There are people so addicted to exaggeration, that they cannot tell the truth without lying.
Confidence, experience and achievement are all sexy, there’s no doubt about it. Narcissists tend to display an immeasurable amount of confidence without the corresponding accomplishments to back up their attitude. This is one of the most important measuring sticks when you’re trying to evaluate whether or not you’re in the presence of a Narcissist.
Many Narcissists make up stories, identities and whole careers. They tell lies, live double lives and exaggerate the hell out of their achievements to create the illusion of who they want you to believe they are (and who they themselves wish they were). Like most people, they want to look good. However, most people have an innate sense of fairness, credibility and deservedness, Narcissists tend not to be encumbered by these feelings. You generally don’t hear them being self-deprecating (unless it’s to gain sympathy), nor do they paint themselves in an unflattering light. Their problems, failures and mistakes are all someone else’s fault.
When others contradict them, point out the reality of a situation or speak of them in unflattering tones, Narcissists will get incredibly defensive. Some fly into rages, others deflect and then here are those who will go on the offensive and attack those who they fear can see through their lies.
By behaving in an outrageous and unpredictable manner when contradicted, there is a level of conditioning going on. They are training others not to challenge them, not to point out their flaws, lies or exaggerations, because if they do, it’ll get very unpleasant for them. They need the attention and the admiration that goes with claiming to have extreme talent, intelligence, athletic prowess, beauty. Heaven help anyone who gets in the way of that.
A friend recently shared a story with me, of accompanying a colleague to a conference that she attended every year. The colleague knew all the people there and unbeknownst to my friend, her colleague had created a web of lies about herself. She described making small talk with someone she had just met and discovering that her colleague had told everyone that she owned her parents house and because they were elderly, she allowed them to live with her. Not only did she create the illusion that she was financially successful, she got to look altruistic to boot. The reality was that she lived in her parents home and that at 38, they felt she should be able to support herself and very much wanted her to move out. No doubt she was deeply ashamed of this, hence the need for the spin. What is perhaps most bemusing is the colleagues need to bitch about and attack other people who rent and/or own their own homes. Why do this when you can’t even afford to rent or buy yourself? Envy and the need to destroy that which the other has is why. Someone with these traits can’t quite tolerate feeling ‘less than’ so they adopt a superior stance in the hope that it will fool others. It rarely does.
In a similar vein, a former client of mine kept telling me the same story about herself over and over again and with each telling, she would add another heroic feat or talent. She had made herself into a world class fabricator and story teller and wanted to hold her perceived audience in rapt attention. The only problem with the story was that it wasn’t true. I know this because parts of the truth would be disclosed sporadically, based around the reasons that caused her to seek clinical help in the first place. The fact that I knew she was spouting rubbish appeared to make no difference to her, as in those moments, the lies became the truth.
The story goes that her mother had become a doctor at the age of 40. She was highly intelligent and went on to become a successful Oncologist. Her daughter gained considerable supply through her achievements. Having a high achieving parent meant that she could rest on her laurels without having to lift a finger. Through the magic of genetics, she believed he was owed the same reverence as her doctor mother. The reality was that she was a high school drop out, which was the source of much of her rage. During our work, we discussed her enrolling onto a course that would help her to get onto a university degree. She signed up, attended 4 classes, but by the time the first assignment was due, she had decided that the course was stupid and a waste of her considerable intelligence. She then went onto claim that she had two medical Masters degrees and a plethora of other qualifications and talents during our work together, even though they were in direct contradiction (not to mention obvious lies) to what I knew to be the truth. She was so wedded to the version of reality that she had created, that any confrontation of this resulted in hysterical outburst and venting rages. Our work ended following my enquiry as to the purpose of the invented stories and my therapeutic refusal to collude with the lies.
If you Google something like, ‘faking degrees and achievements,’ you will get pages and pages of stories of individuals who want the title and the prestige, without doing the necessary work or obtaining the necessary credentials. Narcissists can’t be bothered with doing the work or doing things properly. This is why they usually surround themselves with partners who are caretakers, fixers and helpers or though who don’t question them if something doesn’t add up.
The overall sense of entitlement means that they truly believe that they are deserving of any and all achievements, whether feigned or not. The question is do they know that they have lied, exaggerated their achievements and didn’t actually do the work?….The answer is yes, but mostly no. Narcissists have a very fragile ego. Underneath the facade and the bravado is an incredibly insecure individual. From a cognitive perspective, one has to conclude that if a person is of sound mind and has memory, then surely they know when they are lying and making things up? Dr.’s Dunning and Kruger have a different perspective.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where people of a lesser ability suffer from illusory superiority, whereby they mistake their cognitive ability to be greater than it actually is. Metacognition is our ability to have insight, to be aware of our awareness and to think about thinking. When a person lacks insight, their ability to judge their own ineptitude is impaired. If metacognition is lacking or even missing, individuals of lesser ability cannot objectively evaluate the actual competence or incompetence. Dunning and Kruger state that the cognitive bias of illusory superiority is the result of an internal illusion in people of low ability and from an external misperception in people of high ability; that is, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”
Psychologist Stephen Johnson writes that the narcissist is someone who has “buried his true self-expression in response to early injuries and replaced it with a highly developed, compensatory false self.” This alternate persona to the real self comes across as “above others,” self-absorbed and highly conceited. In our highly individualistic and externally driven society, mild to severe forms of narcissism are not only pervasive but often encouraged. Narcissism is often interpreted in our culture as a person who’s in love with themselves. It is more accurate to characterise these traits as being more about someone who’s in love with an idealised, self constructed self-image. They project this out to the world in order to avoid feeling (and being seen as) their real, disenfranchised and wounded self. Deep down, their internal experience is to feel like the “ugly duckling,” even if they painfully don’t want to admit it. They don’t believe their real selves are worthy, so scheming and manipulation are resorted to so as to appear to be all that they wish to be.
Unless you’re Mohammad Ali, you should not be running around spouting off that you are the greatest and the prettiest. Ali could do that, because he actually was the greatest. Most Narcissists will never achieve actual greatness because they believe that the requirements are for other, lesser people. Some do experience successes, and the reasons behind their success are more than likely all self-serving. When a Narcissist does have money, or has achieved some level of success, believe me you’ll know it. Humility they name is not Narcissist.
An inflated view of their own self-importance is a trait shared by most Narcissists. If you are involved with someone who behaves in an arrogant, haughty manner and who lies or misrepresents their achievements, this is not something that you should ever just brush over. It’s a clear indication that this person lacks insight and does not have a firm grasp on reality. Once you have evidence of this, this is your cue to leave.
The term “flying monkeys,” was coined to refer to the yes-men and women with whom Narcissists surround themselves. These are people that, among other things, turn a blind eye to the truth and reality and willingly participate in and perpetuate the false world that a Narcissist lives in. Don’t be one of them. If you can’t call a spade a spade without an argument or punishment of some kind, you are not in a relationship, you’re in a dictatorship.
