Most of us are familiar with Pavlov’s conditioning experiments. Pair a bell with food enough times, a dog starts salivating at the ring of the bell even without the food present because it’s now associated with the food they desire. But what happens in abusive and toxic relationships is a far more insidious and malicious type of conditioning – what I like to call “destructive conditioning” – conditioning which pairs what are meant to be innocuous or even celebratory sources of personhood with punishment, shame, humiliation, and degradation. There are three ways that malignant narcissists destructively condition you in order to erode your sense of self and safety in the world.
1. They insult your intelligence, accomplishments, and personhood.
Our intelligence, skill sets, talents, and a sense of accomplishment give us a solid sense of self-efficacy. When we believe we are capable of achieving our goals, overcoming obstacles, and addressing problems in our lives, we gain confidence that we can navigate the world effectively. Narcissists demean our intelligence in both covert and overt ways because our intelligence is also the key to our discernment of their true character. It contributes to our ability to identify their manipulation, decipher what’s truly going on apart from the narcissist’s claims, and trust ourselves in making decisions that enhance our well-being.
If, however, we are conditioned to believe that our accomplishments are meaningless, that our intelligence falls short, or that we will inevitably endure retaliation for daring to be visible and confident in some way, we start to distrust our capacity to resist manipulation. Our confidence in ourselves is eroded. We are more prone to making rationalizations or excuses, blaming ourselves for their abhorrent behavior. We have to work twice as hard to achieve our goals to overcome the negative programming the abuser has instilled in us – the same goals that contribute to a life outside of the narcissist and allows us to overcome their attempts to isolate us.
Destructive conditioning in this area can take form in many ways.
The narcissist may slyly imply that you are lacking intellectually in everyday conversation, especially if they sense you surpass them; they may name-call behind the guise of a “joke”; they can sabotage you before important academic or professional events like a big meeting, presentation, or exam; they could demand your time and energy in times when you need your resources for fulfilling your objectives; they might talk down to you with chronic sarcasm and contempt.
They may “punish” you for succeeding or talking about your accomplishments so that you are trained over time to never bring it up – this is a form of negative reinforcement where, in order to avoid their rage attacks or hypercriticism (the aversive stimulus), you learn to become silent about what you’ve achieved or withdraw from being visible altogether (which leads to the avoidance of their punishment, at least in that facet of the interaction). This avoidance actually reinforces the conditioning and makes it less vulnerable to extinction which would occur if one encountered the same event repeatedly without the aversive punishment – in other words, if you were able to enjoy a success multiple times without their interference, your conditioned responses would be more likely to disappear (Careaga, Girardi, & Suchecki, 2016). It is also a form of positive punishment where the malignant narcissist repeatedly introduces consequences in response to your success, so you learn to stop the behavior of disclosing your success, or even worse, stop pursuing your goals altogether.
Verbal abuse and attacks on intelligence: effects on the brain.
If they are more overt, malignant narcissists can also verbally abuse you using words that directly attack your intelligence. This often occurs in dynamics where the narcissist is a parent, or when in a long-term relationship with a narcissist. The effects of this destructive conditioning are devastating. Over time, the brain begins to internalize repeated, prolonged verbal abuse as truth. This is especially true for children who are verbally abused by their parents or peers at a vulnerable age where the brain is malleable and is still developing schemas – beliefs about the world, self, and others. The abused child develops a negative schema like, “I am unintelligent,” due to early conditioning. Research indicates that such early childhood bullying leads to self-criticism and can actually change the structures of the brain, affecting areas of the brain like the amygdala, hippocampus, and neocortex, which deal with emotional regulation, learning, decision-making, and memory; it also affects the HPA axis, which plays a key role in our stress response (Teicher et al., 2003; Sachs-Ericsson, Verona, Joiner, & Preacher, 2006).
2. They sabotage special celebrations and events.
The abuse cycle with a malignant narcissist can be both addictive and cumulative – to the point where we may not even recognize the pattern of destructive conditioning until it’s happened repeatedly. As addiction expert Dr. Patrick Carnes, writes, “Little acts of degradation, manipulation, secrecy, and shame on a daily basis take their toll. Trauma by accumulation sneaks up on its victims.” Pairing events that are meant to be filled with joy and recognition of your hard work (like graduations or parties celebrating a success) or even your existence (like birthdays) with hatefulness, vitriol, pathological envy and belittling condescension is another sadistic way malignant narcissists diminish your sense of self.
