The narcissist under the hood – The difficulty of explaining emotional abuse to friends and family

How do you tell friends and family about the emotional abuse from the narcissist when they don’t see that behavior in them at all.

In fact, they have a very different view of the abusive person to the point where they may actually feel sorry for them and think you’re the crazy one. 

Transcript follows

What does the narcissist under the hood mean? It’s when you’re in a relationship with someone and the people outside the relationship see the car, but not the engine.

The car is the family you show the world. The engine is what’s going under that car’s hood. And what’s under the hood could be kind of messy.

When you have someone that is really showing a lot of narcissistic tendencies, or has a full-blown NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), you can have a real mess. That’s not to say that narcissists don’t have a good side… (I’ll probably be chewed up and spit out for that comment).

Let’s put it this way: I’ve met and seen narcissists, and worked with clients who were with narcissists, that had a really good side – a really generous side – but as soon as you get into a relationship with them they don’t show that side to you. They show it to others.

You can see this good side come out of them, but they don’t have it with the closest people in their life. That’s because (and this is just my own opinion, but it’s based on my research and study into narcissism) the narcissist believe that the closest people to him or her are basically extensions of themselves. In other words, if I’m the narcissist, and I depend on my two arms, and you come into my life, you are basically my third arm.

You are something that I don’t want to ever get cut off, I never want to lose it, and I always want it to be a part of me. I also want it to do what I want it to do. I want to control it. I want to put a shirt on or not, put a tattoo on or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s my arm and I can do anything I want with it, and because I’m a narcissist, I may have a tendency to make it look as good as possible.

I’m going to dress it up, make it look nice, maybe work out, whatever I need to do to make that arm look good. That might be an odd analogy, but it’s a good one because no one wants their arm cut off. Yet, if you are with someone who has narcissism or narcissistic tendencies, you are an extension of them.

What they would do for themselves, they expect you to do for them as well. Now you can see where it can get hairy. Now you can see where control would step in. Now you can see where it doesn’t matter what you want, unless what want is exactly what the narcissist wants.

Even then, sometimes the narcissist will want you to do what they want you to do, even if it’s something that is the opposite of what they said earlier. They may do this just to confuse you and just to keep you in a state of, “Well, what do I do next? I don’t know what to do next. I better listen to the narcissist to make sure I do it right.”

They may tell you to do something one time, and then the next time change their mind and tell you to do something else, just to confuse you and to keep you in that place of constant guessing. The more you’re guessing, the more you’re going to rely on them for your next move.

 When I use the term narcissist, to me, it’s really a replacement term for emotional abuser, manipulator, or controller. Narcissist is kind of an umbrella for a lot of terms. There’s a long list of traits that the narcissist has. Basically, what the definition is, is a person who has an excessive interest in, or admiration of themselves.

Of course, that couldn’t be truer; however, I think the most important part of that comment is the unwritten one and that is, they have no empathy for you.

That’s part of the long list of characteristics and traits, but that’s the most important piece of the puzzle here. When it comes to being around a narcissistic family member or being around a narcissistic partner, when someone doesn’t have empathy for you, they’re very difficult to be around. That means what they want is what they want, regardless of how you feel about it. When you’re with somebody who doesn’t really care how you feel about it, then it’s not really a relationship at all. It’s just a “power over someone else” model. It’s a dominant-submissive model.

When you’re in that kind of dynamic, you either abide by the rules of the narcissist or fight against them the entire time. That means trying to please them, doing whatever you can so that they’re happy, but never succeeding at that.

I’m just going to tell you right up front, it’s very, very difficult, if not impossible, to succeed with somebody who is narcissistic, or has a lot of narcissistic tendencies because you’ll never be good enough.

You’ll never do anything that’s good enough, and even when you do something perfectly, there’ll be something wrong with it. Or they will make up some intention that you had, that what you did wasn’t really in their best interest, it was only in your best interest.