Have you downed your green juice this morning? Virtuously sipped your turmeric soy latte? Artfully smashed your avocado on gluten free toast? Massaged your kale (yes, really); channelled your chi with chia seeds and executed your sun salutations clad in excruciatingly expensive ‘activewear’? It seems that we currently live in a world where eating disorders dressed up as clean eating are oh so achingly cool.
I work with scores of clients each year suffering from eating disorders. A growing number of them do not fit the stereotype of what what people immediately think of when one says ‘eating disorder’. My post is not about the eating disorders where people starve themselves to emaciation and end up in hospital within an inch of their life. That is not cool. That is Anorexia. What I refer to are the eating disorders that are masked as the latest accessory; comparing oneself with peers and friends on who has made the ‘healthiest’, ‘purest’ and ‘cleanist’ meal. I refer to the ones that claim that they ‘don’t have an eating disorder’; they just don’t eat gluten, sugar, wheat, meat, dairy, eggs or bread except for every other Thursday at 12.06pm. These same people have all admitted, without fail, to really feeling fed up, hungry, depressed, losing their hair and damaging their eyesight from the malnourishment to which they subject their bodies, in an attempt to feel more control of themselves, of their lives and to appear ‘better’ than others.
My post does not, of course, refer to those people who have bonafide allergies and exclude certain food groups under medical direction. Members of my own family and close friends have health problems, which mean they physically cannot eat certain foods without quite painful and unpleasant consequences. I have seen, on numerous occasions, what a real allergic reaction to a food group looks like. This is not being fussy or trying to overly control one area of their life and ‘win’. It is called having a condition.
If you read the papers, watch the news, or scroll through social media, you will know precisely what I mean when I say that the band wagon of ‘clean eating’ is in full swing. Everyone is doing it, right? If you’re not, then you clearly don’t care about yourself or your health. WRONG. Wrong, wrong and wrong again. What is the fuss? Surely promoting healthy eating is a good thing, right? Indeed it is, but as with so many things, it’s a question of balance. This is something that fad diets and self imposed restrictive eating does not achieve.
The concept of ‘clean eating’ is not bad in itself. It advocates eating food in its natural form or as close to its natural form as possible, minimally processed without artificial additives, sweeteners or other nasties. So far, so good. What is not so good is the effective demonisation of foods that don’t fall into (what can be) quite rigidly defined parameters. Why has the clean eating fad become such a phenomenon? In the main, it is because it is the darling of social media. Type in #cleaneating in Instagram and you will be flooded with carefully filtered photographs of goji berry smoothies, porridge with a scattering of cacao nibs and, of course, the worshipped avocado!
Social media reaches out to everyone, but is part of the DNA of the younger generation and some of the advocates of clean eating have, through this use of social media, become celebrities themselves; Deliciously Ella and the Hemsley Sisters to name a few. They are young, glossy and invariably from affluent backgrounds. This is ably demonstrated in their ability to spend inordinate amounts of time in the careful placement of the aforementioned cacao nibs on their porridge, garnished with a nasturtium plucked from the garden that morning. This is then often photographed by a professional and, boom, there it is for you to sigh wistfully at whilst you glance at your own hurriedly thrown together breakfast angrily wiping the dribble of milk from your chin.
What is more, the proponents of clean eating who instruct us to remove wheat, gluten, dairy, sugar and caffeine from our diets more often than not, hold no nutritional qualifications and yet their word is treated as gospel by the more impressionable. Clean eating is the new religion. Certain ingredients are revered above others. They are having their own fashion moment and the best way to achieve this is to bung it into a coffee. Cue the turmeric latte, coconut milk macchiato et al.
Cutting out entire food groups without a medically supported reason is positively unhealthy. You risk missing out on the nutritional benefits that they offer. What is more concerning are the clean eating aficionados, who instil this in their own children. Birthday parties are now full of Hugos and Aramintas who must keep a distance of at least 10 feet from the gluten-laden birthday cake, which they are desperate to sink their teeth into. No problem because Mummy (let’s call her Gwyneth) has given them their own quinoa and courgette cupcake with a carob frosting blessed by the local ayurvedic practitioner. Of course, children need to eat a healthy diet, but it is essential for them to eat a range of nutrients at a time when their bodies are growing so rapidly and, importantly, not develop food hang-ups themselves or grow up wanting to eat *all the food* in rebellion.
The American comedian Chris Rock did a stand up piece about food fads in the Western world. He remarked pointedly that during the famine, you would never hear an Ethiopian say they were food intolerant. Punchy yes. It certainly hits a nerve.
There is a strong argument to suggest that, rather than teaching people to embrace healthy food, it is fostering a positive fear of food. All foods not deemed ‘clean’ must, therefore, be dirty. It is a narrow prescriptive approach to eating. As a result, there has been a dramatic rise in orthorexia, a condition which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” The term was only introduced in 1997 by an American physician, Steven Bratman. In the young and vulnerable, it can easily tip over into anorexia. The huge irony of this is that the rigid, restrictive approach to eating marketed as clean eating causes people to become ill because they are missing out on the essential nutrients provided by a varied and inclusive diet.
Food is not a fashion accessory. Slavishly following the commandments of the clean eating celebs will not give you their lifestyle. In many cultures food is about the ritual of sharing, celebrating and communing with family and friends. Surely then, the clean eating Insta crew must suffer from the other phenomenon of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) regarding all the wonderful food they could be enjoying. What happened to baking at home, using fresh ingredients, adding them in yourself to fill your kitchen with the delicious smell of baking and then enjoying your treats (yes, treats) with family and friends, all washed down with a cup of tea? This is not allowed within the rules of clean eating. Going to a coffee shop or out anywhere means pre packing your own snack in tupperware, preferably one you have made yourself, consisting of ‘raw foods’ such as nuts, dates, some form of nut butter and additional superfood powder. This apparently isn’t an eating disorder, even though as much time, if not more will be spent scouring the list of ingredients of products as anorexics do looking at the calories / carbs / fat content.
As a part of my psychotherapy and mental health training, I spent 6 months volunteering within the Priory group; a residential treatment centre for those with addictions and eating disorders. All meals were freshly cooked daily by chefs. They used normal ingredients, potatoes, rice, vegetables, salads, cheese, meat and sugar. The meals were healthy and balanced. The puddings were there to supplement calorie intake but they were there for the other patients to enjoy. And enjoy, they did. I watched people faces instantly light up when they saw their favourite treat, they’d sit down with fellow patients or friends and family to enjoy their favourite sweet treat. Refined sugars and all! The feeling of nostalgia one gets when eating a food from childhood or that evokes happy memories can work wonders for the soul and coincides beautifully with how the more traditional therapies work. I stand by my belief that eating the food you enjoy can work wonders for the mind and body. Your favourite food is like a hug, and although I don’t agree that food should be used to suppress or enhance emotions, I don’t believe it should be used as a punishment either.