Much like the pairing of food to the sound of a bell, you learn to associate good news or a sense of healthy pride with heart palpitations, sweating palms, and distressed anticipation of whether or not the narcissist will sabotage you – and how. Since they “time” their sabotage unexpectedly, it’s common for narcissists to play the encouraging confidante – right up until the time when you most need their support. For example, they might whisk you off to a romantic second honeymoon to celebrate your promotion – only to manufacture nonsensical, crazymaking arguments out of nowhere. Or, they might seem to dote on you in public at your birthday party, only to belittle and provoke you behind closed doors during your special day.
This type of destructive conditioning is executed with the aim of ensuring that you never gain a sense of emotional safety – whether it’s in your relationship with them or outside of it as you attempt to enjoy your life. It also causes trauma bonding and dependency as you begin to rely on your abuser as a source of comfort or validation after experiences of emotional terrorism.
3. They gaslight you into distrusting your inner voice.
If every time you learn to speak out about your concerns, you are met with malignant projections, yelling, put-downs, or even physical abuse, you would learn not to speak out or challenge the person who taunts you for calling out their horrific behavior. This is exactly what happens in an abuse cycle. Abuse victims are gaslighted into believing that the abuse they experienced did not occur, that they are overreacting, or told they are “too sensitive.” In addition, they are conditioned to believe that they are to blame for any mistreatment they endured.
As Dr. Jennifer Shaw notes, “Like abusive partners who engage in physical attacks, the emotionally abusive partner denies or minimizes the existence of abuse and discredits the account of the recipient.” She goes onto describe how self-blame becomes amplified in such dynamics because the abuser frames the dynamic as a fantasy space where, “The abusive partner employs the paradoxical message, the unreasonable demand and the lack of intimacy: the abusive partner employs the ego ideal by criticizing it and putting it out of reach (If only you…). By pushing it into some future state, it becomes conjoined with the desire of the recipient for emotional closeness: that is, the fantasized state of satisfaction includes both intimacy (we’ll be together) and some state of perfection (because I will be perfect) in which the abuser’s demands can be entirely fulfilled, in which the subject will become the ideal, will embody the desire of the other. It is from this impossible space that the recipient attempts to meet the abuser’s demands.”
This “impossible space” is one where the victim is trapped into trying to meet the abuser’s ever-changing moving goalposts. The abuser might gaslight you into believing that if “only” you had done this or been that, you would have met their desires. They may even act as if you are “incompatible” with them if you stand up to their abuse. Yet the truth is, you will never be “enough” for an abuser, and no one is compatible with a highly manipulative predator.
The Big Picture
If you are finding yourself continually walking on eggshells in a relationship where destructive conditioning is present, it’s time to recondition yourself for success in a life without abuse. Remember: destructively conditioned responses can eventually be extinguished if you are able to face the success and joy you have been trained to fear repeatedly without the interference or sabotage from an abuser. No contact from an abuser, along with trauma-informed therapy and supplemental tools to rewrite the narratives abusers have written for you (e.g. hypnosis, affirmations) can be tremendously healing on your journey to recovery.
Careaga, M. B., Girardi, C. E., & Suchecki, D. (2016). Understanding posttraumatic stress disorder through fear conditioning, extinction and reconsolidation. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews,71, 48-57. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.08.023
Carnes, P. (2019). The betrayal bond: Breaking free of exploitive relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
Sachs-Ericsson, N., Verona, E., Joiner, T., & Preacher, K. J. (2006). Parental verbal abuse and the mediating role of self-criticism in adult internalizing disorders. Journal of Affective Disorders,93(1-3), 71-78. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2006.02.014
Shaw, J. (2005). Lacanian demand and the tactics of emotional abuse. Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society,10(2), 186-196. doi:10.1057/palgrave.pcs.2100038
Teicher H., Andersen, S. L., Polcari, A., Anderson, C. M., Navalta, C. P., & Kim, D. M. (2003). The neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatment. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews,27(1-2), 33-44. doi:10.1016/s0149-7634(03)00007-1