In fact, everything that they say about you will be something that they do to you. In other words, if they call you a liar, they are probably the liar. If they say that you had bad intentions for them, such as wanting to get them fired or wanting to make them feel bad, it’s very likely that’s what they’re doing to you. It’s a redirect, refocus on you. More or less, they are saying “Let’s talk about you. Let’s keep you on the defense so that we don’t have to talk about me, and I can get away with everything I want to get away with, so you continue to feel bad about yourself. We can continue focusing on you and not put the spotlight on me.”

Once the spotlight is on the narcissist, the heavy guns come out. Now they play the victim and do the redirects. And they do everything they can to point the spotlight back at you so that they are free and clear, and they don’t have to worry about defending themselves.

I’m not going to focus on narcissism as a personality disorder. When I talk about narcissism in the scope of relationships, I’m not talking about necessarily the traits that you’d see in business where somebody rises to the top and they’re arrogant and pretentious and acting entitled or anything like that. I’m talking about narcissism in relationships. And I usually use the term “emotional abuse” instead of narcissism because it covers a broader range of behaviors that are all meant to put you in your place while the abusive person gets what they want. And your place is anywhere they want you to be.

If they are doing something badly to you, they want you to feel badly about it, so that they can get away with it. It’s always about them getting away with it. I shouldn’t say always, but normally. It’s about them wanting to get away with some behavior, even the most subtle behavior.

Today I want to talk about someone who was actually married to a narcissist for a good 20+ years. She wrote to me, and she said:

After 26 years, I finally separated, and to everyone else, it seemed that I had a perfect marriage. Four months after listening to many of your podcasts, (she was referring to The Overwhelmed Brain) and purchasing your M.E.A.N. Workbook, I’m starting to understand narcissism. I realize that he has many narcissistic tendencies and I am an extreme empath.

I’ve now emotionally separated myself and I feel in a better place. My question is, how do I explain what went wrong when friends and relatives are confused about our recent separation? I don’t want people think that I just wanted out for no real reason. Yet, I don’t want people to think badly of him, and yet I want people to realize that I wouldn’t be going through this hell for no good reason. When all looked so good on the outside, it’s hard for others who are close to me to grasp. Thanks for all your great work. “

(I’ll refer to this person as Linda). Linda, thank you so much for sharing that. You have asked a very important question, and I think it needs to be addressed because people are going through this left and right all over the world. They leave someone that their entire set of friends and family see as the nice person, the generous person, the wonderful person.

Only you see what’s under the hood. You see what’s going on, because you experienced the compound effect of emotionally abusive behavior day after day after day.

That is the only way. You have to go through an experiential process to understand the effects of emotional abuse. There’s no way to easily explain it unless you show them the checklist in The M.E.A.N. Workbook, and they see everything that you had to deal with.

Hopefully, you have friends that are understanding enough and love you enough to believe that what you are telling them is actually happening to you. If they don’t believe you, if they don’t see that, and they can’t see it, even though you’re being honest, then either they’re not as close friend that you thought they were because closer friends are just going believe you no matter what.

They’re going say, “Hey, no matter what you say, I’m with you.” That sounds a little naive, I understand, and sometimes our friends say crazy things, but we want to support our friends. We want to support the person that is going through the hard time.

If you’re going through a separation, that means you’re going through some tough times. That means hopefully, you have very close supportive friends and family that will understand that you made a choice that you needed to make for you, and they will support that about you.

When you tell them why you made that choice, you could go through that checklist and you show them:

  • I often felt guilty
  • I often got blamed and made to feel responsible for the problems
  • I felt like I was walking on eggshells
  • I always had to pick my words carefully so I wouldn’t upset him

Of course, if you have The M.E.A.N.Workbook, there’s about 200 items you can choose from and you can show someone that. I’m not saying you have to purchase that, but it is one way to explain what is going on.