The great thing about food is that it is something to be enjoyed; infusing you with vitamins, nourishment and new food discoveries rather than food rejections. Joy replaces fear and living replaces obsession. Anything that people focus on too much can become so habitual, that it can become disordered. This can easily escalate. Amanda Hills, a writer and psychologist who specialises in eating disorders, explains:
“We all know what’s good for us – it’s fruit and vegetables; less of everything and less sugar. If everyone ate like this we wouldn’t be faffing around with things like gluten-free. It has become a thing now. It’s a first world problem.”
Now, where is that nasturtium…
I have a client, let’s call him Tom. Tom has told me many times that he wants to be, ‘so built and muscular, that people will be scared of me’. ‘Why would you want that?’ I ask, before pointing out the glaringly obvious that he is already ‘built’ and very muscular.
Tom first came therapy because of his frequent low moods and frequent sleeping around behind his girlfriend’s back. It takes some weeks for his story to unfold, but I learn that he goes to the gym religiously seven days a week, training obsessively and twice daily. He avoids cardiovascular exercise as he fears losing weight. He also tells me that he doesn’t think he will ever be ‘big enough’. Tom was bullied as a child and teenager. He describes his former self as, ‘shy, thin, gawky and a bit of nerd to be honest’. Describing his school days seems to embarrass Tom, and he starts to blush, quickly brushing off the pain of his words. Despite all of the time, effort and money spent on his physical appearance, Tom still cannot see the mismatch between his adolescent self image and the reality today. It is the image that Tom thinks other people see that he wants rid of.
So I ask him, ‘What have you achieved since leaving school, that didn’t require or need all that muscle?’ He begins to tell me, ‘I got my degree, got my own home, a car, I’m doing ok at work, I could do more but this way I am free to go to the gym during the day.’ He laughs and continues, ‘and I’m in a relationship.’ He stops, ‘Although I don’t know that I would be, if I wasn’t as big as I am.’ He isn’t joking. Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder (MDD) is an increasingly common psychological problem amongst men. However, what is driving so many men to want to be bigger than they can possibly be?
The reasons are several, and very familiar to women too. For women, the message is that to be successful you need to be young, slim and toned, with big breasts and a flawless complexion. For men, it is much the same (without the breasts). As women have pointed out since the dawn of post war, second wave feminism, the ideal is impossible for all but a very few to achieve, in spite of the lies told to convince the world otherwise. In many cases, it is achievable only with chemical and cosmetic assistance. Social media is awash with shirtless profile pics, gym selfies and people ‘smashing’ exercise goals. This sends the message, ‘If you want what I have, you need to look like I do.’
However, here’s the catch. It is mostly, if not all, fake. To get that degree of musculature requires more than daily grinding and heavy weights; it takes steroids. When you see a very muscular, lean man, what you see is a chemically engineered shell. I do not doubt for one minute that the dedication and the hours of effort at the gym are real. However, the motivation behind them that has created these men is fuelled by shame, insecurity and fear. More and more men assume that muscularity equals masculinity. For Tom, masculinity means being strong and in control; but Tom is anything but in control and his behaviour reflects this. In fact, the obsessive striving after hyper-masculinity is in control of him. Just as those who suffer with anorexia use laxatives, exercise and purging to control their weight, Tom’s steroid use and gym obsession is a means to conceal his emotional vulnerability behind a formidable shell. However, you can’t change your self.
Tom talks about his steroid use. He is clearly ashamed as he describes his cycle as he can’t look me in the eyes. I tell him that I notice he seems embarrassed and I enquire as to what has got him feeling so ashamed. Tom’s answer does not surprise me. He says, ‘It’s cheating, isn’t it?’. ‘So, if it is cheating, then you are being dishonest, who are you being dishonest with?’. Tom replies, ‘Myself and everyone else. My girlfriend doesn’t even know I take gear’. What is obvious is that Tom wanted to leave the boy behind and become a muscular man. His use of steroids has made him just that, but burying feelings under synthesised muscle has only compounded his psychological issues.
It has been proposed that MDD should be classified as an addiction because one can become locked into maintenance behaviours which cause long term damage. The addiction is circular; men take steroids to boost their musculature, but cannot cope with the muscle loss, lack of libido and depressive episodes when they come off. So they resume taking them to relieve the symptoms. The more testosterone, the higher a man’s sex drive, which may lead to compulsive and risky sexual behaviours. Tom has been with his girlfriend for 18 months, yet sleeps frequently with other women, usually from the gym. This leads to feelings of shame, which compound his already distressed state, feelings of worthlessness and self loathing. He completes the cycle by punishing himself physically in the gym until he can longer feel his internal pain. Tom then binges on online pornography as being intimate with his girlfriend feels too much for him and he worries that she might see the ‘real him’. Most of Tom’s compulsive behaviour cover up the real Tom. When I ask Tom who he wants that to be, he doesn’t know. However, he can say, with genuine anger, that he doesn’t want to be the character into which he has made himself. Fundamentally, he is realising that masculinity isn’t about muscle. Muscles alone do not make a man.
In previous posts, I’ve touched upon the meaning of forgiveness and the importance of ultimately forgiving yourself, instead of busting a gut to speed up your grieving and healing to forgive someone else. What I find fascinating about situations where people have encountered someone, who at best took advantage and at worst abused them, is how ‘sorry’ is supposed to be a word that expresses regret and an apology. Sometimes, it is just another way of pressing the Reset Button.
Much like giving, ‘sorry’ isn’t something that you say with expectations of what the other person should think, feel or do as a result of it. I don’t say sorry unless I mean it. I also don’t take it as my right to assume that it should be “Ta Da! Everything is forgotten!” For minor things, it can be relatively easy to snap back to ‘normal’ but otherwise, it takes more than the few seconds it takes to utter ‘sorry’ to overcome these situations.
Being genuinely sorry is actually remembering what the hell you did and having enough genuine regret to sincerely endeavour not to repeat the very thing you know has caused distress or even great hurt.
Some people pay lip service to apologies and just throw them around, in much the same way that they might be loose with declarations of feelings that they can’t back up with actions. Much like love, sorry is an action feeling. It is not just something that you say, it has to be reflected in your actions. I would seriously question how sorry someone is, when they apologise in one breath and in the next, attempt to bust boundaries again.
When someone is on your back to apologise to you, or for you to accept the apology, that doesn’t actually mean that they’re sorry. What it really means is, “Look, hurry up and accept my apology so I can stop feeling bad about it. You perceiving me as wronging/hurting/abusing/whatever you is terribly inconvenient and my ego doesn’t like the pinch of reality. So, if you don’t mind, get a shuffle on, accept my apology and let’s move on so I can slam my palm down on the Reset Button.”
When certain types of people badger you to be ‘friends’ and badger you to accept their apology, it’s more because they’re not confident enough in their own integrity to believe they can ‘get’ your friendship or your forgiveness without manipulating you to some degree. If you treat someone well in a relationship, odds are that even when you break up, once hearts are mended and you’re both in neutral territory, there’s a possibility for friendship. You don’t assume that it’s your God given right and you certainly shouldn’t feel entitled to push for a pseudo friendship so you can have a foot in the door for an ego stroke, shag, armchair psychologist or a shoulder to cry on.
