Being on the receiving end of the silent treatment is damaging no matter who does it, but when the narcissist in your life employs it as a tool, it can be downright devastating.
Why is that?
Narcissists somehow instinctively know that one of the best ways to hurt the person who loves them is to give them the silent treatment. Why is it so harmful? I’m going to outline some of the reasons for you here…
The Silent Treatment in Relationships
The “silent treatment” is a way of describing how one partner in a relationship stops talking to the other, typically after a fight or disappointment. This silent treatment can go on for hours, days, or at its extreme, weeks or even months.
The silent treatment is something that many people engage in, and therefore, it is not just the domain of narcissists. The difference is that when a narcissist employs the silent treatment, they do it on purpose in order to hurt the people close to them.
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On the other hand, someone may withdraw and stop speaking to a partner not to manipulate, but because they are genuinely hurt and unable to talk about their feelings. This is not what drives the narcissist, however.
10 Ways the Silent Treatment is Damaging
Even if you know that the narcissist is using the silent treatment to punish you, it can be difficult to let go of the frustration and pain when it happens. Here are some reasons why this may be the case:
1. We are Wired for Community
Some evolutionary psychologists speculate that as humans evolved, they learned that being part of a group gave them a higher chance of survival. Being separated from the tribe could literally mean certain death. For this reason, we have powerful emotional forces telling us that we need to be with others in order to survive and thrive.
2. Silent Treatment Triggers Pain Pathways in the Brain
MRI stands for “Magnetic Resonance Imaging” and it is a way for doctors to take pictures of the inside of a human body. When MRIs are performed on the brain, doctors can see that the emotions triggered by silent treatment activate the same areas of the brain as physical pain. In other words, it hurts.
3. Our IQ Actually Goes Down Temporarily After Silent Treatment
People who were asked to recall an instance of silent treatment scored lower on a variety of tests assessing human brain function, including IQ, short-term memory, and decision-making tests.
4. Silent Treatment Even Hurts When Strangers Do It
We are wired to want to feel like we belong, so that even if strangers reject us, we still feel the sting. In fact, even if we don’t particularly care for certain strangers, we can still experience emotional pain if we feel rejected by them. For example, a militant atheist who hates religion might still feel emotional pain if a spiritual person dislikes them.
5. When We Experience Silent Treatment, We Tend to Blame Ourselves
No matter how much we might try to talk ourselves out of it, our natural tendency is to blame ourselves when we are experiencing silent treatment. In fact, we will actively look for reasons, from not believing we are physically attractive to assuming we must be a bad person deep down inside.
6. Getting Silent Treatment Can Make Us Angry and Aggressive
The silent treatment is linked to aggression. In 2001, the United States Surgeon General delivered a report citing the correlation between adolescent violence and social rejection. The narcissist may sense this intuitively, and try to egg you on with the silent treatment. Then, if you act out angrily, you are then made to be “wrong.”
Even worse, the children of parents who are dealing with the silent treatment are often the unfortunate receptacles for their anger and aggression.
7. Emotional Pain is Stronger Than Physical Pain, When You Think About It
If you try to recall physical pain, you might not remember much. But, trying to remember emotional pain can actually stir up more negative feelings and pain than old physical pain. Thinking about emotional pain hurts more than thinking about physical pain.
8. A Relationship with a Narcissist is Like a Gambling Habit
When a narcissist gives and takes love in a random manner, he or she is effectively acting like a slot machine to your emotions. This behavior activates the reward and addiction centers in the brain. You want to keep putting more coins in the slot machine, even though you are losing overall. The emotional “jackpot” that you get once in a while when the narcissist showers attention on you motivates you to continue the emotional investment, even though you are being fleeced.
9. When Wielded Purposefully, the Silent Treatment is a Form of Emotional Abuse
As noted above, you may have friends or loved ones who are not narcissists who engage in the silent treatment on occasion. Sometimes, this is because the person in question is so hurt that they need some time and space before they can talk and reconnect.