Though, friends and family may still not see what you see because of the subtle drip-feeding of emotional abuse on a multiple-times-per-day basis. They won’t see it because every little thing that has happened to you, out of context of the rest of what was happening to you, will seem very benign. It will seem as if all of those events were normal things that happen in every relationship.

When you share with friends or family that your partner made you feel guilty, they’ll ask you, “Well, what did he do? What did he say?” You’ll tell them what he did or what he said, and they’re going to say, “Oh, that doesn’t seem so bad,” and you won’t be able to go anywhere with it, because you will think that they just don’t understand.

If you get emotionally charged about it, and they’re friends with your ex, or your soon-to be ex, they may fall under the term “flying monkey.”

I heard that term the other day; I thought it was perfect. The flying monkeys are the narcissists’ minions. They will believe him, they will follow him, they will see him as the rational, logical, perfectly sane one. And the one who’s insane is the one who becomes “irrational”, because he or she can’t possibly describe what’s happening in a logical way that makes any sense to anyone else.

You start to lose your mind trying to explain it to someone else. You pull your hair out saying, ” I don’t know how to tell you. All I can tell you is that every day I felt bad. And every day, s/he would do something differently” On and on.

The friends and family who become the narcs’ minions, who become the believers in this other person, just don’t see it. They might even say, “Well, I trust you and I believe you, but I just don’t see it.” Then they have that lingering doubt, and that is what keeps them from really coming to you and being on your side.

I’m not saying narcissists don’t deserve friends or the support of friends as well (although sometimes I have my personal opinions about that). Often, if they are the ones orchestrating the emotional abuse that happens in the relationship, they will get many believers behind them. They will get people that trust them, love them, support them, and believe anything they say. That’s happens a lot.

This is your dilemma, Linda. This is what you’re facing. It is very hard to explain to anyone – emotional abuse. This is why I created the workbook, because we often can’t recognize it ourselves. We’re in the middle of it and we can’t recognize it.

All we know is that we feel bad.
All we know is that we feel guilty.
All we know is that we are now indecisive and unable to trust ourselves anymore.

We’re in this relationship and we don’t even realize why it’s happening, but we just know something’s happening. They’re so good at orchestrating things in a way that make us believe that we are doing it to ourselves.

It’s even worse because then everyone else, our friends and our family, think we’re crazy. Of course, the narcissist will say, “I’ve tried to get through to her, this is how she is; she just goes crazy.”

That’s what they’ll say to friends and family of yours. Then those same friends and family will come to you, and you’ll try to explain what’s happening but you won’t be able to, and you’ll start getting emotionally charged. You’ll try to explain it and maybe you’ll cry, maybe you’ll just get extremely frustrated. Then friends and family will say in the back of their mind, “Oh, this is what he was talking about. She really is starting to go crazy.”

The hard part is that when you’re in a relationship like this, especially for this long, they’re going to look at you and say, “Wow, you stayed this long so it couldn’t have been that bad.” They’re going to say things like that! They’re going to say, “Wow, I’ve never seen that side of them. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I know what you’re asking, Linda. Let me re-read a couple things that you said and make comments on them. One of the things that you said was, “I’m an extreme empath.” And you said, “You know, I got your M.E.A.N. Workbook, and I’m starting to understand narcissism and I’m realizing he has many tendencies.” Let me just say this about that:

As an extreme empath, you don’t know a tenth of what narcissism is.

I know that sounds a little offensive, and I’m sorry. I know you’re starting to understand it and starting to figure it out more, but empathetic people don’t understand how other people can’t be empathetic. I’ve seen this a lot. If you have any amount of empathy for anyone, you can’t understand how other people can’t have empathy for others as well. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Linda, you are educating yourself; you are learning. You are starting to understand this, but if you really, really want to understand what they’re like, turn off your empathy. Turn off your empathy completely; have no care about anyone else’s feelings.