And so it goes with the person that tries to badger, railroad and guilt you into accepting their so-called apology. That reads like “Here’s my apology packaged up in a load of guilt and shame that I’m now putting on you”. The worst thing is, that if you have low self-esteem and tend to look for validation, this is the type of thing that does a number on you. You may get distracted from the actual issue and the focus becomes making them feel better about the fact that you’re not ‘over’ whatever the problem was. So the scenario shifts to one of, “Oh I’m sorry that I’m still hurt and that I’m hurting your feelings! There, there now. Let me make it all better for you and invalidate my own feelings so I can validate your gargantuan ego“
I think you know how this one plays out.
If you’re pissed off, furious, hurt or whatever you’re feeling, those are your feelings and you have a right to them. True, they may not be convenient for the other person, but if your apology hunter is that hung up on not feeling inconvenienced, it might help if they didn’t hurt you in the first place.
It’s not about bearing grudges. It is more an acknowledgment that some things can’t be brushed off with with an apology. Many cheaters for example, love saying they’re ‘sorry’ but they’re regretting being caught, regretting that their image has been crushed or are eager for the deception to be forgotten about.
This is why I stress the importance of living and dating with your self-esteem fully intact and having healthy boundaries; where you register your discomfort and validate your own feelings and judgement. When you know the line, they know the line, so you won’t allow someone to not only press the Reset Button but to pull the same stunt time and again.
Sometimes, it takes a while to process an experience and to work out what happened. This is why you can’t just cast aside your own feelings for the convenience of someone else’s ego. Often, the very people who do pseudo apologies don’t genuinely empathise with you and don’t recognise how you may be feeling in your position or what they did to impact you.
Sorry takes many forms. For those of you struggling in barely there relationships, you’ll know someone is truly sorry and that they ‘get it’ when they finally leave you alone. We want to believe that people have changed or at the very least feel deep regret when they say they’re sorry. However, maybe one of the biggest things to learn is that, much like they can’t expect you to soothe their ego, you can’t assume that sorry is a precursor to a changed person.
I’m going to start this post by stating the obvious – sex does not a relationship make. I’ve had a lot of emails from women, in which they start by telling me the most awful things about their relationships and they finish it off by saying how they love him and would do anything for him sexually, even when they do not want to. This is what I refer to as Ludus sex – sex powered by lots of negativity normally created by drama and insecurity. Narcissists, or someone high on the narcissistic continuum, employ a Ludic love style. Ludus is characterised by game playing, an aversion to partner dependence and attention to extradyadic others and deception. Does that sound familiar? The extra dyadic part – yeah, that’s just a fancy word for infidelity.
Eventually, the game playing, the infidelity, the increased pushing of boundaries all become your fault for being ‘too easy’ for them. You love them too much and are too predictable. If you were more adventurous, if you indulged his fetishes…things would “hot up”, he tells you. They peddle the idea that life has to be kept exciting, else he is off to find someone else. What is commonly reported by the partners, who enjoy regular sex with narcissists, is: their own need for sex would override their limits and stop them from honouring their personal boundaries. At times (or mostly), even after horrendous narcissistic abuse, they would acquiesce to ‘make-up’ sex to fulfil their own addiction.
This provides one of the greatest power trips for a narcissist, The trip is “I can infiltrate you, your body and your psychic space to get a feed, no matter how badly I treat you.”
You need to understand this – being sexually turned on by another’s powerlessness, helplessness and emotional devastation and fear, and then having access to their bodies regardless (which totally means ‘without regard’) is exactly what makes a paedophile tick. It is NOT love, it IS psychopathic.
Being able to be turned on after feeling powerless, helpless and emotionally devastated – if we are honest with ourselves – is absolutely NOT healthy either. Many of these people who had great sex with the narcissist, after the disintegration of the relationship, discovered that the ‘great sex’ was not exclusive. In fact, the narcissist commonly was using this weapon and power-trip on many others as well…
The truth is, if we are addicted to sex to try to fill an inner empty void and selling our soul to receive it, we are very, very susceptible to being abused at an incredibly deep violating level. All pathological obsession leads to pathological abuse. When the drug (you) no longer creates an adequate ‘high’ that helps the narcissist to escape those demons, those demons will be projected on to you and the narcissist will try to get relief from them by tearing you down.
It’s hard to have a healthy, enriching relationship if you live in fear of expressing real needs. It’s hard to reach true intimacy if minds do not meet (even if bodies do). Narcissists confuse sex with intimacy; the endorphin-driven “high” of sex fills their void. They’re always seeking their next “high.” A new, exciting fetish. Or better still, new conquests, an ever growing list of new partners in their constant and ill-fated search for the next high, a higher high…or an encore of a past high magnified and mythologised by the golden glow of memory.
Naturally, sexuality is an incredibly vulnerable position where we would like to be treated with loyalty, integrity and respect. The narcissist can demean and exploit sexually, push people past boundaries they are comfortable with or withhold sex if that creates more emotional pain.
One of the cruel ways in which a narcissist can confuse and hook someone is to hint, or ‘innocently’ openly discuss the sexual talents of former partners, or even degrade someone by saying that they do not measure up. This is effectively used on sexual partners who the narcissist has identified as having doubts regarding their own ‘desirability’. This hooks such people into handing over copious amounts of sex, whilst trying to win the narcissist’s sexual approval, or simply punishes them into feeling inadequate.
One reader describes her abusive relationship with a former partner:
“I always felt like I was in bed with 2 or more other women, when in bed with him as he would always talk about his sexual experiences with these women. It was awful now I know what I was dealing with and can’t believe I would get into bed with him and listen to it. Then have sex and think he must be so sexy to have so many women wanting him like that. Then he used it (sex) as a weapon and another way to measure my worth. He made me feel like I wasn’t any good and couldn’t satisfy him. There was constant pressure for threesomes with another woman, regardless of how I felt and he would treat me like a failure, so I ended up giving in. I spent so much time pretending how attracted I was to these women and how happy I was. I was miserable and losing all sense of myself in my frantic efforts to keep him happy”
So along with trying to extract decency from someone who doesn’t want to give it, you find yourself pretending that this is what you really want. Everything is about him – his views, his world, his likes and his sexual gratification. Where do you fit in? Is there anything in this relationship that is truly about you? In this situation, him deigning you with the opportunity to pleasure him becomes ‘affection’ and ‘attention’. In effect, you could be a cardboard cut out for all intents and purposes.
A narcissist will jack you. They rob you (and you willingly let them) of any remaining self-esteem so that you don’t even know who you are anymore. Everything that is happening just contributes to the feeling of not being good enough and being like a non-entity. You know now that you spent all this time chasing a manufactured illusion: you were under the impression that they thought they were lucky to be with you. You probably didn’t like that power dynamic, so you built up your partner in order to make them feel better. And this is how they hooked you: with sympathy. If you perceive them as childlike, your natural instincts kick in, and you do everything you can to prove how much you care. This is likely the way you’ve dealt with people throughout your entire life: when others have no self-confidence, you try to build it for them.
