Why does narcissistic abuse often affect us so differently than other traumatic events?
It goes without saying that all traumatic events are deeply impactful and life-altering. They knock us into an emotional tailspin, threatening our sense of security about life, and they often force us to make serious changes in the way we live.
Consider muggings, car accidents, and earthquakes. A mugging happens because someone needs money and they think you have it. Car accidents (where you are not at fault), like natural disasters, are random, outwardly meaningless events that can be just as devastating as muggings, if not more so, because they may result in permanent physical injuries or the destruction of your most cherished property.
Any of these three events, obviously, can cause permanent emotional scarring, but they are all in a different category than narcissistic abuse. Narcissistic abuse FEELS different. It has its damaging effects on a different psychological level. It is not just an emotional injury, it is a spiritual injury.
The main reasons for this are that narcissistic abuse is deliberately inflicted by someone you love and it targets you for who you are, the very ESSENCE of you. It is a long-term, calculated campaign to make you feel unworthy and despise yourself, and to have you believe other people view you in the same light.
A mugging is based on any person who walks by who has a purse or wallet. Car crashes happen because someone wasn’t paying attention, a tire blows out, or because of inclement weather. And earthquakes are just random natural events. Muggings, car crashes, and earthquakes can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime…but they have nothing to do with the sort of person you are.
Narcissistic abuse, on the other hand, is calculated to focus like a laser beam on just this dimension of your psyche. The narcissistic abuser wants you to believe that no one cares about you, and that no one should care about you, because you, as a person, are not loveable, have no redeeming qualities, and are a waste of space and time. The abuser learns your hopes, dreams, fears, painful memories…and turns them all against you in order to weaken your spirit and make it more compliant with the abuser’s wishes. The narcissistic abuser takes advantage of your forgiving personality and repeatedly exploits your fear of abandonment in order to make you more dependent on them and more likely to stay attached to them—despite (or rather, paradoxically, because of) the misery you find yourself in.
Traumatic events and natural disasters may change our physical capacities, our way of life, and our outlook for the foreseeable future, but in many cases, they can also instill a renewed motivation for life, love, and healthy relationships. They can create challenges and hardships for us, but, because they do not devastate our feelings of self-worth, they do not crush our spirit. Narcissistic abuse, in contrast, is soul-crushing. That is why the trauma feels so different and also why it is so much more difficult to overcome. We are left feeling so utterly helpless and hopeless in our spirit. We feel we lack the spiritual strength to stand up for ourselves and escape our misery, so we instead keep digging ourselves into a deeper spiritual hole.
That is how narcissistic abuse works, why it is so debilitating, and why it feels different than other forms of emotional trauma. And these are the reasons why I don’t believe people should try to make things work with a narcissist, regardless of whether they’re a lover, spouse, sibling, parent, co-worker, or friend. The only hope for a victim of narcissistic abuse is to make a clean split from the source of the spiritual injury.
And this why I become outraged every time I see a licensed counselor or psychology PhD touting the possibility of a repaired relationship with a narcissist. Such empty promises serve only to exacerbate the narcissism epidemic we’re experiencing right now, as well as the emotional suffering experienced by targets of this kind of abuse—to say nothing of the tragic indirect effects narcissistic abuse has on the victims’ families and the wider community.
And these are also the reasons why I do not encourage sympathizing with narcissists, or viewing them more like helpless, wounded individuals rather than the cruel and sadistic tormentors they really are. They may have been wounded as children and that’s unfortunate, for sure. But those children are long gone, leaving only an adult with an underdeveloped level of emotional maturity, non-existent emotional intelligence, and deficient attachment capabilities. What’s left in that child’s place is merely a scheming manipulator who doesn’t give a care about anyone except themselves.
Instead of feeling sorry for a lost child who has grown into an adult who’s hell-bent on destruction and chaos at all costs, we should instead focus on the children we have in our families, our schools, and our societies. We should focus on removing our own children from toxic environments, when possible, so they have a chance at healing and developing a healthy sense of self. We should focus on the children we have now so we can heal generational dysfunction instead of perpetuating it.
We shouldn’t forget about the past, because it’s often the past that keeps us from repeating mistakes and helps us stay motivated to keep moving forward…but we should stop counting on the “maybes” the “what ifs”, and the vain hope that narcissists might change. Instead, we must try to work on healing the damage they’ve done to our spirits and ending the chaos that they’ve brought into our lives so that future generations won’t have to learn, as we have had to learn, why narcissistic abuse feels so different than other forms of emotional trauma.
“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” — Shel Silverstein