Many highly sensitive people/empaths are magnets for narcissists. This is not because we are like them, but because we are light to their darkness, Shahida Arabi writes.
“Regardless of any of our vulnerabilities, we exhibit the gorgeous traits of empathy, compassion, emotional intelligence and authentic confidence that their fragile egotism and false mask could never achieve.”
This post is about some of the strategies the narcissist and other toxic people use to maintain control over their victims. It will cover love bombing, projection, abusing what we’ve told them, jealousy, stone walling, scapegoating, gas lighting, isolation, hoovering, smear campaigns, and finally, discarding.
When we meet a narcissist, they first assess us. They will decide whether we have what they want. Deep down the narcissist has no self-esteem and relies on others to prop them up. This is called “narcissistic supply”. If we are seen as a good source of supply, we will then experience love bombing.
Love bombing is the most powerful technique the narcissist uses. This is when the narcissist instils their roots, making sure we are bound to them for a long time to come. We think we’ve found our saviour, our happy ever after. Whatever it is we long for, the narcissist knows, because they have what is called “cold”, or “cognitive” empathy. “Cold” empathy means the narcissist is a genius at reading our body language, our thoughts, our emotional state, what motivates us, and most importantly, our dreams. They then reflect this back to us much like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter, becoming whatever it is we’ve always longed for. We may feel like someone finally understands us, loves us, pays attention to us. We may be drawn in by their charisma, their humour, all the wonderful qualities they seem to possess. They seem perfect. Their touch is like no touch we’ve ever experienced. It is electrifying. We may even think we’ve found our soul mate. We are swept away by this person and other aspects of our life such as other relationships drop away (isolation is another technique in its own right). The narcissist gets what they want (admiration) and we get what we want- love- but little do we know it comes at a price. This love is conditional and it’s as solid as quicksand.
The narcissist doesn’t just get into our heads and our hearts, but also our bodies because feel good chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine are released. We are high, just like a drug addict.
Unfortunately the face the narcissist presents to the world is only a mirage. As bewitching and tantalising they seem, we will find they do not bring happiness. Unlike empaths, the narcissist has no “hot” empathy; they are only able to discern our emotional state, not feel it alongside us. This allows them to abuse us because they cannot feel our pain.
Once they’ve got us hooked, the narcissist will begin their abusive ways, especially when there’s a threat to their need to control, be on top and be admired. Suddenly, with no fault of our own, they will withdraw their love, leaving us confused and hurt. Suddenly we start sinking in quicksand; we have no idea what we’ve got into and we are trapped. I will describe some types of abuse narcissists employ.
Projection is where the narcissist accuses us of things they actually did, negative traits they actually have e.g. manipulative, mistakes they actually made etc. The narcissist may accuse us as being the bully, and them the victim, when in actual fact it’s the other way around. This is something I have personally experienced from a young age. We will never hear a genuine apology from a narcissist as they do not take responsibility. Only during the “hoovering” stage, which is when they try to real us back into the relationship again, might we get an apology, but it is only to abuse our good nature, win us back and keep us in the cycle of abuse.
Abusing what we have told them
Narcissists sometimes take what we have disclosed to them, put a new spin on it and use it against us.
Jealousy & triangulation
Making us feel insecure so we chase after the narcissist is another strategy identified by Shahida Arabi:
“The narcissist relies on jealousy as a powerful emotion that can cause you to compete for his or her affections, so provocative statements like “I wish you’d be more like her,” or “He wants me back into his life, I don’t know what to do” are designed to trigger the abuse victim into competing and feeling insecure about his or her position in the narcissist’s life.”
This strategy is a type of triangulation where the narcissist drags a third person into the dynamic for “extra fun”. It is all a game to the narcissist. Some especially enjoy showing off their new source of supply after they have finished with us, just to rub it in. Shahida Arabi writes more about triangulation here.
Stonewalling (the silent treatment)
Stonewalling is when the narcissist swings from the warm, affectionate, responsive and friendly person we thought they were to a cold, heartless version of themselves. They refuse to communicate or cooperate. It is like speaking to a brick wall. I once asked for mediation with a narcissist, only to have it rejected. Often stonewalling is tied in with projection and false accusations. The narcissist paints a picture of us as villains (another technique called “smear campaigns”), as people they are scared of and must avoid. Stonewalling is one of the most frustrating and deeply hurtful techniques. As one blogger writes:
“When I tried calling him from my work phone he hung up as soon as I spoke, blocking that number immediately as he’d done to all my other numbers.
This was not only painful, it was mean-spirited, and his refusal to even speak- leaving my mind to go crazy in his perpetual silence- was the worst…”
When the narcissist withdraws their love and contact, we experience the same symptoms of drug withdrawal. At night I’ve had dreams of the good times and that we’re still in contact, only to wake up to this sad reality again. With one narcissist, I rejoiced when she finally approached me in art class. I thought we could resume our long lost friendship, that she no longer had animosity towards me. Then I realised she only wanted the jar of beads I was using. She was determined to call the shots. She could approach me when it suited her, but if I got too close to her and her friends, I would be sorry.
When the narcissist is abusing us, I often wonder whether they are actually in a flashback. A small slight to their self-esteem sends them back to a time when they were victimised and they act that out on us. This is demonstrated in the film “Child of Rage”.
Gaslighting is when the narcissist manipulates us into doubting our own sanity, our version of events, and the truth. The film “Gaslight” demonstrates this type of abuse.
Minimising is when the narcissist invalidates us when we try to speak up. We may be told we’re overreacting or “too sensitive”. Just like gas lighting, it slowly erodes our confidence in ourselves. We no longer see that we are being abused, and blame ourselves instead.
Variable/intermittent reinforcement schedule
This is based on the psychology of reinforcement. Basically the unpredictability of rewards/love is more effective than a consistent schedule. The narcissist and emotionally unavailable partners use the same schedule of rewards as a gambling machine, leaving us addicted to winning despite the inevitable losses of such a risky investment. We are left pining for the good times, or the enticing person we thought they were, and continue to invest in the relationship. As Shahida Arabi writes:
“Our brains can become masochists, seeking the very people that hurt them. The unpredictability of when we’ll get our next “fix” of this elusive person creates stronger reward circuits, which leaves us wanting more and more. Unfortunately, the higher the emotional unavailability of a partner, the more exciting he appears to us – at least, to the reward center of our brains.”
This explains why it is so hard to leave a relationship like this, even if we know we are being mistreated. It’s because we actually become addicted to the narcissist (or other toxic relationship).
This is the final assault by the narcissist. We are no longer of use to them. They may have moved on to someone else… found a better source of narcissistic supply. We realise the closeness we believed we had with the narcissist was a lie; if they shared the same level of closeness and commitment to the relationship, they would not abandon us so easily. It is easy for the narcissist to discard us because they were never truly close to us. We are just an object to them, something to be used and disposed of when it suits, especially when we no longer admire them or we get close to someone else. The narcissist leaves our life in ruins and refuses to clean up after themselves. We are left grieving somebody who never really existed.
How do we heal from narcissistic abuse? Shahida Arabi sums it up well in the title of her book. We must use the same tactics the narcissist uses, but in reverse. We must devalue and discard the narcissist while supplying ourselves. Healing happens when we redirect all that love we had for the narcissist towards ourselves and our other relationships.
“Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself” by Shahida Arabi