If you are having lots of drama, problems, whatever in your relationship – let’s say lots of negative stuff AND you are getting bad sex, what exactly do you need to happen to galvanise you into action to get the hell out of this situation? Feeling the pain of letting go would hurt less because it’s better than being degraded and devalued day in day out. Start attributing a real value to you, beyond what you think you are presenting to the world. Real happiness and true positivity starts with self love. If you don’t have that, you have nothing and all the show ponying to keep up the facade becomes more heightened and frantic. Yet it never quite satisfies anyone.
This actually isn’t about the sex – this is about the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a cut off point. How bad do things have to be? The sex represents another area of selfishness and meanness in an already pitiful relationship. It’s yet another red flag and it’s yet another revelation that beyond the smoke and mirrors there is little to nothing.
Our responsibility and true power lies in healing ourselves. Having the courage to recognise that we are the generative source of our own experience, and therefore we are responsible for becoming the model of self-love, self-respect and self-wholeness that we wish to meet in the Other.
I had long discussion this week with a fellow therapist on whether I’d consider writing anything for professionals working with individuals on the borderline personality continuum. How did the topic emerge? She had recently been “fired” by one such client and felt very upset about it. I imagined that it had happened in a very angry way, the client speaking to this therapist in abusive language and then storming out. What is it really about when we can’t do right for doing wrong?
I have been “fired” in this way by a number of deeply troubled clients over the years. Broadly speaking, they would be considered “borderline,” I hesitate to use that term because it has such pejorative connotations, even for mental health professionals. These clients often begin treatment with heightened expectations; they express commitment to the work and idealise their new therapist. This transference is expected and needed. At this point, the therapist can do no wrong and is the good object. Something will then happen in the course of the treatment (I’ll have more to say about what that “something” is) and the client will abruptly turn on the therapist. Good object turns bad. Often this means the end of treatment.
I’ve been screamed and sworn at. I’ve been called names; told I had no idea what the f**k I was doing and treated with utter scorn; I’ve had clients slam the door on their way out and never come back, or subsequently leave hate-filled messages on my voice mail. Each time, it’s a deeply painful and toxic experience for me. It takes me hours to recover, sometimes even days. During this time, I review my work in an attempt to regain the feeling that it has value.
This need for the therapist to recover a sense of personal value holds the key to the borderline client’s experience and what led him or her to explode. I think I can best illustrate this with a recent example from my practice. After our first few sessions, Heather told me that she’d never met a therapist who so intuitively grasped her pain and understood exactly what she was going through. She said she felt deeply grateful to have found me. I’ve had enough experience with idealisation to know that, if I’m on the pedestal now, I’ll eventually end up on the trash heap.
Heather had potential to really become something. Unfortunately, she has spent decades drifting from one career idea to another and hasn’t been able to self actualise. This has left her living behind a rather grandiose image and moving from one unstable interpersonal relationship to the next. She’s also spent too many years on an ever-changing cocktail of psychiatric medications. Often better informed about available meds than her medicating psychiatrist, Heather would go to her appointments armed with articles she’d read and persuade her doctor to prescribe what Heather thought she needed. She once told me I was the only therapist she hadn’t been able to run circles around. We’re exactly the same age.
I often felt Heather attempting to communicate with me as if we were colleagues, rather than turning to me in a vulnerable, needy way as my client. In one session, she spoke about how much she liked to be the one dispensing wisdom: what she really wanted to do, she said, was write a philosophical-type book and get paid for speaking engagements. It felt as if she were making some comparison between us. In a later session, she made similar remarks; I addressed the ongoing comparisons and asked her if it might be deeply painful for her to compare herself to me, a woman the same age, and to feel what she might have done with her life. The loss of potential, the waste of the years, the shame about her damage felt excruciating and unbearable.
Within seconds, her face was twisted with scorn. “You think I envy you?” she sneered. Within minutes, she’d cut the session short with a few contemptuous parting shots about my incompetence and terminated treatment. Other clients have become much more abusive. Some have screamed at me; others, as I said, have slammed the door on their way out of my office. All of them have left me feeling “shitty,” for lack of a better word.
Burdened with unbearable shame, these clients evacuated all their pain, the feelings of unworthiness into me, as if I were a toilet, and fled therapy in order to escape their pain. Borderline clients in flight want to make their therapists (or any abandoning Other) feel shitty, though not consciously. The rage they express as they lash out is meant to fill the other person with all of the unbearable shame that they carry, the sense of inner defect, to evacuate it all and then to run. I believe the evacuation of shame is a regular feature in borderline rage, which makes it very difficult to bear for anyone on the receiving end. It’s hard enough to be the object of someone’s rage, even harder when the massive projection of shame and unworthiness goes along with it.
I’m sure other therapists have had the same experience but possibly not quite understood why they found the experience so toxic. Our worth and value as professionals have been assaulted, for reasons that are emotionally understandable but hard to bear. It may take days for us to recover our equanimity. I think this is the reason why borderlines are so vilified, even by mental health professionals. The largely negative attitudes are defensive in nature: we want to protect our own sense of worth from being savaged.
Heather periodically resurfaces. First she asked if she might resume treatment but felt she needed a more “collaborative” approach; could we operate more as co-therapists? She is not qualified as a therapist (though she might fantasise that she is) so I needed to decline this offer. When I told her I’d be happy to work together but I needed to practice as I saw fit, she again dropped out of sight. A few months later, she wrote to me in desperation, but an attempt to get started again was quickly aborted. How can she resume treatment when it means reclaiming her shame and all the pain that goes with it?
She may never be able to do so. The tragedy of those men and women who suffer from the symptoms of borderline personality disorder is that, even if they find someone capable of understanding them, the experience of shame in relation to that person becomes unbearable and they often end up savaging the relationship as a defense against that shame it inspires. To escape the horrible feeling of being a “loser,” they attempt to “win” by destroying. This includes trying to destroy their therapists and the creative work they do. Usually, the compounded feelings of shame about the damage done stop them from going back, so they end up beginning and ending therapeutic relationships in serial fashion. Some of my borderline clients have managed to hang on, learning to bear their rage and shame over time, but more of them have not.
Recently, an ex decided to contact me, asking to meet ‘to talk’. I don’t really know why he suddenly decided that he had to be connected to me; but one thing is clear. This guy likes to collect his exes and line up people to run to; always when he is on the verge of leaving the current squeeze. From out of the blue, I was bombarded with pictures that had once been exchanged, several demands to meet and constant messages through every medium; all in the vain hope that I would let down my guard and run to him. Desperately trying to hold onto one’s ex reminds me a little of those shows about hoarders. You know, those people that can barely move for all of the stuff piled up around them and are super attached to stuff that they’re never going to use or appreciate, for that matter.