This is not the case with a narcissist. For them, the silent treatment is a tactic. When used purposefully to hurt someone and throw them off balance, the silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse used by narcissists and other psychological manipulators.
10. In a Game of Chicken, the Narcissist Usually Wins
The game of “chicken” is a game of nerves that can be done in a car, on a bicycle, or even with just two people running at each other. The idea is that the person who flinches last wins. So, with two cars driving towards each other, the person who swerves first to get out of the way is the loser.
When a narcissist uses the silent treatment against you, he or she is playing an emotional game of chicken with your mind. You will be tempted to reach out and speak first. When you do, the narcissist will have considered your reconciliation action a form of “flinching.” In their gamebook, they win, and you lose.
Since narcissists don’t experience emotions the same way most people do, it is much easier for them to keep their “cool” and not flinch or swerve in their emotional chicken game.
How to Respond to the Silent Treatment
The first thing to remember with the narcissist is that you will never “win”. They have no emotional intelligence or emotional resilience, so they can’t be reasoned with.
So, how should you respond to silent treatment?
You can choose to try to talk to the narcissist, but they will likely use your attempts to further torture you by continuing the silent treatment indefinitely. This can be maddening, especially if you live with the person. Realize that there is nothing you can do to get them to talk. They will do so when they determine the time is right, which is usually when it would benefit them the most.
Because of this, the most important thing for you to do is to find healthy ways to deal with your feelings when experiencing the silent treatment.
1. Connect with Other Friends and Loved Ones
One of the best ways to overcome negative feelings from the silent treatment is to encourage positive feelings of belonging. How do you do this? Connect with other friends and family members who love and care about you.
Of course, many narcissists and emotionally abusive partners will try to isolate you from your friends and reduce your social circle. It will take an effort to get out there and make new connections. The two resources below can help.
2. Join a Support Group
Support groups can be extremely helpful in dealing with emotional pain. Unfortunately, finding a “narcissist victim support group” in your area might be challenging. Contact your local therapists to see if they know of any groups. You can also try 12-step programs such as Al-Anon, which is for family and friends of alcoholics. The narcissist does not necessarily need to be an alcoholic for you to join (this depends on the individual local group) but the issues are sometimes similar. You may also want to consider enrollment in The Essential Break Free Bootcamp which includes a private Facebook group specifically for individuals who are on their own healing journeys.
3. Find a Therapist to Talk to
A qualified therapist who understands narcissism can help you retain your sanity and sense of self-esteem while you are dealing with a narcissist. You don’t need a couple’s counselor for this, if the narcissist in your life happens to be your spouse. In fact, you’d be better off seeing the therapist alone.
Make sure the therapist has some expertise in narcissism. On rare occasion, you might find a poor therapist who doesn’t understand what is going on and will take the side of the narcissist over you. If this happens, fire the therapist and find a better one.
4. Consider Ending the Relationship
The bad side of staying in a relationship with a narcissist is that it keeps you stuck in a hopeless situation. Holding onto hope that the narcissist in your life will change is a pipe dream that leads to a wasted life. The idea can be likened to the legends of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster. There are people who adamantly insist these creatures exist, but no one has ever really seen them.
The same goes for a narcissist making lasting change.
You Can Overcome the Silent Treatment
Despite the silent treatment being painful – or, at least, very annoying – you can learn to deal with it with grace and poise. By cultivating your self-esteem and sense of connection with others outside your abusive relationship, you will be able to weather the next silent storm. The narcissist won’t be able to trigger your emotions as much, and you may eventually develop the courage to finally end the relationship.
Recovery involves rewriting everything the narcissist has tried to make you believe. It requires rebuilding your identity – or in many cases building an identity for the first time. You need a narcissistic abuse recovery program that can help you avoid relapse by learning about yourself, habits, and triggers.
The Break Free Program may be the missing piece of the puzzle.
I know what you’re going through and I’m here to help. Learn more about the course and see what my students and neuroscience experts have to say about it.