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By Julia Hall on
Narcissism has become a buzzword these days often “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” to quote Macbeth. But for adult children of narcissists (ACoNs)—those who have lived with the narcissist disordered personality as their primary caretakers—the reality is painfully serious and the health stakes are high.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Parents with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) fundamentally lack empathy and compassion and are incapable of unconditional love. In an effort to scaffold an all-consuming sense of worthlessness formed in early childhood, the narcissist constructs a grandiose self that he continuously asserts and protects with all of his resources. The narcissist’s needs trump everything else, and his children are manipulated within a family system designed to support his ego. A child in a narcissistic family is treated to “normalized” day-to-day psychological and sometimes physical abuse. Such abuse breeds in denial and secrecy, manifesting in families through manipulation, shame, blame, belittlement, rage, and neglect. Narcissists violate boundaries, play family members against one another, refuse accountability, and stop at virtually nothing to maintain control.
Children of Narcissists: The Walking Wounded
In his 2014 landmark work The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., captures the physical and emotional experience of the child in the narcissistic home: “Trauma almost invariably involves not being seen, not being mirrored, and not being taken into account.” He continues, “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health.”
For children of narcissist parents, abuse and neglect settle in the body in lasting, often devastating ways. They are the walking wounded, emotionally and physically traumatized and at risk for further trauma. Dr. van der Kolk describes the body’s response to long-term stress:
“Ideally our stress hormone system should provide a lightning-fast response to threat, but then quickly return us to equilibrium. In PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) patients, however, the stress hormone system fails at this balancing act. Flight/fight/freeze signals continue after the danger is over. . . . Instead, the continued secretion of stress hormones is expressed as agitation and panic and, in the long term, wreaks havoc with their health.” [page 30]
Narcissist-Trauma-Related Health Problems
According to Dr. Karyl McBride, Director of The International Resource Center for the Daughters, Sons, and Partners of Narcissists and author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, there is a clear and disproportionate pattern of physiological fallout among her clients, stemming from narcissist trauma. Having worked with hundreds of ACoNs, McBride said, “I’m continuing to be amazed how these people come out of these relationships with narcissists having severe health effects.”
McBride cited PTSD symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia; migraines; autoimmune disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome; addiction; adrenal exhaustion; and heart problems among the population of people she treats. “Bottom line is trauma causes all kinds of physical problems,” she said.
The Cult of Narcissism
Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Fiona E. Steele has practiced for over three decades and for the last 8 years has exclusively treated ACoNs and people in relationships with narcissists because, she said, the demand is overwhelming. Steele told me the majority of her clients are just waking up to the reality of narcissistic abuse. “Their whole life they’ve been looking in a fun house mirror. It’s almost like they’re coming out of a cult,” she said. “They feel shame and isolation. We’re taught not to say anything bad about our parents. In that sense the culture supports the narcissist.”
Steele described the body’s response to years of “being on hyperalert, white-knuckling it.” She listed common health problems among her clients resulting from disrupted cortisol (stress hormone) levels: autoimmune disorders such as Lupus and Chronic Fatigue, thyroid problems, back pain, irritable bowel, arthritis, depleted adrenals, and complex PTSD symptoms such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, and nightmares.
The Toll of Consistently High Stress Levels
Regina Collins is a licensed professional counselor based in D.C. Her early work treating substance abuse pointed to trauma treatment, which led her into the field of narcissist abuse recovery. Collins described the narcissistic family as one where “everyone is rotating around the narcissist on continual high alert. Consistent high stress levels take a physical toll.” She compared the environment for the body as driving a car with your foot on the gas pedal all the time, or with your feet simultaneously on the gas and the brakes.
Collins is outspoken about the need for more understanding of the physiology of trauma. Among her clients she sees a pattern of extremely high anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, autoimmune disorders, depression, and disregulation. She explained that chemical disregulation as a result of trauma can lead the sufferer to seek balance through behaviors that can become self-destructive but are meant to self-soothe—behaviors such as substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, gambling, and shopping. “They give the brain a shot of dopamine for relief,” she said. “It makes perfect sense from a coping standpoint.”
The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis
Psychotherapist Julie Tenenberg, with a practice in Oakland, California, specializes in treating narcissistic trauma. “All of my patients with a narcissist parent have health problems,” she said. “Growing up in a narcissistic home places stress on the body that threatens our homeostasis—the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal (HPA) axis,” Tenenberg explained.