It goes without saying that the whole weird episode fell on deaf, rather amused ears. Why? Well for one, I’m in a whole new place now. There is no desire or need for me to be another one in the collection. Truth be told, I was repulsed by the efforts as now I can see him for what he really is; a narcissistically-traited and controlling man. His efforts to appear sexy seemed clownish. His approach was clumsy, arrogant and childish; his messages littered with spelling and grammar mistakes. All things considered, I simultaneously laughed at and pitied his efforts to seem so masculine and so in control. His incessant chasing of me served to amplify how not okay he is with himself or with the situation in which he finds himself. So, it gave me an idea for a blog post. What is really behind the need to collect and secure the attentions of an ex or two…or five? (read: a harem)
Here’s the thing: Some people love collecting exes.
I don’t mean that they go out of their way to make partners into exes by botching up relationships (although I suspect some do sabotage to resist commitment and then console themselves that they’re Really Great People ™ and A Really Good Ex ™). I suspect that the reason might be twofold. Firstly, not only does their ego need almost constant supply from a pool of people, but secondly, that they need to secure a new form of ego supply before they dump their present partner.
So now the exes become a kind of trophy – a message that reads a little something like, “Dear Ego & World, look at me. I’m such a good and great person. How do I know this? Well, I can pick up with my ex partners whenever I like and they will all welcome me back, many with open arms because I am such a good person and such a great catch! I can’t be that awful if they all still talk to me, can I?” A trophy cabinet of exes can also act as a deterrent that tend to keep potential new partners at bay or help to manage (read: lower) their expectations. Even the most secure people in the world would feel rattled by going out with someone who spends most of their time talking about, bragging about and juggling their exes. People who collect exes and who collect ‘supply’ are what I call ‘haremologists’.
Once you know that a haremologist is attempting to seduce you and you then realise that you are in a harem, perhaps your own ego may then worry about not being in the harem and that he/she might choose another member? You might find yourself hanging around for reputation management. Do yourself a favour and run. See the projections for what they are and give them back to their rightful owner.
A lot of people are friends with an ex or two, although plenty aren’t. That is not really the crux of my post today. It’s not a badge of honour to have a trail of ex partners hanging around and it doesn’t make you a Good Girl/Guy. It really doesn’t. I say this because too many people are obsessed with saving face and maintaining dodgy relations because they:
1) want to keep an eye on the other party and keep them in their pocket as a rainy day option in case they change their mind and also to ensure that they haven’t made a bad decision; or
2) are not over them and are effectively re-auditioning them in the hopes of being picked up when they realise that they can’t do better or when they have a lobotomy; or
3) are still sleeping with them but calling it ‘friendship’ to make the bitter pill of no official title and relationship easier to swallow.
When it’s genuine, it will self-evident and unforced. It’s organic. It’s not baggage because the need to be in contact with an ex and rekindle things are not being carted around as a way to avoid letting go and/or as symbols to reassure the ego. For those of you wondering, a couple of my ex’s do fall into the category of friends because we truly are. The sentiment for me feels entirely natural and comfortable.
If someone is in the habit of remaining in touch with their exes, I’d say that this, more than likely, serves an ego-centric purpose. Their motivations and lack of self-awareness produce a pattern of problems. It’s almost as if the ‘haremologist’ is carting around a cemetery of all the women they’ve ever been involved with. The ghosts of unavailability past if you will. I’ve seen this so many times in practice. It’s as if they all read the same playbook. All of this carry-on is reassurance that they’re not shady and is about maintaining illusions. The pursuing and chase is about recruiting harem members into becoming supply and to forget and/or reset their own feelings. This is so that they can assuage a haremologist of their guilt. At best, this is sad. At worst, creepy.
When I see people carting around their exes and devoting so much time to tending to and maintaining this supply, I do have to wonder: how in the hell do they have room for a romantic partner? More often than not, they don’t.
The easiest way to ensure that you do not end up in someone’s collection and dolls house of ex partners is to ensure that your self-esteem isn’t reliant on validation from ex-partners or people with whom reciprocity just isn’t there. It’s knowing that line between what’s acceptable and what’s plain repulsive and pitiful. Don’t introject their want and need to pull you into their drama. Leave them to play pretend with their dolls house harem by themselves. Smile… you’re more than part of a collection of plastic
Stockholm, Sweden, 1973. Two men entered a bank armed with machine guns. They held three women and one man hostage for several days. By the end of this ordeal, the victims took the side of their captors. They defended them to the media, to the police and one of the woman became engaged to one of the bank robbers. Another spent a lot of money for the legal defense of one of the criminals. This psychological phenomenon is so common that it acquired its own label: “Stockholm Syndrome” otherwise known as Trauma Bonding. Is Stockholm Sydrome only applicable to those who have been held hostage or kidnapped? Absolutely not. It is more commonly found in abusive relationships. Abusive relationships are not limited to physical abuse. This syndrome is as common, if not more so, where you find the more insidious psychological and emotional abuse within relationships. Let’s explore.
Those who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome develop an unhealthy positive attachment to their abusers/partners. They come to accept the abuser’s lies and rationalisations. This psychological condition makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the victims to engage in behaviours that facilitate detachment from the abuse, such as exposing misconduct or leaving.
The unhealthy bonding solidifies when the abuser alternates between the carrot and the stick conditioning. The abuse –the lying, the cheating, the implicit or explicit threats and insults, are interlaced with small acts of kindness; gifts, romantic cards, a date to a nice restaurant, apologies and occasional compliments. Needless to say, in any rational person’s mind, a gift or a compliment couldn’t erase months or years of abusive behaviour. Yet, for a woman whose independent judgment and autonomy has been severely impaired, it can and it often does.
Such a woman takes each gift, hollow promise and act of kindness as a positive sign. She hopes that he has learned to love and appreciate her as she deserves. She wants to believe him even when the pattern is repeated over and over again. This is what trauma bonding is all about. The victim irrationally clings to the notion that if only she tries hard enough and loves him unconditionally, the abuser will eventually see the light. He, in turn, encourages her false hope for as long as he desires to string her along. Seeing that he can sometimes behave well, the victim blames herself for the times when he mistreats her. Her life has been reduced to one goal and one dimension, which subsumes everything else. She dresses, works, cooks and makes love in ways that please the psychopath. All the while, her self-esteem becomes exclusively dependent upon his approval and hypersensitive to his disapproval.
However, psychopaths and narcissists can’t be pleased. Relationships with them are always about control, never about mutual love. Consequently, the more psychopaths get from their partners, the more they demand from them. Any woman who makes it her life objective to satisfy a psychopathic partner is therefore bound to eventually suffer from broken self-esteem and a distorted perception of reality. This distorted perception of reality is a cognitive dissonance, which psychopaths commonly inculcate in their victims. The combination of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and ‘cognitive dissonance’ creates a victim who firmly believes that the relationship is not only acceptable, but also desperately needed for their survival. They have invested everything and placed all their eggs in one basket. The relationship now decides their level of self-esteem, self-worth, and emotional health.