That means if you get in your car and but you want to turn around in your driveway before you leave but the only way to do it is to back into your neighbor’s lawn, you let go of caring and just pull in on their lawn! Back onto your neighbor’s property, turn around, leave some tired marks, then go. And you just don’t care how they feel.

Turning off your empathy also means that if you watch somebody fall in front of you, and you see that they’re really hurt, old or young, doesn’t matter, you just don’t care.

You don’t offer to help them. You just watch them fall and it doesn’t faze you.

Not a lot of empathetic people can do this. When you have empathy, you’re more likely to jump at the opportunity to help someone in need than not. That doesn’t mean you always do, it just means that especially when it happens right in front of you, you’re more likely to jump at that opportunity to help them out, because you can see they’re in pain.

I once fell through a hole in someone’s front porch, and they did not jump at the chance to help me at all. In fact, they didn’t even say, “I’m sorry; I never got that hole fixed.”

Yes, this was someone who had narcissistic tendencies, but he was more of a sociopath. After that, I realized. “Wow, no empathy whatsoever. They didn’t even care that I fell through that hole.”

That’s so weird. You think you know people until you meet people without empathy. Your comment about being an extreme empath, when you’re with a narcissist, talk about two extreme opposites!

That’s what happens; That’s what the narc wants. The narcissist wants someone who is empathetic, because they know you’re going to feel bad for them. They don’t have to feel bad for you; all they have to worry about is you feeling bad for them and always trying to seek attention from them. You trying to seek attention from them is attention for them. It is their supply. I just wanted to address that.

You’ll probably never understand narcissism fully. I probably will never understand narcissism fully, because I have empathy, and they don’t. Most narcissists do not have empathy. That’s kind of a part of the definition. When you’re a narcissist, you don’t have empathy. If you have narcissistic tendencies, then your empathy is either not there or minimized.

At one point in my life with my relationships, my empathy was minimized. I had narcissistic tendencies. It was only because of empathy that I actually felt bad that when I was married, my wife was hurting from my behavior. That’s when I actually started to heal and change and look at myself very deeply. It is possible for someone with empathy to heal. In fact, it’s probable with someone who has empathy to be able to heal. But they have to realize what they’re losing, and it has to hurt them that they’re losing it.

In my case, I was losing a very important relationship. That made me straighten up and clean up and want my wife to feel better and want her to be happy, so I needed to work on myself, or lose it. That is one thing to consider with narcissists. What would hurt them the most if they lost it? If you ever want to try to find out if a narcissist has empathy or not, find out what would hurt them if they lost it.

Find out what would hurt them most. And that way, when you say, “Well, if you lost that, how would you feel?” If they said, “Oh, my God, I would feel awful,” then you can say, “Now you know how I feel.” It doesn’t really always work that way, but at least at some level, they may be able to comprehend it. But if they don’t care, they don’t care how you feel, then it doesn’t really matter. If you at least want to find some connection at the empathetic level, that might be a way to do it. That was one of the things that you said, Linda.

Another thing that you said was, “I now feel that I’m in a better place,” which is fantastic. Then we get to your question, which is, “How do I explain what went wrong? When friends and relatives are confused about our recent separation? I don’t want people to think that I just wanted out for no real reason.” First of all, I want you to be okay with that. No matter what people think. You have every right to say that it wasn’t working, and you wanted out. That’s all you need to say to anyone.

Quite truthfully, that’s not my final answer, but ‘m just saying that you have every right to say that you just wanted out. That’s it. “I just wanted out.” If anybody digs and digs, then they’re looking for gossip. If people are looking for gossip, then it’s no use talking to them anyway, because they’re going to spread it to their friends or family or spread it to the narcissist. Who cares? That’s gossip.

It’s okay to just say, ” I wanted out. Period. I wanted out.” “Well, why? Why did you want out?” That’s what people will ask.

“I just wanted out.”