The HPA axis regulates stress and many body processes, including digestion, immune response, emotion, and energy storage and release. Tenenberg listed common problems she sees among her clients: autoimmune disorders, hypo- or hyperthyroidism, leaky gut, cardiovascular issues, irritable bowel, and insomnia. “Often they are illnesses that traditional M.D.s don’t pick up or acknowledge,” she pointed out. “That invalidation can reactivate trauma.”
Hope for ACoNs: Trauma Treatment
Although narcissistic abuse takes a toll on the body, there are ways to reduce or even overcome its effects. Dr. McBride developed a five-step recovery model that she uses with her clients and teaches to other professionals in her field. Others I spoke with utilize emotional freedom therapy (EFT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), which are believed to help the body release long-held trauma. Dr. van der Kolk also cites EMDR as well as a range of other trauma therapies such as yoga, writing, and theater.
McBride emphasized the importance of working with the right mental health professional. “If the therapist does not understand the dynamics of narcissism and its debilitating effects, it is easy for them to encourage the ‘get over it already, the past is the past’ mentality. When they do this, they are not validating the feelings of the client and the childhood issues are deeply minimized and discounted,” she explained.
No Contact Can Help
In some cases, limited or no contact with abusive parents can be curative. Jeanie of Alberta, Canada, grew up with a narcissist mother and an enabling father with narcissistic traits. Her mother routinely criticized and ridiculed Jeanie, publicly humiliating her and overtly favoring her other children. “My mother would wake me up early every Saturday morning to clean the house while she cuddled and giggled in bed with my younger sister until noon,” Jeanie recalled. Her mother also restricted Jeanie’s clothing and hair style while giving free rein to her other children.
By the time Jeanie was 17, she was suffering from symptoms that would later be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. She also developed intense anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, migraines, and undiagnosed digestive problems. She said, “I felt like a walking black void, worthless and destroyed.”
When Jeanie was finally tested for MS in her late 30s, she said her brain scan “lit up like a Christmas tree” with lesions, indicating that she had had the disease for years. Six years after she cut off contact with her family of origin, with support from her husband and children, a followup brain scan showed a dramatic reduction in lesions. “My doctor was amazed. She’d never seen anything like it,” said Jeanie. “I’m convinced my lesions have decreased because of going no contact.”
Julie L. Hall is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Carry You, about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissistic family. Read excerpts. Her articles on narcissism regularly appear in The Huffington Post.
Related Articles by Julie L. Hall
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- What Raging Narcissists Break: A Damage List
- Remembering Mary Tyler Moore as the Chilling Narcissist Mother in ‘Ordinary People’
- More Horrid and Shocking Things Narcissists Say and Do
- The Dos and Don’ts of CoParenting with a Narcissist
- What the Narcissist Fears Most
- The Question of Forgiveness for My Narcissist Father
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- The Narcissist Family: Its Cast of Characters and Glossary of Terms
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- Caretaking My Narcissistic Mother Through Cancer
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- The Terrible Dilemma of the Golden Child in the Narcissistic Family
- Raised by Narcissists? Why You Can’t Afford the Wrong Therapist
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Narcissism and Abuse as a Co-Created Relationship System
Making your partner so bad that leaving is a vindication
BY: THE IRRELATIONSHIP GROUP
FEBRUARY 09, 2016 | ROMANCE
Narcissism is a topic of great importance, both for individuals and in terms of relationships. Blogs offer advice about how to tell if someone is a narcissist, about how to break up with a narcissist, even figuring out if you’re a narcissist yourself. An important, often unasked question, is how do relationships involving narcissism get going? Does focusing on one person’s or another person’s issues work, rather than what the two do together? Because people with developmental trauma tend to repeat abuse in adulthood (van der Kolk, 1989), we think it’s important to address things on both individual and couples’ levels.
“AS A PSYCHOANALYST, I BELIEVE THAT PEOPLE ARE MORE COMPLEX THAN ANY DIAGNOSIS CAN POSSIBLY DESCRIBE. YET, WHEN IT COMES TO ROMANCE AND DATING, IT’S AMAZING HOW EASY IT IS FOR US TO THROW DIAGNOSES – LIKE NARCISSISM – AROUND.”
NARCISSISM CASE STUDY: JILL AND TONY
Meet Jill. People see her as “a good person.” When Tony, a loose acquaintance, said he was looking for a place to stay till he could get his own place, she offered him her spare room. Never mind that the “extra room” was her studio: she felt that she shouldn’t just “leave a nice guy like Tony without a place to go.”
And besides, as she said, she liked the company. The understated attraction they felt added a good dose of “chemistry” to the mix.