Oppression creates dependency. Anytime you give, or allow someone to take your personal power, you become bound to their will. We become weak, needy, anxious and fearful and living for those intermittent rewards. Experiments with primates playing with a fruit slot machine that paid out intermittently caused them to play with it all day; the effect of when fruit was given every time they pulled the lever, or when fruit never came out. When we cannot predict when a reward (kindness, affection) will be given, it causes us to intensify our focus and our efforts and it is the premise behind addiction. In relationships, these aspects cause a type of emotional addiction, where a deep emotional attachment is developed to the giver of the abuse.
The same can be said for the atrocities that go on in a relationship with a Narcissist. Many have said that they have never felt such a deep connection to anyone before. They call their abuser their best friend, or even their soul mate. This connection does not come from reciprocal love, kindness and trust. The connection is an expression of the high emotional charge from the trauma. Shared trauma deepens connection.
How can you feel such a strong connection to the actual person that is responsible for the trauma and the pain? Aside from all the emotional and psychological reasons that you continue to stay, there are biological components as well. When someone is flying off the handle at us, our nervous system is on high alert, preparing us to fight or take flight. When we are constantly in this high state of arousal our nervous system become accustomed to the high levels of Cortisol that the body produces. Neural pathways are created and cemented, which will in future make all ‘normal’ relationships seem boring and uninteresting. Why? Not because the abuser is special, it is simply because a healthy relationship cannot produce those same toxic high arousal feelings that you have become accustomed to and believe are deep love and connection.
The issue of motivation is key. Psychopaths’ partners commonly lose weight, dress better, pursue the same hobbies as their partner, all of which may appear to be positive signs. Look a little closer, and it is evident that they’re not if these ‘self-improvements’ are motivated by the desire to gain the psychopath’s approval, keep the peace or to avoid his disapproval. The quest for his validation keeps you (and your self-esteem) enchained to a disordered human being whom can never be satisfied and who doesn’t have your best interest at heart.
Sometimes, family and friends of the victims notice similar behaviour from the victim as from the psychopath himself. Both, for instance, may lie. Contact with a psychopath tends to be contagious and destructive, like a virus. It distorts perceptions of reality, corrupts your moral values and diminishes empathy for others. Perhaps most noticeable of all is the reaction when someone mocks or questions the relationship and the abuser. It is not the abuser who steps up to justify themselves, but rather the victim who becomes hateful, full of rage and defends as ferociously against any perceived attack as if they were defending themselves. The reason behind this is clear – if the truth is told about how weak and pathetic the abuser might be, then the image predicated on lies is destroyed. The victim will have to face their own reality.
Women seduced by psychopaths enter what psychologists call a “hypnotic state.” They shut out any aspects of reality that would reveal the truth. They focus instead only on the parts of reality that conform to the distorted perspectives presented by their partner. Repeated emotional abuse creates psychological trauma. Trauma creates deep attachment bonds; causing a craving for the very person that causes you the most harm. Ultimately, it’s up to you to find the inner strength to confront the truth. Your tortured love for him may last for a long time, but it’s highly unlikely that the psychopath will stick around to see that through. Being stuck in delusion may eventually destroy you. Only the truth will set you free.
Today’s post is inspired by those little denials in which we indulge. I was out running this morning, and determined to ignore the burning pain in my heel because I wanted to hit 10km. As I limped home, I reflected on how denials can escalate to the point where we begin to damage ourselves more acutely than we would ever do by facing the truth.
Denial is a big part of Codependency; denial that anything is wrong, denial of your feelings, denial about your childhood and denial about your romantic partner. Whichever way you choose to slice it, there is a lot of incongruity between a codependent’s perceived reality and reality itself.
Emotional manipulators are drawn to codependents like moths to flames and they would be, for they have a lot in common. Two wounded children playing out their dysfunctional tapes over and over again. Both insecure, both desperate for love, both with a very low sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Both have an external locus of control and how they think they are perceived by others. Both are looking for love, happiness and acceptance outside of themselves to make themselves feel whole. The differences lie in how they express those feelings and beliefs.
A codependent seeks approval by being, doing and giving more than they receive. They derive their self-worth by care taking and over giving. The means of seeking approval and competing with imagined competition for affection will change according to whatever the narcissist chooses to focus on that day. This changes in the blink of an eye, but one thing does remain constant – the fact that the latest craze is another empty way of trying to feel complete.
Narcissists, on the other hand seek approval by creating a false image of themselves to others. They need the attention and affection (supply) of others to maintain their self-esteem. Once they’ve received the required supply, then Mr.Hyde appears. From that point onwards, the Dr. Jekyll that they initially presented becomes a seldom visitor.
As codependents are used to being treated poorly and believe they have to work for love, they don’t run for the hills when the monster shows up. The Narcissist, well-schooled on targeting weaknesses begins a course of psychological warfare all centred around controlling their victims to keep them compliant.
So how does a Narcissist create dependency?
Anxiety: A Narcissists moods can be very volatile. They can rage at the slightest provocation. A codependent, who is already accustomed to ignoring their feelings, learns to tip toe around the precarious moods of their partner. They walk around on egg shells, never knowing when the next proverbial shoe will drop.
Erosion of Self-Esteem: Either overtly or covertly, they take aim at those parts of you that you are most ashamed of. They criticise everything you do, how you look and how you behave. The assault can be so pervasive that you become like a shell of a human being, believing that you can’t do anything right and little by little, every aspect of your life is taken over. You get to a point where you leave everything to them, believing that they know better. You lose yourself in the relationship and let go of your autonomy.
Negative Reinforcement Conditioning: When a Narcissist’s partner stands up for themselves, acts independently or in a manner they disapprove of, a Narcissist will use negative reinforcement to keep them in line. It’s a form of operant conditioning coined and identified by F.B Skinner. It’s the removal of a stimulus the subject wants or requires. Like taking a mobile away from a misbehaving teenager, a Narcissist will remove themselves by disappearing or using silent treatment. We learn through both positive and negative reinforcement. Conditioning is just another tool in subjugation.
Gas Lighting: Gas lighting is the most recent buzz word surrounding Narcissists. It’s a manipulation tactic used by Narcissist to get their victims to question their memory, perception and sanity. They plant seeds of doubt and confusion to further weaken your grasp on reality and have you questioning what you think you know.
Lack of Empathy: They fail to celebrate or acknowledge anything that is important to, or about their partners. They don’t buy gifts, or recognise their partner’s achievements, which has a Codependent claiming that they hate gifts or recognition anyhow. So…that makes it OK….does it? How coincidental you should dislike the very things that you have been conditioned to dislike. They may pick fights right before a birthday, or the holidays to give themselves justification for their behaviour. Why? They don’t want their partners to get too confident. A confident partner is a partner who might decide that they’ve had enough and leave.
Isolation: There is always a big fuss anytime you want to spend time with people you care about. They let you knowhow awful your friends or family are and anytime you talk about them or want to see them a confrontation ensues. They do this because they have spent so much effort into making you doubt your reality they don’t want that messed up by people that have the ability to make you see the truth. The problem is that you have likely already bought into the Narcissist’s game plan. Your friends and family will tell you to get the hell out of there, like any sane person would, but they don’t understand the dynamic you’re stuck in. When you continue to stay, after revealing horrific details of the abuse, they get frustrated with your behaviour to the point where you don’t want to tell them anything anymore, because you can’t deal with their criticism and disappointment, so you stop talking and continue to hide your feelings.