That’s all you need to say. You’re actually much better off if you explain less. As soon as you start explaining things to someone, then they want to know more. Then they going to interpret it in ways that probably won’t be beneficial or helpful, especially if they’ve already talked to your ex.

They know the story that was told to them by him. They’re going to compare it with what you’re saying. Because the narcissist is so crafty, the narcissist is going to prepare your friends and family to hear you in a way that makes you sound like you’re wrong, irrational, crazy. Whatever it is, the narcissist is going to prepare them for whatever you say, which is why it’s so important to say very, very little.

Don’t say much at all. It’s better to say that things just didn’t work out than to say, it didn’t work out because he does this to me, he does that to me, we argue or we do this, we do that. It’s better to just leave all of that out. What will happen is that a lot of people are smart; they’ll figure it out. The person who says the least is usually the one who doesn’t have to convince anyone that there really is something wrong. The person who says the most is often seen as the one trying to convince everyone to believe their story over the other person’s. You’re much better off not trying to convince anyone.

When you are trying to give more details, the people you’re telling may have already been primed by the narcissist/emotional abuser, or they may have already talked to that person, or have a general understanding of that person. They believe that they know that person so well, but they only know what was shown to them, so you’re already going to have someone that’s biased. That’s very hard to beat. It’s very hard to get past.

A narcissist plays this game where they prepare people sometimes for years. Sometimes for years, they will prepare people for moments like this, so that they have all the credibility, and you have none. When you share too much, there’s more to use against you, and then you find yourself having to explain every single detail. Hopefully friends and family won’t do that to you.

Hopefully, when you say, “It was just over. It was just wasn’t working out anymore. This is the decision that I made, and I’m happy with it.” Hopefully they’ll say, “All right, then. That’s great, I support you whatever you want to do. Great.” Then later you can talk about it, maybe months or even years down the road, but right now, when everything is really fresh, in my opinion, you should leave everything very, very minimal. Don’t say much at all, otherwise it can be used against you.

Once what you say gets back to the narcissist, they will twist it to serve them. They will twist it so that the person believes you’re crazy, you’re insane, you’re the bad person, and they are the good person. They will run their smear campaign. Unfortunately, you may actually lose friends and family through this, because not everyone has to be completely naive to believe the narcissist, they just have to have been taken in through their priming process, priming them to hear falsehoods that they believe are truths.

In other words, when the narcissist lies to them and tells them what they want them to hear, making you sound bad, the friends and family that have been primed are more likely to believe it and probably will. That’s a huge challenge. I get it, I get where you’re at.

In fact, my girlfriend went through this. She was married to a sociopath. When they were getting divorced, he was mad at her. He was so mad that she would leave him, even though he cheated many, many, many times even before and after they got married. He was just a real piece of work, and he got mad at her for wanting a divorce.

One of his family members kept putting her down and saying that she was bad, and she was wrong. This is because he fell for all his lies. He fell for all that manipulation, until one day he found out the truth from some other source. Then he completely changed his tune, and that was the only way my girlfriend could ever get the truth into his head, is by somebody else revealing to him what was really going on. No matter what my girlfriend said, if she said no, that’s not what happened. “No, that’s not what I did.” No matter what; it didn’t matter. Her soon-to-be ex’s family members were his “flying monkeys.” They were his minions; they were his followers.

There’s nothing really you can do about those people. Once you are around the minions and the flying monkeys, you just have to sit back and let the truth reveal itself to them in whatever way, whenever it needs to happen. There’s nothing you can do about it, which is why it’s so important to keep the details at a minimum.

You said you don’t want people to think badly of him. I would say not to worry about that at all, because no matter what you do, he will get people to feel the way he wants them to feel about him. If he wants to play the victim, he will play the victim. Most narcissist emotional abusers will say, “They’re doing this to me.” Just like my girlfriend’s ex. She’s divorcing me, she’s causing all these problems. Even though he was being emotionally abusive, even though he was cheating, even though he was lying and doing all kinds of bad things in their relationship.

