart. Does it fall under healthy shame or are those feelings all the way to the left? Awareness is the first step toward change. But your awareness is not what happens in the narcissist/target relationship—the narcissist doesn’t expect it! If the narcissist continuously creates a scenario to make their target believe that they are small and beneath them, they have activated shame and the target begins to believe they are less than human. Reinforced continuously, and the target will stay there and that shame becomes part of the core identity. Tada! The narcissist has achieved their goal.
Simon, J. (2016). How to kill a narcissist: Debunking the myth of narcissism and recovering from narcissistic abuse.
Simon, J. H. (2019). Shame-grandiosity-continuum. Retrieved August 17, 2019, from http://www.howtokillanarcissist.com/how-to-kill-a-narcissist-book-sample/shame-grandiosity-continuum/
Guest Blogger: Alisa Stamps, MSS, LCSW
Who do you see when you look in the mirror? Do you see your smile, your shining eyes, the incredible qualities that you bring to your life? Or do you see the “bad” traits? Maybe even the traits that were projected there by someone else. That you are lazy, stupid, too heavy, or maybe even not good enough? How do you feel about the face looking back at you? Do you feel pride? Or do you feel full of shame? Who do you see when you look in that mirror? Is it you? Or is it someone else entirely?
To answer these questions we must begin with the Greek myth of Narcissus. Narcissus was a hunter who was known for his beauty and love of all things beautiful. One day as he was walking in the woods a mountain nymph named Echo saw Narcissus and fell completely in love with him. Sensing he was being followed, Narcissus cried out, “Who’s there?” and Echo repeated, “Who’s there?” and tried to embrace him. Disgusted, Narcissus stepped away and asked her to leave him alone. Echo was heartbroken and spent the rest of her days alone until nothing but an echo sound remained of her. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, caught wind of this story and decided to punish Narcissus. One hot summer’s day, after many hours of hunting, the goddess Nemesis lured Narcissus to a pool of water deep in the forest. As Narcissus bent to drink, he gazed upon his own reflection and saw himself staring back in the prime and bloom of his youth. However, he did not recognize it as his own reflection, and so he fell in love with it as if it were someone else. Narcissus was unable to tear himself away from his own gaze, and after some time realized that his love could not be reciprocated. He eventually withered away from the passion burning inside of him and thus turned into a gold and white flower.
What does the myth of Narcissus have to do with what we know today as narcissism? The DSM V defines narcissism, or narcissistic personality, as a, “fixation with oneself and one’s physical appearance or public perception”. It also goes on to say that someone with narcissistic tendencies will have a need for admiration, will have a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, and will possess a lack of empathy. The terms manipulation and domination also come to mind when defining a narcissist. In order to succeed, the narcissist has to make the target (spouse, child, etc.) into an extension of themselves. This extension can pertain to both the emotional and the physical. The narcissist needs their target to believe that they are nothing without the approval of the narcissist. The narcissist will also, as is the case with many personality disorders, project parts of themself on to their target, and then attack those parts.
Does any of this sound familiar? Are you wondering if you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist in the past? Was that person your partner? Or maybe even your parent? What happens now that you’re aware of this? How do we get to the point when we can look in the mirror and see ourselves and not the narcissist? How do we recover from perhaps a lifetime of narcissistic, emotional abuse? Stay tuned as this and much more will be addressed in future blog posts. And be on the lookout for information about a new outpatient group starting in the fall, Shattering the Mirror—Support and Recovery for Adult Children of Narcissists.
We are a full-service private practice offering a variety of therapeutic services conveniently located in Old City, Philadelphia.
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