Tony moved in, and at first it seemed fine. Though he didn’t really help with expenses, he did with housekeeping, and looked after Jill’s dogs when she was away. Since the arrangement was only temporary, Jill didn’t highlight that his room was where she worked. She didn’t mention how much anxiety it caused her to have it occupied, especially as an early-career fashion designer. A week after Tony moved in, they became “friends-with-benefits,” although Tony made it clear that he didn’t mean to interfere with Jill’s life otherwise. Not much imagination is needed to see that, though they told themselves they were just helping each other out, they were becoming emotionally entangled without fully knowing what they were getting into.
THE GRAFTS STORY
People living in irrelationship activate behavioral routines learned in childhood that relieved anxiety by making their parents feel better. We made the acronym GRAFTS as a simple tool to help organize our thinking: Good, Right, Absent, Funny, Tense and Smart.
Through GRAFTS behaviors, the child diverts his caregiver (usually his mother) from a negative emotion she has which interferes with her ability to take care of the child, temporarily restoring her
ability to provide. This happens over and over, laying the foundation for adult relationship patterning.
Jill used two GRAFTS when she was anxious and lonely: She became the Good person who came to Tony’s rescue; and she became Absent from her own life by ignoring her need for her studio space.
Tony’s GRAFTS matched up with Jill’s: he went along with Jill’s good-girl performance while remaining emotionally Absent, importantly assuring Jill (and himself) that their sexual relationship emotionally didn’t really matter.
This unspoken agreement allowed Jill and Tony to remain emotionally unavailable, and non-empathic toward one another—a defining characteristic of narcissism. Meanwhile, Jill also racked up another GRAFT, Tense, by walking on eggshells to make sure Tony remained comfortably unaware of her need for the extra room. They were only partly aware of how much resentment was building.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Before long, their arrangement started to break down. Jill came to see Tony as selfish, narcissistic and taking advantage of her—just the type of man she tried to avoid, moreover the kind of relationship she exactly didn’t want, which kept happening “to her”.
“IF YOU KEEP INSISTING THAT YOUR PARTNER IS THE BAD GUY, YOU’RE PROBABLY NOT GOING TO FIND OUT WHY YOUR RELATIONSHIPS KEEP GOING BAD.”DANIEL
For his part, Tony felt that Jill’s demands on him were growing, which violated their initial agreement of no strings attached. He also felt mistreated and even accused of being a “user”, over his “honesty” about their sexual relationship. Predictably, the situation blew up in rage, hurt and ugly, but predictable, name-calling and other personal attacks.
So here’s a synopsis, a peculiar how-to:
- Two people pick one another, thinking they are both amazing, but missing key information.
- Idealize one another for as long as the initial passion can maintain itself – and the idealization.
- The reality of the situation starts to emerge, as each realizes the other is neither perfect, nor “the answer”.
- One person feels disappointed, aggrieved and deceived, and the other person feels accused and unable to meet the demands.
- The first person escalates the demands and accusations, ensuring the other person will fall short, and the other person increasing retreats and has to protect themselves.
- The first person is now seeing the other person as selfish, and narcissistic, and the other person true enough is becoming more cold, distant and self-interested, cutting off.
- Break-up without guilt or remorse, because each sees the other as fatally flawed. They can part ways angrily, with a clean conscience, and perhaps a sense something wasn’t quite right.
“WHILE SOME PEOPLE ARE TRULY NARCISSISTIC AND THAT IS THAT, IT OFTEN TAKES TWO TO TANGO. WE MISS THE FACT THAT MOST RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMS ARE AT LEAST PARTLY DUE TO WHAT THE TWO PEOPLE ARE DOING TO, AND WITH, ONE ANOTHER. IN THIS CASE, A MALIGNANT TRANSFORMATION TAKES PLACE, AND EACH BECOMES THE OTHER’S NIGHTMARE.”
If Jill and Tony had the skills to notice and constructively address their irrelationship pattern, they’d have had a shot at building a space for true intimacy by identifying and avoiding their repetitive GRAFTS-based roles of narcissist and victim, or simply not get into it in the first place. Instead, loaded down with Jill’s self-righteous disgust that Tony was “such a self-absorbed prick,” and Tony’s fire-back that Jill was “just controlling phony bitch,” they came away “relieved to have gotten out of that,” each assured they had been innocent bystander’s of an emotional hit-and-run by a bad person.
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Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD, The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma, Re-enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism, Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Volume 12, Number 2, Pages 389-411, June 1989.