Narcissists, along with controlling types and other abusers, are masters at stagecraft; they know how to choreograph the dance when they need you to pirouette and keep a tight grip on the dialogue between you. You may be unaware, alas, of the way you’re being directed because you’re still not seeing who the narcissist is and what drives and motivates him or her which is largely about control and keeping the spotlight on him or herself.
There’s only one starring role in the narcissist’s drama; everyone else is a bit player. But the drama matters to the narcissist, as it does to the controller. The narcissist chooses the bit players in life with care: seeking those with certain vulnerabilities or hesitations that can be played to advantage, those in need of love and attention, those who can easily be distracted by the random nice gesture and then play no attention to the next three acts. He or she is a skilled casting director, coolly assessing which roles someone should play. This is even true in families when the narcissist is a mother; she assesses those who will play along and submit, along with those who won’t.
Until you understand the script, there’s no way of breaking free.
The 7 lines, their variations, and dead silence
As he or she sees it, there’s only one point of view: the narcissist’s. He or she alone determines how things that take place in the relationship are to be interpreted and understood; that’s true whether the relationship is that of parent-child or two lovers. There’s no challenging that point of view which the narcissist holds to be the only truth, and many of these phrases form part of the arsenal when those in the narcissist’s orbit push back or challenge his or her authority.
If these phrases are those you hear often or always when there’s conflict, you need to pay attention. Finally, the last weapon at hand is dead silence: Not answering or using physical gestures to convey disdain or disgust.
- It never happened
This is the gaslighter’s favorite phrase of all-time along with its variations: “I never said that,” “You misunderstood,” “You’re projecting,” “Why are you making stuff up?” Gaslighting is only effective if there’s an imbalance of power or authority which could be that of a parent or child or a relationship with one partner who’s afraid of being left or rejected which empowers the narcissist. Since the narcissist is careful about his or her cast of characters, it’s likely that someone insecure or high in self-doubt will be among the players. This makes daughters whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood or were unloved very likely candidates.
- You’re too sensitive
Again, this is a subtle kind of blame-shifting which is especially effective among those who have been told that they’re too reactive or sensitive by other abusers, and effectively makes the hurt or pain you feel your fault. Alas, this can be emotionally very confusing for someone who has had an abusive childhood or an unloving mother and is thus likely to buy into this as an explanation in adulthood.
- You always…
Alternatively, this could also be You never…This litany—which usually includes an enumeration of all your flaws and failings—constitutes what Dr. John Gottman calls “Kitchen-Sinking” or including everything bad about you except perhaps the kitchen sink. This isn’t dialogue or conversation but a fusillade of complaints meant to marginalize and disempower you. It’s a manipulator’s favorite because it often works and reduces the person attacked to a quivering puddle full of apologies. A sure-fire way to win points for the narcissist.
- I’m tired of your…..
The missing word could be “anger,” “complaining,” or anything else that comes to mind and it’s usually the result of what Dr. Craig Malkin calls the narcissist’s habit of “playing emotional hot potato” or projecting his or her feelings onto you. If you think back to the last time you heard these words, the chances are good that you will remember the narcissist in your life displaying the very emotions you were accused of.
- It’s your fault that I…
This is what passes for an apology when you’re dealing with a narcissist, and it’s just another form of blame-shifting combined with a little bit of emotional hot potato. Children of narcissistic and controlling mothers report that this is pretty much a staple of childhood, a way of glossing over or excusing parental bad behavior. It sounds like this: “I wouldn’t get so angry if you didn’t misbehave all the time,” “I wouldn’t have to yell if you ever listened,” “If you were more like your sister, I’d be calmer.” In a relationship between two adults, the message might be a bit more subtle but it still delivers the same punch: “I wouldn’t get so angry or frustrated if you listened in the first place,” “I could deal with your sloppiness if you weren’t always defensive and then maybe I wouldn’t yell,” “If you paid attention, we wouldn’t be arguing because I was crystal clear.” Again, unloved daughters who are deeply used to self-criticism are more likely to buy into this speciousness.
- No one likes a crazy person
This tends to be the last ditch effort to make the gaslighting campaign work: impugn or call into question the person’s sanity. It’s most effective, obviously, if the person is still highly invested in keeping the relationship going or is actually worried about whether he or she has a firm grip on reality. Unloved daughters who don’t yet recognize how they were gaslighted in childhood are especially vulnerable because they were either told they were “crazy” or worried that they were.
- Why don’t you just leave then?
Yes, the ultimate gauntlet the narcissist loves throwing into the mix, meant to terrify the person who’s doing the challenging. And narcissists are very very cool and collected when they make this threat which sounds more like a promise. It’s manipulative as all-get-out and extremely painful.
Without words: the force of dead silence
Verbal abuse can be silent in truth—and, yes, this too is part of the narcissist’s script. Refusing to answer a question, stonewalling, or mocking with gestures such as smirks, eye-rolls, or even laughter can work a special kind of manipulative magic and, additionally, gives the narcissist the rush of power she or he loves…
Has the moment come for you to realize that you’re a bit player in someone else’s script? Remember, you are always free to leave the stage. My new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, explores the connection between the unloved daughter and adult relationships with narcissists.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Photograph by Amber Abalona. Copyright free. Pixabay.com