My point is, don’t even worry about it, because your ex will shape how he wants others to feel about him no matter what you do or say. Quite frankly, people are going to have their own opinions no matter what you say, but let people think for themselves. Let them think whatever they want. It’s best if you just keep it very, very short and sweet.

“It was just time I had to leave.

This is the best decision for both of us.”

You can say that this is the best decision for both of you. If somebody is really, really digging, then they’re looking for gossip, and you don’t really want to waste your time with people looking for gossip. It’s an endless road of trying to explain things that you don’t need to explain to anyone.

Let me end with this. If you really, really have to say something to someone because you can’t allow people to think there wasn’t a reason, or it wasn’t because of some misunderstanding or some disagreement, probably the best thing you could say is, “I’m just tired of being with someone who makes me feel bad about myself.”

That’s how I explain emotional abuse to anyone:

You are made to feel guilty. You are made to feel responsible. You can do nothing right no matter how hard you try, and you always feel bad about yourself. You just get sick and tired of feeling bad about yourself all the time.

If you really had to say anything to anyone, say, “I just wanted to stop being with someone who made me feel bad about myself all the time.” Then of course, you might get one of these self-help book-smart people that tell you, “No one can make you feel anything, you have a choice in how you feel.”

I personally don’t believe that because I have seen how someone can make someone else feel bad. I’ve seen it and I know that’s the opposite of what we hear.

We do have a choice in how we respond to situations. Absolutely.
We have a choice about whether to stay with toxic people or not. Absolutely.
Sometimes we feel like we don’t. I know that.

If we really broke it down to having a choice or not, you probably do.
You absolutely do have a choice. “Yeah, but I don’t like what happens if I make that choice.”

That’s true, that could be absolutely true, but you probably do have a choice. Then you could look at those choices and say, “See, I made those choices, which means I made myself feel bad.” I agree with that, too.

I also believe that someone that you trust, that you feel safe enough to share everything with, that you feel vulnerable with, that you feel like has your best interest in mind, can manipulate you in ways to feel bad about yourself. This is because you believe what they say. That’s what happens if you are with someone for long enough.

 Of course, they’ve proven themselves to you. They’ve shown that they’re smart, and they love you and they support you. When they start saying things about you that aren’t true, you believe that too. I am a firm believer that someone else can make you feel bad. You may not be able to convince anyone else of that however.

All I’m trying to say is that if someone comes along and says, “You had a choice to feel good or bad about this,” you probably didn’t. Not in this case. Not with certain people like the manipulative, deceptive, narcissistic people that I’m talking about now.

Linda, that’s my answer for you. Keep it short, keep it simple. Don’t get into details with anyone unless someone is really on your side, because so many people don’t understand emotional abuse. So many people don’t understand narcissism. So many people don’t know what you’re going through, and may never, and some people will.

Some people will come up to you and say, “I know exactly what’s happening here.” That’s what my girlfriend’s therapist said when she was getting a divorce. When she said “I know exactly what’s happening here,” my girlfriend started crying because somebody finally understood her plight.

It’s hard to find those people sometimes. But don’t worry, I understand, and everyone listening to the show probably understands as well. You have a large support system out here, and I definitely don’t want to see you going through this hell for no good reason.

It will be tough as you go through this; it will be tough. They’re going to pull out everything in the book. Look up the Gray Rock Technique; it’s being dull and boring and non-reactive to everything he does. That’s going to be very helpful for you as you go through this, because as soon as he gets under your skin, as soon as you get emotionally charged or triggered, then you’re going to look crazy. You’re going to look like the irrational one, and he’s got plenty of ammo to use against you. You’ve got to give people like that the bare minimum.

As for friends and family, they either support you or not. They either support you making decisions for yourself, you honoring yourself, you doing the right thing for you, or not.

You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone because it’s your choice, and you have every right to make it.

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