Mind Games: A Narcissist is always playing a game of one-upmanship. If you think you’ve caught them in something, then chances are that they will lie and make up a story. If you accuse them of bad behaviour, then that same behaviour will be reflected back on you and you will be accused of the same thing. They are always trying to outsmart their partners and stay one step ahead of them, everything is a game and designed to keep you in the dark of their behaviour. It feeds the need to feel superior and reinforces their belief that you are lacking intelligence and are inferior.
Vengeful: Fear of punishment and retribution are powerful motivators. If you know that you will be ignored, humiliated, told to move out or have anything that holds meaning to you taken away, then you can be trained to be obedient. In Narcissistic/Codependent relationships there is always a power differential and that power is used as a means of control. They will teach you that everything is their way and when you do not comply, you will be punished in one way or another until you do. The constant erosion of boundaries, expectations and the irrelevance that they put on your needs is another blow to an already fragile sense of self.
You can learn a lot from your mistakes, when you aren’t busy denying them. Denial is the worst kind of lie, because it is the lie that you’re telling yourself and it is often a lie that is more obvious than you think. Maybe your mind won’t admit what your heart already knows.
You’ve cooked, cleaned, ironed, kept your mouth shut, let every dodgy thing slide, apologised for breathing and loved the hell out of them whilst hating yourself. Why isn’t it enough?
Over the years of being a therapist, I’ve heard from many a person who has ended up inadvertently falling into the role of housekeeper, nurse, maid, bank manager, secretary, babysitter, armchair psychologist, emotional airbag, verbal punching bag, master chef and so on and so forth. When we’re inclined to be people pleasers, we suppress our needs and expectations and devote all of time, energy and emotions into pleasing others so that we can be approved of, loved and indispensable. We can feel so unnecessary to ourselves that rolling into a doormat via people pleasing is how we feel vital in people’s lives and in our own.
Hold the knee jerk reaction of, ‘I know how to love” or “No one has ever loved him/her/them as much as I can” as that is more than a little defensive and in all likelihood, is because this resonates with you. Let’s be clear – I’m not for one moment suggesting that it’s ‘bad’ to do things for others. It isn’t. However, I want you to hear the needle being ripped from the record, when your attempt at your own personal brand of showing love is to make yourself ‘indispensable’. Far from ‘loving correctly’ (whatever that means) or winning some whack competition (whack because no one else has entered as they don’t want the ‘prize’), you end up being deeply compromised and very much unappreciated. What you will be appreciated for, however, will be all of the wrong reasons and none of the reasons why you made yourself indispensable in the first place.
And here’s the kicker: making you indispensable isn’t a means of being more loving and demonstrative. Suppressing your feelings, opinions, needs, etc, is going to do anything but achieve this. Why? You’re doing way too much pretending for that.
If you go down the Let Me See If I Can Find One Million and One Ways For You To Not Have To Lift a Finger In This Relationship route, it may appear ‘easier’ than 1) respecting yourself and letting things unfold so that you see whether the other party steps up and 2) having to truly put yourself at ‘risk’ of vulnerability and be more honest about what is going on. Both options require you to hear, see and to more importantly, act.
I remember many moons ago when I was living with my ex fiance. I knew something major had shifted. It felt as if the sun had been out in our relationship (with the ‘occasional’ light to heavy rain, thunder and storms) but now there was just darkness with occasional brightness. In previous times, I’d covered the cracks by fussing around and apologising even if it meant making his apologies for him. In realising that something serious had gone awry and him at one point even saying that he was done, I pulled out the big guns. I tried to keep the place squeaky clean, I cooked, I attempted to master ironing as if I was a dry cleaners (I left more lines in his shirts than a tube map according to him), I tried to be more agreeable (read: mute), I tried never to turn the blinds in the wrong direction…and basically I finally lost touch with me.
And you know what? Nothing was ever enough.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see now that I used being indispensable in these ways as a substitute for having to do the emotional work on my end in the relationship. This was as simple as seeing the two of us as individual entities, recognising the unhealthiness of our relationship and my own issues. I thought that by making myself ‘necessary to him’ that he had no reason to leave but 1) I had plenty of reasons to leave and 2) he could hire a cook, cleaner etc. You lose respect for you and they lose respect for you plus it all gets a bit blurred around what role you play in their life.
As a child I learned how to read a room as well as people’s moods. Tension and/or the slight possibility of drama or being disapproved of, were my cues to jump through hoops. The problem was, I was never going to have a mutual loving relationship by thinking and behaving in this manner. Ultimately, nothing I was doing was actually addressing the problems and I was also making myself indispensable to somebody who drained me.
Being indispensable in your relationships is the fast track to becoming responsible for everything in the relationship. Unsurprisingly, you’ll be expected to be indispensable on the blame front too. Let’s be honest here, you’ve practically broken your back being a doormat and it’s still not enough. So, you’re bound to feel like it must be something that you’ve ‘done’ because surely if you’re doing all of this stuff, you should be appreciated? Right?
I’ve talked numerous times about overgiving and people pleasing, especially doing the whole ‘good girlfriend’ / ‘good boyfriend’ thing with an ulterior to try to get people to give you what you want. Unless being indispensable is how you roll and you are doing it out of the goodness of your heart (yeah, you’re probably still expecting something), don’t go down this road. If that ‘something’ is that you’re doing all of this to create a tipping point with the other party, take this as gospel that the tipping point will not come. This is not mutual relationship because you both do not feel and/or act equal.
Once you’re more honest about why you feel and act this way, you can acknowledge and address issues and take the first step to acting with self-care. You shouldn’t be putting yourself through an emotional mincer in order to feel worthy or to cling onto a relationship that may actually be compromising you. Love is an action, but if your action is people pleasing, you’re cutting the self-love out of your life. Moreover, you’re sheltering the other party from their responsibilities and their own actions. This is not love, no matter how you dress it up. It’s servitude.
If you wouldn’t do what you’re doing if you didn’t expect some sort of reward at the end, then roll back, way back. Examine what you’re doing all of this stuff to cover up?To avoid conflict? To play down shady behaviour? To avoid being vulnerable? To avoid being alone or single? To fit in? To avoid having to see what’s actually going on?
Often people do this because on some level they believe that they’ll win (win in that the Other will never leave or win in that they will be the exception). It’s why I hear from people who end up repeatedly taking someone back despite dodgy treatment, or trying to fix/heal with their Florence Nightingale ways. On some level they’re thinking, If I’m doing all of this, they have no reason to leave. Sometimes they’re thinking, I did ________ and put up with _______ so they can’t leave. They owe me! You owe you your own respect.
Does this even feel good to you? My guess is that deep down, it really doesn’t. Relationships shouldn’t involve making a master/slave relational unit in order to keep it alive and get whatever prize you imagine you’ll win. There is no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.